Military historian and Civil War Times advisory board member Susannah J. Ural’s new book, Hood’s Texas Brigade: The Soldiers and Families of the Confederacy’s Most Celebrated Unit (LSU Press) elaborates on her long-standing argument that to truly understand Civil War soldiers and the effectiveness of combat units, scholars must look at both traditional military questions of leadership, training, and combat effectiveness as well as the men themselves and the families and communities that sustained (or failed to sustain) their service. The excerpt that follows relates to one of the Texas Brigade’s most famous engagements at the Battle of Antietam, where they suffered tremendous casualties as a divided force and by fighting “too fast.” They were, however, saved by the leadership, unit cohesion, and sense of sacrifice that made this one of the Confederacy’s best fighting brigades.
Brigadier General John B. Hood’s 2,000-man division formed up and marched by the right flank, crossing Hagerstown Pike in front of the Dunker Church as Brig. Gen. A.R. Lawton’s Division fell back around them along with their wounded commander, carried on a litter. Years later, replaying the scene in his mind and knowing what awaited them, Hood marveled at all his men had been through that year, yet they remained “indomitable amid every trial,” he observed. Jim Polk remembered the moment as well, noting that “our ranks were so reduced that regiments looked like companies and brigades like regiments.” Still, the men were so anxious to engage in battle that accounts have them firing on Federals immediately after clearing the West Woods, before they had formally formed into line and advanced. It reinforced the image, W.T. Hill later admitted, that Hood’s Texans sometimes “fought too fast,” but it also reinforced the determination Hood sensed.
Hood’s Division moved toward farmer David Miller’s fields from the Smoketown Road. Before the Texas Brigade, commanded by Colonel William T. Wofford, a ridge of ground immediately south of the Cornfield hid them from the two 12-pounder Napoleons of Battery B, 4th U.S. artillery near Miller’s barn. As Hood’s men advanced, however, four more Federal guns would come up, bringing the total to six.
Wofford’s and Evander M. Law’s brigades faced north and extended about one-quarter mile to the east just north of Smoketown Road. On the far left of the Texas Brigade, anchored on the Hagerstown Pike, were the 77 men of Wade Hampton’s Legion under the command of Lt. Col. Martin Gary. To his right was the 18th Georgia, Wofford’s old regiment, led by Lt. Col. Solon Ruff. To their right were the 1st Texas under Lt. Col. P.A. Work, Lt. Col. B.F. Carter’s 4th Texas, and finally the 5th Texas, their ranks so depleted a few weeks earlier at Second Manassas that they were led by a captain, Georgia-born Ike Turner. Though one of the youngest officers on the field, Turner was respected in the ranks for his daring leadership. Indeed, amid all the upheaval of officer selections, rejections, and elections between 1861 and 1862, Company K remained loyal to their youthful captain who had helped organize the company.
On the left, Hampton’s Legion and the 18th Georgia fired a withering volley into John Gibbon’s brigade, specifically the 2nd and 6th Wisconsin and the 2nd U.S. Sharpshooters coming down the pike. It cut “like a scythe running through the line,” recalled Rufus Dawes, commander of the 6th Wisconsin. “Two out of every three of the men who went to the front of the line were shot.” The Federals who could still move “raced for life” back to the Cornfield, where the stalks, surprisingly intact despite all of the fighting, offered some cover. Hood assessed the situation on the right of his line and ordered the 5th Texas to the far right of the division in the East Woods to assist Law with that Federal threat.
Hood also ordered the 4th Texas to lay down momentarily, though two of Carter’s companies failed to hear the order and continued forward. The left of the brigade continued to pour withering fire into the Wisconsin volunteers and U.S. Sharpshooters. James Lemon of the 18th Georgia watched as the Federals opposite him “shuddered & broke.” The Georgians and South Carolinians drove Gibbon and Phelps’s men back through the corn until Federal reinforcements began arriving. It was the 7th Wisconsin and the 19th Indiana, followed by two regiments from 3rd Brigade commander Marsena Patrick, attacking from a ledge just north of the West Woods. These men slowed the Confederate advance, while fire from Battery B of the 4th U.S. artillery brought it to a halt.
The Federal artillerymen’s double loads of canister tore through the Texas Brigade’s left flank. Hood ordered Lt. Colonel Carter, who had not quite reached the Cornfield, to shift the 4th Texas to the far left to offer some support. They rushed past Hampton’s Legion and fell in with Carter’s front running parallel along the pike. The air was so “full of shot and shell,” Polk noted in Company I, that “it seemed almost impossible for a rat to live in such a place.” Men sought any kind of cover, even outcroppings of rocks, but there was little they could do but return fire as rapidly as possible. “I didn’t take time to load my gun,” Polk explained, “for there were plenty of loaded guns lying on the ground by the side of the dead and wounded men, and they were not all Confederates: the Blue and the Gray were all mixed up.” Fourth Texan Haywood Brahan also found some cover behind fence rails along the east side of the Hagerstown Pike, and noted wryly that here they enjoyed “the full benefit of Federal minnie bullets from our front, as well as grape and canister from the Federal batteries that swept the Turnpike.”
Meanwhile, Hampton’s Legion and the 18th Georgia, moving to Carter’s right, also shifted part of their line to the left to return fire into the West Woods but also to continue their assault on Battery B. The 18th Georgia surged forward, and James Lemon staggered as the Napoleons “blew large gaps in our lines.” The Georgians concentrated their fire on the gunners, hoping to silence the crews at a distance of less than 70 yards. They advanced again, but another blast from the battery tore through the ranks and Lemon saw his wife’s brothers, William and Marcus Davenport, cut down together, “united in death as in life.”
The 18th Georgia made three separate assaults on Battery B, but the Federal artillery fire “produced great destruction,” tearing through the 18th Georgia and the infantrymen of Hampton’s Legion. The forces were so close together that the guns, firing double loads of canister, destroyed “whole ranks” and left corpses “piled on top of each other.” Opposite Gibbon’s right and trying to maintain some sense of order in Hampton’s Legion, Colonel Martin Gary looked for their flag, knowing that when the men could no longer hear commands they could at least stay somewhat formed around their regimental colors. Gary marveled at the astonishing rate at which it dropped and rose again. “Herod Wilson, of Company F, the bearer of the colors…[was] shot down,” Gary observed. “They were raised by James Estes, of Company E, and he was shot down. They were then taken up by D.P. Poppenheim, of Company A, and he, too, was shot down. Maj. J.H. Dingle Jr., then caught them and began to advance with them, exclaiming, ‘Legion, follow your colors!’” until Dingle fell along the turnpike, not 50 yards from the Federal line. Gary then picked up the colors himself until another man volunteered to carry them forward as Gary worked to direct his men’s fire.
While the three left regiments were engaged along the turnpike, Work’s 1st Texans continued to advance. Their right was left exposed by several factors: when the 5th Texas shifted toward Law’s right, when Hood ordered the 4th Texas to the Hagerstown Pike, and by Law’s axis of advance. That vulnerability was amplified when the 1st Texas noticed portions of Abner Doubleday’s division retreating. Sensing weakness, the Texans rushed forward despite Work’s shouts to hold the line. Discipline was never the the 1st Texas’ strong suite, and the regiment raced on until they came to a fence along the northern edge of the Cornfield. There they stumbled into about 600 men of Lt. Col. Robert Anderson’s brigade of Pennsylvania Reserves, supported by Dunbar Ransom’s battery.
Anderson’s men were lying on the ground, with some concealed by fence rails they had stacked before them. Armed with smoothbores and firing buck and ball, they could just make out the Texans’ legs beneath the smoke and their flag. At first Anderson thought it was a U.S. flag. When he realized they were Confederates, the Texans were just 30 yards away. The Pennsylvanians fired a volley, and a collective groan came up from Work’s men as they stumbled backward. It may have been here that Company I’s Captain W.A. Bedell fell when a ball tore through his face. It broke his cheek bone, continued under his right eye, and exited behind his right ear. Moments later, a second ball cut through his shoulder, but the pain was so much less than the first that Bedell declared this a flesh wound. A third round nearly killed him but flew high and left a hole in his hat.
Texans were on the ground all around Bedell, but the officers and men still able to fight rallied and organized. What the 1st Texas lacked in discipline, they made up for in determination and courage. Having formed, they lunged forward once more, and then again, but they could not break the Pennsylvanians. Compounding the problem was that in their ill-advised dash after Doubleday’s men, the 1st Texas advanced at least 150 yards ahead of the rest of its division. They were fighting almost within Federal lines, and their lines of sight were nearly nonexistent. The corn stalks all around them stood about seven feet high, making it impossible to see (or be seen) beyond a few feet. All of this contributed to the astonishingly high casualties the 1st Texas suffered, and Work’s difficulty maintaining command and control.
Work called desperately for reinforcements. Captain John Woodward of Company G and Acting Adjutant J. Winkfield Shropshire were both sent to request support, as was Private Amos G. Hanks of Company F, and finally Private Hicks, but reinforcements never came. Work later discovered that Shropshire and Hanks were killed, while Hicks was hit so badly that his leg would require amputation. Work was struggling to bring his men together for a disciplined withdrawal when Major Matt Dale approached and reported that nearly half the regiment was down and they needed to withdraw before they lost the rest. He had to cup his hand around his mouth and shout into Work’s ear to be heard, and just after completing his warning, Dale fell, killed instantly at Work’s side.
Concluding that his men could no longer advance or defend an attack, and worried that their line of retreat could be cut off, Work ordered them to fall back. Somewhere along their withdrawal, they realized that they had left their regimental colors, a gift from the brigade’s first commander’s wife. Work had seen it when they started falling back, but the color-bearer, like others before him, was wounded or possibly killed. The corn made it impossible to know for sure, though the men later learned that John Hanson, James Day, Charles H. Kingsley, and James K. Malone were all wounded while carrying the colors; all would survive. Significantly, they were all 1861 volunteers, and all but Hanson suffered discipline problems within the regiment. Both Kingsley and Day were returned to the ranks after promotions in 1863, and that same year James Malone was arrested by local authorities in Richmond. Their blend of ill-discipline and uncommon courage while trying to raise the regimental colors at Antietam captured the character of the 1st Texas.
Meanwhile, Ike Turner’s 5th Texas and Law’s Brigade continued their fight in the East Woods. Captain Turner called for reinforcements when increased Federal fire indicated that Maj. Gen. Joseph K.F. Mansfield’s 12th Corps had advanced to strengthen the Union lines. Some of D.H. Hill’s men, from Samuel Garland’s old brigade, arrived, though these men of D.K. McRae’s brigade were actually sent to help strengthen A.H. Colquitt’s right flank on the western side of the East Woods. McRae would later report that “confusion ensued” because of “conflicting orders” and a cry to cease firing because they were shooting their own men. In the midst of this, a Federal force appeared on their right, and shouts went down the line that they were flanked. Suddenly, the men broke and ran.
From the 5th Texas’s perspective, however, these men were here to support them, and instead McRae’s Brigade had barely fired a volley before they broke. Mark Smither was stunned, and Ike Turner was furious. He “called out to our men to fire at them as they ran out and then as the men prepared to do so, laughingly countermanded the order,” Smither recalled. Turner realized with disgust that his men were out of ammunition, support was not coming, and Federals were less than 100 feet away. Having noted that the rest of his division had already pulled back, he “deemed it prudent to fall back also.”
It was about 8:30 a.m. when Turner’s men moved back toward the West Woods. The rest of Hood’s Division had pulled back an hour earlier. Federals and Confederates would engage in similarly brutal fights for the rest of the day, but Hood’s men, what was left of them, would not reengage.
As the men formed for muster and surgeons filed reports, Hood discovered that B.F. Carter and Ike Turner had lost nearly half their regiments—killed, wounded, or missing—while Solon Ruff’s Georgians suffered nearly 60 percent casualties, and Martin Gary’s South Carolinians lost almost 80 percent. But it was the 1st Texas losses that stunned everyone.
Of the 211 men P.A. Work had led across the Hagerstown Pike and through Miller’s fields, 182 of them were killed, wounded, or missing. No one remained from Company F, and Company A had just one survivor. Company C could offer the macabre boast of two soldiers, and Company E had three. Company M had the best survival rate, if one could call it that: 11 of its members survived the fight. With over 86 percent casualties, the 1st Texas had suffered the highest percentage of losses of any regiment in a single battle in the entire war. While the rest of the regiments of the Texas Brigade lost fewer men, the brigade still reported 64 percent overall losses.
In the days and weeks after Antietam, the brigade’s families in Texas, Georgia, and South Carolina heard about the battle in newspapers before they got specifics about their loved ones. Cecelia Morse confessed that “every battle has so much terror attached to it that I dread to hear,” but then admitted that by mid-October, she had learned from “Mr. Edey”—likely Arthur Edey, the Houston Tri-Weekly Telegraph editor who served as an agent for the 5th Texas at the Texas Depot in Richmond—that her husband, Henry, and his brother William were well when he had last heard from the 5th Texas. But Cecelia had not heard from Henry directly since he was in Frederick, Md., marching toward Sharpsburg.
In Oso, Texas, Lizzie Penn Menefee was still mourning her cousin Robert Sullivan, killed at Gaines’ Mill, when word arrived that her husband, Quin, had been badly wounded. Patrick Penn struggled to give his sister all the details he had, but he had been too sick to fight at Antietam, and everything he knew was secondhand. He assured her that Quin was alive, but he had been captured, and Patrick was sure that surgeons had amputated Quin’s right leg. It was too badly broken to save. He promised Lizzie, though, that Quin was in good hands and with fellow Texans.
For other families, though, Antietam proved far more destructive. Josh Kindred, the soldier who stayed behind with the wounded at Antietam whom Patrick Penn mentioned in his letter, was one of six brothers in Company F of the 4th Texas. Only Elisha joined the 4th Texas in the summer of 1861, but by March 1862, brothers Joshua (32), John (28), Joseph (20), and James (16) had joined Elisha, who was promoted to second lieutenant on September 11. Six days later, in their desperate fight along the Hagerstown Pike, Joseph and James were wounded, John was killed, and Joshua remained behind to help care for them and other Texans like Quin Menefee. Joseph never recovered, dying of his wounds, though there was so much suffering that the army was not sure exactly when he died. The youngest, James, was given a furlough to return home to Texas to recover. He never rejoined Company F. But Joshua returned to the Texas Brigade after he was exchanged, and he and Elisha, later promoted to captain, would continue on in Company F.
Accounts from countless units recognized the bravery of the Texans at Antietam, and they were accurate, but the other truth was that the brigade was nearly destroyed that year. In the three major battles of 1862, the Texas Brigade suffered 1,786 casualties. This reflected one of the unusual facts about this unit. Whereas most Civil War soldiers died of disease rather than in combat, the opposite was true about the Texas Brigade. The majority of their deaths occurred on the battlefield or as a result of battle-related wounds. Shocked by the brutality of the fighting in 1862, some of the survivors who were officers and could secure transfers to other units returned home. But the vast majority of the officers and enlisted men remained steadfast in the beliefs that led them to Virginia in 1861 and 1862.
When they were exchanged from Federal prisons, they made their way back to the Texas Brigade, not to their homes. Similarly, the majority of wounded men recovering at home in 1862 would return next spring for the 1863 campaign season. They were getting a bit tired of their reputation for “belicosity,” as W.P. Townsend described it. The men, he confided to his wife, often raised a brow and complained that their next assignment would be “to charge a fleet of Yankee gunboats.”
Despite all of the casualties, and even defeats like Antietam, Hood’s Texans still very much believed that their best hopes for the future lay in protecting the lives and the laws that the Confederacy promised to preserve. William Townsend captured that sentiment in mid-October 1862 while recovering from his Antietam wound. Looking at his amputated leg, he confessed to his wife Elmira: “I will (I am afraid) have to leave the service. This is a bitter pill to me.” Townsend reflected those strong beliefs that ran through the Texas Brigade, and he never wavered in his devotion to Confederate independence. “I shall try to get some place in which I can serve the Country—no one labored harder to bring on this war than I did—and no one regrets more to leave the service,” he mourned.
Determined but exhausted, Hood’s Texas Brigade marched back to Virginia with the rest of Lee’s army in late September 1862.
Susannah J. Ural, Ph.D., is Professor of History and co-director of the Dale Center for the Study of War & Society at the University of Southern Mississippi.