Thursday, April 16, 2015

Connections with History: Private Elwood Rodebaugh and the Battle of Antietam


Working as a park ranger at Antietam National Battlefield is a tremendous honor. As my fellow rangers and I say, for us, it’s the best job in the world. Every day, my colleagues and I have the opportunity to come to the most pristine and best preserved Civil War battlefield in the country. Our task is to help visitors from all across the country—and indeed, from across the world—understand and connect with the terrible events that took place here on September 17, 1862. For some, a trip to Antietam means studying military tactics, generals, and leadership. Others come here for recreational purposes, such as hiking, biking, or running. Others still come here to learn about the farmers and civilians whose worlds were turned upside down in September 1862 when Union and Confederate armies converged on this soil.


No matter the reason why visitors come here, for many, the visit ends up becoming something of a pilgrimage to the past, an avenue for exploring American history and learning about those who came before us. It is for this purpose that national parks exist. They allow Americans to connect with their country and its history, themselves becoming a part of it in the process.
Today, I would like to tell you about my connection with Antietam, and why this place matters so much to me.


 Sunrise at Antietam


The morning of September 17, 1862 dawned with a mist in the air left over from the rain that had fallen the night before. For Private Elwood Rodebaugh of Company D, 106th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry, it would be the last dawn he would ever know. Elwood was but one of thousands of men who shared that distinction that fateful morning. Soon, the mist that filled the air would be replaced with the smells and sounds of battle and death. Elwood Rodebaugh, along with thousands of other men from both the North and the South, would soon become a casualty of America's bloodiest day.
The path that brought Elwood Rodebaugh to the banks of Antietam Creek was a common one among Civil War soldiers. When the war began in 1861, he was an ordinary shoemaker living in Canton, Pennsylvania. He was thirty-one years old, and had a wife and two children. Josephine, his wife, was twenty-six, his son Charles was two, and his daughter Heloise was four. The family’s possessions included a milk cow, a small house, and about fifty dollars. They were common people, representing the vast majority of those who fought during the Civil War. Elwood had nothing to do with why the Southern states decided to secede in 1860 and 1861, and he certainly was not the one who fired the first shot of the war at Fort Sumter. Yet, when the United States broke apart and Americans began waging war against one another, Elwood faithfully enlisted to defend his country as did so many others. On August 26, 1861, Elwood was officially mustered in to the Federal ranks, becoming a member of what would become Company D, 106th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry.


Throughout his time in the service prior to Antietam, Elwood saw significant campaign time with the 106th Pennsylvania, which was originally designated the 5th California Regiment, as the state of California provided the funds to sponsor several regiments from Pennsylvania early on in the war. The regiment’s brigade was known as the Philadelphia Brigade because each of the regiments in it was raised almost entirely from the city of Philadelphia and its surroundings. Company D of the 106th was one of the only companies in the entire brigade not from Philadelphia. Originally led by Edward Baker and a part of Charles Stone’s division, the brigade was engaged at Ball’s Bluff in October 1861, though they saw much heavier action during the Peninsula Campaign in the summer of 1862. During the Seven Days Battles, Elwood was wounded in his right forearm, though it was not serious enough to keep him out of the ranks. When the Army of the Potomac left the defenses of Washington and embarked upon the Maryland Campaign in September 1862, Elwood was marching along with them to a fate unknown.


Elwood Rodebaugh was one of the thousands of men who comprised the 2nd Corps of the Union Army of the Potomac, commanded by Major General Edwin Vose Sumner. During the Maryland Campaign, Sumner’s 2nd Corps was one of the only veteran parts of the Army of the Potomac under George McClellan. The night before the battle saw Sumner’s men encamped on the fields of the Pry Farm, just east of Antietam Creek.



On the morning of the 17th, the men were woken early. Their impetuous commander had roused them at 3 AM in preparation for crossing Antietam Creek to support the right wing of the Union army in its attacks on the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia. George McClellan's battle plan called for Union assaults against Lee's left flank, to be followed up by a crushing blow against Lee's right. Joe Hooker's 1st Corps and Joseph Mansfield's 12th Corps were already across the creek that morning, preparing for battle, while the 2nd Corps lay in wait on the other side.


That morning, as with many mornings in his life, Edwin Sumner was an impatient man. He had preferred that his men cross the Antietam the night before, but was still awaiting his orders to cross on the morning of the 17th. As the fighting began in earnest at dawn, Sumner's men sat in their camps on the other side of the Antietam, listening to the booming of the guns with a growing anxiety and apprehension of what was to come. It was not until 7:20—almost an hour and a half after the fighting had begun—that Sumner received his orders from George McClellan to begin advancing his corps across Antietam Creek. The first part to move was John Sedgwick's division, followed by William French's command, and followed later by Israel Richardson’s division. Soon after receiving his marching orders, Sedgwick began crossing his men near the Pry Mill, just south of the Upper Bridge over Antietam Creek.

Between the hours of 8 and 9 AM, Sedgwick's men, with Edwin Sumner riding along, traversed the fields and hills between Antietam Creek and the East Woods. Arriving in the East Woods near 9 AM, Edwin Sumner began to survey the situation. William French's men were still moving toward the battlefield after crossing the creek. They were operating under orders telling them to move to support Sedgwick's left upon arriving on the field. As for the moment, Sumner only had Sedgwick's division to work with. Numbering over 5,000 strong, this force would suffice. Sumner recognized that Union forces commanded by George Sears Greene of the 12th Corps had given him an opportunity. Greene's Division occupied a plot of ground now covered with the park visitor center. Seeing these troops, Sumner decided to push due west into the large woodlot to the north and west of the Dunker Church, an area known as the West Woods.

As Sumner moved Sedgwick's men westward he positioned them into three lines of battle. First in line was Willis Gorman's brigade, followed by Napoleon Jackson Tecumseh Dana's brigade (a military name if there ever was one), and the last line was the Philadelphia Brigade, commanded by Oliver O. Howard. Howard's brigade was arranged with the 69th Pennsylvania on the far left, the 72nd Pennsylvania on the center left, the 106th Pennsylvania on the center right, and the 71st Pennsylvania on the far right of the regiment. As these men advanced across the Hagerstown Turnpike and into the West Woods, the 106th Pennsylvania, commanded by Colonel Turner G. Morehead, found themselves along a tree line at the far edge of an open clover field, by this time covered with bodies of both Confederate and Union soldiers from fighting earlier that morning.


The tree line along which the 106th Pennsylvania was situated in the West Woods


Once Gorman’s brigade moved deep into the woods, Confederate artillery opened on their position from Hauser Ridge, stopping the Federal advance. For the men of Dana's and Howard's brigades, there was not much to do but to wait for Gorman's men to push through this fire, allowing the division to turn southward and roll up Lee's flank. Many of the men in these brigades lay down to avoid the shot and shell, as well as to take a quick respite before their fight began in earnest. As these men lay in the woods, events beyond their control were in motion to bring about their demise.
At this point in the battle, Robert E. Lee was fast becoming aware of the need for even more troops on his left flank. All morning he had been sending any reinforcements he could find to stop the 1st and 12th Corps of the Union army. Now, 2nd Corps troops were poised to drive the Confederates from the field and they needed to be stopped. To accomplish this desperate task, Lee turned to a force which was an amalgamation of several divisions, led primarily by Lafayette McLaws's division, having recently arrived from Harper's Ferry. McLaws's men were sent north from Sharpsburg and directly into the left flank of Sedgwick's unsuspecting troops.

For the men of the 106th Pennsylvania, and for Elwood Rodebaugh, the attack came fast and seemingly out of nowhere. Firing began on their left flank when Confederate troops encountered the 125th Pennsylvania and the 34th New York, the far left flank of the Union foothold in the West Woods. The sounds of the advance were what several soldiers described as a "fiery avalanche" descending upon their flank. As the fire intensified, General Sumner, sensing danger, rode back into the lines of his men to save them from their impending doom. Sumner rode directly into the ranks of the 106th Pennsylvania, proclaiming, “Back boys, for God’s sake move back, you are in a bad fix!”. Volleys of musket and artillery fire soon tore into the Pennsylvanians, clarifying the emerging Rebel threat. The men of the 106th, along with the rest of Sedgwick’s division, began to break for the rear in droves. The chaos was all encompassing. Men were firing into their own ranks from all directions.


The men of the 106th Pennsylvania and Sedgwick's division retreated across these fields. Some of the soldiers in the 106th made a defensive stand along the fence line pictured above.


As disaster enveloped the men of the 106th Pennsylvania, slowly but surely, bravery and courage began to shine through the confusion. Color Sergeant Benjamin Sloanaker planted the regimental colors along a fence line perpendicular to the Hagerstown Turnpike (this fence line now runs along Starke Avenue). Men began to rally around the colors in an attempt to stem the tide of the Confederate advance. Among those who formed this line was Charles E. Hickman of Company A, the company Sergeant. With great bravery and coolness under fire, Hickman moved his company out of the West Woods and into the fields to the east of the Hagerstown Turnpike. There, the Pennsylvanians were joined with several companies of Massachusetts soldiers, possibly from the 15th Massachusetts, who were making their own retreat from the woods. In the process of making this stand, Sergeant Hickman paid the ultimate price and lost his life. He was killed instantly by a rebel bullet to the head.


It was also at this time that Elwood Rodebaugh, a humble shoemaker from Canton, Pennsylvania, lost his life in the service of his country. Captain William Jones of Company D would later write that Elwood “was last seen, when we commenced falling back, fighting bravely….” Two men from Elwood’s company, Samuel Riggs and Daniel Fitzwater, later testified that they had last seen Elwood along the same fence line where portions of the regiment attempted to make a defensive stand. He was killed, as Captain Jones wrote, “with unflinching bravery to wit….” Jones, Riggs, and Fitzwater all later noted that Elwood’s body was not identified in the aftermath of Antietam due to his having shaved off his beard just a few days before the battle, making him unrecognizable to burial parties.
Sedgwick’s repulse in the West Woods came at one of the most intense and bloodiest moments of the Battle of Antietam. The fight was still but a few hours old, and already, twice as many Americans had fallen as casualties than fell on D-Day in 1944. The carnage was far from done. Combat raged between the two armies for the rest of the day until darkness mercifully drew the curtain on the bloodiest day in American history.

Antietam's Philadelphia Brigade Monument at dusk


While the specific results of Antietam are still hotly debated, it is clear that the battle had an unmistakable impact on American history. Two days later, Lee’s Confederate army was back in Virginia, and three days after that, President Abraham Lincoln issued his Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation, declaring that from that point onward, the war would be fought to preserve a better Union, one without slavery. 

After Antietam, the war continued on, as did the men of the 106th Pennsylvania. In its brief but fierce action in the West Woods, the regiment lost 77 out of 492 present. Howard’s brigade lost 545 men in the short time span they were engaged that morning. Two months later, the 106th fought bravely at Fredericksburg in December 1862, and a few months after that, they held the Union line at Gettysburg in the biggest and bloodiest battle ever fought on the North American continent. When the 106th Pennsylvania finally mustered out of the service, 197 of their men had died from battle wounds and disease during the war. Elwood Rodebaugh was just one of them.


In all likelihood, Elwood was buried on the field where he fell and was removed to Antietam National Cemetery several years later. Because he was buried without identification, to this day he is among the 1,836 unknown soldiers who rest in Antietam National Cemetery. Of the 4,776 Union soldiers interred there, roughly 40% are in unknown graves.


Josephine, Charles, and Heloise were never able to visit Elwood’s grave nor have the final closure of a fitting funeral for their beloved father and husband. But they continued on regardless. Josephine applied for a widow’s pension through the Federal government in 1863, and her request was granted. She remarried in the 1870s and lost her second husband to illness in the 1880s, becoming a widow once again. She ended up living into the early years of the twentieth century, passing away in 1903. Up until her death, Josephine was illiterate. All of her pension documents were marked only with an “x” for her signature.



What does all of this have to do with me, a park ranger at Antietam National Battlefield? When I was a boy, I remember going on long car rides to visit my grandparents in Canton, Pennsylvania, the same town where Elwood Rodebaugh lived many years before. I remember sitting in the back of my Grandma’s kitchen in a rocking chair with my grandfather, and he would tell me about history, mostly that of the Civil War. Grandpa frequently spoke of the men from Canton who had served in the war. Among them was his own great-grandfather, and my great-great-great grandfather, Private Elwood Rodebaugh. I remember going on sunny afternoon drives with my dad and my grandfather up to a lake near where Elwood lived. While we went fishing, my grandpa would tell me about Elwood and his service in the war. He took me to a local cemetery where Charles—Elwood’s son—was buried, and we talked there about our family and its history. Our conversations always seemed to come back to Antietam. Before he passed away, my grandfather gave my father an old regimental history of the 106th Pennsylvania, something which was in turn given to me. In the back of the book, published in 1883, is the roster of those who served. A small red x rests next to Elwood’s name. The description for Private Rodebaugh is simple: “Killed in Action at Sharpsburg, September 17, 1862.”


On September 17, 2012, I had the opportunity to read Elwood's name during the ceremony in the Antietam National Cemetery reading the names of those who died in the battle 150 years before.



Our memories of the past comprise who we are every day of our lives. The same is true for our country. History is not a stale, dusty old subject in a book. It is a living and breathing thing. Our connections with America’s past help to forge our bonds with our country today. Those connections teach us how dearly we should appreciate all that we have. In his official report describing the action of the Philadelphia Brigade at Antietam, Brigadier General Oliver O. Howard spoke to this, writing, “[My men] have poured out their blood like water, and we must look to God and our country for a just reward.” Today, preserving Antietam National Battlefield is but a small part of the reward we try to continually repay on a daily basis to honor those who fought and died here.


The Battle of Antietam was the bloodiest single day in American history. Over 23,000 men were killed wounded or missing in a twelve hour time span. It is easy to let that statistic simply be a number or a piece of trivia, but every time we remind ourselves of the humanity of those who fought here, the battle takes an entirely new level of importance.


Working at Antietam every day has been a tremendous blessing and an honor. Knowing that my own ancestor fought and died here for his country gives it more meaning that I can say. Not knowing exactly where his grave is located makes the entire battlefield more special because it is preserved as a final resting place for Elwood and the thousands of those who also died here on September 17, 1862.


No battle in history has ever been fought by lines on a map. No battle has ever occurred in the pages of a history book. Battles are fought by individuals, ordinary people who do extraordinary things and forever shape the flow of history. Remembering that each casualty of Antietam was an individual such as Elwood Rodebaugh—a soldier with a family at home, someone with hopes and aspirations just like us—makes the human cost of the battle more readily apparent. The fact that Josephine Rodebaugh lost her husband at Antietam is as much a consequence of the battle as was the Emancipation Proclamation. Without the sacrifice and heartbreak of one the promise of freedom afforded by the other would not have been possible.


Because soldiers such as Elwood Rodebaugh did their duty with bravery under such harrowing circumstances, we have been entrusted with an incredible legacy. Antietam stands as not only one of the most consequential days in American history, but also one of the most important days for remembering that freedom is never free. Antietam reminds us that as long as freedom needs defending, Americans will rise to the challenge. The price for freedom has been paid on many fields by many soldiers. One of those soldiers just happened to be an ordinary shoemaker from Canton, Pennsylvania named Elwood Rodebaugh, my great-great-great grandfather. Private Rodebaugh’s sacrifice at Antietam was not only for the freedom of Charles and Heloise, but for the country their descendants, their families, and millions of others who call America home still enjoy to this day.



And that is one very important reason why Antietam National Battlefield is a very special place for me, and a very special place for our country. It has been an honor of a lifetime to work here, and I hope you will visit to form your own connections with our country and its rich and incredible history.




Dan Vermilya
Park Ranger



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