John Rankin was a 19-year-old private in Company A of the 27th Indiana Volunteer Regiment when, in September 1862, he fought in the Battle of Antietam. Years later he recorded his impressions of that harrowing experience. He seemed determined to acknowledge that many soldiers like him were often eager to avoid carnage, yet held their ground and kept fighting—sometimes without knowing how or why.
Prior to the Civil War, Rankin was a printer in Greencastle, Ind. At the outbreak of the conflict, he enlisted as a volunteer from Putnam County. He was mustered in on September 12, 1861.
Rankin and his comrades took special pride in their regiment, and relished its nickname of “the Giants” (many of them were over six feet tall). John was 6 feet 2, weighed about 165 pounds and had a fair complexion. He made it through Antietam unscathed, despite heavy losses in Company A and throughout the regiment. Because of his brave service, he was promoted to orderly sergeant.
The next momentous event in his life came at Gettysburg when, on July 3, 1863, he was shot in his left thigh. He spent the next few months in the nearby hospital at York, Pa. In October 1863 he rejoined his regiment at Tullahoma, Tenn., but the following January was given an honorable discharge. Although free to return home, he reenlisted with Company A as a first sergeant. When his regiment joined Sherman’s forces on April 19, 1864, for the march to Atlanta, he was named a first lieutenant.
After his second discharge, on November 4, 1864, he returned to Greencastle. Within a few months he had purchased the local newspaper, the Putnam Republican Banner, and had become an accomplished printer. He may have overextended himself financially, because he sold the paper in 1865 but remained an employee. In 1866 he left Greencastle to live for brief periods in Indianapolis, Chicago and Russell County, Kan. He returned to Indianapolis in 1874 and remained there for 15 years. In 1889 he took a job as a proofreader for the Government Printing Office in Washington, D.C., and in 1893 he married Margaret Boyd. They had three children: Francis B. in 1894, Helen G. in 1895 and Ruth F. in 1904.
John Rankin died of a heart attack on October 15, 1910, at 67 and was buried at Arlington National Cemetery. Margaret returned to Indianapolis until 1928, when she moved back to Washington, where her two daughters were living. She died on February 18, 1944, and was interred alongside John at Arlington. It would have undoubtedly pleased his father that Francis joined the U.S. Army in 1917 and served in France.
Rankin’s memoir, “What I Thought at Antietam,” is a penetrating look into the mind of a Civil War soldier. Most of what follows has not been previously published.
What I saw at Antietam is of small moment; it was similar to what the thousands of other participants saw. What anyone thinks while engaged in a desperate battle is of more interest, as we are all, to some extent, metaphysicians. A battalion in motion is an immense machine, as the men composing it move in harmony. But aside from the physical movement, when going into battle there is a different set of thoughts and emotions for each man. These thoughts are private property, and are generally kept locked in each individual breast. All of us at times have thoughts we would not care to have made public, and many good soldiers would feel humiliated to have thoughts made bare which passed through their mind in certain ordeals. At the risk of making myself ridiculous, I propose to give my mental experience in a certain battle. Perhaps it will be “mighty interesting reading,” but I am satisfied that any soldier who served a few years in the line, were he so disposed, could a tale unfold which would be fully as thrilling and of equal interest as a study in metaphysics. But to have such an experience it would be necessary for the comrade to rank no higher than a private, and be entirely free from responsibility….
We are on the bottom land of Antietam Creek [early on September 17, 1862]. Beyond is the upland, whose outline is sharply marked against the morning sky. Shadowy figures begin to come toward [us] over the ridge. They prove to be the slightly wounded, hurrying out of range of the fire. Then come the more seriously wounded, assisted by the stragglers. The latter have given up all hope of saving the Union, and adopt this pretext to get out of the fight, in order that they may be saved whether the Union is or not. Sometimes two or three of the stragglers were assisting one wounded man, and Colonel Colgrove, noticing a case of this kind, slowly said to the regiment: “Boys, I don’t want to see any of you at that kind of work today.”
Now a staff officer comes to us, and the command is given to form the regiment into columns by company. The other regiments in the division are formed in the same order. While waiting in this position, an old white haired general rides up. He is a stranger, but we soon learn that it is General Mansfield, the new commander of the Twelfth Corps. He inquires, “What regiment?” is answered, and tells the colonel to let the men sit down and rest, as they are not needed yet. Then he smilingly turns to the men and says: “Boys, we’re going to lick ’em today.” We believe him. Short as the acquaintance is, the old general has gotten into our hearts. He inspires confidence, and we feel that he can handle his command. In a short time, he rides rapidly away. Farewell, old hero! We shall see you no more. In a moment your tent will be pitched where “glory guards with solemn round the bivouac of the dead.”
The roar of the battle continues. There are unmistakable signs of disaster at the front. The staff officers who ride near us have anxiety and alarm depicted in their faces. We overhear one say that everything depends on the line now going in, as it comprises the last of the reserves on the field. An aide rides furiously toward us with an order for the colonel and the long awaited command is given: “Column! Forward, guide right, march!”
The balance of the division is in front of our regiment. It appears to be the intention to form a line immediately in rear of Hooker’s men, now so seriously engaged, and move forward to their support. As we move forward great care is taken to preserve the deploying intervals. Arriving at a certain point, our regimental column is wheeled to the left. The other regiments in our brigade made similar movements about the same time. The balance of the First division is now on the right of our regiment, and the whole body is marching forward to the relief of our exhausted comrades.
On the left we are supported by the Second division, but I see nothing of them, as they will come into the fight later. Our brigade enters a strip of woods about fifty yards wide. Adjoining the woods in front of us is a large meadow, and next to the meadow is the historic cornfield. We emerge from the woods into the meadow, and a scene of horror and grandeur is before us. The smoke of the battle and the mist of the morning still rested on the field, giving a spectral appearance to objects but a short distance away. Disaster and destruction were everywhere in sight.
Riderless horses dash over the field, dead and dying men cover the ground, and dismounted artillery is piled up in heaps. The remains of a Pennsylvania Reserve regiment is standing out in the meadow with about thirty men on each side of the colors. To the right, about one hundred yards, is another little group. How much farther these groups extend I cannot tell. They are the remains of a continuous line which entered the fight a little while before and drove the rebels. Then the rebels were reinforced and drove the Union line back; but the remnant of the Union line has rallied, determined, weak as they are, to make one more struggle before giving up the field. And this little Pennsylvania regiment is going to take a hand in that struggle. They are not expecting reinforcements until they look back and see our column coming to their aid. What a reception they give us! They swing their caps in the air, yell, and act as though they want to embrace every one of us. But this is not all they do. They get out of our way, and when our regiment deploys columns they form on our left and go forward and stay with us until the rebels are driven from the cornfield.
Our column moves farther into the meadow. We pass a [battery] knocked into a heap, not a serviceable horse or gun left. A single artilleryman is trying to extricate an uninjured horse, his cap is pulled down over his eyes, and he moves slowly around, as though he had a whole day in which to do his work. He appears utterly oblivious to all the surroundings. He is evidently in bad mental health.
After passing this battery our regiment deploys column all the while moving forward. The 3rd Wisconsin, on our right, has also deployed. Its line is about twenty feet ahead of ours, the extreme left nearly even with our right. In the left company of the 3rd I see the old gambler who, after each pay day, would come over to the 27th and relieve our boys of their extra change by his scientific draw poker.
My meditation takes a pious trend. Old man, you are likely, in a little while, to be in the presence of your Maker. How bad you must feel with all those ill gotten gains in your pockets? Thank heaven my pockets are undefiled. My luck since last pay day has been awful.
I keep step mechanically with my file leader. I have no duty to occupy my mind, and look over the field at anything to which my attention may be attracted.
Another battle now begins. It is the battle which every soldier has to fight within his own breast some time during his career, and the struggle is between conscience and cowardice. Two battles are in progress simultaneously, but it is usual to describe only one to portray the inner battle truthfully and minutely, [which] is not always a pleasant task, but it is a part of the individual history and no description is complete without it. When adequately portrayed, the meanness of human nature stands out in bold relief. In some breasts the forces are about equally divided and the struggle is desperate and protracted. In others the good or the bad predominates and the contest is quickly decided. In my case, I confess, the former condition prevailed.
As we move along, thoughts of a selfish nature begin to crowd on my mind. I begin to calculate on my chances of escape. I am in the right file of the right company of the regiment. Of course the rebels will have more sense than to fire at the extreme end of a line. But I was disappointed in this particular case, for the left of the 3rd Wisconsin so nearly touches our right that the two regiments appear like a single body, and they fire accordingly.
How much would I give to be away from here? I would give the results of a life’s toil, and I would be strongly tempted to sign away my title to that house not made with hands. What keeps me here in my place? Not honor, but reputation. If I could sneak away I would be willing to try to settle the matter with conscience. What brought this state of mind about? Simply by centering my thoughts on self. Of course the rebels must be driven back across the Potomac, but the absence of one musket will not make any difference in the general result. I am about half Quaker, anyhow.
On we go, and as we come to within about seventy five yards of the cornfield a fresh full grey line of battle comes to its edge. That line is the flower of Southern chivalry. It is the division commanded by General Hood, composed mainly of Texans.
The line certainly has not been seriously engaged, for the ranks of the regiment in front of ours are full and their organization perfect. Spat! Spat! Spat! I hear their bullets striking our line. Crack! Crack! Crack! from our side in reply, and then come crashing volleys simultaneously from each line. It would not be so glorious, but it would be more delightful to be out of this business. It is sweet for one’s country to die, and it is also sweet to live at the age of eighteen. A new idea strikes me, and it strikes me hard! For want of a better name I will call it the coruscation of a common mind made brilliant by its environment. It is this: How much more heavenly to bind up wounds than to make them. I will play the angel of mercy instead of the demon of vengeance. I will bear a bleeding comrade back to the ravine—a deep one, where rebel bullets can reach us not—and there I will soothe him until this performance is over.
A British general, in a war that occurred over a hundred years ago, as I have lately read, issued an order that read something like this: “A detail has been made from each regiment whose duty it shall be to bear the wounded from the field. The safety of the army, in former engagements, has been jeopardized by large numbers leaving the ranks to assist the wounded. Anyone hereafter leaving the ranks for this purpose shall be severely punished.” A similar order was issued in the army of the Potomac after the Battle of Antietam.
A correspondent writing under the name of “Murray” in one of his late letters said: “Now, it has been my fortune to have been in more than a dozen pitched battles, and in double the number of skirmishes that, as far as the combatants were concerned, approached almost the dignity of a battle, and I never saw as yet a man flinch from his duty. When the fight was raging, and comrades were falling on every side, I never saw any of the rest of the men drop out to carry them back.” I showed this extract to a friend (an old ex Confederate whose body is numerously marked with scars received in fighting for the lost cause), and he said that carrying off the wounded was a common practice in the rebel army; that he had seen as many as three or four Johnnies “toting off a man wounded in the toe.”
General A.P. Hill’s official report of the battle of Antietam also speaks of the great number of stragglers. But as a piece of evidence more closely to the point, I would call Murray’s attention to the report of General Wofford, commanding the Texas Brigade, relating to this battle, wherein he speaks of falling back “to rest and collect his men.” The distance traversed by the Texas Brigade up to that point in the battle was not so great as to cause the men to straggle from weariness; and the average soldier is not going to the rear during a battle without a pretext, at least. That which made it necessary for General Wofford to “collect” his men was that when the loss was heavy, and disorganization followed, the usual per cent availed themselves of the opportunity to get to the rear by helping the wounded. The Johnnies were not as stupid as Murray would have us believe.
Human nature seems to be about the same through all the ages. In one particular, evolution has made no change in the last century. There were Good Samaritans a hundred years ago as well as now. How they have slandered the poor soldier. They say that he is blood thirsty; that he is eager for the fray; that he is a banqueter in blood. This is all false. He must be threatened with dire punishment to restrain his humane propensities.
When I had decided to give my best efforts to the alleviation of my suffering comrades, I began to look around for a job. I did not have long to wait. Our captain is wounded and needs help. A comrade with a heart as tender as my own takes one arm while I take the other.
Wonderful concordance! It is like two inventors applying simultaneously for a patent on the same machine. My disgust on finding the captain is hurt less severe than I had supposed is intense. But I smother my disappointment and commence firing, hoping for better luck next time. I have not entirely relinquished my intention to aid the wounded, but I could not well put it into execution. Gradually I lose my desire to leave the field. I now have plenty of opportunities but do not improve them. My former acumen in taking care of the interests of number one has given way to a dense stupidity. An intense anxiety as the result of the struggle comes on. My own possible fate is entirely foreign to my thoughts. A full realization of the awful possibilities involved in the battle fully possesses me. Thank God! My higher nature has triumphed.
It has lifted me out of the mire of self and cowardice in which I floundered. I face the King of Terrors undismayed. This army may be swept from the field before sunset; within a moment I may be a mangled corpse; I may sleep in an unknown grave; but, come what may, I am a victor over self.
Two lines of battle, only seventy yards apart, in an open field are pouring their volleys into each other’s faces. The ground is almost as level as a floor. Both lines are melting away rapidly. Gaps constantly occur through which many of the bullets go, else there would be total annihilation. The rebel flag in our front falls and rises at almost regular intervals.
The colors of the 27th Indiana nearly opposite, are falling and rising in the same manner. The steady boom of a battery a short distance to the right is heard above the din. At times everything is enveloped in smoke, and we can only mark the rebel line by the red flashes from their guns. There the wind sweeps the smoke away and both lines are exposed to full view.
The colors of the 3rd Wisconsin are only about twenty feet from where I stand. There are about fifteen men on the left of the colors. At the beginning, the left wing of that regiment certainly had more than two hundred. The right wing of the 27th is almost gone. Only twelve or fifteen remain. They are the faithful ones. But they do not comprise all the faithful. Others just as faithful are lying on the ground, or have hobbled away. Everyone standing here has bullet marks on his clothes. From the start they have stood there awaiting what appeared to be their inevitable doom. My regret is that I am not more worthy to be numbered with them. To all appearances not one of them has faltered, while locked in my own breast is the annoying secret that at the opening of the battle I did not fully withstand the terrible temptation, and was almost ready to acknowledge the independence of the Southern Confederacy.
The official records will show that some of the companies on the right wing of the 27th Indiana lost in this battle far more than three fourths of their strength in killed and wounded. The loss on the left wing of the 3rd Wisconsin was about the same. Many besides are temporarily disabled by spent balls, while others have come to the conclusion that the Southern Confederacy is a fixed fact, and have gone off to nurse the wounded. But a remnant is still here. The rebel fire, from some inexplicable cause, is concentrated on the right wing of the 27th Indiana and the left wing of the 3rd Wisconsin.
And so the harvest of death goes on. When will it end? Our ammunition is almost gone. The rebel division facing us has never yet known defeat. But they will make its acquaintance in a moment. A charge on the left breaks the rebel line. They are now outflanked; the line in our front wavers and the blue line sweeps through the cornfield like a cyclone. The First Division of the Twelfth Corps are the first Union troops who have ever seen the backs of Hood’s famous Texans.
The 27th Indiana and 3rd Wisconsin are ordered to stop and wait for ammunitions, while the regiments which had suffered less pursue the retreating enemy. While waiting, a major general on a white horse rides up. He exclaims in an angry tone:
“What are these men doing here?”
“We are waiting for ammunition, General.”
The last words of the general came with a sort of a roar. Hooker was his name. He was in great pain from a wound in the foot, and shortly afterward had to be taken from the field. If he could have remained, Antietam would have told a different story.
We again go forward in pursuit of the rebels. Sumner’s corps now arrives on the field, and the rebels are also heavily reinforced. Again the battle begins in all its fierceness.
Originally published in the September 2006 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here.