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Church bells rang in Winchester, Virginia, on Thursday, April 18, 1861. More than ninety miles farther south, up the Shenandoah Valley, in Staunton, "a great state of excitement" prevailed as townsfolk jammed the streets. What had been speculated about for weeks and anticipated for days in both towns had become a reality. Telegrams had arrived from Richmond, announcing the secession of Virginia from the Union. The bells of Winchester tolled for a revolution.
A second telegram followed from Governor John Letcher, ordering militia companies in the Valley, as the region was familiarly known, to seize the United States arsenal at Harper's Ferry and its valuable cache of weapons and arms-making machinery. Letcher's directive brought an immediate response, and by midnight of the 19th, units from Winchester and Charlestown entered Harper's Ferry, located at the northern end of the Valley at the confluence of the Potomac and Shenandoah rivers. The arsenal's contingent of troops had torched many buildings before it departed, but the militiamen and local residents saved the machinery and thousands of finished rifles and parts.
In the days that ensued additional companies of Valley men arrived at Harper's Ferry. The units bore names such as the West Augusta Guards, Augusta Rifles, Rockbridge Rifles, Staunton Artillery, Southern Guards, and Mountain Guards. Each company had its own " uniform"--the Mountain Guards wore red flannel shirts and gray trousers; the West Augusta Guards and Augusta Rifles, gray woolen jackets and trousers; and the Southern Guards, blue flannel shirts, gray trousers, and United States Navy caps. One company carried a flag given to it while en route from women in Harrisonburg.
The colorful attire could not hide the rawness of the militiamen. Before these days, the companies had "played military," in the words of one member. But the seizure of the arsenal heralded a reckoning, an act of war against their national government. The novice soldiers, however, embraced the future. The men "are ready for a fight," a militia captain assured friends and relatives at home, adding that "if a fight occurs, we will be the first in it, and the last out of it." Another officer in a letter to a newspaper asserted that "we are in the midst of a great revolution; our people are united as one man, and are determined to maintain their rights at every sacrifice."
During their trip northward, down the Valley, the militiamen had witnessed a flood of enthusiasm and support by neighbors and strangers. "I have never seen such an outpouring of popular feelings in behalf of the South," recounted an officer. "We were as well treated as if we were paying 3/per day," claimed a private. The civilians cheered and hugged the volunteers, shared food with them, and pledged devotion to the cause.
This response to recent events had followed a winter of doubt and apprehension. Like their fellow Americans, Valley residents had watched closely the quickening of time since the election of Republican Abraham Lincoln to the presidency in November 1860. Many citizens in the region had voted for John Bell, the compromise candidate in the election. The secession of Lower South states and the formation of the Confederate States of America "weighed heavily on spirits" of those in the Valley. They opposed unsuccessfully a secessionist convention for Virginia, and when the time came to select delegates, they chose "conservative Union men" in many of the counties.
In the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia, roots went deep into the rich soil. Pioneer settlers had entered the region between the Blue Ridge Mountains on the east and the Allegheny Mountains on the west decades before the American Revolution. They were Scotch-Irish, who wrenched it from the natives, whose name for the region meant "Daughter of the Stars," and built homes and mills and platted towns. Germans followed and made the fertile earth blossom and nourish. Craftsmen offered various products, and amid the natural beauty, the inhabitants prospered. The region sent forth its own as riflemen under Daniel Morgan to fight the British, and gave again during the War of 1812 and the conflict with Mexico. By the 1850s, a macadamized turnpike linked villages, and railroads breached the Blue Ridge. Within the valley's confines, night often settled in easily.
The Valley seeped into bones, touched souls, and when the national crisis climaxed in April 1861, the Valley residents looked to their own. The bombardment and surrender of Fort Sumter in Charleston, South Carolina, harbor on April 12-14 caused Lincoln to call for volunteers to suppress the rebellion. With the proclamation, allegiance to the Union ended in much of the Shenandoah Valley. In Staunton, a newspaper publisher spoke for his readers, writing that the people "were united with a firm and universal determination to resist the scheme set on foot by Lincoln to subjugate the South."
And so the Valley gave once again of its fathers, sons, and husbands. The response of the militia companies to Governor Letcher's summons was but small eddies that during April, May, and June turned into a river of volunteers. On April 20, the governor asked for recruits to "repel invasion and protect the citizens of the state in the present emergency." From the length and breadth of the Valley, men enlisted for twelve months. Farmers in Grayson County along the North Carolina border, mountain men from Highland and Allegheny counties, students from Washington College and cadets from Virginia Military Institute (VMI) in Lexington, merchants and clerks from Staunton, and Irish railroad workers from Shenandoah County enrolled. They walked, crowded into wagons, or boarded trains, with some detoured to Richmond before being ordered to their common destination at Harper's Ferry. Watching the passage from her home in Winchester, a woman likened it to a "gathering of the clans."
At Harper's Ferry, the companies with such names as the Montgomery Highlanders, Tenth Legion Minute Men, Emerald Guard, Liberty Hall Volunteers, Virginia Hibernians, and Berkeley Border Guards would be organized in the weeks ahead into regiments. Companies of Valley men filled entirely, except for a handful of units from the western mountains, the ranks of the five infantry regiments and artillery battery that would become the Stonewall Brigade. The command "comprised the very pride and flower of the upper counties of Virginia," boasted a Winchester woman.
Few, if any, Confederate brigades reflected such commonality of place, heritage, and kinship. "I never saw so many persons I knew in my life," remarked a member, "every third person speaks to me." Every company of the command contained descendants of the Scotch-Irish pioneers. Those of German, English, Irish, and Swedish ancestry stood beside the Scotch-Irish in the ranks. A surgeon of the brigade estimated later that only one man in thirty belonged to a slaveholding family. Little class distinction separated enlisted men from officers. Strong-armed farmers stood beside eloquent lawyers; unshaven college students beside bearded mountaineers.
Blood ties bound many to each other. One volunteer thought that the brigade appeared to be a "cousinwealth." One regiment counted eighteen members of the Bell family of Augusta County, eleven of whom were destined to be either killed or mortally wounded in battle or to die of disease. Pairs of brothers, fathers and sons, uncles and nephews shared mess fires in the regiments.
"America was young, and filled with younger sons," recalled a member. Approximately sixty percent of the volunteers were those "younger sons" between eighteen and twenty-five years old. The most common age was nineteen, with the majority of men in this age group in their early twenties. A few members had lived for sixty years, while a handful at fourteen and fifteen had barely passed childhood. Private David Scanlon was an unusual recruit, a fifty-one-year-old drummer boy.
Characteristic of the Valley and of much of America, farmers and farm laborers comprised the largest segment of the command. There were dozens of professional men, clerks, and merchants, and scores of artisans, craftsmen, and mechanics that reflected the vibrancy and diversity of the economy in the region. Other occupations listed on enrollment papers included undertaker, jeweler, nailcutter, druggist, artist, distiller, confectioner, hatter, toymaker, and gentleman. One private listed himself as a "comedian," and another as a "Yankee school master." One company of roughly one hundred men had twenty-six different occupations noted on the rolls.
"Probably no brigade in the Civil War contained more educated men," a historian of the command has asserted. Current students and alumni of Washington College and the Virginia Military Institute in Lexington, and the University of Virginia in Charlottesville were among the rank and file in each regiment. One company, the Liberty Hall Volunteers, was recruited on the campus of Washington College and included fifty-seven members of the seventy-three-man student body, with a quarter of the volunteers studying for the ministry. VMI cadets and graduates provided a core of drillmasters and officers for the brigade.
The organization of the companies into regiments occurred throughout April, May, and June. Most of the volunteers entered the service under the authority of Virginia, but on June 8, Governor Letcher transferred the state units into the armies of the Confederacy, with the men's original twelve-month term of enlistment remaining in effect.
Civil War infantry regiments consisted, as a rule, of ten companies, designated by the letters A-K, except for the letter J. United States Army regulations prescribed a company size of 3 officers and 98 enlisted men. With 15 field and staff officers, a regiment numbered 1,025 officers and men at authorized strength. Although the Confederacy would adopt a slightly higher figure for a regiment--1,389 officers and men--few regiments on either side ever had a full complement during the war. The recruitment of new volunteers and the infusion of conscripted or drafted men never restored a regiment to the numbers it possessed at its original mustering in. Both governments chose to create new units instead of filling old regiments to authorized strength.
In turn, usually three or four regiments were organized into a brigade, which was, according to a historian, "the fundamental fighting unit of the army." Once again, Confederate brigades consisted generally of more regiments--five or six--than their Union counterparts. Because of the importance of localism in the South, most Confederate brigades contained regiments from the same state. Regulations in both armies designated a brigadier general as commander of a brigade. Casualties among officers of that rank resulted often, however, in the temporary appointment of a senior colonel to the command. Finally, three or four brigades comprised a division under a major general. In time, both governments created corps of three or four divisions within an army or department.
Consequently, as the companies of Valley men gathered at Harper's Ferry, officers organized them into regiments. The effort consumed weeks, but eventually forty-eight companies were assigned to the five regiments--the Second, Fourth, Fifth, Twenty-seventh, and Thirty-third Virginia--that would constitute the future Stonewall Brigade. Each regiment had at its core companies from a particular section of the region--the Second Virginia consisted entirely of companies from four counties in the northern end or Lower Valley; the Fourth was formed with a majority of its companies from the Upper Valley; the Fifth originated from the militia companies of Staunton and Augusta County; the Twenty-seventh counted most of its members from the mountainous counties of southwestern Virginia, beyond the Valley proper; and, the Thirty-third contained volunteers from six counties, with Shenandoah County contributing one half of the number.
The regimental field officers--colonel, lieutenant colonel, and major for each unit--were men who possessed either prior military education, militia training, or Mexican War experience, or had been leaders within their communities. Of the thirteen field officers--the Thirty-third had only a colonel initially--five were graduates of VMI, two had attended West Point, four had fought in the Mexican War, and/or four had served as militia officers. One of them, Lawson Botts, an attorney, had been a "decided and uncompromising opponent of secession doctrines" and had defended abolitionist John Brown, whose raid on Harper's Ferry, in October 1859, hastened the destruction of the Union. Like Botts, four others practiced law, while Kenton Harper, a native Pennsylvanian, was a distinguished newspaper publisher, politician, and farmer.
The company commanders or captains in the five regiments reflected the diverse origins and composition of their units. Like the field officers, at least one third of them had either prior military training or experience. The remaining captains were usually men of local stature--mayors, attorneys, state legislators, businessmen, and well-to-do farmers. Among the group several were destined to attain higher rank and to play prominent roles in the brigade's history, including John Quincy Adams Nadenbousch, James A. Walker, Charles A. Ronald, John Henry Stover Funk, Hazael J. Williams, Frederick W. M. Holliday, and Abraham Spengler.
Among the regimental captains none perhaps had sacrificed more for his loyalty to Virginia than Thompson McAllister. Born in Juniata County, Pennsylvania, in 1811, McAllister had prospered in his native state and had served in the legislature. In 1849, he moved with his family to Covington, Virginia, bought 2,200 acres of land, built a large brick home, Rose Dale, and made money in the milling business and in promoting railroads. McAllister remained in touch with his family, particularly his brother Robert. In January 1860, he returned to Pennsylvania for a family reunion during which he and Robert engaged in a heated argument over politics. The brothers departed enemies, and when the nation divided, Thompson joined the Twenty-seventh and Robert became lieutenant colonel of the First New Jersey. The wound between the brothers never healed.
In May, an artillery battery from Lexington arrived in Harper's Ferry, and in time would be attached to the brigade of Shenandoah Valley regiments. Within a week of Virginia's secession, seventy recruits had enrolled, voted to be an artillery company, and adopted the name Rockbridge Artillery. On May 1, William Nelson Pendleton asked the company if he could serve as its captain, and the men accepted the offer. Pendleton was an 1830 graduate of West Point, but since 1838 had devoted his life to the ministry. He was serving as rector of the Grace Episcopal Church in Lexington when the war began.
"Old Penn," as the young gunners dubbed Pendleton, drilled the company with borrowed small brass cannon from VMI. On May 11, the Rockbridge Artillery departed for Harper's Ferry with two cannon while Pendleton traveled to Richmond for additional guns. Pendleton obtained two, and rejoining the company at Harper's Ferry, resumed drilling the gunners with four cannon that were soon named Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. By June 30, the battery consisted of Pendleton, three lieutenants, and eighty-one enlisted men.
The formal organization of the forty-eight infantry companies and one artillery company lasted into July. Throughout the weeks, the Valley men labored with the rigors of military drill and discipline. But the volunteers maintained their morale and gave the reasons for their and their families' sacrifices. "The men work willingly," Captain William S. H. Baylor assured folks in Augusta County, "eat heartily, and sleep as soundly on the ground, as a prince in a palace. They are ready for a fight, and I believe are eager to show their courage in driving back any invading force."
To the officers and men of the brigade, the stakes were evident. The actions of the Lincoln administration threatened the rights of Virginians and the beloved Valley itself. They understood the gravity of their choice, for as a member asked his wife, "Is not this Revolution?" A lieutenant stated to his wife that he and his men were engaged "in a glorious cause," one "of defending our good old dominion from the threatened invasion of northern hords."
Lieutenant Samuel J. C. Moore, Second Virginia, worried whether his young sons would understand their father's absence and his reasons for entering the army. Most likely speaking for many other fathers he wrote home:
Do you know for what your Papa has left his family and his home and his office and his business? I will tell you. The State of Virginia called for all the men who are young and able to carry arms, to defend her against Lincoln's armies, and it is the duty, I think, of every man to answer her call, and be ready to keep the army of our enemies from ever setting their feet in the State.
War is a dreadful thing, and I would rather do anything in the world than kill a man or help to kill one, but then if we were to let Lincoln's army pass here, they might go into the State of Virginia, and burn our houses and kill the old men and the women and children, and do a great deal more harm, and I am sure I would rather see a thousand of them killed around me, than to know that they had done any harm to my wife and dear little boys.
So Moore and his comrades prepared for the "dreadful thing" at the gateway to the Shenandoah Valley. With a swiftness they probably never expected, their lifelong allegiance to the old country had been severed. Now they were willing revolutionaries, defending home and family, bound to the cause by duty. In the Valley, as they learned to be warriors, the wheat crop "never was more promising." For it to ripen and to nourish those at home, the Valley men stood in ranks.
Spring only beckoned across Wisconsin in mid-April 1861. Winter was a stubborn adversary, a season with an iron grip. During the months of the long nights, in farmhouses, villages, and lumbering camps, the residents had waited for news from the East. The state's voters had gone for Abraham Lincoln, and then watched as a succession of Southern states withdrew from the Union and created a new government. And now they waited more as the melting snows filled creeks.
Wisconsin had offered them a renewal, like the promise within spring's new grasses and flowers. During the previous two decades, they had flooded into the territory and brought it statehood in 1848. They were Americans come from New England, New York, Pennsylvania, and the states along the Ohio River, and German, Scandinavian, and Irish immigrants. In 1860, the census counted a population of over three quarters of a million residents in fifty-eight counties. They planted fertile fields in grains, milked cows, sheared sheep, cured cheese, hewed timber, and brewed beer. For many, if not most, Wisconsin had kept its word.
But they saw beyond Wisconsin's promise to that of America's. To them, the country offered opportunity found nowhere else in the world, for if Wisconsin played out, a common man could begin again in another territory or state. As the crisis, brought by secession, deepened, they steeled themselves. A La Crosse newspaper in a typical editorial admonished its readers: "There is a grand old storm coming up--there will be such fighting as this country has never yet seen, and that right soon. This is no time for wavering."
When the news of Fort Sumter, followed by Lincoln's summons for volunteers, reached Wisconsin, the citizenry did not waver. "Patriotism was effervescent," claimed one man. On April 18, as militiamen marched away to cheers in Staunton, Virginia, residents of Oshkosh met in what the local newspaper described as the "greatest and most enthusiastic gathering which ever assembled" in the community. Across the state townsfolk held similar "war meetings." "Every rugged backwoodsman, whether American, German or Norwegian, was full of patriotism," a citizen avowed. "Indignation at the firing on Fort Sumter was genuine and universal." An Irish farmhand and future recruit put it simply, "I want to do what I can for my country."
Two days before the Oshkosh meeting, on April 16, Governor Alexander W. Randall issued a proclamation to the state's residents. "For the first time in the history of this Federal Government," Randall began, "organized treason has manifested itself with several States of the Union, and armed rebels are making war against it." He then noted the consequences of treason, affirming that the attack against a federal installation must be met "with a prompt response." He concluded with a call for unity: "It is a time when, against the civil and religious liberties of the people, and against the integrity of the Government of the United States, parties and politicians and platforms must be as dust in the balance. All good citizens, everywhere, must join in making common cause against a common enemy."
Randall also stated in the proclamation that one regiment of militia "will be required for immediate service, and further service will be required as the exigencies of the Government may demand." Within days enough companies had volunteered for three months' service to organize the First Wisconsin Infantry. An additional nineteen companies had offered their services, so on April 23, the governor authorized the creation of the Second Wisconsin Infantry, the first regiment to be organized that would become a part of the Iron Brigade. Randall ordered the three-month volunteers of the Second Wisconsin to report to Madison, the state capital, by May 1.
The ten companies of the Second Wisconsin came from nine counties across the breadth of the state. From Racine County came the Belle City Rifles, a unit composed entirely of unmarried men; from Winnebago County, the Oshkosh Volunteers, formed by members of a local fire company; from Rock County, the Beloit Cadet Rifles, whose ranks included a dozen students and graduates of Beloit College; and from Grant County, the Grant County Grays, one fifth of its members listing their place of birth as outside the United States. Four companies--the Portage Light Guard, La Crosse Light Guard, Citizens Guard, and Miners Guard--originated as prewar militia units. The Janesville Volunteers, like the Beloit Cadet Rifles, hailed from Rock County, while the Randall Guards filled its ranks in Madison and surrounding Dane County.
The volunteers departed from their homes for the state capital amid an outpouring of support. The local heroes received meals, heard speeches, were presented with flags, and were accompanied to railroad stations by vociferous crowds. Like Virginians and other Americans, North and South, Wisconsinites gave of their own in a torrent of celebration. Over a year later, after the cheers had died long past, one of the recruits explained to his parents why he had boarded a train for Madison. "With thousands of others," he wrote, "I was so much excited at the thought of treason breaking out in our Old Union that I thought nothing but to be if possible the first to enroll my name amongst those of her defenders."
The La Crosse Light Guard from La Crosse County and the Portage Light Guard from Columbia County arrived together on the same train in Madison, on May 1. Officials directed them to the State Agricultural Society's Fairgrounds, a forty-acre area located about a mile from the city that had been converted recently into a training camp for soldiers. Even as the two companies passed through the gate, scores of workers were changing cattle pens into barracks. During the next fortnight, the remaining companies of the Second Wisconsin joined the La Crosse and Portage volunteers at the fairgrounds, now designated as Camp Randall.
Camp Randall served as home to the regiment for the next seven weeks. The installation offered few comforts. "We are cooped up in a 40 acre lot fenced in," Horace Emerson informed his brother on May 10, "and our Barracks are made up by the side of the fence and every time it rains the damn Shanties leak and wets our beds." They slept on beds of hay, had not enough blankets, drank "dish water coffee," and awoke each morning from the discharge of a large brass cannon. The regimental historian later described their stay at the camp as "the short woodshed life in Madison."
The cannon's blast began the daily routine for the men at Camp Randall. The recruits drilled twice a day at first, four times a day by the end of the month. First sergeants of companies usually conducted the drills, with one or more officers present. At night, many of the men visited Madison, and if the opinion of one of them was shared by most of the men, the city had few inducements. Alured Larke grumbled that "there is scarcely a pretty woman here," adding that "as a town Madison is miserably dull, as a capital wretched." After some members of the Janesville Volunteers participated in a "great rumpus" in the city, no man was allowed to leave camp without a pass signed by his captain and the regimental colonel.
Despite the assertion by one member that "our boys are all good hearted Noble fellowes we all love one another as Brothers," evidence indicates that an element in the regiment did not accept willingly the strictures of military discipline. In fact, one officer described them "on the whole" as "rough, vulgar blackguards." Even the Second's historian admitted that "the regiment had become a terror" to Madison's citizens by the time it departed.
Responsibility for the discipline of and instruction of the rank and file belonged to the company commanders and field officers, the latter of whom had been selected by Governor Randall. For the colonelcy of the Second, Randall picked a prominent Milwaukee lawyer and former attorney general of the state, S. Park Coon. A forty-one-year-old native of New York, Coon had been a resident of Wisconsin for nearly two decades, and during the winter of 1861 had been outspoken in his support of the Union. He knew little, if anything, about commanding a regiment, drank too much whiskey, but counted among his friends the governor for whom Coon had named the camp. Within the regiment, it was believed that the subordinate officers would compensate for Coon's shortcomings.
Randall appointed Henry W. Peck as lieutenant colonel and Duncan McDonald as major. Peck was an Ohioan by birth and had attended West Point but withdrew before being graduated. "A great deal was expected of Peck," stated a member of the Second. Like Peck, McDonald had some military experience, having served for two years as a colonel in the state militia. When the war began, McDonald was a prominent and respected Milwaukee businessman.
The captains, elected by their respective companies, were men of local stature. Six of them had practiced law in their communities, while the other four owned and/or operated a business. Each captain had been involved in the recruitment of a company. George H. Stevens of the Citizens Guard, John Mansfield of the Portage Light Guard, and William E. Strong of the Belle City Rifles would be the best of the group.
On May 9, the volunteers heard a rumor that their three-month term of enlistment was to be changed to three years. For several days, individual companies met and discussed the news, with some men from each company deciding to return home. But only one company, the Beloit Cadet Rities, refused to enroll for three years. On May 15, officers read the order that authorized the change, and at 10:00 A.M., on the 16th the regiment formed, with 517 members sworn in for three years. A week later, the Wisconsin Rifles from Milwaukee County, led by Captain Andrew J. Langworthy, former county sheriff, marched into Camp Randall, replacing the departed Beloit Cadet Rifles.
By the end of May, most of the company ranks had been refilled with unassigned recruits in the camp. June 11 was designated for the mustering in of the regiment into Federal service. To allow men to visit friends and relatives, Coon approved passes to upward of four hundred members on the night of the 10th. Uncounted others sneaked out of camp without passes, and by the early hours of the 11th, gangs of drunken soldiers roamed the streets. A large group of them gathered outside a brewery, demanding admittance. When someone broke a window and others grabbed whiskey bottles, the owner, from an upstairs window, fired a shotgun over the crowd. Several soldiers discharged pistols and threw stones at the gunman. The men fled, however, when neighbors ran into the street.
The next morning, a sobered Second Wisconsin, dressed in state-issued gray uniforms, entered the service of the United States. Nine days later, on June 20, the regiment marched from Camp Randall after receiving a national flag, with "2ND REGT. WISCONSIN VOL." on each side, and after listening to a speech by Randall. The governor wanted to say farewell and to remind them of the cause for which they had volunteered. "This rebellion must be put down in blood," Randall averred, "and treason punished by blood. You go forth not on any holiday errand, not on any Fourth of July excursion, but as men to perform great and urgent duties." They go, he added, "because you will to aid with your own right arms in maintaining the integrity of your Government and my Government."
The 1,048 officers and enlisted men of the Second Wisconsin boarded railroad freight cars for the nation's capital to a chorus of cheers. Many in attendance were undoubtedly glad to see the soldiers leave Madison. The town meetings, the sumptuous meals, and the boisterous support upon the men's enlistment had given away now to the reality of leaving families, friends, and Wisconsin. "It is safe to say," remembered Captain Thomas S. Allen, "that not a man in the regiment knew anything of actual warfare." But the recruits, Allen believed, were "actuated by a common motive and by similar patriotic impulses, yet differing as to policies and parties." Perhaps Corporal Horace Emerson, as he found a place in a car, recalled the words he had told his brother at the time of enlistment. "If I fall," Emerson stated as explanation, "I die in defence of the Flag I was born under and which I will die."
The train carried the Wisconsin men east, through Chicago, Cleveland, Pittsburgh, and on to Harrisburg. At the Pennsylvania state capital, Colonel Coon refused to continue the trip until the regiment was issued arms. During the previous weeks, contingents of Union troops had encountered mobs in Baltimore, Maryland, the next stop for the Second Wisconsin. Authorities consented, issuing 780 Harper's Ferry muskets to the unit. The train proceeded to Baltimore, where the regiment marched from one station to another with loaded and capped muskets. On June 25, the Wisconsin soldiers reached Washington, D.C., and camped along Seventh Street, next to a regiment of New Hampshire troops.
The Western men roamed through the capital as sightseers for about a week, visiting the stone edifices that marked the government they had volunteered to save. Horace Emerson and two fellow corporals arranged a meeting with President Lincoln and drank a glass of wine with the chief executive. After they left the White House Emerson wrote, "bulley for old Abe he is a Brick." "If ever I get a chance to draw sight on a Rebel," the corporal vowed, "down goes his shanty."
The Second Wisconsin filed into column on the afternoon of July 2, and marched across a bridge over the Potomac River into Virginia, a land of "Devels," as one called the Southerners. They were halted at Fort Corcoran on the road to Fairfax Court House, and assigned to a brigade under Colonel William Tecumseh Sherman. "Many were confident," a soldier asserted about his comrades, "that the war would last but for a few months and none anticipated remaining more than a year" away from Wisconsin.
Chapter 9: "Corn Acres of Hell"
The banners of a revolution waved in the bright sunlight, marking a passage. Behind them, in ranks of four, Stonewall Jackson's soldiers waded into the river's shallows. "I never expect as long as I live," wrote staff officer Thomas G. Pollock, "to witness so imposing a spectacle." "Nobody spoke," explained Pollock, because "it was a time of great feeling." He spurred his mount into the current beside the moving column. Halting in the stream, Pollock turned in his saddle. As far as he could see stretched an unbroken string of infantrymen. "I felt," he told his father in a letter two days later, "I was beholding what must be the turning point of the war."
Before Pollock passed the vanguard of Confederate nationalism as it crossed into Maryland, at White's Ford on the Potomac River, north of Leesburg, Virginia. It was September 5, 1862, less than a week after the victory at Second Manassas or Bull Run. In two months, General Robert E. Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia had carried the war from Richmond's doorstep to Northern soil upriver from Washington. Perhaps, as the young staff officer believed, the conflict was following a new road.
Lee understood that an offensive beyond the Potomac was "attended with much risk." But, as he argued to President Davis on September 2, "The present seems to be the most propitious time since the commencement of the war for the Confederate Army to enter Maryland." Such a movement would give the Old Dominion a respite from the war's ravages, contended Lee, allow the Confederates to garner supplies and recruits from Maryland residents, and perhaps force the enemy into a crucial battle. If the operat divisions and Jeb Stuart's cavalry.
Lee committed six divisions to the capture of Harper's Ferry. Jackson and three divisions would recross the Potomac into Virginia upstream from the village and seal the western approaches; two divisions would march through Pleasant Valley and secure Maryland Heights to the north of Harper's Ferry; and the final contingent would reenter Virginia to the east, occupying Loudoun Heights. Longstreet and two divisions, meanwhile, would cross South Mountain with the army's main wagon train, as the division of D. H. Hill acted as rear guard. With the surrender of Harper's Ferry, which Lee projected for September 12, the army's scattered units would reunite at Boonsboro or Hagerstown, Maryland, before advancing into Pennsylvania.
The Confederate army marched away from Frederick on the 10th. Lee had undertaken a bold gamble that counted upon a swift execution of his plans and the slow advance of the Union army from Washington. But the fates, it seemed, conspired against the Confederates. It was not until the 14th that the three elements of the army had closed on Harper's Ferry, having encountered delays attendant upon the movement of units, and some stiff enemy resistance on Maryland Heights. More critically to the army, the Federals had assailed D. H. Hill's troops on South Mountain during the 14th. Only a valiant stand by Hill's brigades and reinforcements from Longstreet prevented a possible disaster. That night, Lee prepared for a withdrawal from Maryland, informing a subordinate, "The day has gone against us and this army will go by Sharpsburg and cross the river."
Cheers resounded along the blue-coated column in a thundering of voices, with the news rolling back along the ranks like a well-timed volley -- "Little Mac is back!" Men shouted, leaped into the air, and tossed their caps in celebration. When John Gibbon announced it to his Westerners, "they were perfectly wild with delight," emulating their comrades by hurling their black hats into the air. It seemed inexplicable, perhaps, but George McClellan's hold on the hearts of his men was undeniable. As one of them said tersely, "A Deliverer had come."
In the wake of the bitter defeat at Second Bull Run, the Federals needed a "Deliverer." Even John Pope had recognized the signs of a dispirited army, informing the War Department on September 2 that "unless something can be done to restore the tone to this army it will melt away before you know it." Within the army, the officers and men blamed Pope -- "a complete failure," in Gibbon's words -- and Irvin McDowell.
In Washington, Abraham Lincoln reacted to the crisis by turning to McClellan. The president did so with reluctance and against the protests of the cabinet. The department heads believed that McClellan had imperiled Pope's army deliberately by his slow withdrawal from the Peninsula. Some cabinet members tried to persuade Lincoln to dismiss the general from the service, but the president refused. As Lincoln saw it, he had no other choice and gave McClellan command of the Army of the Potomac and Pope's Army of Virginia. Like the army, Lincoln hoped that the Union had its savior.
While the army camped around Washington, McClellan responded to the situation with a renewed spirit and energy. He rode through the bivouac sites for the men to see him, acknowledging their cheers by doffing his cap. He restructured the army into three wings, assig ning two corps each to two wings and a corps and a division to the third. As for Robert E. Lee's Confederates, McClellan accepted slowly the intelligence reports and civilian accounts that placed the Rebels at Frederick. Characteristically, however, he believed the reports that estimated his opponent's numbers at 120,000, nearly three times Lee's actual strength. On September 7, the Union commander began shifting more of his units into Maryland, northwest of the capital, and relocated his headquarters to Rockville. Two days later, the 85,000-man army began the pursuit of the enemy.
Federal units filled Maryland roads along a broad front, marching deliberately in the heat and dust for three days. On September 12, two days after the Confederates had departed, the advance elements of McClellan's right wing entered Frederick to the jubilation of its residents. More troops filtered in throughout the day and on the 13th. The soldiers bivouacked in the fields outside town, where on the latter day, two members of the Twenty-seventh Indiana discovered a copy of Lee's Special Orders No. 191, wrapped around three cigars. They gave it to their company commander, who carried it to regimental headquarters. From there, it passed through the chain of command to McClellan.
When McClellan read the contents, he grasped its importance at once. In fact, he held in his hands one of the greatest intelligence finds in American military history. He wired Lincoln at noon, "I think Lee has made a gross mistake, and that he will be severely punished for it....I have all plans of the rebels, and will catch them in their own trap if my men are equal to the emergency." Later in the day, Brigadier General John Gibbon visited h is old friend at army headquarters, and according to Gibbon in his recollections, when McClellan saw the subordinate, he waved the copy of the order and said, "Here is a paper with which if I cannot whip Bobbie Lee, I will be willing to go home." McClellan then added, "Tomorrow we will pitch into his centre and if you people will only do two good, hard days' marching I will put Lee in a position he will find hard to get out of."
While McClellan and Gibbon conversed, the latter's brigade was camping along the Monocacy River, southeast of Frederick. As noted previously, the Wisconsin and Indiana troops had welcomed enthusiastically McClellan's return. At Brawner's Farm and Second Bull Run the war had overtaken them at last, and they had learned, as a sergeant put it, the Rebels "fight like so many devils." Since their initial days at camps Randall and Morton, they had waited for their time, and although the Second Wisconsin had experienced it early, the other three regiments had spent a year in the army, grumbling constantly that the conflict would elude them. But the fury had embraced them, extracting a price of over nine hundred comrades or nearly one half of the brigade's membership.
Despite the casualties and the campaign's rigors, Gibbon told his wife on September 3 that the brigade was in "excellent condition." With the rest of the army, the Westerners marched four days later. The 7th was a Sunday, and a Hoosier soldier complained that there was "nothing to remind us...of the holy Sabbath, nothing but long lines of soldiers, weary and faint traveling along through heat and dust." During the next five days, they passed through Mechanicsville, Lisbon, and New Market. "This is beautiful country ," a Wisconsinite noted, "with great farms and beautiful girls." An unusually high number of men fell out of the ranks. A surgeon believed that the proportion who straggled exceeded that of any previous march, but once they reached Frederick, he claimed, "the spirits of the men began to assume more buoyancy."
One of those whose spirits were not renewed by the arrival at Frederick was Captain Edwin Brown of the Sixth Wisconsin. He commanded Company E, which had been reduced to thirty-four members. "The Rebels are in force in Maryland, we are 'massing' to meet them," Brown informed his wife, Ruth, in a letter of September 13. "I am weary & sick if the enemy was off from our soil I should go to Hospital. Honor requires that every one who has any patriotism left should meet the insolent foe. Should I live to drive them out of this State & away from Washington, I will have rest at some rate." Continuing, he admitted, "I feel as though I was alone." Brown ended with an unusual, "Good Bye."
Captain Brown and his comrades in Gibbon's brigade marched at 6:00 A.M. on September 14, crossing the Monocacy River, before entering Frederick. Like other units before them, the Westerners received the populace's cheers. They followed the old National Road through Middletown, halted to eat a midday meal, and about three o'clock in the afternoon approached South Mountain, from whose eastern slope smoke could be seen and the sounds of combat heard. Gibbon soon received an order to report with the brigade to wing commander Major General Ambrose E. Burnside.
Since mid-morning the Federals had been ensnared in a fight for the 1,300-foot-high hill, held by D. H. Hill's five Confederate brigades. Hi ll's men guarded Turner's Gap, through which passed the National Road, and Fox's Gap, a mile to the south, where the Old Sharpsburg Road crossed the mountain. Three smaller roads branched off from the main routes over South Mountain. The terrain favored the defenders, however, with ravines, hollows, and knolls covered with trees, underbrush, and thick, entangled patches of mountain laurel. Hill was one of Lee's finest combat officers, and the Confederate army needed such a man on South Mountain on this day.
By the time Gibbon's brigade reported to Burnside, the combat on South Mountain extended from south of Fox's Gap to north of Turner's Gap. McClellan had committed eighteen brigades in seven divisions to the fighting, while Hill had received reinforcements from Longstreet, bringing the total of Confederate brigades engaged to fourteen. At four o'clock, the entire Union First Corps, except for Gibbon's brigade of John Hatch's division, launched an assault against the Confederate left flank north of Turner's Gap, using Old Hagerstown Road and a farm road. Wanting to assist the corps, now commanded by Major General Joseph Hooker, Burnside directed Gibbon to advance directly up the National Road toward the front of Turner's Gap, or as he stated in his report, "for the purpose of making a demonstration upon the enemy's center."
Gibbon aligned his four regiments on both sides of the old highway upon which countless numbers of Americans had traveled west. The Nineteenth Indiana deployed south of the road in a battle line, with the Seventh Wisconsin parallel to the Hoosiers north of the roadbed. In double columns the Second Wisconsin formed behind the Nineteenth and the Sixth Wisconsin behind the Seve nth. Each of the latter units detached two companies to the front as skirmishers, while an Indiana company covered the attackers' left flank as skirmishers. Before the Westerners advanced, ten officers and forty-one enlisted men of the Second Wisconsin "were compelled" to fall out because of exhaustion and sickness. If other men in the remaining regiments did likewise, it went unreported.
The eastern face of South Mountain appeared dark green, even black, as the sun sank beneath the crest when the Westerners moved forward. Steadily, in ranks worthy of troops in a review, the roughly twelve hundred Federals pressed ahead through open fields. Behind them, Gibbon watched their progress with pride, writing later that "the occasion was one to exhibit admirably, the drill and efficiency acquired by the brigade whilst lying at Fredericksburg." To the demanding brigadier, they looked like Regulars.
On the mountain, Confederate artillery crews saw them coming and opened fire. One shell exploded in the Second Wisconsin, killing four and wounding three. Ahead of the Nineteenth Indiana, Rebel skirmishers fired from the windows of a farmhouse. Colonel Solomon Meredith requested artillery support, and a section -- two guns -- of Battery B, Fourth U.S. Artillery deployed in the road, sending a round into the upper story of the house. The Rebels scattered, Meredith reported, in a "general stampede." When the Hoosiers passed through the farmyard, they grabbed turkeys and chickens, according to the reminiscences of one of them. The owner protested the thievery, but the soldiers rebutted that the fowl were "obstructing our forward movement."
From among the trees, Confederate infantry triggered a volley into the Nineteenth. The Southerners were Alabamians and Georgians under Brigadier General Alfred H. Colquitt. They had held the position across the road all day, spared from the combat until now. They knew who the Federals were, calling them "damned black hats." Most likely, they knew that it would be a fight.
"The fire became general on both sides," Meredith stated. His Indianans unleashed a volley, cheered, advanced, and repeated the sequence. The colonel thought "it was a most magnificent sight" to witness his men moving forward with shouts. Colonel Lucius Fairchild brought up the Second Wisconsin, joining the Hoosiers in the combat. A member of the Second described the Confederate artillery and infantry fire as "murderous." Shielded by trees and stone walls, Colquitt's Rebels held their position.
North of the National Road, the Seventh Wisconsin crested a knoll and were blasted at a range of forty yards by the Twenty-third and Twenty-eighth Georgia. A Federal described it as "a most terrific fire," adding that "it seemed no one could survive." The Georgians enfiladed the Seventh on both flanks. The Yankees clung to the knoll, firing as rapidly as they could reload.
With the explosion of musketry in front of the Seventh, Lieutenant Colonel Edward Bragg rushed the Sixth Wisconsin forward at the double quick. The Sixth's right wing came into line on the Seventh's right flank, with the left wing stacked behind it. Bragg's men relieved the pressure against the Seventh, engaging the Twenty-eighth Georgia. Before long, however, Gibbon ordered Bragg to turn the Confederate flank.
Bragg was, in the estimate of Major Rufus Dawes, an officer of "a remarkable quick conception and instant action." When he re ceived Gibbon's directive, Bragg went to Dawes, who commanded the right wing, and instructed the major to have his men fire a volley and then lie down. "I am going over you," Bragg said, referring to the left wing. Dawes complied, and Bragg led the other half of the regiment up the slope, ordering his troops to fire a volley and fall to the ground. Dawes followed with his wing and repeated the tactic. The Sixth ascended the mountain, with one wing leapfrogging the other. "In a long experience in musketry fighting," Dawes contended later, "this was the single instance I saw of other than a fire by file in battle."
The Sixth "poured volley after volley into the enemy." The gunfire on both sides was "incessant and forcible." Sergeant George Fairfield believed that "the artillery roared to beat anything I had yet heard." South of the worn roadway, the Second Wisconsin wheeled to the right, raking the flank of the Georgians across the road. It was so dark that neither opponent could see each other. The men aimed at the rifle flashes. The "sides of the mountain seemed in a blaze of flame," avowed a Federal.
The combat raged in the darkness until nine o'clock. The Second Wisconsin expended all its ammunition, and Colonel Meredith brought forward the Nineteenth Indiana to relieve the Second. In the Sixth and Seventh Wisconsin, the men searched the dead and wounded for cartridges. When Gibbon learned of the situation, he ordered a cease-fire, but admonished the officers to "hold the ground at the point of the bayonet." In a final spasm, the Georgians crept toward the Sixth and Seventh only to be lashed by a final volley. Bragg's men emitted three cheers, and as the lieutenant colonel said, "the enemy was no more seen."
Before midnight, troops from Massachusetts, Minnesota, and New York replaced Gibbon's men, except for the Sixth Wisconsin, at the front. It was not until eight o'clock on the morning of the 15th before Bragg's regiment filed off the mountainside. The engagement had cost the "damned black hats" 37 killed, 251 wounded, and 30 captured or missing, for a total of 318, a quarter of the brigade's strength. Among the dead was Captain Wilson Colwell of the Second Wisconsin. Described as "a general favorite of the regiment," Colwell fell while commanding the skirmishers. "His place can hardly be filled," reported Colonel Fairchild.
When the brigade had passed through Frederick earlier in the day, Private George Miles of Company A, Sixth Wisconsin remarked to comrades that he had had a premonition of his death. His fellow soldiers reassured him otherwise, but when the regiment formed for battle, some of them asked Captain David Noyes to assign Miles to other duty. Noyes approached the private, who refused, saying that he would do his duty. As the wings of the regiment climbed the mountain, fighting the Georgians, the Reedsburg, Wisconsin, volunteer was killed.
In a letter to his wife, written the next day, Gibbon confided, "Every one, from Genl. McClellan down, speaks in the highest terms of my gallant Brigade and I of course am proud." First Corps commander Joseph Hooker had not witnessed the struggle between Gibbon's and Colquitt's troops, but stated subsequently that the Westerners' list of casualties "speaks for itself." Wing commander Ambrose Burnside, who watched the fighting with McClellan, described it as "a most brilliant engagement." In his report, Gibbon boasted, "The conduct of the officers and men was during the engagement everything that could be desired, and they maintained their well-earned reputation for gallantry and discipline acquired in the engagements of the 28th and 30th of August."
In the fields of Brawner's Farm, on the crest of Dogan Ridge, and at the base of South Mountain, the Black Hat Brigade, as the Wisconsin and Indiana troops had come to be known in each army, demonstrated how inexperienced combat soldiers could answer the fearful summons. Imbued with patriotism and tempered by discipline and training, the Westerners had stood amid the terribleness with a valor that had marked them among both comrades and enemies. They were warriors now, these men in tall, black hats.
During the battle at South Mountain, as Gibbon directed the brigade's movements, the general stopped one of his men. The soldier had been wounded earlier in the action, and with an arm in a sling and a rifle in the other, was returning to his regiment. "My man where are you going?" asked Gibbon.
"Back to my regiment, sir," replied the brigade member.
"But you can't handle your musket in that fix," Gibbon rebutted.
"Yes I can, sir," the Westerner affirmed.
Gibbon let him pass to the front, and as he informed his wife, "I had nothing more to say."
The Confederates dragged themselves off South Mountain during the night of September 14-15. In Boonsboro, at the western base of the mountain, Robert E. Lee conferred with several of his ranking subordinates. "After a long debate," the officers decided to retreat to Sharpsburg, Maryland, on the 15th. Lee anticipated that the army would have to abandon the operation north of the Potomac River, and the route through Sharpsburg l ed to a good ford. But later that night, Lee received a message from Stonewall Jackson, who indicated that Harper's Ferry would fall to his troops within a day. Perhaps the army could hold at Sharpsburg until its scattered divisions could be reunited.
While the troops with Lee marched to Sharpsburg on the morning of the 15th, Jackson sealed the fate of the Union garrison at Harper's Ferry. Southern artillerists on the heights above the town opened fire once the morning's fog lifted. Union gunners responded, but after an hour, the Federals requested a truce. Before nine o'clock the garrison's commander surrendered the post, 12,500 troops, 73 cannon, thousands of weapons, and hundreds of wagons and animals. All that had eluded the grasp of the Rebels was a 1,300-man cavalry contingent that had escaped during the preceding night, finding an unguarded road below Maryland Heights.
Jackson hurried a letter to Lee, informing the army commander of the victory. Much had to be done at Harper's Ferry, however, before Jackson could rejoin Lee at Sharpsburg. The Confederates feasted on the enemy's foodstuffs as they had at Manassas Junction on August 27, while officers began the process of paroling prisoners and starting the ordnance supplies and arms south. Leaving A. P. Hill's division behind to finish the details, Jackson started with his other two divisions before midnight for Sharpsburg. The Southerners marched all night without cessation, crossing the Potomac at Boteler's Ford near Shepherdstown, and arriving late on the morning of the 16th at Sharpsburg, seventeen miles from Harper's Ferry. Lee greeted Jackson and escorted his subordinate to headquarters, where they discussed the situation.
Lee's de cision to seek an engagement before the army returned to Virginia was arguably the worst of his career. The terrain provided few natural advantages to the defenders. If his army suffered a defeat, it would have to retreat across the Potomac about four miles to the west. The town lay less than a mile west of Antietam Creek amid rich limestone soil. The encircling farmland undulated from the crests of ridges to the bottoms of hollows. Hills of various heights jutted above the creek's western bank while rock outcroppings and woodlots splotched the fertile fields. For decades the land had nourished farm families and townsfolk, but now if Lee were to make a stand before he abandoned Maryland, it had to be here on ground more suited for the labors of a farmer than those of a warrior.
The strategic and tactical weaknesses of the position were compounded by the reduced numbers in Lee's army. Straggling was, according to a historian, "unprecedented" during the campaign. Men abandoned the ranks in droves, impelled by the hardships and by the invasion of Northern soil. The troops suffered from heat, dust, lack of shoes, and the collapse of Lee's commissary. A Shepherdstown woman who saw the Rebels pass through her town testified later to the condition of the army. "When I say that they were hungry," she asserted, "I convey no impression of the gaunt starvation that looked down from their cavernous eyes." She watched soldiers from both sides march by for four years, but during the Maryland campaign, "never were want and exhaustion more visibly put before my eyes, and that they could march or fight at all seemed incredible."
A considerable number had either refused to cross the Potomac, or once in Maryland, returned to Virginia, believing that they had enlisted to defend their homeland and not to carry the conflict beyond its borders. A critical shortage of officers hampered efforts to enforce march discipline and to keep the stragglers or the disenchanted in the ranks. While precise figures cannot be determined, the Confederate army at Sharpsburg, when all units were on the field, probably numbered fewer than forty thousand, perhaps as low as thirty to thirty-five thousand.
A recent estimate has calculated the average Confederate regimental strength at 166 and comparative Union numbers at 346. In the Stonewall Brigade, the figures were starkly worse. Jackson had detached the Second Virginia and assigned it to provost duty in Martinsburg, Virginia, reducing the brigade's regiments to four. Colonel Andrew Grigsby commanded the Virginians, with a lieutenant colonel, a major, and two captains serving as regimental commanders. The brigade's reported strength at Sharpsburg was 250 officers and men, an average of slightly more than sixty per regiment.
Private John Garibaldi of the Twenty-seventh Virginia claimed in a letter written after the battle, however, that only a dozen members were with the regiment on the field at Sharpsburg. When Jackson's troops returned to Maryland after the fall of Harper's Ferry, most of the Twenty-seventh's men "never went across the river," according to the private. Although Garibaldi was absent during the campaign, he learned this from comrades upon his return to the regiment. If the number is accurate it indicates the breakdown of discipline in the unit, the campaign's hardships, and/or the Valley men's refusal to risk their lives in an invasion of Union territory. In le ss than five months, the Stonewall Brigade had seen its strength reduced by more than ninety percent. Casualties exacted a share, but the majority of losses had resulted from desertion.
On ground that favored an aggressive opponent, with an army outnumbered two to one, and with his back to a river, Lee stood at Sharpsburg. If he held the field, he could achieve little more than a drawn battle, but if the Federals broke the Southern lines, Lee risked the destruction of his army. He explained his decision after the war, stating that "it was better to have fought in Maryland than to have left it without a struggle." He was convinced also that he could defeat his opponent, George McClellan.
Boonsboro, Maryland, sat hard by the western foot of South Mountain. A small village of stone, log, and clapboard houses, Boonsboro framed the National Road as it debouched from the mountain through Turner's Gap. Its residents had heard the sounds of battle tumble down the mountainside and had watched Confederate troops race up the road toward the gap on September 14. During the ensuing night, they had witnessed the retreat of the Southerners. Now as September 15 lengthened, ranks of blue-coated soldiers descended South Mountain, pursuing the Rebels toward Sharpsburg, seven miles to the west.
The townsfolk with Union sympathies welcomed the passing troops. Major Rufus Dawes remembered that a "respectable old gentleman" approached him and exclaimed, "We have watched for you, Sir, and we have prayed for you and now thank God you have come!" When George McClellan clattered into the village, amid a cloud of staff officers, the civilians joined the troops in cheering the general. Earlier, he had telegraphed the War Department, stating, "I am hurrying everything forward to endeavor to press their retreat to the utmost." McClellan added that "the morale of our men is now restored."
Throughout the 15th, the Army of the Potomac closed upon Sharpsburg. A member of the Black Hat Brigade reported that as the Westerners marched past troops from the Second Corps their fellow soldiers opened ranks and presented arms in a salute to the brigade. By mid-afternoon, John Gibbon's regiments and many units of the army were halted in fields along the Boonsboro-Sharpsburg road. On the hills west of Antietam Creek, Confederate artillery and infantry barked at any Union troops who appeared across the stream. McClellan's aggressiveness at South Mountain had surprised Lee, who learned only later of the so-called Lost Order. The Confederate commander resorted to a bold stand on the 15th, testing his opponent's determination while he waited for his army's scattered units to reconcentrate at Sharpsburg.
Lee's bluff succeeded, and resuming his cautious generalship, McClellan and the army bivouacked for the night beyond the creek. Fog shrouded the ground on the morning of September 16, delaying McClellan's examination of the enemy position. Once the mists cleared, he studied the terrain west of the creek from his headquarters at the Philip Pry residence, situated on a knoll north of the Boonsboro road. Although the general could acquire only a limited knowledge of the ground and Lee's troop dispositions from this vantage point, he fashioned an offensive plan for the 17th. He decided to strike with his main assault force Lee's left or northern flank, where the terrain appeared favorable to such a maneuver. On the Confederate right , where the hills abutted the creek, McClellan intended to force a crossing at Rohrbach Bridge, either as a diversion or as a full-scale attack. If the flank movements succeeded, he would crush Lee's center astride the Boonsboro road. Once more, however, McClellan miscalculated his opponent's strength, inflating the numbers.
McClellan committed three corps -- First, Second, and Twelfth -- to the attack north of Sharpsburg. Late in the afternoon of the 16th, the corps began the march toward their assigned areas, crossing the creek at Upper Bridge. Major General Joseph Hooker's First Corps, including the Black Hat Brigade, led the movement. Hooker's van brushed aside Rebel skirmishers, angling northwest and halting in the fields between the Joseph and Samuel Poffenberger farms, east of Hagerstown Turnpike and roughly a thousand yards from the Confederate lines in this section of the field. The Twelfth bivouacked to the north and east of Hooker's troops, while the Second Corps remained east of Antietam Creek.
John Gibbon's Westerners bedded down north of Joseph Poffenberger's house and barn. During the march, they had passed a Confederate beef butcher site, and the men cut strips of fat from the discarded intestines to grease their rifles and to prevent rust. While applying the fat to his weapon, a corporal in the Nineteenth Indiana accidentally discharged it, with the bullet striking the brim of his hat.
A drizzling rain began to fall after dark. The Westerners slept on the ground beside their greased rifles. "The night was dismal," recalled Major Dawes. "Nothing can be more solemn then a period of silent waiting for one's summons to battle, known to be impending. Such was this night." Earlier i n the evening, they learned that the brigade "will have the honor to open the battle." When one man heard the news, he growled, "To Hell with your honors!"
Hooker had approximately 8,600 troops in three divisions. His assault would follow the axis of Hagerstown Turnpike toward Sharpsburg. The corps's target was a plateau east of the roadbed opposite a whitewashed brick German Baptist Brethren or Dunker Church. Midway between the church and the Federals' bivouac sites was the farm of David R. Miller, whose buildings lay on both sides of the turnpike. South of the farmhouse Miller's cornfield -- the "Cornfield" as it would be known -- covered thirty acres east of the roadbed, and beyond it, a forty-acre pasture, shaped like a pie wedge, extended to the intersection of the turnpike and Smoketown Road, opposite the church. The soon-to-be-christened West Woods ran for nearly fifteen hundred yards from south of Dunker Church to the northern edge of the Cornfield. East of Miller's fields, East Woods sprawled for eight hundred yards along a section of Smoketown Road. It was a benign landscape whose features were about to be seared into America's collective memory.
Hooker's troops awakened on Wednesday, September 17, before daybreak, with fog filling the hollows, woods, and fields. North of the Poffenberger farm, Gibbon formed the four regiments of his brigade into a column of divisions or in eight lines of five companies each, stacked one behind another. A recent recruit in the command described the brigadier, writing that he "is of medium height, fair complected, light hair, wears a long mustache, has a keen eye and is bold as a lion, is respected by his men, who have great confidence in his abilities as a leader."
Despite the concealing mists, Confederate artillerists were at their posts and began hurling shells toward the Poffenberger farm. The first round missed the Westerners, but a second one burst above the Sixth Wisconsin, severing the foot of Captain David Noyes and killing or wounding a dozen men. The unscathed soldiers left "the mangled bodies of their comrades on the ground," and continued forward. Once they passed through North Woods, the Sixth Wisconsin in front deployed into line of battle, pushing two companies ahead as skirmishers. Southern gunners continued to fire upon the Federals while Rebel infantry pickets sniped at the oncoming brigade from the Miller outbuildings. When the Westerners neared the farmstead, the enemy fled south toward the stalks of standing corn.
When the Sixth reached Miller's, the right wing of the regiment swung wide of the farmhouse as the left wing clogged up at a board paling fence that surrounded the family garden. Unable to level the barrier, Major Rufus Dawes hurried the men through a gate. Bullets from enemy skirmishers pockmarked the boards. As each company cleared the garden, officers re-formed the men into line. Captain Edwin Brown lifted his sword and shouted for his Company E to file into ranks. Suddenly, Brown shrieked and collapsed to the ground, hit by either a bullet or a piece of shell. He lived for only a short time. Brown had always been a reluctant soldier, concerned about his wife, Ruth, and their children in Fond du Lac. He "could scarcely walk" that morning, but duty kept him in the ranks. In his final letter, he assured Ruth that he would secure a furlough when the campaign ended. All he wanted was some rest, and now it would b e a permanent one.
With ranks realigned, the Sixth advanced toward the Cornfield. The right wing overlapped the turnpike in fields next to West Woods while the other wing plunged into the corn. Behind them, their comrades in the Second Wisconsin rushed ahead to come in on the Sixth's left. For the fourth time in less than a month, the Westerners faced combat's fearful truth. Why men went forward into battle "cannot be easily explained," admitted a captain in the Second. "All this is business like," he contended. "All understand the situation. The touch of elbows, the step, the alignment are more accurate, more perfect than usual, showing that every man is alive to the duty of the occasion. Right here description ends."
A rail fence rimmed the southern edge of the Cornfield, and behind it a brigade of Georgians, under Colonel Marcellus Douglass, waited. These Southerners had stood face-to-face with Gibbon's men at Brawner's Farm. When the Georgians saw their old foes in black hats close to within thirty yards of the fence, the Southerners rose and opened the doors of hell into the Yankees. The volley staggered the Wisconsinites, but they halted and fired. As if staked to the ground, immovable, the opposing lines ravaged each other. "Men, I can not say fell," wrote Major Dawes, "they were knocked out of the ranks by dozens."
The noise was deafening; the killing and maiming, unending. Dawes believed that the bullets seemed as "thick, almost, as hail." One soldier in the Second Wisconsin was struck by five balls. Private Gustav Eltermann died instantly as a bullet splattered his brains and blood over the stalks. "He did not know what hit him," wrote Corporal Horace Emerson of the German volunteer. But after three engagements, a soldier "becomes callous to those falling around you dead and wounded," a Westerner informed his daughters in a letter after the battle. "Under the Excitement," he claimed, men ignored "the shells bursting over your heads the solid balls tearing up the ground."
Along Hagerstown Turnpike, meanwhile, the right wing of the Sixth Wisconsin was caught in "a murderous enfilade" from Confederate troops in West Woods. Like their comrades in the Cornfield, they had encountered familiar enemies from Brawner's Farm. The Rebels belonged to Stonewall Jackson's old division, including the Virginians of the Stonewall Brigade.
The Confederates had spent the previous night bivouacked in the fields near the Smoketown Road-Hagerstown Turnpike intersection. At daylight, staff officers moved among the men, ordering them to cap their rifles. Brigadier General John R. Jones, a former field officer in the Thirty-third Virginia who had lost his post in the April elections, commanded the division. He had missed the Second Manassas Campaign, suffering from typhoid fever, but had rejoined the command at Frederick, succeeding the wounded William Taliaferro. On this day, Jones reported that the division's four brigades numbered barely sixteen hundred rank and file, with many of the men barefoot.
Jones advanced the division into West Woods soon after daylight. At the southwest corner of the Cornfield, West Woods bent west. Between the treeline and the corn lay a clover field and farther north, opposite Miller's field, a rock ledge jutted up, less than one hundred yards from the turnpike. Near this elbow of West Woods, Jones formed his former brigade and the Stonewall Brigade in the front line and his other two brigades as support deeper in the woods. The entire division was sheltered and concealed among the trees.
As the fog dissipated, the Confederates saw the Yankees coming. A Valley man recalled the scene, "In apparent double battle lines, the Federals were moving toward us at charge bayonets, common time, and the sunbeams falling on their well polished guns and bayonets gave a glamor and a show at once fearful and entrancing." When the enemy neared the southern border of the Cornfield, Jones's brigade and the Stonewall Brigade stood up and fired a volley into the Sixth Wisconsin. The Southerners emerged from the woods, sweeping into the clover field. The 250 members of the Stonewall Brigade, commanded by Colonel Andrew Grigsby, occupied the division's right front near the turnpike.
The blast of musketry lashed the flank and front of the Wisconsinites. The Sixth's commander, Lieutenant Colonel Edward Bragg, shouted to the two right companies to refuse the flank and sent an aide to Gibbon for help. While standing in the roadbed, Bragg took a bullet in the left arm, above the elbow, that damaged the ulnar nerve. He refused to relinquish command until the loss of blood so weakened him that he nearly fainted. He sent for Major Dawes to assume command and was then carried to the rear. In a letter to his wife, written four days after the battle, Bragg averred that the Rebels "fought like demons," adding that "officers and men, are all alike -- in filth & rags."
John Gibbon and division commander Abner Doubleday reacted to Bragg's request by ordering forward reinforcements. Doubleday led the division because John Hatch had been wounded at South Mountain. To assist the Westerners, Doub leday selected Hatch's former brigade, now under Colonel Walter Phelps, Jr. The Second U.S. Sharpshooters arrived first, bolstering the right front of the Sixth Wisconsin. Behind them, Gibbon shifted the Seventh Wisconsin and Nineteenth Indiana into the fields west of the turnpike and ordered them to charge toward West Woods. The brigadier also brought forward a two-gun section of Battery B, Fourth U.S. Artillery to the knoll thirty yards from the turnpike, opposite the northwest corner of the Cornfield. The Union gunners unlimbered among straw stacks.
The combat grew as these Federals entered the action. The pair of Confederate brigades pushed farther into the clover field into a wall of musketry and artillery fire. "The fighting was terrible," stated a captain in the Thirty-third Virginia. Jones fell with a wound from an artillery shell and was succeeded by Brigadier General William Starke. In the turnpike, the Wisconsin men and Sharpshooters sheltered themselves behind the rail fence along the roadbed. Dawes grabbed six rifles, firing them in succession. Men on both sides fell in clusters. Starke added the division's final two brigades to the fury, leading them toward the Cornfield and the pasture south of it. Within minutes, Starke was killed, hit by three balls, and Colonel Grigsby assumed command of the division.
The advance of the Confederates deeper into the clover field exposed their left flank, and toward it came the Seventh Wisconsin and Nineteenth Indiana. Over the Federals' heads, their comrades in Battery B hurled canister into the Southern ranks. The Westerners closed to within thirty paces, raking the Rebel line. The Virginians reeled and then fled toward the woods. Lieutenant He nry Young of the Seventh Wisconsin described the action in a letter, bragging, "Our brigade whipped Jackson's famous Stonewall Brigade, at the battle of Antietam in a fair and square fight. It was them we met in the morning, they fought well, but we hurled them back, broken and in perfect confusion." In West Woods, the "fearless" Grigsby rallied the "shattered columns." The Confederate division appeared to be "no larger than a good regiment!"
Jackson's entire line between the turnpike and Smoketown Road in the pasture began now to unravel. From the Cornfield the Federals clawed themselves over the fence only to be blasted back. "Every body tears cartridges, loads, passes guns, or shoots," as Dawes described the fighting. "Men are falling in their places or running back into the corn. The soldier who is shooting is furious in his energy." Union reserves, including the red-legged Chasseurs of the Fourteenth Brooklyn, bolstered the lines, and then with a surge, the Yankees, "crawling, climbing, and scrambling," scaled the fence, cheering as they charged across the pasture. Ahead of them, they saw the whitewashed Dunker Church, the target of the morning's assault.
The Sixth and Second Wisconsin, Second U.S. Sharpshooters, and Fourteenth Brooklyn spearheaded the attack. The Yankees' guns had become so fouled that they had to pound each new round down the barrel. Suddenly, through the smoke, in a field north of Smoketown Road a Confederate division appeared. The Rebels were Brigadier General John B. Hood's two brigades of Southerners from six states, and when Federals come into range, they screeched their yell and fired a volley. The musketry was, Dawes wrote, "like a scythe running through our line." The Yankees lurched to a halt and recoiled. "It is a race for life that each man runs for the corn-field," as the major recounted it.
One of the Federals killed by Hood's troops was Captain Werner Von Bachelle of Company F, Sixth Wisconsin. A former officer in the French army, Von Bachelle had emigrated to America, settling in Milwaukee. "He was a true soldier, a gallant officer, and a faithful man," in the words of Bragg. The captain had a pet Newfoundland dog that had been in the regiment since his master enlisted. The dog could salute and was never far away from Von Bachelle. When the officer fell, the Newfoundland sat beside his master, and there he was found dead two days later. The captain's men buried them together.
Hood's Confederates pursued the remnants of the Federal line, driving toward the Cornfield. On the division's left, the Texas Brigade, comprised of Texans, Georgians, and South Carolinians, followed the turnpike. From west of the roadbed, the Seventh Wisconsin and Nineteenth Indiana saw the enemy counterattack. Lieutenant Colonel Alois Bachman stepped to the front of the Hoosiers, drew his sword, and shouted, "Boys, the command is no longer forward, but now it is follow me." The two regiments of black-hatted men ascended a slope west of the pike. When the Southerners discovered them, three of the regiments wheeled toward the roadbed to confront them head-on.
The opponents exchanged gunfire at a murderous distance that one officer estimated at less than two hundred feet. Lieutenant Colonel Bachman fell mortally wounded in the initial discharge. "We got into a hornet's nest," stated a Hoosier, and were "nearly cut to pieces." Three color-bearers in the Nineteenth Indiana were slain, and only the bravery of Lieutenant D. S. Holloway saved the flag. Private Morris Gilmore died. At Brawner's Farm he had watched his twin brother, John, fall with a wound. Unable to endure more, the Westerners retreated to the protection of the rock ledge and fought.
Among the men in the Seventh Wisconsin was Private George Partridge, Jr. After the battle, his sisters wrote to him, inquiring if he had fired at the Rebels. "I took aim at one several times," Partridge answered, "but they always fell before I could fire." Several times he drew a bead on one Southern soldier only to have another come into view. "But to tell the truth," he admitted, "I could not tell wether I killed any or not as they fell so fast...but I know I tryed as hard as I could to kill some of them." If he did not succeed, many of his comrades did.
The slaughter in the pasture, along the turnpike, and amid "those corn acres of hell," as a Southerner termed Miller's field, stunned the soldiers. "I thought I had seen men piled up and cut up in all kindes of shape," asserted Corporal Horace Emerson of the Second Wisconsin, "but never anything in comparison to that field." Another corporal in the Sixth stated that "the dead was piled in winrows on both sides." It was "dreadful" to see so many dismembered bodies. Adjutant Frank Haskell of Gibbon's staff argued that the command's three previous engagements "were but skirmishes in comparison to this at Sharpsburg." He compared the combat's sound to "a roaring hell of fire" and "a great tumbling together of all heaven and earth." A quarter of a century afterward, Dawes put it simply, "Whoever stood in front of the corn field at Antietam needs no praise."
The struggle rushed now toward a climax in the Cornfield and along Hagerstown Turnpike. The First Texas swept into the battered acreage, clearing the ground of the shattered ranks of the Sixth and Second Wisconsin and Phelps's brigade. The Texans advanced to the northern edge of the field in a remarkable display of bravery. Federal reserves and some of the Wisconsinites waited beyond the rows and savaged the Lone Star troops. A cauldron of flame and thunder decimated the Texans. Their casualty rate exceeded eighty percent. No other regiment in Lee's army incurred a higher percentage of loss in a single battle during the war.
To the Texans' left, along the turnpike, the Eighteenth Georgia charged toward Battery B, Fourth U.S. Artillery. Earlier, Gibbon had ordered forward all of the unit's guns to the knoll, where the one section had been posted. The six cannon were a prize, and the Georgians raked the gun crews from behind the post and rail fence that divided the road from the Cornfield. The Rebels killed or wounded dozens of the gunners, including the battery commander, Captain Joseph Campbell. "It seems almost incredible that any man could have escaped," wrote a battery member. The surviving artillerists blasted the enemy with canister, splintering the rails and leveling cornstalks.
Three times the Georgians charged toward the guns, and three times they were repulsed. Union infantry west of the battery ripped apart the attackers' flank, and the artillerists unleashed more canister. Gibbon, the old gunner, directed the battery's fire, sighting a cannon and urging, "Give them hell, boys." Finally, the Georgians could withstand the punishment no longer, and as more Union infantry piled into the Cornfield, Hood's wr ecked division retreated toward West Woods and Dunker Church. When asked later where his command was, Hood replied, "Dead on the field."
Like a dying beast, the combat had ceased in one final convulsion. It was 7:30 A.M., and in ninety minutes of almost unparalleled butchery, Jackson's and Hooker's men had decimated each other. Neither opponent had much left to give. Hooker's corps abandoned the bloody ground as additional units moved toward a renewal of the carnage. Fresh Confederate reserves replaced Jackson's troops and prepared for the approaching onslaught.
The savagery of the Cornfield proved to be only a harbinger as the two armies killed and maimed each other in numbers unprecedented in American history. Before the battle ended, in West Woods, around Dunker Church, before Bloody Lane, and above Rohrback or Burnside's Bridge, more than 23,000 Americans had fallen or were captured. When A. P. Hill's division, arriving from Harper's Ferry, repulsed the final Union assault, September 17, 1862, became -- and remains -- the bloodiest single day in the country's annals.
At nightfall, Lee's veterans clung to the scarred landscape around Sharpsburg. McClellan had withheld thousands of troops during the fighting, men that might have destroyed the Confederate army. Defiantly, Lee stayed on the field on September 18, but after darkness retreated across the Potomac into Virginia. A clash occurred on the 20th between Lee's rear guard and McClellan's pursuit force at Shepherdstown, adding more casualties to the lengthy bill. But two days later, Abraham Lincoln, seizing upon the Confederate withdrawal from Maryland as a victory, redefined the conflict by issuing the preliminary Emancipation Proclamati on. A different trumpet sounded the advance of Union armies.
In the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia, the members of the Stonewall Brigade counted Sharpsburg's toll. There had been so few of them in the ranks, but as John Jones boasted, they and their comrades in the division "fought with gallantry that has never been surpassed and rarely equalled." They had withstood the furnace of artillery fire and musketry until enemy numbers drove them from the clover field. Later, they reentered the struggle, assisting in the repulse of two Union divisions in West Woods. By then, the Virginians had expended nearly all of their ammunition. The Battle of Sharpsburg or Antietam exacted a cost of eighty-eight killed or wounded, or over a third of their numbers.
Among the Valley men who did not recross the river was a soldier identified only as Robbie. He had been wounded in the right leg, above the knee. In the weeks ahead, Union surgeons would amputate the limb, and he would be confined to a Baltimore prison. He was young, "a boy" when he enlisted, and had been married for a brief time. Lying on a prison cot, he must have looked at the stump of his leg, thought of his wife, and wondered how she would accept a one-legged man.
It was weeks before he wrote to her, perhaps needing time to find the courage. "I trust and pray that my injury does not disgust you nor relinquish your love for me," he implored. "I'm still all the man you married. When I get home if I get home, I will never stop loving you. I hope to attach an artificial leg so I can plow the land and fix the house." What he had seen and had experienced had made him "older, tired, resigned." "You must never know what my eyes have seen gentile [sic] w oman," he ended it. "War is too gruesome a sight to describe in words." But if he returned, she must have seen each day in his eyes and as he worked, Sharpsburg's price.
On Friday, September 19, like thousands of others in the army, the men of the Black Hat Brigade walked across the battlefield at Sharpsburg. They searched for their wounded comrades left on the field and buried their dead. The carnage appalled them; it seemed unending, inexplicable. Corporal Horace Currier claimed that a man could walk "in one straight line" for a mile and not step on the ground. The slain were piled three and four deep at points. Along Hagerstown Turnpike -- "this road of fearful carnage," in a Hoosier's words -- there were "frightful" heaps of dead men. Sergeant James Converse wrote home that he could never give "a full description" of what he saw, but it was "a horrorable view that in my opinion never ought to be witnessed by any human being."
Even John Gibbon was stunned by it. "I am as tired of this horrible war as you are," he confessed to his wife, "and would be perfectly willing never to see another battle field." In another letter, he told her that "forty eight hours after a battle the most intimate friend cannot recognise the features of the dead."
Gibbon knew that "the men stood like iron," as Major Dawes avowed, and such valor carried a grievous cost. The brigade suffered casualties of 68 killed, 275 wounded, and 5 missing, for a total of 348. They had had roughly nine hundred in the ranks at the battle's outset. In Battery B, the losses amounted to two killed and thirty-eight wounded, a figure that would rank them third in casualties among light artillery batteries in a battle. One of those wo unded in the battery was a sergeant, who killed himself with a bullet to the head while lying in a hospital.
When Gibbon learned a few weeks later that his wife had been visiting some of the brigade members in Washington hospitals, he asked her to bring delicacies for them to eat. "They are as brave a set of fellows as ever lived or died," he explained. Although some of the wounded had told him that they wanted to heal and "try it again," most of the Westerners shared Gibbon's view that they had seen enough of war after Antietam. A Wisconsin corporal spoke for many: "I tell you it makes a person think of home & their dear Parents & wish to be there."
Copyright © 1999 by Jeffry D. Wert
Posted October 13, 2010
As a history teacher, I have to say that Jeffry Wert's book is one of the most intimate looks at the Civil War. His research and facts are impeccably on target...a must read for any Civil War buff.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted February 12, 2003
I found this book by the bargain area on the way out, so i picked it up, what the hell. If you are a civil war buff, definitely get this book, get it even if you are not!!! As soon as i finished it, i read it again, it's so descriptive, about the soldiers life.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.