Letter from Alfred Cumming to Stephen D. Lee 
Thirty-four Years after the War


Augusta, Georgia, Nov. 3rd, 1899

Gen'l. Stephen D. Lee,
Columbus, Miss.

My dear General:-

Brig. Gen. Alfred Cumming, 3rd Brigade, Stevenson's Division

I am in receipt of your letter of the 30th ultimo, to which I have given a very careful and interested perusal; and in now proceeding to reply to it, am concerned at being compelled to recognize that it will scarcely be in my power to answer the several inquiries embraced in it with that confidence and particularity which the subject demands, and the exhibition of which could alone render my answers of any value to you. The passage of "thirty-seven years" constitutes a period of time sufficiently great to dim the memories even of a day so notable in our experiences as that of the Battle of Baker's Creek on May 16th, 1863.

As for documents, or Reports relating thereto by which I might refresh my memory, I have not one such in my possession.

Nevertheless, even after this so plain an avowal of the lack of precise information in regard to the incidents of that day as may justly lead you to infer that I can add nothing to your knowledge as connected with them; I am induced by the kind expression of your letter to offer to your consideration some observations on the subject. Interested as you are in it, and as indeed the discharge of your present functions as Commissioner require that you should be, these observations if found possessed of no value, may yet be presented without impertinence. 

In the first place will we not agree that the circumstances immediately preceding the battle and under which it was joined, were of such a nature as to be discouraging to our Army there engaged, and in some measure preparatory of the issue which ensued

In this connection recall the "Council of War" assembled, if I remember rightly, on the 15th May, and the division of sentiment there manifested. Assembled for the purpose of having made known to us an Order just received from Gen. Johnston, that we should pursue a certain course, i.e. march upon Grant's column from the one side, which he, (Johnston) should attack from the other; Pemberton practicing no reserve as to his entire dissent from Johnston's Council (or order?) earnestly addressed himself to securing from his Subordinates there assembled an expression of their concurrence in the wisdom of his own plan of strategy, - - this being, as I conceive it, to put ourselves across Grant's line of advance, and thereby cut off his communication with the river. You will remember the issue of the Council. If I state it right when the question was put to a final vote, each member thereof, with the exception of the two Major Generals, gave their opinion in favor of following Johnston's proposed line of action.

Re-enforced by the expressed contrary opinion of his two Senior officers, Pemberton's scheme was announced as the one accepted, and we immediately proceeded to its execution.

Taking up the line of march that afternoon, we crossed Baker's Creek by its Bridge, and the two left (rear) Brigades, (mine and yours) were brought to a half about 1 a.m. This "halt" was made under conditions the least favorable possible for prompt action of any kind, for making or receiving an attack, or for deployment in any direction. We bivouacked in this position through the few remaining hours till daylight, -- it might described as in a huddle, -- the regiments of the several Brigades to the best of my knowledge and recollection doubled up one upon another without any capability or quick deployment. (It was a bitter joke afterwards indulged in that we had dropped down in bivouac that night within forty yards of Grant's Army without knowing it.)

However greater or less the exaggeration involved in this statement, we were soon made aware when morning broke of the proximity of that army, and of the perilous position in which our own found itself. Then began a hustle to extricate ourselves from the predicament. No longer a question of this or the other strategic plan. Our only hope to get away, - - only too glad could we but effect this, - - at least that we should be given time to draw out and get into some position in which we could make a creditable defense.

In the left wing, you as commanding the left Brigade, began the prescribed movement in leading your command, a movement by the left flank, across the Baker's Creek road (as I will here designate it) into a thick wood, pursuing such line for a distance (I should judge) of half a mile within the woods; where at a point designated by authority or selected by yourself, you turned sharply to the left and rear, - - the "Angle" of your letter, - - the object of this movement being, when I followed your movement in the same order. I would mention here that at some time (earlier or later) antecedent to my movement in your track, by command, I assembled and turned over to a General Staff officer parties from my several Regiments to be employed under the guidance of that officer, for the reinforcement of, (or, I am induced to believe for the first establishment of) a picket line between our front and the supposed position of the enemy.

I mention this circumstance to state that I has ever been my belief that these pickets failed to be so posted, or that they so lost connection as to render their position in fron quite valueless for any purpose of defense or warning. Certain it is that they were never driven in on my line, or, by the discharge of their pieces in front of it, gave any intimation of the instantly coming assault.

To return now to the direct course of my statement: - - - leading the first files of my command, on reaching the "Angle", I stationed myself within a few paces of that point to superintend in person its more rapid clearance. The turn to the left there made was in a direction almost at right angles to the route pursued in reaching it.

It was while so stationed, and at that juncture of time, when my two left regiments (alone) had entered on the new direction that the attack broke upon us with great impetuosity and vehemence, in overwhelming force, and in a manner wholly unexpected and unlooked for. As above state, no drive-in pickets, or scattering shots on either front had given intimation of the presence of the enemy.

You will recall the character of the country near the Angle, - - somewhat thickly wooded, and with a ridge running in a general direction parallel to the new direction entered upon by the 34th and 39th Georgia. It was this latter feature alone, (even in the absence of pickets in front) which enabled the enemy to approach so nearly without our cognizance of his presence.

It is to the best of present knowledge and belief that not a shot had been fired as yet on that part of the field; until surmounting the Ridge at a distance, I should estimate at not more than seventy-five yards, they poured in a destructive volley, from a compact and serried line which in a few minutes completely enveloped the two regiments above designated. Partially descending the intervening slope, the crest was crowned by additional forces. How wide was this column of attack, - - how much to left and right it overlapped my brigade, I am unable to declare. It will be evident to you, however, that it was in position to deliver an enfilading fire on my right regiment. This indeed it did, and our losses at that point, (Angle) were heavy.

To meet an attack so sudden and unexpected in its precipitation, so overwhelming in its preponderance of force, - - the best dispositions which circumstances admitted of were made. Facing outwards the fire of the enemy was returned, and an effort made to retain the position.

But the opposing fire was too withering, the opposing force too preponderant in numbers, to admit of a long continuance of the unequal struggle. And the Brigade gave way.

A portion of the crest of Champion Hill were Alfred Cumming's Confederate line was situation during the Battle of Champion Hill. The hill was partially cut down in 1930 when gravel rights were sold. The diggers recalled finding the remains of many of those killed that fateful day in May of 1863. The crest of Champion Hill, also known as the "Hill of Death" is on private property owned by the Champion Family.

Seeing that had occurred, and that it was no longer possible to hold the depleted ranks to the line; accompanied by some members of my staff, I proceeded speedily to the rear, and at a distance down the road called Baker's Creek Road, sought to rally the fugitives, assisted in the work very heartily by many officers of the Brigade. But ineffectually.

Abandoning this effort, another and more successful effort was made to effect this rally when we reached the road above mentioned. There at a position somewhat near the Baker's Creek Bridge than the point at which we had crossed that road earlier in the day; was finally assembled a considerable but altogether miscellaneous force without organization, - the greater part of my Brigade, and I had supposed portions of yours, - - I had even thought of Barton's [Brigade] also.

This I should judge was between 1 & 2 o'clock.

While engaged, on my part, in seeking to get this assemblage into some sort of order, you appeared in person at some distance on my right. I had no word with them or later in the day. After some work on your part directed towards the same end, but continued for a very short period of time, you were seen by me to take a color and leading the way to move forward into the wood towards the enemy. This move was immediately taken up all along the line from right to left, and all together we went in. (The move seemed to me somewhat premature owing to the disorganized condition of the line, but your judgment was probably more correct;

( "if 't were done when 'it is done, then 't were well 't were done quickly.")

No strenuous conflict, I would say ensued after this. A sometimes lively skirmish firing in the wood in which we gradually lost ground, and the enemy as gradually advanced. When we regained the road it was evident we wee cut off from the Bridge. The horses of my adjutant and myself were struck by shots delivered from the right of that road in plain view, and at a very short range. That portion of the command crossed the Creek at a ford higher up.

I am well aware General, that in all this voluminous statement I have not yet answered your special inquiries, which I take to be:
           (1) The time of Barton's withdrawal from my left;
           (2) The hour at which Battery was captured.

In regard to the 1st point, I am quite unable to give any precise opinion, as I have heretofore stated in this narrative. I believe that portions of his Brigade were found in the troops we led from the Baker's Creek road.

2nd, in relation to the battery: I regret that I am equally unable to speak with precision. At no time during that day was it immediately under my command or did it come under my observations. I would assume that it acted entirely under the direction of Pemberton's Chief of Artillery, or some member of his staff. I cannot suppose that at any time it was "in advance of your (my) general line".

I have of course ever been aware, My Dear General, that Pemberton in his report of that disastrous campaign, "reflects" upon the conduct of the Georgia Brigade. Needing every possible excuse that he could bring to bear to shield himself; that he should have done so, has ever seemed to me, from his standpoint, natural and to have been expected. If in that Valhalla to which he has long since taken his departure, and where as Dick Taylor tells us the souls of Heroes commune together, if he shall there have derived any satisfaction there from, let him have it.

It has seemed to me that it should be no difficult matter to defend from any animadversions the conduct of that organization by any one cognizant of all the circumstances. In learning from you that it is embraced in the discharge of your present duties, in possessing yourself of an accurate history of that battle, to try to "wholly vindicate" its conduct, - - I am filled with much satisfaction. I believe you will be able to effect this end, as believing the facts admit of it.

The Brigade was indeed badly shaken on that disastrous day. It was its first action. Never before had it engaged in close action, -- if indeed it had ever been under fire. It labored also under the disadvantage that between it and its commander there existed no acquaintance. I had been with it but three or four days, - - coming immediately from the Vicksburg R. R. Depot to join it in the field, and its Field officers (even) were scarcely known to me by sight, or I to them. When it next participated in a Field Day, the still more disastrous battle of "Missionary Ridge" Nov. 25, - - it acquitted itself, I believe I may say in a manner to obliterate any unfavorable impressions caused by 16th May. See the report of Gen. Bragg, and report of Cleburne, its temporary Corps Commander.

I will not further length this altogether too voluminous letter by apologies for this statement. These are implied on a previous page. If you shall see fit to offer any criticisms or observations upon it, I shall receive the same with much interest.

I am, General,
Very Truly Yours,

Alfred Cumming


Brigadier General Alfred Cumming

Born at August, Georgia, January 30, 1829, and was graduated from West Point in 1849. Promoted to brigadier general October 29, 1862. Transferred to General Pemberton's army, he fought throughout the Vicksburg campaign, and was captured upon the capitulation of the city in July 1863. After his exchange, General Cumming was assigned a brigade in General Carter L. Stevenson's division of the Army of Tennessee, whih he led until he was disabled by wounds at the battle of Jonesboro on August 31, 1864. After the war her farmed near Rome, Georgia, and was a member of the American Military Commission to Korea in 1888. He died at Rome, December 5, 1810, in his eighty-second year, and is buried in Augusta.

Brig. Gen. Alfred Cumming was in command of the 3rd Brigade, Stevenson's Division, during the Battle of Champion Hill.

34th Georgia Infantry, Col. J. A. W. Johnson
36th Georgia Infantry, Col. J. A. Glenn
39th Georgia Infantry, Col. J. T. McConnell (W), Lt. Col. J. F. B. Jackson
56 Georgia Infantry, Col. E. P Watkins (W), Lt. Col. J. T. Slaughter
57th Georgia Infantry, Col. W. Barkuloo

Casualties for Cumming's Brigade: 121 killed, 269 wounded, 605 missing = Total 995
Casualties for Baron's Brigade: 58 killed, 106 wounded and 737 missing = Total 901
Casualties for Lee's Brigade: 44 killed, 142 wounded and 604 missing = Total 790


Source:  Cumming Letter from the files of the  Vicksburg National Military Park, courtesy Terry Winschel

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