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)

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Antietam Commanders: Colonel Walter Phelps, Jr.

First off, let me apologize for the paucity of posts on here as of late. Things have been extremely busy. Tour giving season at the park is in full swing, and as visitation numbers rise, there is less and less time for reading and research during the day. Of course, this means that my research for my project on the Army of the Potomac at Antietam is taking up much of my mornings, nights, and all of my weekends. The past few weekends (for me Tuesdays and Wednesdays) I have been camped out in the park library or down in D.C. at the Library of Congress (and this upcoming Tuesday, the National Archives). Of course, being busy is not a bad thing. I can't think of anything I would rather be doing, especially this year, for the Sesquicentennial of Antietam. In the weeks to come, I hope to begin posting some of the letters I have been coming across, as well as other thoughts and observations regarding my ongoing research.

Now that we have the preliminaries out of the way, let us resume our series on Union brigade commanders at Antietam with a look at Colonel Walter Phelps, Jr., who during the Antietam Campaign, commanded the 1st Brigade, 1st Division, 1st Corps, consisting of the 22nd New York, 24th New York, 30th New York, 84th New York, and the 2nd U.S. Sharpshooters.

Many of those commanding regiments, brigades, and divisions at Antietam were doing so in battle for the first time in their lives. One of those men was Colonel Walter Phelps, Jr. A native of New York, Phelps spent his antebellum years in local business, as well as participating in his local militia. His first role in the Civil War was as the colonel of the 22nd New York Volunteer Infantry, a regiment which he helped to organize and recruit. The 22nd New York did not see heavy action until the early summer of 1862, when its brigade was made a part of John Pope’s ill-fated Army of Virginia. During July 1862, Phelps became seriously ill, and received a 30 day leave from the service on July 31. Thus, during the last week of August, when the 22nd New York and the rest of John Pope’s Army of Virginia were engaged at 2nd Manassas, Phelps was not present. During that battle, the 22nd New York suffered over 150 casualties, and their brigade, commanded by John Hatch, lost over 770 men.

Immediately after 2nd Manassas, Phelps rejoined his regiment, but soon discovered that it was not the same unit which he had left one month prior. Writing to his wife Eliza, on September 4th, Phelps made clear his shock and dismay over the devastated ranks of his unit: “When I contrast the present scenes about me with the past I can hardly imagine the reality, it seems like a dream... War news to me is a stern reality, it is stripped of all pomp and tinsel and of all happy circumstances that once surrounded it. All agree that the 22d Reg. acted splendidly in the battles of last week. I do not know what orders the brigade may have for the present, but think they will be allowed to recruit, it has been terribly cut up.” Phelps went on to describe the strength of the regiment in numbers, listing several of the officers who were killed at 2nd Manassas: “I joined my regiment the first moment I could, it can hardly be called a regiment now. Every officer and man in the brigade thinks it has been sacrificed. How long are these things to be? James Wythe, poor fellow was killed on Friday night. I have but 4 line officers doing duty with the regiment and but 240 men. The other regiments in the brigade are about the same.”[1]

For Phelps, the 22nd New York, and the other regiments of Hatch’s brigade, there would be no time for rest following the bloodletting at 2nd Manassas. Robert E. Lee was moving north into Maryland, and the newly reorganized Union Army of the Potomac was called upon to stop the Confederate threat. Now in the 1st Corps of the Army of the Potomac, John Hatch rose to division command, replacing Rufus King, who suffered from epileptic seizures, preventing him from commanding the division any further. This meant that Colonel Walter Phelps Jr., with no command experience beyond the regimental level, was now elevated to command of a shattered brigade at the outset of a vitally important campaign.

Initially, Phelps only had a temporary command over the brigade; on the morning of the 14th of September, John Hatch informed Phelps that the brigade was now officially his, as Hatch was assuming official command of the 1st division of the 1st Corps, Army of the Potomac. That day, Hatch led the division into battle on the slopes of South Mountain (Hatch was wounded in the battle, leaving the division in the very capable hands of Brigadier General Abner Doubleday for the fighting to come at Antietam). Despite being new to command, and despite reported rumors from his hometown of alleged cowardice on his part for not being present at Second Manassas, Phelps ably led the brigade into action that day against Confederate forces just north of Turner’s Gap. The brigade's aggregate strength was near 500 men.

By the evening of the 14th, Union forces of the 1st and 9th Corps had taken Frosttown, Turner’s, and Fox’s Gaps on South Mountain, delivering a timely victory for George McClellan’s Army of the Potomac and giving Lee cause to consider retreating back to Virginia and ending the Maryland Campaign. Yet, thanks to the efforts of “Stonewall” Jackson at Harpers Ferry on the 15th, Lee was indeed able to continue his campaign, reuniting his army outside of Sharpsburg for the big fight to come.

On the 16th, Phelps again wrote to his wife, telling her of the Battle of South Mountain and the role his brigade had played in the action: “We had a terrible engagement, it was a general one. I formed my brigade in line of battle and steadily advanced up the mountain, driving the enemy before me, until they reach a line heavy fence. Here they made a desperate stand, but I then drove them from their position. The brigade has covered itself with glory.”[2]

The following day, on September 17, Phelps would again lead his brigade into combat. On that morning, Phelps's men, now roughly 425 in number, would support those of Brigadier General John Gibbon’s brigade, known popularly as the Iron Brigade (Phelps’s own brigade had the same nickname, but Gibbons’s men are the ones whom popular history has chosen to confer the moniker upon almost exclusively).

Phelps’s brigade received orders at 5:30 a.m. to support Gibbon’s advance south along the Hagerstown Turnpike, just as the first rays of dawn were breaking over the ridges of South Mountain. Experiencing Confederate artillery fire from both Nicodemus Heights to the west and the Dunker Church Plateau to the south, Phelps aligned his brigade 50 paces behind Gibbon’s men as they moved south into David Miller’s cornfield. As Gibbon advanced, Confederate Brigadier General William Starke brought forward two brigades from the West Woods, and took a position along the western side of the Hagerstown Turnpike, so as to fire directly into the Union flank. As Gibbon maneuvered his lines to meet this threat, Phelps ordered forward the 2nd U.S. Sharpshooters to support Gibbon’s right flank in defending against Starke’s counterattack. In what was assuredly one of the fiercest moments at Antietam, these two battle lines found themselves just yards apart, firing point blank across the Hagerstown Turnpike at 6:45 a.m. By 7 o’clock, Phelps and Gibbon had stymied the Confederate advance, killing Starke in the process. Yet, with the onset of John Bell Hood’s division’s furious charge into the cornfield, Phelps and Gibbon were forced to retire from their position; while portions of Gibbon's command remained west of the turnpike, immediately west of the cornfield, Phelps removed his brigade back to the area surrounding the David Miller farmhouse. Altogether, in the hour and a half that they were engaged in the cornfield, out of 425 men present for duty, Phelps lost 154 men killed, wounded, and missing, for a casualty rate of 36%.[3]

 Section of Ezra Carman's map showing troop positions at daybreak on the 17th. Phelps's brigade can be seen north of the North Woods and east of the Hagerstown Turnpike.

 Section of Ezra Carman's map showing troop movements between 6 and 6:20 a.m. on the 17th. Phelps's brigade can be seen in the northwestern edge of David Miller's cornfield.

 Section of Ezra Carman's map showing troop movements between 6:45 and 7 a.m. on the 17th. Phelps's brigade can be seen along the Hagerstown Turnpike, on the southwestern boundary of the cornfield.

Section of Ezra Carman's map showing troop movements at 7:20 a.m. on the 17th. Phelps's brigade can be seen north of the cornfield, located directly next to David Miller's farmhouse.

The day following Antietam, Phelps again wrote to Eliza. “The brigade is cut to pieces,” he informed his wife, “but I shall remain with them to the last. I have passed through everything for the past few days. I cannot now describe anything, the sights of the battle field are awful to behold, but familiarity with them makes me feel differently.”[4] Several days later, Phelps went into more detail concerning the terrible nature of the fighting along the Hagerstown Turnpike on the morning of the 17th:

I am pleased to know that so far, I have received the approbations of the officers and men of the brigade. I was under very heavy fire Sunday had men fall all about me, but [I was] excepted miraculously, but the fire of Sunday [Sept. 14th] bore no comparison to the one of Wednesday [Sept 17th]. I do not know how I escaped. I assure you that at night I offered the most fervent prayer of the thanksgiving for my wonderful preservation through the dangers of the battle fields. Fortunately I am very cool under fire and the fact of my quietly lighting my pipe when the shot and shell were flying about cutting down my men seemed to enspirit the men and gave them confidence. I have no had my clothes off for 10 days, oh for the luxuries of a bath. My cough troubles me very much and my lungs are becoming very sore, but I shall not complain when there is such pressing necessity for every officer and man to be in the field.[5]

Following Antietam, Phelps remained in command of his brigade, seeing action at Fredericksburg in December of 1862 and Chancellorsville in May of 1863. In June of 1863, when the two year enlistments of three of Phelps’s regiments expired, he went home with them as well. Despite having commanded a brigade through three major battles, despite a petition signed by many in his command, and despite the personal recommendations of numerous high ranking officers in the Army of the Potomac, Phelps did not receive a promotion to Brigadier General. Although he received a brevet promotion to the rank, he left the army in June of 1863 with the official rank of colonel.[6] Phelps's combat record during the Maryland Campaign is but one example of a larger trend in the Army of the Potomac; officers with little to no prior experience stepping into new commands to lead troops into battle. These command changes on the eve of Antietam were a major component of the experience and composition of the Army of the Potomac in September of 1862.

[1] Colonel Walter Phelps to Eliza Phelps, September 4, 1862, “A Brigade Commander’s First Fight: The Letters of Colonel Walter Phelps, Jr. during the Maryland Campaign,” edited by Tom Clemens, in Civil War Regiments, Vol. 5, No. 3, pg. 63.
[2] Col. Walter Phelps to Eliza Phelps, September 16, 1862, in Ibid., 65.
[3] O.R. Report, Col. Walter Phelps, Vol. 19, Part 1, 233-234.
[4] Col. Walter Phelps to Eliza Phelps, September 18, 1862, in “A Brigade Commander’s First Fight,” 66.
[5] Col. Walter Phelps to Eliza Phelps, in Ibid., 67.
[6] Ibid., 68.

1 comment:

  1. It is great to see more use of the Carmen Copes maps in posts regarding the Battle of Antietam. Another excellent post in you series. Thanks Dan.

    Jim Rosebrock