“We Stared Death in the Face”: Confronting the Realities of War

By Heather Clancy ’15

Another Compiler post, another letter between brothers. This time we will turn to Alexander “Sandie” Murdoch, an Ordinance Sergeant in the 2nd North Carolina State Troops. Engaged in combat during the battle of Gettysburg, Murdoch faced his understandings of mortality perhaps even more immediately than did F.M. Stoke. On August 10, 1863, Murdoch wrote home to relay his reflections on the battle’s conduct. While several weeks had passed since his involvement in the fighting on the first week of July and although he rarely identifies them as such, Murdoch’s letter is full of references to death and his own mortality.

In the most explicit reference he makes to the very real possibility of his own death, Murdoch writes the following of laying in expectation of the order to attack:

There we lay looking around upon our comrades and wondering who would be the ones who would be taken from us and in full health with the life blood coursing joyously through our veins we stared death in the face.

Although they remain cocky and eager to advance in the heat of battle, Murdoch exposes the men’s instinctual reaction to the suddenly all-too-real possibility that any one of them might fall in this battle—that in all likelihood, many of them may die. Their bravado falters when their Rebel yells are suddenly met by the “hated ‘Huzzah’ of the Yankees” and “spirits sink” among the 2nd North Carolina.

Throughout Murdoch’s letter runs a subtle undercurrent of war-weariness. He mentions to his brother that he is glad that two of their friends are getting out of the army soon. He also hopes that before long more friends and loved ones may also be released from duty to go home. There is also a mention of one of the Presbyterian preachers with the troops as being “home sick” and he laments that there are no longer as many opportunities to be detailed or detached, per General Robert E. Lee’s orders. Murdoch never refers to himself as being tired of life as a soldier, though, and he denounces the shamefulness of deserters with impressive vitriol.

I wish the President had not issued that proclamation of pardon to deserters and etc [sic]. I think it will have a bad effect, as this will be the second time that North Carolinians have been thus pardoned, and the men will naturally think that it will occur again.

Although Murdoch has “faced the elephant” as recently as one month earlier, he nonetheless condemns dishonorable or unconvincing excuses to leave the army. He faces death with even more personal immediacy than does F.M. Stoke and still emerges composed . . . or at least he depicts himself as such in his correspondence.

Clancy -- Murdoch

In closing, Ordinance Sergeant Murdoch asks his brother to remind his friends and neighbors back home that they owe him letters and signs off affectionately as “Yours fraternally, Sandie.”


Alexander “Sandie” Murdoch letter 10 August 1863, Civil War Vertical File Manuscripts Collection, Special Collections/Musselman Library, Gettysburg College.


“North Carolina Monument along West Confederate Avenue – Gettysburg National Military Park Tour Roads, Gettysburg, Adams County, PA.” Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Online Catalogue. Reproduction Number HAER PA,1-GET.V,21–97 (CT).

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