It had no effect on the battle — other than adding to the casualty lists — and there was no good reason for ordering it in the first place. But for the whim of a subpar brigade commander, whose sobriety some held in question, it never would have happened. Yet late on the afternoon of September 17, 1862, during the Battle of Antietam, Major Thomas W. Hyde was ordered to use his 7th Maine Regiment to make a fruitless attack — after the major fighting had ended on the northern part of the field. Such is the nature of warfare.
There was no regiment in the Army of the Potomac any better than the 7th Maine, part of Brig. Gen. John W. Davidson’s brigade, Maj. Gen. William F. Smith’s division, Maj. Gen. William B. Franklin’s VI Corps. The Down Easterners had proved their mettle during the spring 1862 fighting on Virginia’s Peninsula at Williamsburg, Garnett’s Farm and White Oak Swamp. In fact, their performance at Williamsburg impressed Army of the Potomac commander Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan so much that he rode into their camp the day after the battle, proclaimed the regiment had “saved the day” and ordered that the name “Williamsburg” be written on the flag.
Even though the 7th had been in the thick of many fights, it had escaped significant battle casualties. That luck was more than offset by the devastating impact of sickness and disease. Following the regiment’s withdrawal back to northern Virginia from the Peninsula in August 1862, the 7th began its march into Maryland in pursuit of General Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia with just 225 men present for duty. The 24-year-old Hyde, recently appointed to command of the regiment and concerned with his scant numbers, “used to count mine once or twice a day, in hope of finding a few more present,” to no avail. Regardless of the regiment’s size, Hyde had great confidence in his charges. “They were all seasoned veterans and equal to anything. I did not believe the same number of soldiers of the Great Frederick [Frederick the Great of Prussia] could have stood against them.”
Before the opening of the September 1862 Maryland campaign, Davidson was assigned to the District of St. Louis, and Colonel William H. Irwin of the 49th Pennsylvania took over leadership of the brigade. In addition to Hyde’s Mainers, the brigade included the 20th, 33rd, 49th and 77th New York regiments. Irwin was a veteran of the Mexican War — he had been wounded at the Battle of Resaca de la Palma — and as Hyde would later write, he was “a gallant man, but drank too much, of which I was then unaware.” Irwin’s tenure as brigade commander would prove brief, but damaging enough.
Leaving Washington on September 7, McClellan led his Army of the Potomac northwest from the capital after Lee’s Confederates, in what Hyde described as “slow and deliberate marches.” The pace picked up a bit after September 13 when, while resting in a field outside Frederick, Md., three members of the 27th Indiana came upon an extra copy of Lee’s Special Orders 191, the document that outlined the Confederate commander’s initial plan of operations for the campaign.
The next day, McClellan ordered an attack on Confederate positions on South Mountain, but Hyde’s 7th Maine only watched from afar as the VI Corps’ 1st Division under Brig. Gen. Henry Slocum overwhelmed a much smaller Confederate force at Crampton’s Gap, just outside Burkittsville. From there, the 7th Maine and the rest of the VI Corps crossed over the gap and entered Pleasant Valley. Their goal ostensibly was to come in behind Confederate Maj. Gen. Lafayette McLaws’ forces, which were positioned at the southern end of Pleasant Valley, and disrupt Confederate plans for taking Harpers Ferry. As it turned out, the VI Corps moved too slowly to help at Harpers Ferry — the Union garrison surrendered on the morning of September 15. Franklin could have made life miserable for McLaws’ command by driving south down Pleasant Valley and getting behind the Confederates, but the VI Corps commander got cold feet, claimed he faced a much larger force and did not press on. The Confederates crossed over the Potomac River into Harpers Ferry and marched off to join the rest of Lee’s army, then gathering around Sharpsburg.
The Union VI Corps would march there too once ordered to do so by McClellan on September 17. By 9 a.m., as the 7th Maine neared the battlefield, Major Hyde later recalled “meeting hundreds of wounded coming to the rear” and ordered his musicians to “arm themselves with guns picked up by the roadside, and join their companies.” He remained extremely proud of his men, saying, “It was refreshing to turn from the crowds of wounded streaming back and look at the firm set faces behind me, everyone of them known to me personally, and never known to lack nerve in danger.”
Initially the VI Corps was kept on the eastern side of Antietam Creek, near McClellan’s headquarters at the Pry house, but by 11 a.m. Smith’s 2nd Division, followed shortly by Slocum’s 1st Division, was ordered to cross the creek and march to support the Union right. Major General Winfield S. Hancock’s 1st Brigade of Smith’s division led the march to the battlefield, followed by Irwin’s 3rd Brigade, with the division’s famous “Old Vermont Brigade” bringing up the rear. When Hancock’s men reached the East Woods around noon, he ordered them through the woods and out into the fields just beyond, where they took positions supporting several VI Corps batteries.
Following Hancock into the East Woods, Irwin’s brigade was ordered to move southeast, to cover the withdrawal of Brig. Gen. George Greene’s XII Corps division from the area around the Dunker Church. “The scene before us was awful,” surgeon George T. Stevens of the 77th New York, remembered. “The field upon which we had now entered, thrice hotly contested, was strewed with the bodies of friend and foe.” Indeed it was. As the 77th New York moved across the meadows just south of Miller’s cornfield, an area of ground literally covered with Union and Confederate dead and wounded, the rest of the brigade’s New York regiments advanced toward the Dunker Church, while the 7th Maine marched almost directly south, across the fields just above the Sunken Road.
The Germans of the 20th New York were hit the hardest in the Dunker Church fighting. Hyde recalled that these men, “some eight hundred strong, were moving in fine line, and looked so well that the whole fire of the enemy was being concentrated on them.” As the 20th struggled through blasts of Rebel gunfire, Hyde moved his small command directly south against the Confederates posted in and around the Roulette farm. The Mainers successfully drove out those Confederates, at the cost of a dozen or so casualties. Immediately afterward, Hyde moved his regiment to the right, to connect with the left of the 20th New York and the rest of the brigade.
It was now about 1 p.m., and the main fury of the battle focused on Union Maj. Gen. Ambrose Burnside’s IX Corps and its advance on the Confederate line south of Sharpsburg. But just because the fighting had subsided on the northern part of the battlefield did not mean it had ended. Not by a long shot.
Soldiers on the front lines still faced a firestorm of shot and shell, and units on both sides still suffered casualties. The 7th Maine, in the words of one veteran, “hugged the ground for several hours” among the boulders where it lay — not as exposed to Confederate artillery fire as some Federal units. Thomas Hyde wrote later that “hills forbade all knowledge” of what was happening with Burnside’s men to the south. “It was drawing near five o’clock…and we were expecting soon to be relieved, little knowing that in a few minutes more the 7th Maine were to find their Balaklava.”
A bit before 5 o’clock, the six 3-inch rifles of Captain John W. Wolcott’s Battery A, 1st Maryland Light Artillery, were ordered to an exposed position just forward of Irwin’s brigade. Confederate marksmen across the Hagerstown Pike to the west and to the south, from the area of the Piper farm, hammered the exposed Federal cannoneers. Wolcott complained to artillery commander Captain Emory Upton that his men were being picked off by sharpshooters posted around the Piper barns. Irwin, who was accompanying Upton, decided to do something about it.
Hyde recalled that Irwin rode over to the 7th Maine and said, “Major Hyde, take your regiment and drive the enemy away from those trees and buildings.” Hyde was astounded; he couldn’t believe his commander was ordering what was then a regiment of less than 200 men to attack.
“Colonel, I have seen a large force of rebels go in there,” Hyde remembered saying later. “I should think two brigades.”
“Are you afraid to go, sir?” Irwin responded.
“Give the order so the regiment can hear it, and we are ready, sir,” Hyde said. Irwin did just that, and Hyde called his men to attention. Before they set off, Hyde ordered Johnny Begg and George Williams, two young boys who carried the regimental guidons, to the rear, but they sneaked back in the ranks without Hyde’s knowledge.
Moving by the left flank, Hyde marched his regiment in front of the Vermont Brigade, then south to the Sunken Road. There he ordered his men into a regimental battle line, and they “crossed the sunken road, which was so filled with the dead and wounded of the enemy that my horse had to step on them to get over.”
On the other side, in a trampled-down cornfield, Hyde halted the men, straightened the line and ordered them to charge. The ground from the Sunken Road over which the 7th Maine attacked the Piper farm at first dips down — Hyde described it as a “cup-shaped valley” — then begins to rise gently. It reaches a slight ridge, on the other side of which sits the Piper barn. Not much more than 100 yards off to the right is the Hagerstown Pike, lined then and now by a low stone wall.
Moving ahead of the 7th Maine were 15 skirmishers under a Lieutenant Butler. Acting adjutant William L. Haskell rode with the left flank of the regimental line, while Hyde rode in front of the regiment on the right. As they started to move up the hill, Hyde claimed a shell from a friendly battery took out four of his men.
As Hyde rode ahead, the men of the 7th Maine “dashed forward in line with a cheer, advancing nearly a quarter of a mile at double-quick.” Confederate skirmishers in some haystacks to their front retired, and the 7th ran after their foe just as a long line of Confederates behind the stone wall along the Hagerstown Pike rose up and slammed the Federals with a volley.
Hyde wrote that this enemy fire “did not do so much damage as was to be expected, we were going so fast.” Regardless, Hyde ordered the regiment to “left oblique,” a move that shifted the line of attack more to the left and brought the regiment to a slight rise of ground that protected the 7th from Confederate fire along the Hagerstown Pike. They were now marching up the hill, just to the right of the Piper barn. Confederate soldiers on the reverse slope around the Piper barn tightened their grip on their muskets and awaited the approach of Hyde and his men.
“As we breasted this hill, being some twenty feet in front of the regiment,” Hyde wrote, “I saw over its top before they did, and there were several times our number waiting for us at the ready.…” Hyde immediately ordered the 7th Maine to march by the “left flank.” This brought the regiment from a line of battle into a marching column, moving to the left, away from the obvious danger over the brow of the hill.
The 7th Maine didn’t have just Confederate musket and rifle fire to contend with; enemy artillery got into the act, too. Lee may have been short on infantry, but he had plenty of artillery at Antietam — nearly 250 pieces — and he used them well. Among the many Confederate batteries available was Captain Robert Boyce’s Macbeth Artillery from South Carolina. In his after-action report, Boyce wrote that when the 7th Maine attack began, he “went forward and placed my guns on the hill within canister range of the enemy. A few shots soon drove them beyond reach of canister. I afterward used solid shot, cutting down his flag and driving him back.”
Back in the Union lines, Lt. Col. Charles B. Stoughton, commander of the 4th Vermont, asked his brigade commander, Brig. Gen. William T.H. Brooks, if Stoughton could advance his regiment and help the 7th Maine. “Too dangerous, sir!” Brooks replied. “You’ll never see that regiment again.” The 7th Maine had walked into a cauldron of fire, but no one was willing to come to its aid. Colonel Irwin claimed later that he wanted to support the 7th, but that his “orders were positive not to advance my line.” That may be, although one wonders what would have happened had even just one brigade been sent to help Hyde. William Crosby of the 7th’s Company H later wrote that if “we had been supported, we would have gone over and held it; but it was madness to send so few.”
While others watched, Hyde moved his 7th Maine off to the left, toward the fences that surrounded the Piper orchard. Although those fences were sturdily built, the men did get through, but as Sergeant Benson was “wrenching it apart to let my horse through,” Hyde wrote, “a shot struck his haversack, and we had to laugh at the flying hard-tack.” It is amazing what men in battle will find entertaining, even under the most trying conditions.
Once inside the orchard, the ground rises until it levels off, then dips back down toward the Sunken Road. During that phase of the Mainers’ adventure the regiment took its greatest loss. “My horse was shot through the mouth and the hip,” Hyde recounted, “he rearing full and I under him, and I saw between his legs the colors of the enemy near enough to read the names emblazoned upon them.” While he was on the ground, trying to get up from the fall, he noticed “how the twigs and branches of the apple-trees were being cut off by musket balls and were dropping in a shower.”
Captain John B. Cook, commander of Company I, 7th Maine, remembered that it was in the orchard “that I learned how thickly the bullets can fly. On getting four rods into the orchard, I was wounded in the legs.” William Crosby of Company H recalled that “in the orchard it was the thickest — bullets, men and apples were dropping on all sides. Here I had one pass through my haversack, grinding up the hard bread, another graze my left hand and another my right arm. The last felt like the cut of a whip, but didn’t break the skin.” Amazingly enough, in the midst of this heavy fighting, some members of the regiment picked apples off the trees.
By this time, the 7th Maine had formed in line again at the northern edge of the orchard, just inside of a fence. Confederates were rushing from the Piper farm by then, pouring a deadly fire into Hyde’s boys, “as the pile of dead found there after the battle attested.”
Hyde remounted his bloody but still serviceable steed, and rode away, escaping “a volley fired by two regiments at me,” he recalled. Despite the gunfire, he “only received a scratch in the hand as I waved it at them. Being splashed from head to foot with blood, I supposed myself wounded.” While riding off to catch up with his men, Hyde heard the cries of Color Sergeant Harry Campbell, who lay mortally wounded. Hyde started back for him, but a number of Confederates made a dash to capture the major, so Hyde turned his horse around again and rode off for the northern edge of the orchard. There, he found himself trapped by the fence, with the enemy closing in on all sides. The Confederates were close to nabbing Hyde when another sergeant shouted: “Back boys and save the Major!” “They rushed back,” Hyde wrote, “delivered a volley which killed six of the foremost — not ten feet from me — and Sgt. Hill cut down the fence with his huge saber-bayonet and got me out.”
Once over the fences on the northern edge of the orchard, Hyde re-formed the regiment and marched it back to the Sunken Road. Union artillery bombarded the Piper orchard, and Hyde was actually more worried about that fire than the fire of the Confederates still in the orchard.
As Hyde and his regiment returned to their former position at the left of Irwin’s line, the Vermonters stood up and cheered. But with “scarce a man untouched,” Hyde wrote his mother a week later, his men didn’t feel at all like cheering. “We lay down and all were crying like children.”
Little remained of the 7th Maine. Of the 181 officers and men whom Hyde led forward in the attack on the Piper farm, 12 were killed, 63 were wounded and 20 were reported missing; eventually the death toll would reach 25. Only one officer escaped untouched. Adjutant Haskell, who had led the left flank of the regiment into battle and whose horse received three bullets, was shot through both knees. Johnny Begg and George Williams, the two boys whom Hyde had ordered to the rear before the charge, were both casualties. Begg lost an arm, and Williams was buried on the field.
Confederate Brig. Gen. George T. Anderson, whose brigade assisted in the repulse of the 7th, reported later that “in the charge, parts of Wilcox’s, Featherstone’s and Pryor’s brigades participated with mine.” Granted, all of those Confederate units were well under-strength at the time of the attack, yet so was the 7th Maine. “In my judgement, we only needed the Vermonters behind us to have cut through to the river,” Hyde wrote, “and a few more brigades in support would have ended the business, as at that moment Lee’s much-enduring army was fought out.” Perhaps, but certainly pitting just one small Union regiment against as many as four Confederate brigades was absolute madness. The odds the British Light Brigade faced at Balaklava couldn’t have been any more lopsided.
Hyde learned later that “our efforts were resultant from no plan or design at headquarters, but were from an inspiration of John Barleycorn in our brigade commander alone, I wished I had been old enough, or distinguished enough, to have dared to disobey orders.”
The remnants of the 7th Maine gathered around their riddled colors that night, and Hyde cried himself to sleep. The next day, Hyde “went out alone and, though they kept firing on me, I found eight of our wounded who wept to see me. I found many more rebel dead than ours — but Oh! Every one of ours had been a friend.” Some of the wounded had died during the night, while others had been taken back by the Confederates to the Piper buildings.
Several days later, after Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia had retreated back across the Potomac River into Virginia, Major Hyde and his division commander, “Baldy” Smith, rode over the field where the 7th Maine had charged on September 17. Smith was astounded that Hyde had been able to bring any of his men back at all. “It was the most gallant feat of arms I ever remember to have seen, heard or read of,” Smith told Hyde. “The Seventh Maine has glory enough and shall remain with me.” VI Corps commander William Franklin agreed, saying, “You behaved most nobly, Major!”
“The men say nobody could have taken them through it so well,” Hyde wrote home after the battle. “I never was so cool or thought so quick as in the battle, and the idea of personal danger did not enter my head.”
On September 18, 1862, Colonel Irwin, the man responsible for the attack, was relieved of brigade command by Generals Franklin and Smith. He returned to command of the 49th Pennsylvania, although he would resign his commission in late October 1863.
Shortly after the battle, the regiment was assigned as the headquarters guard for Franklin and Smith, “an honor they consider the highest they can bestow,” so the Bangor Daily Whig and Courier reported.
Perhaps even more unexpected was that on October 4, 1862, orders came down from General McClellan that the 7th Maine was to be sent home to recruit. Very seldom would an entire regiment be so instructed. Generally only representatives were returned to the home state for the purpose of finding replacements for the ranks. McClellan referred to “this gallant remnant of a noble body of men, whose bravery has been exhibited on every field,” and he asked that the state of Maine do its best “to fill at once their diminished ranks, that I may again see their standard in the Army of the Potomac.”
Repercussions of the charge continued long after the war. On April 8, 1891, Major Hyde, for leading “his regiment in an assault on a strong body of the enemy’s infantry…keeping up the fight until the greater part of his men had been killed or wounded” and “bringing the remainder safely out of the fight,” was awarded the Medal of Honor. No doubt Hyde felt honored, but he probably acknowledged that those who deserved it even more had fallen in what was for the 7th Maine its “own Balaklava.”
This article was written by T. Jeff. Driscoll and published in the September 2006 issue of America’s Civil War magazine.
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