In this letter, 32 year-old Capt. William Thomas Marsh (1830-1862) of the “Bloody 4th” North Carolina, writes his cousin Maggie just seven weeks prior to being mortally wounded while commanding the decimated 4th in the “sunken road” at Antietam.
A wealthy planter and 1851 Yale law school graduate, Marsh was a Whig representative of Beaufort County in the North Carolina General Assembly in 1861. He enrolled for war service on 6 April 1861 and was commissioned Captain of the “Pamlico Rifles,” Co. I of the 4th Regiment on 10 May 1861 as the regiment was first organized. He was reelected to the legislature shortly before the Battle of Antietam but decided to remain with his men. He was in command of the regiment in the Sunken Road at Sharpsburg on the morning of 17 September 1862 as the senior officer present, and was mortally wounded in action there. The fighting in or near the sunken road resulted in over 5,600 casualties (Union 3,000, Confederate 2,600)—including Marsh—during a 3.5 hour period from 9:30 a.m. to 1:00 p.m.
Marsh died of his wounds at Shepherdstown, VA on 25 September 1862. The news of his death was carried home by his servant who returned to North Carolina carrying the captain’s watch which had been struck by the bullet that caused his death. “The watch is a small gold one, and was in the overshirt pocket on his left breast. The ball struck the lower part of the watch, crushed and bent it, and passed into his body.” [The Standard of Raleigh, 8 October 1862]
According to the survey of Antietam field burial graves done a few years after the war (available online), Capt. W. T. Marsh’s body was found buried alongside those of others from the 4th and 14th NC near an apple tree in Ben Graves’ garden on the north side of the Shepherdstown Road. Sometime later these remains were exhumed and buried at the Washington Cemetery at Hagerstown, Maryland. Capt. Marsh, it seems, was transported to Bath, North Carolina for burial in the Palmer House graveyard. A tall white memorial column in his honor stands in the shade of a giant oak behind the historic Palmer-Marsh House (the family residence) in Bath. It reads: “Fell mortally wounded on the field of Antietam, Sept. 17, 1862, gallantly leading his veteran regiment to battle and to victory. He breathed his last eight days thereafter in the home of strangers, who yet soothed his final hours with their sympathy and kindness.”
The 4th North Carolina’s regimental history described the fighting at the sunken road as follows:
“About nine o’clock the enemy’s line of battle appeared, moving in magnificent style, with mounted officers in full uniform, swords gleaming, banners, plumes and sashes waving, and bayonets glistening in the sun. On they came with steady tramp and confident mien. They did not see our single line of hungry, jaded and dusty men, who were lying down, until within good musket shot, when we rose and delivered our fire with terrible effect. Instantly the air was filled with the cries of wounded and dying and the shouts of brave officers, trying to hold and encourage ‘ their men, who recoiled at the awful and stunning shock so unexpectedly received. Soon they rallied and advanced again; this time more cautiously than before. Our men held their fire until they were within good range again, and again they rose to their feet and mowed them down, so that they were compelled to retire a second time; but they rallied and came again, and the battle now became general all along the line. The roar of musketry was incessant and the booming of cannon almost without intermission. Occasionally the shouts of men could be heard above the awful din, indicating a charge or some advantage gained by one side or the other. Horses without riders were rushing across the field, occasionally a section of artillery could be seen flying from one point to another, seeking shelter from some murderous assault, or securing a more commanding position. Soon Captain Marsh was mortally wounded and borne from the field.”
In the letter, Marsh describes how he contracted pneumonia following the Battle of Williamsburg in early May 1862 and was sent to a hospital in Richmond for recovery, fortuitously enabling him to miss the Battle of Seven Pines on 31 May. He returned to his regiment in time for the Battle of Gaines Mill, VA on 27 June where the much smaller regiment lost another 23 killed and wounded. Marsh also describes the gallant, though reckless death of Captain Thomas M. Blount of the 4th North Carolina who was serving as Asst. Adjutant to Gen. George Burgwyn Anderson.
In his letter to his cousin, Marsh also reflects on the effects the war is having on him: “I have been so often under fire with the missiles of death falling around me, seen so many friends and companions slain that my sensibilities have become callous. Such is war.” He also goes on to discuss the hard life of the Confederate soldiers: “This is exceedingly to be deplored as our brave men are making every sacrifice in defense of this country, abandoning home and all its comforts and should not want for sufficient food if in the power of the Government to provide it yet it is often the case.” Towards the end of his letter Marsh concludes by expressing his ardent desire for peace and his belief that that desire is also felt by other soldiers, not just on the Confederate side, but on the Yankee side as well: “None can hope or wish for peace more ardently than myself. Or than the army generally and if I may judge from the language used by Yankee prisoners, the same sentiment prevails in the army of the enemy. Their letters found in the camps disclose the same sentiment among the people of the North.”
[This letter is from the private collection of Richard Weiner and is published on Spared & Shared by express consent.]
Camp 4th Regt. N. C. State Troops
Near Richmond [Virginia]
July 29th 1862
Dear Cousin Maggie,
Your oft looked for letter of the 27th ult. was received a few days since after many delays in the Post Office to which those of us in the army are particularly subject—especially those whose letters have to pass through the Richmond Office. The pressure upon it for so vast an army in addition to the usual business of that office is the excuse. It is often the case that our letters remain in the office there two or three weeks before they are distributed—another source of annoyance tending to render he life of the soldier more intolerable. To those whose homes are free from the dominion of our invading foe, this inconvenience is a serious discomfort, but to those situated as myself, it only affects a temporary or transient correspondence with a few friends in the army or elsewhere, and a few home folks who are like yourself refugees.
I can well conceive of the condition Washington and New Bern are in. I have seen several places after the enemy has been driven from them. A blight of famine and age rested upon them. I have seen the horrors of this war, though, so much more sadly exhibited in other respects, that those seemed to be light. Where a country is occupied by the enemy without resistance or any irritating causes to arouse the most passions, or give excuse to the basest for the commission of outrage and devastation, it cannot suffer, as where two great hostile armies confront each other, and where the localities alternately are occupied by first one, then the other. Where such is the case, scarce a sign of civilization is left—scarce a green shrub—or herb—everything bears the evidence of devastation.
On the day your letter was written—the [June] 27th—we were having stirring times here. The series of battles on the Chickahominy which resulted in such signal success to our arms were upon that day inaugurated. They commenced the evening before but on the 27th the enemy were routed and commenced retreating. A fortunate fatality—or more properly, the protecting care of a kind Providence—has shielded me from the dangers which environed and brought me through so far untouched. I have been so often under fire with the missiles of death falling around me, seen so many friends and companions slain, that my sensibilities have become callous. Such is war.
The Battle of Seven Pines in which our regiment suffered so severely, to which you refer, I was unable to participate in. 1 The Battle of Williamsburg, fought May 5th was upon a very cold, rainy day. The exposure to which I was there subjected, made me quite sick. I was sent forward to Richmond laboring under a severe case of pneumonia or pleurisy, and was still sick there when this battle was fought and for two weeks after, since which time my health has been as well as could be expected under the circumstances though delicate.
Our friend Perry met a brave and gallant death. He fell in the midst of the battle in the full discharge of his duty. Was taken to Richmond but his wound being mortal, he died the next day. He was but one among many noble friends of mine who fell upon that occasion. Also, it would almost seem that our bravest and best men are the first to fall. In my own company I have lost in battle the best men I had. Other officers remark the same thing. Thirteen of my company have thus fallen and eighteen others been wounded, many of them so as to be unfit for service again, crippled for life.
In the last battle, our regiment did not suffer so seriously as others. We were only once ordered to charge and then the enemy did not stand but fled before us, only firing a few shots. In this charge, we lost one of our best officers—as brave and gallant a man as there was in the army—Capt. Thos. M. Blount [Jr.]. He was a cousin of the Maj. T. H. Blount’s family, the Miss Hoyts & Treadwitt’s. Perhaps you have met him in Washington, N. C. just before my company and Capt. [David M.] Carter’s left there last spring 12 months and joined Capt. Carter’s Co. as a private. Was promoted to be Asst. Quartermaster, and at the time of his death was acting as Asst. Adjutant General on the staff of Gen. G. B. Anderson.
Our Brigade being ordered to charge, one of the regiments—the 30th N. C.—seemed to hesitate or did not move forward promptly as he thought it should. Riding up to the standard bearer, he seized the colors of the regiment and called upon it to follow them. Spurring his horse forward, dashed among the enemy far in advance of any of our forces. This act of rash gallantry cost him his life as he was instantly shot from his horse, pierced by several bullets. No man belonging to our regiment has fallen whose death has been more generally lamented.
I might give you many incidents which came under my personal observation during the six days consecutive fighting on the Chickahominy but doubtless you have seen many of them noticed in the papers and he small space allotted to such a purpose in a letter cannot admit of it. I think I wrote you of the destruction of the confederate property at Manassas when we evacuated that point, but there was no comparison between what I then saw and what I witnessed in the many Yankee camps. Their fairly equipped army feeling secure had gathered around them every necessary and many luxuries. In their precipitate flight, these were hastily destroyed or damaged and abandoned. In some instances, we succeeded in getting articles we needed much for our personal comforts and many of those little delicacies to which we had long been strangers, such as cheese, West India fruits, wines &c.
At present all is quiet with us and we are allowed for the first time since we left Manassas to get some repose though our living is very hard. The country is devoid of gardens or any marketing. We pay 50 cents a pound for fresh meats. One dollar apiece for chickens not larger than a partridge. Irish potatoes 50 cents per quart. Onions 15 cents apiece. Small ones 75 cents per quart. Butter from one dollar to one and a half. All other things in proportion. The provisions furnished to the army are very scanty and of inferior quality. This is exceedingly to be deplored as our brave men are making every sacrifice in the defense of their country, abandoning home and all its comforts, and should not want for sufficient food if in the power of the government to provide it. Yet it is often the case.
We do not anticipate any fighting here soon. McClellan cannot get ready to make an offensive demonstration before some time in November. We indulge the hope that e’re that time, there will be intervention or mediation which will bring with it peace. None can hope or wish for peace more ardently than myself, or than the army generally, and if I may judge from the language used to me by Yankee prisoners, the same sentiment prevails in the army of the enemy. Their letters found in the camps disclose the same sentiments among the people of the North.
Give my kind remembrance to cousins Martha and Mary and let me hear from you again sooner.
Yours sincerely, — W. T. Marsh
1 The regiment’s first major battle was at Seven Pines, in which they took part in the attack on Casey’s Redoubt, losing 369 men and officers out of 678 engaged, or 54%. In June 1862, the 4th was placed in an all-North Carolina brigade under their former colonel and now brigadier general George B. Anderson, consisting of the 2nd, 4th, 14th, and 30th North Carolina Infantry Regiments. They would see action throughout most of the major battles in the Eastern Theater, among them Gaines’ Mill and Malvern Hill, the Sunken Road at Antietam, May 1-3 at Chancellorsville, Oak Ridge at Gettysburg, the Bloody Angle at Spotsylvania, the 1864 Valley Campaign, and the Siege of Petersburg. Only 8 officers and 101 men were present when surrendered at Appomattox.