Camp At Mouth Of East River, Giles County,
Virginia, May n, 1862.
Dearest: — Since I wrote you last I have lived a great deal. Do you know that Giles Court-house was captured with a large amount of stores, etc., etc., by a party sent by me from Princeton? It was so bold and impudent! I went with six companies of the Twenty-third to reinforce. I soon found that unless further reinforced we were gone up. The enemy, three thousand strong, were within ten miles of us with a battery of artillery. We had none. The place, a lovely mountain village, was wholly indefensible except by a large force. I sent two couriers a day to beg for reinforcements for three days. None came. At the last moment the order came that I should retreat if attacked by a largely superior force. This was easy to say, but to do it safely, after waiting till the enemy is on you, is not a trifle. I was up every night. Had guards and pickets on every point of approach. Well, yesterday morning, I got up before daylight, and visited the outposts. Just at dawn, I heard the alarm guns. The enemy were coming even in greater force than we expected. Four regiments, a battery of guns, and a small force of cavalry. I had only nine companies of the Twenty-third, much weakened by detachments guarding supply trains, etc., and two weak companies of cavalry. Not more than one-fourth of the enemy's strength. But all went on like clockwork. Baggage was loaded and started. Captains Drake and Sperry undertook to hold the enemy with their companies and Captain Gilmore's Cavalry until the rest could take position in rear of the town. I went out with Captains Drake and Sperry.
Just before sunrise, May 10, a lovely morning, we saw the advancing battalions in line of battle in beautiful order. They were commanded, it is Said, by General Heth. They opened first with cannon firing shell. The first personal gratification was to find that my horse stood it well. Soon I saw that the men were standing it well. As they came in range of our skirmishers, some fatal firing checked them; but they were rapidly closing around us. Now was the first critical moment: Could our men retreat without breaking into confusion or a rout?
They retired slowly, stubbornly, in good spirits and in order! I got a scratch on the right knee, just drawing blood but spoiling my drawers. But what of that? Things were going well. The enemy now approached our main line. Could it retreat also in order, for I knew it must be forced back. Here was the crisis of our fate. They stood firmly. The enemy halted to get his guns in position again. Soon we were in a fair way to be surrounded.
The men were ordered to retire slowly, firing as they went, to a ridge forty rods back, and then to form again. They did it to perfection, and I knew we were safe. From that time, for five hours, it was only exciting fun. The fight lasted seven hours, we retreating six and one-half miles until we came to a narrow pass where three of our companies could hold back any number. Here we were safe. The Twenty-third looked gloriously after this. We got off as by a miracle. We lost one killed, one wounded badly and a host slightly, in the regiment; about the same in the cavalry. Applause was never so sweet as when right in the midst of the struggle, Gilmore's Cavalry gave me three cheers for a sharp stroke by which I turned the column out of range of the enemy's guns, which, with infinite trouble, he had placed to sweep us.
It was a retreat (which is almost a synonym for defeat) and yet we all felt grand over it. But warn't the men mad at somebody for leaving us? We were joined by a battery and the Thirtieth Regiment at 4 P. M. under Colonel Scammon, starting at the seasonable hour of 7 A. M.! We are now strong again, but driven from a most valuable position with a loss of stores we had captured worth thousands.
I am reported dangerously wounded by some of the cowardly cavalry (not Gilmore's) who fled forty miles, reporting us “routed,” “cut to pieces,” and the like. Never was a man prouder of his regiment than I of the Twenty-third. I keep thinking how well they behaved. — Love to all.
R. B. hayes
SOURCE: Charles Richard Williams, editor, Diary and Letters of Rutherford Birchard Hayes, Volume 2, p. 266-8