Eyewitness 1862: Pennsylvanians earn revenge for Bull Run
Charles William Owston joined the Pittsburgh Rifles in April 1861 as a private. By August 1862 he was captain of what had become Company A of the 9th Pennsylvania Reserves.
That placed him in the front lines when his unit battled entrenched Confederates guarding Maryland mountain passes at the Battle of South Mountain.
The Pennsylvania Reserves marched more than 15 miles on Sunday, Sept 14. It was about 3 p.m. when they formed their battle line.
"The enemy were posted upon the heights in front of [Union] Gen. Hooker's Corps ... and the task before our brave boys was to dislodge them," a writer identified only as C.W.S. wrote in a letter printed Sept. 20 in the Pittsburgh Daily Gazette and Commercial Journal.
Letters from what would now be called "citizen journalists" were a common source of news from military camps and battlefields.
C.W.S. explained that he was writing on behalf of Capt. Owston, who had been wounded in the hand during the battle.
The 9th Pennsylvania had been waiting for another chance to face the enemy ever since the Union defeat at Bull Run, "when under the leadership of Gens. [Irvin] McDowell and [John] Pope they had been beaten and forced to fall back."
"[They] had longed for this hour, when under the direction of their own leader, Gen. [George B.] McClellan, the order might be given to 'charge.'
"They advanced in the face of the enemy's fire, losing in the charge many noble men," the letter said. "But nothing daunted, upward they moved, firing as they went ... when, with a wild shout of victory, they rushed upon them with the bayonets."
The Confederates withdrew, "moving off in confusion, from a position which a few hours before they had seemed determined to maintain."
The 9th Pennsylvania took many prisoners, "and here at least felt that the long weary day of marching and fighting had not been in vain ... and the hitherto proud and defiant enemy were compelled ... to flee before our advancing columns."
The cost had been heavy. "But ah! there are incidents connected with every victory which serve to temper our joy," C.W.S. wrote. "The world will never know how many bitter tears have been shed over these sad victories.
"John Copley fell early in the engagement, mortally wounded, and lingered till next morning," the writer reported. "His friends have the consolation of knowing that kind friends ministered to him in the hour of death, and sadly and sorrowfully prepared him for his burial."
The Gazette had a followup story on Sept. 22, telling readers that Capt. Owston was on the mend. "His wound is in the third finger of the right hand -- painful and troublesome, but not at all dangerous," the correspondent said.
Maryland families in Middletown and Frederick were taking good care of Union casualties. "Capt Owston says that the kindness of the people of Maryland surpassed anything he ever saw," according to the story. "Every house was made a hospital, every man, woman and child was a physician and nurse."
While the Union armies were able to clear the mountain passes, most military historians fault McClellan for not following up quickly on the day's win, giving Confederate commander Robert E. Lee a chance to concentrate his forces for a much larger battle. That fight would take place a few days later near the banks of Antietam Creek.