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 Yet, much of it is unpublished reports and dispatches.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. 

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Private George Cramer, 11th Pennsylvania Infantry

Over the next few weeks, I hope to start posting parts of letters that I am coming across in the course of my research. Today, I would like to share a few lines from several letters written by Private George Cramer of the 11th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry. These typed transcripts of letters were donated by Private Cramer's descendants, and can be found in the 11th Pennsylvania Infantry file in the Antietam National Battlefield library. Private Cramer became ill just before the Battle of South Mountain, and was thus not directly engaged on either the 14th or 17th of September. His letters mention this, referring to South Mountain as the battle fought on Sunday, and Antietam as being fought on Wednesday. His letters give a sense of the exhausted nature of the men, as well as the attrition that the campaign was taking on them. I have italicized one section in the letter of the 21st to highlight those portions which display the effect the campaign was having on the strength of the 11th Pennsylvania. Not only do these letters describe attrition by sickness and casualties, they show that soldiers such as George Cramer firmly understood the stakes of the Maryland Campaign.

September 21st, 1862
Dear Wife,

I have no doubt that you are all anxiety and trouble about me, and disappointed in not getting a letter from me before this, but I assure you it was impossible for me to write to you before this. Since receiving your last, we have been pushed forward where we met the enemy on the mountain between Frederick and Hagerstown, the details of it you will have received through the newspapers which are nowise exaggerated. In my last letter, if you received it, I stated that I have not been well since we left Hall’s Hill, Virginia, and I had not got better all along. On Sunday evening this day last week, forcing the mountain, I was forced to leave ranks and sank down at a tree. It just commenced getting dark, the battle raging furious. I rested for a while and then walked down where our brigade had left its knapsacks. George Righter I met there, sick like myself. We have been together ever since, both almost unable to walk. But this day we came up to our brigade and many a face is missing among us. General Harsuff [sic] is seriously wounded. Colenel [sic] R. Coulter commands the brigade. Captain Kuhn took sick on the march. When we came to Frederick he was compelled to leave the company and go to the hospital. Lieutenant Noble is also in some hospital. Maybe he was taken back to Washington. He took sick before the Bull Run fight, but still tried to stick it out and fought hard at that fight which I believe done him no good. He still kept on and kept with regiment coming from Virginia on to Washington but somewhere between Washington and Frederick he was compelled to stay back. I suppose his people know his whereabouts. Our company has neither captain, lieutenant, nor any sergant [sic], only corporals to command us. We have but one captain in our regiment. The rest is killed, wounded, or back sick. Our Lieutenant colonel got killed at Bull Run. Also our Major was wounded so we have but one field officer in the regiment, and his attention is more required to the brigade now than he can pay to our regiment since Hartsuff is wounded. So you can see we are in a bad trim.
These battles which have been fought here in Maryland will bring sorrow to a great many families as the loss on both sides was heavy. If only God would have mercy on the nation and put a stay to this bloodshed. He has protected me so far and can further if his will.
I must close short with my best wishes to all friends,
And my sincere love to you and Maney.
George Cramer

September 29, 1862
Dear Mary, no doubt you are more anxious to hear how I’m getting along than about anything else. Since we’re laying here resting I got quite well and begin to pick up fast. Of course I’m weak yet and it would set hard if there should a forward movement be made, which I hope will not be for a while, for the authorities can’t be blind to the fact that the old army is a set of men wore down almost unfit for service at present. It is true they fought the last battles (there was but a few regiments in the last actual fight), and were victorious too, but they fought with the last desperation to stop an invading foe from advancing on to their own fireside, and the same time to make good again that most shamefull [sic] defeat of Bull Run which was not caused by the want of bravery by the men, but by the ill management, yes, sometimes it is thought through treachery, of some of our generals.
Hurrah for the Militia that stopped the Rebels! But us poor fellows had to fight them and many a brave fellow had to bite dust and thousands to be crippled for life. But their will is a credit to them.

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.