John C. Winsmith’s Civil War

The following letter by Captain John Christopher Winsmith appears in the current issue of America’s Civil War Magazine.  This is just a sample of the roughly 265 letters that are contained in the collection which is located at the Museum of the Confederacy.  I’ve mentioned a couple times that I am currently editing the collection for publication.  This letter should give you a sense of why I am so excited about thid project.


Between April 14, 1861 and September 28, 1864 John Christopher Winsmith wrote home regularly while away serving in the Confederate army. His letters reveal a deep commitment to the Confederacy, an unshaken belief in the righteousness of the cause, and confidence that military leaders such as Robert E. Lee could be trusted to bring their armies to victory. Like many young Southern men, Winsmith was enthusiastic about going to war. His service as a lieutenant of Company G in the 5th South Carolina and later as a captain of Company H in the 1st South Carolina Infantry tested his commitment to Confederate independence on battlefields throughout the South.

Winsmith was born into a wealthy slave-owning family in Spartanburg, South Carolina. His father was a prominent physician and served in the state legislature from 1856 to 1858 and again from 1860 to 1862. In 1850 and at the age of fifteen Winsmith attended the Citadel Military Academy in Charleston, but did not graduate owing to poor conduct. In November 1851 Winsmith was brought in front of the Board of Visitors for “defraud[ing] a Negro woman by passing to her a copper coin covered with quicksilver for an amount greater than its value.” Though Winsmith was eventually reinstated his failure to return to school eventually led to a decision in April 1852 to drop his name from the register. Failure to graduate did not prevent Winsmith from preparing for his law degree, which he successfully completed in 1859.

While the Civil War may have disrupted his professional plans, Winsmith’s leadership abilities and character were tested on some of the bloodiest battlefields of the war. He saw action at Secessionville, Second Manassas, Antietam, Fredericksburg, and the Siege of Knoxville, Tennessee. As the son of a slave owner Winsmith benefited from the services of two servants, Spencer and Miles.

As the spring campaign of 1864 was set to open Winsmith’s unit was situated in eastern Tennessee before it was called to join Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia to meet the new offensive of the Army of the Potomac and its new commander, General Ulysses S. Grant. Winsmith’s Company H, which was commanded by Colonel Johnson Hagood, was assigned to Brigadier General Micah Jenkins’ Brigade, which was part of Major General Charles W. Fields’ Division of Lieutenant General James Longstreet’s First Army Corps. The letter which follows was written during the height of the “Overland Campaign” and conveys the horror of the fighting at the Wilderness and Spotsylvania. Winsmith’s unit arrived in time to take part in the second day’s fighting at the Wilderness. He witnessed the accidental shooting of Longstreet and notes in glowing terms Lee’s presence on the battlefield. At Spotsylvania, Winsmith’s unit now under the corps command of Major General Richard H. Anderson following Longstreet’s wounding was situated on the Confederate left with Major General Richard S. Ewell’s Second Corps on their immediate right. Jubal Early’s Third Corps (Winsmith did not know that Maj. Gen. Hill had been replaced due to illness) was situated on the Confederate right. Winsmith describes the continuous fighting at Spotsylvania in all of its bloody detail, but his references to Northern newspapers suggests that he understood the price that reports of continued fighting and large numbers of casualties would have on morale just as Abraham Lincoln was preparing for re-election in November. Whilehis letter of the 15th covers the period between May 6 – 15, the armies remained in their positions around Spotsylvania until May 21 before moving south towards the North Anna River.

Near Battlefield, Spotsylvania, Va.
May 15, 1864

My Dear Mother:

Through the mercy of God I have again been spared, after having passed through the most terrible and trying scenes. I, indeed, have cause to be humbly thankful for the protecting care which has been shown me.

I know you have been in great suspense to hear the results of the great battle which have just been fought, and I have endeavored to relieve your uneasiness at the earliest possible moment. The fighting has been so constant, and our movements so continued that I had no opportunity of writing till yesterday; and in fact I judged it best to await the end of the battles before writing, for I know you would still have been uneasy until you knew I was safe to the very last. Accordingly, on yesterday, deeming the battle decided, and having an opportunity to write, I sent a despatch [sic] to Father to be telegraphed from Richmond, and also wrote him by mail. I sent a list of casualties in my Co. to be published in the “Guardian,” on yesterday.

The series of battles which have just been fought, embracing scenes so terrible and consequences of such vast magnitude, I almost feel myself incompetent to give even a faint delineation of them. I will, however, endeavor to give you a running account of what has taken place in immediate connection with our Brigade and Division: Leaving Gordonsville on the 4th inst, late in the afternoon, we marched rapidly towards Orange C. H. and when near there moved to the right towards Chancellorsville. About 11 p. m. we halted, but before daylight on the 5th we were again in motion, marching rapidly all day. We left our bivouac on the morning of the 6th by daylight, and as we moved forward we could hear distantly the small arms of skirmishing, indicating to us that the “ball would soon “open.” On we moved, the firing growing more general. Wounded men followed each other in rapid succession, meeting us as we went in. The enemy was pushing forward his left wing with energy. Our Corps was soon in line, and Longstreet pressed on driving back the enemy’s lines to their log works. This is said to have been the turning point of the battle. Ewell and Hill had successfully repelled all assaults on the day previous, but now the enemy was bent upon turning our right flank. Our arrival was opportune.

Longstreet now planned and executed a dashing flank movement, moving forward his extreme right, and was driving the enemy in terrible confusion and with immense loss, when he was unfortunately wounded, though mistake, by a fire from a Virginia Regt. Gen. Jenkins was killed by the same fire. This occurred quite near our Brigade. There was a pause and almost perfect stillness for a time. Gen. Lee knew something was wrong. In a few moments this Great Chief was among us, calm and noble, a quiet confidence resting upon his face. I saw him then, and will never forget the scene. Maj. Gen. Anderson now took command of our Corps, and on we moved through the Wilderness – formerly a coaling ground, and now densely covered for miles in all directions with a dense growth of small oaks. The enemy had established a line of skirmishers, upon which we pressed hard: we then encountered their line of battle. The 5th Regt on our left wavered, ours faltered. The fire upon us was terrific. Col. Hagood called upon me to act as Field officer and to rally the men of our Regt; many were falling back, others lying down. My exposure was great, but I must do my duty, even if my life should be sacrificed. The Regt was rallied, and on we dashed, driving the enemy from his breast work, and planting our colors. The first in the Brigade – upon his line – the 5th soon came up on our left. The Regt on our right did not come up: We fired upon and fought the enemy there an hour, when we were ordered to fall back. Lt Bearden commanded the Co. after I took command as Field officer. The Co. lost in the movement 2 killed and 5 wounded. We fell back slowly, but the enemy did not pursue. He was whipped badly on our side and also on the left of our lines. Thus the battle of the 6th closed. On the 7th we had skirmishing all day. Our line of battle built strong works, and awaited the attack. I commanded skirmishers on the 7th. There were two wounded in my Co that day. The enemy did not attack. He attempted to cross the river, but was foiled in this. In the evening we learned he was retreating from our front, and falling back upon Fredericksburg. Our Corps moved to the right, marching all night. We arrived near Spotsylvania C. H. on the morning of the 8th. The enemy had been fighting our cavalry. We got into line of battle and moved forward, driving the enemy back in confusion. At 4 p. m. the enemy made a stand, and advanced to meet us. This attack was easily repulsed and we killed, wounded and captured many. On the 9th the fighting continued, and our men are in fine spirits. They have built strong lines and several assaults upon the different parts of our line are repulsed with great slaughter. The enemy leaves his dead in numbers on our front. The cannonading was heavy to day, also. On the 10th there is heavy cannonading and the enemy tries our lines at several points. Our lines are very strong and he loses heavily. Lt Bearden is to day in front, in command of my Co. as skirmishers. Two in that Co are wounded. I have been acting Field officer all the while since the battle of the “Wilderness.” On the 11th there is heavy skirmishing and cannonading all day, but no attack. We have headed the enemy off from Fredericksburg, he is forced to fight, and we can await his attack. On the 12th every thing indicated a general attack upon us by the enemy. He had pushed forward his artillery and rifle pits quite near us. The enemy now advanced in heavy columns, and attacks nearby our whole front. We allow him to come in our immediate front as near as 60 yards, and then a terrible fire from our lines hurls him back. Our artillery thunders upon his retreating and confused lines and his losses are immense. A portion of Ewell’s line was forced from its breastwork but they were regained, and the enemy lost heartily. After we had whipped the enemy on our front, our Brigade was ordered to report to Ewell to reinforce part of his line. We remained there all night, in a heavy rain, but returned to our original line on the 13th. We were now for the first time allowed a little rest and I assure you I enjoyed it very much. On the 14th, yesterday there was only desultory picket firing. In the afternoon, it was discovered the enemy had left his lines in our front. Our skirmishers pressed forward, and occupied his line, capturing stragglers, and any quantity of small arms, clothing, etc. It is reported the enemy is moving his force, and again that he is retreating across the Rappahannock. We moved down last night near the center of our line, where we now are resting quietly, and ready for any development. I have given you a brief outline of the stirring scenes through we have passed. The battles have been terrific. Our loss is large and unprecedented. His forces, I learn are much demoralized. Our men are in the best spirits. The loss in our Regt in killed and wounded is 176 larger than in any Regt in the Brigade. The men in my Co. generally behaved very well.

The Yankees were well supplied with every thing, and our men have had plenty coffee, sugar, crackers etc captured on the field. Blankets, oil, clothes, knapsacks etc were scattered around in rich profusion. I am now writing to you on Yankee paper. On the “Wilderness” battle field, a great many dead and wounded will not be found, the growth is so dense. I saw Yankees badly burnt, fire having spread through the woods. I wish the correspondent of the “Herald” and “World” could see these fields: I think their accounts would not much contribute to volunteering, even for thousand dollar bounties. You will see full accounts in our papers, and can know more of the general details, than I do.  I hear cannonading now, but do not know what movements are going on. I feel satisfied the Yankees will not make much of a fight soon, they having been so badly whipped.  I am quite well, and have stood all the fighting, marching, and exposure well. Miles has been very attentive to me, and has brought me provisions even when it was dangerous to do so. He is attached to me, and has been uneasy all the time. He has made several captures of Yankee [?].

I have not had a letter since we left Gordonsville, but hope to hear from the dear ones of home soon.  The matter of my promotion I think certain, and will be attended to by Col Bratton, as soon as we have a little quiet. I hope I may yet be able to get home soon.  Give my love to Father, Kate and Janie; and to Cousin Carrie and a kiss to Baby, when you write. Tell all the negroes howdye for me. Miles sends howdye to all his people, and to all at home.

your affect. & obt. Son

John Winsmith remained with his unit as it continued to engage the Army of the Potomac at the North Anna River, Cold Harbor, and finally around the city of Petersburg where it remained for much of the remainder of the war. Winsmith was severely wounded in the right shoulder in an attack at Peeble’s Farm on September 29, 1864 and did not return to service. He was appointed to brigadier general of state militia in South Carolina in 1865 and served for one year.

Searching for Black Confederates: The Civil War’s Most Persistent Myth

“Levin’s study is the first of its kind to blueprint and then debunk the mythology of enslaved African Americans who allegedly served voluntarily in behalf of the Confederacy.”–Journal of Southern History

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4 comments… add one
  • Carol Ball Apr 1, 2014 @ 7:10

    I have a stamped envelope addressed to Mrs. C. E. Winsmith, postmarked Charleston, SC with a date of May 1(0 or 5 – either 10 or 15 but hard to read) that could possibly be the very envelope that the above transcribed letter was mailed in. It is definitely a Civil War era stamp cover. As a collector, I have occasionally enjoyed finding valuable covers such as this one as I have researched my vast collection!

  • Kevin Levin Aug 19, 2006 @ 17:29

    Vicki, — Thanks for picking that out as I completely missed it.

  • Vicki Betts Aug 19, 2006 @ 11:38

    Any possibility that “oil, clothes” is “oil cloths”? I don’t recall seeing oil captured in any Confederate accounts, while oil cloth would be common and handy.

    Vicki Betts

  • Will Hickox Aug 18, 2006 @ 23:42

    This letter is very good, and as someone who loves reading what the soldiers wrote, I will definitely be looking for this collection when it’s published. CPT Winsmith sounds like the kind of officer I would want to serve under (though not in his unit, judging by their casualties).

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