John is a mid-Atlantic writer and avid student of history. His current passions are frontier and Civil War history, and genealogy.
Gaston Family Cousins Killed at the Battle of Antietam
In a previous article for LetterPile, I wrote in some detail about Lt. Robert Hugh Gaston, 1st Texas Regiment, CSA, who was killed in the Bloody Cornfield at the Battle of Antietam on September 17, 1862, the bloodiest single day in American History.
In that piece, I also wrote about my own volunteer activity with a good friend at Antietam National Battlefield overseeing the 1.6-mile long Bloody Cornfield Trail. We walked over the very spot where Lt. Robert Gaston was most likely killed. Robert Gaston's brother William Gaston, was also an officer in the very same 1st Texas Regiment. William wrote a poignant letter after the battle to their father saying that he was unable to find his brother Robert and that he was probably dead.
Lt. Robert Hugh Gaston, a Texan, wasn't the only Gaston killed at Antietam. Another Gaston -- Lt. Hugh Jones Gaston -- was a North Carolinian with the 48th North Carolina Regiment. Hugh was also fatally wounded at Antietam, most likely in the West Woods, and died about a month later in a nearby farmhouse. Both Gastons are my distant ancestors.
Since Robert lived in Texas and Hugh in North Carolina, and even though they were cousins, it is probable that neither one knew the other.
This article tells the story of Lt. Hugh Jones Gaston, known as "Hugh" by his extended family.
The Gaston Family of North Carolina
Hugh's grandfather, William Joseph Gaston, a devout Catholic, was the very first student admitted to attend Georgetown College (now University) in Washington, D.C. William Joseph Gaston became an important figure in North Carolina history, rising to the position of judge on the NC Supreme Court. Hugh's father and uncle also attended Georgetown, as did Hugh and his brother William. Both Hugh and William were students there at the same time, and both were awarded commendations for achievement in French. Hugh graduated from Georgetown University in 1855.
After graduation, Hugh became actively involved with the practice of law, the NC legislature, and the NC militia movement. In 1856 he was a candidate for Reading Clerk for the NC House of Commons. In 1857 he received his license to practice law in Wake County, and in 1858 was admitted to practice before the NC Superior Court.
Hugh's Involvement with Confederate Militias and Regular Army
In 1857 Hugh helped arrange an event with the Wilmington Light Rifles, and at a meeting in Morganton, NC (about 50 miles from Asheville) on 28 January 1860, he was elected Captain of a newly formed volunteer militia company, the "Burke Mounted Riflemen."
At the beginning of "hostilities," Hugh enlisted as a private in a Tennessee artillery unit. When he thought his native state of North Carolina was threatened he resigned, returned to his home state, and received a commission on 11 July 1862 as Lieutenant and was appointed Adjutant of the 48th NC Infantry Regiment.
On July 17, 1862, at Confederate Camp Lee, Virginia, Lt. Hugh J Gaston signed a "Tribute of Respect" mourning the deaths of two fellow officers of the 48th Regiment. As Secretary for the meeting authorizing the tribute and as Adjutant, Lt. Hugh Jones Gaston no doubt penned the tribute.
Exactly two months later, on 17 September 1862, he was mortally wounded at Antietam.
Hugh's Unit: The 48th North Carolina Regiment in the Battle of Antietam
The 48th NC Regiment was part of Lee's Army of Northern Virginia, Longstreet's Command, Walker's Division, Manning's Brigade. As adjutant, Gaston was part of the command staff for Col. Robert C. Hill who was the commander of the 48th NC Regiment during the battle. The duty of an adjutant is to assist the commanding officer with administrative, personnel, and other duties -- appropriate for Hugh's educational background and practice of law.
As part of Lee's strategy for the invasion of Maryland, Walker's Division was sent to take Harper's Ferry where 14,000 Union troops held a strategic location and an armory. Walker's Division with the 48th Regiment was assigned the high ground of Loudon Heights across the Shenandoah River from Harper's Ferry. Due to the ineffective Union defense of Harper's Ferry, the battle was short-lived and the Union forces surrendered.
A battle monument in Antietam National Battlefield tells the story of Walker's Division (Robert Walker, commanding), the command division for the 48th NC Regiment after leaving Harpers Ferry to reinforce Lee at Sharpsburg.
Newspaper Correspondent Report about the 48th North Carolina Regiment's Battle in the West Woods
A newspaper correspondent of the Western Democrat wrote the following dispatch from Martinsburg, Va. about the 48th NC Regiment's action in the Battle of Antietam. It was quoted in full in the Raleigh Semi-Weekly Standard, 10 October 1862. I quote it in full below, with my added notes in italics.
"On the night of the 16th, at 1 A.M., we left for Sharpsburg via Shepherdstown and again crossing the Potomac into Maryland. On the 17th we were drawn up in line of battle, soon after daylight in Gen. D. H. Hill's division on the right of centre (see Figure 5, location 1), there listening to the heavy firing on our left (probably in the Bloody Cornfield and West Woods), until about 10 o'clock when we were ordered hastily to support our left, under Jackson's (troops) sorely pressed by nearly the whole force of the enemy. --
"We rushed forward at a double quick for about two miles and went forthwith into action with 700 men rank and file, charging through a wood (West Wood) shelled by the enemy, and through which grape and canister and rifle balls were pouring thick as hail.
"Onwards rushed the 48th and the whole brigade through the woods (West Wood), leaving many wounded and some dead, and, I am sorry to say, some of the unhurt behind us, We charged over a fence about 100 yards in front of the enemy's terrible battery of 18 guns, belching death and destruction at every discharge.
"We rushed forward still to within 80 yards of the enemy's batteries and they began to waver, but our lines were broken in consequence of the want of drill and discipline in our new recruits, the conscripts who fought well for raw troops, but understood but little of marching in line of battle. The regiment was thrown into confusion and driven back with great slaughter, many of our wounded being taken prisoners.
"An effort was made by the Lieut. Colonel to rally the regiment under cover of a hill in the woods, but in vain. (A) considerable portion of the regiment he afterward succeeded in rallying behind a stone wall near the woods and was afterwards joined by the Colonel with a few others. Here the 2nd South Carolina, and the 18th and 22nd Mississippi regiments rallied with us.
"We suffered a severe shelling here but stood our ground until late in the evening when we were ordered over to our extreme left where we were subjected to one of the most terrific shellings we had ever experienced, some few were slightly wounded by it. We remained on the field near the battleground all night without eating anything but a few roasting ears since we left Harper's Ferry -- about 24 hours -- and slept on the ground without covering. We continued there on the next day -- neither party wishing to begin the fight -- and we buried our killed and collected our wounded.
"Our boys have only one suit of clothing well worn and very little bed clothing, having left them behind in our retreat, and not a blanket for every half-dozen men and many of them barefooted. -- They are half-starved, half-clothed, hard-marched, hard-fought, and still are cheerful and make but little complaint. Something must be done for them in the way of bed-clothing in particular, and that quickly."
My Own Experience in Following in the Footsteps of the Gastons at Antietam
The Appalachian Trail, before crossing the Shenandoah River into Harper's Ferry, runs along Loudon Heights where Manning's Brigade (and presumably Robert Hugh Gaston) was posted during the Battle of Harper's Ferry. I have hiked this portion of the AT where our guide pointed out the Confederate positions.
As I wrote at the beginning of this article I am a volunteer at Antietam National Battlefield. I walk the trails established by the National Park Service for visitors to see close-up what the landscape looked like in 1862 and learn about what happened that terrible day, Figure 5 shows trails through areas where Lt. Robert Hugh Gaston spent his last hours before being mortally wounded:
- Walk the 1.8-mile Snavely Ford Trail along Antietam Creek where it flattens out affording an easy ford across the stream. Look up the hill to your right and see where Confederate soldiers guarded the ford until called into action in the West Woods.
- Walk the 1.5-mile West Woods Trail where the 48th NC Regiment entered the battle facing fierce fighting and cannon fire. This is where Lt. Gaston was mortally wounded in his shoulder and face, taken prisoner, and treated in a nearby farmhouse. He was paroled on 26 September 1862 and died of his wounds a few weeks later.
Two Gaston cousins were killed in the Battle of Antietam. Neither one knew the other. They were both my distant relatives. What happened at Antietam was truly an American carnage. Let us never forget.
Antietam on the Web, AotW.org "Lieutenant Hugh Jones Gaston." Biography and Military Record.
Antietam on the Web, AotW.org "48th North Carolina Infantry Regiment." Commands and Roster of Officers and Men.
Antietam on the Web, AotW.org "Battle Map 4: "Greene's High Water Mark in the West Woods."
Wikipedia: "Battle of Harpers Ferry."
National Park Service, Antietam Battlefield Trail Map.
"The 48th Regiment at Sharpsburg." Semi-Weekly Standard, Raleigh, North Carolina. 10 October 1862, p. 3.
"Death of Hugh Jones Gaston." Semi-Weekly Standard, Raleigh, North Carolina. 28 November 1862, p. 3.
"Military Meeting." Weekly Standard, Raleigh, North Carolina. 8 February 1860, p. 3.
Hugh J Gaston Admitted to Practice in Superior Court." The Charlotte Democrat, Charlotte, North Carolina. 17 August 1858, p. 2.
Hugh J Gaston Awarded A. B. Degree from Georgetown College. Evening Star, Washington, D. C., 10 July 1855, p. 2.
"The Wilmington Light Infantry." The Weekly Standard, Charlotte, North Carolina, 13 May 1857, p. 4.
"Supreme Court," Hugh J. Gaston Receives License to Practice Law in Wake County. Fayetteville Weekly Observer, Fayetteville, North Carolina, 15 Jun 1857, p. 2.