Waiting for the Great Fight: Before Seven Pines with the 2nd Georgia

Writing on the afternoon of May 31, 1862 while on picket on the outskirts of Richmond, Virginia, Joseph D. Bethune of the 2nd Georgia Infantry felt that events were building towards a climax in the fight for the Confederate capital. He could hear the guns marking the beginning of the Battle of Seven Pines, but "I don’t think we will get into it just yet."

    "Here we are, the whole army within five miles of Richmond waiting for the great fight which is daily expected," he wrote. "While I have been writing, the firing on our right has continued pretty heavy. A moment ago, a report came that the firing was caused by our men attacking a division of Federals who were hemmed in by the great rise in the Chickahominy River, it having rained all yesterday afternoon and night, thus cutting them off from reinforcements." 

     Joseph Bethune rose to the rank of lieutenant by the end of the war. Afterwards, he took up the practice of law in Virginia before moving west where he served as Federal judge in Arizona Territory. He died in Hollywood, California in 1912. His letter describing his regiment's services on the Peninsula first saw publication in the June 9, 1862, issue of the Columbus Daily Sun published in Columbus, Georgia. 

 

General Joseph E. Johnston, commanding the Army of Northern Virginia on May 31, 1862. Little did Joseph Bethune know that his army commander would be severely wounded the same afternoon he wrote his letter, replaced first by Gustavus W. Smith, then permanently by Robert E. Lee. 

Camp of John Edmonds’ Farm near Richmond, Virginia

May 31, 1862

          Perhaps I better explain our present situation so that you may understand it. The Guards are off from the regiment at Mr. Edmonds’ farm on picket. We have been here eight days and have had quite a good time as there has been a good deal of rain from which we were sheltered. There is a fight going on now about five miles from here and the roar and rattle of the guns can be distinctly heard. I don’t think we will get into it just yet.

          Here we are, the whole army within five miles of Richmond waiting for the great fight which is daily expected. While I have been writing, the firing on our right has continued pretty heavy. A moment ago, a report came that the firing was caused by our men attacking a division of Federals who were hemmed in by the great rise in the Chickahominy River, it having rained all yesterday afternoon and night, thus cutting them off from reinforcements.

I reckon an account of what we have passed through during the last two months would be readable by you all, so I will endeavor to relate it to the best of my ability.

          About the 10th of April, we were ordered to Richmond from Orange Courthouse, all expecting to be mustered out of service when we got there, but alas! Not only were we disappointed, but also destined to see the hardest service. After staying in Richmond two or three days, we were ordered to the Peninsula to help Magruder who was about to be attacked by McClellan and his whole force.

          Accordingly, our regiment and about half the regulars were put on a boat the size of the Wave and down the river we went. We arrived on the Peninsula and having marched and countermarched nearly all over it, we were at last startled by the continuous rattle of musketry and roar of artillery down at the trenches about two miles from our camps. Then came the stirring long roll and off we went at a double quick. This was about 3 o’clock in the afternoon.

When we got near the enemy, we were drawn up in line of battle within range of their cannons and as the shell and shot came crashing through the trees just above our heads, I felt a little queer. ‘Twas no use to get behind trees as the cannon balls go right through at that distance. After remaining in line of battle until 8 or 9 o’clock, we marched back to camp where we stayed until the next day when we were marched into the trenches.

This view from Gettysburg typifies the carnage present on a Civil War battlefield. Joe Bethune recalled going into a trenches on the Peninsula after a fight that left dead men on the field for days. "The stench was unbearable," he noted. "At last, the Yankees raised a flag of truce and the bodies were taken away."

There I learned the cause of the previous day’s firing which was this: two companies of the Yankees were offered a canteen of whiskey and $50 to each man if they would cross the lagoon and whip our men who were digging a trench on the edge of the pond for us to stay in. But in this, they were disappointed for many of them were killed and the rest driven back. I went into the trench just where the fight occurred and the dead Yankees remaining on the ground for three or four days, the stench was unbearable. At last, the Yankees raised a flag of truce and the bodies were taken away. When the dead were carried over, one poor fellow recognized his brother and fell to weeping and lamenting most piteously.

The first day we got on the battleground, I had the opportunity of conversing with one of the wounded who had been left there. He said he was an Englishman and had no interest in the war at all but he said “work was dull and they told me the best thing I could do was to enlist in the army. So accordingly, they got me drunk and enlisted me.” He asked me for a drink of water which I gave him. The poor fellow died of his wounds a day or two afterwards.

Those trenches were gay places as there was a ditch which ran all along on the edge of a pond. Into this ditch we would crouch so that we could shoot down the Yankees as they were crossing the pond. We relieved each other in the night in order to prevent the enemy from firing on us. The first day we were relieved in the daytime, but that tempted them to fire on us many times. One shot passed near me, wounding a man just behind me, another came within two inches of my head, striking the bank and throwing the dirt in my face. Pretty close I thought as I tucked my head a little lower. The Yankees had some splendid marksmen there; they would get up in the trees where we could not see them and fire away at us.

I presume it is needless to bore you with an account of our march to Richmond. Suffice it to say that it was one of the hardest jobs I ever undertook. Very few thought of carrying their knapsacks or clothes, all these being thrown away. Being in the pioneer squad, I managed to get them through, it being the privilege of pioneers to have their baggage hauled.


Sources:

Letter from Private Joseph Daniel Bethune, Co. G, 2nd Georgia Infantry, Columbus Daily Sun (Georgia), June 9, 1862, pg. 3

Find-A-Grave entry for Joseph Daniel Bethune

 

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