Tuesday, March 4, 2014
Monday, December 2, 2013
Tuesday, October 22, 2013
Battlefield Burials After Antietam: A Most Disagreeable Duty
Chief among the many long-lasting impacts of the Battle of Antietam is the sheer enormity of tragedy and loss. September 17, 1862 still ranks as the most casualties in one day, in one place, in the history of the United States of America – over 23,000 killed, wounded, and missing. Often overlooked is what happens after the fighting ceases, as the glory of battle gives way to an unpleasant, practical reality. In addition to the medical care of thousands of wounded soldiers, the massive task of burying thousands of the dead would have to be completed.
As the first field to be photographed soon after the battle, images such as these show the horrific scope of the fight. The Union army held the field, so many in the ranks would need to be put into burial parties and quickly get to work. Even so, it would take days to complete such a grisly job.
“Our regiment has been detailed to bury the dead, the most disagreeable duty that could have been assigned to us; tongue cannot describe the horrible sights which we have witnessed. The Union soldiers were all buried when we arrived on the field, the rebel dead lay unburied and hundreds still remain so. I would not describe to you the appearance of the dead even if I could, it is too revolting. You can imagine the condition of the bodies when I tell you that they were slain on Wednesday and it is now Sunday. I was up at the Provost Marshall’s office this morning for permission to buy some liquor for our boys to keep them from getting sick when at this disagreeable labor.”
--Lt. Origen Bingham, 137th PA
Some burials were individual graves, but many were simply long trenches to hold multiple bodies. All those killed were buried, but obviously the Union soldiers took care of their comrades first. Taken two days after the battle, most, if not all, of the dead seen in photos would have been Confederates. Identification was often difficult, and information on headboards and markings was mostly limited. There were even reports of grave looting.
“Every man’s pocket was turned inside out. Sometimes a piece of money, a pocket knife, or something else would fall from the hands of the midnight robbers, in the dark, and we would find it where they had turned the pocket, but every one was robbed by the ghouls. Well, we had the dead to bury, thousands of them… it was the most disagreeable days work of my life. First the grave had to be dug. You Elkton folks saw the workmen dig for the water-works pipe – now add a few thousand additional workmen, and extend the ditch about six miles, and make it two or three feet wider and deeper. Now look in every direction and see hundreds carrying the mangled bodies of those who had been shot.”
-J. Polk Racine, 5th MD
Obviously these were terribly unpleasant conditions, and the warm weather lingered into late September. Contact with dead bodies would also be a serious health hazard, as soldiers who came from all over the country brought various diseases with them. Disease killed many more soldiers than any battle, and the local civilians were very susceptible as well. No civilians were wounded or injured during the battle, but many died from rampant disease in the weeks and months following. The full story of the many battle impacts on the Sharpsburg area is best left for another complete blog entry, but notable for our purposes is the simple fact that many of the farmer’s fields became giant cemeteries, greatly impacting their agricultural operations for years to come.
News of the battle quickly spread across the country. Tourists came to see the battlefield, and many family members came to care for and take their loved ones back home.
Among the many who came to visit the battlefield was a young wife whose frantic grief I can never forget. She came hurriedly as soon as she knew her husband was in the battle only to find him dead and buried two days before her arrival. Unwilling to believe the facts strangers told her – how early in the morning they had laid him beside his comrades in the orchard – she still insisted upon seeing him. Accompanying some friends to the spot she could not wait the slow process of removing the body, and in her agonizing grief clutched the earth by handfuls where it lay upon the quiet sleeper’s form. And when at length the slight covering was removed and the blanket thrown from off the face, she needed but one glance to assure her it was all too true. Then passive and quiet beneath the stern reality of this crushing sorrow she came back to the room in our house.
-Antietam Valley Record
Local man Aaron Good thankfully took upon himself the task of identifying and documenting as many gravesites as he could. This record became essential in later planning for a proper cemetery, and he also was often contracted to find the grave of a soldier and ship the body back home. The following letter, on display in the Antietam Visitor Center museum, was sent to Good thanking him for his efforts.
85 W. 26th St.
4 June 1863
Mr. Aaron Good
We received the remains of our son George Wilson (who fell at the Battle of Antietam on Sept. 17th 1862) on last Friday evening at 6 o’clock, but had got a letter in the morning notifying us of their coming. On their arrival we felt satisfied that you had transacted your part of the contract faithfully and honorably, and likewise felt happy to see that you had paid that respect to the remains of one whom we had loved so dearly and had built our future hopes on more than we can describe at present.
If this communication can be of any service in inducing others to bring home the remains of their relatives we consider it our duty to certify through this how we appreciate your kindness in fulfilling your share of our most anxious hopes, with the assurance that they may place all confidence in you and the expeditious manner in which everything had been arranged to our entire satisfaction.
George & Margaret Wilson
As time passed, folks did their best to get back to their normal daily routine, but in some ways the situation around Sharpsburg did not improve. Most of the burials were not quality work, not very deep, and even were sometimes just dirt piled up on top of the ground. It did not take long until heavy rainstorms and animals took their toll, and exposed bones were a common sight. Local citizens continued to contact their state representatives to try to get something done, but it took until March 1864 for the Maryland General Assembly to approve an act to establish an official soldier’s cemetery at Sharpsburg. A board was appointed and work soon got started to relocate the dead of the Battle of Antietam.
Finally the farmers of the area would have their fields back, and more importantly, the men who sacrificed all for their country would finally have a more appropriate, respectful resting place. The story of the battlefield burials after the Battle of Antietam is an unpleasant, grisly, if not also fascinating topic, but we must make sure that we remember that each one of the over 23,000 casualties was a person, and as one who paid the ultimate price in service to their country, a person to be remembered and honored.
“Here lie men who have not hesitated to seal and stamp their convictions with their blood – men who have flung themselves into the great gulf of the unknown to teach the world that there are truths dearer than life, wrongs and shames more to be dreaded than death. And if there be on earth one spot where the grass will grow greener than on another when the next summer comes, where the leaves of autumn will drop more lightly when they fall like benediction upon a work completed and a promise fulfilled, it is these soldiers graves.”
New York Times, October 20, 1862
Sunday, September 22, 2013
Antietam: A Battle for Freedom
Daniel J. Vermilya
Rarely in history has the link between the blood shed on the battlefield and the freedom of millions been so clear. At the Battle of Antietam, on September 17, 1862 over 23,000 men fell as casualties in a single day of battle—more battle casualties than had fallen in America’s previous wars combined. Just five days later, on September 22, 1862, President Abraham Lincoln issued the Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation at a meeting of his cabinet. This preliminary document was the result of a long struggle, going back to the very foundation of the country. From the moment that Thomas Jefferson penned those immortal words, “all men are created equal,” a great national debate spread through the nation, attempting to define citizenship, personhood, and freedom. In 1861, that debate descended into war. By the summer of 1862, with casualties mounting across the country, Lincoln realized it was time to embrace a higher goal for the conflict. Something needed to be done about the causes of the war. With thousands of Americans dying on the field of battle, a decision needed to be made regarding the future of slavery in the United States. On July 22, 1862, Lincoln held a cabinet meeting, where he introduced a draft for a proclamation declaring that all slaves in the states in rebellion would be freed under his powers as Commander in Chief. While several of his cabinet members greeted the proclamation favorably, Secretary of State William Seward suggested Lincoln wait for a Union victory before issuing such an important document. Seward believed putting forth such a revolutionary measure amid the setbacks for Union forces on the fields of Virginia would take away much of the proclamation’s power, giving it the appearance of a desperate move rather than a bold act. Lincoln agreed. He held on to the document, waiting for a Union victory.
Lincoln later confessed to Secretary of the Treasury Salmon Chase that at the start of the 1862 Maryland Campaign, he made his decision on Emancipation. When Robert E. Lee’s Confederate Army of Northern Virginia crossed the Potomac River and began its invasion of Maryland, Lincoln made “a solemn vow” that should Lee be stopped, he would “crown the result by the declaration of freedom to the slaves.” While the fate of the nation hung in the balance, and with the eyes of millions upon them, the Union Army of the Potomac and the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia clashed near the banks of Antietam Creek on September 17, 1862, in what was the bloodiest day in American history. Two days later, Lee was gone from Maryland, and Lincoln had his victory. He could now issue his proclamation.
On January 1, 1863, after standing in line for hours to greet the customary New Year’s Day visitors at the White House, Abraham Lincoln retired to his office upstairs in the Executive Mansion. There he would fulfill his promises from September and sign the final version of the Emancipation Proclamation. His hands were tired and trembling from shaking so many hands, and as he prepared to sign the document, as if to reinforce his resolve, he declared, “I never in my life felt more certain that I was doing right than I do in signing this paper.” Lincoln affixed his signature to the Emancipation Proclamation, completing what he would later call, “the great event of the nineteenth century.”
Emancipation was indeed a great event. While it applied only to those states then in rebellion, and thus left alone slaver in the Border States, it was still a tremendous blow to slavery in the United States. It declared that from that point on, the war would be fought to preserve the Union not as it once was, but as it would and should be, one where all men and women would enjoy the blessings of liberty.
The Emancipation Proclamation was not a self-fulfilling document. It was an important war measure, but only the first of many steps on the road towards freedom for over four million slaves. More work still needed to be done to secure its promise of freedom. Along with winning the war, a constitutional solution to the problem of slavery was needed; that solution was eventually found in the 13th Amendment. By 1865, slavery was abolished throughout the country, and the union was not only restored, but rebuilt with a “new birth of freedom.”
In October of 1862, in reaction to the Emancipation Proclamation, Frederick Douglass proclaimed, “We shout for joy that we live to record this righteous decree.” Despite having some reservations about the proclamation’s effectiveness, Douglass knew that history had been forever changed. Emancipation meant, in the words of newspaper editor Horace Greeley, “the beginning of the end of the rebellion; the beginning of the new life for the nation.”
When Lincoln first decided to issue the Emancipation Proclamation in July of 1862, he knew that in order for its promise of freedom to become a reality, it would require bloodshed and sacrifice on the battlefields of the Civil War. That is what occurred at Antietam on September 17, 1862, giving Lincoln the opportunity to issue his proclamation on September 22, 151 years ago today. The Battle of Antietam and its relation to the Emancipation Proclamation is a stirring reminder that throughout history, paper alone cannot secure freedom; only the blood, sweat, and sacrifice of soldiers can make freedom a reality.
Sunday, September 8, 2013
Antietam National Battlefield
During the extensive planning for the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Antietam, we tried to come up with several different events to make the commemoration meaningful. At some point, I got the idea that it would be a nice thing if we could have a ceremony and read the names of those killed or mortally wounded in the battle. Park management thought that it would be a good idea, especially when I mentioned that we could make it an interactive event by having visitors participate in the reading. I was put in charge of the project, and among the many, many other things that we were working on at the time (and believe me, there were many!) I started to put together a list.
Originally I just had the names from the rosters of identified Union burials in Antietam National Cemetery, and then I added the rosters of identified Confederate burials from Washington Confederate Cemetery in Hagerstown, Mt. Olivet Cemetery in Frederick, and Elmwood Cemetery in Shepherdstown, WV. This led to the quick realization that only a certain amount of soldiers killed in the battle were buried in the area. In addition to the many buried as unknowns, there would have been some taken home, some buried near hospitals, in private and church cemeteries, and many other situations that would cause this list to be far from complete.
I drafted a short notice to be posted on our park website and Facebook site asking for help from the public, hoping that if folks had knowledge and (hopefully) documentation on soldiers that were killed or mortally wounded in the battle but for whatever reasonwere not buried here we could also add those names to the list. I received responses from all over the country – from Wisconsin, Louisiana, New York, Texas, South Carolina, Alabama, Indiana, Maine - literally dozens of people emailed me with information, greatly enhancing our list.
Thankfully, my notice also caught the eye of Brian Downey, founder of Antietam on the Web. (aotw.org) Turns out he was also working on a comprehensive database of soldiers killed at Antietam, and he graciously offered to let me use his research for our list. This was a remarkable gesture, and helped considerably, for now all I had to do is compare his list with mine and add them together to make the master list for the event. He even continually sent me updates as he found more information, and has the ongoing list posted on the blog section of his website if you want to take a look.
As time passed and the anniversary drew closer, I started to get concerned since several visitors were very excited to participate in the reading and contacted me wanting to be guaranteed the opportunity to read their ancestor’s name. I still wasn’t quite sure how to carry out the public participation part; we could just have a master list and have folks go up and read, but what if someone didn’t want to stop (very likely) what then – would I have to continually stand there to awkwardly move them along? Or what if everyone that showed up wanted to read only names from Massachusetts for example, and I would have big problems about who got to read what. Thankfully, at some point I thought of separating the list into small sheets of ten to twelve names and just giving each person a sheet to read. That way it kept things moving, everyone got an opportunity, and you could still read as many times as you wanted.
People still kept calling, nervous about what time they should arrive to get their place in line, just exactly how was this going to work, rightly skeptical when I just told them to show up, we’ll make it work. Truth is, I didn’t know if it was going to work, I had no idea how long it would take, how visitors would react to the process, how smooth it would go, etc. etc. In the planning process for the entire 150th event it was necessary to come up with a schedule, and my reading needed to fit that schedule. When should it start? How long will it take? I simply estimated by guessing at the speed of how many names would likely be read per minute, then per hour (by simply saying some out loud and timing it) and came up with approximately 4 hours to get through the total of over 3400 names. The program was scheduled for 3 p.m., with hopes that it would be wrapping up near 7 p.m. By that time everything else for the day would be over, and it would be just starting to get dark. In addition, we planned a short closing ceremony for 7 p.m. to wrap up the anniversary.
I had several other duties and programs that weekend, and that anniversary day specifically, notably the very effective “Voices from the Cornfield” program at dawn. I was still adding names to the list the night before the event, and didn’t print out the final list (335 pages!) until the morning of the 17th. I made two copies of the list and placed them in big binders, one to hand out, and one for me to follow along. As I arrived at the cemetery, several visitors and hopeful participants were there early, waiting on me. Ranger Isaac Foreman and volunteer Frank Bell were there to help organize the line and pass out the names, a huge help for me. I tried to make sure everything was ready.
At three o’clock, a special ceremony began the event. Rev. John Schildt offered the invocation, Superintendent Susan Trail welcomed the crowd, the West Virginia Air National Guard provided the colors, the U.S. Army Quintet provided music, and nationally known and respected historian Ed Bearss offered comments on the meaning of the event. As I stood there distracted, all I could think about was if the time frame would fit, whether the procedures would work, and how things would go. I think the world of Mr. Bearss, but as I worried about the time, it seemed like his speech would go on forever.
Then, all the sudden, I stopped in my tracks, as Ed told the crowd what a wonderful opportunity this was, to recognize those lost, and that he wished he had an opportunity to recognize those fighting beside him that died in WWII. He told about the incident when his team was ambushed on January 2, 1944, leaving him severely wounded, and then he read aloud his fallen comrades’ names. Wow! I suddenly stopped worrying and finally realized what I was doing, what I was part of, what this means.
Susan, Ed, and a military honor guard then placed a wreath for all those buried as
unknowns, then I explained to the crowd how the reading would go. I asked those wanting to read to get in line to the left of the rostrum, get a sheet, and take their turn. We would read the names by state alphabetically, starting with Alabama. That instant, at least three dozen people got in line, and I don’t think it ever got much shorter than that throughout the event. Ed read the first sheet, then one by one visitors went through the line and read the names.
Isaac handed sheets out to the people in line, so they could familiarize themselves with pronunciations (I saw several practicing and asking for advice), or even trade with those looking for a specific name. At no time were there any disagreements, disruptions, or problems, everyone was so respectful. I stood at the top of the rostrum steps, directing folks to the podium and following along with the list. It was terrific meeting so many of the people that I had corresponded with before the event. So many were so appreciative, hugging me, thanking me - I can’t imagine a more fulfilling job or a more fulfilling day. Several folks made a special mention to the crowd, with pride, when it was their ancestor’s name they were reading.
I directed folks to leave by the other side of the rostrum, and most went around and through the line more than once; a couple of ladies went through more than ten times. It didn’t seem to matter where anyone’s particular allegiance was, they read for all states, respecting all that sacrificed. To simply keep the line flowing, I had folks just keep the sheets after they read, and I suddenly noticed something I hadn’t thought of. As I looked out across the cemetery I could see visitors walking with their sheets, finding the graves of the names they read. Talk about making a connection. I wonder how many left with the goal of finding out more about those soldiers. I thought to myself, maybe that’s the first time in 150 years anybody ever specifically visited some of those graves. Maybe it’s the first time since the roll call after the battle that someone even said some of those soldier’s names.
My good friend Ranger Dan Vermilya often mentions his great-great-great grandfather Ellwood Rodebaugh, 106th PA, in his battlefield presentations, as Private Rodebaugh was killed in action in the West Woods. Dan hoped that he would make it back to the cemetery to read Ellwood’s name, but wasn’t sure when his hike would be finished. I specifically kept the sheet with his name out of the stack, ready for Dan in case he arrived in time. It looked like he wasn’t going to get there, so I thought that I would read the sheet for him. It wouldn’t be the same as if it was Dan, but I hoped it would be good enough. Then, suddenly, at the last moment, in came Dan, and I surprised him with the sheet. He stepped up to the microphone, and added yet one more special element of this amazing day.
As the sun slipped away, and more folks gathered in the cemetery as the hikes were all completed, (and we were starting on the Vermont section) I turned to Isaac and optimistically said, “I think we are going to make it OK on time.” As the last reader went past me and read the last names from Wisconsin, I stepped to the podium and announced that the reading was complete and that we would shortly begin our closing ceremony. As I stepped away I looked at my watch and it said 6:56 p.m. Hopefully, to the visitors, it looked like I had planned it that way, but I had no idea what actually was going to happen, or how things possibly could have turned out so well.
For the closing ceremony I made a few prepared comments and then read the poem “Bivouacs of the Dead”. Our living history volunteers provided a 21 gun salute, played taps, and it was over. As I hugged the rangers that gathered around me, I was overwhelmed with emotion, and am still even now as I go over it again in my mind. This event, this commemoration, this memorial, was not about me, it is in every way about the fallen, but I am proud that I pushed for this, planned it, and carried it out, and that it turned out so well. I will never forget that day in the cemetery, for the rest of my career, for the rest of my life. Even though I have worked at Antietam for 12 years, this gave me a new perspective on the cost of this battle, and that each lost was not a statistic, but a specific person, and one that, on this day at least, was not forgotten. Ed Bearss said that this will be the next wave of battlefield special event, that in a few years every park will be reading names, following our example, just like so many places now do illuminations similar to ours. I sincerely hope so - for the attention it brings to that aspect of the battle stories, for those that get to participate in the readings, and especially for those who gave their all in service to their country - May they rest in peace.
Tuesday, June 18, 2013
“Whiskey Courage in Abundance”
K. Michael Gamble
As the Battle of Antietam raged into a harvest of death, Confederate and Union soldiers were ordered to remain steadfast in the execution of their orders. Evidence of their bravery was evident through out the day as both armies attacked and counterattacked. As the toll of human life mounted, however, many soldiers questioned the decisions that sent men into harms way. Were these orders given by officers who were thinking in rational and logical ways, or were orders given by intoxicated amateurs who were hell bent for glory at the expense of soldier lives? How prevalent was the use of liquor at the battle, and did this affect the welfare of the troops?
The Irish Brigade had achieved a reputation for its fighting spirit. These Irish immigrants were proving that they were worthy of defending their adopted country. During the attack on the sunken road, Brigadier General Thomas F. Meagher ordered his troops in Brigade formation over a cornfield, open pasture, and plowed field as well as three fences towards an entrenched position supported by artillery. This frontal attack was ordered while an adjacent brigade commanded by BG John Caldwell was flanking the Confederates defenders to his left. In front of the sunken road were troops from previous attacks protected by a small ridge 60 yards from the Confederates. Troops from Nathan Kimball’s brigade were pouring rifle fire towards Confederate brigades commanded by G.B. Anderson and Robert Rhodes as well as at Richard Anderson’s reinforcements moving towards the lane from the south. In the middle of this intense fire fight, BG Meagher was urging his men forward. Meagher will report that near the end of the engagement “My horse having been shot under me as the engagement was about ending and from the shock which I myself sustained, I was obliged to be carried off the field”. Soon, rumors were circulated that Meagher had been drunk and had actually fallen from his horse. Colonel David H. Strother, a member of General McClellan’s staff wrote in his diary the following day that Meagher was not killed as reported, but drunk, and fell from his horse. Another story was circulated by Whitelaw Reid of the Cincinnati Gazette that Meagher was “too drunk to keep the saddle, fell from his horse …several times, was once assisted to remount by Gen Kimball of Indiana, almost immediately fell off again”. These reports may have reflected prejudiced viewpoints and the power of rumor and innuendo. However, there can be no doubt that Meagher was a heavy drinker and had a lack of military knowledge and experience. For example, of the four regiments in the Irish Brigade, only the 69th NY, 63rd NY and 88th NY were ordered to charge the road after discharging five volleys. The 29th Mass had the most protective position and was positioned between the 69th and 63rd. As Meagher pointed out in his report, he sent orders only to the Irish commanders and not to the 29th Mass. Was there any advantage in holding the 29th Mass back? Was this decision formulated with purpose or a spur of the moment reaction? What type of shock could have been sustained that would entail evacuation from the field of action? One of Meagher’s regimental commanders, Colonel John Burke disgraced himself by being conspicuously absent from his post as the 63rd NY was being shot to pieces. Many questions remain about Meagher’s actions and whether there could have been a cover-up after the battle.
During the afternoon of the battle, Major Thomas W. Hyde of the 7th Maine was ordered to take his regiment across open ground south of the sunken road to clear confederate sharpshooters from the Piper farm and orchard. The officer giving the order was the Sixth Corps Colonel William Irwin. Hyde will claim that only a drunkard would give such an order and suggested that it was a job for a brigade not a regiment. Upon Hyde’s request, Irwin repeated his order and the 7th Maine advanced towards the Piper barn and haystacks where it was hit from three directions by deadly rifle fire. Retreating back to their jumping off point, the 7th Maine lost half of their 181 men. Hyde will later say that the order was “from an inspiration of John Barleycorn in our brigade commander alone”.
Another example of “whiskey courage” might have been MG James Longstreet himself. Suffering from a painful heel spur and a “crippled hand” Longstreet was wearing a carpet slipper on his left foot during the battle. As the Union army took possession of the sunken road, they surged through the cornfield south of the road and towards the Piper Orchard. At this critical point of the battle, Longstreet held the reins of his staff officers’ horses and ordered them to man firing positions among Millers Battery which was on the perimeter of the orchard. LT William Owen described this situation as follows” Longstreet was on horseback at our side, sitting side-saddle fashion, and occasionally making some practical remark about the situation. He talked earnestly and gesticulated to encourage us, as the men of the detachments began to fall around our guns, and told us he would have given us a lift if he had not crippled his hand. But, crippled or not, we noticed that he had strength enough left to carry his flask to his mouth, as probably everybody else did on that terrible hot day, who had any supplies at command to bring to a carry.” Straw papered liquor flasks and a telescoping silver cup were popular accouterments in both the Federal and Confederate Armies. The ready source of liquor by officers was a source of much resentment from the enlisted men.
Prior to the battle, Longstreet may have shown self-discipline regarding drinking alcohol from a practical perspective. While visiting his new headquarters at the Piper home, Longstreet and D.H.Hill were offered refreshments in the form of wine by members of the Piper Family. At first, Longstreet politely declined. But after seeing General Hill not experiencing any ill effects from drinking the wine, said “Ladies, I will thank you for some of that wine”. (Too Afraid to Cry, p. 128)
The other Confederate wing commander, Major General Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson, appeared more enamored of fresh fruit than alcoholic beverages. However, Major Henry Kyd Douglas, a member of Jackson’s staff, reported that he observed Jackson taking a whiskey toddy on the march towards Martinsburg Va (W.Va). Douglas wrote “While mixing it leisurely, he remarked that he believed he liked the taste of whisky and brandy more that any soldier in the army; that they were more palatable to him than the most fragrant coffee, and for that reason he rarely tasted them “(Battles and Leaders p. 623) Jackson could take his troops to task about the presence of whiskey. During one trip in the Potomac River, Jackson ordered staves of barrels busted apart and dumped into the water. Enterprising confederates went downstream with buckets and dipped the diluted beverage for later use. Perhaps the dilution affected the taste. Commissary whiskey was described as “bark juice, tar water, turpentine, brown sugar, lamp-oil and alcohol.”(p. 253 Billy Yank, Wiley)
Apparently, wine was a favorite drink of the farmers as Mr. William Roulette who resided north of the Sunken Road included “six gallons of blackberry wine @ $2 per gallon on his list of compensatory items presented to the U.S. Government after the battle. This wine could have been used for “medicinal” purposes since the Roulette farmhouse became the site of a field hospital. Spirits were used for medicinal purposes. Regiments had a stock of “commissary” on hand as well as bottles of patient medicine that had high alcohol content. (Soldiers Life, Time Life, 1996)
As the fighting reached its climax at the Lower Bridge, Colonel Edward Ferrero was ordered to take the bridge at about 12:15 PM. The attack plan called for the 51st PA and 51st NY to conduct a direct charge on the bridge from the bluffs east of the Antietam Creek with the 21st Mass. in reserve. Standing in front of the brigade before the attack, Ferrero shouted “It is General Burnside’s special request that the two 51sts take that bridge. Will you do it?” Apparently, the stillness was broken when Corporal Lewis Patterson yelled towards the Colonel “Will you give us our whiskey if we take it?” Ferraro’s reply was “Yes by God, you shall all have as much as you want, if you take the bridge. I don’t mean the whole brigade, but you two regiments shall have just as much as you want, if it is in the commissary or I have to send to New York to get it, and pay for it out of my own private purse, that is if I live to see you through it! Will you take?” “Yes” was the resounding answer. On September 19, 1862, Colonel Edward Ferraro was promoted to Brigadier General and on the next day, the 51st Pa got their whiskey as promised.” (Will you give us our whiskey” p...22 Civil War Battles Brother vs. Brother Special Issue Summer 2006) Perhaps General McClellan was not aware of Ferraro’s promise. McClellan was on record for condemning the use of liquor amongst his troops. After liquor provoked insubordination in Hookers Division in February, 1862, McClellan stated the following “No one evil agent so much obstructs the army…as the degrading vice of drunkenness. It is the cause of by far the greater part of the disorders which are examined by courts martial. It is impossible to estimate the benefits that would accrue to the service from the adoption of a resolution on the part of officers to set the example of total abstinence from intoxicating liquors. It would be worth 50,000 men to the armies of the United States.” (Hqrs. Army of Potomac G.O. 40. February 4, 1862)
After the Battle of Antietam, the disagreeable task of burying bodies left out in the elements for four days fell to the 137th Pennsylvania Regiment. An officer named Bingham secured permission from the provost marshal’s office to buy liquor for his men because he believed they would be able to carry out their orders only if they were drunk. (The Republic of Suffering P. 69).
The evidence is conclusive. Liquor was used by soldiers during the Battle of Antietam. At times, officers in positions of authority had been drinking liquor. Did this drinking affect the final outcome of the battle? It appears as that it was more the absence of well co-coordinated and cohesive planning and the large numbers of inexperienced soldiers that had the most impact. The horrors of combat affected the soldiers in many ways and the acceptance of liquor in the 19th century as a panacea for all problems is evident. It is understandable that the military reflected the values of American society and that the Battle of Antietam, the bloodiest one day in American history, produced enough horror and devastation to be tempted with some induced relief from liquor.