In many histories of the Battle of Antietam, it is stated that Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan never left the Pry House, where he observed the battle from afar, and never ventured west of Antietam Creek to observe firsthand any of the fighting on September 17, 1862. Those points have been accepted as truth by many for decades. But McClellan did journey to the front on several occasions and was also exposed to enemy fire in the days before the bloody battle as the following primary source accounts prove.
September 15, 1862
1. Late in the afternoon, while on the heights east of Antietam Creek observing General Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia on the opposite heights, McClellan, his staff, and escort drew the attention of Confederate artillery. According to McClellan,“[N]o sooner had we shown ourselves on the hill than the enemy opened upon us with rifled guns, and…his firing was very good.” Lieutenant Colonel Henry D. Strother of his staff and Brig. Gen. Jacob B. Cox, titular commander of the 9th Corps, corroborated this anecdote.
Sources: George B. McClellan, McClellan’s Own Story, Charles L. Webster & Company, 1887; David H. Strother, A Virginia Yankee in the Civil War, Cecil D. Eby, ed., University of North Carolina Press, 1961; “Personal Recollections of the War by a Virginian, Tenth Paper,” Harper’s New Monthly Magazine, Harper & Brothers, 1868; Jacob D. Cox, Military Reminiscences of the Civil War, Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1900
September 16, 1862
2. McClellan and his escort scouted the area at and beyond the landmark today known as Burnside Bridge. He noted, “I rode along the whole front….Our small party drew the enemy’s fire frequently.” Several individuals, among them Private George A. Hitchcock of the 21st Massachusetts, noted this. Hitchcock recorded in his diary, “General McClellan, followed by a long staff of officers in brilliant uniforms and escort of cavalry, rides rapidly past us.” Another 9th Corps soldier, Captain James Wren of the 48th Pennsylvania, attested to the enemy artillery in his diary, “[T]hey opened fire on our regiment & and shelled us out of our Camp.”
Sources: George A. Hitchcock, The Civil War Diary and Reminiscences of George A. Hitchcock, Savas Publishing Company, 1997; James Wren, Captain James Wren’s Diary; From New Bern to Fredericksburg, White Maine Publishing Company, 1990
3. The same day, Maj. Gen. Joseph Hooker’s 1st Corps was across Antietam Creek by 4 p.m. As “Fighting Joe” led two of his three divisions, McClellan joined him. “We had not proceeded over half a mile before the commanding general with his staff joined me,” wrote Hooker, “apparently to see how we were progressing.”
Source: Joseph Hooker, Official Records, Volume 19, Part 1
4. By late afternoon Brig. Gen. George Meade’s division of the 1st Corps was moving southward along the Smoketown Road toward the East Woods and the Joseph Poffenberger Farm. Sergeant John W. Burnett of the 4th Pennsylvania Reserves remembered, “I heard clattering of horses hooves and sabers to our rear.” The sound came from “a General and a few attendants crossing our column from the left rear.” Burnett identified the general as “George B. [McClellan] whose face and form was familiar to me.” Another of Meade’s men, Corporal Abram L. Crist of the 5th Pennsylvania Reserves, observed McClellan in the same area. Remembered Crist, “General McClellan and staff were coming on the field a short distance to our right and rear” as his unit advanced to support troops embroiled in a heavy skirmish in the East Woods. “The men saw him and commenced cheering,” a common occurrence. But this time, Crist recalled, “[T]he General rose in his stirrups and waved his hand in such a manner as was understood and the cheering ceased at once.”
Sergeant Archibald F. Hill of the 8th Pennsylvania Reserves remembered, “I observed that a general who did not belong to our division was directing the movements….I discovered to my gratification that it was McCLELLAN.” Several Union artillery batteries simultaneously deployed near the North Woods and, as Hill related, “A battery took position in the corn-field on our right, another on our left, and a third, well supported, went forward and took position in the wood.” As evening approached, “several additional rebel batteries” responded and “a rebel battery far to the right opened a flank fire. The battle was terrible.” Then, “amid the storm of iron hail GENERAL McCLELLAN rode up to the battery in the cornfield on our right, and directed it to change its position in order that it might play upon the rebel battery on our flank to greater advantage” to meet the new threat.
Sources: John W. Burnett, Regimental Files, Antietam National Battlefield Library (ANBL); Abram L. Crist, Regimental Files, ANBL; Archibald F. Hill, Our Boys, John E. Potter Publisher, 1865
September 17, 1862
Typical Battle of Antietam accounts usually portray McClellan staying at the Pry House most of September 17, and Colonel Strother’s diary is often cited to verify that. Strother noted Maj. Gen. Fitz John Porter by McClellan’s side. “They sat together during the morning in a redan of fence rails, Porter continually using the glass and reporting observations, McClellan smoking and sending orders.” What has previously been overlooked is that Strother’s description seems to have occurred after McClellan made a morning visit to the East Woods.
5. Several first-person accounts prove McClellan traveled to the East Woods sometime during the late morning of September 17. Boston Journal correspondent Charles Carleton Coffin started his morning in nearby Hagerstown and arrived on the field in time to witness Maj. Gen. John Sedgwick’s disastrous repulse in the West Woods, which climaxed by 10:30 a.m. “A little before noon,” Coffin wrote, “General McClellan and staff crossed the Antietam and rode up to the woods from which Sedgwick had advanced.” According to Coffin, “He looked over the field toward the Dunker Church, examined with his glass the Confederate position a few moments, rode along the lines a short distance and returned to his headquarters.” Coffin then followed McClellan’s party back to the Pry House, which Coffin described as a “large farmhouse.”
Three other correspondents discussed McClellan’s late-morning visit to the East Woods. A September 19, 1862, edition of the New York Tribune contains an Associated Press report datelined “Wednesday Sept. 17 via Frederick Sept. 18,” and reads, “When Gen. Hooker fell, Gen. McClellan immediately proceeded to the right, where he was enthusiastically received, and by his presence added much to our success in recovering the ground lost.” A New York Herald correspondent affirmed the account a few days later. “He [McClellan] was…in this portion of the field….When the intrepid General Hooker was wounded, during the morning, General McClellan rode over to the right of the line, and inspired the troops with confidence, by his presence.” The September 20 New York Tribune contained an article from correspondent George W. Smalley. “McClellan had been over on the field after Sumner’s [Sedgwick’s Division] repulse, but had speedily returned to his headquarters.”
Private William Olcott of the 10th Pennsylvania Reserves left another remarkable account. This regiment, part of Meade’s division of the 1st Corps, was in the Cornfield on the morning of September 17. Olcott noted in his journal, “We deployed and took position in front of a cornfield,” wrote Olcott. The 10th Regiment was sent to the right, across the Hagerstown Turnpike. “Immediately upon our arrival…we commenced firing…about this time. Genl. McClellan and staff visited some portion of the field. And cheer after cheer rent the air as he made his appearance.” While Olcott did not see McClellan, he definitely heard the cheers of men who did, and his description is another first-person diary account, not meant for the public, and as such must contain a certain amount of truth.
Sources: Charles Carleton Coffin, Stories of Our Soldiers, The Journal Newspaper Company, 1893; New York Tribune; New York Herald; William Olcott, Regimental Files, ANBL
6. Strother also noted that General McClellan left the Pry House to observe the progress of the battle from a bluff behind the home, and after a few moments, “Horses were forthwith ordered, and we rode rapidly across to a commanding knoll on the eastern side of the Sharpsburg turnpike.” The location Strother described was the same position where McClellan came under enemy fire on September 15. As a soldier in the 93rd New York commented, “From this advanced position we could see many of the movements and became such interested and absorbed spectators of the inspiring scenes, the brilliant charges, the incessant volleys, and the heroic scenes the great battlefield presented, that we were unmindful of the scattering shots and occasional shells that saluted our ears.”
By mid-morning high bluffs north of the Boonsboro Pike were occupied by Maj. Gen. George W. Morell’s division of Porter’s 5th Corps, including the 118th Pennsylvania Infantry, and the regimental historian later wrote, “At noon the combat raged in all its fierceness. It was near this hour when General McClellan, with his large and imposing staff, rode upon the ground occupied by our division….Shouts, yells, and cheers of appreciation rent the air.” “Regardless of the flying, bursting missiles,” wrote 118th Pennsylvania historian, “there he sat astride his splendid charger, glass in hand, calmly reviewing the mighty host.”
Sources: David H. King, History of the Ninety-Third Regiment, New York Volunteer Infantry, Swain & Tate Co., 1895; Survivor’s Association, History of the 118th Pennsylvania Volunteers, J.L. Smith, Map Publisher, 1905
7. McClellan also paid an afternoon visit to Maj. Gens. William Franklin and Edwin Sumner in the East Woods, and stated in his report that it was, “Towards the middle of the afternoon.” Another soldier belonging to Morell’s division, in the 22nd Massachusetts, attested to this, “Shortly after 2 o’clock, General McClellan rode down the road from the Pry House, with his staff, passing by our line.”
It is generally accepted that McClellan found Sumner and Franklin sometime between 2:30 and 3 p.m. in the vicinity of the East Woods and that the generals rode together accompanied by several officers from both staffs. There is evidence McClellan found himself under enemy fire once again. A soldier in the 21st New York known only as “Jimmy” wrote in a newspaper account, “General McClellan, with General Sumner and other officers, have just come through among the boys, who, on seeing him, rose up en masse and gave three roaring cheers for ‘Little Mac.’” No sooner had the cheering stopped, “Than the rebels opened on us again with grape, shell and solid shot.”
Commented the chaplain of the 60th New York, “Passing into a piece of woods, where a large body of infantry was resting, their hearty cheers announced to the rebels that the General was near, and immediately they brought their batteries to bear upon us.” According to the chaplain, the enemy fire was “Much nearer, than was agreeable. My horse received a slight flesh wound.”
McClellan observed the wreckage of the morning combat and the effect it had upon the troops. Some were so demoralized he saw the need to personally intervene: “Even Sedgwick’s division commenced giving way under a few shots from a battery that suddenly commenced firing from an unexpected position,” wrote McClellan, “I had to ride in and rally them myself.” The New York Herald also reported Little Mac rallying his soldiers. “As General McClellan rode along the line he was most vociferously cheered, which attracted the attention of the rebels, when they commenced throwing shells, some of which fell into the ranks of the 128th Pennsylvania, and they began to fall back; but Gen. McClellan himself rallied them, and they soon regained their former steadiness.” Another eyewitness, Edmond R. Brown of the 27th Indiana, remembered that after Franklin arrived on the field and “formed for a final assault, near the Dunker church, our brigade was ordered by General McClellan in person to form behind it as a support.”
The 1st New York Light Artillery was in position on the high ground near the junction of the northeast corner of the Cornfield and the East Woods during McClellan’s visit. Nelson Ames, the unit’s historian, left another description of Little Mac directing counter-battery artillery fire: “During the afternoon Generals McClellan and Sumner rode up to where we were posted and examined the lines of battle with their glasses. In the course of their visit a rebel battery on our front was throwing shells in to our line. General McClellan turned to Sergeant Barse and told him to give them a few straight shots. So successful was his effort that the fourth shot dismounted one of their guns, and we were not troubled again by them while in this position.” Ames’ next sentence leaves little doubt that McClellan was in danger. “It was while sighting his gun in this place that Corporal Salisbury was mortally wounded.”
Sources: Robert Goldthwaite Carter, Four Brothers in Blue, University of Texas Press, 1903; John Harrison Mills, Chronicles of the Twenty-First Regiment New York State Volunteers, The 21st Reg’t Veteran Association of Buffalo, 1887; Richard Eddy, History of the Sixteenth Regiment New York State Volunteers, Published by the Author, 1864; Edmond R. Brown, The Twenty-Seventh Indiana Volunteer Infantry, Self-Published, 1899; Nelson Ames, History of Battery G First New York Light Artillery, Marshall Printing Co., 1900
8. After the midafternoon visit to the East Woods, McClellan returned to the Pry House, but it does not seem he stayed there long. Captain Thomas Anderson produced an account that placed McClellan near the Federal artillery on the heights south of the Boonsboro Pike. Anderson served with the 12th U.S. Battalion of Porter’s 5th Corps and he observed, “General McClellan and Fitz John Porter, about a hundred and fifty yards from us.” Anderson described McClellan and Porter as “[s]itting on their horses between Taft’s and Weed’s batteries a little to our left.”
Source: Thomas M. Anderson, “The Reserves at Antietam,” Battle and Leaders of the Civil War, The Century Company, 1887
9. Lastly, Private Alexander Wight of the 23rd Ohio provides a remarkable first-person contemporary source that places McClellan on a part of the Antietam battlefield that postwar histories never mention he visited during the engagement. On the afternoon of September 17, the 23rd was located on the extreme left flank of the 9th Corps, the scene of Confederate Lt. Gen. A. P. Hill’s unexpected and decisive counterattack that ended the fighting.
Wight was a member of the regimental band and performed a variety of duties during a fight, which included assisting surgeons. On September 26, in a private letter to his brother, Alexander related his experience at Antietam. “Our left was engaged and I had to be at my post,” the private recalled. “I hurried down to where the doctors were and they told us there was no use trying to get any wounded off, that we would be running a great risk in trying. We went as far as we could, just far enough so we could hear the bullets whistle all around us and laid down behind stone piles and tree and every now and then, zip came a bullet against the tree or stone pile.”
The next few lines of his account are absolutely astounding. “You may think I am crazy but I have seen something since I came here that convinces me that McClellan is doing all he can for his and our country.…I was helping a wounded man off the field and he rode up to me and asked if he was badly wounded and if he could ride. He jumped off his horse and helped me to put the man on, but he could not ride. Burnside also offered his services at the same time, but I thanked him and said he could not ride.” Wight further proclaimed, “If there is not humanity to you I don’t know where you will find it.”
As a medical assistant, Private Wight was also present at a field hospital to witness another visit by Generals McClellan and Burnside. “That night after the fight they visited the hospitals and spoke to the boys like a father and told them they had done well and gained a great victory,” Wight wrote. “He did not just go in and speak, but he went to the boys and shook hands with them and spoke to them like a father.” Alexander ended his letter by professing to his brother, “I don’t know what your opinion is about George McClellan, but I have changed my opinion.”
Source: Alexander Wight, Regimental Files, ANBL
McClellan’s staff did indeed occupy the Pry House; however, as we have seen, McClellan certainly did not spend most of the day there leisurely smoking cigars. To the contrary, despite the popular stereotype, eyewitness participants confirm that Little Mac led from the front and was on the battlefield of Antietam several times, often at great peril.
Stephen R. Stotelmyer is an Antietam battlefield guide and the author of, Too Useful to Sacrifice: Reconsidering George B. McClellan’s Generalship from South Mountain to Antietam. He would like to respectfully dedicate this article to Ted Alexander, former Antietam National Battlefield historian who died on July 8, 2020. As a Vietnam veteran, Ted served his nation, and as a historian he served the Civil War community. He was a friend and supporter of all things Antietam, and will be greatly missed.