Tuesday, October 27, 2020

After-Action Report of Maj. Hilary Herbert, 8th Alabama Infantry

Richard H. Anderson (courtesy of
National Park Service)
While the actions of Richard H. Anderson’s division on September 17, 1862 are generally known, pinning down specifics has always been difficult. Mostly, that is due to the fact that only one after-action report from the entire division (and it is not from Anderson himself) was reproduced in the Official Records. Robert K. Krick, in his essay about Confederates in the Sunken Road in Gary Gallagher’s The Antietam Campaign anthology illustrates the issue of determining the movements of Anderson’s division and its various brigades:

The disintegration of R. H. Anderson’s division can be seen distinctly from the official reports of its brigades: there are none. Not only did no official report for the division find its way into the published Official Records; there is also none for any of its six brigades, and only a report for one of the twenty-six regiments that made up those brigades. The report of Capt. Abram M. “Dode” Feltus, senior officer present with the 16th Mississippi, is the only one in that standard source out of a potential thirty-three documents. The lacuna frustrates historians; it also illustrates the paucity of command in the division on September 17 (and the haphazard way in which R. H. Anderson administered his division when he returned to its command).[1]

Volume Three of the Supplement to the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, published in 1994, contains a brief (and useless when it comes to Antietam) paragraph written by Col. William A. Parham, commanding Mahone’s brigade, and a report for Ambrose Wright’s brigade written by Col. William Gibson, third in charge of the brigade and its commander at the close of battle on September 17. These two sources bring the number of documents from Anderson’s division up to three out of the 33 Krick counted. Now, here is the fourth (Krick cites Herbert's report but since it was written in 1864 likely does not count it as an after-action report). It has been cited before in other works but has been used sparingly in studies of the Maryland Campaign.

Monday, October 26, 2020

Bombarding the Burnside Bridge

The 51st Pennsylvania's Lt. Col. Thomas Bell
fell mortally wounded from a Confederate artillery
round within 50 feet of the Burnside Bridge

Standing at the Burnside Bridge makes one feel cut off from the rest of the Antietam battlefield. Antietam presents great vistas that allow visitors to examine large swaths of the battlefield at once. Not so at the Burnside Bridge. There, after a long drive from the Bloody Lane on the auto tour, visitors stand and look into two hillsides, their visibility limited to just a few hundred yards. At the bridge, you are down in a deep swale that you can hardly see out of when you are in it and you can barely see into it unless you are standing on top of the hillsides that surround it.

Then how, in this secluded low point on the battlefield, do numerous Union accounts at the bridge mention coming under Confederate artillery fire? No Confederate guns were perched alongside Henry Benning’s Georgians overlooking the bridge and Antietam Creek. What is to account for these Federal tales of being struck by enemy artillery shells?

At least two mentions of this made their way into Ezra Carman’s chapter on the fighting at the Burnside Bridge. First, when relating the attack of Crook’s brigade, Carman mentions the left-wing of the 11th Ohio Infantry being exposed to a “severe fire of infantry and artillery.”[1] Later, after the 51st Pennsylvania and 51st New York carried the bridge, “Confederate guns on Cemetery hill threw their shell and shrapnel into the ranks of the [Federals] lying in the road near the bridge, killing and wounding many…”[2]

Monday, September 14, 2020

Christie, Cox, Crook, Confusion, and the Burnside Bridge

George Crook
Sometimes, going down rabbit holes of research will lead you to unexpected places. Occasionally, they lead nowhere. But every once in a while, you get rewarded. Hence, the case of Lt. Samuel L. Christie of Jacob Cox's staff during the Maryland Campaign.

It all started by reading George Crook's Autobiography. “About ten a.m.,” Crook remembered, “Capt. Christ on Gen. Cox' staff came to see me, and said, ‘The General wishes you to take the bridge.’ I asked him what bridge. He said he didn't know. I asked him where the stream was, but he didn't know. I made some remarks not complimentary to such a way of doing business, but he went off, not caring a cent. Probably he had done the correct thing.”[i] This story of miscommunication and poor intelligence has always astounded me. How could Crook, who had two companies of the 11th Ohio Infantry overlooking the Burnside Bridge since 7:00 a.m., not know where the bridge was located? And how could a staff officer of corps commander Jacob Cox not know the location of Antietam Creek or have an answer to Crook’s query? Attempting to answer these questions is beyond this post (if they are even answerable) but my affinity for staff officers in Civil War armies forced me to look into this Capt. Christ.

In his after-action report of the Battle of South Mountain, Cox personally thanks S. L. Christie and one other staff officer “for the devotion and courage displayed by them in the laborious and hazardous duties of the day.”[ii] Crook got the name wrong in his autobiography, but not by much. Thanks to some Googling and searching through various books in my library, I was able to find a Samuel L. Christie, born in 1837 and listed as a Captain of the 1st Kentucky Infantry.[iii] Fold3 has all Kentucky’s Compiled Service Records (CSR) digitized; I obtained more information about Christie here.

Friday, September 11, 2020

Alfred Pleasonton's Intelligence Contributions to the Battle of South Mountain

Alfred Pleasonton
Brig. Gen. Alfred Pleasonton is rarely thought of as an able intelligence officer. But like any Civil War officer, his share of bad days were occasionally intermixed with good ones. The evening of September 13, 1862 and the morning of the next day was one of his better performances in gathering and effectively utilizing intelligence.

In the hours before dusk of September 13, Pleasonton's cavalrymen drove Confederate cavalry from Hagan's Gap in Catoctin Mountain west of Frederick and then likewise secured Middletown from the gray horsemen. Pleasonton requested support from Ambrose Burnside in his rear. In the meantime, he pushed his troopers to the base of Turner's Gap in South Mountain itself.

At the crossroads town of Bolivar, Pleasonton dismounted some of his cavalry and pushed them up South Mountain north of the National Road. This movement produced minor skirmishing. Standing at the base of Turner's Gap, where the National Road crossed South Mountain, Pleasonton recognized the strength of the position and the difficulty any Federal force would have seizing it. Thus, Pleasonton also authorized reconnaissance efforts while in the area, from which he learned that two roads, one north of and one south of Turner's Gap, reentered the National Road on the west side of South Mountain behind the gap. Pleasonton believed these roads "would assist us materially in turning the enemy's position on both flanks."

Tuesday, August 11, 2020

To Spurn the Southern Scum? Union Soldier Motivation to Liberate Maryland in September 1862

Maryland's state flag at the time of the Civil War
Accounts abound of Union officers exhorting their men during the Battle of Gettysburg to fight ferociously as if the safety of their loved ones and their homes depended on it. On July 1, 1863, retreating Union cavalrymen passed through the ranks of the 97th New York Infantry and yelled, "There are no troops behind you! You stand alone, between the Rebel Army and your homes! Fight like hell!" Generals Abner Doubleday and Thomas Rowley reminded the men of the 150th Pennsylvania Infantry "that they were upon their own soil, that the eye of the commonwealth was upon them, and that there was every reason to believe they would do their duty to the uttermost in defence of their State." The common soldier of the Army of the Potomac likely did not need these reminders of what was at stake fighting on Pennsylvania--and thus, Northern--soil, but officers attempted to squeeze every bit of motivation they could out of their men for the fight around Gettysburg.

Though it had its share of war detractors, Pennsylvania solidly remained a supporter of the Federal war effort. Its neighbor to the south, Maryland, however, repeatedly had (and still has) its loyalty to the United States during the Civil War questioned. While Union officers rallied their men to fight defiantly at Gettysburg because of Confederate troops in Pennsylvania, it appears that little of this occurred in September 1862 when Confederate forces marched on Maryland's soil. Perhaps this was because of Maryland's lukewarm allegiance to the United States. At least, such was the initial perception in the Federal ranks.

Thursday, July 16, 2020

What's in a Formation? Examining John Hatch's Attack Formations at Second Manassas and South Mountain

John Porter Hatch
There are many books and sources related to the American Civil War (okay, that's an understatement). Despite that fact, it always amazes me how much we still do not know about that war and its participants and battles. As historians, we always need to ask the "why" questions to learn more: why did an event transpire the way it did and why is that event worth telling? Of the five Ws always worth asking, "why" is, at least to me, the most intriguing.

Sorry for my history soapbox here, but asking why something happened or why someone made one decision over another can lead us down interesting investigative paths that may force us to think about outside influences on a battlefield commander's decision-making process and what their intent may have been with the decision path they chose.

Take, for example, the attack of Fitz John Porter's Fifth Corps (with John Hatch's division attached) against "Stonewall" Jackson's lines at the Deep Cut during the Battle of Second Manassas on August 30, 1862. It's a story of incredible human drama and carnage, the largest Federal attack during that battle, and, it could be argued, it paves the way for John Pope's defeat on the Manassas battlefield. But it is also a unique attack during the Civil War. At its onset, Porter's command was stacked in a formation six lines deep with a frontage of approximately 400 yards. Sacrificing width for depth, the attack formation eventually expanded to a frontage of about 830 yards, more than double its initial width. Naturally, while examining this assault, the question came up in my mind: "Why is Porter's command in this formation for its attack?"

Friday, May 15, 2020

"Straggling is a crime which cannot be to strongly reprehended nor too severely punished": The Sixth Corps' Orders Against Straggling in the Maryland Campaign

William Franklin
The stay-at-home orders across the United States have provided me with time to dust off some old research files from long ago. Recently, I was sorting through what I found on a past trip to the National Archives, where I spent the day looking through the records of William B. Franklin's Sixth Corps in the Maryland Campaign. In one of the bound books containing these records, I found an unpublished copy of General Orders No. 30, issued within that corps on September 9, 1862. The first section of the order said:

"Until further orders the rear Guards will be 'Brigade rear Guards' and will be composed of half a Regiment to each Brigade. Commanders of rear Guards will be held responsible by their respt. Brigade Commanders for a vigorous performance of their duty, [with?] respect to Stragglers. The cmdg General has noticed a great increase of stragglers in the recent marches of the Corps. Straggling is a crime which cannot be to strongly reprehended nor too severely punished. Division Commanders will use all possible means to stop it in future."

This internal order was no doubt issued in response to General Orders No. 155, issued from Army of the Potomac headquarters earlier on September 9. This order's sole purpose was to clamp down on straggling within that army.(1) That same day, a circular went forth from army headquarters, holding "superior officers" accountable for the army's straggling problems. "Inattention and carelessness on the part of those in high rank has been one fertile source of the straggling and want of discipline which now obtain in the various corps," said the circular.(2)

Headquarters issued the orders. It was now up to the individual commanders within the column of march to end the straggling problem in the Army of the Potomac. General Orders No. 30 was the Sixth Corps' current answer.

Stay safe everyone!

1. OR, vol. 19, pt. 2, 226-27.
2. Ibid., 225.

Bonus: For statistics of straggling in the Ninth Corps' Kanawha Division on September 8, 1862, head over to Dan Vermilya's blog, Our Country's Fiery Ordeal.

Wednesday, April 29, 2020

Antietam Pronunciations

As the ink dried on the September 25, 1862, edition of the Louisville Daily Democrat, the word "Antietam" was still a new edition to the American lexicon. The battle was just eight days old and still occupied plenty of space in newspapers around the United States and the Confederate States.

Courtesy of learn2pronounce.com
The Louisville Daily Democrat's editors wanted to ensure that its readers could spell and pronounce "the name of the creek on the banks of which McClellan fought the greatest battle and gained the most glorious victory of the war." After all, they had to make up for the earlier misspelling of the word, which "the telegraph has shockingly mutilated."

"[T]he name is destined to be a household word in all time to come," they wrote. "The name is Antietam--pronounced An-tee-tam, with the accent on the second syllable."

Tuesday, April 7, 2020

Book Review: The Cornfield, Antietam's Bloody Turning Point, by David A. Welker

Alongside Spotsylvania’s Bloody Angle and Shiloh’s Hornet’s Nest, the fighting in David Miller’s Cornfield on the Antietam battlefield ranks as one of the toughest Civil War landscapes to make any sense of. It should then come as no surprise that it has taken over 150 years since the Battle of Antietam for a micro tactical work detailing the Miller’s Cornfield fighting to be published.
David Welker’s The Cornfield seeks to make sense of the back-and-forth actions that swept across the Miller farm on September 17, 1862, and stake its importance in shaping the outcome of the Battle of Antietam. The book briefly recounts the events of the Maryland Campaign leading up to the Battle of Antietam before giving the Cornfield action of September 16 and 17, 1862 a detailed tactical treatment. Despite the depth of the fighting which the book delves into, Welker brings the intense combat and tragedy of the Cornfield to a personal level by interspersing the text with various human interest stories.
Aside from utilizing the usual suspect of sources to craft his tactical narrative, such as the Official Records, Welker made good use of Joseph Hooker’s military papers and some of the thousands of letters that veterans wrote to Antietam’s “Historical Expert” Ezra Carman and the Antietam Battlefield Board.

Sunday, March 1, 2020

What did Antietam's Cornfield Look Like in September 1862?

     "How tall was the corn?" Many a visitor to Antietam National Battlefield asks this question when standing on the southern edge of the 24-acre Miller Cornfield. That simple question is typically followed up by a similar one: "Did the corn look the same as it does today?" The answers to these questions are never a one-word answer. Men of different heights viewed the corn's height differently. And today, we plant corn differently than farmers did in the nineteenth century.
     Alexander Gardner's photographic capture of the battlefield as it looked in September 1862 would be a useful tool to answer the above questions. Unfortunately, Gardner never photographed the Miller Cornfield, despite taking multiple pictures immediately around it. However, there are enough drawings and veteran sketches that we can reconstruct what the Miller Cornfield may have looked in September 1862.
     The two earliest depictions of any cornfield at Antietam come from Alexander Gardner and Alfred Waud. The Piper Cornfield is shown in the background of a photograph showing dead Confederate soldiers lying in the Bloody Lane...
and the Miller Cornfield can barely be seen (the dark line below the tops of the trees) in the background of Gardner's photograph of Knap's Pennsylvania Battery.

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

Sunday, February 9, 2020

Tour Photos from McClellan's Observation Post and the Pry Ridge

     The more I study the Battle of Antietam, I realize that the battlefield does not end where the National Park Service boundary does. Going even further, the battlefield is not almost entirely on the west side of Antietam Creek. With the exception of the action at Burnside Bridge, the creek is usually seen as a boundary of the battlefield. Instead, the creek actually splits the battlefield. There were plenty of events that transpired on the east side of the creek that influenced how the battle played out and many Union forces, mostly artillery, east of the Antietam that had an impactful role in the battle.
     Thankfully, over the past few years, I have had the opportunity of visiting battlefield sites that are privately owned. Specifically, both last winter and now this one, I have been able to walk the positions of the Federal artillery east of the Antietam. Last winter's hike prompted the Guns of Position series. Last weekend, thanks to fellow Battlefield Guides Tom Clemens and Joe Stahl, I was able to walk the Union artillery positions north of the Boonsboro Pike. I will refer you to the Guns of Position series for my takeaways from last year. For this hike, I wanted to share some of the photos I took from the various spots I visited. Enjoy!

McClellan's Observation Post