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Camp near Williamsport, Md.
May 27th 1862

My Dear Mother,

I don’t feel very much in the mood of writing half what I have to say today as I have just got into a tent for the first time in three days, having shared with the men about as hard a season of fighting and marching as often falls to the lot of a soldier.

I spent last week up to Saturday morning in performing the quiet but arduous duties of Judge Advocate of Division Court Martial at Strasburg which we had partially fortified and I had pretty much concluded I should never see a fight in Banks’ division. Strasburg had been made a depot of commissary, quartermaster and other stores and every thing indicated a long stay.

But on Saturday evening came news of the defeat of Col. Kenly [at Port Royal] and the utter rout of his regiment and then of two or three companies of our division being cut off, and on Friday night about midnight I was roused from sleep by a sutler who boarded in the same house rushing into my room with the report that we were surrounded by the rebels and that the town was to be instantly evacuated. I hurried on my clothes and went up town where all was excitement and turmoil. Orderlies were galloping to and fro with dispatches, wagon trains lumbering to and fro, drums sounding the long roll and all was lively enough. I packed up my Court Martial records, put them in a haversack and gave them to my clerk and then succeeded in getting a few short naps in the Provost Guard’s quarters.

Early in the morning I started out in the rear of the forces and by two o’clock had passed through them all and reached our regiment which was in the advance. I stopped on the way at the country seat at Middletown where there were so many young ladies, but while refreshing myself there the report of cannon was heard from the front and I hurried on.
The stores at Strasburg far exceeded the transportation and it was amusing to see the comical and primitive means of conveyance employed. I observed several large flat boats on wheels drawn by “pressed” horses and later in the day I saw one of the drivers, who had been hard pressed by the rebel cavalry, minus the boat but bearing off the anchor in triumph on wheels. There were half as many negroes as soldiers, some drivers and some refugees, wagons loaded with negro women, waiting on some officer, mess kettles, pans and live chickens. Then there were droves of loose horses branded U.S. going along independently and hundreds of beef cattle belonging to the commissary department, ambulances with the sick, etc. etc. all hurrying on in one direction.

Passing through Kernstown I stopped at a little shanty where I saw several men looking in and there lay the body of a poor fellow who was murdered a few hours before by the rebels as he was going on in advance of the forces. He was sick and had his furlough in his pocket and halting with several others in the same condition was shot through the head. Poor fellow! his furlough was longer than he had expected.

The troops halted on the Strasburg side of Winchester while the train went on beyond. Here we found to our consternation that the rebels had taken our knapsacks which had been left stacked by the roadside, guard and all, or rather the ruins of the former for Capt. Collis’s Zouaves poured tar over them and burned them up to prevent them falling into the hands of the rebels. So the boys had to bivouac in the open air without blanket or overcoat, and with no food but a hard cracker and cup of coffee. The dew was very heavy and it was exceedingly cold and no fuel but boards could be obtained. All night the pickets kept up a continual firing and as the next day was Sunday and the rebels were reported to be near we expected a battle.

Just as day broke, before we had recovered from the chill of the night air or eaten our frugal breakfasts the rebel batteries and ours opened fire and in a few minutes bang! came a shell right in our midst and buried itself in the ground. Then round shot and shell came pouring into the field where we were stationed making those unearthly sounds you have heard of so often.

The men got into place remarkably well under the circumstances and formed companies and then the command was given to wheel into line. I had just shouted the order when whizz, whizz came a swarm of leaden hornets amongst us from an unseen fire behind a hill. We rushed forward and with a yell gave them a tremendous volley at very close quarters and through the wreaths of smoke I could see the grey scoundrels fairly piled up in heaps and giving signs of breaking. Just then down came their flag and our boys cheered lustily but another sergeant seized it and raised it aloft again. All this while the batteries on both sides were playing over our heads and shot and shell were falling in the field where we were stationed. At last we drove them over a stone fence and received orders ourselves to retreat in line behind another. I remained for a time in charge of a squad of skirmishers under partial cover and then fell back and joined the main body.

In the meantime the whole of our forces were engaged with overwhelming bodies of rebels and the whole country about resounded with the thunder of artillery and the shriek of shot and shell. We lay a long time under the wall with a galling fire pouring in upon us. The boys would call out “There comes another” when the roar of a shell or shot was heard and down we ducked, making ourselves very small until it struck or exploded behind us. Then we would jump up again but generally had to fall back in a great hurry.

At last our right being forced in we retreated just in time for the rebels were trying to head us off and stop our retreat. But we turned into a by-road and traveled in quick time and they were frustrated in their fond hopes. It was rather exciting to be making for a point with the rebels aiming at the same and we could hear them plainly shouting over their expected prize.

And now followed a most distressing march of forty two miles, much of it through wheat fields and ploughed lands and over fences and swamps. Many of the boys got horses and mounted two together but those who were not so fortunate had to fall out, many of them and probably some of them have been taken prisoners by the rebel cavalry. I pressed on to the end but was nearly exhausted when we reached the river. Here, after a delay of an hour or two we were ferried across, and had the pleasure of resting our aching limbs on the bare ground.

Many of the men were suffering excessively from sore feet and some were completely prostrated. Really the wounded, such of them as were taken care of, suffered less than those who endured that dreadful march. After crossing the river, I went half a mile farther looking for a barn where I heard the regiment were quartered but when I got within a short distance understood it was full and with Capt. Chapman lay down supperless under a tree by a camp fire and slept soundly except that I had to get up and warm myself.

The next day we had a hard time getting the regiment together as they had straggled along the road for a long way back and some of them are still missing. Many of them took different roads to the river and I understand from the boys that many skirmishes with the rebel cavalry came off on the road. Last evening what is left of our brigade was shipped to Williamsport on canal boats.

Gen’l Banks and Gen’l Williams had given up our regiment and the 28th New York as lost and we had a most hairbreadth escape. The troops who passed through Winchester were fired into by men and women from the houses. I omitted to mention that during the battle the store houses at Winchester were fired by our men. Both generals give our regiment great praise for their coolness and gallantry. We have suffered a great loss of prisoners and two of our officers are missing. Capt. Betts is wounded at Harper’s Ferry. Capt. Lane had great difficulty in bringing his company off and many of his men are missing.

I have just been giving the boys paper and envelopes as they have lost their little all including all their clothing except what they had on their backs. Many of the officers have lost more or less property. I can not find the bundle you sent as it was in Dr. Bissell’s satchel and that has not turned up yet, nor has the Dr. himself and he may be a prisoner though we do not give him up yet. Two of our Court Martial whom I passed on the road from Strasburg may have been cut off as they have not yet turned up.

But I am in no condition to write an intelligent or intelligible letter, having had my rest broken four nights and slept three of them what little I slept at all on the bare ground with one blanket, and I need rest. I hope we shall not have to wait very long but have another chance at the rebels. If our force had nearly equaled theirs I am confident we should have beaten them.

Very affectionately,
Your Son Melzar

P.S. I have lost nothing except the bundle. Our wagon came over in fine style.

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