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Lt. Alexander Smith Erwin

Lt. Alexander Smith Erwin
Company C, Infantry Battalion

Alexander Smith Erwin was born July 19th 1843 in Clarkesville, Habersham County, Georgia to Alexander and Catharine (Wales) Erwin. Alex was raised and educated in Clarkesville with a sister and two brothers. Early in 1861 as the clouds of war gathered, 17 year old Alex (or Aleck as he was known to family and friends) joined a state militia company formed in Habersham County and known as the Habersham Volunteers. Joining with him were his brother Joseph and second cousins John M and Sidney L Erwin.

In April 1861, Governor Brown of Georgia ordered his friend and political ally, State Militia General William Phillips to complete the organization of the 4th Georgia State Brigade. By mid April the officers of this brigade had been gathered into a camp of instruction at Camp Brown located on the site of the Smyrna Campground (today's Smyrna, Ga in Cobb County). The brigade consisted of two regiments of heavy infantry (armed with model 1842 muskets), a cavalry battalion, a rifle battalion (armed with model 1855 rifled muskets) and an artillery battalion. Second Lieutenant Alex Erwin's Habersham Volunteers was one of the five companies that comprised the rifle battalion and he arrived at Camp Brown in April to begin his officer's training. Troubles soon arose when Governor Brown made a speech on April 29th indicating that this brigade would be Georgia's premier State unit to be retained in Georgia to defend the state against a Federal invasion. This message was not well received as the officers were eager to get into battle against the Yankees to earn "the glories of war". As April rolled into May, the officers continued to learn the intricacies of drill and command from the cadets of the Georgia Military Institute. Meanwhile, a continuing escalation of events convinced the Governor that it was time to call the full brigade into camp and the various companies began arriving at Camp McDonald at Big Shanty (today's Kennesaw. Ga in Cobb County) in early June for organization and training. Once again, Governor Brown turned up and made a speech which reiterated to the assembled troops that they were a state unit, would train at Camp McDonald for sixty days and would do so at half pay. In addition, Brown announced that the term of enlistment would be changed from one year to one year OR the war. Those men not willing to abide by this change were at liberty to depart the following day. The camp was thrown into an uproar and around 500 men decided to depart, but other new companies soon arrived to fill these vacancies.

While the training of the brigade continued into July, a new storm began to brew between Governor Brown and Confederate President Jefferson Davis. By the end of June, Governor Brown felt the situation in Georgia to be secure enough to allow him to offer General Phillips and his State brigade to President Davis and the Confederacy. Brown attached the provisions that General Phillips would command the brigade and that it would be sent back to Georgia if needed for coastal defense. Davis promptly rejected Brown's offer noting that the Confederate Constitution did not give him the authority to accept any organization larger than a regiment and requested that Brown immediately forward the two heavy infantry regiments to Virginia. Brown replied that the President must take the entire brigade or nothing. This verbal warfare between Brown and Davis continued throughout July, but Davis refused to change his position. Finally, in early August, with an election just ahead and public opinion beginning to turn against him, Brown relented and sent the two heavy infantry regiments north to Virginia. These two units would become the 18th and 19th Georgia Infantry regiments. This left the five rifle companies, four cavalry companies and artillery the battalion still at Camp McDonald and Governor Brown promptly proposed to Davis that these remaining units be combined into a Legion under command of William Phillips as it's Colonel. Davis agreed to this proposal with the provision that the artillery would not be included in the Legion. During this period an additional company of heavy infantry, the virtually all Irish Lochrane Guards from Macon was added to the rifle (now infantry) battalion. Thus it was that the Phillips Legion came about in early August of 1861, born from the dissension between an obstinate Governor and an equally obstinate Confederate President. It consisted of six infantry companies and four cavalry companies with the Habersham Volunteers being designated as Company C.

Orders were issued and the Legion headed north by train for Lynchburg, Virginia. Arriving there at the end of the first week of August the unit was promptly mustered into Confederate service on August 9th. Additional training and outfitting went on for the rest of August and on into September until the Legion finally received orders to join General John B Floyd's army near Sewell Mountain in western Virginia. The mountain campaign that followed was brutal as the weather turned bad and the roads turned into muddy rivers. The Legion fought no battles during this period but was engaged in a number of skirmishes with a Federal Army under General Rosecrans in the vicinity of Gauley Bridge and Fayetteville. The weather continued to worsen and the Legion was losing an alarming number of men to a lethal variety of diseases. In Aleck's company alone, William Evatt died with typhoid at Lynchburg on October 5th, Lt John Payne and William Smith both died from typhoid at Green Sulphur Springs on the 23rd, Lindsey Magnis perished on the 24th at Meadow Bluff, Cpl William Carter died of typhoid at Green Sulphur Springs on the 25th, James Lowery passed away at Raleigh Court House on the 30th, and William Forrester died at Cotton Hill on the 31st. Writing to his parents from near Green Sulphur Springs on October 12th, Aleck states, "We left camp at Big Sewell day before yesterday morning and arrived here yesterday evening and today being Sunday we are laying by here. I do not think that the reason of our stopping is because it is Sunday but because some of the road in advance of us needs repairing, and about three or four hundred men are working it now. General Floyd's whole army of about 5 or 6 thousand is along. This is a road to the left of the turnpike from Jackson's River to Charleston. The road we are on leads into the turnpike from Newbern (a point on the Va & Tenn RR) to Charleston. General Lee and Loring have moved on towards Charleston on the turnpike from Jackson's River (the road on which the enemy lies). I do not think that we will have any difficulty in getting to Charleston as there is a report that the Yankees are making their way as fast as possible to Ohio to protect Cincinnatti which is threatened by the Kentuckians. If they do make a stand it will be in vain as we have a force of nearly double theirs and sufficient to sweep everything before us. There is very little prospect of meeting them on this road. General Lee may meet them on his route but I do not think that he will have any trouble with them. I see that Georgia is threatened by a Lincoln fleet and that Gov Brown has called upon the President for five thousand Georgia troops now in the Confederate Service to be sent to the coast. If we were not so far out of the way probably we might be sent there and may be still, is if we get to Charleston and go in to Winter Quarters. We will not be needed here. I would like right well to be sent to the coast of Ga. Besides being warmer it would be nearer home and inside the pale of civilization. And then a person would rather fight for his native state than for a country a thousand miles away." It simply didn't turn out the way that young Aleck had forecast. An overextended supply line and rampant disease caused Lee and Loring to turn back stranding Floyd's army at Cotton Hill. When Rosecrans moved to surround Floyd's army in early November, Floyd wisely decided to retreat and on November 12th the Legion started a long, miserable march back to Dublin Station on the Virginia & Tennessee railroad. In December, it became obvious that the campaigning was over in these wild mountains and it was decided to send the Legion to South Carolina to rest, recruit and help repel Federal raids from the coast. One additional member of Company C, William P Jones would not make the trip south, succumbing to disease at Red Sulphur Springs on December 17th. Even Colonel Phillips himself was a victim as a severe case of typhoid had sent him home to Georgia to recuperate, The Legion and Aleck Erwin had survived their initial military campaign, enduring brutal weather, rampant disease and aggressive Federals. Surviving descriptions of their performance credit them with doing credible service despite these extreme hardships and their inexperience.

The Legion infantry entrained at Dublin Station in early January and headed for the warmer climes of coastal South Carolina, arriving at Hardeeville on the evening of the 4th. The cavalry had been sent to east Tennessee and did not rejoin the infantry at Hardeeville until late January. Serving under General Thomas Drayton, commanding the Fifth District, the Legion companies were spread out along the key Charleston & Savannah railroad to guard it from Federal raiders. This was mostly an uneventful period of picket duty and drill with some minor skirmishing. Some of the officers had returned to Georgia to recruit replacements for the losses sustained in Virginia and these new men began to trickle in throughout February and March. Meanwhile, back in Marietta, a recovered Colonel Phillips was lobbying Governor Brown for authority to increase the size of the Legion. After the usual acrimonious wrangling with President Davis, Brown finally obtained approval to increase the Legion with an additional three infantry companies and two cavalry companies. As soon as these new companies were organized in Georgia, they were forwarded to Hardeeville in April and May for training under the guidance of the experienced companies already there. As the weather warmed, disease broke out among the new recruits and men started dying. Company C lost George Vaughn on May 1st, William Underwood on May 19th, Chester Smith on May 22nd, Floyd Tatum on June 1st and Cpl John Young on June 21st. Thus far disease was a far deadlier enemy than the Yankees. Writing his parents on May 20th Aleck notes Underwood's death and observes that "there is a good deal of sickness among the recruits." He goes on to state that , "Affairs as far as the Yankees are concerned were never quieter. I do not think that we will have any fight down here this season and I scarcely ever hear their guns now. A few weeks ago they were cannonading incessantly almost." This quiet interlude was about to end.

With General George B McClellan's massive Army of the Potomac rolling inexorably up the peninsula towards Richmond in June of 1862, the Confederate government madly scrambled to pull all available military manpower into the defense of the Confederate capital. Following the vicious fighting of the Seven Days campaign around that city, McClellan was driven back, but only at a large cost in southern casualties. To help make good these losses, the brigades of Nathan Evans and Thomas Drayton were ordered to head north to Richmond in mid July. By the end of the month the Legion was just east of Richmond building earthworks to block the potential of a renewed Federal offensive. While McClellan and his army remained inactive at Harrison's Landing, a new Federal threat was rising to the north in the form of General John Pope's Army of Virginia. Initially, Robert E Lee shifted Stonewall Jackson's Corps north to meet this threat, but, getting an indication that McClellan was beginning to shift troops back north to Washington, Lee decided to move Longstreet's Corps to join Jackson. Drayton's brigade (including the Legion infantry)was now assigned to Longstreet and they headed northwest to Gordonsville by train, arriving there on August 14th.

After a short respite, the army embarked on the campaign that culminated in the battle of Second Manassas. During the manuevering that led up to this signal southen victory, the Legion made many long hard marches and was involved in several skirmishes. On August 23rd, they were in action supporting artillery at Beverlys Ford on the Rappahannock River. Lt.Erwin's vivid account states, "Here was the first place that we were ever shelled. Our brigade was ordered down near the river to support a section of the Washington Artillery, which pitched into the enemy very unceremoniously, as soon as we got there. The Yankees replied with two batteries and we were subjected to a crossfire for several hours. Their shells make a terrible hissing noise as they come crashing through the tree-tops. You can hear them coming some time before they get to you, and when one starts, every man in the whole regiment will think it is coming right towards him. They are an infernal contrivance; and although they make a terrible fuss, they generally frighten without doing much harm. I have seen them filled with balls emphatically charged with destruction, to burst seemingly right among a company of men and none get hurt. Of course they are generally further from one when they explode than they seem to be. If they go in forty feet of a fellow, he will be ready to swear almost that they were not more than a yard from him. The Legion here had its first men killed. Two of the Blue Ridge Rifles (one of them a brother in law of Alick Church, McAfee) were killed and several wounded. The engagement, or rather artillery duel, was, I think, a demonstration to engage the enemy's attention while Jackson crossed the river higher up. The rascals poured such a murderous fire into our artillery there, that it got away in right quick time, with the loss of several men." Two days later they were engaged in another similiar fight at Waterloo Bridge. Again, Company C came through unscathed. Disease did not take a break simply because the army was in action. Aleck wrote of an incident that occured shortly after the Legion crossed the Rapidan River at Raccoon Ford that demonstrates this point. He writes, "It was at this point on our route that Wm. Nichols, who had been very well before that, was taken sick and put in a wagon. We then retraced our steps for a short distance, and took the road leading to Culpepper and Warrenton, crossing the Orange and Alexandria Railroad at a place called Brandy Station; and two or three miles beyond, Wm. Nichols was left in a house where he had every attention, with Whitehead and free Alf to wait on him and others of our company, who were not very sick. He had medical attention; but Dr. McConnell despaired of his recovery almost from the start, the attack was so violent. We went on then farther to a place called Jeffersonton, where we heard of his death. He was decently buried and his name placed over his grave. Oh, how his mother suffers. I know with what fond devotion she doted on William; and deeply do I sympathize with them in all their deep affliction."

Now came a week of very hard marching in the dry heat of the Virginia summer. Following Jackson's Corps, Longstreet's soldiers made a long looping march north into the Shenandaoh Valley to reappear east of the mountains through Thoroughfare Gap on August 29th. Going into position on the far right flank of the entire southern army, the Legion attracted the attention of the Fifth Corps artillery and a shell scored a direct hit, killing two men and severely wounding several others. Company C once again remained lucky. On the following day as Longstreet's Corps went into it's surprise attack on the weak Federal left flank, Drayton's brigade became the final unit to be called forward into action on the extreme Confederate right flank. Due to some confusion, General Drayton did not get his men into position until dark was falling and the Legion became detached in an advance against a Federal brigade strongly posted on Henry Hill. In the confusion that followed in the dark, it is possible that as many Confederates were killed and wounded by other southerners as were hit by Yankee lead. Company C took six casualties in the night fight with Private William T Elrod losing an arm. Aleck summarizes this affair as follows, "We, after some delay,found a point lower down on the right, where we had no troops, and with our regiment alone (Drayton for some cause,not sending up the other regiments of the brigade to support us) marched up on a whole brigade of Yankees supporting a battery. Our Sgt Major asked them what regiments they were and they told him some N.Y., Mass. and Penn. regiments, He replied "all right". It was nearly dark and we would probably have been used up pretty badly if they had known we were enemies. We, without any confusion, marched quietly past them under a shower of balls from other parts of the field and stopped just out of sight of them in the woods. If we had been supported by the rest of the brigade, we could have driven their brigade off and probably taken their battery, - Drayton's conduct is severely criticised by all who know anything of the officer. We were in a tight place certainly, but Providentially got out of it without much loss. The Yankees, who had left before all other parts of the field, left this part also at this time. I heard them distinctively as they drew off their forces. It was about nine o'clock when the firing ceased. We remained on the field the night, and the next morning early I walked over the scene of the conflict. Never will I forget the sight I saw that day. Strewn in thick profusion - in every position - wounded in every place - the dead and dying lay. At least five to one (that is indeed a low estimate) were Yankees. They left thousands of them on the field, and four days after the fight, they had three thousand wounded who had not received attention. Pope, notwithstanding his lying dispatches claiming a victory, sent in an humble request to Gen Lee, asking a truce in order to get his wounded carried off. Gen Lee gave him permission to send his ambulances and Surgeons within our lines to attend to them but would not consent to a suspension of military operations. The battle was one of the shortest but by far the most desperate of the war. The enemy lost probably as many as they did in all their fights before Richmond. The fight lasted from about 2 until 8 at night, and was, without a doubt, a glorious decisive victory for us. The enemy's army was completely broken up and disorganized, and fled to the fortifications around Washington."

The Legion now moved northward to Leesburg and, along with the rest of the army, took stock of it's worn condition following the hard marches and fighting of August. General Lee did not want the initiative to pass back to the Federals and determined to move forward into Maryland, but steps were taken to trim the army's invasion force of those soldiers who were not in condition to cross the Potomac. Lt. Erwin tells us, "General Longstreet issued an order here (Leesburg, Va) that all the barefooted, weak and inefficient troops of each regiment be left with the baggage in charge of an officer. I was detained for that purpose and left at Leesburg with about one hundred and fifty of our regiment. The detail suited me very well as I had blistered my feet so that I had been riding in the wagon for several days and could not march - so I took charge of them and have a good deal of trouble attending to my present duties. They then ordered all that were left, about five thousand in all, to Winchester where we now are." Thus it was that Lt Erwin and many men of the Legion missed the vicious fighting at South Mountain on September 14th and again at Sharpsburg, Md on September 17th. Only about 100 men of the Legion staggered back across the Potomac on September 19th and went into a period of rest and refitting around Winchester, Va. When Aleck rejoined his company in late September, he must have been saddened by the many faces he found missing. Four men were known to have been killed outright and seven more were missing. Of the six wounded men brought out of Maryland, one, Henry W Dodd, would die from the effects of his wound at Winchester in November. Five of the missing men had been captured by the Federals and would eventually find their way back to the company. Two soldiers, Privates William Dobbins and Jonas Mills were never heard from again and were presumed to have died on the battlefield at Fox's Gap.

As October wore on into November, the Legion regained its strength as sick and captured men returned, new shoes and clothes were issued and much needed rest was obtained. During this period, General Lee used the Confederate government's direction that brigades be reorganized to contain regiments from the same state, as a way of disbanding Drayton's brigade and sending that decidedly bumbling General out of the Army of Northern Virginia. During November the Legion was reassigned to the Georgia brigade of General Thomas R R Cobb comprised of the 16th, 18th and 24th Georgia Regiments and the Cobb and Phillips Legion Infantry Battalions. Many thought that active campaigning was over for the season and the men speculated about where they would go into winter quarters. It was not to be......

Abraham Lincoln, impatient with General George McClellan's caution, finally relieved that general from command of the Army of the Potomac and pressed the command onto that affable, if not brilliant General, Ambrose Burnside. Under pressure from Washington to get results, General Burnside, put his massive, well-rested army on the road to Richmond by way of Fredericksburg, arriving on the heights across the Rappahannock River from that town in late November. Burnside had actually "stolen a march" on Lee, but here he faltered, deciding to wait for pontoon bridges that had been delayed enroute from Washington rather than utilizing other readily available means of crossing. This permitted Lee to not only shift the entire Army of Northern Virginia to the heights south of Fredericksburg, but enabled it to entrench and fortify itself in this position. The Confederates were so confident in the defensive strength of their position that everyone expected Burnside to look for a way to flank the southern line. Very few believed that he would attempt to attack the rebel position head on. The unimaginative Burnside, however, simply put his army across the river on December 12th and flung them at the southern lines in numerous attack waves. Federal attacks struck in several places, but nowhere was the action so hot and the Federal slaughter as great as it was at the foot of Marye's Heights. A sunken road at the foot of the heights provided a natural trench from which T R R Cobb's brigade of Georgians (including Lt Erwin and the Phillips Legion) mowed down the Federal brigades as they continually charged the position throughout the day. Lt Erwin's Company C drew the unenviable assignment of defending the only gap in the sunken lane, a place where the Telegraph Road crossed it and the rock wall bordering it did not extend. They paid a fearful price for their exposure taking numerous casualties from Federal artillery and sharpshooters. Aleck, writing to William Dobbins father, John S Dobbins on December 28th, recounted the action, "Our company suffered terribly the other day in the battle of Fredericksburg, our brigade being more actively engaged than any other. In our company alone we losed (sic) seven killed - one mortally wounded and twenty one wounded not mortally. Camillus Wyly was killed, also a brother of the Mr Spruell who stayed with William (at Fox's Gap). Dr. Phillips and Lt Manning of Cobb, our 2nd Lt, were wounded. Neither Captain Norris or myself were hurt. A spent ball struck me on the knee but did not hurt much or long. Our victory was one of the most complete of the war. The enemy retreated leaving the ground covered with his slain and our forces are now in possession of Fredericksburg." In addition to young Cam Wyly and Stephen M. Spruell, William J Elliott, J T Mitchell, Phillip J "Jeff" Perry, Cpl Jesse Richardson, and William A Tennant had all been killed while George W Edwards would linger in Richmond's General Hospital #20 until December 26th until dying from a ghastly head wound. Company C's gutsy young Color Sgt Peyton "Pate" Fuller would have the flagstaff shot from his hands three times that afternoon. Finally, nailing the colors to a board, he stood up and waved the flag overhead and was struck by a ball that grazed his forehead, knocking him and his flag backwards onto the muddy road. Fuller continued to wave his colors, but more cautiously and from improved cover. At the end of the day he counted 58 holes in the flag. The brave Fuller would survive this fight but die six months later in the fighting at Chancellorsville. The Legion would also lose it's commanding officer, Lt Col Robert T Cook and it's brigade commander, General T R R Cobb in this fight. The Legion watched and waited, doing picket duty for the remainder of December, but the Federals had had enough and the armies went into winter quarters.

After a long, dreary winter, we pick up Lt Erwin in a letter written home from near Fredericksburg on April 28th, 1863 in which he speculates that "it may be that Hooker's present movements are intended to cover a change of base to the peninsula where he can concentrate his forces. This is thought by many to be - some of the Richmond papers included - the proper solution of his present movements - no matter though. What he contemplates, whether an attack here or a change of base, Gen'l Lee's old keen eyes will ferret out his designs in time to thwart them." Within a few days, Lt Erwin and the Legion would be engaged in the brutal battle of Chancellorsville. On May 1st, McLaws Division, with Woffords brigade north of the Orange Turnpike, moved west from Fredericksburg to block Hooker's Federals from moving out of the Wilderness. After Hooker's thrust was blunted and Stonewall Jackson's surprise flank attack put the Federals on the defensive, the Legion turned around to face a new threat in their rear as the Federals pushed through the wekly held Confederates at Fredericksburg and headed west. This effort was also successfully repulsed and the Federals pulled back across the river. While Confederate casualties in this battle were very high, the Legion appears to have gotten through with fairly light casualties.

Alex Erwin's known surviving correspondence ends with his April 28, 1863 letter. We know that he was at the head of his company at Gettysburg from a newspaper account. The Legion infantry was on the far left flank of Wofford's brigade late on the second day of the battle as they swept across the Wheatfield smashing several Federal brigades and capturing two Federal colors. The Legion finally pulled up behind a stone wall in the Plum Run valley just northeast of Little Round Top. Small groups of soldiers pressed even further onto the slopes of Cemetery Ridge before General Longstreet, sensing a Federal counterattack ordered their retreat. General Wofford was not happy with this order, but, with benefit of hindsight, it proves to have been wise as the entire Federal VI Corps was massing to the southerners front. A post war account by a Reverend Anderson who was at Gettysburg states that Alex Erwin's "feet tred farther at the battle of Gettysburg than any man there."

After the retreat back into Virginia, the cautiousness of Federal commanders emboldened General Lee to detach Longstreet and two of his divisions to go west to attempt to reverse Confederate fortunes in Tennessee and north Georgia where General Rosecrans had outmanuevered General Bragg, pushing the Confederates out of Chattanooga and back towards vital Atlanta. After a long and circuitous railroad journey, the majority of Longstreet's men arrived just in time to turn the tide at the battle of Chickamauga on September 20th, 1863. The Legion and General Wofford's brigade, however did not arrive until the day after the battle. The Legion was put in pursuit of the Federals who were retreating back north into Chattanooga when on September 24th they ran into stiff resistance and took a number of casualties. One of these was the young commander of Co C, Lt. Alex Erwin, who took a serious wound to his right forearm as well as a lesser wound in the hip.

From surviving medical records it appears that the doctors attempted to resection the bone in the right arm and that Alex's convalesence was lengthy and troublesome. Special Order 16/9 dated January 20th, 1864 extends his wounded furlough. A document from the Medical Examining Board dated February 19th, 1864 certifies Alex as unfit for active field duty and Special Order 62/44 dated March 15th assigns him to the Conscript Dept for Habersham County. Documents in his service record make ir clear that he performed this function faithfully. In January 1865 he rejoined his command near Richmond and on January 30th was promoted to the rank of Captain of Company C to rank from December 31st, 1863. His wounds must have continued to trouble him however as he is retired from Confederate service on March 6th 1865 and assigned to Georgia's Reserve forces on Special Order 57 dated March 9th 1865.

Upon his return home after the war, Alex began the study of law and in October 1865 was admitted to the bar at Hiawassee in Towns County. He subsequently relocated to Clarkesville where he practiced law for two years and was the solicitor of the Habersham County Court for one year before moving again to Athens, Ga where he made his permanent home.

On April 3rd, 1872 he married Mary Ann Lamar Cobb, the eldest daughter of General Howell Cobb. Their union would produce nine children. He was a member of the Athens City Council and in 1878 was elected judge of the western circuit, a position he held for four years. In 1885 Judge Erwin was appointed a railroad commissioner by Gevernor McDaniel in which capacity he served for six years. Judge Erwin was active in veteran's affairs and in 1872 was the speaker at the dedication of the Confederate Monument in Athens. Mrs Erwin was very active in the United Daughters of the Confederacy and in 1898 conceived the idea of bestowing upon veterans and their descendants, a Cross of Honor for valor and patriotism. The Southern Cross of Honor was designed and accepted at the UDC Convention in 1899 and the first 2500 crosses were delivered by the end of May 1900. These crosses were numbered and the first one to be bestowed went to Captain Alexander Smith Erwin.

Judge Erwin died suddenly at his home on Hill Street on June 7th, 1907 surrounded by his family. At his funeral, he was eulogized as a man of the highest sense of honor - a true gentleman of the old South.

Photo courtesy of Alex Erwin's grandson, Dr Goodloe Erwin of Athens, Ga

Phillip's Legion