Antietam, Where Connecticut Wrote Bold In Blood, Fought 75 Years Ago
NEW HAVEN REGISTER, SUNDAY, SEPT. 5, 1937
Antietam, Where Connecticut Wrote Bold In Blood, Fought 75 Years Ago
By ROGER CONNOLLY
THE meadows are rich with corn and the orchards deep-fruited with nature's bounty in the green-clad hills and valleys of western Maryland.
It was just such a lush September, 75 years ago in the second year of the Civil War, that Lee marched over the mountain wall on his first great invasion of the North; and it was in an early fall of equal loveliness that McClellan's legions rushed west from Washington and saved the nation along the blood-stained banks of Antietam Creek.
The anniversary of that bitterly fought conflict on September 17, 1862, will witness the reenactment of its dramatic moments by National Guard and regular army troops. Washington County, in which Hagerstown, Sharpsburg and the Antietam are situated, the state and the federal governments have planned for months to make the observance of this vital event memorable. Close to a quarter of a million people are expected to visit the scene of so much bravery and tragic loss of life.
Relatively remote though the Maryland countryside may be from Connecticut, Antietam fills a thrilling but death-marked chapter in our state's history. Along that critical battlefront four regiments flying Connecticut banners were tossed into the crimson cauldron called war and when the guns ceased at the end of that terrible day, close to six hundred Connecticut officers and men lay dead or wounded on the scarred slopes, in the cornfields or along the stream. Outstanding among Connecticut's losses was Major-General Joseph Mansfield, New Haven born, killed in action as he deployed his troops for the charge. In company after company the very flower of the state's manhood was the price of valor.
It is no longer fashionable to study battles but the yellowing military records in Hartford tell a thrilling story of this fateful conflict. The summer of 1862 had been a sorry disappointment to the North. McClellan had been a failure on the Peninsular. Pope met with disaster at Cedar Mountain and Second Manassas and both armies had to be recalled to the defense of Washington. Troops in the Shenandoah Valley were withdrawn to Martinsburg and Harper's Ferry. Virginia was almost free of Union forces as McClellan began reorganizing his corps for the expected Confederate offensive.
Among the thousands concentrated at the capital were Connecticut soldiers, both veteran and inexperienced. Under brigade command of Colonel, later General Edward Harland of Norwich was placed the 8th, 11th and 16th Conn. Volunteers. This unit in turn was included in Dodman's division of the Ninth Corps, General Reno commanding, as part of General Burnside's right wing.
The 8th Regiment had been recruited the previous September from almost every section of the state. It fought gallantly at Roanoke Island, Newbern, Fort Macon and lost heavily through disease and exposure at Newport News. The 11th Regiment had gone into service in December, also with a roster of state-wide representation and its service largely parallelled that of the 8th. These veterans camped before the Washington Monument September 3, Col. Henry W. Kingsbury of Lyme commanding the 11th and Col. Hiram Appleman of Mystic the 8th.
THE 16th Regiment, and the 14th Regiment, which was assigned to French's division of the Second Corps, were both green organizations. The 16th had only left Hartford on August 29, and the l4th but four days earlier. While the former was largely a Hartford county regiment the 14th drew from all sections, Co. I., being mostly New Haveners under Capt. Isaac Bronson.
Though well equipped, these New England boys so recently enlisted had little idea of the soldier's life. Both regiments had hardly reached camp at Arlington, across the Potomac from Washington, when they were called upon to move in the military chess game then commencing.
It was on September 3 that Lee began his Grand Maneuver, fording the Potomac half way between Harper's Ferry and Washington. These were his objectives; to protect the harvest in Shenandoah, to win support and recruits in Maryland, threaten and possibly capture Washington by a sudden thrust toward Philadelphia and Baltimore and to take advantage of the North's recent reverses to win European recognition. His army, ragged and largely without shoes, made up for poor equipment by dauntless courage and fighting skill. Close to 50,000 made the historic crossing which took until September 7 to complete, then pushed on to Frederick unopposed.
McClellan moved out of Washington slowly. By the 9th his divisions were spread out along an arc 25 miles long, 20 miles from the seat of government, and about the same distance from the enemy. To Lee's surprise the force of 12,000 Union men at Martinsburg and Harper's Ferry was not withdrawn and as his army moved toward Hagerstown, he audaciously decided to split his army in the face of the enemy by sending Jackson, Walker and McLaws to wipe out this threat to his rear.
On the 10th the movement to choke the famous junction of the Potomac from three sides was commenced. On the 13th as it was under way, McClellan by a rare stroke of fortune fell into possession of a stray copy of Lee's orders outlining his entire plan of campaign. Here was one of the great moments of history. Here was a spot where a straight, crushing drive by the mighty host at his command could have thrown a wedge between Lee and his absent legions, crushed him before they could return, trap Jackson, McLaws and Walker as they came to the rescue and score a decisive triumph. Hindsight strategists tell us the war might well have ended before even Antietam was ever reached.
McClellan was too able a leader not to see his opportunity, but how his own inaction, his subordinates failure to rise to the occasion, the dogged valor of the rebels and sheer bad luck thwarted his good intentions in exciting reading.
Lee's troops had now advanced so that they lay west of hills forming the northern spur of the Blue Ridge with South Mountain as the largest range. His troops were stretched roughly from the Potomac north to above Hagerstown. McClellan occupied Frederick on the 13th with the Ninth and Second Corps in which were the Connecticut regiments. South Mountain is cut by two gaps, Crampton's to the south and Turner's some six miles further north. The Union commander ordered Franklin to take the first pass and advance on McLaws who was threatening Harper's Ferry from Maryland Heights and his center and right he moved on Turner's.
FRANKLIN waited until next day to act, then he captured the pass after about three hours with the loss of 520 men; had he moved the night before however the tightening pinchers on Harper's Ferry might have been broken. The clash at Turner's Gap was on a larger scale. Lee realizing suddenly his precarious position began to draw together the troops still under his direct command in the vicinity of Antietam Creek and Sharpsburg, sending D. H. Hill forward to Turner's Gap to delay the Union advance as long as possible so that the divisions diverted to Harper's Ferry might have time to rejoin him before the decisive test of strength. Hill did well his job. The battle lasted all day and until 9 P. M of the 4th, lack of co-ordination in the Federal attack causing much of its power and gallantry to go for naught. The Connecticut regiments though present and under fire were held in reserve and to others went credit when the rebel line was found to have withdrawn on the next morning. General Reno, Ninth Corps commander was killed; the Federal loss was 1,568 and the Confederate casualties slightly larger with almost the same amount again taken prisoner. The defenders' main objective however was accomplished. McClellan's two wings were so delayed that the relief of Harper's Ferry was no longer possible. The entire force there of 12,000 men was surrendered the morning of the 15th after but feeble resistance and Lee's triumphant lieutenants were ready for their memorable sprint back to his side.
But the door was still open for a quick and decisive Federal victory. Through Turner's Gap on September 15th streamed 35 Union brigades of infantry with Sharpsburg only seven or eight miles away and but 14 rebel brigades to defend it. All that day and all the 16th McClellan wasted precious hours preparing for an attack that might well have been conclusive the first afternoon. When he was ready to fight, Lee's flock was largely reunited with only A. P. Hill hurrying on to deal the final blow.
BETWEEN Mercersville on the north and the mouth of the Antietam on the south the Potomac goes through a remarkable series of convolutions but their general direction is such that a line six miles long laying mostly to the west of the creek permits both flanks to rest on the Potomac, with the Shepardstown road leading through Sharpsburg behind the center of the line insuring retreat southward if necessary. This was the line of defense Lee chose as he awaited attack on one side and reinforcements on the other.
McClellan's plan of battle was now developed. Hooker was sent to the right with the First Corps, Mansfield's Twelfth was to support him. Then came the Second Corps under Sumner and finally Burnside's Ninth Corps with Cox directly in command on the left in front of the bridge leading but a short distance to the Sharpsburg-Shepardstown road.
Hooker crossed the creek at 4 P. M. on the 16th without opposition and facing south went into battle against Hood. Severe fighting followed with the advantage falling to the Federals, who got within a mile and a half of Sharpsburg. They held this position all night with both lines within reach of each other. Mansfield followed in Hooker's path during the night and rested about a mile in the rear.
The night was relatively quiet but Hooker's advance in the early morning was stubbornly resisted with terrifying bloodshed on both sides. Gradually the rebels gave ground until they were forced into the West Woods on the west side of the road leading from Sharpsburg to Hagerstown.
Here Jackson, returned with his men from Harper's Ferry, threw his division into the fray and the slaughter was appalling. As these forces exhausted themselves in the carnage, D. H. Hill and McLaws came up to Jackson's support and Mansfield went forward as the decimated regiments under Hooker lost effectiveness.
AS HE examined the terrain before him, the gallant hero of the Mexican War was shot down and General Williams succeeded to the command. The Twelfth now moved up; they found the enemy had driven the First Corp to the east of the turnpike and were occupying the cornfields and the woods. The tide of battle again swayed, and the rebels were forced back to the open ground and to a point where the Dunker church stood on the turnpike, a mile or more from Sharpsburg.
By 9 o'clock the battle so far found the Union line fairly well in advance of its original position, but at terrible loss, its force at this point spent and without the capture of a height to the west, control of which would have commanded the wooded and rocky ground they could not take by direct assault.
Soon after this hour the Second Corps got into action. Its three divisions were commanded by Richardson, John Sedgwick of Cornwall Hollow, this state, and French. In the latter's second brigade under Col. Dwight Morris of Bridgeport was the 14th Conn. Regiment. Sedgwick was the first to cross the Antietam using the same ford through which the First and Twelfth had preceded him. As the firing died on both sides of him Sedgwick's brigades bravely and swiftly crossed the East Woods, the cornfield along the turnpike and the West Woods on the far side. Deployed in three long lines without protection on either flank, they ran flush into an ambush, as rebel infantrymen poured fire on them from a little wood road on the left and caught them simultaneously in front and rear. The lines broke, the men fled and thus by 10 o'clock two corps and one division of McClellan's army had been used up without result and his line driven east of the turnpike again. Sedgwick's division alone lost 2,255 men in this brief interval. Only the Federal artillery prevented a complete rout.
WHY did Sumner permit Sedgwick's men to go forward unsupported; why was not French in position to give immediate aid? Those are questions military men have never satisfactorily answered. It seems French followed Sedgwick across the ford but instead of continuing in the same direction, turned his brigades left and soon ran into trouble at a group of house called Roulette's farm about a half-mile east of the Dunker church. Here the advance was held up until the ground was cleared; meanwhile the gap to Sedgwick increased. The movement then drove D. H. Hill's forces along the rebel left center, back to an old and narrow road just beyond an orchard and east of the Hagerstown road. There was fierce fighting but despite gallant effort the attack bogged down. The division's losses reached close to 1,800 men.
About this time part of the Sixth Corps, newly arrived on the scene, went into the line to French's right. It advanced rapidly and might have gained a decisive advantage had it been given help at the proper time.
Richardson, commanding the remaining division in the Second Corps now faced fire on French's left. This unit containing the famous Irish Brigade was quickly locked in a bloody struggle with the enemy, a cornfield and high ground on the left was taken in face of severe losses and finally the rebels holding the famous sunken road were subjected to heavy assault and forced to surrender. Richardson was wounded at this point and his men withdrawn to a line along the crest of a hill in the rear. Hancock, now in command, asked in vain for guns, and too weak to attack with infantry alone, permitted the brave forward sweep to come to an end.
As part of Morris' brigade in French's division, the 14th Connecticut under Lieut. Col. S. H. Perkins, took heroic part in the Second Corps activities. After crossing the Antietam, it marched a mile along the south-west bank, then headed through hedges, over ditches and plowed fields. Company B. of Middletown became somewhat separated and to close the gap Capt. Gibbons led his men by Roulette's house, capturing forty or fifty rebels by a surprise attack. The united regiment then entered a cornfield and went to grips with Longstreet's men.
Appalling though the bloodshed was on the Union side during these operations along the right and center, the enemy suffered even worse losses. Franklin begged for a chance to throw in his fresh troops against the thin rebel line but Sumner, then McClellan refused, and the crushing blow was never delivered.
Attention may now be directed to the final phase of the battle, the fate of the Ninth Corps, which included the three Connecticut regiments, in its attack on the Confederate right wing.
Burnside's divisions on the 16th had taken positions along the rear slope of the ridges on the left bank of the Antietam. Rodman's division which included Harland's brigade, was assigned the left center opposite the stone span, thereafter to be known as Burnside's Bridge. Two Georgia regiments held the ground on the opposite side along the margin of the stream and a wooded slope just above the bridge. They commanded the road over which the Federal forces had to approach the bridge for a distance of 300 yards. It was a case of 2,500 men against a whole corps.
Not until 8 A. M., hours after the attack had been opened along the right and center, did McClellan order Burnside to carry the bridge, storm the heights beyond and advance on Sharpsburg. It took more then an hour for the message to reach Burnside and then he turned over to Cox the job of carrying it out. The plan was for Crook's brigade and Sturgis' division to carry the bridge by assault with the 11th Connecticut acting as skirmishers in advance. Rodman's division, including the 8th and 16th Connecticut, was to ford the river a third of a mile below and unite with the other forces on the opposite side for the main attack.
As the artillery roared on either side, Col. Kingsbury led the 11th Regiment through ravine, cornfield and farmland toward the bridge. Lieut. Col. Stedman commanding the right wing quickly occupied a hill overlooking the bridge and came under the direct fire of the enemy concealed across the stream. Kingsbury with the left wing of the regiment was under like punishment and as the men rushed to the crossing, a storm of grape, canister and rifle fire fell upon them.
Companies A and B under Capt. John Griswold of the famous Lyme family, plunged into the water and struggled forward. The gallant captain had hardly reached midstream before he was shot in the chest. Still pushing on he reached the opposite bank and fell dead among the enemy. Kingsbury bravely spurred his men on. As he reached the bridge he was shot in the foot, then the leg and before he could be carried off two more bullets pierced his body with mortal wounds. Major William Moegling of New Haven now took command of the left companies and the men fought with bulldog courage.
CROOK'S brigade was slow in following the 11th into action. First it lost its way and then had to halt under heavy fire from rebel batteries. The storming force at last had to be organized from Sturgis' division. Repeated charges by Pennsylvania, Massachusetts and New York units in early afternoon reached and held the other bank. The exhausted 11th Regiment was here relieved and permitted to gather up its dead and wounded.
The 8th and 16th Connecticut Regiments with the rest of Rodman's division meanwhile had found difficulty finding the ford below the bridge. Two companies of the 8th were sent ahead as skirmishers and located a crossing about a mile away. While the rest of the regiment helped the batteries cover the advance, the division waded to the opposite side. At last the three divisions had achieved their first objective and soon after 1 o'clock, when the firing had practically ceased along the rest of the front, were united at the base of the rising ground on the enemy side. But Sturgis' division was out of ammunition and while the rest of the troops withstood a deadly barrage, Willcox replaced it, a movement that took two hours to effect.
At last even McClellan became impatient. At 4 o'clock he sent orders to Burnside to advance and carry the batteries in his front at all hazards and at any cost. But the situation was rapidly changing, reinforcements were coming up to the Confederate line.
THE 8th Regiment started ahead, promptly but the 16th Connecticut and the 4th Rhode Island did not hear Harland's order and the 8th was alone in advance. The 16th was lying in a cornfield supporting a battery on the extreme left when suddenly from behind a wall five rods ahead came a volley that riddled the regiment. Before the men could form for defense, the enemy came down upon them. Officers and privates were shot and killed with terrifying rapidity. In vain the line tried to stem the stampede as other units fell back on them, panic stricken. Broken and badly cut up the regiment retreated to the cover of the bridge.
With the rest of Rodman's men the 8th Regiment marched steadily up the hill. As it reached the crest the rebels fell back slowly, the savage fight continuing unabated. Foot by foot, the 8th pushed ahead, paying a frightful price in dead and wounded for every yard. At last it was within reach of the road over which Lee must retreat. But that goal was never to be won. Harland, his men falling on every side, rushed back for reinforcements to find his other regiments broken and in disorder. There was no help. Desperately he dashed back to the front to rally his men as best he could as an immense enemy force came charging on his left flank.
THE 8th was alone on the crest. Four color-guards were killed in quick succession, the flag fell, Private Walker of Norwich dashed forward, snatched it from the dust and defiantly planted it in the ground as the bullets splattered around him.
Colonel Appelman was wounded and three batteries concentrated on the regiment as the rebel infantry closed in. Officers and men fell on every side; the wounded propped themselves as best they could to pour back the leaden stream. Scarcely a hundred men were left when the order was given to fall back Then slowly, in perfect order, fighting every bit of the way they backed down the hill, saving many other commands from capture or destruction by their death-defying courage.
When the 11th Regiment had recovered from its heavy fighting in front of the bridge, Rodman ordered it brought forward. Its guide misled it through the woods and after much delay Colonel Stedman finally brought it over the bridge and rapidly moved to re-join the brigade. It did not have to go far for action. The Confederates were threatening a battery directly ahead. The two forces threw themselves upon each other in charge after charge. Finally the badly crippled Connecticut boys would be no longer denied and carried the position. Col. Stedman, now commanding, tried valiantly to halt the rest of the division falling back on him but badly wounded he was forced to leave the field, turning over the remnant of his command to Colonel Beach of the 16th.
FOR practical purposes the battle was over. The Union forces withdrew across the creek and resumed positions close to those held in the morning. The southerners pressed forward again, held the ridge on the west bank. What had happened in the final phase is quickly told. A. P. Hill with Confederate reinforcements had come up on the Union left at the perfect moment. Burnside had not prepared for it. Hill hit Rodman's unguarded flank just at the hour of victory, killed him and shattered the division.
Union losses numbered 12,500 men, the South losses were at least equal. Of the Connecticut regiments over 136 died on the field and 466 were wounded. No battle of the war took such a heavy toll. The 8th Regiment lost 34 killed and 39 wounded of whom 11 were officers. The 11th Regiment numbered 38 dead and 97 wounded, among them some of their finest men. Colonel Kingsbury was loved by all ranks. General Burnside issued a special order extolling his virtues. Young Griswold had been graduated from Yale in 1857. He was a gallant soldier and brilliant student. He died quoting Horace. The 14th Regiment lost 21 killed, 88 wounded and 28 prisoners. Captain S. F. Willard of Madison was among the dead. The 16th reported 43 killed, wounded 143.
WITH fresh troops available, McClellan permitted the next day to go by without further action, as each side buried its dead and cared for its wounded. The morning of the 19th found the Army of Lee heading toward Virginia and the campaign was over.
The battle is generally regarded as a draw. McClellan's failure to take advantage of his superior force and golden opportunities; his inaction when speed might have brought decisive results, Burnside's blunders; all these were disheartening to the North. But there was a happier side as well. Lee's invasion had been effectively repulsed, he had suffered losses he could little afford, the Union soldier had shown he was rapidly learning the art of war and was a match for his Southern foeman. Lee's failure to win effectively blocked European support; it gave Lincoln justification a few days later to issue his Emancipation Proclamation. Antietam united the north. It was the beginning of the end of the Rebellion.
New Haven Register.
Used with permission of the New Haven Register.
Roger Connolly was the Managing Editor of the Register.
The church included in the illustrations is not the Dunker Church, but Gardner's photograph of the Lutheran Church in Sharpsburg.
Western Maryland Room, Washington County Free Library.
Antietam, Battle of, Md., 1862: Centennial celebrations, etc
Washington County (Md.), 1937.