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.
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.
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
. . . 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