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Antietam Eyewitness Accounts

By D. Scott Hartwig 
Originally published by America's Civil War magazine. Published Online: July 02, 2007 
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Less than three weeks after the Confederate victory at Second Manassas, some 86,000 Union troops under 35-year-old Major General George McClellan clashed with 40,000 Confederates led by 55-year-old General Robert E. Lee at the Battle of Antietam in west-central Maryland. The 23,000 killed, wounded or missing by nightfall made September 17, 1862, the single bloodiest day in American history. Here are the recollections of some of the soldiers who fought there.

Union

We were finally however ordered to lie down in a cornfield & stray shot and shell began to whiz over our heads and burst around us. Of course every one thought it incumbent upon him to dodge every time he heard a chirra whoo even though it was flying a hundred feet above us. This feeling soon passed away however and the boys were decidedly too anxious to get up and see what was going on. They were soon satisfied. We were ordered to get up and throw off our bundles (I in this way lost my rubber and woolen blankets & have not seen them since) & march to the left into the woods [East Woods]. Lying just in front of our lines was a great number of dead and wounded. One poor fellow lay just before us with one leg shot off; the other shattered and otherwise badly wounded; fairly shrieking with pain.

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Lt. Sebastian Duncan, Jr., 13th New Jersey Infantry, 12th Corps
Letter to his Mother, Sept. 21, 1862, Duncan Papers, New Jersey Historical Society

As soon as it was sufficiently light for our artillerists to commence operations, the ball was fairly open, the like of which I hope we shall never again see or hear. The discharges from the batteries were more frequent than I could count, and I could think only of the awful destruction of life they were causing. "Bests" regular battery, attached to our brigade, covered the front, and these six 12 pound Napoleons truly made their mark. We were ordered to the left into the woods with orders from Gen. Mansfield to hold them till reinforcements should arrive; and let me assure you that in those woods the 10th had just as much of a chance as did the enemy, and we improved it. Not a mound or a tree that gave us protection we did not improve and the lifeless remains of 43 rebels, among them Lieutenants, Captains, and one Colonel, as we advanced, proved the unerring aim of our men's rifles. It was a squirrel hunt on a large scale, as you could see our men creep along from tree to tree.

Lt. Colonel James Fillebrown, 10th Maine Infantry, 12th Corps
Letter to his wife, Sept. 19, 1862, LewistownFalls Journal

What a bloody place was that sunken road as we advanced, and the Irish Brigade fell back; the fences were down on both sides, and the dead and wounded men were literally piled there in heaps. As we went over them in crossing the road, a wounded reb made a thrust at me with his bayonet; turning my head to look at him, I saw that he was badly hurt, and continued on. As we pushed forward into the cornfield [Piper Cornfield] beyond the road, Private charley Spencer in the front rank just before me, went down with an awful cry; stooping over him as I passed I saw that he had fallen forward on his face and was motionless. Just then a strand of canister went over our heads, and that was my dread; I could endure rifle bullets, but when the big iron bullets went swishing through the air with a sound as though there were bushels of them, it made me wish I was at home.

Charles A. Hale, 5th New Hampshire Infantry, 2nd Corps
"The Story of My Personal Experience at the Battle of Antietam," John R. Brooke Papers, Historical Society of Pennsylvania

Battle oh horrid battle. What sights I have seen now see around me. I am Wounded! And am afraid shall be again as shells fly past me every few seconds carrying away limbs from trees and scattering limbs around. Am in severe pain. Furies how the shells fly. I do sincerely hope shall not be wounded again. We drove them first till they got sheltered then we had a bad place. Oh I cannot write.

Sgt. Jonathan Stowe, 15th Massachusetts Infantry, 2nd Corps
Diary entry, Sept. 17, 1862, CWTI Collection, USAMHI

I had just got myself pretty comfortable when a bomb burst over me and completely deafened me. I felt a blow on my right shoulder and my jacket was covered with white stuff. I felt mechanically whether I still had my arm and thank God it was still whole. At the same time I felt something damp on my face; I wiped it off. It was bloody. Now I first saw that the man next to me, Kessler, lacked the upper part of his head, and almost all his brains had gone into the face of the man next to him, Merkel, so that he could scarcely see. Since any moment the same could happen to anyone, no one thought much about it.

Christoph Niederer, 20th New York Infantry, 6th Corps
Civil War Misc. Collection, USAMHI

You may call the feeling fear or anything you choose. I don't deny that I trembled and wished we were well out of it. I tried to do my duty and am satisfied. I came off the field side by side with Col. Beach. Afterward we led the remnants of our own regiment and the 11th [11th Connecticut] on to the field again through as hot a fire as I saw any time during the day. So far as my experience goes, I should not be sorry to see the war ended tomorrow without firing another shot, and yet I am a little eager to see one more battle. Not from any reckless desire for the excitement, but I have a little practical knowledge now and I think I should be more at home next time and perhaps do better. I should be considerable cooler, I have not doubt.

Adjutant John H> Burnham, 16th Connecticut Infantry
Letter to mother and family, Oct. 4, 1862, State Archives, History and Genealogy Unit, Connecticut State Library

Confederate

. . . after a hurried march of 2 miles we reached the field of battle & went immediately into action, through a piece of woods [West Woods] facing a terrific fire of artillery and musketry, several of our men were killed & wounded in the woods & many hesitated and took shelter behind trees & could not be forced forward, when we passed the woods we crossed a fence & under a most galling fire of grape & canister from the artillery & musketry & many of our force could not be rallied beyond the fence, I drew my pistol and threatened to shoot & scolded but with very futile effect, I mounted the fence & moved forward exposed to a terrible fire which swept away every thing before it & saw our Regt. Breaking & the whole gave way in confusion & retreat in disorder.  I tried to rally them in the woods behind the brow of a hill, but was not aided by our Col. Commandant, who led the retreat nor listened to by the men.

Lt Colonel Samuel H. Walkup, 48th North Carolina Infantry
Diary entry, Samuel H. Walkup papers, Southern Historical Collection, University of North Carolina

We were ordered by the left flank and were very soon into the engagement. I commenced loading and shooting with all my might but my gun got chocked the first round and I picked up the gun of one of my comrades who fell by my side and continued to fire. Here I could see the second line of battle of the enemy and when their men would fall the rest would close in and fill their places. Their first line was lying by a fence and I could see the old Stars and Stripes waving over them I fired as near as I could aim at the men around the flag I do not know whether I killed any one or not during this time[.] our Reg got cut up very severly and the Brig was ordered to retreat back when we met reinforcements coming in and I was glad to see them for I was nearly tired to death.

Calvin Leach, 1st North Carolina Infantry, D.H. Hill's Division
Diary, Southern Historical Collection, UNC

Tired and sleepy we still march on, and as we come in proximity of the battle ground the scores of wounded passing to the rear remind us that bloody work is going on. A little further on, to the left of the pike, we halt & "load at will." No sooner done, then in again. The enemy's batteries give us shot & shell in abundance causing many muscular contractions in the spinal column of our line. But all the dodging did not save us. Occasionally a shell, better aimed than the rest would crash through our line making corpses & mutilated trunks.

James J. Fitzpatrick, 16th Mississippi Infantry, Richard H. Anderson's Division
Diary, Eugene C. Barker Texas History Center, University of Texas at Austin

There was no halt made until we reached the northern boundary of the corn [Miller's corn field], and there for the first time that day I saw the enemy. He had a battery on top of the hill and was shooting over us. Our line silenced the guns, but did not capture them. A quiet of a few minutes followed, then an infantry line appeared on the crest and engaged our line. The flag of the regiment opposing the 11th Miss. was shot down (or lowered) at least a half dozen times before it disappeared behind the hill. Our line did not advance any farther, but kept its same position. The next move in our immediate front was an attempt to get a gun in position to bear on us. It came up in a gallop but the horses were nearly all killed or wounded, the artillerymen disappeared and the effort failed.

D. L. Lowe, 11th Mississippi Infantry
Lowe to J. M. Gould, April 29, 1891, Gould Papers, Dartmouth College

Just then, a Yankee horseman waved his hat at us, and Col. Tew returned the compliment. It was the last I saw of the colonel [Tew was killed in the ensuing engagement]. Our skirmishers began to fire on the advancing line, and we returned to ours. Slowly they approach up the hill, and slowly our skirmishers retire before theirs, firing as they come. Our skirmishers are ordered to come into the line. Here they are, right before us, scarce 50 yards off, but as if with one feeling, our whole line pour a deadly volley into their ranks – they drop, reel; stagger, and back their first line go beyond the crest of the hill. Our men reload, and await for them to again approach, while the first column of the enemy meet the second, rally and move forward again. They meet with the same reception, and back again they go, to come back when met by their third line. Here they all come. You can see their mounted riders cheering them on, and with a sickly "huzza!" they all again approach us at a charge, but another volley sends their whole line reeling back.

Lt. John C. Gorman, 2nd North Carolina Infantry, D. H. Hill's Division
Letter to wife and mother, September 21, 1862, North Carolina State Archives

White and I, seeing we were in point blank range of the batteries, had pressed the left wing forward under the hill, the colors continuing to advance. Just here, Major White passed down the line from the right, and said to me; "We can take that battery – forward!" We both passed through the ranks, and moved side by side, with the colors, to the front, and had almost reached the battery (the guns of which were already abandoned), when the Major was struck in the cheek by a rifle ball, fired by the infantry in rear of the battery. Still he pressed forward, until within twenty yards of the battery, when just at this moment the guns, re-manned, opened upon us, and swept down the remnant of gallant men who had followed us; the Major falling at the first discharge, being struck about the ear by a grape shot.

Captain, 7th South Carolina Infantry, McLaws's Division
In Memoriam," Charleston Mercury, Dec. 3, 1862

We have again lost some of the noblest men in the south. The wounds generally in more of a serious nature than heretofore. I pronounce this battle to have been the most terrible in artillery than any one of the preceding fights. I never was so tired of shelling in my life. I hate cannons.

Dr. James Boulware, 6th South Carolina Infantry, D. R. Jones's Division
Diary, Virginia State Library

Compiled by D. Scott Hartwig


7 Responses to “Antietam Eyewitness Accounts”


  1. 1
    Art (McShea) Arway says:

    I am looking fgor any referecnes to the 28th Pa Vols, Company A, as I had a relative, Partick (McShay) McShea in the battle.

    Accounts from his home town in Pa, state he was cited for the capture of a rebel flag, but cannot find any reference.

    Art

  2. 2

    [...] eyewitness accounts here, including this from Charles A. Hale, 5th New Hampshire Infantry, 2nd Corps: Battle oh horrid [...]

  3. 3
    Art (McShea) Arway says:

    I am looking fgor any referecnes to the 28th Pa Vols, Company A, as I had a relative, Partick (McShay) McShea in the battle.

    Accounts from his home town in Pa, state he was cited for the capture of a rebel flag, but cannot find any reference.

  4. 4
    Jenya White says:

    The Battle of Antietam

    The battle of Antietam or Sharpsburg on September 17, 1862, climaxed the first of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee’s two attempts to carry the war into the North. About 40,000 Southerners were pitted against the 87,000-man Federal Army of the Potomac under Gen. George B. McClellan. And when the fighting ended, the course of the American Civil War had been greatly altered.
    After his great victory at Manassas in August, Lee had marched his Army on Northern Virginia into Maryland, hoping to find vitally needed men and supplies. McClellan followed, first to Frederick, then westward 12 miles to the passes of South Mountains. There on September 14, at Turner’s, Fox’s, and Crampton’s gaps, Lee tried to block the Reversals. But because he had split his army to send troops under Gen. Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson to capture Harpers Ferry, Lee could only hope to delay the Northerners. McClellan forced his way through, and by the afternoon of September 15 both armies had established new battle lines west and east of Antietam Creek near the town of Sharpsburg. When Jackson’s troops reached Sharpsburg on the 16th, Harpers Ferry having surrendered the day before, Lee consolidated his position along the low ridge that runs north and south of the town.
    The battle opened at dawn on the 17th when Union Gen. Joseph Hooker’s artillery began a murderous fire on Jackson’s men in the Miller cornfield north of town. “In the time I am writing,” Hooker reported, “every stalk of corn in the northern and greater part of the field was cut as closely as could have been done with a knife and the slain lay in rows precisely as they had stood in their ranks a few moments before. “Hooker’s troops advanced, during the Confederates before them, and Jackson reported that his men were “exposed for near an hour to a terrific storm of shell, canister, and musketry.”
    About 7 A.M. Jackson was reinforced and succeeded in driving the Federals back. An hour later Union troops under Gen. Joseph Mansfield counterattacked and by 9 o’clock had regained some of the lost ground. Then, in an effort to extricate some of Manfield’s men from their isolated position near the Dunker Church, Gen. John Sedgwick’s division of Edwin V. Summer’s corps advanced into the West Woods. There confederate troops stuck Sedgwick’s men on both flanks, infliction appalling casualties.
    Meanwhile, Gen. William H. French’s division of Sumner's corps moved up to support Sedgwick but veered south into Confederates under Gen. D. H. Hill posted along an old sunken road separating the Roulette and Piper farms. For nearly 4 hours, from 9:30 a.m. to 1 p.m., bitter fighting raged along this road (afterwards known as Bloody Lane) as French, supported by Gen. Israel B. Richardson's division, also of Sumner's corps, sought to drive the Southerners back. Confusion and sheer exhaustion finally ended the battle here and in the northern part of the field generally.
    Southeast of town, Union Gen. Ambrose E. Burnside's troops had been trying to cross a bridge over Antietam Creek since 9:30 a.m. Some 400 Georgians had driven them back each time. At 1 p.m. the Federals finally crossed the bridge (now known as Burnside Bridge) and, after a 2-hour delay to reform their lines, advanced up the slope beyond. By late afternoon they had driven the Georgians back almost to Sharpsburg, threatening to cut off the line of retreat for Lee's decimated Confederates. Then about 4 p.m. Gen. A. P. Hill's division, left behind by Jackson at Harpers Ferry to salvage the captured Federal property, arrived on the field and immediately entered the fight. Burnside's troops were driven back to the heights near the bridge they had earlier taken. The Battle of Antietam was over. The next day Lee began withdrawing his army across the Potomac River.
    More men were killed or wounded at Antietam on September 17, 1862, than on any other single day of the Civil War. Federal losses were 12,410, Confederate losses 10,700. Although neither side gained a decisive victory, Lee's failure to carry the war effort effectively into the North caused Great Britain to postpone recognition of the Confederate government. The battle also gave President Abraham Lincoln the opportunity to issue the Emancipation Proclamation, which, on January 1, 1863, declared free all slaves in States still in rebellion against the United States. Now the war had a dual purpose: to preserve the Union

    Major Generals

    The six major Generals of the battle of Antietam are Brig. Gen. George B. Anderson, Brig. Gen. Lawrence O’Brian Branch, Maj. Gen. Joseph K. F. Mansfield, Maj. Gen. Israel B. Richardson, Brig. Gen. Isaac P. Rodman, and Brig. Gen. William E. Starke.

    Brig. Gen. George B. Anderson

    Born near Hillsboro, North Carolina, Anderson was 31 years old at Antietam. West Point graduate, class of 1852, his brigade of North Carolinians fought desperately in the Sunken Road. Wounded in the food, BGen Anderson was transported to Shepherdstown, then Staunton, Virginia and eventually to Raleigh, North Carolina was were he died October 16.

    Brig. Gen. Lawrence O’Brian Branch

    Branch was born in Enfield, North Carolina in 1820. He graduated from Princeton in 1838, studied law and served in Congress from 1855 until 1861. Branch commanded a brigade attached to A.P. Hill's Division who made the grueling 17 mile march to the battlefield from Harpers Ferry on the day of the battle. Arriving on the south end of the battlefield, Branch and the other brigades of Hill's division helped turn back Burnside's attack at the end of the day. Like George Anderson, Branch was also buried in Raleigh, North Carolina.

    Maj. Gen. Joseph K. F. Mansfield

    Joseph King Fenno Mansfield was one of the oldest officers on the field at age 59. Born in New Haven, Connecticut, Mansfield graduated from West Point in 1822. A professional soldier, he served in the Army for forty years, including service in the Mexican War. Just two days before the battle, he was given command of the XII Corps. MGen Mansfield led his men through the East Woods towards the Cornfield in support of I Corps already in action. Wounded in the chest he died the next day. There is a monument and mortuary cannon on the battlefield for MGen Mansfield.

    Maj. Gen. Israel B. Richardson

    This Vermonter was 46 years old when he led his division at Antietam. Another West Pointer, Richardson graduated from the academy in 1841 and distinguished himself during the Mexican War. In 1855 he resigned his commission and moved to Michigan. Returning to service during the crisis of 1861, Richardson led a brigade during the First Battle of Bull Run and the Peninsula campaign. At Antietam he commanded a division in the II Crop that attacked the Sunken Road. Wounded by Artillery while trying to bring up more guns, MGen Richardson died on November 3, 1862.

    Brig. Gen. Isaac P. Rodman

    Born in Rhode Island, Rodman served in both houses of the state legislative before the war. Rodman’s middle name was peace and he was Quaker. Imagine his dilemma when the war broke out between his religion and service to his country. Rodman was a Captain at First Bull Run and a division commander here at Antietam. Crossing at Snavely’s Ford on the far south end of the battlefield, Rodman led his men in the final assault, only to be turned back by the timely arrival of A.P. Hill and his men. Mortally wounded, this Quaker General would die on September 30, 1862 at age 40.

    Brig. Gen. William E. Starke

    Born in Virginia, Starke was a successful cotton planter in New Orleans. He served as the colonel of the 60th Virginia, and then was promoted to Brigadier on August 6 1862. When BGen John R. Jones was stunned by an artillery shell and left the field, Stark took command of the Stonewall Division. The onslaught of the Union I Corps’ attack early in the morning began to divide his men back. Starke would lead a counterattack, only to be wounded three times, he died within the hour. His body was returned to Richmond where he was buried in Hollywood Cemetery next to his son who had been killed two months earlier.

    Sequel of Events of the Battle of Antieam

    September 4: Lee’s army crossed into Maryland at White’s Ferry.

    September 7: Lee concentrates his army at Frederick before sending Stonewall Jackson to capture Harper’s Ferry.

    September 4-7: McClellan resumes command of the Federal army and advances cautiously to find Lee and cover Washington.

    September 11: D.H. Hill’s Confederates guard the passes in South Mountain while Longstreet watches to the north at Hagerstown.

    September 11-12: Jackson attacks the Federal garrison at Martinsburg and drives them towards Harper’s Ferry.

    September 13: McClellan reaches Fredericks and discovers Lee’s plans in the mislaid Confederate Order 191.

    September 13-15: Jackson seals the southern exit to Harper’s Ferry and bombards the Federal garrison.

    September 13-15: Walker’s Confederate division occupies Loudon Heights and completes the Cordon around Mile’s division. The Federals surrendered 12,000 troops at Harper’s Ferry on the 15th.
    September 14: Federal I and IX Corps capture Turner's Gap from D. H. Hill and Longstreet, forcing a Confederate Retreat.
    September 14: A portion of McLaw's Confederates delay Franklin's Federal VI Corps at Crampton Gap.
    September 15: With the imminent fall of Harper's Ferry, Lee determines to make a stand along Antietam Creek at Sharpsburg.

    Sept. 17:
    6 am: Hooker's Federal Corps begins the attack but his left bogs down under artillery fire from Nicodemus Hill.
    7 am: Hood's Confederates counterattack and stop I Corps' advance at the Miller cornfield.
    7:30-9 am: Mansfield's XII Corps attacks to the Dunker Church but fresh Confederate reinforcements drive them back.
    10 am: Sedgwick's division of Sumner's II Corps attacks into the West Woods but is flanked and repulsed with heavy losses.
    1 pm: Richardson's and French's division of Sumner's II Corps capture Bloody lane and breach Lee's center.
    10 am-1 pm: Burnside's IX Corps seize the bridge across the Antietam after repeated attempts to cross.
    1 pm: Rodman's division of IX Corps wades through Snavely's Ford and flanks Toombs' Confederates above the bridge.
    3 pm: Burnside launches a general assault pushing Longstreet's Confederates back to the outskirts of Sharpsburg.
    4 pm: A.P. Hill's Confederate division arrives from Harper's Ferry just in time to cripple Burnside's advance with a counterattack against the Federal left flank.

    General Robert E. Lee’s first invasion of the North was huge gamble that held the potential of very great rewards. Lee’s campaign could win Maryland for the Confederacy, earn diplomatic recognition from Britain and France, and perhaps even force the Union to sue for peace. It would also take his troops out of war-ravage Virginia during harvest time, and enable his troops to live off the enemy’s country for a while. Following his victory at the Second Battle of Bull Run Lee led his ragtag army northward across the Potomac River and into Union territory.

    The ensuing battle on September 17 produced the bloodiest day in America combat history with over 23,000 casualties on both sides. More than twice as many Americans were killed or mortally wounded in combat at Antietam that day as in the War of 1812, the Mexican War, and the Spanish-American war Combined.

    The two armies met in the Maryland farm fields bordering the trickling Antietam Creek near the town of Sharpsburg. The Union named the conflict the Battle of Antietam in honor of the creek while the South called it the Battle of Sharpsburg in honor of the town. From dawn till dark on the 17th the two armies threw frontal attacks at each other, littering the fields with their dead and wounded. "The whole landscape for an instant turned red," one northern soldier later wrote. Another veteran recalled, "[The cornfield] was so full of bodies that a man could have walked through it without stepping on the ground." No clear victor emerged and the fighting stopped out of shear exhaustion. Lee withdrew during the night of September 18, and re-crossed the Potomac. Tactically, the battle ended in a draw. Strategically, it was a victory for the Union.

    • 4.1
      psuffield says:

      The fight at Antetam was in many ways a disaster for the North. I do not see where you can even conisider this battle a battle of strategic value. However, on the local level it is of importance to the South. Antietam combined with clear victory at Harpers Ferry and the ability to manuever troops onto and off the field of battle quickly so that it tactially impacts the outcome of battle is indeed a victory for the South. Bunside was an idiot to launch a 3 prong attack that was both illconcieved and illcordinated. Period. There was no communication between his various commands and because of this an invitable slaughter took place that should not have. A case in point was his failure to order a reconnessance of Antienam creek over the south bridge. But despite not having given such an order, one should have been given by the 11th Connecicut to check the depths of the water. By having done this the Federals could have taken the bridge without having to use it, by simply fording the water at chest deep and then whiped out the Georgians holding the high ground above on the opposite bank without the two hour wait for Burnside to consolidate lines before his assualt. Imagine that! Burnside dicked around dilly dalling when he could have quickly pushed on through Sharpsburg and squarely cornered Lee on the banks of the Potomac and thus force him into surrender and end the war. Burnsides mismanagement of this particular battle ensured that there would be a 3 more years of war. In fact, it was Burnsides clear mismanagement of the battle that allowed Lee to escape two days later with the bulk of his army. On September 18 Lee managed to consoldiate his lines, picked up some reenforcements and made for battle that would never come.

      On the issue of "strategic value"? Again I honestly do not see it. Yes Burnside checked Lee's strategy of moving into the North and trying to capture Maryland and hoping that this capture would produce fear in the Captial at D.C. so as to get a some kind of a truce. However, at the time neither Burnside nor anyone in the upper ranks of the federal army grasped that, that was Lee's intended role. Even President Lincoln clearly saw Burnside's battle at Antietam as a draw, and considering the loss suffered, and the fact that Burnside allowed Lee to escape and not press home his onslaught forced Lincoln to considered removing him from command. Lincoln was also advised against releasing his Emancipation Proclamation by his closesest advisors, because there was no clear victory here. Instead, he released it the following January in hopes moving Congress into action to create the 13th amendment, but even that didn't happen. But also hopes of causing the South forefiture of battle, if men have to return home for planting of fields and harvest. Obviously, if you have no "slaves" to do the work someone has too? Politically speaking it could break up the army if they have to send people home.

  5. 5
    Art (McShea) Arway says:

    I am looking fgor any references to the 28th Pa Vols, Company A, as I had a relative, Partick (McShay) McShea in the battle. He enlisted at the beginning of the war and remained in until he was captured in Ga late 1864.

    Accounts from his home town in Pa, state he was cited for the capture of a rebel flag, but cannot find any reference.

    Please feel free to contact me by my email, arthur.arway@dhl.com

  6. 6
    markus ramford says:

    this is lameee(:
    but i love history<3



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