Today, we are pleased to welcome back guest author Mike Block
It is often the sad duty of the officer in charge of a unit the burden of sending a note or letter home documenting the last moments of a soldiers life. But what if it’s the commander who dies? Who writes his letter?
Following the Battle of Kelly’s Ford, on November 7, 1863 the letter writing responsibility fell to Captain Gary F. Williams, Company A, 30th North Carolina Infantry. He wrote to the family of the regiment’s late commander, Lieutenant – Colonel William W. Sillers. Sillers was mortally wounded on the 7th, and died two days later in Gordonsville, Virginia.
The 30th NC was positioned behind Kelly’s Ford on that fateful day, charged with supporting the 2nd North Carolina Infantry, who were posted along the Rappahannock River in the vicinity of the ford.
By mid-afternoon it became obvious that the 2nd NC was about to be attacked. Federal Third Corps artillery had been pounding the entrenchments and the town of Kellysville, and its infantry was positioning themselves to force the crossing. The lone Confederate battery, Massie’s Fluvanna Artillery was making a futile attempt to answer. The 30th was called forward to support their hard pressed comrades. Their odyssey down the hill and subsequent retreat was documented in the regiment’s official report of the fight.
The following is an excerpt of the report filed by Captain John C. McMillian, the ranking officer of the 30th NC.
“Lieutenant-Colonel Sillers, having been notified, moved his regiment to the front and formed a line of battle just about 100 yards to the front and a little to the left of where the artillery company that was then protesting were station. He then halted his command and rode to the front and right as if for orders, but soon returned and moved the Thirtieth Regiment to the front at double-quick time about 500 yards.
“In advancing the regiment the line was badly broken as the ground was very irregular, and a fence running obliquely to the lone of battle retarded the progress and scattered the men. Thus, scattered and broken, the men advanced rapidly, being under fire of the enemy’s infantry, and before the line could be reformed properly the regiment came in contact with a garden fence…
“At that time the skirmishers and line of battle of the enemy were both pouring volleys into the regiment, and most of the men broke to the right and left of the garden and sought shelter under protection of outhouses in the front, while some of the regiment forced their way through the garden and tool shelter under cover of the dwelling house. About that time the premise was furiously shelled, and there being a cellar under the dwelling and numerous outhouses, many of the men tool shelter. The regiment was ordered to reform and several efforts [were] made to form a line, but before it could be accomplished, orders were received to fall back, which they did in considerable confusion, being under fire of the enemy’s artillery and infantry for about 400 yards.
“Colonel Sillers remained on the premises and exerted himself for some time, endeavoring to get all the men out, but finding the enemy approaching very near, was compelled to withdraw.” [i]
Sillers survived that hell, only to be wounded late in the evening, as the regiment was holding a line at the top of the hill they started the day from. He was evacuated that evening but succumbed to his injuries two days later in Gordonsville, VA.
Major General Robert Rodes was not kind to the 30th NC in his report. “The Thirtieth did not sustain its reputation. It arrived at the mills in great confusion and became uncontrollable. Its leader, Lieutenant-Colonel Sillers, behaved gallantly and did his duty, but many of his men refused utterly to leave the shelter of the houses when he ordered the regiment to fall back. All who refused were of course captured, and hence the large number of prisoners from this regiment.” Rodes’ two regiments at Kelly’s Ford (2nd and 30th) had at least 290 men captured or missing, most coming from Sillers’ 30th NC.[ii]
Captain Gary F. Williams penned the following letter to Dr. Allmond Holmes, Sillers’ brother-in-law. ‘Ransome’ was Sillers’ slave who attended to him in the field, and ‘Miss Fannie’ was his sister, Fannie Sillers Holmes.
Near Morton’s Ford on the Rapidan River, Va. Nov. 11th 1863.
Dr. Holmes Dear Sir.
I write you a few lines by Ransome to give you some of the particulars of Col Sillers death. He was wounded near Kelly Ford on last Saturday and it was impossible to move him for some time after he was wounded. He said he could not have to be move, and would of ben very dangerous to move him too he was very much exposed to the fire of the enemy. But just as soon as we could move him with safety it was done. The Col was wounded through the right lung. He seemed to know that there was no chance for him to live. Our forces fell back that night after he was wounded so they had to move him to Gordonsville where he lived until last Thursday. [illeg] fellow he is dead, and we cannot bring him back, but God only knows how we all shall miss him He has been more like a Father to this Regt. than anything else There is not a man but what loved him. He sent me while in the field his watch and pocket Book. I send them to you by Ransome. Ransome Good Boy has nearly grieved himself to death for his master. There was three hundred and sixty dollars in his Book. Ransome wants to get some things in Richmond and it will cost a good deal.…[Page 2] I hope they may not meet with any difficulty in getting him home. Wish it had been so that we could sent you word so you could of come over but it was not so. Our army well back on this side of the Rapidan and we have [illeg] the road [2 words illeg] the fight. I did not hear of the Col death until last night. Our Regt is very sad about his death and besides we lost a good many others. The [illeg] in our Regt is over hundred and fifty most of them is taken prisoner. I hope God will give Miss. Fannie and yourself strength to [illeg] this sad news. For if we loved him who was no kin to him how much more must those that was so near to him. I shall have his Horse taken care of you and better send Ransome back after him and let him take him thru the country. The Col thought a good deal of his horse. I lost nineteen one from my company one hundred eight wounded the rest missing. … My love to all of the family.
Yours very respectfully Gary F. Williams[iii]
[i] Supplement to the OR, Vol. 5, Addendum – Reports – Vol. 29, Broadfoot Publishing, p 612.
[ii] OR, Series I, Vol. 29, Part I, pp 630 – 632.
[iii] University of Notre Dame Rarebooks and Special Collections. https://www.rarebooks.nd.edu/digital/civil_war/letters/sillers-holmes/, accessed November 5, 2015