A High Private's Account of the Battle of Sharpsburg
Paper No. 2 (Conclusion)
Late in the evening the column halted near Sharpsburg, a little village nestling at the bottom of the hills, a simple country hamlet, that none outside, save perhaps a postmaster, ever heard of before, and yet which in one day awoke to find itself famous, and the hills the locality where Rip Van Winkle lived his days. One could almost imagine he saw the shambling figure, followed by his dog, disappear up the far street, and from just such a casement Dame Gretchen must have fired her farewell shot at her lazy, good for nothing spouse.
The hamlet was deserted now -- more so probably that our Sweet Auburn, the loveliest village of the plain, ever was -- not a soul was to be seen, the setting sun tinged the windows with its glowing rays, and made more vivid the dark background of the high hills beyond. The setting sun, ah, many eyes, all unconscious, looked their last upon the glowing incandescence as they stood on the crest watching the bright luminary going down.
"O, setting sun awhile delay,
Linger on sea and shore,
For thousand eyes now gaze on thee,
That shall not see thee more;
A thousand hearts beat proudly now,
Whose race like thine is o'er."
The 17th of September found our command in a line in the rear of Sharpsburg; we are very tired with marching, exhausted with excitement, and savagely hungry. Had we been well fed, and with nothing to do, there were none who could not have lain at ease, and enjoyed the fine view -- so rich and gaudy in the autumn coloring -- with the fair garden country spreading out all around, looking its best in the sweet morning air. But sentiment could find no place in a man who had nothing but the memory of what he had eaten to fill his stomach, and as we felt our limp haversack, the sole absorbing thought crossed each man's mind -- where is our breakfast, or our dinner, or our supper coming from? The men began to grumble at being forced to fight on an empty stomach, and a long line of famine drawn faces and gaunt figures sat there in the ranks, chewing straws merely to keep their jaws from rusting and stiffening entirely. Just at this time a cow -- a foolish, innocent, confiding animal -- not knowing soldiers' ways, came grazing up to our lines; a dozen bullets crashed through her skull, and a score of knives were soon at work, in an incredibly short space of time, quicker indeed that you could skin a rabbit, the hide of the female bovine was pared and cut off, and a ravenous pack of wolves could not sooner have laid bare her bone than did these hungry soldiers. Everything was eaten, even her tail, that was but an hour ago calmly and easily switching the flies from her back.
Some soldier skinned it, burnt it over the fire, and picked it clean in a few minutes. There were no cooking utensils in the whole regiment, not a single skillet or frying pan, indeed our rations of green corn and apples left us but little need for those articles, but something must be done to cook the beef. The soldier is an inventive genius, he can prepare and dress anything, even to making "stone soup," which by the way happened thus:
A hungry looking, lank, angular specimen of the genus Reb, appeared at the farm house of a widow lady -- not far from Gordonsville, who was noted for her niggardliness and parsimony. So close indeed, and mean was she, that a placard was nailed on her gate with the inscription: "No soldiers fed or housed here."
The best foragers and pirooters of the brigade met their match in this old woman, and returned defeated from the field, and at last she was left in undisturbed possession of her place and no hungry soldiers ever were fed at here table.
When this animated picture and figure of famine stalked in her yard, the old lady was prepared for hostilities immediately.
The sad faced defender of the soil, asked in a humble way: "Please marm, lend me you iron pot?" "Man, I haven't no iron pot for your!" "Please marm, I wont hurt it." "You don't pose I am agwine to lend you my pot to carry it to camp, do you? I would never see it again. Go over there where Mrs. Hanger lives, she will lend hers to you."
"Marm I will bring your pot back, hope I may die if I don't. I won't take it out of the yard and will kindle the fire here."
"What do you want with it?" said the old lady.
"I want to bile some stone soup," answered the soldier, looking plaintively at the questioner.
"Stone soup! What's stone soup?" and the old lady's curiosity began to rise. "How do you make it, and what for?" Marm," replied the sad faced infantryman, "ever since the war began, the rations have become scarcer and scarcer, until they have stopped entirely, and we uns have to live on stone soup to keep from starving."
"Stone soup, how do you make it?" "Please marm you get a pot with some water, and I will show you.
"We biles the stone."
The ancient dame trotted off, full of wonder and inquisitiveness to get the article, and by the time she returned the soldier had kindled a fire, and setting the kettle on the pile, waited for the water to boil, taking a rock about the size of his head, he washed it clean and put it in the pot, and then he said to the old woman who was peering in the pot: "Marm, please get me a small piece of bacon, about the size of your hand, to gin the soup a relish."
The old lady again toddled off and got it for him. Another five minutes passed by.
"Is it done?" inquired the woman.
"It's most done; but please marm give me a half a head of cabbage just to make it taste right." The cabbage was borough. Ten minutes came and went.
"It is done, now?" asked the wondering daughter of Eve.
"Mos' done; but please marm give me a half a dozen potatoes, just to give it a final flavor." "All right," answered the widow, who by this time had become deeply absorbed in the operation. The potatoes followed the cabbage and meat. Another ten minutes was numbered in the cycle of eternity. "Isn't it done yet, 'pears to me that it's a long time a cooking," remarked the antique mother, who was getting impatient.
"Mos' done; jest get me a handful of flour, some pepper and salt, one or two termartusses, and it will be all right."
These things were brought, and after bubbling in the pot awhile, the utensil was lifted off the fire, the soldier pulled his knife, with spoon attachment, and commenced to eat. The economical widow went in, got a plate, came out, and filled it, the first spoonful she tasted she exclaimed, "Why, man, this is nothing but common vegetable soup."
"So it is marm," responded the soldier, who was making the best time he could; "but we uns calls it stone soup."
The old lady carried her pot in the house, learning that the ingenuity of a soldier can compass anything.
But I will return to my mutton -- or, rather, my beef. The men were no to be balked of their meal because there wasn't a cooking range or French cooks to prepare their dinner; they hunted about and found flat stones, that were lying around in the greatest profusion, and broiled their beef on them, and then went at it tooth and nail. It would be an interesting study to know how much meat some of those men ate -- enough, indeed, to hold his own in that line against a Pawnee or Piute Indian.
After this dejeuner, a squad of us went into Sharpsburg. The enemy's artillery had begun to play upon the village, and the many hills echoed and reechoed the thunder, the war music so common to our ears the last three months.
We stayed a short time, and on our return came down the road towards the Seventeenth. We were passing a group of soldiers lying behind a fence watching the flash of the enemy's artillery, which was on a high hill about a mile off. All at once a large twelve pounder shell from one of these very guns struck the ground in the front, and then, as if cast by a child's hands, rolled gently around the group, and there it rested, with the fuse spluttering and blazing. The effect was ludicrous. We did not stop on the order of going, but went at once. Every man jumped, hopped, ran, or rolled from that harmless looking little black ball, and did not stop until they were at a respectable distance, when lying flat down, they awaited the explosion. It soon came, and shattered a whole panel of fence by the force of its discharge. How thankful we were that the fuse was so long. Going back, we picked as best we could the fallen fruit which we forgot to carry when that shell came along. We lost our grapes, though.
The Yankees were preparing for their battle. On the heights, some two thousand yards away, fresh batteries would take their position and open; ours would reply, and so, as the hours of the forenoon wore on, the war clamor grew greater, and soon on our left the splashes of musketry, and then the steady, rattling discharges showed the battle was fairly joined.
The old cry soon came to us, "Fall in!" and, soon a line, we advanced and took our place and waited with clenched teeth and fearless front for the attack.
Our position was directly in front of the village of Sharpsburg, on a high hill, behind a new post and rail fence; the topography of the country and the configuration of the ground was peculiar, consisting of a succession of undulating hills and corresponding valleys. The elevation that we were on sunk rather abruptly to a deep bottom, and then rose suddenly, forming another hill, the crest of which was about sixty yards from the top of the eminence where we rested. Any attacking force would be invisible until they arrived on the top of the crest opposite, and in pistol shot distance, or what we call point blank musketry range.
On our front about a mile away was Antietam creek, spanned by a bridge. This was guarded by Toombs's Georgia brigade; which was only a skeleton command, being about one fifth of its full ranks.
Our army surrounded Sharpsburg in a semi circle, and we could lie there and hear and see the raging frenzied battle on our left. The reports of the cannon were incessant and deafening; at times it seemed as if a hundred guns would explode simultaneously, and then run off at intervals into splendid file firing. No language can describe its awful grandeur. The thousand continuous volleys of musketry mingle in a grand roar of a great cataract, and together merging, seemed as if the earth was being destroyed by violence, the canopy of the battle's fume, from this vast burning of gunpowder, rising above the battlefield in such thick clouds, that the sun looked down gloomy red in the sky, while the dust raised by the mass of men floated to the clouds.
Listen! the fight has commenced down at Antietam bridge, where Toombs lies with his Georgians. The Yankees have commenced to shell their front, which, we all know, is but a prelude to the deadlier charge of infantry.
The shells begin to sail over us as we lay close behind the fence, shrieking its wild song, a canzonet of carnage and death. These missiles howled like demons, and made us cower in the smallest possible space, and wish we had each a little red cap in the fairy tale, which, by putting on our heads, would make us invisible. But what is that infernal noise that makes the bravest duck their heads? That is a "Hotchkiss" shell. Thank goodness, it busted far in the rear. It is no more destructive than some other projectile, but there is a great deal in mere sound to work on men's fears, and the moral effect of the Hotchkiss is powerful.
The tremendous scream of this shell is caused by a ragged edge of lead which is left on the missile as it leaves the gun. In favorable position of light the phenomenon can sometimes be seen as you stand directly behind the gun of the clinging of the air to the ball. The missile seems to gather up the atmosphere and carry it along, as our globe carries its air through space. Men are frequently killed by the wind of a cannon ball. There is a law of Nature which causes the atmosphere to cling to the earth, or which presses upon it with a force on the surface of fifteen pounds to the square inch. Does the same law pertain to cannot balls in their flight?
The enemy are silent, but it is the calm that is but a prefix to a hurricane. It comes suddenly and musketry at the bridge breaks out fiercely; it rises and swells into a full compass; there is sharp work going on. In about an hour Toombs's brigade came rushing back, its lines broken, but its spirit and morale all right. It retreated to the village and was reformed and held in reserve to us.
We made ready and expected to see the victorious Yankees following hard upon the heels of the retreating Rebels, but to our astonishment an hour or two of absolute inaction followed; no advance nor demonstrations were made in our front, but on the left the battle was raging as fiercely as ever. What could it mean, we asked each other, but one could solve the question.
At last towards evening their shelling was renewed. A battery supporting the first brigade replied to it. Soon came the singing of the minnies overhead. There is a peculiar tuneful pitch in the flight of these little leaden balls; a musical ear can study the different tones as they skim through the space. A comrade lying next to me, an ameteur musician of no mean merit, spoke of this. Said he, "I caught the pitch of the minnie that just passed. It was a swell from E flat to F, and as it retrograded in the distance receded to D -- a very pretty change."
It was now getting late in the afternoon, and the men were becoming cramped from lying in their constrained position; some were moving up and down, some stretching themselves, for there was a cessation of firing in our front -- an interval of quiet. It was but a short time, for the guarded, stern, nervous voice of our officer, calling, "Quick, men, back to your posts!" sent every soldier into line. And then, as we waited each man looked along the line -- the slight, thin, frail line -- stretched out behind that crest of that crest to withstand the onset of solid ranks of blue, and felt his heart sink within him. Yet who could not but feel pride at such soldiers as these; they were the fleur de mille of the army. They had kept up in this campaign solely by an unquenchable pride and indomitable will. As dirty, as gaunt, as tattered as they looked, they were "gentlemen." One could say of them, as Marshal Villars had cried our with uncontrollable enthusiasm, as he witnessed the Scotch gentry fighting in the ranks under the Chevalier St. George at the battle of Malplaquet: "Pardi! un gentilhomme est toujours gentilhomme."
Yes, that thin string of tattered men, lying there with their bright rifles clasped tight in their hands, had marched onward, and onward, though their gaunt frames seemed as if they would sink at every step, they had followed their colors on the hot, dusty march, with fatigue relaxing their muscles, closing their eyes and deadening their wills, they had dragged themselves along to the battlefield with stone bruised feet; they had kept steadily on making their allotted march, famishing, and nearly naked, covered with dust, half devoured by vermin; they marched onward, still onward, through all the smoke of battle, through the torrid heat of a summer's sun; they had followed their flags through all of this with cheers like the songs of gods.
There was a grand patriotism, and abnegation of self, a sublime devotion to the cause they had espoused, displayed by these wearied, dust stained, ragged men, that will make the pages of American history shine with splendid lustre.
Our brigade was a mere outline of its former strength, not a sixth remaining. Our regiment, the Seventeenth, that once carried into battle eight hundred muskets, now stood on the crest, ready to die in a forlorn hope, with but forty-six muskets. My company, that often used to march in a grand review in two platoons of fifty men each, carried into Sharpsburg but two muskets (the writer and one other), commanded by Lieutenant Perry. Is it a wonder that we deliberately made up our minds to die on that hill, knowing what a force must be sent against us?
All at once, an eight gun battery, detecting our position, tried to shell us out, preparatory to their infantry advance, and the air around was filled by the bursting iron. Our battery of four guns took its place about twenty steps on our right, for our right flank was entirely undefended. They replied to the enemy. During the fire a shell burst not ten feet above where the Seventeenth lay, prone on their faces, and literally tore poor Appich, of Company E, to pieces, shattering his body terribly, and causing the blood to spatter over many who lay around him. A quiver of the form, and then it remained still. Another Hotchkiss came screeching where we lay, and exploded, two more men were borne to the rear; still the line never moved or uttered a sound. The shells split all around, and knocked up the dust until it sprinkled us so, that if it intended to keep the thing up, it threatened to bury the command alive.
Oh, those long minutes that we lay with closed eyes, expecting mutilation, and a shock of the plunging iron, with every breath we drew -- would it never end? But it kept up for fully fifteen minutes, and the men clenched their jaws tight and never moved; a line of corpses could not have been more stirless.
At last! at last! the firing totally ceases, then the battery with us limbered up and moved away, because, as they said, their ammunition was exhausted; but murmurs and curses loud and deep were heard from the brigade, who openly charged the battery with deserting them in the coming ordeal. It was in truth a desertion, for instead of throwing dreadful fire upon us, they should have laid low and waited until the infantry attack was made, then every shot would have told, every shell or solid shot a help -- but they moved away and left us.
An ominous silence followed premonitory of the deluge. The Seventeenth lay with the rest of the brigade, recumbent on the earth, behind the fence, with their rifles resting on the lower rails. The men's faces are pale, their features set, their hearts throbbing, their muscles strung like steel. The officers cry in low tones, "steady men! steady, they are coming Ready!"
The warming click of the hammers raised as the guns are cocked, run down the lines, a monetary solemn sound -- for when you hear that you know that the supreme moment has come.
The hill in our front shut out all view, but the advancing enemy were close on us, they were coming up the hill, he loud tones of their officers, the clanking of their equipments, and the steady tramp of the approaching host was easily distinguishable.
Then our Colonel said in a quiet calm tone, that was heard by all, "steady lads, steady! Seventeenth, don't fire until they get above the hill."
Each man sighted his rifle about two above the crest, and then, with his finger on the trigger, waited until an advancing form came between the bead and the clear sky behind.
The first thing we saw appear was the gilt eagle that surmounted the pole, them the top of the flag, next the flutter of the Stars and Stripes itself slowly mounting -- up it rose; then their hats came in sight; still rising, the faces emerged; next a range of curious eyes appeared, then such a hurrah as only the Yankee troops could give broke the stillness, and they surged towards us. "Keep cool, men -- don't fire yet," shouted Colonel Corse; and such was their perfect discipline that not a gun replied. But when the bayonets flashed above the hilltop the forty six-muskets exploded at once, and sent a leaden shower full in the breasts of the attacking force, not over sixty yards distant. It staggered them -- it was a murderous fire -- and many fell; some of them struck for the rear, but the majority sent a stunning volley at us, and but for that fence there would have been hardly a man left alive. The rails, the posts, were shattered by the balls; but still it was a deadly one -- fully one half of the Seventeenth lay in their tracks; the balance that is left load and fire again and again, and for about ten minutes the unequal struggle is kept up. The attacking force against the First brigade, as I learned, was a full brigade, three thousand strong, and against our little remnant is a full regiment. What hope is there? None. And yet for the space of a few rounds the combat is kept up, the combatants not over thirty yards apart. We stood up against this force more from a blind dogged obstinacy than anything else, and gave back fire for fire, shot for shot, and death for death. But it was a pin's point against Pelides' spear. Our Colonel falls wounded; every officer except five of the Seventeenth is shot down; of the forty-six muskets thirty-five are dead, dying or struck down; three, myself among them, are run over by the line in blue, and throw up our hands in token of surrender.
Two of them stopped to take our small squad in charge, and the rest of their line hurried forward towards the village. As we turned to leave we saw our whole brigade striking for the rear at a 2:40 gait. The South Carolina brigade on our left had given away, and the enemy swept on triumphantly, with nothing to bar his progress and save the village, the coveted prize, from falling into their hands; but Toombs' Georgia brigade, which had been driven from the Antietam bridge early in the forenoon, had reformed in our rear, and covered the hamlet.
When a farewell glance of the ground was taken there was a sad sight; there rested the line of the Seventeenth just as they had fallen.
The three prisoners were hurried to the rear, and on reaching the opposite crest found that our fire had been very destructive; each man had probably killed or wounded his man. On the ground surrounded by a group of officers and a surgeon was the Colonel of the regiment the had charged the Seventeenth. He appeared to be mortally hurt, and was deathly pale. Hurrying us back a few hundred yards on the top of a hill, out the reach of shot and shell, captured and capturers turned to look at the scene before them. As far as our eye could reach our forces seemed to be giving ground; and as line after line of the Yankee reserves pushed forward it looked dark for the Rebels -- it seemed to us as if Sharpsburg was to be our Waterloo.
A frightful struggle was now going on in the woods half a mile or so to our left. It appeared to us as if all the demons of hell had been unloosed -- all the dogs of war unleashed to prey upon and rend each other; long volleys of musketry vomited their furious discharges of pestilential lead; the atmosphere was crowed by the exploding shells; baleful fires gleamed through the foliage, as if myriads of fireflies were flitting through the boughs, and there was a fringe of vivid, sparkling flame spurting our along the skirt of the forest, while the concussion of the cannon seemed to make the hills tremble and totter.
But a change takes place in this panorama; a marvelous change, before our very eyes. One moment the lines of blue are steadily advancing everywhere and sweeping everything before them; another moment and all is altered. The disordered ranks of blue come rushing back in disorder, while the Rebels followed fast, and then bullet hitting around us caused guards and prisoners to decamp.
What was the import of this?
None could tell, but still the reflux tide bore us back with it. At last a prisoner, a wounded Rebel officer, was being supported back to the rear, and we asked him, and the reply came back; "Stonewall Jackson has just gotten back from Harper's Ferry, those troops fighting the Yankees now are A.P. Hill's division."
Well, we felt all right, if Old Stonewall was up, none need care about the result.
Still forward came the wave of gray, still backward receeded the billows of blue, heralded by warning hiss of the bullets, the sparking of the rifle flashes, the purplish vapor settling like a veil over the lines, the mingled hurrahs and wild yells, and the bass accompaniment over to our left of the hoarse cannonading. Back we went stopping on top of every rise of the ground to watch the battle. It was nearly night, the last gleam of the sun's rays struck upon the glass windows of the houses of the little village of Sharpsburg, and made them shine like fire, brighter, more vivid, than even the flames bursting from one house that had been set on fire by an exploding shell.
At last the bridge is reached -- the stone bridge that crossed Antietam creek -- the key point of the Federal position, the weak point in their line, the spot so anxiously watched by McClellan, for he sent repeated dispatches to Burnside late that evening, as A.P. Hill bore back the advancing tide -- his order was: "Hold on to the bridge at all hazard; if the bridge is lost all is lost."
Here was the point Toombs' Georgians made such a gallant defence of the river early in the forenoon, and the dead lay thick all around.
But the battle in our front ceased suddenly, though on other parts of the field it still kept up. As we approached the bridge we were astonished to see so many troops -- not a man under ten thousand said my comrade -- and they were all fresh troops. Certainly, there was no danger of Burnside losing the bridge, with all those splendid soldiers ready to defend it. Had those men advanced early in the day, instead of being held back, it would have been a black day for the South, and the Yankees would have gained a glorious victory, for we had no reserves, and A.P. Hill was miles away in the morning.
The ground all about the bridge was covered with the dead and wounded, for the Yankees had established a sort of field hospital here, and the desperately hurt in the immediate front were left at this point. And, besides, a fierce struggle had occurred between Toombs and Burnside's corps, and though short it was sharp and bloody. The dead were many. A group of four figures in blue lay together just as they had fallen -- all killed by the explosion of a single shell. One of the Georgians lay on his face with his body almost in two parts, looking as if he had been run over by a train of cars; a solid shot had struck him in the centre of the body. Another of Toombs's brigade was shot just as he was taking aim; one eye was still open, while the other was closed, and one arm was extended in a position of holding his rifle; which lay beside him on the ground. Death had been sudden, instantaneous and painless. The gun had been fired; a spasmodic contraction of the fingers had probably pressed the trigger and set loose the prisoned missile.
Night came at last, stopping the carnage of the dreadful day, and the tender, pitiful stars shone in the vast dome above and looked down upon the scene of desolation and death. The firing had ceased, and only the sound of the groans, unheard before, of the stricken, the maimed, the dying, and a murmuring breeze stealing across the hills in plaintive sympathy.
We were carried on the other side of the steam and placed among our other prisoners taken in the battle -- representatives from every command in our army -- numbering some five hundred, with about a dozen officers. A guard being placed around us, every man's freed spirit was soon soaring away wherever his fancy led him, and slumber for a time held all in her silken chain.
Source: Southern Historical Society Papers Volume XI. Richmond, Va., January, 1883. No. 1
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