The Battle of Antietam.
WEDNESDAY, September 17th. Before retiring last night I had seen my horse safely stabled by my host, but, as General Sumner's cavalry escort had bivouacked all over the premises, and as I suspected that the distinction between meum and tuum in the matter of horse-flesh was somewhat neglected in the code of cavalry morals, I took with me to sleep a half uneasy feeling, and was awakened by it before daybreak. Upon going to the stable I found all right; the cavalry-men were making coffee; and as soon as daylight came I mustered my squad, accomplished my errand, breakfasted in the tent of the officer whom I had come to seek, and was soon on my way back to the division.
By this time the incessant roar of artillery, apparently a couple of miles distant on the right, indicated that a battle was going forward; the dusty street of the little village was full of orderlies and staff officers, riding hither and thither on various duties; every house boiled over with excitement, and gathered upon its stoop a knot of half-frantic women, whose terror it was pitiful to behold. Of course my own thoughts were full of the impending conflict, of whose happy result to the good cause I could not doubt. We certainly had forced the enemy into a dangerous corner, and I felt sure that the music of these cannon was ushering in the salvation-day of the republic. Our victory at South Mountain had not lost its inspiration, and there was thus every reason for being hopeful and enthusiastic.
I was soon riding into the last night's camping ground of our division, but the ashes of their camp-fires were cold. Troops were, however, massed in the fields beyond, and thither I hastened, to be again disappointed. Presuming that they must have advanced still farther to the front, I rode on to find other troops drawn up in line of battle, but these also were strangers to me, and no one could give me the desired information. I was now on the battlefield of Antietam, and near the front of our centre. I should like to give a full description of this famous battle, but the attempt would fail for various reasons, one difficulty being that personally I know little about it. The newspaper press, with its corps of keen observers in every part of the field, has given its general features artistically, and as faithfully as is perhaps possible. I may be permitted, therefore, to give only my own limited and partial experiences and observations.
At the point where I now paused for a moment, just about the central point of our army, and on the east side of Antietam Creek, I saw no indications of a hostile force in the fields and woods opposite. Our forces were coming into position near me, but on the other side of the creek all was still. Very few missiles had yet come this way; but, as I rode away, I saw one shell burst in a group of our men, wounding two or three severely. A house upon a commanding elevation was pointed out to me as the head-quarters of General M'Clellan, and thither I at once proceeded, as the last resort for the information I sought. Here was the immense cavalry escort waiting in the rear, staff horses picketed by dozens around the house, while the piazza was crowded with officers seeking to read with their field-glasses the history of the battle at the right. On an elevation a couple of hundred yards in front, commanding a still better view, groups of officers, newspaper correspondents, and citizens were assembled, and I at once joined them, leaving my horse for a moment in the valley below.
It was only the usual battle panorama, and I could not distinguish a single battery, nor discern the movements of a single brigade, nor see a single battalion of the men in gray. Smoke-clouds leaped in sudden fury from ridges crowned with cannon, or lay thick and dim upon the valleys, or rose lazily up over the trees; all else was concealed; only the volleyed thunder was eloquent; and no man was so stolid, of all who now stood gazing down upon the field of death, but pictured in his excited imagination a scene with some at least of the features of the dread reality.
Only a short outlook was permitted me; for here I had discovered that beneath that smoky canopy my own division was engaged, having last evening been sent from the centre to the extreme left. It was necessary to return toward Keadysville, turn to the left over a road which crossed the Antietam by a stone bridge, and, after a two miles ride, I had little need to inquire the way. It was now about nine o'clock, and already the ebb-tide which flows from every battle-field had fairly set in, bearing out some stragglers, but chiefly those of our wounded, whose injuries, being slight or in the ripper portion of the body, permitted them to walk slowly back toward Keadysville, having already been bandaged in the field-hospitals. Ambulances bringing off the more desperately wounded, or returning for fresh freights of agony; pale-faced men looking up at me from the grassy wayside
538where they had paused to rest; a captain of our old brigade smilingly holding up both arms bandaged and bleeding, and assuring me that we were doing well on the right — such are some of the pictures left in my memory by that morning's ride.
And still, as I hastened on, the roar of the artillery and infantry grew more terrible, and I was soon passing a hospital sheltered in a low-lying valley on the verge of the battle-field. Farm-houses, barns, outhouses, all were tenanted, and still the stretcher-bearers brought in from the front a constantly fresh addition. I had no time to-day to visit this hospital, but, as I rode past the barn, a collection of amputated limbs lying outside the door attested the hurried and wholesale character of the work going on within. At any other time such a sight would have shocked me, but to-day it came in naturally as part of the scene.
For now the ghastly procession of the wounded — some tottering along unsupported, some leaning upon their comrades, some borne upon stretchers, some carried in the arms of their friends, every step an agony — passed me almost continuously; full five hundred mangled and bleeding men, some of them with hardly life enough in them to reach the hospital. There were sights that day whose sad horrors can never be forgotten, too sad and horrible for any description here. And it was through this bloody avenue I must pass forward to the battle. It was no time to grow sick and faint, for into that hell of smoke and battle-din, out of which come these bleeding braves, I must enter, come what, come may. Let me admit that it was a terrible morning's ride.
I was now on the Hagerstown turnpike, across which cavalry were drawn up with drawn sabres to prevent the egress of stragglers from the battle-field. And now in what part of that awful hurly-burly of cloud and noise just ahead is my division? The cavalry-men were ignorant; none of the wounded could tell me; I must push on, and trust to fortune. As I rode down the turnpike, I passed under a hilly crest to its left, upon which a battery was posted, now hurling shot and shell over my head at a rebel battery opposite. On my right I saw troops drawn up in line of battle; on my left I soon met other troops drawn up in a grove near the road; but still I heard nothing of my division, except that it was somewhere in front. And now I was passing between spots desperately fought over already this morning, when over the fields, or in the road just ahead, I was astonished to see some of our troops apparently falling back, and soon also I discovered the general.
We were now in rather too hot a place for the exchange of courtesies, but I saw at a glance that I had come at an inauspicious moment, and a word or two of hurried explanation told me the whole story. I had arrived just at the period when, General Hooker having been driven fainting with his wound from the field, our right wing, which had driven the enemy through these fields above us into a thick grove farther up the road, at least a mile, with great slaughter, had been compelled to fall back by the outnumbering force which the enemy, whose centre and right were left unattacked during all these morning hours, was able to concentrate against it. The bravest fighting could not withstand such fearful odds, especially as our old opponent, Stonewall Jackson, had sheltered his reserves behind rocky ledges waist-high, and wonderfully adapted for defense, had deepened natural depressions into rifle-pits, had laid up long lines of fence-rail breast-works, and so was all ready for a formidable resistance.
Our old brigade retained the position in which it was first posted in support of artillery, but the other brigades were falling back to a new position in excellent order, and the general and staff were overseeing the movement. A bitter disappointment all this to me, but how much worse to the men who had moved through such a storm of leaden rain up this turnpike, through yonder corn-field, close up to the rocky citadel — "slaughter-pen," as a friend designated it — where the rebels from behind stone bulwarks shot down our exposed ranks. But, though the anxious strain still rested on their features, there was not even a shadow of despair, and nowhere was there a single symptom of panic among our officers or men.
The division was soon halted, and drawn up in line of battle on both sides the Hagerstown turnpike; but the enemy did not follow up his temporary advantage, and the infantry fighting at this point was over. The artillery on both sides still filled the air with shot and shell, but not long after this ceased also; the general and staff dismounted, our horses were tethered on the west of the road, and there was a little rest. It was now about 10 A.M., and the right wing had been engaged since daybreak. The enemy, having overpowered our attack in this direction, was now able to give his undivided attention to his centre and right wing, which were to be attacked in turn later in the day.
After a brief interval under the trees, an orderly brought orders from General Meade, now in command of our corps since General Hooker's wound, to march the division on the east side of the turnpike, near our present locality, where we formed in line of battle behind several batteries, and the men were ordered to lie down on their arms. The woods and fields in front of this key-point of the right wing were now voice-less and still; not a grayback could be seen not a battery saluted us; the scene of the late encounter seemed quiet and deserted. Thirty cannon of various calibre were silently looking toward the foe; grimly behind their pieces stood the gunners, peering out over field and wood, eager to get sight of the enemy. At any attempt to plant a rebel battery, any demonstration of rebel infantry, any symptom of advance, some of them took sight, and sent a shot or shell shrieking among the trees. One of these batteries of our division is well worth visiting; it
539has lost this day thirty-eight officers and men killed and wounded, and twenty-eight horses; but here it is now posted, every gun brought safely out of the fight, the ranks of its heroic gunners now recruited by infantry volunteers. If one half be true which the staff tell me as we stand around this battery, hundreds of rebels must have fallen this day before the hurricane of grape and canister poured in a critical moment right into the face of the enemy from these wide-mouthed Napoleon guns.
Seated on this little summit, I listened to the deeply interesting recital of the events which occurred before I reached the field. How two of our staff appeased their hunger by a hoe-cake taken from the haversack of a dead rebel soldier; how one general of our division, at a doubtful moment, leaped toward a battery, ordered in double charges of grape and canister, and personally sighted the pieces into the enemy's teeth; how another general, not of our division, left his brigade to advance without him; how the horses of three of our orderlies were killed by a bursting shell as they rode behind the general, and yet no one was hurt seriously; how up to the last moment all was going well, when, just as our boys were pushing into some woods, leaving the corn-field behind them full of rebel dead and wounded, they found themselves confronted with fresh troops, fully fortified, who swept them with volleys so terrible that a retreat was unavoidable — these and the thousand and one little personal incidents, only uttered into friendly ears, greatly interested me, though of course there was in my own mind a natural feeling of regret that I had lost all these new experiences.
But little did any of us imagine that for us the battle of Antietam was nearly over; this seemed to be only the first act of the tragedy, and every moment might lift the curtain for a new scene. On our left, toward the centre of our main line, the din of battle had long been heard, and ever and anon one or more of our own cannon in front spoke out its thunder. As an attack on our position was momentarily expected, one or the other of the staff was constantly engaged in sweeping with a glass the presumed locality of the enemy. Meantime our infantry rested on the ground in long lines — thin, broken ranks at best, giving one a pang at the heart to see how small were some of the regiments now gathered about the torn and bullet-riddled colors. On our right were the Pennsylvania Reserves, and other troops were gradually posted behind us to aid in resisting the expected attack, each brigade in turn stacking arms and then lying down.
Thus every moment was a moment of expectation; of anxiety as to the result of the battle in the centre, and later in the day on our extreme left; of the suppressed excitement of men liable at any moment to be called into battle, and yet of practical rest and idleness. I passed much of the time out among the batteries, whence we had a good view of the woods in which the enemy might be concealed until the moment of attack, and of the corn-field, which afforded admirable covert for infantry. At times we saw little squads of men at the edge of the woods — rebel pickets, or persons curious like ourselves. A horseman on a white horse showed himself several times on a slight elevation beyond the corn-field, and we christened him Stonewall Jackson. I found that a powerful imagination helps out a picture wonderfully, for several times I was assured by others that large bodies of rebels could be seen en masse, at the edge of the woods, while the glass gave me a view of nothing but trees.
During the day we were able to get up a wagon or two with provisions, which the regimental quarter-masters distributed among the men. I was walking down the lines, when a regimental captain thus accosted me, holding up a great piece of pork on his sword: "Look here, captain, this is the allowance of pork for my company, and I shall have to cat it all, for I am the only one left." I paused to inquire about it, and found it was even so; no commissioned or non-commissioned officer, no private, not even a drummer-boy remained to him. We talk with sadness about the decimated ranks of a regiment or company; here was a company simply annihilated by sickness, wounds, and death.
During the day some of our boys brought in from the adjacent fields the dead bodies of some of their comrades, and buried them in the rear of our little elevation, placing at their heads strips of cracker-box-covers, with the name and regiment of the deceased in pencil. Horses were lying all about us just where they were killed, for over this spot the battle had at one time fiercely raged. Hour after hour of inaction slipped away, while the battle-field on our left was fought over fiercely, terribly, with a stubborn desperation on both sides rarely exhibited since the world began. For the truth of this statement I may safely appeal to the statistician when the records of this day's work are made up, and the lists of dead and wounded are completed, or to any one who may visit with me two days hence the field of battle and witness the fearful result.
Sometimes it seemed as if the fighting had drawn so near to us that it must be in the next wood, and that our turn must soon come, and then the din of battle would move off to the left, leaving us quiet as before. Of course rumor had full swing on such a day as this; victory, defeat, large Union reinforcements, the repulse of our left wing, the death of several of our prominent generals, the taking of several thousand prisoners, all were in turn buzzed through the ranks, and relieved somewhat the tedious waiting of this long day. About 4 P.M. General M'Clellan, with his staff, rode along our lines, and was greeted with much enthusiasm by the troops. We had now learned that our centre and left had been partially successful, the enemy having been driven back with much
540loss, though still holding firmly their new position.
One of our orderlies brought us about this time from a neighboring farm-house a loaf of bread, with a modicum of butter ingeniously stored in a hole cut in the loaf, and we sat down to enjoy it, with a cup of coffee, for the men had been permitted to light fires and cook their rations. We began to think that the fighting for the day was over. But about 5 P.M., sudden as lightning out of a clear sky swept over us another tornado of rebel wrath, and the shot and shell began to strike and burst over and about us in all directions. In an instant we were in the saddle; but before we were fairly mounted our thirty guns, which had been impatiently awaiting this opportunity for hours, swept woods and corn-field with a deluge of shot and shell. Never before had I known how tremendous may be the roar of mingled artillery. Thirty guns, each discharged as fast as the men could load! they actually shook the hill; nay, the concussion seemed enough to shake the planet.
As the rebel projectiles were supposed to be introductory to an infantry attack, the troops in front were notified to be ready, while those in rear fell in, took arms, advanced closer to the crest of the hill, and also lay down, prepared for action at a moment's notice. The Reserves still remained as before, except that each commander was getting his men into thorough preparation; every wagon went off at full gallop; the right wing was all ready; and now we sat on our horses, looking earnestly down to see what was to be the next move. General Meade, who succeeded to the command of our corps after General Hooker was wounded, rode up to the crest where we were stationed, and reconnoitred the position of the enemy's batteries as coolly as if at a review. Already decorated with a bullet-hole in his cap as a trophy of to-day's battle, his almost nonchalant manner, and the quiet way in which, amidst the tornado of rebel wrath, he gave his orders to make ready for the storm, greatly impressed me. I saw the shot strike so close to our men as to fling the dust apparently over them; for perhaps ten minutes the enemy kept up a lively cannonade, but not a man was, to my knowledge, killed or wounded. This artillery firing at long range is terrible to hear, but is rarely fatal.
From some prisoners afterward captured we learned that it had been the intention of the enemy to attack with infantry, General Jackson's favorite time for flinging himself upon us seeming to be just before sunset. If this was his intention, the awful fire of our batteries must have admonished him of our thorough state of preparation, for in a brief period his batteries ceased to play, and our own thirty guns were silent also.
During a visit to one of our hospitals I heard from the lips of a German, who was severely wounded in to-day's battle, a thrilling account of his personal experiences during this ten minutes cannonading. He was lying under a tree, desperately wounded and unable to stir, with several other Union soldiers and a number of rebels, all in the same condition, in the woods, where some of the hardest fighting had been, and through which now crashed our shot and shell. The ground had been taken from the enemy and occupied by our troops early in the day, but was retaken by the rebels, so that wounded men in blue and gray lay indiscriminately together. He suffered little pain, but was tortured with thirst, relieved from time to time by some generous Southerner, who, in passing, shared with him the contents of his canteen. When, however, the shot and shell from our own batteries, in this five o'clock duel, began to shriek among the trees, killing some of our own wounded men, he described his sensations as truly horrible. Unable to move, planted by his wound just there, with these death-messengers crashing, bursting, striking sometimes within ten feet of him, what language could paint a scene so terrible! All that night, all the next day, and the next night also, he remained untended, only to be taken up at last when the enemy had retired and our own troops occupied the field. When I talked with him he was lying under a shelter-tent, outside a garden, every part of which was filled with the shelter-tent bedrooms of wounded rebels, waiting until his wound was sufficiently healed to enable him to be moved into the house. He told me that the surgeon had promised to save his leg, and added, in his broken way, a fervent hope that he might have one shot more at the enemy.
With this cannonading ended the fighting of the right wing for the day. The men were now permitted to bring in bundles of straw from the neighboring farms, with which they made themselves beds, and lay down in line of battle; the tired gunners made themselves similarly comfortable alongside their guns; pickets stood, with eye and car open, close to the rebel lines, ready to give instant warning should a night-attack be attempted; and hardly had the darkness descended on hill and wood before we had also lain down on beds of corn-shooks and straw, pulled our blankets over us, and all was still. No one removed even his sword; our horses stood saddled and ready for instant use at the fence near by; all felt the importance of getting as much rest as possible while rest was permitted us.
There was no tree over our heads to shut out the stars, and as I lay looking up at these orbs moving so calmly on their appointed way, I felt, as never so strongly before, how utterly absurd in the face of high Heaven is this whole panic of war, relieved only from contempt and ridicule by its tragic accompaniments, and by the sublime illustrations of man's nobler qualities incidentally called forth in its service. Sent to occupy this little planet, one among ten thousand worlds revolving through infinite space, how worse than foolish these mighty efforts to make our tenancy unhappy or to drive each