By rail and by foot, several companies of state militia converged on Camp Oglethorpe at Macon, Georgia, where on April 3, 1861, they were combined to form the First Georgia Volunteer Infantry Regiment. The official date of the regiment’s muster was listed as March 18, 1861, which was the date the various companies offered their services to the governor. Elected to regimental offices were James N. Ramsey, Colonel; James O. Clarke, Lieutenant Colonel and George H. Thompson, Major. Before their departure from Macon, Governor Joseph E. Brown gave the soldiers a rousing sendoff in a speech.
Heading for its first posting, the regiment traveled to western Florida, journeying through the new Confederate Capital at Montgomery, Alabama. Encountering a 16-mile gap in the rail line, the soldiers experienced what for some was their first long march. Making camp behind Fort Barrancas, the Georgians endured hot sun, mosquitoes and poor food. As they waited for their chance to assault Union Fort Pickens, across the bay on Santa Rosa Island, constant alarms kept the soldiers on edge. Several companies were detached from the First and sent to the Warrington Navy Yard to train on the big siege guns, much to the anger of Colonel Ramsey.
Receiving orders transferring them to Virginia, the First left Pensacola in early June, traveling northward to Richmond. Passing through Montgomery once again, the Georgians were called upon to put down a drunken riot by Louisiana Zouave troops. The First encamped at Howard’s Grove, just outside Richmond, but were only there for a short time before the regiment received orders to proceed to Western (now West) Virginia, to augment the forces of General Robert S. Garnett, known as the Army of the Northwest. Sore feet, diminishing rations, and encounters with snakes led to ever increasing grumbling as the new soldiers marched into the mountains of Western Virginia.
The Georgians made camp at Laurel Hill, and set to work on the fortifications, while suffering in the cold and rain of the Allegheny Mountains. The regiment had not been in camp for long before Union forces under General George B. McClellan approached Confederate positions at Rich Mountain and Laurel Hill. McClellan dispatched General Thomas Morris to Belington, just west of Laurel Hill, with instructions to “amuse” Garnett, making him think the main Federal attack is there. On July 7th, Union skirmishers moved forward, engaging pickets made up of the Gate City Guards, one of the companies of the First Georgia. Four other companies, led by Lieutenant Colonel Clarke, rushed to the aid of the Guards. With the cry “Remember you are Georgians,” they charged the Federals and succeeded in driving them back. Exchanges of musket and artillery fire occurred over the next few days, until General William S. Rosecrans succeeded in flanking the camp at Rich Mountain on July 11th, forcing the retreat and surrender of that portion of Garnett’s small army. His position at Laurel Hill now untenable, Garnett prepared to retreat southward toward his supply depot at Beverly, with Ramsey’s First Georgia at the head of the column.
Fleeing southward, Garnett’s army found its way blocked, so was compelled to double back along a narrow trace barely wide enough to allow the wagons. The First Georgia, now at the rear of the column, acted as rear guard along with the Twenty-Third Virginia. Torrential rains churning the trail into knee-deep mud hampered the retreat. Many wagons were lost even though teamsters threw out equipment to lighten their loads. The Union pursuit force caught up with Garnett’s army at Kalers Ford on July 13th, a crossing of Shavers Fork of the Cheat River, where Colonel Ramsey divided his regiment. He hoped to catch the Federals in a crossfire, but his tactic failed, resulting in six companies being cut off from the rest of the army. Ramsey’s remaining four companies, along with the Twenty-Third Virginia, conducted a fighting retreat towards Corricks Ford. When General Garnett is killed, Colonel Ramsey, though very ill, assumed command of the army, leading it towards the town of Red House in the western tip of Maryland. When Union forces nearby threatened to intercept the Confederates, they turned south towards Harrisonburg, Virginia, leaving Red House just two hours ahead of the Federal troops. Ramsey’s hungry and exhausted troops finally reached Monterey, Virginia, where reinforcements awaited.
The six.companies of the First Georgia which were detached from the regiment at Kalers Ford found themselves cut off from the rest of the army. Determined not to surrender, the officers elected to climb the steep mountains behind them in an attempt to work their way back to the army. Plunging into “a perfect wilderness”, the four hundred soldiers quickly became lost in the mountains. As they tried to cut their way through dense stands of mountain laurel, increasing exhaustion and hunger plagued them. To keep from starving, the men resorted to chewing strips of shoe leather and bark from laurel and spruce trees. After four days, many soldiers were on the verge of giving up, when a mountain man, “Tanner Jim” Parsons, located the desperate men, and offered to lead them to safety. After bringing them food, Parsons led the Georgians down rivers and over mountain paths to Monterey, where they rejoined their comrades.
While the Army of the Northwest recuperated at Monterey, General William W. Loring arrived with orders to assume command. Angry when he found large numbers of the First Georgia absent, he promptly arrested Colonel Ramsey. The charges were later dropped, and Ramsey was returned to command of his regiment. Loring began accumulating supplies and making plans to retake the ground lost by Garnett. Shortly thereafter, General Robert E. Lee arrived at Loring’s headquarters. With only vague orders as to his authority, Lee urged Loring to move quickly with his attack. Lee proceeded to develop plans to assault the Union encampments at Elkwater and Cheat Mountain. As rain fell and lightning illuminated the mountains on the night of September 11th, elements of the First and Twelfth Georgia were sent ahead of the army to capture advance Federal picket posts. The detachment was partially successful, but when they fell back toward the Confederate army, they encountered what they thought were enemy troops coming up. A firefight ensued, during which they discovered to their horror that they were fighting their own comrades of the First and Twelfth Georgia. The signal for the attack on Cheat Mountain, the guns of another detachment under Colonel Albert Rust of Arkansas, was never heard. For two days the Georgians tried to bait the Federals to come out of their entrenchments to do battle, but were thwarted when the Union troops refuse to emerge. With the failure of his plan, General Lee ordered the army to return to camps. Lee also encountered failure in the southern part of the Alleghenies as he tried to mediate between two feuding generals (former Virginia governors Henry A Wise and John B. Floyd). His reputation in tatters, Lee was reassigned to the district of Georgia and South Carolina.
While several regiments from the Army of the Northwest were ordered south, accompanied by General Loring, General Henry R. Jackson’s brigade (including the First Georgia) constructed fortifications at Camp Bartow, just south of Cheat Mountain on the Greenbriar River. As cold weather began to descend over the Alleghenies, the soldiers of the First Georgia settled into their camps, many worried about the possibility of spending the winter in the mountains. Meanwhile, General Joseph Reynolds, the Federal commander of the fort on Cheat Mountain, prepared to attack Camp Bartow. Early on the morning of October 3, 1861, Reynolds advance attacked the Confederate picket line, commanded by Colonel Ramsey. Ramsey’s men held up the Federals long enough for an advance guard of 100 men, cobbled together from several units by Colonel Edward Johnson, marched to the pickets’ assistance. Johnson’s small force was able to slow the Union troops for almost an hour, allowing the rest of Jackson’s division time to eat their breakfast and be positioned in the fortifications. The First Georgia was sent to the right, where they are placed behind the Twelfth Georgia. An intense artillery fight ensued, as Federal and Confederate gunners dueled. Union attempts to turn either flank of Jackson’s line failed as the attackers were thrown back. Finally, after spying what appeared to be massive Confederate reinforcements, Reynolds broke off the attack and retreated to Cheat Mountain.
For the next several weeks, Jackson’s brigade worked at reinforcing their fortifications and preparing for winter. Sporadic clashes between opposing scouting parties continued until snow began to fall, which effectively put an end to such operations. Lt. Col. James O. Clarke resigned and was replaced through election by George Harvey Thompson. James W. Anderson was elected to major, and Lt. Joseph Palmer of the Southern Rights Guard became the regimental adjutant. The First Georgia was assigned to a brigade commanded by Colonel William B. Taliaferro, an unpopular decision, as there was ill will between him and the First. In one incident, Taliaferro was accosted by a Georgia soldier and beaten.
General Loring, with three brigades of the Army of the Northwest (including Taliaferro’s brigade) was ordered to Winchester to work in concert with General Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson’s Valley Army. With these reinforcements, Jackson prepared to advance on the village of Romney, which he saw as a strategic position that must be taken and held.
Jackson’s army moved out from Winchester on January 1, 1862. The weather, which was clear and warm at the beginning of the march, rapidly deteriorated, with temperatures dropping and snow and ice falling on the lightly clad troops. The Georgians, along with the rest of Loring’s army, were forced to bivouac in the frozen fields when their supply wagons (in which were their overcoats, foolishly cast aside at the beginning of the march) fell far behind. Jackson turned from the direct road to Romney towards Bath, intending capture the small Union garrison, which fled toward Hancock, on the opposite side of the Potomac River. Jackson stopped opposite Hancock, threatening to turn artillery on the town if the Federal commander does not surrender, which he refused to do. Still without adequate provisions, the First Georgia bivouacked along the riverbank. The soldiers’ suffering was intense in the below freezing temperatures.
Unable to force the Federals in Hancock to surrender, Jackson withdrew his force below Bath to Unger’s Store, and ordered a general cleanup of the army. While there, Jackson learned that Romney had been evacuated, and immediately starts his army moving again to occupy the town. Jackson planned a further expedition to secure another strategic position, but the sickness and grumbling of his troops persuaded him to put the army into winter quarters instead. Leaving the Army of the Northwest at Romney, Jackson pulled the rest of his force back to Winchester.
There was great unrest in Romney, as the officers and men felt they have been left in filthy conditions in a position exposed to enemy attack. With their troops suffering in the awful conditions at Romney, many of the officers of the Army of the Northwest drafted a letter to be sent to the Confederate War Department (over Jackson’s head), setting forth the reasons why they should be withdrawn from that position. Colonel Ramsey was in Richmond convalescing and Lt. Col. Thompson was absent, so Major Anderson signed the petition as commanding officer of the First. The document (known as the “Romney Petition) was forwarded to General Loring, who endorsed it and forwarded it to Jackson. Jackson, though he did not agree with it, forwarded the document to his superior, General Joseph E. Johnston. Colonel William Taliaferro and another officer travelled to Richmond, where they persuaded President Jefferson Davis to have Secretary of War Judah Benjamin issue an order directing Jackson to withdraw the Army of the Northwest from Romney. Jackson did so under protest, but then offered his resignation from the army. Friends and other officers persuaded Jackson to withdraw his resignation, after which he preferred charges against General Loring. The feud building between Jackson and Loring, as well as the unrest in the Army of the Northwest, caused President Davis to have Loring transferred to a new post, and to have the non-Virginia regiments in Loring’s command sent away from the Valley Army. The First Georgia was ordered to Tennessee, there to join the command of General Albert Sidney Johnson, but they had only traveled as far as Lynchburg, Virginia, when a landslide blocked the tracks. Due to their term of service being almost over, the First was ordered to turn in its arms and return to Georgia to be mustered out. The regiment arrived in Augusta on March 9, and was mustered out the following day, becoming the only one-year regiment from Georgia to be released from service following its term of duty. Due to the feeble health of Colonel Ramsey, the First was not reorganized. The Southern Rights Guards formed the Southern Rights Battery. Forty members of the Quitman Guards reorganized, becoming Company “K” of the 53rd Georgia Infantry. Almost all of the remaining veterans of the First reenlisted in other commands, serving in all theaters until the end of the war.