Reconstructing a coherent narrative from the chaos of combat can be a daunting task. It is all the more problematic for a battle such as Antietam, which was fought over ground lacking in the permanent and dramatic terrain features found at Gettysburg or Chattanooga, and during which so few commands held static positions.
In 1891 Congress formed the Antietam Board to mark and preserve the battle lines of America’s bloodiest day. The challenge fell primarily to the board’s historical adviser, Brevet Brigadier General Ezra A. Carman. A veteran of the battle himself, Carman interviewed and corresponded with hundreds of former soldiers from both armies in order to complete the task. Visitors to Antietam National Battlefield today are able to enjoy the fruits of his success.
Carman’s papers, now scattered in a number of repositories, contain a trove of valuable yet rarely seen resources, such as a manuscript copy of an important after-action report by Colonel Henry C. Hoffman of the 23rd New York Infantry (3rd Brigade, 1st Division, I Corps). The report, which somehow went unpublished in either the Official Records or its Supplement, details the regiment’s role in the I Corps’ opening offensive down the Hagerstown Pike, the subsequent fighting in the Cornfield and the catastrophe that later befell Union Maj. Gen. John Sedgwick’s division in the West Woods:
Hd. Qrs. 23 New York
Sharpsburg, Sept. 20, 1862
Brig. Gen. M[arsena] R. Patrick
I hereby respectfully submit the following report of the part taken by my command in the battle of Sharpsburg, or Antietam, fought Sept. 17, 1862.
After the battle of South Mountain… fought on Sunday evening, Sept. 14, 1862, we marched with the brigade on the morning of 15 Sept. to a point near Keedysville and encamped for the night.
We proceeded next morning, Sept. 16, to a point near Sharpsburg and occupied the day in changing position from one point on the field to another, until almost evening when we were marched across the Antietam Creek and took up our position amid a tremendous fire of artillery on the extreme right of the entire army. By this time it was dark and we lay on our arms all night.
At early dawn on the morning of the 17th the enemy opened a fire of artillery on us under which we lay for about three quarters of an hour, when we were moved with the rest of the brigade to the left about half a mile and in range of the enemy’s guns to the support as I understand of [Brig.] Gen. [John] Gibbon’s brigade, which was at that time hotly engaged with the enemy’s forces both with artillery and small arms, and advanced up in the rear of [Capt. Joseph B.] Campbell’s battery [Battery B, 4th U.S.] and from thence moved to the right by a flank movement, and halted in the edge of the woods, the left of the column resting on the turnpike leading to Sharpsburg. Here I was ordered to move with my command to the right of the line to reconnoitre and watch the movement of a large body of the enemy who were reported to be gaining our right flank and rear, but had proceeded only a short distance when the order was countermanded and I was sent back to join the brigade by order of [Brig.] Gen. [Abner] Doubleday, a regiment having been detached from another brigade to perform the duty assigned to my command.
We then marched back by the left flank double quick and joined our brigade just in time to advance with it to the ledge of rocks on the right and in front of Campbell’s regular battery, and opened fire on the flank column of the enemy which was advancing through the cornfield…driving them back in great haste and with much slaughter.
We with the brigade advanced after the fleeing rebels across the clover field to the turnpike and remained there a short time delivering a heavy fire into the enemy, when suddenly the discovery was made that our brigade was flanked on the right by the enemy in large force and by your direction fell back in perfect order to the ledge of rocks, where we halted and stopped the advancing foe.
By this time our ammunition had nearly given out and upon re-enforcements coming up we fell back a short distance behind a rise of ground, stacked arms, and were preparing to make coffee when a rebel battery, suddenly brought into position on our right, opened fire and was getting range on us. We then moved forward into the woods and lay under a heavy fire of artillery about half an hour, when three lines of our infantry, said to be Sedgwick’s division, entered the woods on our left, but were soon driven back in great disorder, making much confusion in all the troops in that vicinity; but I succeeded in keeping the ranks in order and moving up to the ledge of rocks before mentioned, where it was impossible to deliver a fire without endangering our own fleeing men.
At the same time the enemy poured a brisk fire into our right flank and rear when we were ordered by you to return, which was done in such perfect order as to elicit the notice and flattering remark of Brig. Gen. [Oliver O.] Howard, in addressing his own flying men, whom he was nobly but vainly attempting to rally.
That brave officer pointed to us as an example for the disorganized, saying as he did so, “Men! that is the way to leave a field. That regiment are acting like soldiers. Do as they do, men, and we will drive them back again in ten minutes.”
We retired to the edge of the woods, immediately back of the point where Campbell’s battery was situated, and formed with the rest of the brigade along the fence, and succeeded with the assistance of other troops, who were rallied in our rear and on our right, in presenting such a front as to intimidate the enemy from any further advance. After remaining in this position until order was again restored, we were relieved by other troops, and were moved off to the rear, replenished our ammunition, and lay in support of the regular line of batteries until night.
There was no infantry fight on our front after we left the field. We had but 8 companies in the battle, Co. C being detailed at division headquarters and with the train, and Co. B being on picket duty on the right and in front of our position in the morning and on the night before…[remaining portion deleted in Carman’s copy].
We had 1 field, 1 staff, 13 line officers and 223 enlisted men. Lost 4 killed, 35 wounded.
H[enry] C. Hoffman
Joseph Pierro is the editor of the upcoming book The Maryland Campaign of September 1862: Ezra A. Carman’s Definitive Account of the Union and Confederate Armies at Antietam from Routledge.
Originally published in the September 2007 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here.