Dead Confederates, A Civil War Era Blog

How Val Giles Made Second Sergeant

Posted in Uncategorized by Andy Hall on July 18, 2010


West slope of the Little Round Top, Gettysburg, as seen from the plain along Plum Run. This is the view that presented itself to the 4th and 5th Texas Regiments late on the afternoon of July 2, 1863. Photo by jwolf312, used under Creative Commons License.

Valerius Cincinnatus Giles — inevitably known simply as “Val” — was a twenty-one-year-old soldier in Company B of the 4th Texas Infantry when that unit made its famous, unsuccessful assault on the Federal positions on Little Round Top, late on the second day during the Battle of Gettysburg. In his later years, Giles spent much of his free time compiling a memoir, but did not live to see its completion. Giles died in 1915; his writings, edited by Mary Lasswell, were finally published in 1961. That volume, Rags and Hope, has since become a classic first-person account of Texas soldiers during the war.

It was nearly five o’clock when we began the assault against the enemy that was strongly fortified behind logs and stones on the crest of a steep mountain. It was more than half a mile from our starting point to the edge of the timber at the base of the ridge, comparatively open ground all the way. We started off at quick time, the officers keeping the column in pretty good line until we passed through a blossoming peach orchard and reached the level ground beyond. We were now about 400 yards from the timber. The fire from the enemy, both artillery and musketry, was fearful.

In making that long charge, our brigade got jammed. Regiments lapped over each other, and when we reached the woods and climbed the mountains as far as we could go, we were a badly mixed crowd.

Confusion reigned everywhere. Nearly all our field officers were gone. Hood, our Major General, had been shot from his horse. He lost an arm from the wound [sic.]. Robertson, our Brigadier, had been carried from the field. Colonel Powell of the Fifth Texas was riddled with bullets. Colonel Van Manning of the Third Arkansas was disabled. and Colonel B. F. Carter of my Regiment lay dying at the foot of the mountain.

The side of the mountain was heavily timbered and covered with great boulders that had tumbled from the cliffs above years before. These afforded great protection to the men.

Every tree, rock and stump that gave any protection from the rain of Minié balls that were poured down upon us from the crest above us, was soon appropriated. John Griffith and myself pre-empted a moss-covered old boulder about the size of a 500-pound cotton bale.

By this time order and discipline were gone. Every fellow was his own general. Private soldiers gave commands as loud as the officers. Nobody paid any attention to either. To add to this confusion, our artillery on the hill to our rear was cutting its fuse too short. Their shells were bursting behind us, in the treetops, over our heads, and all around us.

Nothing demoralizes troops quicker than to be fired into by their friends. I saw it occur twice during the war. The first time we ran, but at Gettysburg we couldn’t.

This mistake was soon corrected and the shells burst high on the mountain or went over it.

Major Rogers, then in command of the Fifth Texas Regiment, mounted an old log near my boulder and began a Fourth of July speech. He was a little ahead of time, for that was about six thirty on the evening of July 2d.

Of course nobody was paying any attention to the oration as he appealed to the men to “stand fast.” He and Captain Cousins of the Fourth Alabama were the only two men I saw standing. The balance of us had settled down behind rocks, logs, and trees. While the speech was going on, John Haggerty, one of Hood’s couriers, then acting for General Law, dashed up the side of the mountain, saluted the Major and said: “General Law presents his compliments, and says hold this place at all hazards.” The Major checked up, glared down at Haggerty from his’ perch, and shouted: “Compliments, hell! Who wants any compliments in such a damned place as this? Go back and ask General Law if he expects me to hold the world in check with the Fifth Texas Regiment!”

The Major evidently thought he had his own regiment with him, but in fact there were men from every regiment in the Texas Brigade all around him.

From behind my boulder I saw a ragged line of battle strung out along the side of Cemetery Ridge and in front of Little Round Top. Night began settling around us, but the carnage went on.

There seemed to be a viciousness in the very air we breathed. Things had gone wrong all the day, and now pandemonium came with the darkness.

Alexander Dumas says the devil gets in a man seven times a day, and if the average is not over seven times, he is almost a saint.

At Gettysburg that night, it was about seven devils to each man. Officers were cross to the men, and the men were equally cross to the officers. It was the same way with our enemies. We could hear the Yankee officer on the crest of the ridge in front of us cursing the men by platoons, and the men telling him to go to a country not very far away from us just at that time. If that old Satanic dragon has ever been on earth since he offered our Saviour the world if He would serve him, he was certainly at Gettysburg that night.

Every characteristic of the human race was presented there, the cruelty of the Turk, the courage of the Greek, the endurance of the Arab, the dash of the Cossack, the fearlessness of the Bashibazouk, the ignorance of the Zulu, the cunning of the Comanche, the recklessness of the American volunteer, and the wickedness of the devil thrown in to make the thing complete.

The advance lines of the two armies in many places were not more than fifty yards apart. Everything was on the shoot. No favors asked, and none offered.

My gun was so dirty that the ramrod hung in the barrel, and 1 could neither get it down nor out. 1 slammed the rod against a rock a few times, and drove home ramrod, cartridge and all, laid the gun on a boulder, elevated the muzzle, ducked my head, hollered “Look out!” and pulled the trigger. She roared like a young cannon and flew over my boulder, the barrel striking John Griffith a smart whack on the left ear. John roared too, and abused me like a pickpocket for my carelessness. It was no trouble to get another gun there. The mountain side was covered with them.

Just to our left was a little fellow from the Third Arkansas Regiment. He was comfortably located behind a big stump, loading and firing as fast as he could. Between biting cartridges and taking aim, he was singing at the top of his voice: “Now let the wide world wag as it will, I’ll be gay and happy still”

The world was wagging all right-no mistake about that, but 1 failed to see where the “gay and happy” came in. That was a fearful night. There was no sweet music. The “tooters” had left the shooters to fight it out, and taken “Home, Sweet Home” and “The Girl I Left Behind Me” with them.

Our spiritual advisers, chaplains of regiments, were in the rear, caring for the wounded and dying soldiers. With seven devils to each man, it was no place for a preacher, anyhow. A little red paint and a few eagle feathers were all that was necessary to make that crowd on both sides into the most veritable savages on earth. White-winged peace didn’t roost at Little Round Top that nightl There was not a man there that cared a snap for the golden rule, or that could have remembered one line of the Lord’s Prayer. Both sides were whipped, and all were furious about it.

We lay along the side of Cemetery Ridge, and on the crest of the mountain lay 10,000 Yankee infantry, not 100 yards above us. That was on the morning of July 3, 1863, the day that General Pickett made his gallant, but fatal charge on our left.

Our Corps, Longstreet’s, had made the assault on Cemetery Ridge and Little Round Top the evening before. The Texas Brigade had butted up against a perpendicular wall of gray limestone. There we lay on the night of the 2d with the devil in command of both armies. About daylight on the morning of the 3rd old Uncle John Price (colored) brought in the rations for Company B. There were only fourteen of us present that morning under the command of Lieutenant James T. McLaurin.

I felt pretty safe behind my big rock; every member of the regiment had sought protection from the storm of Minié balls behind rocks or trees. The side of the mountain was covered with both. When Uncle John brought in the grub, he deposited it by a big Hat rock, lay down behind another boulder, and went to sleep.

Sergeant Mose Norris and Sergeant Perry Grumbles had been killed in our charge the evening before, and Sergeant Garland Colvin was wounded and missing.

Somebody had to issue the grub to the men, and as an incentive to induce me to take the job, the Lieutenant raised me three points. He too was located in a bombproof position behind another big boulder just in front of me.

“Giles,” he said, “Sergeant Norris always issued the rations to the men, but poor Mose is dead now and you must take his place. I appoint you Second Sergeant of Company B. Divide the rations into fourteen equal parts and have the men crawl up and get them.”

Every time a fellow showed himself, some smart aleck of a Yankee on top of the ridge took a shot at him. I didn’t even thank the Lieutenant for the honor (or better, the lemon) that he handed me, and must admit that I undertook the job with a great deal of reluctance.

A steady artillery fire was going on all along the line and a sulphuric kind of odor filled the air, caused by the great amount of black powder burned in the battle. Maybe it was the fumes of old Satan as he pulled out that morning leaving the row to be settled by Lee and Meade. We were comparatively safe from the big guns, but it was the infantry just above us that made things unpleasant. I crawled up to the camp kettle of boiled roasting ears and meal-sack full of ironclad biscuits that Uncle John had brought in, and began dividing the grub and laying it on top of a big flat rock.

The Yanks on the hill became somewhat quiet, so I got a little bolder and popped my head above the rock. They saw my oId black wool hat and before you could say “scat,” two Minié balls flattened out on top of the rock, making lead prints half as big as a saucer, and smashing two rations of grub. One roasting ear was cut in two, but the old cold-water ironclad biscuits went rolling down the hill, solid as the rock from which they flew.

Cuss words don’t look well in print, but I don’t see how a fellow can tell his personal experience in the army without letting one slip in now and then. In this case I’ll let it pass!

When those bullets struck the lunch counter, the newly-made Second Sergeant disappeared from view. The remark he made caused that grim old Lieutenant to laugh and say, “Let the boys crawl up and help themselves.” The range was so close that when those bullets struck the solid rock, it flew all to pieces, a small fragment striking me on the upper lip, drawing a few drops of blood and mussing up my baby mustache.

Second Sergeant was my limit in the Fourth Texas Regiment.

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  1. […] One of the great firsthand accounts of Texas troops in the Civil War is Val C. Giles’ Rags and Hope: Four Years with Hood’s Brigade, Fourth Texas Infantry, 1861-1865 (Mary Lasswell, ed.). The book was originally published in 1961, at the time of the Civil War Centennial, and (to my knowledge) has never been reprinted. Copies are hard to find, and correspondingly expensive. That’s a shame, because Giles’ narrative is poignant, vivid, and often very funny. […]

  2. Garett Duncan said, on August 9, 2016 at 4:39 pm

    I found out today that Val C. Giles is my great, great, great grand uncle. I remember having a conversation with my great grandmother back in the mid 80’s where she mentioned a great uncle of her’s that served during the Civil War. A name never came up, but she must’ve been referring to Val. She was 22 years old when he passed away in 1915.

    • Andy Hall said, on August 9, 2016 at 4:51 pm

      Val Giles wrote what is, for my money, the best memoir of am ordinary Confederate soldier out there. (Although credit where due, it was actually compiled and edited by Mary Lasswell decades after his passing.)

      Giles was active in Confederate veteran activities in his later years, especially the Hood’s Texas Brigade Association. My cousin, Katie Daffan, knew him well and, when he died, made the announcement to newspaper. I would like to have known him.

      There are several posts here that mention Val Giles, so use the search tool in the right-hand column to find them.

      • Garett Duncan said, on May 11, 2018 at 11:04 am

        Val also had a brother that served in the 8th Texas Cavalry. His name was Lewis Giles. He died from a wound suffered at the Battle of Woodsonville in Kentucky. Val Giles mentions him in Rags and Hope. I have read a letter that Lewis sent home about 5 weeks before he died. The letter is dated 11/13/1861, and he died on Christmas Day of 1861. The original letter is at the Briscoe Center of American History in Austin, Texas. I transcribed the letter into a Word document, and have it on my computer. If you would like a copy of it, I can email it to you. I can also send jpg files of the original letter.

        • Andy Hall said, on May 11, 2018 at 3:15 pm

          I’d love to see the letter. See also:

          https://deadconfederates.com/2011/12/25/christmas-picket/

          • Garett Duncan said, on May 11, 2018 at 8:34 pm

            Below is the letter that Lewis Giles sent to his parents in Austin. Please excuse some of the missing words and jumps in topic. They’re due to the fact that some of the writing is no longer legible. The last line of the letter mentions Lizie which I’m sure is his sister Elizabeth (my great, great, great grandmother). The last line also mentions Brave which I believe was the family dog. Brave is referenced in Rags and Hope.

            November 13, 1861
            Bowling Green, Kentucky

            Dear Father & Mother,
            I received a letter on yesterday evening from my much esteemed friend, Mr. Armstrong. It is the first one I have received since I left home. And you may _____ how much good it did me to hear from you all. _____ and I received a letter from Val yesterday. He is still at Richmond and says there is a probability of him staying there during the war. He seems to be in good health and high spirits. Probably you have become uneasy about me on account of the long delay which I have made between letters, but I have been absent on scouts nearly ever since my last letter. I was one of 25 who went out on the first scout that the regiment made. Ike and Jim were in the company. We went to Woodberry on Green river where the Yankees had been cutting up. They killed a woman near that place, but not one of the cowardly devils were to be seen when Ferrill with his twenty-five men charged the place. We then returned to headquarters Camp Johnson at Bowling Green and ______ last Monday Ferrill’s company with exception of the sick started for Glasgow
            Any of Old Abe’s men there but there was ____ six hundred of them camped in 8 miles of Glasgow who on hearing of our approach made precipitate retreat toward Green river. Capt Ferrill then with thirty-five men marched into a federal town twenty-five miles beyond. So _____ and I were all of my ______ along (Jim and Ike being too sick with the measles. They have since nearly recovered). I have been farther in that direction than any other southern soldier. I will tell you how come this. When Capt Ferrill marched into Edmonton he placed out pickets on all of the public roads. And after I ate my dinner I got on my horse and rode out to where the picket was stationed between Edmonton and Green river. I had been there but a little while when a man came out to a stable near where I was talking with the guard, saddled a horse in great haste and started off at a rapid speed. He had got some two or three hundred yards when I took out after him. I ran him a considerable distance but my horse was so tired he could not catch him. This is how I came to be further into Yankeedom than any other southern soldier. Capt Ferrill’s company was the first southern soldiers ever in that town. We remained in the place 3 or 4 hours and then started ______ Glasgow. We marched 5 or 6 miles when night
            captain that the federalist was trying to surround us whereupon he sent around his sergeants who whispered in our ears to saddle up as early as possible. I acknowledge that I was never so prompt in obeying an order in my life. We was undoubtedly in a close place but we started on the road to Glasgow. The kind of country we had to travel through was very hilly (in fact there is scarcely enough level land in any place ____ ____ ____ ) on either side of the road in some places heavy timber, other places thick undergrowth. In fact, it is the greatest country for ambushing in the world and if we did not have the cowardliest people to fight in the world they could ruin us, but the mere name of a Texas Ranger frightens them to death. They have got the impression out that we are perfect desperados and cannibals, killing and eating wherever we come upon them. Although there is thirty to forty thousand southern soldiers stationed near Bowling Green, the Texas Rangers have went farther into the interior than any of the others. _____ ______ ______ at Bowling Green and _____ there is a probability of remaining here during the winter unless there is speedy movements made before the weather gets too cold. They are fortifying in every direction around this place and from what I can ____ those at the head of _____ are planning a great battle to be fought at this place. It is my private opinion that if they would move the force on that we now have here we would have Kentucky before Christmas. I also believe that if we remain here for them to come to us we will never have a battle in the world for the cowardly devils are so dastardly that they flee before us even when they have 5 to 1. Two companies of our regiment ran some three or four hundred of them a few days since. Killed 3 or 4 and took 2 prisoners without the loss of a man. Since I commenced this letter to my utter astonishment and joy, a letter was handed to me from you. I devoured its contents with greediness and was glad to ____ _____ ______. It was marked the 5th of Oct. I had almost despaired getting a letter from home and it did me the more good when I did get it. I proceeded to answer it as speedily as was able. Although I have nothing hardly worth writing. I am in excellent health, never was in better in my life. When I left home I weighed 125, now I weigh 143. So you can ____ how I have improved. I have plenty to eat and mother need not be uneasy about _____. I have four pair of pants, including those that I started with. The socks she gave me I think will do me through the winter. So you need not be uneasy about me for I can assure you I am always looking out for number one. I have 4 good blankets and Ike has as many more. We sleep together and have quite a comfortable bed. I have two good thick undershirts. I will not put them on until it gets colder. Our tents are very comfortable. They are waterproof. Mother need not be uneasy about me dissipating for I have not drank any except a dram or two while crossing the swamp in Louisiana, and then it was absolutely essential. I do everything that I think will be beneficial to retain health. I think the climate will just suit me, but of all the countries I have seen I like none so well as Old Texas. I do not like the _____ of Kentucky. I have traveled a good deal and find it to be one of the hilliest countries I ever saw.
            I am going to try to get Val transferred to this regiment. Col. Terry says he will receive him if he can get off from his regiment in Virginia. I will write to him and Billy Tannehill tomorrow and see what I can do for them. I think it would be much better for us to be together and would be very gratifying to mother to know that this was the case. You mentioned that you had some relations in Sumner county. I came up from Nashville to Bowling Green in the night. We stopped a few minutes at Gallatin. I knew you once lived there and I inquired if there was any Giles that _____ or in the vicinity and a gentleman informed me that a John Giles lived in about four miles of that place but as _____ soon moved off I had not time to make any inquiries. I will write to him first opportunity and if I get sick I will go down to his house for it is but 4 or 5 hours ______ from Bowling Green. If I can I will get a furlough this winter and go down to see my kinfolk. In the first part of my letter I mentioned that Ike and Jim had the measles. Ike does not want his mother to find out that he is sick for he says it will cause her _____ _____. They are getting well very fast if they will be careful. I have _____ fine health ever since I left home with the exception of a cold.
            You mentioned in your letter that you had nothing of interest to write but in this I beg leave to differ with you for I can assure you that any home or neighborhood news is quite interesting to me. Some of Brave’s exploits would be a welcome treat. I expect Old Merrilltown is quite lonesome since we all left. I think we will be at home ____ of ____ days. For I do not think the war will last very long. I understand Lincoln’s cabinet is broken up.
            Some of the southern forces had a fight at Columbus and cleaned them up. I have not learned any of the particulars and I will now have to come to a close. I will write at every opportunity but do not get uneasy if there is considerable delays at times. _____ _____ often and about everything going on. I almost forgot to mention that I saw old Norton in Bowling Green. I understand he was trying to go to Ohio. I do not know how ____ ____ there is in it. Tell Lizie to write to me, give Brave a piece of bread for me.
            Good by,
            L.L. Giles


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