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Civil War. Battle of New Market, May 15, 1864
Porter Johnson Memoirs

From a document in the New Market Collection
VMI Archives Manuscript# 002
For more about this family, see the Johnson Family Papers  

Wheeling, West Virginia
June 8, 1909
Capt. Henry A. Wise 1 
 

My Dear Sir

There are many excuses due you for this long delay in answering yours of May 10th. First I was not at home. Then it found me unwell and then my wife was quite sick for three weeks and took up all my time. And finally I mistook your signature for Henry Aldin and I could remember no such person. When I wrote this to Anderson 2, he made a great deal of fun of me and my failing eyesight. But I will enclose the signature in this, and see if you do not excuse me for so doing. Of course so soon as I thought of you it was plain enough.

I did not see the Article you refer to in the Vet [Confederate Veteran] of Nov, but I did see one in the Richmond T. Dispatch [Times Dispatch] about one year ago by a Capt of the 51 Va Inf., Wharton's Brigade. He claimed that the Cadets not only did not take a Battery but fell back to a lane behind a fence & c & c. Now I have, in all these years, talked very little or thought very little about the Battle of N.M. and have never written a line and though it has been 45 years ago the whole picture is as distinct before me as if it were yesterday. Of late years there seems to be a feeling of jealousy on the part of other commands towards the cadets. Some evidently think we are getting too much credit and praise and others not enough. However this may be, I honestly believe that if the Battalion had not have been there and had not have acted the gallant part they did, there would have been another tale to tell. For the enemy would have had time to have got all his troops on the field, as it was, and I thought so at the time, he was whipped in detail and Capt Town's letter confirms this as well as disproves Col. Smith's statement, which however is true in part but without further explanation would be very misleading.

It is true the 62nd was partially in our front when we started from William's lane, but at the time Capt Hill, Merritt, and others were struck I doubt if there had been a man struck in the 62nd. I saw them fall, but I did not see any men falling in the line in our front at that time. About 12 or 1 oclock when we left the pike and filed by the left flank into what I understood then was William's lane there was a stone fence on our right and an orchard in front of the fence when we were halted. C Co. had just cleared the fence. We were ordered here to strip for battle, and the shells were then passing over us and I could hear the zip of the [mines] a[jacent?] the stone wall. We did not stay long, but soon cleared the lane and were in line of battle with other troops.

About 150 or 200 yards [apparently] in our front was another line of battle. Shipp 3 in his report calls it two lines. Upshur says echelon. However this may be, I think we suffered most, for by the time the Yankee gunners got the range the first line was out of and our line was in range. I remember distinctly as we marched down a gentle incline some time after starting we crossed a ravine and where I crossed it was about 4 feet deep and the line became somewhat disarranged.

Shipp ordered us to mark time and dress the line. After crossing this ravine we struck the soft wheat field where some of the boys lost their shoes. From this point it was all up a gentle slope to the crest where the Battery was placed. I don't believe there could have been [further, faster] or more accurate firing than those men did. The guns appeared to me, at least a good part of them, to be right in front of B Co. Col. S. (Shipp) was right in front of me and I noticed him particularly. He was as pale as he could be for him. The sweat stood on his face in great drops and it struck me that he was not enjoying himself. But I have heard it said that the bravest men are those whom (though faint hearted) pride still holds true to duty and to honor.

Another man I marked with attention was Oliver Evans 4 (Poor fellow, Anderson just writes me that he has heard from a friend in Cal. that he answered the last roll call). Evans was just in front of me and I could and did see him well. I have read of the joy of battle but I never saw it so fully illustrated as in his case. I do not think he would have exchanged places with Gen. Breckinridge himself. He would glance back over his shoulder occasionally and I would catch his eye (I knew him well). His whole face was wreathed in smiles and seemed to radiate joy and happiness, his form seemed to swell and grow in size, and as he carried that banner so gloriously and shook back his golden locks he appeared to me the most inspiring figure on that gory field. Indeed a very "God of Battle."

Another boy I noted especially was little Cocke G.B.5, I think was from Missis. Cocke was a friend of mine, he was the last man in the front rank in B Co. and consequently next to the color guard about as hot a place as any in the battalion. I was immediately on Cocke's right. As we advanced up the slope and drew nearer & nearer to the guns and the shot got closer and hotter, Cocke unconsciously would veer a little away from # his next file, leaving perhaps 10 or 12 inches space between elbows. This occurred several times, and I noticing it would call Cocke's attention to it , saying, Close up Cocke!, Close up! Which he always did promptly, his face flushing hotly but saying nothing, as he drew still near the guns and the shot fell still thicker. I had it seems veered a little off to the right and Cocke noticed it quick as a flash, he said,"Now Johnson damn it, you close up, yourself! You have been hollering at me all day to Close up now damn it you close!" And I did.

How close we were to the battery when I was struck I am not able to say with any degree of accuracy, but it did not appear to me to be more than four hundred yards. Some of the guns at any rate were still throwing shell for I saw the one strike the ground about four or five feet directly in front of me and explode. Here I was turned clean round my gun flew over my head. I never saw it again at least to recognize it as the one I had carried. One piece struck just over the heart, a great rent was torn in my jacket and shirt and the skin cut. I happened to have in the pocket of my jacket 2 army crackers some letters and a handkerchief, and I verily believe these broke the blow so as to save my life. But another piece struck me on the arm. My first impression was that my arm was torn off at the shoulder. I felt as if it was gone, as there was no arm there, but when I got over the daze somewhat and examined I found my left arm completely paralyzed and as black as ink from the shoulder to elbow.

In the meantime the boys had gone on and when I looked after them they were some two hundred yards away and if there were any other confederate troops in front of them I did not nor could see them. My first thought was to go after them, but I could not use a gun, so I concluded to go towards the pike and New M. I started diagonally across the field. I came across Pete Woodlief 6 with a cut on his leg and whimpering like a child with a cut finger. I tried to shame him out of it and partially succeeded, but he thought his leg was shot off. We came to a two story brick house on the pike, just out of New M. The basement was filled with shirkers, but very few wounded. I stayed there a short time but go so ashamed and disgusted with the crowd, that I concluded to go back to the battle and {see} what had become of the boys.

I went back pretty much the way I had come and finally found the place where our boys had suffered so much. There lay poor Stanard, the worst shot up man I ever saw, then poor Cabell and my own roommate Crockett with the back part of his head shot away, and then little Randolph 7 and the rest. Oh! it was pittifull. I went on to the crest of the hill and could see the Yankees huddled in the flat about the bridge, a few of our guns still [ ] on them, but it was about all over.

The claim made by the last of the 51st Regt (which by the way was the regt. which broke to the rear and afterwards rallied behind Edgar's Battalion) and by Col. George Smith and perhaps others at this late day, viz: that the cadets came along after they had driven off the enemy and like boys would do put their hands on the guns and claimed a capture, is preposterous and absurd in view of the facts, well sustained, 1st by our losses which were greater proportionally than that of any other command on the field. The loss of B Co. the right [ ] Co. being about 33 percent.

2d. The letters of Capt Town given in the pamphlet containing Upshur's speech and others delivered at the unveiling 4 years ago8. I suppose you have a copy if not write to Upshur at [Rich] for one. Also the letter and statement of the Federal Col. who command{ed} the regt which supported the batt. and who was wounded and captured. This will be found in the controversy between Rev. James Smith and Gen. Early concerning the conduct of cadet at N.M. in which I think Smith got the best of it.

I knew Col. George Smith. He was a very handsome fellow and no doubt a good drill master. I never heard him accused of any great brilliancy or dash as a fighting soldier. The fact is that what reputation the 62nd regt had (which was good) for fighting was due to the great coolness and bravery of the Lt. Col. Lang who was killed before the war closed. It is ungenerous to say the least of it for vets, as this late day to try to gain glory and fame by detracting from boys who did their duty on that day and their whole duty. As Gen. Early said to Gen. Gordon on the morning of the surprise of Sheridan at Fishers Hill, this glory enough for one day but [alas] for Gen. Early his did not last the day through. I believe ours will last to all Eternity and that there was enough to go round for all who participated.

Forty five years is a long time, nearly 1/2 a century. Col. S (Scott Shipp) is getting to be an old man, older than I am by 10 years at least. I have no doubt his life has been filled with many cares and much business to the exclusion of old memories, at least to the details of events happening so long ago. [ ] he is mistaken about this matter. The evidence will not sustain his assertion. Yes Capt. I remember you well. Who that ever recited Analytical to you could ever forget you. I not only remember you but you John S. and Louis and George 9. I have only been to a few reunions, some three I think, and as you say one gets poor satisfaction out {of} them or one's friends. There is too much excitement, too much rush, too much hip and hurrah for much real pleasure in one's old friends. Never the less it is good to meet together now and then, even in that way.

Don't you think it would be a good idea now to form a New M. Society of the survivors to meet say every three years at Lexington. Evans, Berkeley, and Royster have gone since the unveiling also John White of Lex and Wharton, Ricketts, Tom White and I don't {know} who else are now gone to their last [ ]. Excuse the length of this scratch. I hope you will be able to read it--Yours truly & [ ] I see very [ ]. Porter Johnson.

 


1Henry A. Wise. VMI Class of 1862; VMI faculty member and tactical officer in command of Company A at New Market. b. 1842, Accomac Co. VA; educator; d. 1918.
2Joseph Reid Anderson, Jr. VMI Class of 1870. VMI's first "historiographer," who was instrumental in gathering biographical and other information about Civil War alumni.
3Scott Shipp. VMI Class of 1859; Commandant of Cadets; in command of the VMI Corps at New Market. b. 1839, Warrenton, VA; VMI faculty member; VMI Superintendent, 1890-1907; d. 1917.
4Oliver Perry Evans. Born 1842, near Jackson Courthouse, West Virginia; Graduate (21st); Acting Color Sergeant at New Market; CSA; lawyer & judge; died 1911, Berkeley, California.
5John L. Cocke, VMI Class of 1867, was a Private in Co. B and was in the front rank next to the color bearer, Evans. Johnson did not accurately remember Cocke's name or home state--he was from Tennessee, not Mississippi.
6Pierre W. Woodlief, Jr., Class of 1867. b. ca. 1846; merchant, businessman; d. ca. 1899.
7Charles Carter Randolph. Class of 1870. b. 1846, near Warrenton, VA; seriously wounded at New Market; Episcopal minister; d.1925, Richmond, VA.
8This refers to the unveiling of VMI's New Market Monument (Virginia Mourning Her Dead) in June 1903. A pamphlet containing speeches and various other documents was published to mark the occasion.
9All members of the Wise family and VMI alumni. John Sergeant Wise and Louis C. Wise were also New Market Cadets.