Our Army is Almost Invincible: The Maryland Campaign with the 2nd North Carolina

First Lieutenant John Calvin Gorman of Co. B of the 2nd North Carolina Infantry had seen much of the world in his 27 years when he sat down to write the three letters making up this remarkable account of the Maryland Campaign.

As a young man during the 1850s, he had traveled to Kansas territory where he plied his trade as a journalist and printer, returning home to North Carolina when the region became “Bleeding Kansas” as Northern and Southern pioneers fought over the concept of popular sovereignty. In 1861, he joined Co. B of the 2nd North Carolina State Troops under the command of Colonel Charles C. Tew and would later see much hard service in Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia.

By the time of the Maryland campaign, Lieutenant Gorman was commanding his company and sent home several highly descriptive letters to his wife and mother back home in North Carolina. Gorman’s journalistic sense shines through as he lays out the story of “Lee’s Miserables” marching into Maryland. “No way can your eye turn but the paraphernalia of war greets you,” he wrote. “Hundreds and thousands of wagons, horses, mules and men. Our army is almost invincible but an army it is! It puts to blush Don Quixote: such a motley, dirty, and ragged crowd never was accumulated before. We are faring famously now in the eating line and have been ever since we left Manassas. But we ought to fare well for we ate green corn and beef without salt and traveled 25 miles per day on it for four or five days on our memorable march from Richmond.”

These first two letters were published in the September 22, 1862, edition of the Spirit of the Age, a newspaper published in Raleigh, North Carolina. Part 2 of this series entitled “Losing a Quarter of the Division: The 2nd North Carolina at South Mountain” will feature Gorman’s description of the fight for South Mountain on September 14th and 15th, and the final part of the series will feature Gorman’s account of fighting along the Sunken Road during the Battle of Antietam.

To read part 2, click here.

To read part 3, click here


North Carolina State Militia Button
(Army of Tennessee Relics)

Camp in the Potomac, opposite Berlin, five miles from Harper’s Ferry, Virginia

September 5, 1862


Dear Wife and Mother,

          By the setting sun whose rays streak up from the high hills of Maryland, I have found my first opportunity to write you for the past two weeks, week that constitute an important epoch in my life’s history. When I last wrote you, I was on the North Anna River 30-odd miles from Richmond. We took up our march from there and every day since then has been a march, a long march. We marched by way of Orange Courthouse and Culpeper Courthouse, across the Rapidan River, thence to the battlefield of Bull Run, thence to Fairfax, then Leesburg, and from that point today we have come.

          In all the long marches my health has been excellent and even now while I write, although I have traveled 20 miles today, I am not more tired than if I had done a day’s work in the office. I have never flagged and can boast that in all the marches of my regiment, not one step have I rode. General [George B.] Anderson told me, a few moments ago, that he had an opportunity to send a few letters privately to Richmond, hence these lines. I cannot tell you all I have seen as this is all the paper I can beg. In all our long marches, we have been as yet unable to meet the Yankees. Jackson and Longstreet were 48 hours ahead of us and though we made forced marches and could hear the booming of their guns, we were unable to participate.

From the Rappahannock to the plains of Manassas is one scene of desolation and has been almost one continuous battle for 13 days. In every encounter, we have whipped the enemy, but upon the twice-fight and twice-won field of Manassas occurred the bloodiest battle yet fought on this continent. Over the same ground where the blood shed last year had hardly been obliterated when I marched over it lay heaps and piles of dead, thick, so thick, that I could step from one to another for the distance of four miles while the woods in every direction were lined with them. I never saw such heaps of dead, nine-tenths of whom were Yankees.

Orderly Sergeant William Sharpe Barnes served in Co. F of the 4th North Carolina Infantry of Anderson's brigade during the Maryland campaign. He was later commissioned a first lieutenant and served as aide-de-camp to Brigadier General Bryan Grimes. 

The women in the towns and villages as we passed were uproarious in their joy, especially in Warrenton and Leesburg. At Warrenton, banners long hid were flung to the breeze, handkerchiefs were waved, while servants and even ladies bore buckets of water and waiters of substantials and offered to our half-famished and ragged soldiery as they marched hurriedly through the place after the retreating Yankees who had not quitted it six hours. That is why such bravery is displayed by our men and he that would not cry “victory or death” under such inspiration deserves to be a bondsman and a slave.

At Fairfax, we caught up with the jaded troops of Jackson and Longstreet while the enemy had retired to their fastnesses on Arlington Heights. We then concluded to change tactics and go into Maryland. Ours was the first division that entered Leesburg and words cannot tell of the manner of our reception. We entered at night, but every house was lit, and their tables spread and a not a cent’s worth could beg. It was given, freely given. We rested there a few moments and then marched beyond the town. Since then our movements have been in the dark to me. Jackson, Longstreet, A.P. Hill, D.H. Hill, McLaws, and other division commands were there but where they are now, I know not. They have gone. Yesterday, Garland’s, Rodes, Colquitt’s, and Phillips’ brigades went over the river and I know are now in Maryland. Today we were ordered here, and I think tomorrow will be in Maryland.

A party of Confederate horsemen with infantry in the distance cross the Potomac River into Maryland by moonlight in September 1862. "The next week will be big with events," Lieutenant Gorman predicted. Little did he know that the very character of the war would be altered by the events that transpired during Lee's two weeks in Maryland.

The next week will be big with events. I am in excellent spirits and hopeful to come out unscathed in the storm of blood that is sure to reign. I trust in an omnipotent Providence, and in a mother’s and wife’s prayers and fell that whatever happens will be for the best. I am in command of my company. Keep in good heart, dear wife, and mother, and should I fall in this sacred cause, bear up under it well. If I survive, I will write soon. Kiss the babies for me and be of good cheer. Remember me to all. I cannot get your letters if you write them.


One of the most iconic images of the war depicts Lee's men marching through the streets of Frederick, Maryland in September 1862. Captain Gorman was among these men and while he felt the army was "almost invincible," he noted that "such a motley, dirty, and ragged crowd was never accumulated before." William Hamby of the 4th Texas agreed that most of the troops "were barefooted and ragged and all of us were footsore, weary, and hungry, but full of patriotic ardor and inspired faith in the justice of our cause."   

Camp of 2nd Regiment, five miles north of Frederick City, Maryland

[September 11, 1862]


Dear Wife and Mother,

          We have no mails now and it is only by chance that I can get a letter to you. A citizen of Wayne leaves here today, and this letter is intended to be sent by him. We arrived here the day before yesterday without let or hindrance, the Yankees fleeing before us precipitately, and we now have possession of the middle portion of Maryland to the Pennsylvania line. Our whole army is now encamped to the north and east of Frederick resting, and well they need it for we have been on the march for 250-300 miles. No way can your eye turn but the paraphernalia of war greets you. Hundreds and thousands of wagons, horses, mules, and men. In a day or two we will again take up our line of march and then for days of blood and carnage. I do not know whither we are going, but, of course, wherever the enemy is.

          Our army is almost invincible but an army it is! It puts to blush Don Quixote: such a motley, dirty, and ragged crowd never was accumulated before. We are faring famously now in the eating line and have been ever since we left Manassas. But we ought to fare well for we ate green corn and beef without salt and traveled 25 miles per day on it for four or five days on our memorable march from Richmond. The Potomac Valley of Maryland and Virginia is the finest country I ever laid eyes on. Such farms, such cattle, and horses I never saw. Provisions are cheap; chickens for 15 cents, butter at 12-1/2 cents, eggs at 10 cents, while every springhouse door is thrown open by its owner and milk freely given away. At Frederick city yesterday, I bought shoes for $1.50, cashmere pants for $3.50 and everything at old prices.

"The people, of course, are not as unanimously in our favor as in Virginia," Lieutenant Gorman noted. "Now and then we meet up with a zealous Unionist who makes no greens of telling it." Perhaps Lieutenant Gorman saw 90-year-old Barbara Fritchie, heroine of John Greenleaf Whittier's poem as "the bravest of all in Frederick town," waving her Union flag from the second story window of her home? The Fritchie story is probably fanciful, a product of wartime ardor, but the mixed response of the Marylanders to Lee's invasion dampened any hopes entertained that Maryland would join the Confederacy. 

          The people, of course, are not as unanimously in our favor as in Virginia. The poorer portion are nearly all Unionists with the exception of the majority of the women. The better classes, the middle classes, are secesh, the women to the backbone while the rich are mum, having too much at stake and times too squally for them to avow themselves on either side. I don’t blame them much. Now and then we meet up with a zealous Unionist who makes no greens of telling it. Our orders to the whole army are to molest neither the ardent or the quiet, to disturb no man’s property, and any violation is severely punished. Guards are sent to all cornfields, gardens, and apple orchards and no one is allowed to enter without permission of the owner. Corn brought into camp must be accompanied by a receipt of the owner certifying that it is paid for.

          I am in excellent health. Have not a pain or ache in my body and am fresh as a new blown rose. Be of good heart wife and mother. Through divine Providence and your prayers, I hope to live to see you all again. The war, I think, will end by next spring and we are bound to be victorious. The Rubicon (Potomac) is passed and such desperate fighting never was seen or read of as will be chronicled in the Maryland campaign. It is “Victory or Death.” I must close. Give my love to all and kiss the children for me.



Letters from First Lieutenant John Calvin Gorman, Co. B, 2nd North Carolina Infantry, Spirit of the Age (North Carolina), September 22, 1862, pg. 3


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