Friday, September 5, 2014

Mark Your Calendars! 152nd Antietam Battle Anniversary Schedule!

We are just one week away from the start of events for the 152nd anniversary of the Battle of Antietam!!

Mark your calendars! Our full schedule of events can be found at this link:

We have a full 8 days from September 13 through September 21, filled with hikes, ranger talks, lectures, firing demonstrations, and even an evening campfire program! Check out the schedule above for more information!!

Thursday, August 28, 2014

The 7th Michigan Infantry at Antietam

The Seventh Michigan Infantry at Antietam

By Tom Nank,
Interpretation Intern, CWI, Gettysburg College

“I would not be in Michigan this day, and if I never see it again, be sure I fall a willing offering.” - Captain Henry Turrill, Company G

            In July 1861, the defeat of the Union Army at the First Battle of Bull Run convinced many that the Civil War would not be a quick one, and that many more soldiers would be needed for a long fight.  On August 3rd, Congress authorized President Abraham Lincoln to call up 500,000 more volunteers from the states to join the Union armies.  From this request would come the men that would fill several more Michigan units in addition to the four already in the field.  One of these new units would be the 7th Michigan Infantry Regiment.   It was decided this new regiment would “muster in” in the city of Monroe, 40 miles south of Detroit on Lake Erie.  The Commercial newspaper of Monroe sounded the call for new recruits:

There is but one feeling, one sentiment, one voice: and that is, the administration must be sustained, the Stars and Stripes defended, and our government preserved.  However much political opinions may have divided us, there is no difference now.  Our country sounds the bugle note of alarm, and the people respond as one.

            Men enlisted in the 7th from all over the state.  Eventually, 1,020 men from as far away as the Upper Peninsula would fill ten companies.  Several state militia units joined the 7th in Federal service, such as “The Union Guard” of Port Huron, “The Blair Guards” from Farmington, “The Prairieville Rangers” and “The Jonesville Light Guard”, led by Captain Henry Baxter, a miller who had returned home to Michigan after an unsuccessful trip to California in search of gold.  These militia units would become distinct companies within the 7th.  Company D, formerly the “Monroe Light Guard” would be filled with local men from Monroe, men like Sergeant John A. Clark, who would become an officer within 7 months, and Private Basil Deshetler.  Other men from across the state would report to Monroe, including Captain Henry Turrill, a lumberman from Lapeer, and Sergeant Samuel Hodgman, a 30-year old from Kalamazoo County who left work in his father’s shoe shop to join the army. 

            After 4 weeks of drilling and training in Monroe, the 7th was officially mustered into Federal service on August 22, 1861 with 884 men assigned.  It was stationed outside Washington DC from September 1861 to March 1862, mostly on picket duty and drilling at their camp near the Potomac River at Poolesville, Maryland.  During the winter of 1861-62, 30 men from the 7th regiment would die of disease in winter quarters, most from the measles.  The men’s fighting spirits would not be dampened, however.  Although combat so far eluded them, the men had not lost their determination to fight and to win the war.  Charles Benson from Company I wrote in his diary on New Years Eve:

I have been five months in the service.  I do not regret that I engaged in such a good cause, a cause in which hundreds of thousands of our countrymen engaged, leaving all the joys & comforts of home to maintain their country’s honor & put down this monster rebellion which aims at the very heart of our great & free government.

            The 7th Michigan men that would fight at Antietam were not green, untested troops.  In May 1862 the regiment participated in General George McClellan’s Peninsula Campaign, where at the Battle of Fair Oaks, the regiment played a critical role during an attack on a Confederate position.  The regiment was posted on the left flank of the brigade and successfully attacked the rebel flank in a dense woodlot.  A month later, they were involved in six separate engagements during the Seven Days battles.  The regiment would suffer nearly 200 total casualties during the Peninsula Campaign, almost one quarter of the men who left Monroe nine months earlier.

            The impact of the death and suffering clearly left a mark on the men.  They had seen their comrades shot dead on the battlefield, and each of the men confronted their own mortality.  Five days before Fair Oaks, Captain Turrill from Lapeer in Company G, wrote to his wife Elizabeth:

I have no fear for the result of the battle should we be in one, and I shall do all in my power for my men and victory.  Should I fall I feel that I have left a richer legacy to my family than in any other event I could bestow.  While I have been in the service, I know I have done that which my judgement dictated was right for me to do as an officer, and often when duty lay in an opposite direction to that which my feelings would lead me.

Sergeant Samuel Hodgman, pictured here as a lieutenant

Samuel Hodgman, the First Sergeant of Company I, wrote his parents:

None of us feel fainthearted yet.  The nearer the prospect of danger the less I seem to dread it.  I know not how it will be when I come to stand face to face with it.  When it is the will of God that I shall do so, I shall try and do my duty like a man, let the consequences be what they may.

            On June 28, before the Seven Days campaign, Captain Allen Zacharias of Company K, a native of Washington County, Maryland and a professor at the Michigan State Military Institute, wrote a short autobiography on a piece of paper which he kept with him.  On the other side of the note he wrote:

Friend: If you find my body lifeless upon the field, bury it decently, mark its resting place, and inform my friends in the regiment and my father.  Do this and you shall be liberally rewarded and have the gratitude of my friends.

            Captain Zacharias would survive the Peninsula Campaign without harm, but he kept the note.  Two weeks later, on July 11, while the army regrouped and recuperated around Washington, Captain Zacharias would write another letter, this one to the father of Private Noah Teall, one of his soldiers in Company K who had died the previous morning of dysentery:

Dear Sir:  It has become my melancholy duty to communicate sad intelligence in regard to your son, Noah.  He lives no more.  At 9 o’clock yesterday morning his eyes were closed in that “last long sleep that knows no waking”…  Clothed in the blue uniform of a Union soldier his body was placed in a decent pine box, and with Rev. Basil L. Deshetler and myself leading, and the company following, he was borne by his comrades this morning to its last resting place… At the head of the grave I will have a board erected with name etc. to mark the place.

Captain Zacharias and Private Deshetler would both face death at Antietam with the rest of the men of the 7th Michigan.

Private Basil Deshelter

            All the men of the 7th knew the coming battle in Maryland would be decisive: Robert E. Lee’s invading Confederate army had to be turned back.  The 7th arrived on the east side of Antietam Creek on the evening of September 16th.  Private Frederick Oesterle of Tuscola County remembered:

We received 40 rounds of cartridges in our boxes and 20 additional rounds in our haversack.  Many goodbyes were said and letters were sent home to our loved ones.  Prayer meetings were held throughout the army…

Captain Turrill wrote again to his wife at home in Lapeer:

I am sure I fight for a brave, generous people who will see my family provided for if I am lost to them, and I am sure that you dear will keep my memory fresh with my son and daughter.  For yourself, love, and for my father and mother, my brothers and sisters, I feel that the grief of our parting will be tempted by the feeling that the cause was worth the sacrifice.  I would not be in Michigan this day, and if I never see it [again], be sure I fall a willing offering.  Hope has a brighter side, lets look on that hopeful side for this is where I want to look.

Captain Henry Turrill

            Around 8:00 on the morning of September 17, 1862, the division of Major General John Sedgwick, three brigades with over 5,000 men from General Edwin Sumner’s II Corps, crossed Antietam creek in columns.  The 7th was in the brigade of Brigadier General Napoleon Jackson Tecumseh Dana with four other regiments, all veterans of the Peninsula fighting.  Sedgwick’s orders were to move his division into the West Woods and strike the Confederate left flank, which had been heavily damaged by the I and XII Corps earlier in the morning.  Arriving in the East Woods some three hours after the battle had begun, the division shifted to a line formation by brigade, three half-mile-long parallel lines of brigades stretching from the southern end of the Cornfield across the Smoketown Road.  Dana’s brigade was second in line, and the 7th Michigan was posted on the far left flank, just as they were at Fair Oaks.

            The commanding officer of the 7th was Colonel Norman J. Hall.  From Monroe County, Hall was a 1859 graduate of the U. S. Military Academy at West Point, graduating 13th of 22 in his class.  He was at Fort Sumter during the bombardment there in April 1861 as a Lieutenant in the 1st US Artillery, so he had already become somewhat of a celebrity back in Monroe.  He assumed command of the regiment two months before the battle.  Lieutenant-Colonel Henry Baxter from Jonesville was the second in command.  Both of Baxter’s grandfathers had served in the Revolutionary War.

            Shortly after 9:00 am, the men moved out from the East Woods to the west across an open field shoulder to shoulder.  In front of them was the 34th New York, to their right was the 42nd New York.  Sedgwick’s third brigade was in line behind them, and their left hung in the air with no support.  About 75 yards separated the brigade lines.  As they cleared the trees, they immediately came under Confederate artillery fire from the ridge beyond the woods to the west.  Sergeant Hodgman and the rest of Company I were in the center of the line near the colors.  

The troops were advancing in two lines about 10 or 12 rods apart.  The shell exploded directly in front of the first line not more than 6 or 7 feet from the ground.  The next exploded directly in the second line about breast high.  In both cases the lines never wavered for an instant but pressed on regardless of the storm of iron and lead which soon began to tell so fatally on their ranks.
I endeavored to rally our men around [the colors] twice and was then wounded… I bear the marks of it in the shape of a ball hole through my left leg about 4 or 5 inches above my knee, and a good hard rap from a piece of shell on the inside of the calf on the right.

Private Oesterle in Company E remembered:

It was almost impossible to advance, the ground was covered so thick with dead and dying men of both sides, as the field had been fought over twice previous to our advance…

            As the regiment crossed the Hagerstown Pike and went into the West Woods, the brigade commander, General Dana, wrote in his report of the battle:

I received an order to move forward at double-quick and enter the woods in front.  The outline of the woods was irregular, presenting a salient point where the left of my line first entered.  The first line was now hotly engaged in front, and hardly had my left regiment entered the woods when a tremendous musketry fire opened on my left and front, apparently perpendicular to my line of march and flanking the first line.  Almost immediately a regiment of infantry came running in great disorder from the woods on my left, and the 7th Michigan commenced to deliver an oblique fire to the left.  There was no time to wait for orders, the flanking force, whatever it was, was advancing its fire too rapidly on my left.  I permitted the three right regiments to move on, but broke off the 42nd New York Volunteers, with orders to change front to the left and meet the attack which had apparently broken through the first line on my left and front, and was now precipitated with fury on my left flank.  The 42nd moved up nobly to its work, but before it was formed in its new position, and whilst it was in disorder, the enemy was close up on it, and the fire which was poured upon it and the 7th Michigan was the most terrific I ever witnessed.

            Confederates entered the West Woods from the south just as Sedgwick’s three brigades entered it from the east.  The long brigade lines proved difficult to maneuver in the dense trees.  The flanking fire the rebels delivered into the regiments on the left was devastating.  Private Oesterle continued:

My company went into this fight with 36 men and in thirty minutes we rallied only 15… our company lost every non-commissioned officer but one.  I had the button of my cap shot off, one ball went through my blouse pocket and tore my dictionary to pieces, another cut my leg just above the knee and another grazed my right arm, but not any of them severe enough to disable me.

Sergeant Hodgman, already wounded before the regiment went into the trees, remembered:

It was perfectly awful where we were.  Infantry in front and in flank, artillery in flank and in front, all pouring in upon us a terrible storm of iron and lead.  It seemed almost a miracle that any escaped… I was not very ambitious to see how long I could stay amongst the balls.  They were flying all around each side, over, in front, and behind me and like plums in a pudding.  The shells were bursting in every direction… I could not help admiring the scene terrible as it was and full of danger at every step.  [The men] had no opportunity to distinguish themselves personally, all stood together to shoot and be shot.  We had no hand to hand fighting.  The one that could load and fire the fastest did the Rebs the most damage.

            Some of the attacking regiments drifted off to the north and west to the far edge of the woods. The 42nd New York and 7th Michigan struggled together to hold the left of Dana’s brigade in the woods just north of the Dunker Church.  They were joined by the 34th New York, which had become separated from the other units in the first brigade line.  Confederate brigades from Mississippi under William Barksdale and Georgians under George T. Anderson hammered the Michigan and New York men.  General Dana, by now severely wounded in the left leg, wrote:

I remained with these two regiments, and, although the shattered remnants of them were forced by overwhelming numbers and a cross-fire to retreat in disorder, I bear them witness that is was after nearly half of the officers and men were placed hors de combat.  Having retired across the field to the woods on the right and rear about 300 yards, I ordered them to reform.

            Dana turned over command of what was left of the brigade to Colonel Hall.   Now the temporary brigade commander, Hall, slightly wounded himself, attempted to rally the survivors of the five regiments:

At this time, the 7th Michigan was the only regiment in my sight.  The 42nd New York, after making an attempt to rally, was broken completely… I determined to attempt to hold the woods, a quarter mile in rear of the position of the line when the attack commenced.  I caused Captain Hunt, Lieutenant-Colonel Baxter having been disabled by wounds, to establish the 7th Michigan near the edge of the woods…

            Hunt and a few surviving junior officers attempted to rally the Michigan men near a fence at the edge of a tree line in the field they had just crossed.  Lieutenant Clark of Company D attempted to organize a stand there but was shot down with a bullet through the head.  Captain Zacharias of Company K was also shot during the fight.  As he lay on the ground, he struggled to write another note on an envelope:

Dear Parents, Brothers and Sisters:  I am wounded, mortally I think.  The fight rages around me.  I have done my duty, this is my consolation.  I hope to meet you all again.  I left not the line until nearly all had fallen and the colors gone.  I am getting weak, my arms are free, but my chest is all numb.  The enemy trotting over me, the numbness up to my heart.  Goodbye all.  Your son, Allen.

            By 10:00 am the fighting in the West Woods was over.  Surviving elements of the 7th had fallen back all the way to the East Woods from where they began the attack, and into the North Woods on the other side of the Cornfield.  The unit regrouped that evening north of the battlefield but their fight here at Antietam was over. 

What became of the Michigan men that were engaged here?

            Colonel Norman Hall remained in command of the brigade through the Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville and Gettysburg campaigns, but was never promoted to Brigadier General, largely due to recurring health issues.  He received a medical discharge in 1864 but returned to Fort Sumter in April 1865 to celebrate the re-raising of the national flag there.

            Lieutenant-Colonel Henry Baxter, wounded in the right leg, took over the regiment when Colonel Hall was elevated to brigade command.  Baxter led the 7th Michigan at the Battle of Fredericksburg three months after Antietam.  He heroically led his men across the Rappahannock River in small boats to clear out rebel sharpshooters harassing the construction of pontoon bridges needed by the army to cross the river.  Baxter was wounded again while crossing in one of the boats.  He was promoted to Brigadier General in 1863 and would command a brigade at Gettysburg.  He would survive the war and go on to become President Grant’s Minister to Honduras.

            Sergeant Samuel Hodgman from Company I, commissioned as a Second Lieutenant two weeks before the battle, would survive his wounds.  He spent three months recuperating in an army hospital in Philadelphia and would return to the regiment in time for the Gettysburg campaign.  He received a medical discharge in March 1864.

            Private Frederick Oesterle would survive the battle here, but would be wounded at the Battle of the Wilderness in 1864.  He was mustered out with the 87 surviving members of the regiment at the end of the war in July 1865.

            Private Charles Benson, who wrote the hopeful note for 1862 in his diary on New Year’s Eve, also survived the battle.  He was killed at the Wilderness on May 6, 1864.

            Captain Henry Turrill of Company G, who wondered if he would ever see Michigan again, would not.  He was killed here and buried on the battlefield by his comrades.  His father James came to Sharpsburg in October to claim his son’s body, and wrote:

I had to traverse the battlefield to discover amidst the multitude of graves the one dear to me.  After I found where he was laid it was quite difficult to make the necessary preparations to remove it.  There were so many on the same sad errand from every part of the country.  I think I met twenty bodies being reclaimed in going eight miles, and this was everyday business.  It was sad, oh how sad, to meet father and brother and sometimes mothers in search of remains of their dear ones.

            Private Basil Deshetler, who helped Lieutenant Zacharias bury Private Teall two months earlier, was severely wounded.  As he lay on the battlefield, like Zacharias, he wrote one last entry in his diary:

17 September: Arise at 2 AM, at sunrise in battle 7 AM at which I am wounded.  This is written on the spot wherein I lay.  May God bless me and forgive all my sins, through Jesus Christ .

He died in a nearby hospital on October 9th and is buried in the Antietam National Cemetery.

            Captain Allen Zacharias’s body was found in the West Woods by a soldier from Maine.  He was severely wounded.  In his hand was the last note he had scribbled for his family.  The soldier dutifully mailed the envelope to Zacharias’s father back in Monroe, and included the note Zacharias had written after Fair Oaks.  He was taken to a hospital in Hagerstown where he would die on December 31st.  There were several family members from Maryland there with him, Captain Allen Zacharias would die in the same county in which he was born.

Lt. John Clark

            1st Lieutenant John Clark from Monroe died on the field at the fence line attempting to rally the men.  He was buried by the regiment that evening or the next day.  On the 19th, Alexander Gardner, a photographer from Washington DC, came to Antietam to photograph the battlefield.  He took over 80 images, one of which was a photo of Lieutenant Clark’s grave where he fell.  A dead Confederate soldier lay nearby.  Clark’s childhood friend from Monroe came to Antietam several days later to claim the body and take him back home.  He was 20 years old.

The grave of Lieutenant John Clark, with an unburied and unknown Confederate lying next to him.

            At Antietam, the casualties incurred by Sumner’s Second Corps were double that of any other Union corps engaged on the field that day.  Just in Sedgwick’s division attack here into the West Woods alone, in the span of about twenty minutes, the official report listed 369 killed, 1,572 wounded and 224 missing.  Sedgwick himself was wounded three times in the leg, wrist and shoulder.

            Of 40 Union infantry brigades engaged on September 17th at Antietam, Dana’s ranked first in total number of casualties.

            The 7th Michigan went into the West Woods with 402 men.  39 men were killed, 178 were wounded and four men were reported missing, a total of 221, a 55% casualty rate.  Twenty of 23 officers were killed or wounded.  The casualties in Companies I and K were so high that they were disbanded and the survivors transferred to other companies.  In terms of aggregate losses at Antietam, the 7th Michigan ranked seventh of all 235 Union infantry regiments present.  If compared to Confederate regimental losses at Antietam, the 7th Michigan would rank second on the list of total casualties.  Of all Michigan infantry regiments in the Union armies during the war, the 7th ranked the highest with 15% killed in action.

            When he wrote his official report after the battle, General Howard, writing for the wounded Sedgwick, wrote of the division that: “they have poured out their blood like water, and we must look to God and our country for a just reward.”  Five days after the Union victory here, Abraham Lincoln would issue the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation, forever changing the meaning of the war and the nature of our country.  The country could not reward the men of the 7th Michigan and the others who fought and died in the West Woods, but rather all future generations of free Americans will forever be in their debt.


Richard H. Benson, The Civil War Diaries of Charles E. Benson (Decorah IA: Anundsen Publishing Co, 1991)
George H. Brown, Record of Service of Michigan Volunteers in the Civil War, 1861-1865.
David D. Finney, Jr., Colonel Norman Jonathan Hall of the 7th Michigan Infantry 1837-1867: A Biographical Sketch (Howell MI: NaBeDa Press, 2001)
William F. Fox, Regimental Losses in the American Civil War, 1861-1865.
William J. Frassanito, Antietam: The Photographic Legacy of America’s Bloodiest Day (Gettysburg: Thomas Publications, 1978)
Chris Howland, “Wrecked in the West Woods,” America’s Civil War, September 2003, Vol 26, Issue 4.
Charles Lanman, The Red Book of Michigan; A Civil, Military and Biographical History.
Personal Papers of John Morton, Institute Manuscript Archive, U. S. Army Heritage & Education Center (USAHEC), Carlisle PA.
Personal Memoir of Private Frederick W. Oesterle, Civil War Times Illustrated Collection, U. S. Army Heritage & Education Center (USAHEC), Carlisle PA.
Roger L. Rosentreter, “Samuel Hodgman’s Civil War,” Michigan History, November/December 1980, Vol 64, 34-38.
Seventh Michigan Infantry: Miscellaneous Letters and Documents, on file, Antietam National Battlefield Library and Research Center, Sharpsburg MD.
David G. Townshend, The Seventh Michigan Volunteer Infantry (Southeast Publications, 1993)
Jeffrey D. Wert, “Disaster in the West Woods,” Civil War Times, October 2002, Vol 41, Issue 5.

Friday, August 22, 2014

Mark Your Calendars! Antietam Hike and Campfire on September 16th!

Now that we are into the warm and humid days of August, once again, September and battle anniversary are just around the corner. For our interpretive staff at Antietam National Battlefield, this means preparing for our annual anniversary programs. Each year, we offer overview hikes, in depth hikes, battlefield tours, special talks and lectures, and so much more. You can find the complete schedule of events for our battle anniversary here.

We wanted to take a moment to tell you about something new we are doing for the first time this year. On the evening of September 16, Rangers Brian Baracz and Dan Vermilya are offering a new program titled, "The Eve of Battle."

Starting at 6 pm at the New York State Monument (located near the Visitor Center), Ranger Brian will be leading a real time hike to the historic East Woods, discussing the movements of the Union and Confederate armies on the day and evening before the battle. The program will examine the skirmish fighting on the evening of the 16th, as well as how these armies came to occupy the positions they held at the start of the bloodiest day in American history on the morning of September 17, 1862.

Following the hike, you can join Ranger Dan at the Maryland State Monument at 7 pm for a battlefield campfire program. This program will take a broad look at the men who composed the Army of the Potomac and the Army of Northern Virginia at Antietam, examining how they got to this place in their lives and how the country arrived at this point in American history. Then, as the sun sets on Antietam Battlefield on the eve of the 152nd anniversary of the battle, park volunteers will read quotes from the soldiers of both sides describing what the Maryland Campaign was like for common soldiers, as well as what the night of September 16, 1862 was like for the men who lived it and endured the bloodiest day in American history the following morning.

We hope you will join us on Tuesday, September 16, 2014, at 6 and 7 pm for this very special program commemorating the 152nd anniversary of the Battle of Antietam. Please bring a flashlight and a lawn chair for the campfire portion of the program. This is just one of our many programs scheduled for mid-September. We will have a full schedule of events that week to commemorate the anniversary of the battle, and we hope to see you for quite a few of them!

Dan Vermilya
Park Ranger

Monday, July 28, 2014

The Irish Brigade at the Battle of Antietam

The Irish Brigade at the Battle of Antietam
By Ranger Mike Gamble

                At the base of the War Department Observation Tower on the Antietam National Battlefield, the Irish Brigade Monument vividly depicts the courage and audacity of four Union infantry regiments on the morning of September 17, 1862.  This monument, dedicated on October 25, 1997, not only describes the attack of the Sixty-ninth, Sixty-third, Eighty-eighth New York and the Twenty-ninth  Massachusetts, but also the story of its famed commanding officer Brigadier General Thomas Francis Meagher.  It was Meagher, leading his soldiers against withering enemy fire in the Sunken Road that epitomized the reputation of the brigade as one of the most experienced and fearless units in the Army of the Potomac.

                Born in Waterford, Ireland on August 3, 1823, Thomas Francis Meagher came to New York City in 1852 after escaping British imposed exile in Tasmania.  Meagher had been a member of the “Young Ireland” movement and was arrested by the British for advocating the violent overthrow of British rule in Ireland.  He was popular with the large Irish Community in New York where he became active in Irish political affairs.  When the Civil War began, Meagher used his influence to recruit soldiers for the New York Militia and raised a company within the Sixty-ninth New York.  The unit achieved a good reputation at the First Battle of Manassas.  Returning to New York, he conceived the idea of forming a brigade of Irish regiments modeled after the French Army’s Irish Brigade that achieved notoriety for fighting the British in the Eighteenth century.  Meagher assumed command of the Irish Brigade and was commissioned a Brigadier General on February 2, 1862.

Brigadier General Thomas Meagher

                The Irish Brigade came to the farm fields outside of Sharpsburg, Maryland as part of Major General Israel Richardson’s  division of Major General Edwin Vose Sumner’s Second Corps.   Because of their battle record during the Seven Days Battles, Major General George McClellan, commanding the Army of the Potomac, knew that Richardson’s men would insure the safety of his command headquarters and placed this division near the Pry Farm until relieved.
                  From his headquarters, McClellan received reports of the First and Twelfth Corps attacks against the Confederate left flank during the early morning hours of September 17, 1862.  By 7:30 A.M., Sumner’s Second Corps received orders to support these attacks that were at a standstill.  Sumner ordered Major General John Sedgewick’s division to assault the Confederates who had taken a stand in the woods west of the Hagerstown Pike.  Brigadier General William French followed with his division but veered south in order to support Sedgwick’s left flank.  This movement took French’s three brigades towards a fallback position that the Confederates had established in a sunken road south of the Roulette Farm.
                Sedgwick’s division assaulted the West Woods shortly after 9:00 AM.  Unbeknownst to Sedgwick, famed Confederate commander "Stonewall" Jackson, whose men held the West Woods, was just then receiving reinforcements from Major General Lafayette McLaw’s division that had arrived early that morning from Harpers Ferry.  Jackson also received assistance from Major General John Walker’s division and Colonel Tige Anderson’s brigade.  Outnumbered by the Confederates, Sedgewick’s men were hit by a furious assault and driven back from the West Woods having suffered fifty per cent losses.
                Upon the arrival of Major General Morell’s division at McClellan’s headquarters, Major General Richardson followed French’s route to the battlefield.   The lead brigade of Richardson’s division was the 1340 officers and men of the Irish Brigade. Passing by the Henry Newkirk house, they ascended the crest of a second ridge and down a second ravine, which was an extension of the Roulette Farm Lane.  Meager placed the Sixty-ninth New York in the lead, followed by the Twenty-ninth Massachusetts, the Sixty-third New York and the Eighty-eighth New York.  Brigadier General John Caldwell’s brigade formed on the left of Meagher and Colonel John R. Brooke’s Brigade followed in reserve.
                Seeing that soldiers from French’s division had taken cover on the uneven ground north of the Sunken Road, Meagher prepared his brigade for the attack.  Leaving unneeded equipment in the Roulette Lane, the Irish brigade formed their battle line.  Upon reaching the Sunken Road, Meagher’s plan directed “that after the first and second volleys delivered in line of battle by brigade, the brigade should charge with fixed bayonets on the enemy”. 
                   In the Sunken Road, three of the five brigades in Major General Daniel Harvey Hill’s division piled up the fence rails on the lip of the road and placed their best marksmen in the front ranks.  Brigadier General George B. Anderson’s brigade occupied that part of the road directly in the path of the Irish Brigade.  Brigadier General Robert Rhodes commanded the other brigade from the Roulette lane intersection to the Mumma farm lane.  At that point, survivors from Brigadier General Alfred Colquitt’s brigade extended the Confederate defense to the Hagerstown Pike.
                At approximately 10:30 AM, the Irish Brigade began its assault on the Sunken Road.  Their regiments were in battle line formation with the Sixty-ninth New York on the right bordering the Roulette Lane.  To their left were the Twenty-Ninth Massachusetts, Sixty-third New York, and then the Eighty-eighth New York anchoring down the end of left flank.  Through the smoke of battle, the soldiers saw a familiar sight.  It was Father William Corby, an Irish Brigade Catholic chaplain, giving his blessing and absolution to the troops.  

Father William Corby

Clearing the first cornfield they encountered, the troops tore down a wooden fence and pushed on to a second fence.  Brigadier General Meagher ordered the second fence torn down and eighty volunteers sprung to the task.  One volunteer, Private Samuel Wright of the 29th Massachusetts, was shot in the back as he ran back to rejoin his unit.  For his heroic actions, Private Wright will be awarded the Medal of Honor. 
                As the Irish Brigade neared the Sunken Road, Confederate Major General Richard Anderson’s division surged through the Piper Farm south of the Sunken Road.  Making their way through Mr. Piper’s apple orchard, Anderson was wounded and replaced with the next officer in rank, Brigadier General Roger Pryor.  Unable to organize the brigades coming through the Piper apple orchard and the Piper cornfield, Pryor failed to coordinate troop movements as soldiers attempted to reach the relative safety of the Sunken Road. The Confederate reinforcements were wading into the fire of Union troops who were now shooting over the heads of the Confederate men hunkered down in the road.  Confederate troops were also taking casualties from federal artillery batteries located two miles from them on the east side of the Antietam creek.  Four batteries of twenty pound Parrott rifled cannons were targeting the Confederates located south of the Sunken Road.
                The Irish Brigade slowly came in sight of the Sunken Road and as planned came to a halt.  Meagher reported “Seated on my horse, close to the Sixty-ninth regiment, I permitted them to deliver their five or six volleys, and personally ordered them to charge upon the rebel columns, while the very same moment I ordered Captain Miller, assistant adjutant general of the Brigade, and Lieutenant Gosson, first aide on my staff, to bring up the Eighty-eighth and Sixty-third immediately to the charge.  It was my design, under the general orders I received, to push the enemy on both their fronts as they displayed themselves to us, and relying on the impetuosity and recklessness of Irish soldiers in a charge, felt confident that before such a charge the column would give way and be dispersed”.
                Captain Edward Field of the Sixty-third New York described the action: “The rebels seemed to have a special spite against the green flag, and five color bearers were shot down successively in a short time.  As the last man fell even these Irishmen hesitated a moment to assume a task synonymous with death.  Big John Gleason, Captain of the Sixty-third, six feet seven, sprang forward and snatched it up.  In a few minutes a bullet struck the staff, shattering it to pieces; Gleason tore the flag from the broken staff, wrapped it around his body, putting his sword belt over it and went through the rest of the fight untouched”.
                Staying with the Sixty-ninth, Meagher ordered the soldiers to fix bayonets.  In front of the Sixty-ninth, a rebel soldier screamed “bring them colors in here”.  Two color bearers advanced a few steps, shook their colors in the face of the enemy and replied ‘come and take them you damned rebels’.
                Captain Patrick Clooney of the Eighty-eighth New York shouted to his men to form their line when a bullet slammed into his knee.  Struggling to stand up, he ignored pleas from his men to go to the rear.  Two more bullets hit the brave officer, one in the head and other in his chest.  He died instantly.
                The Twenty-ninth Massachusetts took cover behind the rise directly in front of the line.  As Colonel Joseph Barnes did not receive orders from Meagher, his men stayed in position and returned fire. 
Failing to coordinate an attack with all of his regiments, the situation for the Irish Brigade became desperate.  Galloping down the rise to the Sixty-first New York forming on his left flank, Meagher pleaded for assistance from Brigadier General Caldwell’s Brigade.  Colonel Francis Barlow, commanding the Sixty-first and Sixty-fourth New York, had orders to remain in position and regretfully could not support Meagher’s cry for help.  Also, Brigadier General Caldwell was not present in the immediate area to approve such a move. Suddenly, Meagher’s horse was killed by a bullet and fell, trapping the General under the weight of the dead animal.  Two regimental musicians acted as stretcher bearers and carried Meagher to the rear.
                As Major General Richardson observed the worsening condition of the Irish Brigade, he also searched for Brigadier General Caldwell.  After hearing that Caldwell was not in direct command, he angrily shouted “God damn the field officers!” and ordered Caldwell’s brigade to cease their flanking movement and support the Irish Brigade. With this order, Barlow led his New Yorkers to a position behind Meagher’s men and began moving through their ranks. Other regiments of Caldwell’s brigade were able to obtain a position above the road that enabled them to fire into the lane.
                The Confederates were caught in a crossfire with Union infantry shooting at them from their front and from their right.  Colonel John B. Gordon, commanding the 6th Alabama was carried from his regiment, the victim of five wounds.  His replacement, Lieutenant Colonel James Lightfoot misunderstood an order from Brigadier General Robert Rhodes and led his men back to the Hagerstown Pike south of the Sunken Road.  The other Alabama regiments followed.
                With no support on their left, the Confederates still in position in the Sunken Road retreated towards the Piper Farm.  Soldiers from Caldwell’s brigade surged forward and were met with furious counter-attacks from the south as well as from the west.  In the process of directing artillery fire, Richardson was mortally wounded. He succumbed to his wounds that November.
                Action around the Sunken Road was stabilized when Major General Winfield S. Hancock took over command of Richardson’s division. The Confederate line had been pushed to its limits but still held the ground around the Piper farm.
                The Irish Brigade had been in action for less than two hours.  It began its attack with 1340 men and had been reduced to 688.  Of the four regiments, the 29th Massachusetts suffered the lowest loss with 10.2% casualties; the 69th New York suffered the highest casualties, losing 62% of its strength. A total of 113 men were killed, and 539 wounded. With the action now centering on other parts of the battlefield, the brigade was soon ordered back to the Antietam Creek. 

                The assault by the Irish Brigade's assault on the Sunken Road displayed how costly frontal attacks had become by September 1862.  Within three months, the Brigade was called upon to repeat this same maneuver.  Ironically, many of these survivors will meet their death near another country road. This one, however, was located in Fredericksburg, Virginia.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Emancipation and the Union Army: Part 2

The Pivot of the War: Emancipation and the Union Army
Part 2

Tom Nank,
Interpretation Intern, CWI, Gettysburg College

(This is the second of a two part series on the impact of the Emancipation Proclamation and African American troops on the Union army. Part 1 can be found here.)

            On January 1, 1863, 100 days after issuing the preliminary version, Abraham Lincoln signed and finalized the Emancipation Proclamation. This document declared that all slaves in the states in rebellion would be forever free. The Proclamation also called for the enlistment of regiments of black soldiers led by white officers.  Whether Union soldiers liked it or not, the war had taken on a larger meaning.  Reaction in the camps to the Proclamation varied widely.  Most viewed emancipation as favorable to the Union war effort, but did not immediately embrace abolition of slavery on moral or ethical grounds.  A New York Sunday Mercury newspaper circulating in army camps in early February 1863, one month before the Enrollment Act established the first national draft, displayed an article titled “The Negro Soldiers Bill”.  The article stated that “the Negroes should be made to fight.  The North has sacrificed hundreds of thousands of her brave and generous sons.  No further drain can be made on the white population without withdrawing from society its chief pillars of support… It would be preposterous to draft white men to fight, while hosts of the sable sons of Africa are ready to be transformed into soldiers, and whose services the Government has a right to claim.” 
            In the officer ranks of the Army of the Potomac, the Union army with the closest proximity to the nation’s capital, opinions were divided between rear-echelon, anti-Lincoln, pro-George B. McClellan loyalists on one side, and those mostly junior officers who had seen the war up close and were more likely to see Lincoln’s true purpose on the other.  Major General Fitz-John Porter, V Corps commander, was the political soul-mate of his superior McClellan.  Porter wrote to a friendly New York World newspaper reporter after issuance of the Proclamation: “The proclamation was ridiculed in the Army -- caused disgust, discontent, and expressions of disloyalty to the views of the administration and amount, I have heard, to insubordination.”  Soldiers did their best, Porter claimed, only to see their efforts “upset by the absurd proclamations of a political coward.”  A New York Herald correspondent, traveling with McClellan’s army, wrote that if the sampling of the officers he talked to was at all typical, emancipation “will go far towards producing an expression on the part of the Army that will startle the Country and give us a Military Dictator.”1  Other soldiers had a different view.  In the same army camp, Colonel Charles Fessenden Morse of the 2nd Massachusetts Infantry, a battle-hardened veteran of the Peninsula Campaign, the Shenandoah Valley and Antietam, wrote of the Proclamation:

            I believe its effect will be good. It is going to set us straight with foreign nations. It gives us a decided policy, and though the President carefully calls it nothing but a war measure, yet it is the beginning of a great reform and the first blow struck at the real, original cause of the war. No foreign nation can now support the South without openly countenancing slavery.2
            Colonel Rufus R. Dawes, commanding the 6th Wisconsin Infantry, a veteran of some of the most horrific fighting at Antietam and Gettysburg, saw clearly that Lincoln’s masterstroke had given meaning to the war.  In December 1863, after Lincoln’s Annual Message to Congress, he wrote that Emancipation “must command the respect of the world, and inspire confidence in the ultimate success of a cause so firmly planted on the right.  If the full success we hope shall crown our struggle and slavery with rebellion be swept from the land… All hail to old Abe!”3   The enlisted men, in small numbers at first but in larger numbers over time, seemed to understand the effect of the Proclamation on the war.  Private John B. Kay of Woodhall, Michigan, serving in the 6th Michigan Cavalry wrote: “Life has to be taken to preserve the Union [and] slavery has to be abolished to save the Union.”4  A week after the Proclamation was issued, Oliver Norton, from the 83rd Pennsylvania Infantry, wrote to his sister back in Springfield: “I approve of the proclamation, but I don't think it is going to scare the South into submission.  I think it will result in the total overthrow of slavery, but next winter will witness scenes so bloody that the horrors of the French Revolution will be peace in comparison to it.  If the South will have it so, the blood be on her own head.  Seward was right -- the ‘irrepressible conflict’ will continue till freedom or slavery rules the nation.”5
            In late 1862, the first black regiments, including Colonel Thomas Wentworth Higginson’s 1st South Carolina, began organizing and training.  On May 22, 1863, the War Department established the "Bureau of Colored Troops" to facilitate the recruitment of African-American soldiers to fight.  Regiments and batteries of infantry, cavalry, engineers and artillery were recruited across the Union.  The colored soldiers knew what they were in for if they were captured.  The Rebel army frequently executed black prisoners, and Confederate President Jefferson Davis ordered that captured white officers leading black troops be charged with “inciting servile insurrection”, a crime punishable by death.6  By mid-1863, white soldiers were not the only ones demonstrating heroism and valor on the battlefield.  Black soldiers were earning their blue uniforms in Union armies east and west.  General Nathaniel P. Banks, commanding forces in Louisiana, spoke highly of black troops under his command at Port Hudson in May of 1863.  “On the extreme right of our line I posted the First and Third regiments of negro troops… The position occupied by these troops was one of importance, and called for the utmost steadiness and bravery.  It gives me great pleasure to report they answered every expectation.  Their conduct was heroic.  No troops could be more determined or more daring.  Whatever doubt may have existed before as to the efficiency of organizations of this character, the history of this day proves conclusively that the Government will find in this class of troops effective supporters and defenders.”7  In General Ulysses S. Grant’s Army of the Tennessee facing Vicksburg, Mississippi at Milliken’s Bend, Captain M. Miller, Commander of Company I, 9th Louisiana Colored Troops, wrote to his aunt about his unit’s experience in combat.  “Two of my colored sergeants were killed, both brave, noble men; always prompt, vigilant, and ready for the fray.  I never more wish to hear the expression, ‘The [blacks] wont fight.’  Come with me 100 yards from where I sit and I can show you the wounds that cover the bodies of 16 as brave, loyal, and patriotic soldiers as ever drew bead on a rebel.”8   By late 1864, black soldiers and their white officers were suffering and dying together.  Major General Henry Thomas led a Union colored brigade into battle at the Crater in the siege lines outside Petersburg, Virginia in July, 1864.  He was clearly proud of his men, white officers and black soldiers alike, and moved by their valor, mentioning them by name as he watched them fall:
            My brigade moved gallantly on the right over the bombproofs and over the men of the First Division.  As we mounted the pits, a deadly enfilade from eight guns on our right and a murderous crossfire of musketry met us.  Among the officers, the first to fall was the gallant Fessenden of the 23rd Regiment.  Ayers and Woodruff of the 31st dropped within a few yards of Fessenden.  Ayers being killed, and Woodruff mortally wounded.  Liscomb of the 23rd then fell to rise no more; and then Hackhiser of the 28th and Flint and Aiken of the 29th.  Major Rockwood of the 19th then mounted the crest and fell back dead with a cheer on his lips.  Nor were these all; for at that time hundreds of heroes ‘carved in ebony’ fell.  These black men commanded the admiration and respect of every beholder.9

            Casualties were horrific.  The 29th U.S. Colored Infantry entered the attack with 450 troops and exited with 128.10   Old racial prejudices would die hard, however.  The senior army command held a different view of the unit’s assault on the Crater: Thomas’s men and other black troops were blamed for the defeat.11
            In the end, African American troops were critical to the Union war effort.  By the end of the war, one-tenth of the men in the Union armies were black soldiers.  Most had been slaves two years earlier.  Lincoln himself acknowledged the contribution of former slaves fighting to earn the freedom that had been given them.  “Any different policy in regard to the colored man,” Lincoln said, “deprives us of his help, and this is more than we can bear.  We can not spare the hundred and forty or fifty thousand now serving us as soldiers, seamen, and laborers.  This is not a question of sentiment or taste, but one of physical force… Keep it and you can save the Union.  Throw it away, and the Union goes with it.”12  There was something more important, however, than blacks serving as a combat force-multiplier.  In Army Life in a Black Regiment, Colonel Thomas Higginson summarized the importance of black regiments during the war:

            We who served with the black troops have this peculiar satisfaction, that, whatever dignity or sacredness the memories of the war may have to others, they have more to us. The peculiar privilege of associating with an outcast race, of training it to defend its rights and to perform its duties, this was our especial meed... We had touched the pivot of the war. Whether this vast and dusky mass should prove the weakness of the nation or its strength, must depend in great measure, we knew, upon our efforts. Till the blacks were armed, there was no guaranty of their freedom. It was their demeanor under arms that shamed the nation into recognizing them as men.13

            Higginson, the other white officers who led black soldiers, and the white soldiers who fought beside them, had done much more.  They had let them fight for the right to live as free men.


1.             Stephen W. Sears, George B. McClellan: The Young Napoleon (New York: Ticknor & Fields, 1988), 325.

2.             Charles Fessenden Morse, letter in private collection, October 6, 1862, Maryland Heights, privately published, 1898.

3.             Rufus R. Dawes, A Full Blown Yankee of the Iron Brigade: Service with the Sixth Wisconsin Volunteers (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1962), 230.

4.             Bak, Distant Thunder, 47.

5.             Oliver Wilcox Norton, to sister, September 29, 1862, Sharpsburg Ferry MD, Army Letters, Chicago IL, 1903.

6.             James B. McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988), 566.

7.             Henry Carey Baird, Gen. Banks on the Bravery of Negro Troops (Philadelphia: 1863), edition, accessed 1 December 2013.

8.             Manning, A Vexed Question, 47.

9.             Henry Goddard Thomas, “The Colored Troops at Petersburg” in Battles and Leaders of the Civil War, Volume IV (Century Magazine), 564.

10.          Joseph Glatthaar, The Civil War’s Black Soldiers (Eastern National Publishing, for the National Park Service, 2007), accessed 30 November 2013.

11.          Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, Series I, Volume XL, Operations in Southeast Virginia & North Carolina, June 13 - July 31, 1864, Part 1, p. 166.

12.          Glatthaar, Black Soldiers.

13.          Higginson, Army Life, 206.