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)

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Captain John C. Tidball at Antietam

Last year, Antietam National Battlefield opened the Tidball Trail, covering some of the ground near the Middle Bridge where elements of the 5th Corps and the U.S. Cavalry and their respective artillery batteries engaged with the center of Lee's line along the Boonsboro Pike (Route 34).

In the course of my research on the Army of the Potomac at Antietam, I have been reading some great accounts from veterans regarding the effectiveness of various army units, as well as other topics such as experience, strength, and battle readiness. One of those sources is John C. Tidball's The Artillery Service in the War of the Rebellion, 1861-1865. Adapted from a series of articles written by Tidball from 1891 to 1893 in the Journal of Military Service Institution and edited by Lawrence Kaplan, this is a fine work for anyone doing a study on artillery service and effectiveness during the Civil War. Tidball writes about many of the main battles in which he participated in the East, and he also discusses a few of the battles in the West, such as Shiloh, Chickamauga, and Stones' River.

Captain John C. Tidball

Because I was at the park to do some research today, and because I am reading Tidball's work right now, I stopped by the Tidball trail for some photos this afternoon. The park recently completed an artillery relocation, where our excellent staff placed some artillery guns at new locations. One of these locations, and in my opinion one of the finest spots on the park for artillery guns, is the Tidball trail, where two three inch ordinance rifles were recently placed. I wanted to check out the new views from the trail, and the new guns did not disappoint.

At Antietam, John C. Tidball was the Captain of Battery A, 2nd US Artillery. A West Point graduate from 1848, Tidball was an experienced officer whose actions at the battle helped to support infantry attacks on the Federal right and left. His guns were positioned on a ridge line just west of Antietam Creek, having a view of the center and southern end of the battlefield. 

In his account of Antietam, Tidball writes that Union artillery units were not as well organized as were their Confederate counterparts. Confederate batteries were largely organized into battalions, allowing for greater concentration of firepower on certain parts of the field (think of the Stephen D. Lee Battalion in between the Dunker Church and the current site of the Visitor Center). Conversely, Federal batteries were largely on their own, attached to various brigades or divisions. This dispersed Federal firepower for field artillery west of the Antietam, limiting the ability of Union artillery to support infantry attacks with close range support.

(Tidball's battery looking west toward Confederate positions on northern side of Boonsboro Pike)

Tidball's description of the fighting in the Cornfield and West Woods is critical of Hooker's use of his artillery. He suggests that Federal artillery was underutilized because of the lack of general coordination between various divisions and corps in their attacks. He also provides a chilling quote describing the fighting in that sector: "No other equal area upon the American continent has been so drenched with human blood." (79)

 Tidball's view of Cemetery Hill, on the southern (left) side of Route 34.

Throughout the battle, Union artillery on the eastern banks of the Antietam pelted Confederate forces with long range fire. To support these long range batteries, Union cavalry and batteries attached to the cavalry were sent across the Middle Bridge to fire on the center of the Confederate line. One of these batteries was Tidball's Battery A, 2nd US Artillery:

"To silence these batteries [Federal guns on the east bank of the Antietam] Lee directed his chief of artillery to post his most powerful batteries along the crest in front of Sharpsburg, but before this could be effected the four horse batteries of Pleasanton's cavalry pushed across the center bridge, and amid a shower of shot, shell, and musketry, took position on an intermediate crest between Lee's line and the batteries on the opposite side of the Antietam. The fire from the 24 pieces of these horse batteries was so spirited as not only to prevent the establishment of other batteries in their front, but to drive away those already there... The horse batteries continued to hold the position until withdrawn at dark. In addition to attending to their immediate front they, as occasion offered, directed their fire to the right upon Jackson's masses and to the left upon the troops confronting Burnside." (72)

Tidball's six guns fired over 1,200 shells from this position. In this photograph, the southern part of the battlefield can be seen. Not only could Tidball support Fifth Corps infantry and U.S. Cavalry near the Middle Bridge and 2nd Corps infantry attacking the Sunken Road, but he could support Burnside's right flank, advancing across the fields in the distance on the left side of the above photograph.

Hawkin's Zouaves monument, as seen from Tidball's position.

Tidball went on to become one of the most successful Union artillery officers of the war. He was brevetted for gallantry five times, becoming a Brevet Major General by the end of the war. During his post Civil War career, he was the Superintendent of Artillery instruction at the army's Artillery School, eventually achieving the rank of  Colonel in the regular army. His thoughts and observations on artillery throughout the conflict stand the test of time in their wisdom and insight to important artillery operations at battles such as Antietam. While I disagree with some of his judgments regarding the generalship of the battle, I believe that the quote below is particularly astute in reminding us of the good reasons for caution which were in the back of McClellan's mind during the battle. Even if one says that Antietam was a draw, the simple fact is that for Lee and his invading army, it was ultimately a defeat.

"But McClellan was cautious, perhaps over cautious. Nothing but his army stood between Lee and the National capital. A decided repulse would be an immeasurable misfortune and there was no certainty that he could fight his army better on any other day than he had on the 17th... [Antietam] was in reality a drawn battle. But a drawn battle to an invading army is little less than defeat." (86-7)

Tidball, John C. The Artillery Service in the War of the Rebellion, 1861-1865. Edited by Lawrence M. Kaplan (Yardley, Pennsylvania: Westholme Publishing, 2011)


  1. Dan, very interesting. If you haven't already, you may wish to compare and contrast Tidball's narrative and analysis thirty years on with the more immediate (and incisive) narrative and analysis he made in his AAR of Sept. 21, 1862. The fighting in the center is fascinating, and I believe it remains the least understood, most obscure sector of the battlefield, since it has not been very "welcoming" to the visitor. I applaud the opening of the Tidball Trail!

  2. Thanks for the comment and for visiting my blog. Tidball's report is certainly quite interesting, and I agree with you that the fighting in the center of the battlefield is very interesting and misunderstood. Many of us at Antietam hope that the Tidball Trail, and its recently placed guns, will help to erase some of that obscurity.