Our Country's Fiery Ordeal

A blog about the American Civil War, written and maintained by historian Daniel J. Vermilya, author of The Battle of Kennesaw Mountain (History Press, 2014) and James Garfield and the Civil War (History Press, 2015)

Dedicated to my great-great-great grandfather, Private Ellwood Rodebaugh, Company D, 106th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry, killed at the Battle of Antietam, September 17, 1862.

"And may an Overuling Providence continue to cause good to come out of evil, justice to be done to all men where injustice has long prevailed, and finally, peace, quiet, and harmony to come out of this terrible confrontation and our country's fiery ordeal." -- Albert Champlin, 105th Ohio, Diary entry of June 19, 1864 (Western Reserve Historical Society)

Thursday, September 1, 2011

The 23rd Ohio at the Battle of Antietam

On the weekend of August 20 and 21, living history volunteers portraying the 23rd Ohio Volunteer Infantry were at Antietam National Battlefield demonstrating Infantry tactics and maneuvers, as well as musket firing.

Seeing these volunteers portraying the 23rd Ohio led me to doing more reading about this regiment, so I thought I might share their story on here.

The 23rd Ohio was originally organized in 1861 with Colonel William Rosencrans at its helm. It was organized into a brigade commanded by Jacob Cox which saw most of its early action in the Kanawha Valley of West Virginia, thus garnering the moniker “Kanawha Brigade.” By the time of the Maryland Campaign, the 23rd Ohio was a part of the Kanawha Division.

Following the death of General Jesse Reno at South Mountain, Jacob Cox took command of the 9th Corps. The 9th Corps command structure was in flux because Ambrose Burnside, the original commander of the corps, was elevated to commanding one of the wings of the Union army during its advance from Washington. With these changes in command, the 23rd Ohio’s Colonel Eliakim Scammon was elevated to command of the Kanawha Division.

With Scammon's elevation to division command, the 23rd Ohio's brigade commander became Colonel Hugh Ewing, the brother in law and foster brother of William Tecumseh Sherman. At the start of the Maryland Campaign, the 23rd Ohio was commanded by a young Lieutenant Colonel named Rutheford B. Hayes, the future 19th President of the United States. During fierce fighting at Fox’s Gap on September 14, 1862 at South Mountain, Lieutenant Colonel Hayes was wounded, and command of the 23rd fell to Major James M. Comly.

On the morning of September 17, the men of the 23rd Ohio lay in wait for their orders. They had made their way down the slopes of South Mountain and marched several miles to the west, and were now camped just east of the meandering Antietam Creek. On the northern end of the battlefield, the fighting began at dawn in the Cornfield and East Woods, and a growing crescendo of violence and noise settled over the field. When the men of the 9th Corps heard the sounds of battle, they were hearing the right wing attack that George McClellan had planned against Lee’s position. This right wing attack was meant to batter the Confederate left, drawing troops from the central and southern portions of Lee’s lines. As Lee weakened his right, hopefully he would make it vulnerable for the waiting men of the 9th Corps to drive across Antietam Creek and to drive the Confederate forces from the field.

At 10 AM that morning, Ambrose Burnside received his orders. He was to begin moving against Lee’s right, having first to cross over Antietam Creek. As my good friend, colleague, and fellow blogger John Hoptak is fond of noting, Burnside’s men were the only troops in the Union army who were forced to fight their way across the Antietam. Burnside’s plan of advance called for assaults directly against the Lower Bridge over Antietam Creek, now known as Burnside Bridge. These assaults were to occur simultaneously with a flanking movement aimed at crossing Antietam Creek at a ford south of the bridge. The men tabbed for the flanking movement were those of Isaac Rodman’s Division, along with Colonel Ewing’s brigade of the Kanawha Division.

As these men made their way south, they had a difficult time finding the all important ford. Many visitors and historians fail to understand the troubles associated with this task. To properly ford a creek, one needed a shallow rocky bottom and good entry and exit points. Very few such places could be found along Antietam Creek that day. After several hours of searching, the wandering Union column came upon Snavely’s Ford, a suitable crossing south of the Lower Bridge.

In his official report after the battle, Colonel Ewing described the crossing of the creek and the subsequent advance made by his brigade. Ewing’s report gives a broad sense of the role which the 23rd Ohio had during the battle of Antietam. :
We crossed the ford of the Antietam under a shower of grape, and after being held under a trying fire from the enemy’s batteries for some time, made, under order of Colonel Scammon, commanding division, a charge upon his advancing columns, and checked and held his largely superior force at bay until the battle ceased on the ensuing day, and he was driven from the field (O.R., Vol. 19, Part 1, 463).
Once across the creek, the 23rd Ohio formed the right of Ewing’s Brigade. Once Burnside's attack was ready to proceed, Ewing's brigade began advancing over the hills south of Sharpsburg toward Lee’s right flank in the mid afternoon hours of September 17. After advancing forward to a stone wall, Major Comly reported seeing a large body of infantry advancing toward his left flank. These men, some adorned in clean blue uniforms, were Ambrose Powell Hill’s Confederates, fresh from Harper’s Ferry. Upon seeing them, Comly thought them to be Union soldiers, and as a result did not take their presence as a threat. He even asserted in his after action report that Hill’s men were flying the American flag to as to further surprise Union troops. However, Comly’s misidentification would soon be corrected:
Soon after all doubt vanished, upon the furious attack which was made by them, almost at feeling distance, upon the Thirtieth Regiment and our left. Almost immediately a heavy enfilading fire was opened upon our whole line, and Colonel Ewing gave the order to me in person to change front perpendicularly to the rear, which was done. From some cause (probably from the death of the aide bearing the order) we did not receive the order to fall back with the remainder of the brigade, and we consequently held our position until relieved by our division commander (O.R., Vol. 19, Part 1, 468).

In his official report, Comly gave praise to his men for their actions that day, noting that just as they had done at South Mountain three days before, the men of the 23rd Ohio performed with “reckless bravery” at the Battle of Antietam. Among the casualties in the 23rd Ohio was their color sergeant. As the men left the field in the wake of A.P. Hill’s counterattack, Major Comly noticed that the regimental colors were missing, and promptly sent 11 volunteers to retrieve the regimental colors which were resting near a large stack of wheat, most likely from the Otto farm. A dispute opened between the Ohioans and several New Yorkers who had settled there as to the rightful owners of the colors.

This final incident with the regimental colors illustrates a larger theme which plagued the 23rd Ohio at Antietam. While historians have the luxury of 150 years of hindsight through which to gain clarity about what happened during these battles, for the men in the ranks they were highly confusing and chaotic affairs. The 23rd Ohio discovered this confusion several times during the day of Antietam. On their search for Snavely’s Ford, Isaac Rodman and Hugh Ewing had a difficult time in finding a suitable place to cross Antietam Creek. Once they were across and had advanced toward the Confederate lines, they were flanked by A.P. Hill’s men, some of whom were wearing Federal uniforms, adding to even greater confusion and for Major Comly, a costly case of misidentification.

At South Mountain on September 14, the 23rd Ohio had 32 men killed and 95 wounded for a total of 130 casualties and a casualty rate of near 25%. At Antietam, the regiment lost 8 men killed, 59 wounded, and 2 missing in action, for a total of 69 casualties and a casualty rate of almost 20%. Altogether, in a matter of three days, the 23rd Ohio lost 199 men as casualties. Approximately two out of every five men in the regiment were killed and wounded at South Mountain and Antietam.

The 23rd Ohio Monument at Antietam

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