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Private John Miller Erwin

Private John Miller Erwin
Company C, Infantry Battalion

John Miller Erwin (who was known as "Miller") was born February 15th, 1844 in Gordon County, Georgia, the eldest son of William Glen and Martha "Patsy" McCurry Erwin. He descended from both the Belvedere and Bellevue Plantation Erwins of Morganton, North Carolina. Miller Erwin's mother died when he was only eight leaving behind Miller and younger brothers Sidney and William. William G Erwin remarried Anna Church and, over the years, they added an additional seven children to the family.

Seventeen year old Miller Erwin became a member of the Habersham County company (known as the Habersham Volunteers) that marched into Camp McDonald at Big Shanty, Georgia in early June of 1861. Miller's second cousins, Alex and Joseph Erwin were in the same company. They were initially assigned to the 4th Georgia State Brigade's elite Rifle Battalion on June 11th, 1861 and equipped with the advanced 1855 rifled musket. When the State Brigade was disbanded at the end of July, they became Company C of the newly formed Phillips Legion. The Legion headed north to Lynchburg, Virginia at the beginning of August 1861 and continued it's training there.

Eager to get into action, the Legion finally received orders in September to join General John B Floyd's army at Big Sewell Mountain in western Virginia. This campaign turned out to be disaster due to the onslaught of early winter weather in the mountains. Although the Legion was involved in brisk skirmishing with the Federal army, the "death angel" of this period came in the form of epidemics of measles and typhoid that left scores of Legion troops dead. We know that Miller was one of the hundreds of sick as he is shown on the October 1861 roll as being sick at Lynchburg. We do not know his ailment nor do we know when he became ill. It is possible that he fell ill before the Legion went into the mountains or he may have fallen ill on the march and been sent back. The Legion marched back out of the mountains in November and were then ordered to Hardeeville, South Carolina to rest and recruit in a warmer climate and the, now recovered, Miller went with them.

The period from January until July 1862 was spent in patrolling the vital Charleston & Savannah Railroad and training the many new recruits that were joining the Legion. Then in late July, the Legion, along with General Drayton's brigade to which it was assigned, was ordered north to join Robert E Lee's Army of Northern Virginia at Richmond. Arriving there in early August, the Legion Infantry Battalion dug earthworks east of town for two weeks until embarking on the campaign that would result in the battle of Second Manassas and the invasion of Maryland.

The Legion was only slightly engaged as darkness fell on the final day at Second Manassas and suffered only light casualties. Their luck would not continue. On September 14th, 1862 at Fox's Gap, Md atop South Mountain, the Legion Infantry Battalion was ordered to charge into woods southeast of the gap and along with the 3rd SC Battalion ploughed straight into elements of three Federal Divisions of Reno's IX Corps. Pounded by overwhelming numbers and firepower, the Legion retreated leaving a carpet of dead and wounded behind. One of the severely wounded was Company C's Captain, Elihu "Sandy" Barclay. The Legion suffered 113 casualties losing 40% of it's men. Company C lost eleven men but Miller Erwin was not in this number. The army now retreated to Sharpsburg, Md where, on September 17th, they were attacked by McClellan's Army of the Potomac. After savage fighting on the north and center of the field, the Federal IX Corps was sent against a thin line of Confederate defenders on a ridge south of town. Drayton's command, including the Legion infantry, was a part of this defense. Resisting fiercely, the southerners mowed down oncoming Federals until forced to fall back into town. The Legion suffered an additional 40 casualties in this fight with Company C losing five more men. The timely arrival of A P Hill's Division from Harpers Ferry stopped the Federals and then drove them back and the Legion reoccupied it's original position. After facing the Federal army all day on September 18th, the army slipped away that evening and recrossed the Potomac River into Virginia. They had left Richmond with 600 men in mid August and Miller Erwin was now one of the 100 men left who staggered back into Virginia.

The scene of action now shifted southeast to the town of Fredericksburg, Virginia on the Rappahannock River. At the end of November General Drayton's brigade had been disbanded and the Legion Infantry was reassigned to General T R R Cobb's Georgia brigade. On December 1st, 18 year old Miller Erwin was elected to the rank of Corporal. On December 13th, 1862, waves of Federal infantry were sent across a wide open plain south of town to attack the Confederates entrenched in a sunken road at the foot of Marye's Heights. The troops defending this road were none other than Tom Cobb's brigade. The Legion infantry occupied the left end of the line and although most of the battalion had excellent cover, one company was positioned in an open area where the Telegraph Road intersected the sunken road. As luck would have it, this company was Miller Erwin's Company C. Although they were successful in holding their ground and slaughtered numerous Federals, Company C paid a high toll, losing 9 killed and 17 wounded. The Legion's commanding officer, Lt Colonel Robert T Cook was killed early in the fight and General Cobb was mortally wounded. Once more, Miller was fortunate and came through unscathed.

A muster roll for February 1863 shows Miller sick at the hospital. We do not know what his ailment was but it must not have been too serious as it is not documented in hospital records. In March, Miller's younger brother Sidney arrived from Georgia and enlisted in Company C.

John and Sidney would next fight in the battle of Chancellorsville in May 1863 and Gettysburg in July 1863. Although heavily engaged at Chancellorsville, the Legion suffered relatively light casualties. At Gettysburg on July 2nd, 1863 the Legion as part of General William T Wofford's brigade swept across the wheatfield smashing several Federal brigades and capturing two enemy flags. They pulled up at a stone wall in the Plum Run valley just northwest of Little Round Top and were regrouping to continue their attack when orders arrived to retreat back across the wheatfield. Federals were massing to their front, darkness was falling and it seemed that little additional ground could be gained. With Federal fire coming in, a number of men decided to wait until dark to retreat and they paid dearly for this decision as the Federals charged just at dusk and captured many of the Georgians who remained at the stone wall. Miller and Sidney survived.

In early September Robert E Lee dispatched two divisions of Longstreet's First Corps to the west in an attempt to help the Army of Tennessee stop General William Rosecran's army which was driving into north Georgia. While the majority of Longstreet's troops arrived just in the nick of time to deliver the key attack at the battle of Chickamauga on September 20th, 1863, Wofford's Georgia brigade (including the Legion) did not arrive until September 21st and did not take part in the battle. They were a part of the pursuit as the routed Federals fell back into Chattanooga and began to entrench. On September 24th the Legion got involved in a hot skirmish which cost them several men killed and mortally wounded as well as a number of wounded. One of the latter was Miller's cousin, Lt Alex Erwin, commanding Company C in the absence of Capt Sandy Barclay. Young Lt Erwin had his right forearm shattered by a ball and was also wounded in the hip. Despite an attempted return to duty in early 1865, these wounds took the young Lt Erwin out of the war. He would marry Howell Cobb's daughter after the war and become a judge in Athens. Once again, Miller and Sidney's luck held out.

The Legion settled into siege lines surrounding Chattanooga until General Braxton Bragg decided in early November to send General Longstreet and his two divisions north to eliminate a Federal army under General Ambrose Burnside at Knoxville, Tennessee. This would have the positive effect of opening a direct line of communication with western Virginia, but General Longstreet felt the plan to be ill conceived. He was being sent with 17000 troops to drive an army of 23000 out of a fortified town. One can sympathize with Longstreet's pessimistic view of the endeavor but orders were orders and off the Legion went to Knoxville. Driving the Federals before them Longstreet's small army arrived at Knoxville on November 17th and surrounded the city. Longstreet, realizing that he had too few troops to successfully mount an attack, called on General Bragg for reinforcements. Bragg agreed to send two brigades totaling 2600 men but these would not arrive at Knoxville until November 25th. After a great deal of indecision over where to attack the Federal lines, it was finally decided to attack at Fort Sanders, occupying a salient at the northwest corner of the works. This point was selected as there was a steep drop off just a little over 100 yards from the fort which would permit a large attacking force to mass there without being seen from the fort. The attack force consisted of General Wofford's Georgia brigade and General Humphrey's Mississippi brigade closely supported by General Bryan's Georgia brigade. After spending a frigid night in the ravine, the Georgians and Mississippians responded to the fire of a signal cannon and made the charge. They almost immediately ran into trouble as men tripped and sprawled into the frozen dirt and others tripped on them. The Federals had clear cut the field before the fort and then made it tricky to traverse by running telegraph wire from stump to stump about a foot off the ground. Getting themselves sorted out the determined attackers pressed on unaware that even worse trouble lay ahead. Faulty reconnaissance by southern officers had failed to reveal the presence of a deep ditch in front of the fort's walls and the attackers were at first baffled as to how they should proceed. Fortunately, fire from the fort was not too heavy as the 3rd Georgia Sharpshooter Battalion had kept a covering fire on anything that moved atop the fort's walls during the charge. The attackers now began to leap or fall into the ditch to try and scramble up the opposite side. Standing on each other, some managed to reach the lower part of the fort's walls only to discover that these had formed a thin layer of slippery ice during the night. Men hacked away with bayonets, trying to carve footholds in the frozen walls and painstakingly small groups began to work their way up. Unfortunately the delay had given the Federals time to regroup. Flanking parties began to pepper the attackers and the small number of defenders in the fort was able to kill or capture the few southerners who reached the top of the wall. Amazingly, the color bearer of the 51st Georgia somehow managed to get his flag atop the wall, only to have it captured by an aggressive Federal. A southern officer who managed to pull himself into a gun embrasure demanded the fort's surrender only to be blown to particles when the artillery piece was fired point blank into him. Now an enterprising Federal artillery Lieutenant began to hand light fuses on artillery shells and lob them over the wall into the crowded mass of southerners in the ditch. This was the final straw for the ill fated attack. Panicked men began to flee the exploding shells, scrambling to escape the deadly trap the ditch had become. One soldier was even seen trying to bury a sputtering shell in the dirt just before it blew him to bits. Many of the southerners could not escape from the ditch and were trapped and captured there. In one of the most lop-sided actions of the war, the attack produced over 800 Confederate casualties while less than 20 Federals were lost. The Legion suffered seventeen men killed or mortally wounded with many more men wounded and captured. Of the captured, seven would die in northern prisons. Once again, Miller and Sid Erwin made it through the harvest of death.

Longstreet, now aware that General Bragg had met with a crushing defeat at Chattanooga, broke off the siege of Knoxville and headed east on December 5th. Pursuing Federals were beaten in a battle at Bean's Station on December 14th and the Legion settled into winter quarters near Russellville in East Tennessee.

We know from period correspondence and diaries that this was not a happy period. It was cold in the mountains and there were food shortages. Many men went AWOL to return to north Georgia to help their families but there is no indication in the records that Miller and Sid were in this number. One diary entry even discusses a "food riot" where several companies charged the quartermaster's warehouse to obtain something to eat.

The long winter finally came to an end and Longstreet and the Legion headed east in April to rejoin the Army of Northern Virginia for the upcoming spring campaigns. Miller and Sid's records indicate that they were in the ranks when Longstreet's Corps arrived on the Wilderness battlefield on May 6th, 1864, just in time to stave off the rout of A P Hill's Corps. Driving the Federals back, General Wofford, the Legion's brigade commander proposed that he lead a force up an unfinished railroad bed to hit the exposed Federal left flank. The Legion and the rest of Wofford's brigade ploughed into the surprised bluecoats and drove them all the way back to the Brock Road, killing and capturing many. As the southerners regrouped for a final assault on the Federals, General Longstreet rode forward and was seriously wounded by friendly fire (from Mahone's Virginians who mistook him for Union cavalry). This unfortunate incident threw the southerners into some confusion and the ensuing attack on the Brock Road line was not successful. Legion casualties were moderate and the Erwin brothers again survived unharmed.

Now the new northern commander, U S Grant, surprised everyone by not retreating back across the Rappahannock but turning southeast instead and moving towards Spotsylvania Court House in an attempt to get between Lee and Richmond. Racing south, southern cavalry and then infantry just managed to reach Spotsylvania ahead of Grant. Both armies dug in and engaged in a slugging match until the Federals broke through in a surprise attack at what was called the "mule shoe" salient on May 12th, capturing several thousand Confederates and throwing the survivors back from the lines. The Legion was not in this location, but was called upon to form part of the counterattacking force sent in to stabilize the situation until new lines could be built to the rear. Wofford's brigade was in the left side of the attack force with the Legion at the extreme left of the brigade. This positioning spared the Legion from the severe losses incurred by the other two brigades on the right and center of the counterattack. Fighting furiously for twenty hours, the southern attack force bought enough time for new works to be built across the base of the salient and, thoroughly exhausted, they fell back into these new positions early on the 13th.

Once more Grant accepted his severe losses and moved southeast in an attempt to slip around Lee's right flank. Once again, Lee anticipated the aggressive northerner and reached the North Anna River ahead of him. Here, Lee developed an audacious plan to cut off and annihilate a portion of Grant's Army. Rather than defending the entire North Anna river line, Lee permitted the Federal V and VI Corps to cross the river west of him. He swung A P Hill's Corps back to the east thus giving Grant the impression that the southerners were in headlong retreat towards Richmond. Lee then permitted Hancock's Union II Corps to cross the river to the east, further bolstering Grant's confidence. What Lee had actually done was to swing both his flanks back into an inverted V with the point strongly entrenched at Ox Ford on the North Anna. When the Union IX Corps attempted to push forward here it was handily repulsed. This left the II Corps isolated to the east with Longstreet's I Corps (under R H Anderson) at the upper end of the eastern leg of the V and Ewell's II Corps further south on this leg. With Hancock's Federals badly exposed and outnumbered to their front, Anderson and Ewell could now smash the II Corps while A P Hill held off the Federals to the west of the V. The Legion, as part of Kershaw's Division occupied a place in the line not far down the eastern leg of the V from Ox Ford. Lee's typically audacious trap had worked to perfection but here the Fates intervened. Lee fell ill with severe dysentery and was briefly unable to command. The small window of opportunity opened for only one day on May 24th as Lee lay dangerously ill in his tent. Grant, realizing from reports of masses of entrenched Confederates between the exposed wings of his army, realized he had been "had" and quickly reunited his army by ordering the V and VI Corps to recross the North Anna and, once again sweep to the southeast on the 26th. The Legion was only lightly engaged and, with benefit of excellent earthworks suffered no casualties.

Unlike earlier campaigns of the war where battles lasted only one to three days, this campaign began to seem like one long, wearing battle. Three weeks of continuous marching and fighting had brought both sides to almost complete exhaustion. Miller, younger brother Sid and their Legion comrades now pulled out of their trenches and slogged southeastward towards the little crossroads of Cold Harbor just a few miles northeast of Richmond. Arriving just north of Cold Harbor on May 31st, it was discovered that Sheridan's Federal cavalry had dug in around the crossroads and was not inclined to retreat. Kershaw's Division led by his old brigade was launched in an attack on the Federals early on the morning of June 1st. The Legion, as part of William Wofford's Georgia brigade, also attacked in support. The federal cavalry were armed with deadly Spencer repeating rifles and shot the Confederate charge to pieces, mortally wounding the commander of Kershaw's brigade, Colonel Lawrence Keitt. While it is impossible to isolate the Legion's losses in this morning action from those in the fighting later this same day, they undoubtedly lost some men. After the failed attack the Confederates fell back to the west and dug in along a ridge in a line running north and south facing the Federals to the east. Union infantry began pouring into the area and the two divisions of southerners assumed a defensive stance. Wofford's brigade was on the right of Kershaw's Division with it's right resting above a marshy overgrown ravine. Clingman's brigade of Hoke's Division was positioned to the south of the ravine, but through some sort of misunderstanding, Hagood's brigade, which was to have covered the ravine itself, had been withdrawn. This would prove to be a very costly mistake for the Legion and Wofford's other regiments.

Late on the afternoon of the 1st five divisions of the Federal XI and XVIII Corps launched a powerful assault on Kershaw's and Hoke's lightly entrenched divisions. The attack was repulsed all along the line by massed infantry and artillery fire and it looked like a total southern victory had been achieved. In front of Wofford's Georgians, the scene was reminiscent of Fredericksburg, with bluecoats going down in great numbers, when suddenly a mass of attacking Federals appeared behind the right end of their line. The error in leaving the ravine uncovered now exacted it's toll. Emory Upton's brigade of Russell's division had poured into the relatively safe and covered opening of the ravine and penetrated unseen to the right rear of the southern line before turning north. Wofford's men were now caught in a vise with attacking Federals coming from their front and right rear. During this war, one of the greatest fears of a soldier was being "flanked" due to the inability to defend oneself. An enemy coming in on the end or rear of an opposing line would not only have the advantage of surprise, but would have little to fear in the way of defensive fire. The veteran Legion infantry and Wofford's other regiments quickly realized what had happened and broke and ran for the rear in an attempt to save themselves. An examination of Legion casualties for June 1st indicates that they may have not been as hard hit as Wofford's other regiments. Traditionally, the Legion infantry would be positioned at the left end of Wofford's line during combat and this would have placed them furthest away from the Federal breakthrough. In Miller's Co C, Private John Pressley was killed outright. Another Co C soldier, G C Smalley was particularly unfortunate. He was among the fairly large number of men captured and, while being shipped north to Elmira prison, died in a train wreck near Shohola, New York.

In the meantime other Federals attacked Clingman's men south of the ravine, but, warned by the sound of the fight to their north, Clingman's men had time to rotate their line and stop the Union troops. Lee rushed in reinforcements and stabilized the line to the north. The fighting eventually died out in the darkness with the Federals in possession of the ravine and the southerners furiously digging new earthworks around the Union lodgement. Legion officers rounded up the Legion's men and got them back into the works just north of the breach. The following day would be spent strengthening their defenses while the Federals gathered their strength and probed southern positions. On June 3rd, General Grant launched what he would later call the attack that he most regretted having ordered. In a series of disjointed, poorly coordinated attacks masses of Federals were launched at the virtually impregnable Confederate lines. Northern troops were so sure of the outcome that they were seen to be stitchimg their names to their clothing so their bodies could be identified after the battle. They were correct in their judgement. Thousands died and nothing was gained.

Miller and his Legion comrades had now been marching, entrenching and fighting non-stop for four weeks. This strenuous action took it's toll on Miller Erwin and he was admitted to Richmond's General Hospital #9 on June 5th, 1864 suffering from the effects of a hernia. This condition must have been severe as another notation in his record shows him detailed as a nurse at Richmond's Jackson Hospital June 24th, 1864 due to ascites & hernia that he has had for two years. A clothing receipt record shows him still at this hospital on August 29th and he receives a 30 day furlough from the hospital on September 26th, 1864. A Legion clothing receipt record dated November 5th, 1864 indicates that he had recovered sufficiently to return from furlough and rejoin his unit in the trenches around Petersburg.

Legion records for the final winter of the war did not survive, so it is impossible to know exactly what happened to Miller and brother Sid during this period. Stories passed down through the Erwin family state that "the Legion almost froze to death in March 1865" and that "non-coms and officers had to keep the men from lying down in the snow and freezing to death by severe prodding". They were with the Legion when the Federals final broke through Lee's badly stretched lines around Petersburg on April 2nd, 1865. Trudging west as part of the rear guard of Lee's army trying to escape to join Joseph Johnston's army in North Carolina, the Legion and most of the rear guard was cut off and captured at Sailor's Creek, Virginia on April 6th 1865. Miller and Sid were processed as POWs by Federals at nearby Burkeville and then sent to Point Lookout prison in Delaware where they were held until June 1865. Stories passed along in the Erwin family state that Miller "was tortured by being hung by his thumbs." They were both released from prison on June 26th upon taking the Oath of Allegiance to the Federal government. John Miller Erwin's Oath shows him to be five foot seven and one half inches tall, of light complexion, with light brown hair and dark gray eyes. Sid's Oath shows him to be five foot six and one half inches tall, light complected with blue eyes and auburn hair.

The two youngsters walked home from Virginia, arriving back in Habersham county only to discover that their father William had just passed away on July 2nd. After attempting to rebuild their shattered fortunes in Georgia, the three Erwin brothers joined a group headed by Allen Turner Garrison, a former Major in the prewar Georgia Militia, and trekked west in wagons pulled by oxen to Potts Camp in northern Mississippi. This was a dangerous journey during the immediate postwar period as the countryside swarmed with bandits, carpetbaggers, Indians and former slaves. Arriving safely in Mississippi, Miller settled down, marrying one of Garrison's daughters, Mary Emmiline on March 8th, 1868. Younger brother William Taylor Erwin married a sister, Nancy Anne.

In 1881, the Erwins and Garrisons moved again, this time to the Mount Vernon church area of northwest Tennessee. Miller worked as a farmer as did most of the people of this era. Miller and Mary had seven children over their years together in Mississippi and Tennessee. Mary died in 1891 and Miller remarried to Mary Warren. This union would produce another three children. Miller had a good voice and was the song leader at Travis Chapel Methodist Church near Sharon, Tennessee. Miller died young in 1898 after being injured in a timbering accident. He is buried at Mt Vernon Methodist Church beside his first wife Mary.

Younger brother Sid Erwin had not moved north into Tennessee with his brothers in 1881, having already moved west to the vicinity of Fort Smith, Arkansas. Surviving records indicate that Sid Erwin was occasionally in legal trouble for fighting. The final account of Sid shows him killed in a gunfight near McAlester, Oklahoma around 1880. His younger brother William investigated Sid's death and found that Sid had been called out to the street for a gunfight and that he was shot down when his gun jammed. It is not known if Sidney L Erwin had a wife or family.

The story of the John Miller and Sidney Lauchlin Erwin is typical of that of the common southern foot soldier; enduring tremendous hardships, they remained faithful to their cause until the end.

Photo and family information courtesy of John B, Tom, Wade and Justine Erwin of Tennessee

Written by:Kurt Graham

Phillips Legion
Texans in the Civil War