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, September 20, 2011

NPS Video on Civil War and Civil Rights

Good friend and colleague Brian Baracz showed me this video, and I thought it worthy of sharing. The National Park Service is an incredible organization with many talented individuals all working together to preserve, protect, and interpret some of America's most important places. Lately, we have been seeing a lot more emphasis on media in the role of interpretation. Antietam has its own facebook page, twitter account, and youtube channel, all attempting to promote the park's events and prepare for our upcoming 150th. The below video, produced by the NPS National Capitol Region, is quite incredible. Many of the scenes from this were shot at Antietam, and the rest were from other parks in the area.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

"With Unflinching Bravery...": Private Elwood Rodebaugh and the 106th Pennsylvania at Antietam

149 years ago today, my great-great-great grandfather Elwood Rodebaugh was killed at the Battle of Antietam. What follows is the story of his regiment, the 106th Pennsylvania, at the Battle of Antietam, as well as what happened to Elwood that day, based on available historical evidence.

South Mountain at sunrise

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 and thousands of other men from both the North and the South would become casualties in America's bloodiest day.

Elwood Rodebaugh was one of the thousands of men who comprised the Second Corps of the Union Army of the Potomac, commanded by Major General Edwin Vose Sumner. That morning, on the eastern banks of Antietam Creek, the men of Sumner's command were up quite 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 Lee's left flank. George McClellan's battle plan called for Union attacks against Lee's left flank, to be followed up by 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 McClellan had taken the cautious approach of not releasing them until it was truly necessary. 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. While his men were prepared for battle that morning, it was not until 7:20, almost an hour and a half after the fighting had begun, that Sumner recieved his orders from George McClellan to begin advancing his corps across Antietam Creek. The first to move was John Sedgwick's Division. Sedgwick was followed by William French's Division. Because of McClellan's preference to have his replacement reserves ready before sending troops in to battle, Israel Richardson's Division was held back for another hour. Thus, while Richardson's men lay in waiting by the Phillip Pry house, 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 field and hills between the Upper Bridge 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 across the Antietam, and had been left with 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 men, this force would suffice for the moment. 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 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 treeline at the far edge of an open clover field, by this time covered with bodies of both Confederate and Union soldiers.

Position of the 106th Pennsylvania in the West Woods

With Willis Gorman's brigade in front, Sedgwick's division had halted, as Confederate batteries posted on Hauser Ridge began pouring shot and shell into the Federal ranks. 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, rolling up Lee's flank. Many of the men in these ranks 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.

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 Lee 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 McClaws's division, having recently arrived from Harper's Ferry. McClaws's men were sent north from Sharpsburg, 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, as 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 they heard 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 direcly into the lines of the 106th Pennsylvania, proclaiming, “Back boys, for God’s sake move back, you are in a bad fix!” (Ward, History of the 106th Pennsylvania, 90). While at first confusing this for an order to charge, volleys of musket and artillery fire into their flank soon clarified Sumner’s purpose for the regiment. 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.

As chaos 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, forming a defensive line, attempting 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, being killed instantly by a rebel bullet (Ward, 91-2).

The field in which members of the 106th Pennsylvania and Sedgwick's division attempted to stem the tide of the Confederate advance

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 along which portions of the regiment attempted to make a defensive stand. Jones, Riggs, and Fitzwater all later noted that Elwood’s body was not identified in the aftermath of Antietam due to his having recently shaved his beard, making him unrecognizable to burial parties.

The fence line where the 106th Pennsylvania made their stand and where Elwood was last seen

The Philadelphia Brigade monument at Antietam

For us, 149 years after the Battle of Antietam, what does all of this mean? All these years later, what is most important about Elwood’s story? I suggest that it is the element of sacrifice which makes Elwood’s story relevant for us today. Because of what happened at Antietam, Elwood Rodebaugh’s children, 3 year old Charles and 5 year old Heloise, would grow up without a father. Because of Antietam, Josephine Rodebaugh went on without her husband. While Antietam led to the Emancipation Proclamation, it also led to widows, orphans, and missing loved ones. Yet, the loss of loved ones is not necessarily a waste. Despite the sheer terror, carnage, and tragedy of Antietam, there is still a nobility to what occurred there. In a letter written for pension purposes in August of 1863, Captain William Jones of Company D noted that while Elwood had been killed at Antietam, he had performed his duty there “with unflinching bravery to wit.”

It is this description which reminds us exactly of the true nature of Antietam 149 years after the battle was fought. Because soldiers such as Elwood Rodebaugh could perform 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, and on this day, forget not that Private Elwood Rodebaugh gave his life on September 17, 1862 at Antietam not only for the freedom of Charles and Heloise, but for the country their descendants would enjoy as well. Let us gratefully count ourselves among those descendants today.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Anniversary Weekend at Antietam National Battlefield

Today marks the start of Antietam National Battlefield's remembrance and commemoration of the 149th Anniversary of the Battle of Antietam. For those of us who are fortunate enough to call ourselves rangers at Antietam, we hope you can make it out to the battlefield this weekend with a wide variety of events, programs, and commemorations. You can find a link to the schedules for the weekend here.

I know I speak for all my friends and colleagues when I say that it is an incredible privilege to work at Antietam on any day, let alone days such as the ones we will have this weekend. 149 years ago, brave men consecrated these fields with their sacrifices, making Antietam one of the most hallowed places on American soil.

 The sunrise over South Mountain, September 17, 2010

Sunrise at the Cornfield, September 17, 2010

Thursday, September 15, 2011

The Fall of Harper's Ferry and the Road to Antietam 149 years ago...

As the morning of the 15th of September dawned, the situation did not look good for Robert E. Lee and his Confederate army. George McClellan's Army of the Potomac sat atop South Mountain, holding several key passes. Stonewall Jackson was still at Harper's Ferry with nearly half the Confederate army. Worse yet, the Union 6th Corps was threatening the rear of Confederate forces at Harper's Ferry. It appeared as though the clock had struck midnight for the Confederate invasion of Maryland.

However, as Confederate guns on the heights overlooking Harper's Ferry unleashed their fearful shot and shell into the town below, Colonel Dixon Miles decided to surrender his 12,000 man garrison. They were in an indefensible position, as Confederate forces had taken all three of the heights overlooking the town. Jackson, elated with his success, sent off a quick message to Lee, informing him that the Union garrison at Harper's Ferry had surrendered. This telegram would change the campaign yet again. It was what led these two armies to Antietam.

After receiving this telegram, Lee began concentrating his forces near the small town of Sharpsburg. Over the next two days, Confederates would stream into the town, most of them arriving from Harper's Ferry to the south. On the eastern banks of Antietam Creek, Union soldiers began to arrive in droves, having just made the march down South Mountain, through Boonsboro, and toward Sharpsburg. As they arrived, they took position on the hills and fields to the north, east, and south of Sharpsburg. Surely, many of them knew that a battle was imminent. However, none knew of the price they would be forced to pay on the approaching Wednesday, September 17, 1862.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

The Battle of South Mountain--149 years ago

On this date 149 years ago, the Union Army of the Potomac achieved victory in the first significant battle fought north of the Potomac River during the American Civil War. For an in depth narrative of the battle, I suggest The Battle of South Mountain by John Hoptak, which I can't recommend highly enough. It is an excellent and engaging narrative of the day's events, placing them within the larger strategic context of the campaign, some of which I will cover below.

Lee had come north into Maryland hoping for a victory which would have a wide ranging impact. The summer of 1862 had been one of many strategic and tactical victories for the Confederacy, and at Second Manassas in late August, Lee and his lieutenants Stonewall Jackson and James Longstreet had effectively destroyed John Pope's Army of Virginia. Coming north into Maryland and defeating another Union army offered the possibilities of bringing about European recognition for the Confederacy, Maryland's secession from the Union, and even placing enough political pressure on Lincoln to bring the war to a close. Should Lee achieve a victory in Maryland on par with the one he had achieved at Manassas in late August, the Civil War would likely have had a very different ending.

However, once in Maryland, Lee realized he had a pesky problem located at Harper's Ferry. 12,000 Union soldiers were garrisoned there. Lee had initially assumed these troops would vacate the town in favor of a safer location, but he had assumed wrong. Thus, the Confederate commander split his forces, sending Stonewall Jackson with 20,000 men to Harper's Ferry, and sending James Longstreet's wing of the army toward Hagerstown. While orders sending Longstreet to Hagerstown would be altered, leaving that wing near Boonsboro, the Confederate forces were now significantly divided. Moreover, it was only the division of Daniel Harvey Hill which was guarding South Mountain, the crucial geographical barrier between Lee and McClellan.

On the 14th of September, George McClellan caught up with Lee, and a fierce day long fight ensued. The Union 1st, 9th, and 6th Corps attacked at three crucial mountain passes, pushing back Confederate forces after an exhausting day long fight.

South Mountain is a battle which defies many existing stereotypes of both George McClellan and Robert E. Lee. McClellan, either the cowardly lion or the scarecrow of Union Civil War generals (depending on which historian you read), caught the supposedly always aware Lee unware. It was not until the night before the fight that Confederate forces began to realize how close the Union army was and in how great a number they were advancing. This battle is fascinating for many reaons, but perhaps the greatest of those reasons is that it is a complete anomoly in the typical narrative concerning these two famous generals. McClellan achieved a victory with crushing force and commendable speed, while Lee was defeated in a battle for which he was not ready and was not prepared.

Most importantly, however, South Mountain was what in part led to the Battle of Antietam. As I tell visitors to Antietam, up until September 14, Lee was in the driver's seat for the Maryland Campaign. He could dictate where the fighting occured, as his army had the intitiative. However, once George McClellan surprised and defeated Lee, it was imperitive that, rather than continuing with offensive operations, the Confederate forces either retreat from Maryland or make a hasty defensive stand. Effectively, South Mountain removed offensive operations from the range of possible options for Lee's forces. Certainly, it precluded the possibility of Lee's army reaching Pennsylvania. Now, the orders which Lee had issued splitting his forces seemed as though they could be the fatal mistake for the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia. Lee's army was still separated, and George McClellan was knocking on the door of victory. South Mountain fundamentally changed the nature of the Maryland Campaign.

On this evening 149 years ago, Robert E. Lee was being forced to reconsider his Maryland Campaign. If he didn't hear favorable news from Stonewal Jackson at Harper's Ferry soon, it might be time for retreat. What happened the next day influenced Lee's decision to move toward Antietam Creek...

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Two Sunny September days...

Given the significance of today, I thought I would take a departure from the normal posts on here to offer a few thoughts on 9/11...

The United States of America has seen many consequential days. July 4, 1776, April 12, 1861, April 9, 1865, December 7, 1941, and June 6, 1944 all signify epochal dates in American history. This week marks the anniversary of two such dates: September 17, 1862 and September 11, 2001. It seems as though many comparisons have been drawn between these two dates, and I think that is because each of these events tells us something important about our country.

As former President Bush noted yesterday in his remarks at the dedication of the Flight 93 memorial in Shanksville, Pennsylvania, 9/11 was the biggest loss of life on American soil in one day since Antietam. At that same service, former President Clinton invoked the stand at the Alamo and that of the 300 Spartans at Thermopylae in remembering the actions of the passengers of Flight 93. President Clinton noted that these passengers' sacrifices gave the counry "an incalculable gift" that day. Such a gift was also given by those men who fought and died at Antietam.

Each of these days was a terrible occurence for the United States. Each day saw Americans tested to their limits, with many rising above the challenge. Just as Antietam saw soldiers sacrificing their lives for their country, ten years ago today we saw Americans sacrificing to save each other. The sacrifices made by soldiers on the battlefield are quite similar to those made by the brave passengers aboard Flight 93 high above Pennsylvania and the sacrifices made by those brave firemen and police officers who rushed into burning buildings on the verge of collapse. Each day saw its share of carnage, yet each day also saw even greater amounts of bravery and courage.

Certainly, these days were not fascimiles of each other. Antietam was but one day in a four year struggle over the meaning of American government and American liberty; 9/11 was a cowardly act of war by evil fanatics bent on death, destruction, and conquest. Yet, they each tell us similiar things about our country.

On 9/11, while the results of hatred and evil clouded the skies over New York and Washington, the love which common Americans had for each other and for their country rose to the occasion. On September 17, 1862, that same spirit of sacrifice for something greater was displayed in the midst of the most terrible one day battle in American history. Thus, while these days were separated by 139 years and by different circumstances, it seems as though some of the lessons from those days are the same.

Let's remember both anniversaries this week with equal reverence, and in doing so, as Abraham Lincoln said at Gettysburg, let us "highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain."

Friday, September 9, 2011

"If they are united, and we disunited or indifferent they will succeed..."

As some of you may have noticed, I have been tracking key speeches and events in the Civil War as they unfolded 150 years ago. Among the story lines I have been discussing are the speeches and acts of Abraham Lincoln, as well as key battles. I would like to begin introducing new figures and events to this narrative. Next to Abraham Lincoln, I find William Tecumseh Sherman to be one of the most fascinating men of the war from either North or South. His story is one I intend to tell on this blog. 
For William Tecumseh Sherman, as well as for many others, the Civil War began in earnest on the plains of Manassas on July 21, 1861. On that date, Sherman led a brigade of infantry against Confederate troops positioned on Henry Hill. Along with the rest of the Union army that day, Sherman's men were sent back toward Washington in great haste and in defeat. In a letter to his wife Ellen three days after the battle, Sherman showed his disgust and frustration with the military effort thus far by writing at the close of his letter, "courage our people have, but no government." (WTS to Ellen Ewing Sherman, July 24, 1861, in Sherman's Civil War, 122)

The frustration embodied in this statement would define the year of 1861 for Sherman. This frustration was not attributed entirely to a lack of personal success for Sherman; indeed, in August he rose to the rank of Brigadier General. However, along with that rank and the war came burdens, responsibilities, and stresses which Sherman struggled to handle. Also in August, Sherman's friend Major General Robert Anderson requested that he come to Kentucky to help organize Union forces in and near that state. Sherman agreed, and went west, where he would eventually find his destiny.

Upon arriving in Kentucky, perhaps one of the most crucial states in the Union at the time, Sherman realized he was in a position of great responsibility and great pressure. Should Kentucky leave the Union, the game would be up for the Lincoln Administration and the Union forces. While Kentucky did remain loyal, the threat of secession was real, and Sherman saw first hand the degree to which Southerners were rejecting their allegiances to the United States. Kentucky was such a pressure filled situation that in October, Anderson resigned from his position there, elevating Sherman to commander of Union forces in that region.

Much of this story is borne out in Sherman's letters from this period of time. These letters show a man torn by pressures of command in an increasingly stressful situation. Few understood the gravity of the crisis facing the nation. Many sill felt that the war would be a simple affair that might not require thousands upon thousands of men to fight to the death in a four year bloodbath. Sherman was not one of those. Early on, he began to realize the serious nature of the ever growing conflict.

On September 9, 150 years ago today, Sherman wrote to his brother John, a Senator from Ohio, of the need for arming more men and preparing to deal with the situation as it truly was. Sherman's letter offered tremendous foresight about the strategic needs of the Union war effort.
I think it is of vast importance that Ohio, Indiana and Illinois must sooner or later arm every inhabitant and the sooner the better... We ought to have here a well apportioned army of a hundred thousand men. I don't see where they are to come from, but this is the great center. I still think the Mississippi will be the Grand field of operations. Memphis out to be taken in all October, even if we have to fortify and hold it a year. I think it of more importance than Richmond. It may be that the Southern Leaders have made such tremendous calls upon their people and resources, that if we remain on the defensive they will exhaust themselves, but upon the first manifest symptoms of such a result we should follow it up. Here we have no means of offense, and but little of defense, and if you are full of Zeal you could not do better than to raise your voice to call the young and middle aged men of Ohio to arms. If they can't get muskets, then let them get such arms as can be gathered together or if not that, then let them organize in companies in every township and be ready to collect together and move on short notice... If they [the rebels] are united, and we disunited or indifferent they will succeed.... (WTS to John Sherman, Sept. 9, 1861, in Sherman's Civil War, 136).

Not only did Sherman realize that massive forces were needed, but he also noted that Memphis was a more important military target than Richmond. In this statement, Sherman is discussing one of the crucial sticking points among the members of the Union high command between 1861 and 1863. While others, such as George McClellan, saw victory as capturing Richmond, Sherman saw the Mississippi River as crucial to victory, as its capture and control by Union forces would lead to a tactical and strategic defeat of the Confederate armies and the destruction of the Confederacy's ability to wage war.
In the days and weeks to come, Sherman's position became ever more perilous. Eventually, the pressures became too much, and as his calls for help escalated, so did voices of opposition, some even claiming that Sherman had gone insane. But, on September 9, as Sherman apprised his brother of his situation, he wasn't displaying insanity; rather, Sherman was showing great forbearance regarding the terrible nature of the burgeoning Civil War that was engulfing the nation.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

"Before the Storm" at the Dunker Church...

As the temperatures begin to cool, the leaves begin to change, and children head back to school, all signs are pointing to it being another September at Antietam National Battlefield. For us, September is an important month, as this year it marks the 149th anniversary of the Battle of Antietam. As we prepare for the commemorative events on the weekend of September 17th, the days and weeks leading up to that date have their own specialties as well.

This past weekend was a living history weekend at Antietam, where our park volunteers donned 1860s civilian clothing to greet visitors at various farmsteads, discussing what it was like for the civilians who lived on the landscape in the prelude to the battle. The theme and title for these events was "Before the Storm." Among the many events that took place was a service at the Dunker Church on both Saturday evening and on Sunday morning. The Dunker Church service was portraying the last worship service before the massive armies arrived along the banks of the Antietam. On Sunday morning, as the service was being conducted, one could hear cannon fire from another living history demonstration on the other side of the battlefield.

Too often, we are used to seeing the Dunker Church as it pictured above. A black and white structure with meaning only as a landmark on a battlefield. It takes the work of historians and volunteers to transform that black and white structure into a living, breathing landmark with a dramatic story to tell...

One of the greatest ironies of Antietam is that it was fought on ground owned by pacifists. The Dunkers did not believe in war or violence, nor did they believe in ornate buildings. Their simplicity and pacifism formed a significant part of their identity.

Greeting visitors with tracts and historical information

 Singing hymns

Reading the Psalms

The Christian Commission camp behind the church

The United States Christian Commission is one of the most understudied institutions from the Civil War. Dedicated to both God and Country, these brave and dedicated individuals devoted themselves to caring for soldiers spiritually and physically. Their aid efforts stretched from offering religious services and New Testaments to helping in hospitals and in offerings supplies to soldiers. Some of the diary entries I read while doing my Master's research mentioned Christian Commission ministers moving around the camps of the armies in 1864, preaching to various companies, regiments, and brigades. The Christian Commission reminds us of another very important aspect to the Civil War.

This is just one example of the many excellent living history programs and events that occur at Antietam National Battlefield. We will have many, many more of these during September, especially on Battle Anniversary weekend. So, if you are in the area, stop by and see one of the best national parks in the country to commemorate the 149th anniversary of the Battle of Antietam.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Corporal Benjamin F. Williams, Company C, 125th Pennsylvania

One of the projects I have been working on as of late has to do with the 125th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry at the Battle of Antietam. Their story is a fascinating one, and it is also one I will certainly be sharing more of in the weeks to come. In the course of my research on this regiment, I have found some moving letters, articles, and remembrances by veterans of the unit. The park library has a wealth of information on this regiment, and it has been very beneficial for me to look through. I would be remiss if I did not give a big shout out to good friend, park colleague, and fellow Steelers and Pitt Panthers fan Alann Schmidt for helping me in digging through these files.

Among the information in the park unit file on the 125th PA are a number of transcriptions and clippings from various newspapers in Huntingdon, Pennsylvania, the home town for many of the men from Company C of the 125th PA. Among these articles are many notices that were printed in the days and weeks following the Battle of Antietam. This battle was the first for the 125th PA, as it was a 9 month regiment raised in the summer of 1862 by Pennsylvania Governor Andrew Curtin to help meet Lincoln's call for another 300,000 recruits. As Antietam was the first major action for the 125th, many in Huntingdon and Blair Counties, where the regiment originated from, were anxious to hear of the fates of their loved ones in the aftermath of the battle.

Among the notices which were printed in Huntingdon in the days, weeks, and months following Antietam were three which dealt with Corporal Benjamin F. Williams of Company C, 125th Pennsylvania. Altogether, these notices are remarkable in the fact that they tell Williams's story in the aftermath of the battle and in so doing, they tell the story of thousands of men from both sides who had been wounded and suffered in pain and agony in hospitals both on the battlefield and in towns and cities far away.

On November 5, 1862, the Huntingdon Globe printed the following:

HAND AMPUTATED: Our young friend, B.F. Williams, of this borough, a member of Co. C, 125th P.V., who was wounded in the right wrist at Antietam, we regret to learn had his hand amputated on the 25th, ult. in the U.S. Hospital at York, PA where ha has been since that memorable battle. He has the sympathy of his many warm friends in his irreparable loss.

On November 19, 1862, the Huntingdon Globe issued another notice concerning Williams. While before Williams had been listed among those who had been wounded, now he was in a different category:
DIED--At York, Pa. on November 13th, BENJAMIN F. WILLIAMS, of Co. C, 125th P.V., in the 23rd year of his age. Williams was wounded in the wrist at the battle of Antietam by a poisoned ball. Some days afterwards, his hand was amputated, but the poison had spread through his whole body, and all the kind attentions of physicians and the good citizens of York could not save him. His remains were brought home and interred on Saturday with the honors of war.

The claim that Williams was shot by a poisoned ball is quite interesting. Most certainly, the musket ball was not in fact poisoned, but rather, the illness which Williams suffered was a result of germs and bacteria that caused an infection following the wound. While an odd mention, claiming that the enemy was using poison or other less than honorable weapons was not as uncommon as you might think. While by no means a widespread phenomenon, there are many instances in letters and diaries where soldiers from both sides claim that musket balls were poisoned, or that the enemy was shooting strange projectiles.

Also on November 19, 1862, a different paper, the Huntingdon "Journal and American", published an obituary for Benjamin Williams. This notice was considerably different than those printed by the Huntingdon Globe. For one, it wrote that Williams was 28 years old at the time of his death, whearas the Globe had suggested he was 23. The "Journal and American" also dedicated more space to writing about who Williams was and what his sacrifice meant. It chronicled his ordeal and his suffering, but placed it in the context of his sacrifice. It reads, in part:
It is with feelings of the deepest regret that we this week announce the death of our young friend, B.F. Williams... The deceased was wounded in the right wrist at the battle of Antietam, and after suffering several weeks in trying to wave his hand, he at last had to endure the pain of amputation. After his hand had been amputated, he was recovering and hopes were entertained for his speedy convalescence; but an abscess formed in his right side, which broke on Thursday last, and terminated in his death.

The "Journal and American" also made note that Williams had served prior to his enlistment with the 125th Pennsylvania. He had been a member of the "Standing Stone Guards," a company in a 3 month unit. After disbanding, Williams had returned to his civilian life until the call for 300,000 more soldiers came in the summer of 1862. With this call, "his patriotism and love of country prompted him again to enter the ranks of the gallant spirits who were rushing to the defense of the old Flag." The notice concluded by expressing heartfelt sorrow at Williams's passing: "We knew him well, and ever found him a genial companion and a true friend...The deceased was 28 years of age and his early, but glorious death, is mourned by many friends."

These posts help to breathe life into the story of Corporal Benjamin F. Williams of the 125th Pennsylvania. One theme which I try to drive home in every program I give at the battlefield is that while we may look at the casualties of Antietam as simple numbers and figures, the casualty numbers and figures represent real individuals. Benjamin Williams was a 28 year old who did not have to leave home to fight in 1862, yet he did, and in so doing, he paid the ultimate price for freedom.

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