The recent discussions of the battle of Antietam, Sharpsburg, as we call it, in the columns of The Sun, have been of great interest to
the participants in the battle. The incidents of the campaign of ’62 are as fresh in my memory as if they happened yesterday instead of forty-one years ago.
General Lee was asked after Appomattox by a prominent lady in Alexandria which battle he felt most proud of, and he answered: “Sharpsburg, for I fought against greater odds then than in any battle of the war.”
I doubt if any army on earth ever endured greater hardships or went through more than Lee’s army in the late summer and early fall of 1862.
On August 18 of that year our brigade, composed of the First, Seventh, Eleventh and Seventeenth Virginia Infantry, set its faces northward from Gordonsville. Every knapsack and all camp equipage were left behind, and in light marching order, with 60 rounds of ammunition, a blanket over our shoulders and five days’ rations in our haversacks, we headed for the Rapidan river. Those five days’ rations, which lasted us two days, were the last we drew until September 21.
The forced marches of August 28 and 29 to aid Jackson were a fearful ordeal, made as they were in the intense heat, with the roads deep in dust, but we reached Thoroughfare Gap in time, and the next day we fought the second battle of Manassas. Our men were so hungry that they gathered the crackers and meat from the haversacks of the dead Federals and ate as they fought. The next day we kept on to Chantilly and fought there; then, swinging to Leesburg, we struck for the Potomac. In all these weeks we had no change of clothing and we were literally devoured by vermin. We had no tents and slept on the ground, and slept soundly even though the rain was pouring in torrents. A prize fighter trains about two months to get himself in perfect condition, but we had been training in a more vigorous manner for nearly two years, and the men were skin, bone and muscle.
We lived on apples and green corn all of the time, and the soldiers began to drop out of the ranks at every halt. Then an order came for the barefooted men to remain behind and report in Winchester, and some thousands threw away their shoes. Every step our army made northward it became weaker. At last we stood on the long-dreamed-of banks of the Potomac. It was near Shepherdstown, and Maryland, my Maryland, met our gaze at last, which shone—
Fair as the gardens of the Lord
To the famished eyes of the rebel horde.
With a rush and a swing we passed through the “royal” city of Frederick, where we got scant welcome, up the dusty broad pike northward to Hagerstown, where the people received the ragged “Rebs” as if they were belted knights, with victory on their plumes. Here every soldier got as much as he could eat. Then there came the long roll and we fell into ranks and sorrowfully turned our faces southward, and went with a swinging gait toward the mountains to help D. H. Hill. We reached Crampton’s Gap after the fight was over, then retraced our steps, and on the morning of the 14th of September halted on the fields of Boonsboro, tired—and oh, so hungry. Apples and corn, corn and apples, were our only fare; eating them raw, roasted, boiled together and fried, they served to sustain life, and that was all.
That evening the battle of Boonsboro was fought. Our position was in a cornfield, and we held our line intact after repeated assaults. The next day we rested and gathered more corn and apples, and that night we marched until the Great Bear had reached its zenith in the heavens, and at dawn on the fateful morning of September 17th we reached the little village of Sharpsburg, and, forming in line of battle just on the right of where the National Cemetery is now located, we lay down and slept like logs, though the fight at the Dunkard Church on our left was raging in all its fury.
We moved several times in the course of the day, but at noon the final position was selected behind a post-and-rail fence near where we first stopped. The order to halt was given, the line formed, and the command to stack arms rang out. I was the only private left of Company A, Seventeenth Virginia, and, having no comrade to lock bayonets with, I ran mine into the ground. The only officer left in my command was Lieutenant Tom Perry. A mild-mannered, slow-speaking man was Tom, but he was a soldier, every inch of him. He never made a boast in his life, but in every battle in which the Seventeenth was engaged, there, in front of his company, stood Tom, calm and serene, as if waiting for the dinner-horn to blow.
Longstreet’s old First Brigade—that which charged through the abattis at Seven Pines, 2,800 strong—mustered only 320 men. The Seventeenth Virginia, the pride of Alexandria, Prince William, Fairfax, Fauquier and Warren counties, which at Blackburn’s Ford had 860 men in ranks, now stood in their tracks with 41 muskets
and 7 officers. My! my! What a set of ragamuffins they looked! It seemed as if every cornfield in Maryland had been robbed of its scarecrows and propped up against that fence. None had any underclothing. My costume consisted of a ragged pair of trousers, a stained, dirty jacket; an old slouch hat, the brim pinned up with a thorn; a begrimed blanket over my shoulder, a grease-smeared cotton haversack full of apples and corn, a cartridge box full and a musket. I was barefooted and had a stonebruise on each foot. Some of my comrades were a little better dressed, some were worse. I was the average, but there was no one there who would not have been “run in” by the police had he appeared on the streets of any populous city, and would have been fined next day for undue exposure. Yet those grimy, sweaty, lean, ragged men were the flower of Lee’s army. Those tattered, starving, unkempt fellows were the pride of their sections—
Whose ancestors followed
Smith along the sands,
And Raleigh around the seas.
About noon we were ordered to fall in, and in a few moments Toombs’ skeleton brigade took position on the left overlooking Antietam bridge. Burnside had commenced his attack. Just at this moment a battery dashed by us—the Rockbridge Artillery—and I had only time to wave my hand at my old school-fellow, Bob Lee, a private in the battery, the son of our Commander-in-Chief, when it disappeared down the hill.
And then Toombs got to work in earnest. No words can describe the gallant fight he made to keep Burnside from crossing the bridge. Again and again he drove back the blue columns, and with nothing behind him for support. Those Georgians fought on until their gun barrels were too hot for the naked hands.
On our left it seemed as if Hades had broken loose. The volumes of musketry and noise of the artillery were mingled in one vast roar that shook the earth, and this kept up for nearly two hours. The whole of our front and left was wrapped in an impenetrable cloud of smoke. Then came a lull, and I was sent to the village with canteens to get water. I had a clear view from the steeple of a church which I climbed, and then hurried back and said to Colonel Corse, of my regiment: “We are lost, Colonel; we haven’t a single reserve.”
“Is it possible?” he said.
I told him it was a fact; there was not a solitary Confederate soldier in sight. He clenched his teeth like a bulldog, and as the news ran along the line each man knew we had to stay there and, if needs be, die there.
As we lay there waiting for the attack that all knew must come, every man in the ranks wondered why it was delayed; I had seen from my perch in the town, that there was a great force of Federals near Burnside bridge, and that our thin line could not stand long against a determined attack. Our attention was given to the fighting on our left, which had broken out with redoubled fury. About 3 P. M. we received a shock, for the remains of Toombs’ Georgians came tearing down the hill, and then all the batteries across the bridge opened and swept the hill where we were lying. Every one of our batteries limbered up and returned, leaving the single line of infantry to brave the storm.
In about half an hour it came. Then the artillery was silent, and the infantrymen, who had lain there face downward, exposed to the iron hail, now arose, placed their cartridge boxes in position, rested their muskets on the lower rail, and with clenched teeth, fast beating hearts and hurried breath, braced themselves for the shock. The fence was not built on the top of the hill, but some fifty feet from the crest; consequently we could not see the attacking force until they were within pistol shot of us. We could hear the rat-a-plan of their drums, the stern commands of their officers, the muffled sound of marching feet.
Colonel Corse gave but one order—”Don’t fire, men, until I give the word.” As we lay there with our eyes ranging along the musket barrels, our fingers on the triggers, we saw the gilt eagles of the flagpoles emerge above the top of the hill, followed by the flags drooping on the staffs, then the tops of the blue caps appeared, and next a line of the fiercest eyes man ever looked upon. The shouts of their officers were heard, urging their men forward. Less brave, less seasoned troops would have faltered before the array of deadly tubes leveled at them, and at the recumbent line, silent, motionless and terrible, but if there was any giving away we did not see it. They fired at us before we pulled trigger and came on with vibrant shouts. Not until they were well up in view did Colonel Corse break the silence, and his voice was a shriek as he ordered:
All the guns went off at once, and the whole brigade fire seemed to follow our volley, and the enemy’s line, sadly thinned, broke and
went over the hill. Every man in our line began to load his musket with frenzied haste. Only three or four of the Seventeenth were shot, the fire of the enemy being too high.
We had barely loaded and capped the muskets when the blue line came with a rush and we fired now without orders. Before we could load a third time the two lines of battle of the Federals, now commingled as one solid bank of men, poured a volley into us that settled the matter. It killed or wounded every officer and man in the regiment except five, of whom I was fortunate enough to be one.
Just as the bluecoats were climbing the fence I threw down my musket and raised my hand in token of surrender. Two or three stopped to carry me back to the rear. The rest kept on, urged by their officers, in the direction of the village of Sharpsburg.
Major Herbert and Lieutenant Perry made a dash for the rear and escaped. I and a private named Gunnell, of the Fairfax Rifles, were the only prisoners; the rest of the regiment lay there motionless in their positions. The men were either lying down or kneeling—the wounds were dangerous or deadly. But for the protection afforded by the fence I do not believe that a single man of the regiment would have escaped alive.
In conversation with Doctor Macgill, of Hagerstown, Md., shortly after the war, he told me that two days after the battle he visited the spot, having had some friends in the Alexandria regiment of Kemper’s brigade, and that the fence was literally a thing of shreds and patches.
Our captors hurried us off. When we reached a hill in the rear we stopped to rest. My guard said to me:
“It’s all up with you, Johnnie; look there.” I turned and gazed on the scene. Long lines of blue were coming like the surging billows of the ocean. The bluecoats were wild with excitement, and their measured hurrah, so different from our piercing yell, rose above the thunder of their batteries beyond the bridge. I thought the guard was right, that it was all up with us, and our whole army would be captured. We, Yank and Reb, were sitting down taking a sociable smoke when all at once we were startled as if touched by an electric shock. The air was filled with bursting shells, as if a dozen batteries had opened at once from the direction of Sharpsburg, and while we stood gazing we saw emerging from a cornfield a long line of gray, musket barrels scintillating in the rays of the declining sun and the Southern battle flags gleaming redly against the dark background. They seemed to have struck the Federal advance on
the flank. From the long line of gray a purplish mist broke, pierced by a bright gleam here and there, and the noise of the volley sounded like the whirr of machinery.
In an instant the whole scene was changed. The triumphant advance, the jubilant shouts, the stirring beat of the drums, the mad, eager rush of the forces in blue were stayed, and back they came, without order or formation, and we joined the hurrying throng, not stopping until we reached the valley near the bridge.
The attacking force was that of General A. P. Hill. It was Stonewall Jackson who saved the Army of Northern Virginia from disastrous defeat, as he had done at the first Manassas, at the seven days’ battle at Richmond and later on at Chancellorsville.
McClellan’s dispatch to Burnside early on the morning of the 17th to hold the bridge, “If the bridge is lost all is lost,” made General Burnside overcautious. When he received orders to attack at noon he allowed Toombs, with less than 400 men, to delay the crossing of the Ninth Corps for three hours. Had Burnside followed Napoleon’s tactics at Arcola, and rushed his men across the bridge, he would have ended the war then and there, and been hailed by the North as the greatest general of the New World.
I asked my captors what command our regiment was engaged with. He answered Fairchild’s New York Brigade. General Fairchild’s report of the battle shows what a fight that frazzle of the old First Brigade put up.
I have often been asked about the rebel yell. I have always answered that we Rebs were savage with hunger, and men always “holler” when hungry.
Washington, D. C., September, 1903.