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.


Sources:

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.



2 comments:

  1. I greatly appreciated this article since my great-great-grandfather was a member of Company I. Thomas Hatch went on to fight at Fredricksburg and was afterwards promoted to Corporal. I would like to get a copy of this article and thank the author for his scholarship.

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    1. No problem, Brent, glad you enjoyed it.

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