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    The charge of the Irish Brigade at the Battle of Gaines Mill - a letter by Dr. Benjamin Rohrer. "The Irish Brigade came up double quick... They formed in line not fifty feet from where I was dressing the wounded."
    This long 10 page letter in ink was written by Dr. Benjamin Rohrer, Surgeon in the 39th Pennsylvania Infantry. The letter is headed "Camp on James River 15 miles below Richmond, July 6th, 1862". Rohrer is in the middle of McClellan's Peninsula Campaign trying to capture Richmond. In this letter to his wife he describes the brutal fighting in graphic detail.

    "On Thursday, June 26th, everything was quiet in and about Mechanicsville. The Reserve Corps were scattered about in the woods. I had just received your letter with the pictures. I was showing them to the boys when messengers came flying in every direction & in a few minutes, the artillery opened the Ball in our front & in less time than I can tell you on paper, our whole force was out in line of Battle."

    "The First Brigade was to our right and received the first onslaught, but in less than an hour, the whole Corps was in action. Our Regiment was placed in Rifle pits and literally mowed down the enemy as they approached our front, while they were comparatively secure & the result proved very little loss of life. We only lost 8 killed & five wounded on this day. The Battle lasted from 2 o'clock p.m. until 9 p.m., seven hours incessant fighting."

    "Our cannon firing sounded as rapid as you could count & the musketry was incessant, resembling thunder. It is generally conceded that Thursday's fighting was the most desperate of all the Battles. The enemy were 70,000 to our 8,000 which we held by having a good position, plenty of artillery, rifle pits, and last but not least, the men were fresh, anxious & determined."

    "I took my position in a house near, but in a very little time, the shell fell so thick around that we vacated & moved into a gully about 600 yards in the rear of our Regiment and about the same distance from Easton's Battery. As it happened, we were in the most dangerous position."

    "The shell fired at Easton's Battery all came rolling around us. But the excitement was so intense that we thought no more of danger than if they had been snowballs."

    "While dressing the wounded, I became deaf to all sounds except those of solid shot. When they strike the ground, they scoot off with a sound similar to a pheasant. It is owing to their shape being long & leaded at one end. How we escaped is a miracle, yet we did."

    "As it was getting dark, we had to stop operations & we sat enjoying the scene. There was a perfect blaze of lightning from the continuous discharge of cannon. Capt. McConnell was wounded back of the neck, but is now nearly well again. The wounded of the other Regiments were taken to a house a mile back where we were at work until 3 o'clock next morning, when we retreated in good order about 4 miles to Gaines Mill, the enemy following slowly in our rear keeping up a continuous fire."

    "We reached the Mill about 9 o'clock, and everybody lay down to get a little sleep, not dreaming of another Battle, but about noon the word came to be ready & in a short time, musket firing was rapid in all directions. Here was the great Battle, second only to that of the Seven Pines."

    "Division after Division of our men rolled in, fell back, in again & so it continued until near 10 o'clock at night. The surgeons of the Third Brigade, Clark, Philips. & myself, led in a position nearly 3/4 of a mile below the field of Battle in low ground and behind a little hill. Dr. Green & others were nearby in a house. While we were busy with the wounded, we knew very little about what was going on until all of a sudden, there was a tremendous rush around us."

    "It seemed that the whole army was coming pell-mell, but we soon discovered that they were the cowards. A line of Cavalry formed in line and drove them back. There they stood like sheep frightened, nearly to death, all huddling together. They could not be driven back, yet it stopped others from following."

    "Just at this critical moment, the Irish Brigade came up in double quick, cheering most lustily. With the green flag flying, they formed in line not fifty feet from where I was dressing the wounded. By this time the enemy had pushed forward & were within 1/4 mile of our depot, and as we expected them to fire on the Irish in front of us, we concluded to skedaddle. So we hurriedly put all our wounded into ambulances, started across the Chickahominy."

    "The Irish, however, drove them back & held the field long enough for all our troops to come across when the Bridge was destroyed. We had to leave about 3.000 dead & wounded behind, very few of our Regiment. That night I was up all night dressing wounded."

    "Here we remained until evening (being Saturday) when the whole Army commenced retreating. On Sunday about noon we reached White Oak Swamp, everybody exhausted & completely worn out. We halted to rest, but had scarcely time to stretch our weary limbs when report came that we were surrounded by the enemy."

    "We started again and moved about 2 miles further when we halted for the night. This night I got a little sleep, not much. In the morning the ambulances came along with our wounded. We again commenced dressing them until 12 o'clock when news came that the Rebels were coming in our right, so the trains were sent off in a hurry & the troops formed in a line of Battle. Dr. Green, Philips, & others & myself took a position in the rear about 1/2 of a mile in a thick woods. While sitting waiting for the Battle to commence, all of a sudden the shell fairly rained through the woods, cutting off tree tops, limbs, etc. all around. We left in short order."

    "Father Hunt was with us at the time. As we rode out together, a shell burst immediately over our heads. Small pieces striking our horses, but did no damage. Says he, "I had made up my mind not to dodge any more, but I couldn't help it that time." We then took a church nearby, although the shell fell all about us while in the church, yet we all escaped. This was a terrible Battle."

    "The Reserve Corps were in the midst of it and many have fallen, but beyond our reach we had to leave them on the field. Capt. Adams, one of our best men, & Adj. Gaithe, both fell mortally wounded. Here we worked until 2 o'clock in the morning."

    "ARMS & LEGS WERE PILED AWAY IN ONE CORNER OF CHURCH, TERRIBLE TO BEHOLD ."

    "The Medical Director detailed a number of single surgeons to remain & attend to our men, so that they will still have our surgeons & not be entirely at the mercy of the enemy. Tuesday morning at 2 o'clock a.m. the whole Army moved down towards the River and selected a strong position where the enemy attacked us at 9 o'clock & the Battle raged all day up to 9 o'clock in the evening. In the afternoon things looked blue enough. The feint hearted declared that we were whipped & kept up a gloomy front. At 5 o'clock in the evening, both Armies became desperate. First they tried to break through our right and were repulsed, then they came down on our left wing & were repulsed. Then as the last and most desperate of all, they fell on our center with overwhelming force."

    "We had taken nearly all their artillery, so they had to depend upon numbers alone, but AS THEY CAME UP IN MASSES, OUR CANNONS MOWED THEM DOWN LIKE GRASS ."

    "Our Reserve Corps was not called out on this day so we could be spectators. The Battlefield was a large open level piece of ground. On this our whole force, nearly 100,000 men, were placed in position. Every movement was before us. Artillery, Cavalry, & Infantry were stationed so as to be brought into action. As one Division retired, another was seen marching up to take their place. At the same time, cannons were firing from every little elevation."

    "The Gunboats sent shell after shell into the woods where the Rebels were, the thickest doing great execution. For two hours, they would drive our men back a few hundred yards, then we would drive them again, so it seemed to hang as on a thread, but at last, our men gave tremendous cheering & the firing became less distinct & all was over. The Rebels were running for dear life."

    "Our cannons then sent shell after them for 2 miles. We had about 1,000 cannon on the field which would make it very hot as far as they would reach. This (Tuesday) night at 12 o'clock we again started for the River some 7 miles which we reached by 7 o'clock in the morning of (Wednesday). It rained all day & the mud became knee deep."

    " The next morning, Thursday, the enemy again attacked us, but we very soon drove them beyond reach. Friday, 4th of July, the flags a flying & music is abundant again. We have not had the first sound of a drum for two weeks. Everything had be kept quiet, and no fires & light at night. At 12 o'clock a salute was fired in honor of the day by our field pieces. They made a terrible racket. We have lost heavily in killed & wounded in our Regiment, about 50 killed & 150 wounded & many more missing."

    "Gen. McCall, Reynolds, prisoners, & Gen. Meade wounded. Our Gen. Seymore is in command of this Division. He is a brave man, too brave. He exposes himself too much. Col. Risk is not overly brave. Major Smith is a failure, but Lt. Col. Warner is a brick. He was seen & heard everywhere. Capt. McDaniel also & Capt. Ayers, Capt. McConnell & a few Lieutenants. But many Capt. & Lieut. were not to be seen when there was danger."

    "My health is good. I was exhausted from over exertion, loss of sleep, & nothing to eat, yet I stood it better than any of our officers with one or two exceptions. I am tired of writing as I have been busy making out reports. Ever Your Affectionate Husband, B. R."

    In fine condition. No doubt one of the longest and most descriptive Civil War doctors letters we have seen. From the Calvin Packard Civil War Battlefield Letter Collection.


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    December, 2020
    6th Sunday
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