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)

Monday, June 25, 2012

Captain George A. Custer to Major General George B. McClellan, September 15, 1862

Over the past few weeks, on days when I am not working at the park, you can most likely find me in Washington, at either the National Archives or the Library of Congress, digging through rolls of microfilm and dusty old record books, working away on my ongoing research regarding the strength, experience, and composition of the Army of the Potomac at Antietam. The McClellan Papers at the Library of Congress have turned out to be very, very interesting. While Stephen Sears published a collection of McClellan's Civil War correspondence years ago, the collection only scratches the surface of what can be found in the Library of Congress holdings. Thus far, I have mostly been digging through rolls and rolls of correspondence on microfilm, primarily things that were sent to McClellan before and during the campaign. Some of this material can be found in the Official Record volumes relating to Antietam (and the supplemental volume as well). Yet, much of it is unpublished reports and dispatches. For an excellent example, I have below a dispatch sent to McClellan by a young Captain by the name of George Armstrong Custer (sound familiar?) Custer was serving on McClellan's staff during the Maryland Campaign, and on September 15, the day after the Battle of South Mountain, Custer sent a message to McClellan describing for him Lee's positions outside of Sharpsburg. The time on this dispatch appears to be 1 p.m., meaning that this message is a firsthand account of Lee's battle lines by Custer, who was apparently one of the first Union officers to survey the positions along Antietam Creek.

The enemy is drawn up in line of battle on a ridge about two miles beyond Potomac [.] They are in full view [.] Their line is a perfect one about a mile and a half long. We have can have equally good position as they now occupy. Richardson is forming his line to attack. We are lacking in artillery Tidball’s being the only artillery available hurry up more guns we can get good position for two hundred guns. Longstreet is in command and has forty cannon that we know of. We can employ all the troops you can send us.
Library of Congress, George B. McClellan Papers (A80: Roll 32)

In the McClellan Papers, this dispatch is dated September 17, 1862. Yet, because of its content and the other dispatches which Custer sent McClellan that day (at least from those I saw in the McClellan Papers thus far), this must have been on the 15th, and whomever cataloged the papers simply mislabeled it. The mention of Tidball's Battery, Richardson's Division, and the defensive positions of Lee's army outside of Sharpsburg all suggest that this was a dispatch sent on the 15th, making it an early assessment of the Confederate position outside of Sharpsburg.

In the Sears collection of McClellan's Civil War correspondence, a reference is made to this dispatch in a footnote where Sears only included the following portion: "The enemy is drawn up in line of battle on a ridge about two miles beyond [Keedysville]. They are in full view. Their line is a perfect one about a mile and a half long.... Longstreet is in command and has forty cannon that we know of." Sears omitted the lines where Custer notes the lack of Federal artillery at the front, as well as the mention of Tidball’s battery and Richardson’s division. It should be noted that, while Custer's dispatch clearly says Lee is two miles beyond the Potomac, he was either mistaken or confused in his wording. As Sears indicated in his reference to this dispatch, Custer meant that Lee was two miles beyond Keedysville, not the Potomac River. On the 15th, Lee was indeed two miles beyond Keedysville, drawn up outside of Sharpsburg. If Custer did indeed mean the Potomac, then using beyond was a poor word choice, as it suggests that Lee's army was past the river, rather than a few miles away from it, still on Maryland soil. However, given the lack of punctuation and the hurried nature of the writing, I doubt Custer took a moment to proofread the message he was sending along. Either way, it is a fascinating dispatch from an officer who would go on to be one of the more famous generals of the war, and of the 19th century, offering one of the first Union assessments of Lee’s position outside of Sharpsburg. 


  1. Dan,
    Your post dated today is timely as June 25-26 1876 is the date of the Battle of the Little Bighorn otherwise known as Custer's Last Stand. Interesting material.
    Jim Rosebrock