My interest in history was first sparked in 1961, when I was in seventh grade, and discovered the Civil War writings of Bruce Catton. Here are some of his best stories and anecdotes.
The first comes from Glory Road, second volume in a trilogy covering the Army of the Potomac. Writing in the 1950s (when women rarely appeared in history books), Catton had this:
Annie Etheridge goes to war.
On the second day of fighting at Chancellorsville (May 1863) a young woman, “gentle, respected Annie Etheridge, who wore a black riding habit with a sergeant’s chevrons and who had been part of the army since the early days of the war,” appeared on the firing line. She had gone off with the 3rd Michigan as a laundress but when the regiment headed for battle and all the other women stayed behind, she remained with the troops. She was described by soldiers as “a young and remarkably attractive girl,” “modest, quiet, and industrious.” General Phil Kearny saw her caring for the wounded one day and made sure she had a horse and a sergeant’s pay afterwards.
In the following scene we find her riding along the firing line, carrying a sack of hardtack and a dozen canteens of hot coffee for the fighting men. A shell explodes nearby, as she offers her refreshments to a group of officers. Three horses are killed. A soldier from Pennsylvania remembers, “She never flinched or betrayed the slightest emotion of fear.”
She was seen later, inspiring the gunners of a battery locked in a long-range duel with enemy guns. They had been hit hard and were thinking of abandoning position. “That’s right, boys,” Etheridge shouted encouragement, “now you’ve got good range, keep it up and you’ll soon silence those guns.”
The gunners gave a cheer, sent her to the rear, and kept firing. We were more inspired by “that brave little sergeant in petticoats” one man recalled than if all the officers of the army had urged them on.
After the battle Gen. David B. Birney’s division was paraded. Birney had devised a decoration called the Kearny Medal. (By this time, Kearny had been killed.) It was a bronze Maltese cross awarded to enlisted men for valor. Birney pinned the medal on the blouse of Miss Etheridge. (Glory Road; p. 198; 215)
Catton pointed out that the “wolf whistle” was unknown to the men of the Army of the Potomac. On the march north to Gettysburg, the soldiers met friendly greeting at every town and at most homes they passed along the road. Often, the young ladies came out to watch them march past. Catton explains: “The army had its own method of greeting these girls…an abrupt, significant clearing of the throat, or cough, which burst out spontaneously whenever a line of march went by a nice-looking young woman, so that at such a time, as one veteran said, ‘the men seemed terribly and suddenly afflicted with some bronchial affection.’”
It might be fun to have some of the boys in class demonstrate. Perhaps pick one of the other boys to play the role of the “nice-looking young woman.”
The following notes come from Mr. Lincoln’s Army (1953), the first volume in the trilogy.
As commander of the Army of the Potomac, General George B. McClellan always faced one insurmountable obstacle: George B. McClellan. As early as August 1861 he complains, “I am here in a terrible place; the enemy have from three to four times my force; the President, the old general [Winfield Scott], cannot or will not see the true state of affairs.” (66)
Not once will he be outnumbered in this war—and at Antietam he will have a 2-1 advantage over Lee.
A soldier in the 75th New York described the condition of his regiment in the fall of 1861: “Tonight not 200 men are in camp. Capt. Catlin, Capt. Hulbert, Lt. Cooper and one or two other officers are under arrest. A hundred men are drunk, a hundred more are at houses of ill fame, and the balance are everywhere…Col. Alford is very drunk all the time now.” (62)
The band of the 15th Massachusetts didn’t appreciate being assigned to ambulance duty, which meant they would have to serve as stretcher bearers during any fighting. When they refused their colonel clapped them in the stockade and fed them bread and water till they relented. (71)
McClellan did an excellent job organizing his forces and promised the war would be “short, sharp and decisive.” Pressed by Lincoln to move against the enemy, he was soon complaining to his wife, “I can’t tell you how disgusted I am becoming with these wretched politicians.” “I am becoming daily more disgusted with this administration—perfectly sick of it. If I could with honor resign I would quit the whole concern tomorrow…” “There are some of the greatest geese in the cabinet I have ever seen…” “It is sickening in the extreme, and makes me fell heavy at heart, when I see the weakness and unfitness of the poor beings who control the destinies of this great country.”
Typically, he said that if defeat did come, “the fault will not be mine…” In my opinion: McClellan was really good at making excuses, almost always a fatal flaw in any kind of endeavor. (88-90)
When the book opens, McClellan has just had his army taken away and General John Pope is in charge. Many officers have doubts about the new commander. “I don’t care for John Pope one pinch of owl dung,” says Gen. Samuel D. Sturgis. (7)
“We can buy our gloves together.”
Gen. Kearny, who lost his left arm early in the war, tried to console Gen. Oliver O. Howard after he lost his right. Howard replied, “There is one thing we can do, General: we can buy our gloves together.”
Kearny invented a red diamond patch for the men of his division to wear on their caps. Later the Army of the Potomac adopted patches for all corps, forerunner of patches troops wear today. (31)
|Shoulder patch: First Air Cavalry, Vietnam War.|
Pope is badly defeated at Second Bull Run (Aug. 29-30, 1862). The fight opens with Yankee forces attacking Stonewall Jackson and his men. The Rebels are protected by “an unfinished railroad embankment…a position as good as a fort,” Catton explains.
Jackson is outnumbered and pulls back part of his line, which Pope interprets as a sign of an impending retreat. He telegraphs Washington to say he has won a great victory! Other officers warn that Rebel reinforcements are fast approaching. Catton explains: “When Pope made up his mind it stayed made up, and there was no room in it this morning for anything but the conviction that the enemy was in flight.” He renews his attacks in an attempt to shatter Jackson’s line. Jackson’s men run out of ammunition at one point and throw heavy stones down the embankment at the Yanks. A Union officer, sword drawn, rides up the embankment alone, trying to encourage his men to follow. Even Rebel defenders shout, “Don’t kill him!” Too late: a volley erupts and when the smoke clears the brave man and his mount are dead.
Catton adds: “Jackson’s men behind their railway embankment were in shape to hold their ground for the rest of the summer.” (191)
Pope puts many of his men into marching formation, ready to pursue Jackson when he retreats—just in time for Confederate forces to crash down on their rear. The blue army is routed. (My students rarely knew what a “rout” was even though they had heard the word in stories about sports.)
There was one moment of humor at Second Bull Run. A wounded Union officer was being carried to the rear on a stretcher. A Rebel shell sailed overhead and exploded a few yards away. The wounded man leaped to the ground and ran for the rear on undamaged legs. (44)
Catton says that by the end of this debacle the men in the ranks had come to “the sickening realization that men get killed uselessly because their generals are stupid, so that desperate encounters where the last drop of courage has been given serve the country not at all and make a patriot look like a fool.” (45-48)
“Seeing the elephant.”
Soldiers who saw combat referred to it as “seeing the elephant.” The phrase comes from a time when going to the circus was cause for amazement and seeing an elephant the most amazing of all. (This comes from readings other than Catton.)
A New Jersey man admitted that going under fire the first time was a terrible experience. Some of the men in his company fell to the ground as if shot and picked themselves up later, quite sheepishly, he said. One boy went up to the firing line, as if in a trance, moaning over and over, “O Lord, dear good Lord!” (127)
Gen. John Gibbon, of the famous “Black Hat Brigade,” later nicknamed the “Iron Brigade,” led one of the three-pronged attacks designed to trap Sitting Bull and the Sioux at the Little Big Horn in 1876.
On rainy days, when soldiers of the 6th Wisconsin, in Gibbon’s brigade, were hunkered down in their tents, some private with a strong voice would call out, “When our army marched down to [Second] Bull Run, what did the big bullfrog say?”
Hundreds of men would croak, “Big thing!” Big thing!” (Catton says that phrase was slang for any notable event or achievement.)
The first soldier would call again, “And when our army came back from Bull Run, what did the little frogs say?”
The chorus would respond, “Run, Yank! Run, Yank!”
The first soldier again: “What does the Bully Sixth say?”
The answer showed the men’s spirits were unbroken: “Hit ‘em again! Hit ‘em again!” (18)
The men of the 6th also took “perverse” pride in their regimental band, which one officer described as “that execrable band.” The drum major, William Whaley, however, was adept with a baton.
Gibbon’s brigade clashed unexpectedly with Confederate forces one day, during the Peninsular Campaign. The two battle lines “volleyed away at the murderous range of less than one hundred yards.” After 90 minutes, with dusk coming on, the fight ended with both sides where they were when it began. The 2nd Wisconsin, which had never been in combat before, took 500 men into the fight and had 298 dead, wounded or missing. The 6th lost “only” 74; but the regimental historian later explained that until the end of the war the Iron Brigade was always ready for action, but after this “we were never again eager” for a fight.
The historian of the 2nd Wisconsin would note that by war’s end nine of ten men in combat assignments had been shot at least once.
For all his faults, McClellan was popular with his men. After Pope was beaten at Second Bull Run, he took command again. One soldier described the euphoria at the news he was back in charge. His unit is marching by starlight when they hear:
Shout upon shout went into the stillness of the night; and as it was taken up along the road and repeated by regiment, brigade, division and corps, we could hear the roar dying away in the distance. The effect of this man’s presence upon the Army of the Potomac—in sunshine or rain, in darkness or daylight, in victory or defeat—was electrical, and too wonderful to make it worth while attempting to give a reason for it. (51)
Having started with the story of Pope, Catton turns to McClellan’s first time in charge, when he takes the Army of the Potomac south in the spring of 1862. He had spent eight months preparing to advance. Now with McClellan finally approaching, Gen. Joseph Johnston, in command of Rebel forces, withdraws from his position at Manassas Junction, burning everything his men can’t carry.
Yankee troops discover that his lines were defended by “Quaker guns,” trimmed logs painted black. The fact McClellan had not come close enough to have a look or test Confederate strength until then did not enhance his reputation. For months, the watchword of his picket’s had been, “All quiet on the Potomac.” This had become an insult, symbolizing inaction.
“No one but McClellan would have hesitated to attack.”
McClellan moves his troops by water, lands on the Yorktown peninsula and allows his army to be bottled up. Gen. John B. Magruder, commanding Confederate forces at Yorktown, fooled the Yankees by marching troops through a clearing in the woods where they can be seen, back the other way along a hidden road, and across the clearing, again and again. McClellan’s scouts warned that enemy forces were present in great strength.
Writing to Lee, Johnston noted, “no one but McClellan would have hesitated to attack.” (109)
Catton describes one famous soldier:
[George Armstrong] Custer was familiarly known as “Cinnamon” because of the cinnamon-flavored hair oil he used so liberally; wore long glistening curls and a show-off uniform with a tight hussar jacket and black trousers trimmed with gold lace, and looked, as another staff member remarked, “like a circus rider gone mad.” (115)
In Glory Road, the second book in the trilogy, he has this to say: Custer was “a flamboyant hell-for-leather horseman…who possessed the great basic virtue of liking to fight.” (243)
Believing in what he came to call “Custer’s Luck,” the young cavalry general who liked to fight proved reckless in the extreme—and lucky—on several occasions during the Civil War. He was just as reckless fighting Native Americans at Washita in 1868 and at the Little Big Horn in 1876.
Just not as lucky.
McClellan was adept at making men feel like real soldiers. The 4th Michigan had a sharp little fight one day, losing eight killed or wounded. Catton describes the scene as their commander stops to offer encouragement. “‘How do you feel, boys?’ There was a quick chorus of ‘We feel bully, General!’ Still casual, McClellan asked them: ‘Do you think anything can stop you from going to Richmond?’ And the regiment yelled, ‘No!’” (116)
Lincoln tried to prod him to move more forcefully and break the Confederate defenses. McClellan wrote to his wife, “I was very much tempted to reply that he had better come and do it himself.”
We used to have good discussions in class about what qualities made for good leadership. You could apply much of it to leadership on the basketball court or soccer field, which interested students, or even within families. I would argue that teachers must have leadership skills, as well.
McClellan’s biggest problem was his use of Allan Pinkerton’s spies to supply intelligence. Pinkerton had contacts with African Americans in Richmond and they helped move Union spies in and out. Pinkerton would eventually warn that Lee had 180,000 men to wage the Seven Days’ Battles. “Almost everything he did and failed to do in this campaign,” Catton says of McClellan, “can be explained by that one fact.” (118-123)
At most, in the spring of 1862 the Confederates had 80,000 men to stop the Army of the Potomac.
Soldiers learn on the job, like any workers, except that their learning involves bloodshed. Catton writes:
Officers who had been bright with gold-embroidered shoulder straps, red sashes, and plumed hats [at the start of the war] became more somber-looking; many of them bought privates’ uniforms and sewed their insignia of rank on the shoulders, having learned that in a fight or on the picket-lines the enemy believed in picking off officers first. Regiments that had worn fancy leggings or gaiters began to discard them, the men finding that it was more comfortable to roll the trouser leg snug at the ankle and haul the gray regulation sock up over it. Paper collars had disappeared, and the men in the Zouave regiments, which wore gay red pants and yellow sashes, topped by Turkish-style fezzes, began to wonder if these uniforms were not both unduly conspicuous on the firing line and excessively hard to keep neat. (124)
Death in combat made at least some sense. More died from disease during the Civil War than bullets or cannon fire. Many Northern soldiers were felled by malaria when they came to the South. No one knew how typhoid spread and thousands died. The worst affliction may have been camp diarrhea, which hit almost everyone and might become chronic. A Michigan soldier remembered “the terrible, nauseating stench that envelopes a military camp.” In one month, without a single shot fired, seven men died and eight were medically discharged in the 125th Ohio.
Army sanitation was often lax in the extreme. One day the surgeon of the 57th New York complained to his commanding officer that a few careless men were infested with lice. “The whole army is lousy!” his colonel exploded. “I am lousy, you are lousy, General McClellan is lousy!” Students might be interested in the provenance of the word, “lousy.” (144)
The soldiers learned to travel light. The 40th New York used ten wagons to carry baggage in the early days; by fall of 1862 the men hauled what they needed on their backs. Most experienced soldiers got rid of the knapsack. A man spread out half a pup tent (soldiers paired up when they camped), placed blanket on top, arranged spare clothing, small items of gear on top; rolled tightly, tied with straps from discarded the knapsack, tied two ends close and looped the roll over a shoulder. A Massachusetts soldier joked that one man would carry a towel, the other a cake of soap.
The bayonet was very rarely used in battle. The men did find the round end, with the point jabbed in the ground, made a good candle holder for reading or writing letters.
How to make “shadow soup.”
Unlike Southern troops, the Army of the Potomac normally had ample supplies. Still, one soldier grumbled about the “shadow soup” served to sick and wounded in the hospital. Catton provides the recipe: “Put a large kettle of water on to boil, then hang a chicken so that its shadow falls in the water, and boil the shadow for half an hour; add salt and pepper and serve.” (175)
(I am reminded of Norman Mailer’s assessment of army cooking during World War II: “When it’s smokin’ it’s cookin’; when it’s burnin’ it’s done.”)
A veteran described a typical noonday halt while on the march. Each man built a small fire, had a small tin can with a twine handle, filled it with water, and poured in coffee from a little bag.
At the same time a bit of bacon or pork was broiling on a stick, and in a few minutes the warm meal was cooked and dispatched. Then, washing his knife by stabbing it in the ground, and eating up his plate, which was a hardtack biscuit, the contented soldier lit his laurel-root pipe, took a few puffs, lay down on his knapsack for a pillow, and dozed until the sharp command, “Fall in!” put an end to his nap. (178)
Catton gives a detailed description of hardtack: three inches on a side, nearly half an inch thick. It was good enough when fresh, nine or ten making a day’s ration. Hardtack could be soaked in water, drained, fried in pork fat, a repast called “skillygalee.” If moldy it was thrown away. If it had weevils it was issued to the troops anyway. Heating it by the fire would drive the weevils out. Salt pork was sometimes eaten raw on hardtack when troops were on the move.
The men of the Army of the Potomac had plenty of coffee. It was issued as whole beans, which they pounded on rocks with stones or rifle butts.
Not much thought was given by commanders to organized meals. If beef was issued when troops were in the field, the common soldier usually wrapped a piece on a stick and broiled it over a fire.
In settled camps, during winter, most companies did elevate one or two men to the status of company cook. “A company cook is a peculiar being,” one veteran recalled. “He generally knows less about cooking than any man in the company. Not being able to learn the drill, and too dirty to appear on inspection, he is sent to the cook house to get him out of the ranks.” (180)
Escaped slaves who had been plantation cooks sometimes joined up with the troops and were warmly welcomed.
As far as the Peninsular Campaign goes, Johnston finally decided to gamble and attack McClellan before the Union commander could close in around Richmond and commence siege operations. During the battle of Seven Pines (or: Fair Oaks) Johnston took a bullet in the shoulder and a shell fragment knocked him from his horse. It was probably the worst shot fired by any Yankee during the war.
Robert E. Lee took command.
Lee ordered Stonewall Jackson down from the Shenandoah Valley and launched a series of savage attacks. McClellan was frozen by his belief that Lee had an “overwhelming” numerical advantage—and that his repeated attacks proved he must have more men. “Pinkerton’s fantastic reports,” Catton says, “believed like the writ of true faith, were worth a couple of army corps to the Confederacy that week.” McClellan lost his nerve and his troops were ordered to load up on all the salt pork, hardtack and coffee they could carry and set fire to their supply dumps.
The men sensed “a big skedaddle” was coming.
McClellan did care deeply about his men. Writing his wife, he admitted, “Every poor fellow that is killed or wounded haunts me.”
On the night of the Battle of Gaines’s Mills, he called in his top commanders. All corps commanders agreed that retreat would be wise. Kearny and Gen. Joseph Hooker, both division commanders, insisted Rebel forces in their front were weak and they could smash a path to Richmond if given permission to turn and attack. Permission was refused. Kearny denounced McClellan to his staff later, “in language so strong that all who heard it expected he would be placed under arrest until a general court martial could be held, or at least he would be relieved of his command.”
|McClellan at home.|
A rattled, angry Gen. McClellan (as usual: blaming others) wrote to Secretary of War Stanton after the Gaines’s Mill fight:
I feel too earnestly tonight. I have seen too many dead and wounded comrades to feel otherwise than that the government has not sustained this army. If you do not do so now the game is lost. If I save this army now, I tell you plainly that I own no thanks to you or to any other persons in Washington. You have done your best to sacrifice this army.
A War Department clerk deleted the last two sentences before passing the message on. (142)
“If any army can save this country it will be the Army of the Potomac.”
One evening, a cavalry officer rides up to McClellan’s headquarters. He reports there are empty roads in his front—and if the army would halt its retreat Union troops could storm into Richmond unopposed. McClellan replies, “If any army can save this country it will be the Army of the Potomac, and it must be saved for that purpose.”
(He will display exactly the same kind of hesitancy at the Battle of Antietam in September 1862.)
Lee’s attack at Malvern Hill, the final act of the Peninsular Campaign, turns out to be a slaughter—and proof that even the greatest generals in history make terrible blunders. It resulted in the slaughter of thousands of gray soldiers, and what Catton calls a “field day for the [Union] gunners.”
Rain fell that night. Mist blanketed the battlefield the next morning. Colonel William Averell described the scene:
[We could see nothing in the gray light and mist] but out of it came a pulsating, endless wave of pitiful sound—the agonized crying and moaning of thousands of wounded boys who had been lying on the ground, unattended, all night long. By and by the sun came up and the mist thinned, and presently he could see the battleground, one of the most horrible sights of the war. Five thousand men lay there, covering the ground like ragged carpet that lived and made incoherent sounds and, here and there moved dreadfully. “A third of them were dead or dying,” he wrote, “but enough of them were alive and moving to give the field a singular crawling effect.” (140)
After Pope got pummeled at Second Bull Run, President Lincoln gave McClellan a second chance. Lee was headed north to Maryland and the Army of the Potomac followed. Soldiers in the 3rd Wisconsin remembered being fed “cakes, pies, fruits, milk, dainty biscuits and loaves” passed out by citizens in Frederick. A soldier in the 9th New York found the streets “filled with women dressed in their best, walking bareheaded, singing, and testifying in every way the general joy.”
“It seemed like Paradise,” said a third veteran, “this Maryland, and many were the blessed damosels we saw therein.”
If there has ever been an army disinterested in the opposite sex, historians have not recorded the fact.
A few random notes: The Irish Brigade included the 63rd, 69th and 88th New York, Irish to a man, emerald green regimental flags, with gold embroidery, an Irish harp, shamrock and sunburst. Also added: 29th Massachusetts, mostly Irish. (167)
The “Napoleon” fired a 4.5 inch round shot, could hit a mile away, not accurate past ½ mile, best for firing case shot or canister, which contained 200-300 round bullets. Catton called the field piece “a sawed-off shotgun of enormous size.” The maximum range for canister was 250 yards but infantry could pick off gunners at that range too. (190)
A Minié ball (“minnies” to the men) could kill at half a mile. Effective range was 200-250 yards.
|Similar to canister; don't have a picture of that.|
After Pope’s defeat, Catton notes:
The Prime Minister of Great Britain, having compared notes with the Foreign Secretary, was getting ready to propose to the British Cabinet that England take the lead in inducing a concert of powers to step in and bring the Civil War to an end—which, of course, could only mean independence for the Confederacy….The two men were waiting now to see how the invasion of Maryland turned out before taking final action.
McClellan helped restore optimism and the armies marched north, toward their clash at Antietam. “Homesick boys with muskets on their shoulders would finally have to say which way American history henceforth would go,” says Catton. (209)
Most history teachers know about Special Orders No. 191. Catton provides good detail.
Corporal Barton W. Mitchell and First Sgt. John McKnight Bloss were lying in grass in a fence corner beside the road. They noticed an envelope. Mitchell rolled over and opened it, finding three cigars inside, wrapped in Special Orders No. 191. Catton says that nowhere in history does anyone say “what happened to the cigars.”
The orders prove: “Lee’s army was at this moment completely scattered, and McClellan, his own army united, was closer to the scattered pieces than those pieces were to each other.” If he struck hard Lee’s army would have no chance. “There was just one catch in it. McClellan would have to move fast.”
McClellan was well aware that this was his great opportunity: “Here is a paper with which, if I cannot whip Bobbie Lee, I will be willing to go home….Tomorrow we pitch into his center,” he told his corps commanders, “and if you people will only do two good days’ marching I will put Lee in a position he will find it hard to get out of.” (215-217)
Unfortunately, McClellan did not move decisively enough. A relatively small Rebel force on South Mountain blocked his path the better part of a day. Storming up South Mountain that day, Lt. Col. Rutherford B. Hayes of the 23rd Ohio, was wounded. Sgt. William McKinley was not hurt.
McClellan lets a chance to crush Lee slip.
McClellan was in view of Sharpsburg on September 16, when Lee’s army was scrambling to reunite. He was excited, having pushed the enemy off South Mountain, writing his wife, “If I can believe one-tenth of what is reported, God has seldom granted an army a greater victory than this.”
He wrote to Lincoln in the same vein, telling him, “General Lee admits they are badly whipped.” (251)
All day on the 16th McClellan studied the situation in his front. “He was going to have everything ready before he opened the fight, and nothing was going to be lost through overhasty action. Or gained either,” Catton explains. At that moment, Lee had about 25,000 men present.
The famous Dunker Church—a landmark in the battle to come—was home to a sect which believed steeples were a vanity and killing a sin.
There was a brisk little fight around what would later become famous as the “East Wood.” But both armies went to sleep that night, with a tension in the air, and men reported the mysterious sound of muffled tramping of men unseen. General Joseph K. Mansfield spread a blanket in a fence corner and lay down to sleep. A lot of the boys in the 10th Maine were awake and talking around nearby fires. Mansfield rose, “went over to shush them,” but he was nice about it, and not like a major general. At midnight the camps died down and the soldiers slept.
“And whatever it may be that nerves men to die for a flag or a phrase or a man or an inexpressible dream was drowsing with them,” Catton writes, “ready to wake with the dawn.” (261)
It might work to ask students: What is it that makes people willing to die for an idea or a country, etc.?
The devil’s playthings littered the camps.
It rained in the night. At dawn in the mist and half-light pickets saw movement and opened fire, the armies lying close. By six a.m. the air shook with the thunder of heavy artillery fire. Many camps were littered with decks of cards (card playing being considered sinful and no sense carrying the devil’s playthings into a fight). Hooker’s artillery began blasting what would forever after be known as “The Cornfield.”
Thick clouds of smoke made it impossible for men to know what was going on other than in a small area round them:
The black powder used in those days left heavy masses of smoke which stayed on the ground or hung at waist level in long tattered sheets until the wind blew it away, and this smoke deposited a black, greasy film on sweaty skins, so that men who had been fighting hard looked grotesque, as if they had been ineptly made up for a minstrel show.
The intense fire shredded cornstalks, splintered rifles, punctured canteens and tore haversacks and human beings to shreds. (269-271)
Those who fought at Antietam remembered bullets as thick as hail in a storm. The men advanced, bending their heads, as if facing a driving rain. A Union officer was heard shouting, “This fire is murderous!”
Gen. John B. Hood’s gray troops had just sat down to cook their first real meal in days when they were ordered forward. A blue attack had broken the main Rebel line and the Yankees would almost surely win the battle unless stopped. Hood’s men formed in time, met the Federal attack, and delivered a volley which was “like a scythe running through our line,” said one stunned Yankee survivor. Union forces broke and ran, Hood’s men following and jeering.
General Gibbon noticed that several Union gun crews had let the elevation screws on their field pieces run down. So they were firing over the heads of Hood’s men. He leaped from his horse, adjusted one screw himself, and the battery was soon firing double-canister at a range of fifty feet. Catton says that the charging Confederate line melted away under this fire.
As always, there were those who could not stand the strain. Catton describes the fields and woods behind the lines being filled with:
The skulkers and the unabashed cowards who always ran in every battle…the men who could stand something but not everything, the men who had stood fast in all previous fights but found this one too terrible to be borne; the men who helped wounded comrades to the rear and then either honestly got lost…or found that they could not quite make themselves go back into it. (272-275)
Gen. Mansfield rode down his battle line, shouting, “That’s right, boys, cheer—we’re going to whip them today!” In the smoke and confusion he rode forward for a look at enemy positions. “Those are Rebels, General!” a soldier shouted warning. Confederate troops opened fire. Mansfield’s horse was hit. The general took a bullet in the stomach, a mortal wound. Gen. Hooker took a bullet through his boot—which filled with blood—and had to ride to the rear. The men of the 27th Indiana shot up all their ammunition, 100 rounds per man, and had to retrieve cartridges from the dead and wounded. Corporal Mitchell, who had found the cigars and Lee’s orders, was badly wounded.
Fresh Union attacks went forward. The 19th Massachusetts had been a “fancy-Dan” outfit, electing not only its officers, but its men, at the start of the war. Their division advanced across “The Cornfield,” stepping over dead and wounded. Shells that passed over their first line hit the second or third. A survivor later grumbled, “We were as easy to hit as the town of Sharpsburg.” Union and Confederate infantry exchanged fire at a distance of fifteen paces. Captain Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. (later Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court) was wounded for the second time during the war. He would be wounded six times before the war ended. (277-289)
(Catton is not my source for that number; and since I can’t remember the source, I’m not sure I’m correct.)
The bees win a battle.
There was heavy fighting around the Roulette farm. Rebel artillery blasted a row of beehives. The 132nd Pennsylvania was a new regiment and had been facing bullets well enough, but the bees drove them back.
The focal point of Union attacks, now led by Gen. Edwin V. Sumner’s corps, shifted to the “Sunken Road.” Catton explains:
The men who defended it were almost wholly protected; the men who tried to take it would have to advance in the open, exposed to a crippling fire. It was as nasty a strong point as the army ever ran up against: the famous sunken road, know forever after (for sufficient reason) as Bloody Lane.
The Yankee attackers stopped at the top of a low rise, the road slightly below. The men in gray could hear shouted commands.
Down they came, four ranks deep.
Rebel artillery concentrated on the blue infantry, knowing if the Sunken Road was taken there was nothing to stop the Union army from capturing Sharpsburg and cutting off Lee’s retreat. Yankee artillery concentrated on the enemy guns. Rebel crews ever after remembered this day as “artillery hell.” The Irish Brigade drove the Confederates back from a position to the right of the lane. Half of the men in the 63rd New York were killed or wounded. Gen. Thomas Meagher’s horse took a bullet in full gallop and both horse and rider went down. Meagher was knocked cold. Two blue regiments finally got into position where they could enfilade the road. The battle, says Catton, “had come to a moment of supreme crisis.” Gen. D.H. Hill grabbed a musket and led the last of his gray reserves in a counterattack.
|Meagher and the Irish Brigade.|
A Federal battery withdraws to a safer spot. A civilian gentleman in a two-horse carriage appears out of nowhere, alights, and begins handing out ham and biscuits. Then he takes several wounded men to an aid station.
At this point, Lee’s line was a “frayed thread.” “Many years later Longstreet confessed that at that moment ten thousand fresh Federals could have come through and taken Lee’s army and all it possessed.” (292-298)
McClellan blows his chance to win a great victory and settles for a tie.
On this terrible day, McClellan had 87,000 men present for battle.
Lee had 41,000.
Sumner, stunned by the carnage he had already witnessed, refused division commanders permission to press their attacks. A staff officer arrived from McClellan’s HQ to urge Sumner to advance if he could. “Go back, young man,” he told the messenger, “and tell General McClellan I have no command! Tell him my command, Banks’ command and Hooker’s command are all cut up and demoralized. Tell him General Franklin has the only organized command on this part of the field!” (299)
McClellan had it in his power at that moment to shatter Lee’s army, and very possibly win the war. Failing to see it, he upheld Sumner’s decision not to continue the attack.
Meanwhile, a planned Union advance on their left never got going. Antietam Creek could have been crossed in most places without men getting their belt buckles wet. Yet it “was treated that day as if it were quite impassible, a veritable Rhine River, not to be crossed except dry-shod on a bridge.” McClellan sent several messages urging his left wing to attack. Yankee troops scheduled to lead the way across the bridge used up their ammunition banging away at Rebel defenders on a line of hills across the stream. Another unit had to go first. Two hours were wasted shuffling regiments into position. All morning, Lee kept stripping troops from this part of the line to plug holes elsewhere. When the Federals got across and got up on the plateau behind the bridge, around 3 p.m., only 2,500 Rebels barred the path to Sharpsburg—which meant Union troops were once again in perfect position to cut Lee’s escape route. Gen. Ambrose Burnside, leading Union forces on this wing, had one division restocking ammunition, one division in reserve, and a third looking for a ford which wasn’t even needed. (301)
The last desperate hour of the Confederate Army visibly at hand.
Catton describes the situation: “Slowly the Rebel line of defense faded away—brigades up front all cracked, Sharpsburg filled with demoralized stragglers looking for shelter, the last desperate hour of the Confederate Army visibly at hand.”
Gen. A.P. Hill arrived just in time to knock Burnside’s advance back on its heels, having marched so hard to reach the scene that half his men fell out on the way. Burnside reported that he could hold his ground, but needed reinforcements.
A Union brigade lay down halfway up a hill, under heavy fire. A veteran recalled “the most vehement, terrible swearing I have ever heard.” “The mental strain was so great,” said another, “I think, in the life of Goethe on a similar occasion—the whole landscape for an instant turned slightly red.” (309)
Equal losses—increasing peril for the Confederate army.
By this time each side had lost 10,000 men. I always found it interesting to ask students what that meant.
My classes tended to see it as a tie. It was necessary to prod them before someone realized: Lee was in worse shape than ever. Now he had 31,000 men left to face 77,000 troops under McClellan. When I asked questions like this I sometimes ignored students if they seemed to know the answer. I wanted to get more kids involved in any discussion and a variety of answers never hurt.
Several officers urged McClellan to send Gen. Fitz-John Porter’s corps, held in reserve, to renew the attack. Porter was hesitant. “Remember, General—I command the last reserve of the last army of the Republic,” he told McClellan.
The fighting ended for the day. (314-315)
Darkness brought an end to the carnage. Reinforcements joined McClellan all day on the 18th, while he and his corps commanders planned fresh attacks. That night, however, his men could hear Lee’s troops pulling out of the lines and heading for the Potomac River to escape.
Catton notes that burial duties were handed over to regiments that had fallen out of the good graces of brigade or division commanders. The body of one soldier, draped over the fence at Bloody Lane, was found to have been struck by 57 bullets. Capt. George Freeman Noyes saw an officer carrying a large piece of salt pork, just issued to feed his men. He cried out that he was the only survivor of his unit and had no idea what to do with the food.
McClellan himself was thrilled by his success, writing his wife, “You should see my soldiers now! You never saw anything like their enthusiasm. It surpassed anything you ever imagined.” “Those in whose judgment I rely tell me that I fought the battle splendidly and that it was a masterpiece of art.” (320-321)
He and they were wrong.
My classes used to have a great discussion on the topic: That human beings are most often defeated by their attitudes—like McClellan—imagining obstacles in their paths to be insurmountable. I had been in the Marines myself and had some amusing stories about “attitude adjustments” administered at my expense at Parris Island. I had also seen a guy named Tim Traylor running the Cincinnati Heart Mini-Marathon with steel arm braces/crutches (he had cerebral palsy). We used an article from the Cincinnati Enquirer, about Bruce Jennings, who bicycled across the USA with one leg. The question I liked to pose was, “How could he do it? How could Jennings make it when most people with two legs assumed they couldn’t?
Later I pedaled across the country myself.
Lincoln, of course, decided the time was right after the Battle of Antietam to issue the Emancipation Proclamation. The next month the Emperor of France proposed that his country, Russia, and England step in and bring about an armistice. The British cabinet rejected the idea. Now that Lincoln had acted, no one wanted to be known as an “apologist for slavery.” (322)
In November 1862, Lincoln fired McClellan again.
Around the campfires one night, soldiers of the 17th Michigan discussed recent events. They agreed that the president should retire all the generals “and select men from the ranks who will serve without pay, lead the army against Lee, strike him hard, and follow him until he fails to come to time.” (331)
|The bitter fruit of all battles.|
If you are interested I have a number of Civil War readings for students for sale at Middle School History and Tips for Teachers, on TpT.