Friday, February 14, 2020

"Foolishing Brave": Lt. Col. William Holmes and the Defense of the Burnside Bridge

     As the sun was setting on the hills around Sharpsburg, Maryland, on September 15, 1862, the roughly 400 men of the 2nd and 20th Georgia Infantry regiments took position on an imposing bluff approximately 50 feet above the Burnside Bridge. Immediately, the Georgians prepared their defensive positions, felling trees and piling fence rails to create a hasty breastwork. The 20th Georgia defended the western opening of the bridge itself and positions north of it. Lieutenant Colonel William R. Holmes' 2nd Georgia stretched the line south of the bridge along Antietam Creek.
     September 17, 1862, is the most documented day of William Holmes' forty-plus year life. The native Georgian was born in 1821 (his birthday is not known). In Burke County, he became a prominent physician before leading Co. D of the 2nd Georgia off to war in 1861. The men of the 2nd greatly respected Holmes and he received a promotion to be the regiment's lieutenant colonel in April 1862.(1) On August 30 at the Battle of Second Manassas, Holmes' leadership inspired his men and filled them with confidence in him.(2)
William Holmes' attempted to repel this Federal charge across Burnside Bridge with an attack of his own
     While Holmes' Georgians prepared their positions above the Burnside Bridge, the lieutenant colonel talked freely of his anticipated demise. "Colonel Holmes was often heard to say he would be slain in battle, and if so, that he did not care what became of his body." Holmes was unmarried and only had a mother and aunt back home. When he fell, as Holmes believed he would, he desired that his horse, "a beautiful blood bay, should be sent home to his aunt."(3) On the morning of September 17, as the sounds of battle erupted to the north and the coming battle seemed to be closing in on Holmes and his soldiers, he declared to his superiors that "he would hold the Bridge or Die in the ditch."(4)
     During the three Federal attacks against the Georgians defending the bridge, Holmes' leadership was on full display. He was, wrote one of his soldiers, "as brave a man as I ever saw. He was perfectly cool & calm & did not seem to know what the word danger meant."(5) Around noon, the last Union attack began. Two regiments, the 51st New York and 51st Pennsylvania, spearheaded the assault. Henry Benning, in immediate command of the two Georgia regiments, recalled at this time, "The combined fire of the [enemy's] infantry and artillery was terrific."(6) This took effect on the Georgians, who were losing men and running low on ammunition. According to one eyewitness, Lt. Col. Holmes even shouldered a rifle and personally struck down the color bearer of the 51st Pennsylvania.(7) Holmes' heroics and those of his men did little to stem the Union onslaught as the Federals began pouring across the bridge.
     Recognizing the futility of holding the bluff any longer, Benning's Georgians withdrew from their position. In a vain attempt to deprive the enemy of the bridge, William Holmes drew his sword and led a small contingent of the 2nd Georgia down the slope to the creek bank. Near the bridge's western end, Holmes, "with a cry of defiance shook his sword in the faces of our men for a moment, and then fell pierced by a dozen bullets."(8) Holmes' soldiers made several attempts to retrieve his body but the enemy's fire and proximity deprived them of that honor.
     Burnside's successful Federals that captured the bridge took notice of Holmes' body "Laying in a ditch." Captain James Wren of the 48th Pennsylvania wrote in his diary what happened next:

He [Holmes] was in full uniform & had a fine gold watch which one of our troops relieved him of & a good pair of Boots which was taken possession of by 2 [of] our troops, each man a boot. They then tossed up who should have boath. Captain Gilmour, of Co. H of our regiment, got a shoulder knot & the Buttons off his Coat was all cut off by the men as relics of the event.(9)

Capt. Joseph Gilmour of the 48th Pennsylvania
was one of the Federals to grab a "shoulder knot"
off Holmes' body.
This deprivation of Holmes' officer uniform likely led to his body being buried in an unmarked grave. Yet the Federals' treatment of Holmes' remains was not entirely negative.
     Private Robert Murray of Holmes' 2nd Georgia found himself a prisoner in the hands of the Federals following the retreat of Benning's men. His captors brought Murray to Holmes' limp body "to see if he could recognize him, as they thought it was Gen. [David R.] Jones." Murray replied that it was Lt. Col. Holmes. "The Yankess greatly eulogised Col. Holmes for his bravery, and one of them took his watch from his pocket and said he should keep it in remembrance of him."(10)
     As Holmes desired, his "beautiful blood bay" reached his aunt in Georgia.(11) But Holmes' body never arrived and lies buried in an unmarked grave somewhere in the vicinity of Sharpsburg. A headstone erected to his memory stands in the Waynesboro Confederate Cemetery in his home county.
     Whether enemy or friend, Holmes' bravery stood out on the early afternoon of September 17. Private Charles Frederick Terrill of Company C, 2nd Georgia, left perhaps the most fitting tribute to Holmes, writing that there was not "a braver man." He continued, "He was insensible to fear, bombs and bullets were to him a pastime. I verily believe that it was a matter of perfect indifference with him whether he was killed or not. He would not take care when he could. It may be said of him that he was foolishing brave."(12)

1. Carman (Clemens, ed.), The Maryland Campaign of September 1862, vol. 3, 234.
2. Tucker, Burnside Bridge, 134.
3. "The Georgians in Maryland," Georgia Journal and Messenger, October 15, 1862.
4. Tucker, Burnside Bridge, 133.
5. Ibid., 88.
6. OR, vol. 51, pt. 1, 163.
7. Tucker, Burnside Bridge, 116. While this assertion was made, it is impossible to prove its veracity. Many such claims were made during the Civil War but in the chaos of battle with thousands of soldiers firing simultaneously, it is impossible to know exactly who shot who.
8. Walcott, History of the Twenty-First Regiment Massachusetts Volunteers, 201.
9. Priest, ed., Captain James Wren's Civil War Diary, 91-92.
10. William A. Campbell letter of November 18, 1862, in Weekly Constitutionalist (Augusta, GA), December 3, 1862.
11. "The Georgians in Maryland," Georgia Journal and Messenger, October 15, 1862.
12. Tucker, Burnside Bridge, 125.


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