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A narrative of service with the Third Wisconsin Infantry/Battle of Antietam

< A narrative of service with the Third Wisconsin Infantry

Battle of Antietam

On the morning of the 16th we moved forward to a position behind a range of low hills near Antietam Creek, and there we remained until night, undisturbed save by occasional shots from the enemy's batteries, posted in the hills on the opposite side of the creek. The remainder of our army kept coming up all day, taking position as they arrived, until at night it was understood that they were all at hand with the exception of Franklin's Corps, which had gone to the relief of Harpers Ferry. At about nine o'clock we were called up and moved across Antietam Creek, close to the enemy's lines, where we lay down to secure such rest as we might in preparation for the next day's fight. General Hooker's Corps lay in position, just in front of us.

It was reported that night that Harpers Ferry had been surrendered by Colonel Miles without a struggle, and when the relieving force of General Franklin was within three miles. It was rumored also that Miles had been shot by the men of his own command when they learned that they had been surrendered.

We were awakened soon after daylight by the sound of heavy cannonading in the front. It had been raining during the night, but now the sky was clear and the sun shining. The men hurried into the ranks, and the Corps formed in close column by companies. We moved a short distance to the right, then sat down to await developments. As battery after battery came into action, the artillery firing continually increased in rapidity, until for a few minutes the roar would be continuous. Then there would be a lull, and the sharp crack of the musketry would be heard, as the skirmishers pushed forward through the timber. Now the scattering musketry fire increased into crashing volleys; as more and more troops became engaged, the volleys developed into one continuous roar, like the roll of distant thunder.

Within a few minutes we became aware by sight, as well as by sound, that a bloody battle was in progress; a constant stream of wounded men was coming back to the field hospital in the rear. Many were but slightly wounded and still clung to their muskets as they hurried back to have their wounds dressed. They would stop on their way, for a moment, hastily to tell how they were "driving the Johnnies" in the front. Others, more seriously hurt, were being helped along by comrades; while others, still more unfortunate, lay silent on stretchers as they were borne back by ambulance men and musicians. Soon, a number of ammunition wagons which had ventured too close to the front, came dashing by us to seek shelter behind a neighboring hill. They were followed shortly after by a dismounted cannon being dragged back for repairs. Now came a temporary lull in the musketry. The thunder of the artillery increased as if in compensation; but rising above all came the cheers of our comrades in the front, announcing that the opening engagement had ended in victory.

The pause in the musketry was of short duration. The enemy, largely reënforced, soon attacked in their turn, making desperate efforts to regain the ground that they had lost. Upon our side, more troops to the right and left came into action, and the battle was soon raging again with redoubled fury. The enemy in our immediate front seemed to have largely increased their artillery, and scattering shot and shell were dropping around us.

At length our First Brigade was sent into action. We soon followed, at double-quick, in close column by companies. Passing rapidly through the woods, we emerged upon the field a little north east of the old Dunkard church, and our Regiment deployed in line. The manœuvre was executed as though we had been on a parade ground instead of a battle-field. I have seldom seen it better done.

Immediately on our right and about one hundred yards to the front, was posted one of our batteries of twelve-pound brass guns. It had evidently been in action for some time. All of its horses were killed or crippled, and the gunners were just falling back before the advancing Confederate line of battle. To the left of the battery, and stretching off to the woods directly in our front, stood the remnants of a brigade, still stubbornly contesting the advance of the enemy's infantry. Our Regiment moved forward to the battery, the artillerymen at the same time returning to their guns. The Second Massachusetts took position to the right; the Twenty-Seventh Indiana came up on the left.

The Confederate infantry moved steadily across the corn-field, while the decimated brigade in its path fell back, step by step. We were obliged to wait before commencing fire, until they could be moved out of the way. Then we opened fire from one end of the line to the other. The enemy were handicapped by the fact that they were moving diagonally across our front, instead of directly toward us, and our fire was terribly severe, so it was not long before they broke and ran back to the woods. Immediately, however, another line was coming up, this time confronting us squarely. And now commenced the work in earnest.

Our position was in a stubble-field. The ground in front of us sloped gently downward, so that we were fifteen or twenty feet higher than the enemy. About a hundred yards in our front was a rail fence, beyond which lay another open field. The previous day, that field had contained a luxuriant growth of ripening corn; now it was cut by bullets and trampled by men and horses, until scarce a vestige of the crop remained.

For a time, the enemy came on rapidly, without firing a shot. Their right, like our left, was "in the air" and about even with us. They were as gallant fellows as ever moved to an assault. One could but admire the steady courage with which they approached us; great gaps being made in their lines at every discharge of our grape- and canister-laden twelve-pounders, and our bullets also wore them away at every step. A portion of these stern fighters reached the fence; none came farther. They there stopped and opened fire on our lines. From our higher ground we could see the steady stream of their wounded being helped to the rear. Still they held on, returning fire for fire; and we too were suffering terribly. At length the Confederates had been reduced to a mere handful; it was hopeless to hold on any longer, and they fell back toward the woods. But before they had reached there, another of their brigades was coming up behind them. The newcomers, however, halted and opened fire at nearly double the distance that their predecessors had taken. Soon they also began to waver, then suddenly broke, and joined their comrades in the flight to the woods.

As they all disappeared toward the timber, General Hooker rode up and ordered us to fix bayonets and pursue. With a whoop and hurrah our Regiment and the Twenty-Seventh Indiana started down through the corn-field, General Hooker himself leading like a captain. It was such traits as this that made him popular, even with those who did not think him fit for high command. We had passed fairly into the corn-field, which was literally strewn with the dead bodies of Confederates, when a staff officer rode up, and ordered us to get out of the way, for General Sumner wished to put in a division at that point. This was all that prevented us from assaulting a position with about a hundred and fifty men, which a few minutes later Sedgwick's Division, with five or six thousand, failed to carry.

We moved back out of the corn-field to our old position, and immediately after Sedgwick's Division came in from the northeast. As they moved forward in perfect line to the attack, they presented a splendid sight, even to old soldiers, and we had little doubt that they would sweep everything before them. They marched in three parallel lines, one behind the other, and about seventy-five yards apart. The brigade and field officers, aware of the peculiar danger of being on horseback in such a place, all marched with their men on foot. The only mounted officer in the entire division was old General Sumner himself, who rode a little in the rear of his first line. He was then nearly seventy years of age, perfectly grey but still proudly erect. As he stretched his tall form to its full height on his horse, in order to see what might be in front of his men, he was the most conspicuous object on the field, and undoubtedly was the target for every Confederate sharp shooter in sight.

No resistance of consequence was met until the advance brigade was out of sight in the woods, and the Second Brigade was just at the edge. Then a heavy musketry fire showed that the enemy had reformed their lines and were making a stubborn fight. Their artillery also now opened fire, and shells and round shot began to fall in our neighborhood. It soon became evident to us, who were spectators of the fight, that General Sumner's formation had been a serious mistake. His second and third brigades were exposed to a heavy fire from the enemy, yet they could not reply on account of the line in front of them. They soon broke up in confusion, therefore, and fell back out of range. The leading brigade held on for over half an hour, to the position that it had gained in the woods, when it also fell back, with but a small portion of the magnificent line which a short time before had so gallantly gone forward to the attack.

The remnant of our Regiment, together with portions of several other like commands, were now stationed at the edge of the woods behind a battery of artillery. There was little more active fighting, however, in that part of the field during the remainder of the day. At one time the enemy made an attempt to recover the lost ground in the corn-field, but the batteries easily drove them back to the woods. Soon after twelve o'clock we were relieved by fresh troops and moved a short distance to the rear. With the friendly aid of a rail fence we now built a fire, and prepared our dinner of hardtack and coffee, and remained quiet for the rest of the day. To the left the firing continued until late in the afternoon.

Many of our gallant boys laid down their lives that bloody day on the battle-field of Antietam. In the morning, our Regiment had taken into the fight twelve officers and not quite 300 enlisted men. The number was thus small because our wounded from Cedar Mountain had not yet rejoined us, and hard marching had sent others to the hospital. Of the twelve officers, we lost one killed and seven severely wounded. The Colonel had been hit in the head by a bullet, which had cut just deep enough to draw blood; while I had received a severe bruise from a spent ball. Of our 300 privates, we lost 194 in killed and wounded. The Twenty-Seventh Indiana on our left, had lost about half of its men; the Second Massachusetts on the right, had suffered in about the same proportion.

In my Company, of the thirty men whom I took into the field, two had been killed, two mortally wounded, and sixteen so severely hurt, that they were ordered to the hospital. Of all that Company, only one had escaped without the mark of a bullet upon his person or his clothes. Every one of our color-guard, composed of a corporal from each company, had been shot down before the battle was over. As its bearers fell, the flag had been passed along the line until it had come into the hands of one of my privates, Joseph Collins, who carried it the remainder of the day. The color-bearers of the enemy had been even more unfortunate. On our charge into the corn-field, our men picked up several of their banners that had fallen with their bearers.

When night at length put a merciful end to the battle, all along the line, both thoroughly-wornout armies were, I am sure, glad for the chance to rest. I know that I, for one, was completely exhausted. The sun had scarcely set before I had wrapped myself in my overcoat, and with my haversack for a pillow, was sound asleep, quite oblivious of the fact that the field of the dead was only a few steps away. In the morning we were early astir expecting a renewal of the fight. Our men threw away all of their old muskets, and armed themselves with the new Springfield rifles of the improved pattern, picked up on the battle-field. Ammunition and rations were issued, and every preparation made to receive the enemy. All was quiet, however, and so remained for the rest of the day. At about noon, General Franklin's Corps came up from Harpers Ferry and took position on our right.

During that afternoon I went over the corn-field that had been the scene of the hardest fighting the previous day. It was a sight which once seen could never be forgotten. The dead lay as they had fallen, and in such dreadful numbers! Several times had the ground been fought over; the bodies of brave men were so thickly strewn over it, that one might for rods have walked on corpses without touching the ground.

When we advanced our lines, the morning of the 19th, the enemy had disappeared. Only his picket line still remained, and that surrendered without resistance. These prisoners appeared to be dazed with discouragement; many of them seemed glad to have been taken. Like the thousands whom we had captured during the heat of the battle, they were destitute of clothing, and their haversacks contained nothing but raw corn.