Lesley J. Gordon, who teaches at the University of Akron, is the author of General George E. Pickett in Life and Legend, and editor of the Kent State University Press “Civil War in the North” series. She is writing a history of the green 16th Connecticut, which met with a harsh fate at Antietam, and then had many men captured at the 1864 Battle of Plymouth. One question she explores is how their views of courage and cowardice changed after they experienced combat.
How did the 16th Connecticut fare at Antietam?
They had only been in service for about three weeks when they were rushed to the front. At Antietam they were part of the IX Corps attack that was launched after Burnside Bridge had been taken. They were halted in a cornfield just beyond the bridge, and were not posted well. Colonel Frank Beach placed the center of a regiment on a knoll, but the flanks were down in swales, where they could not really see anything. A.P. Hill’s famous counterattack came up and just slammed them, and they panicked.
They didn’t know what to do; they didn’t understand the orders being screamed at them. Many of them didn’t even know how to fire their guns. Many of them spent the night hiding in the woods and rocks, and showed up within the next 24 to 48 hours.
The Antietam fiasco haunted 16th Connecticut veterans and scarred them for the rest of the war, because they never got a chance in another big battle to make up for their bad performance.
Does the regiment ever find redemption?
They think they do. That’s what interested me about the whole project. At first I found, by looking at diaries, letters and newspaper accounts written in the immediate days after the battle, that many of the men were candid and said things like: “I was a coward. I ran. I quailed.”
Then I looked at anything I could find from later in the war and the postwar era. That’s when I found this interesting process—really fascinating—that I hadn’t seen talked about before in a Northern context.
Within days, within weeks, they changed their minds, they changed their explanation about what happened at Antietam. They begin to say that they were heroes—that the cowards were the ones who didn’t go into the battle. And then they would say that no one ran.
What about the men who were taken prisoner?
That’s the other part of the redemption story, the prisoners who went to Andersonville [in 1864]. When they write their memoirs, they fit Andersonville into the story and see that as redemption. The suffering at Andersonville seems to make up for what happened to them.
Did soldiers describe their experiences differently to loved ones compared to newspapers?
Yes. I found, for example, that Adjutant John Burnham wrote his mother what I found to be a very honest, soul-searching account about what happened. He tried to explain his emotions, and wrote, “I don’t deny that I trembled and wished we were well out of it.” When he wrote the Hartford Courant, a conservative Republican pro-war newspaper, he white- washed that—said there was no flinching, everyone stood their ground.
How do you reconcile these different Antietam accounts?
That’s part of what attracted me to the whole project; it is a challenge to tell the story. I don’t want to present a cohesive narrative, because I think that’s what I’m trying to break down, to show that a cohesive narrative is misleading.
How is it misleading?
You have individuals who are feeling different things at different times, some of whom are more articulate than others. They have different reasons for being in the army that challenge the impressions of why Northerners went to war and why they stayed at war. These men also proved that not all New Englanders were committed abolitionists. This is 1862. Why these men were at war was not the same reason why they went to war in 1861; it’s not the same reason men went to war in 1863 or 1864. So that also interests me about this particular regiment. You have men who are abolitionists, but you also have some men join because the bounty was very high from their particular community. By the end of December 1862, some of the men say they’re done. Another one writes home to say that he doesn’t have any patriotism left; maybe he had a little bit, but it’s gone now. But if you wait a few months, that same soldier feels differently. I just think as historians we need to be aware of these nuances. I am very interested in understanding these shifts and changes.
How did they deal with the issue of cowardice?
I think they went into the battle as most Civil War soldiers did, thinking that you either were a coward or you weren’t. But then they got into battle, and maybe it wasn’t so clear who was a coward and who was not. For many of them, running was a physical reaction. They saw other men running and ran with them. Later the shame did come, certainly. And they started to reassess it, and some of them went back, I think, to some of that black-and-white thinking. But some of them couldn’t go back to thinking that way. Some kept reassessing and redefining, and they discovered that cowardice sometimes applies in certain, very specific situations and sometimes doesn’t—that really fascinated me.
You seem to be forcing us to question Civil War soldiers as a band of brothers.
I think in some ways it’s been romanticized, but I don’t mean to say that it didn’t exist. It did exist, but it’s also true that there could be divisiveness. The unit found that they actually became more of a band of brothers after the Andersonville Prison experience.
So they become a band of brothers after the war?
Yes. They have these two horrific experiences. One brutally shocking failure, and then this long, grueling, demoralizing prison stay. At Andersonville some of them take paroles from the Confederates, which was seen as unforgivable. But the ones who survive will become a band of brothers, no question.
And then they will fight hard to have their story remembered, to rewrite the past, to set up monuments on the battlefield at Antietam and Andersonville.
Some people would say that in attempting to give us a more complicated view of their experience, you’re actually doing a disservice to their memory.
The irony is that the survivors were so committed to making sure their suffering—and they did suffer—wasn’t forgotten, and it has been forgotten. I mean, most people have never heard of them. So I am trying to bring back their story.
Certainly I’m not trying to celebrate it, but I think in the end it’s a realistic story. I have met and corresponded with a lot of descendants, and I haven’t met any to date who have been put off by my approach. I want to show what happened, and I think it’s a tragic story. I’m not calling these men cowards; I’m not trying to denigrate what they did.
What should we remember about what soldiers experienced in combat?
When I go to Antietam, remembering the 16th’s story brings home to me the enormity of the war. It wasn’t glamorous, and it wasn’t what they thought it was going to be. They took some pretty high casualties, and this one battle haunted them.
The fact that they never got the chance to prove they were fighting men, that they didn’t quite fit in with the rest of the army— it just makes it more accessible than the heroic, romanticized stories I find hard to believe.
At one point Robert Kellogg, who is supposed to be the boy portrayed on the monument at Andersonville, writes in a letter, “Were we really ever in Andersonville?” He can’t believe it happened. I just find their account to be brutally honest and believable and able to bring the war back in a way I had not come across before.
Originally published in the April 2009 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here.