Thursday, September 20, 2012

September 17, 1862: Battle of Antietam [Sharpsburg]

It was the bloodiest one-day battle of the war of the rebellion. The southern troops called it the Battle of Sharpsburg, Maryland, and the northern troops called it the Battle of Antietam Creek.  The battle began at daybreak on September 17.  The Federal 1st Corps fought the Confederate troops alone from dawn until 9:00 a.m. 

Fifteen-year old Jacob Cole, of Paterson, of Company A, 57th New York Volunteer Infantry Regiment had been a veteran since the war began, when he joined Colonel Elmer Ellsworth's 1st New York City Fire Zouaves [11th New York Volunteer Infantry Regiment]  and survived the First Battle of Manassas [Bull Run] in July 1861.  After the Zouave unit's three months enlistment expired, he joined the 57th NY. 

Cole wrote, "General [Joseph King Fenno] Mansfield  had been killed, and General [Joseph] Hooker disabled."  Cole's regiment was in the 2nd Corps, which crossed Antietam Creek at 9:30 a.m., with the Irish Brigade in the lead, and took a hill overlooking the Piper House and the sunken road filled with Confederates.  "We are lying behind the hill that overlooks the field of action, every moment expecting to be ordered into action.  The bullets are whistling over our heads, and our hearts are beating as fast as the lead is flying.  Whose head will be first to come off, we are asking each other, when shall we rise  and move forward?  The worst of a battle is this waiting to go in.  'Fall in!' The word has come at last.  We jump up, get into line and march steadily in battalion front to the brow of the hill.  Now we are in it, and the minnies are plenty!  As we pass the 69th [NY Irish Regiment], or what is left of them (about a hundred men) with colors in tatters, they cheer and we return it.  Down the side of the hill toward the sunken road, the 67th and 66th [NY regiments] charge together, and over the ditch they go, stepping on bodies of the rebel dead.  Yet another charge and we have taken the Piper House and are in the cornfield beyond.  All along the path of this charge, our men have fallen, killed or wounded, but victory is ours. 

"Earlier in the day, several attacks have been made upon the sunken road, but without success.  It afforded great protection for the enemy, and to take it was like taking a fort.  In charging forward, we captured several prisoners and stand of colors belonging to the 12th Alabama [Infantry Regiment].  It was said that the words 'Captured by the Fifty-Seventh New York Volunteers at Antietam, September 17th' would be painted on the flag, and that it would be deposited with the War Department for safe keeping."

There was a brief lull in fighting around the Piper House area of the cornfield, and Cole and his buddies "charged" a pile of potatoes in the corner of a fence, and "every potato was captured."  As they ate the raw potatoes, Cole and his unit watched the rebel guns destroy battery after battery of Federal guns.  
Corporal Andrew Neal, of Belvidere, in the 4th Pennsylvania Veteran Reserve Infantry Regiment, had returned to his unit after the prisoner exchange in Ohio.  He reported, "I have been on the field in the advance, with our army, for the last three days, and I saw the hardest fought battles ever fought on this Continent.  The fight commenced about four miles southwest of Boonsboro, on a long range of hills, which the rebels held.  We drove them from there to Keetsville with but little loss.  Our army pushed forward about two miles, when our whole force was engaged.  The rebels fought desperately and determined, and contested the ground inch by inch.  There we lost a great many men.  They were mowed down by whole regiments.  The enemy turned our left, at this point, by sharp maneuvering.  We formed again, but it was with great difficulty, to hold the ground as there were a great many new troops at this point.  The 13th New York Volunteers broke twice but was rallied with considerable loss.  On farther to the right, in a thick woods and cornfield, the battle raged with the greatest fury: artillery against artillery, here was the greatest slaughter."
Theodore Carhart and the 1st NJ Volunteers had been burying the dead at Crampton's Pass when the battle near Sharpsburg began.  "Dora" wrote to his brother, "We were ordered to the battlefield on a forced march, and we arrived about one o'clock; then were sent to the extreme front to hold the position until other points were gained on the left, and we did do it in noble style.  It was a very remarkable thing - we were there under fire for four hours, and of our regiment, we never lost a man.  Our Regiment and the 2nd were the extreme front line.  The 2nd, 3rd and 7th [NJ Regiments] lost about 25 men in all, and the most of them were killed.  The firing ceased about five o'clock on both sides, but we never left our position until Thursday night, when we were relieved by a New York regiment for us to get a little something to eat."
After the battle Neal wrote, "I was over the field this afternoon, for five miles, and I saw not less than 1,500 dead rebels  and as many wounded.  The slaughter was so great that not one fourth of our men are buried yet, nor will not be for three days; they are all turning black and smell dreadfully.  The battle commenced on Wednesday, and I arrived on the field in the afternoon  where our men were fighting, and this afternoon [Friday, the 19th], on my return over the same ground, I saw wounded rebels wallowing in their own blood, the poor creatures, some of them had wheat grains  for eating - that was all they had to eat.  It was enough to make one's blood run cold.  I saw one whole division of rebels, or nearly so, cut down with grape and canister, and they lay just as they fell, and if I am not mistaken, will lay there and rot for they never can be buried for the smell.
"I have a number of rebel trophies - some fancy uniforms and caps, and a fine rebel rifle.  I saw Hooker before he was wounded, if he was wounded at all.  I was at the mill where he was, or reported to be, under Surgical attention but could not see him.  This country, for fifteen miles, is one Hospital - every house and barn is filled with our own and the rebel wounded.  I suppose you know more about killed and wounded than I do, for there are scores of reporters taking names and sending them on."
Cole recalled, "On that morning [September 18], men were detailed to go out under the flag of truce to bring in our wounded and bury the dead, but the rebels did not honor our flag of truce, but at every opportunity fired upon our men.  To those who do not know how the dead are buried upon a battlefield, I will explain by saying that we would dig a trench about twenty feet in length, seven feet wide and about six feet deep.  In this we laid them, one on top of the other until the trench was nearly full, and then we would cover them over with the dirt. We buried as many as possible, and brought in all the wounded we could, but as the rebel sharpshooters continued to fire on our flag of truce, it was impossible to bury all our dead or get all the wounded."
On September 18, Corporal Isaiah Nelson Albertson, of Hope, in Company D, 11th NJ Volunteer Infantry Regiment, wrote to his sister Ella and brother Jay, "This is for Jay.  Let him read it first. Brother Jay, You must not spose I have forgot you, not a bit of it.  I think think of you often and I spect you think of me.  Well, bub, I feel bully ceptin [except] a little lameness in a leg and I hope this letter will find you perfectly well.  I spect you work pretty hard now, but this fall I spect you will hunt the quails and cottontails with old London and Turk.  How does Turk look? Is he a good sized dog?  Have you seen any pigeons yet this fall?  I have seen some but I will hunt bigger game pretty soon.  Jay, I would like to see you and talk with you but az I can't you must write and tell me all about things around home.  How many pigs and how many turkeys and how the corn looks, weather there is many pumpkins and any thing you have a mind to write about.  I think you have plenty of apples and very likely peaches.  Well eat a few for me will you?     Virginia has a good many peach orchards, but peaches don't stay on long unless guarded.  There is some for sale here but they want as much money a peach nearly so I say let them keep them.  I say our living does pretty well.  We get fresh beef once a week, coffee twice a day, boiled rice or bean soup once and the rest of the time is made up with crackers and bread, salt pork, beef or 'hoss' as we call it.
"There has been fighting all of this week near Sharps ferry and our men have thrashed them pretty decently, but the exact truth I can not tell now.  I guess I will stop writing for I think that I have done pretty well for one day.  Jay, you must certainly write soon and then Old Nels will write again.  So be a good boy.  Good By, I. N. A."
Copyright 1997-2012: Jay C. Richards 

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