Memories of America’s Bloodiest Day
A veteran of Antietam spent his life collecting accounts of the war’s most horrific fighting
Ezra Carman fought at the September 17, 1862, Battle of Antietam as the 13th New Jersey’s colonel, and analysis of that bitter contest would consume much of his life forever after. When Congress authorized the Antietam National Battlefield in 1890, Carman became the site’s historical expert. He gathered hundreds of letters and maps chronicling the combat from veterans of both sides to fully develop the story of the fight. Those narratives still influence the battle’s interpretation today. In fact, some of the information on the War Department’s battlefield markers explaining the fight and unit positions was drawn from the documents the colonel had collected.
Carman also incorporated what he learned in an 1,800-page history of the 1862 Maryland Campaign, currently being reprinted. After Carman used them, the letters about “America’s Bloodiest Day” lay overlooked for years in archives around the country. Reprinted here are a handful of accounts, ranging in tone from humorous to profane, from Carman’s invaluable files. Punctuation and spelling changes are indicated, and paragraph breaks have been added to increase clarity.
Burying Rebels in the Miller Cornfield
A letter by Charles D.M. Broomhall, who served in the 124th Pennsylvania Infantry, shows how Antietam’s horrors still lingered in his memory three decades later.
June 29, 1891
….I was across the Turnpike two or three times during the early forenoon, near J. Miller’s barn and I did not notice but a few of the enemy’s dead, but on Friday [September 19] following I was sent out with forty men, I was in command of them, to help bury the enemy’s dead. Near Miller’s barn along the fence in the field on the West side of the Pike, opposite the corn, I stood at one end of a row of dead rebels, and without moving, counted ninety three of them, with their heads to the fence, on whom I could have walked without touching the ground; and they were not all the dead that were there….I was all along this part of that battlefield to the Dunker Church that day—at times it was a little sickening to some of the men; some of them wanted me to take them back to the Regiment.
If a person is not killed out right he turns on his back to die & such was the case with most of these dead. Fermentation of the stomach had set in, and blubbers at the mouth were breaking all around you, making a slight noise in the breaking, giving a queer weird feeling to many a person, as one moved about among the dead; but what troops they were I can not say—I could have easily found out then, if I had known the importance. But the greatest slaughter of the enemy that I saw was at this point—and if the Texas troops were not in the bloody lane they must have met their fate here; but they had as good a position as the troops in the corn facing them; but it must have been close work, as the troops in the corn had to approach pretty close to see out, and the enemy naturally would seek the protection of the fence, and hold to it, as to get up and run would only seem to court destruction.
I witnessed a little of that in the same field around 9½ o’clock—while we were lying in the grass a little West & South of this same point & the fire was getting too hot. The men began to jump up run back—some crawled—our old Captain got up and scolding & he went trotting back. I watched him get clear & then I foolishly, after spitting the dirt out of my mouth the bullets had knocked into it, thought I could go it also. I came out of there with sixteen bullet-holes through my rubber blanket, which was strapped over my shoulder & under the opposite arm—but I guess one bullet did it all.
124 PA Sgt. Co. D
Close Escapes in the East Woods and Cornfield
J.C. Delaney, of the 107th Pennsylvania Infantry, recalled the often-forgotten fighting that took place in the East Woods on the evening of September 16, and the rush into the notorious Cornfield.
March 27 1891
My Dear Captain
…I will give you my personal recollections of the memorable evening of the 16th and all of the 17th of September 1862. It was possibly 8 p.m. of the 16th when our regiment was brought to a halt in the East Wood, with orders to hold ourselves in readiness to move at a moments notice. Soon after, possibly 9 p.m., we were aroused by a fierce musketry rattle in our front, which owning [sic] to the stillness of the night and the fact of the fireing in the woods made it appear and sound far more fierce than it really was. The racket proved to be an encounter between the Penna Reserve and a line of Hood’s men, while each was maneuvering for position, our boys had the best of it, and soon everything became quiet and we again laid down in our harness, and slept until dawn; when we were ordered to fall in and moving by the right flank out into a plowed field and there formed into “close column by division,” in which position we marched in almost a due south direction, until we reached a position about one hundred yds in rear of our (then brigade batteries) artillery, our regiment was directly behind Captain Thompson’s First Penna battery and at that time the rain of shot and shell from the vicinity of the Dunkards Church was fearful.
I recall most vividly while standing behind our guns, a Rebel shell struck right under the muzzle of one of Thompson’s guns, exploded, three of the men going down, and [a] man carrying a shell, and standing immediately to the right and mouth of the gun had the fuse of the shell in his hand fired by the exploding shell, and I saw that brave fellow grab the burning fuse and extinguish it. Another incident was the dropping of a solid shot directly in front of our regiment and seeing it bound like a football over the ten companies without injuring a man. I speak of these two incidents because they impressed themselves on my mind most forcibly.
Our stay in that position was possibly 15 minutes, though it seemed much longer. The order was given to move forward, which we did moving past and in front of the artillery, our advance carried us from plowed field into a clover field in which we formed line of battle, and rushed across said field into the famous cornfield, and on over it to its southern edge, where we were forced to halt by the vicious fire from both artillery and infantry, we remained in that position until all our ammunition was gone, when the line fell back.
…When that battle was fought, I was a boy—only 14 years old on the 22nd of April previous, hense [sic] I was low in stature which placed me immediately on the left of my company and that being on the right of the color company. When I got on my feet (we had been kneeling during the fight) I discovered our two flags laying under a pile of dead and wounded men of “C” company, at the same moment the Rebels line of battle was advancing on a dog trot with their guns at a trail arms quick as thought I took in the situation turned round to see if any comrade was near enough to help me save our flags, my eye caught sight of only two men, my own Captain H.J. Sheafer and my tent mate private James Kennedy, each going to the rear and each calling to me to “come back.” As quick as I could throw my voice to them that our flags were still on the ground, they both came bounding back and in an instant we pulled them out and with our hearts in our mouths dashed away.
The Rebels calling to us to drop the flags, but strange to say for some reason or other, failed to fire a shot at us. On we ran, until I found myself nearing the middle of the cornfield, which I heard the sweet Irish brogue of my tent mate Kennedy (he was only four years from Ireland) calling out to Captain Sheafer “Captain, Captain, hould on you devil till I give them another volley.” [sic] The purely Irish of the above is so apparent that comment would be out of order, were it not for his appeal to me “Johnnie you little devil, let them have it square in the face” It had just dawned on this brave Irish soldier that he had not fired the last charge he put in his Austrian rifle, for at the time I called to him to come back and help get the flags, he was struggling to drive home his last round and without waiting to even draw his round he dashed back and helped rescue the flags, and his forgetting that his gun was loaded until he was at least half way across the cornfield and then turned facing a whole line of battle not more that 75 yds from him, pulled the tricker [sic] and sent bullett and ram rod into that line.
As sure as he fired (the kick of his gun nearly took him off his feet) he bounded off like a deer, I after him but I did not go far when my ears caught the sound of a familiar voice making the following appeal “Joney, come help me” and rushing to where my comrade was laying shot clean through the right breast I tossed the flag to Kennedy, Captain Sheafer carrying the other, and with my right arm around the poor fellow helped him to his feet and started back….
The Confederate Counterattack
Tilghman W. Flynt, who served as the captain of Company G of the 19th Georgia Infantry, was wounded during the attack of General A.P. Hill’s Division.
My Dear Sir
…I presume that there have been some changes in the face of the country at that place, and roads may have been changed, but at that time, when A.P. Hill’s division, or a part of it only, reached the highest point of the country, going from what I was told was Blackford’s Ford, East or North east, to the Antietam, where Burnsides’ army had just crossed the river [Antietam Creek], we received a well aimed destructive volley, from the Union batteries on the east side of the Antietam, which caused some confusion in our ranks, and the brigades were hastily thrown into line of battle—On the march Branch’s brigade was immediately in front of Archer’s, and I suppose, as a matter of course in the line of battle, Branch was immediately, on Archer’s right—Archer’s brigade was the tail of the division and was thrown in line of battle, in a road leading directly to our left, or north—There were cross roads at that point, or the road turned directly to the left [the intersection of Harpers Ferry and Miller’s Sawmill Roads]. It was not far from that point that Archer formed his battle line, facing towards the Antietam or Burnside’s corps, and there was a cornfield immediately in front of us, but it seems to me that we only went across the north west corner, and it was in that cornfield that the right of our brigade, Archer’s, got confused with Branch’s left, on a retreat, when Archers brigade fell back to the road under misapprehension.
And I don’t think that Branch’s had been in any engagement for they had not had time and from their position we would have heard them.
When Archer’s brigade fell back to the road and were informed by Gen Archer that he had not ordered them to fall back, they went forward across the corner of that cornfield into an open plowed field, and when they saw the Union forces, ensconced behind a stone wall, they realized their disadvantage and charged it with but little loss, and took the position. And there Archers brigade did the biggest work of their lives, a Union column of three lines carrying around us in an open field, at the north end of the stone fence, but didn’t get to us—When we left that stone fence to advance upon Burnsides forces, I did not get a hundred yards from the fence, in the big cornfield, before I was shot, and carried back to the fence, and in a short time the brigade was forced to fall back to the fence. If Branch’s Brigade ever went into that cornfield, I don’t know it, and I think it doubtful.
While Archer was at the stone fence, and I think before he passed over it into the cornfield, east of it, General Branch and his brigade came up to the rear and right of Archer and took position in a little hollow or depression that ran through the first cornfield and the open plowed field through which Archers Brigade charged, and General Branch was killed while in that hollow, while sitting on his horse, and receiving an answer to a message he had just sent to General Archer.
That was late in the afternoon, and that brigade was not fond of fighting at late hours, but I knew nothing of its movements after Branch was killed, but know it did not spill much of the blood of Burnsides men….
Thomas G. Clemens is the editor of The Maryland Campaign of September 1862, a two-volume version of the history written by Ezra Carman. Volume 1, on the Battles of South Mountain, is currently available from Savas Beatie Publishing, and Volume II will soon be in bookstores.
Original article published in the October 2010 issue of Civil War Times.