Some of the most memorable reporting of the Civil War came not from reporters, but from soldiers. Hundreds of small newspapers asked local soldiers to keep readers apprised of their hometown units’ travails in the field. Of those newspapers, none engaged more soldier-correspondents than the Rochester Union and Advertiser, and none of that paper’s correspondents was more eloquent than Lieutenant George Breck of the 1st New York Artillery.
Breck would eventually dispatch 120 letters—all of them headed “Dear Union”—to the Union and Advertiser. He would write vivid and important accounts of his battery’s many actions, including the September 1862 Maryland campaign. A native of New Hampshire, Breck relocated to Rochester, N.Y., and when the rush to the colors began in 1861, he found himself in Battery L, 1st New York Artillery, commanded by Captain John A. Reynolds.
Battery L, or Reynolds’ Battery, eventually came to serve with the I Corps, Army of the Potomac, and fought in all of the army’s battles from the Second Battle of Manassas onward. Breck never wavered from his conservative ideals and his staunch support of Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan. So proficient did Breck become as a writer that the editor of the Union and Advertiser tried to get him to take a job as assistant editor at the paper. Breck refused, and served (and wrote) through the final day at Appomattox, ending the war as commander of the battery.
In September 1862, after the Union disaster at Second Manassas, Battery L confronted the Confederacy’s first invasion of Northern soil. The lieutenant recounted the army’s meandering march, his battery’s involvement in the cauldron of fighting near Antietam’s famous Cornfield on the morning of September 17 and, finally, the gruesome aftermath of America’s bloodiest day. Breck’s vivid letters about the Maryland campaign are presented with minimal editing.
September 17, 1862, edition
Camp Near Mechanicsville, Md.,
Sept. 10, 1862
Dear Union:—“Good bye, old Virginia….” [O]n the morning of the 7th inst., between the hours of 4 and 5 o’clock, we ceased to tread the sacred soil of the above rebellious State, and began to cross the Potomac over Aqueduct Bridge, into the District of Columbia….
What a contrast between our new brethren in the field, and we “old veterans!” They were fresh in the service of their country, had seen and felt but little toll and hardship, dressed well, fared well, and lived in handsome houses—cotton to be sure,—but handsome, nevertheless. We “old veterans,” as we prided ourselves, were sunburned, toil-worn, weather beaten, considerably ragged and dilapidated in personal appearance, slept on the ground, or in the road, coverless, or almost so, lived very frequently on what we could pick up, and were rough in looks….It is quite amusing to hear our new recruits talk of their hardships and privations. For instance, they have been heard to tell of the deprivation they have suffered in the way of butter, soft bread, a good night’s rest, &c. But we need not say anything on this score, as we used to narrate such pitiable stories when we first “went for a soger….”
When we resumed our march on Sunday, it had become very hot and dusty; the road was filled with wagons and thousands of troops were pushing forward—where? was the question….We were now in the State of Maryland. The complexion of the country is different from that of Virginia, and the farther we have advanced in it, the more apparent has this fact been. More beautiful homes, with finer and more ornamental grounds, more cultivated fields and farms, and everything of a more civilized and tasty character than we saw or found in Virginia. A march of some ten miles found us near Leesboro, where we encamped till the next day, when we removed two miles further north and encamped in a very pleasant spot, where we expected to remain certainly for a day or two. The men were all exhausted, our horses were almost a rack of bones, and indeed the company needed recruiting in numbers and strength, and partially reorganizing. We had half a company only in point of numbers, and this had obliged the boys to do double duty. Our case was reported to General [John P.] Hatch, and a promise was made that our wants would be attended to. But scarcely before the lapse of twelve hours when marching orders again came and we moved to Mechanicsville, or near it. Here we halted another twelve or eighteen hours, when we marched to Brookville.
A night’s rest was afforded us here, and yesterday we again took up our line of march for where we are at present—very near Lisbon, arriving here last night. Orders have just come to be ready and march again. We are constant and rapid travelers as you perceive, and I presume we shall be kept on the move until we find the enemy or till we “give out.” The latter is not impossible considering our condition, but we shall stick to it of course as long as we can. With a few exceptions the health of our reduced company continues good, and the best of spirits prevail….
The secesh of this place are getting more than they bargained for, when they besought Stonewall Jackson to come and “liberate” their oppressed State. Their farms and fields are being “liberated” of forage, fruit, grain and the like, they feign, we believe, would cry “enough.” It is sad, very sad, to see these beautiful farms devastated, and the Union men of Maryland have our deepest sympathies. They are protected, however, and their property, as far as possible.
September 26, 1862, edition
Battlefield Near Sharpsburg, Md.,
September 18th, 1862
Dear Union: Long before this reaches its destination you will have heard of the great battle yesterday, near the place mentioned in the date of my letter. It will be known, probably, as the Battle of Sharpsburg, and known, too, as the greatest and most terrific battle ever fought, as yet, on the American soil. So it is pronounced by many here on the field who participated in the seven days battle before Richmond [June 25–July 1, 1862], and in other engagements connected with the rebellion, and by those who have witnessed the severest contests since the war commenced. What the number of killed and wounded may be I do not know, but it must be very great, and much greater on the Confederate side than on our own, as was evident on going over the battle field this morning. Many, nearly all of our own dead were buried, and the wounded had all been brought off, and so had the Confederate wounded, with few exceptions; but their dead lay in files—in windrows—many rods long, and so closely that their bodies touched each other; and then, all over the field, wherever the battle was waged, scattered here and there, were the lifeless remains—terribly mangled in some instances by shot and shell—of the rebel force. In greater numbers they lay, I was told, in some woods held by the enemy, where we poured shot and canister from our guns and cannon in the most destructive manner.
Reynolds’ Battery was in the fight from its commencement till near its close, and at times was engaged in very hot work….Tuesday morning [September 16] we moved on towards Sharpsburg, but on arriving at a little establishment called Keedysville, I believe we found most of our army dragging up in line of battle, on a hill far in front of us, this side of a ravine or river. The rebels were throwing shells into our stranded forces, but a sharp and lively reply was elicited from some of our batteries which soon silenced the enemy’s. We were stationed in a field on the left of the road till the afternoon, when we moved forward a short distance, crossed the road to our right, marched up a hill and then advanced thro a piece of woods, crossed the river, and then went forward about two miles through grass, ploughed, and corn fields, and about 8 o’clock at night, we took up our position near some woods, where the fighting commenced. During this forward movement of our battery, heavy cannonading was going on at intervals, with now and then some infantry firing. While marching up the road, Gen. McClellan, with staff, rode by us, and what do you suppose “little Mac” did? Why he saluted every driver individually, and every cannoneer, if marching singly, in the same way. And he did it with that pleasant smile of his, which has been so often remarked about. And this was done by Major General Geo B. McClellan, who commands all the forces of the Potomac, who ranks over all other generals in our great army, excepting Gen. [Henry] Halleck. Which of our other great generals ever did this, or is in the habit of doing this, while passing a company or artillery, roughly dressed and roughly looking from the effects of long marches, severe fighting “and hardships of many kinds?” Soldiers have written, and are writing constantly about the enthusiasm manifested at the sight of McClellan. It is all true, every word of it. We can’t describe it. It beats everything we ever witnessed, and it comes from the heart. McClellan has the hearts of the whole army, every one of them. What a cheering there was yesterday noon, near the close of the battle, as he rode along the lines of the different brigades and divisions. The soldiers were perfectly wild with ecstatic delight. Caps, blankets and coats went up in the air, and the men shouted and yelled, and some of them actually cried with joy, at the sight of their General. They know he is a patriot, and they know he is a soldier. They love him, they trust him, and they will follow him no matter where he leads. And I tell you it is no unworthy love, no unwarranted trust, no following after an inefficient, unskillful and ignorant General. McClellan is a General, a great General. It was exhibited in yesterday’s battle, and has been exhibited in all of his previous battles. He may have been and may be defeated, but it has been and will be, we believe, the result of circumstances over which McClellan has had or can have no control—circumstances superseding his power to manage….
At different times last night there was a sharp rattle of musketry by our and the enemy’s pickets, who were almost on a line with each other, in some places so near together that our own pickets quarreled with the enemy’s, to see which side of a certain fence they should occupy. Very early this morning, I think I may say before daybreak or just at dawn, there was a loud volley of musketry, followed by another and another, which made infantry, cavalry and artillery spring to arms, and which proved to be the commencement of the day’s battle. It was begun by the Pennsylvania Reserves, under command of Gen. [Truman] Seymour. As they lay asleep, their arms stacked along the edge of the woods, a volley was fired upon them by the rebels, knocking down the guns, but creating no panic or confusion, for immediately the brave boys from the old Keystone State sprung up, seized their faithful weapons and went to work in good earnest, pouring volley after volley into the rebel ranks, and driving them back. The desperate struggle had begun, and for ten or twelve hours it continued with unabated violence. Occasionally for a few minutes there would be a lull, but then the conflict would be resumed with renewed energy and greater desperation on the rebel side. The volleys of musketry seemed to be louder than ever, and the roar of artillery shook the earth. All our previous battle scenes, observations and experiences were small compared to this….
We opened with our battery on some high ground in the field, where we encamped during the night, firing on a rebel battery about 150 yards opposite us, more or less concealed by woods. Their reply was directed to our left, principally where our infantry were engaged, supported by other batteries. We fired for about an hour and a half, when one of Gen. [Marsena R.] Patrick’s aide’s, riding up, told Captain Reynolds that the General wanted us to come and support his brigade. We proceeded to do so, marching through a grove and…into a grass field. On reaching here Gen. [Joseph] Hooker ordered us to file to the left and try and form in battery on the right of a piece of woods. It was at this time that our forces had been flanked by the enemy and driven back very nearly a mile, and the rebels were charging on them in a cornfield not many yards in front of us.
When we went to take a position, Thompson’s battery, attached to Gen. [Abram] Duryea’s brigade, was engaged in pouring canister into the rebel ranks, then advancing and forcing our troops to retire. It was planted on the brow of a small hill, just this side of the cornfield, and we had been ordered to go in with our battery on their left if the ground would admit. It would not admit of our doing so, and an officer rode up and remarked that it would be folly to attempt it. The balls were then flying about us, and onward was coming the enemy. Thompson’s battery continued to fire round after round, but at the loss, either killed or wounded, of nearly every cannoneer, who were being picked off by the rebel sharpshooters. Almost every horse was killed and the pieces were obliged to be left, but were afterwards recovered.
The 105th N.Y. regiment were falling back in a hurry and Gen. Duryea, who was on foot, was trying to rally them in line again. It appeared doubtful for awhile, but it was finally accomplished.
We remained at a rest, our guns limbered, anxious to get to firing if possible, but it was madness to undertake it, unless we wished to lose our pieces, horses, and very probably our lives. We therefore retired with the infantry, they falling back gradually. The cause of their repulse, I have been informed, was owing to new regiments ordered forward for their relief, but they could not or did not stand the destructive fire of the rebels, and so broke and ran…creating a kind of stampede. Matters looked dubious enough about now, and the tide of battle seemed to be going hotly and greatly against us. The rebels were yelling to the top of their voice, confident that the day was theirs. We had lost all the ground that we had gained, and could it be recovered? Patrick’s brigade had borne a noble part in charging upon and driving the enemy, and not until they were out of ammunition did they fall back. And there they checked the advances of the rebel horde, and with the assistance of a battery kept at bay until reinforcements came up. The rebels did not remain long victorious. Fresh regiments of troops came to the rescue, and now the clear and distinct hurrah could be heard, which we knew came from our men, so greatly in contrast was it with the savage yell of the rebels. The hurrah assured as that our troops were recovering their lost ground. The enemy was being driven back.
We were ordered into the field again and opened fire on a battery, on the right of the grass field above mentioned. The rebel battery was throwing shot and shell in our midst very lively, and it was a question whether we should be able to silence it. Our ammunition was fast becoming exhausted, our horses not being able to draw a full supply. We would fire what we had and accomplish what we could. The result was favorable. We put a stop to the firing of the hostile battery and have since learned that we damaged it greatly; not, however, without two of our men being wounded. Corporal Peter Prosous from Palmyra, while in the act of pointing and ranging his piece, was struck in both legs by the explosion of a shell. One leg received a terrible flesh wound and the other was broken. He fell, and on going up to him he remarked, “Keep on firing. Never mind me, and be sure you give it to them.” Noble man—a hero, indeed. There he lay with both legs—one mangled and the other broken—and both, it appeared, must be amputated, but not a murmur escaped his lips. On the contrary, he would not have his gun cease firing on his account, and laughingly said, “I guess I am not hurt so badly after all.” He was carried from the field and it is thought both legs will be saved. We saw him this morning and he was in the best of spirits.
Cornelius Roda, from Rochester, was wounded slightly in the shoulder in this engagement. When the retreat took place and the rifle and musket balls were flying in our midst so profusely three of our men were wounded, one quite seriously. Myron Annia, from Scottsville, was wounded in the breast and hand by a ball, the ball lodging in the palm of his hand. He was doing very well from last accounts. Levi Sharp, from Penfield, was slightly wounded in the head. Frederick Deits, from Scottsville, was slightly wounded near his side. Captain Reynolds had a narrow escape. A fragment of a shell passed under his arm, slightly grazing it.
We had six horses killed and wounded, and one wheel disabled. Our last engagement was in the ploughed field, with a section of another battery, where our guns were served very efficiently. We got out of ammunition, but finding a limber in the field that had been abandoned we went to it and emptied its contents, consisting of about twenty shell and some canister, which we fired.
About noon the rattle of musketry, which had been incessant since daylight and the loud peals of artillery, ceased. The victory was ours. There was cannonading commenced by the rebels not long after, but our batteries silenced it a short time.
The carnage had been awful. Nine of our Generals had been killed and wounded. The nation will mourn deeply the loss of that venerable and experienced general, Gen. [Joseph K.F.] Mansfield. Every general in the field seemed to be foremost in the battle, leading and urging on their respective commands…And the men! Most splendidly and heroically did they perform their duty. Every regiment in Patrick’s brigade captured a rebel flag….
It is very quiet to-day. Occasionally the firing of a gun can be heard. Our dead are being buried, and our wounded have been taken to the various hospitals about the field. Nearly one-third of the wounded are Confederates. The rebel dead lie all over on the battle ground. What the number of killed and wounded is I am unable to state. Many of our regiments were badly cut up, and the rebel ranks were mowed down in rows. How many more terrible battles like this must there be before the war will end? Another one is expected to-day or to-morrow.
Bad news from Harper’s Ferry. It mars the victories and successes of the Union arms in the State of Maryland.
Yesterday was the anniversary of the organization of Reynolds’ Battery. The 17th of September, 1861, and the 17th of September, 1862, are two days that we can never forget. The first was a remarkable event in our life as we put our name down on the enlistment roll, and the second certainly not less so.
Friday, Sept. 19
The rebels are gone, have skedaddled across the river. They stole a march on our army last night. Maryland is again free. The traitor Lee will not issue any more of his insulting and treasonable proclamations in this State. A pity we could not have “bagged” Jackson and his horde before he made his escape. The whole army have advanced. We are now encamped in the woods the rebels occupied yesterday. They left all their dead unburied. A horrible, horrible sight we witnessed on reaching the rebel lines, in the vicinity of which, or on this side our forces were not allowed to pass yesterday. We saw hundreds of dead bodies lying in rows and in piles, and scattered all over, looking the picture of all that is sickening, harrowing, horrible. O what a terrible sight! Some of the rebel wounded were left on the field. Many of the dead had on Federal uniforms. The woods bear marks of the destructive work of our shells. Great limbs of trees are torn off, and a house near the woods is literally riddled by balls. We found a large iron cannon left behind, and everything indicates a speedy flight of the rebels. We rest to-night to go forward again early to-morrow morning.
John J. Hennessy is the author of Return to Bull Run: The Campaign and Battle of Second Manassas.