Sunday, September 20, 2009

Antietam 147th Anniversary - From the Cornfield to the Bloody Lane

We returned to the Cornfield to begin the morning portion of the anniversary hike. The unifying theme of this year’s hike was the Medal of Honor. Ranger Keith Snyder related the stories of men who earned their country’s highest honor on the field of Antietam. Twenty soldiers received the medal for actions at Antietam. Keith also noted the Confederate equivalent award, assignment to a Roll of Honor. Surviving veterans elected one member of each company in a regiment to the Roll. Not al regiments participated, and the Confederacy lacked the resources to produce a physical medal.

As Hooker’s initial assault cleared the Cornfield, Battery B, 4th US Artillery (Campbell) deployed astride the Hagerstown Turnpike. As the Iron Brigade went into action, their commander, John Gibbon, assisted in directing the fire of his old outfit. Jackson ordered his reserves forward. Hood’s Division swept into the Cornfield. The 1st Texas advanced along the western edge, their ranks decimated by a withering fire from the Iron Brigade and Campbell’s Battery to the north and west. A Federal soldier later retrieved their color in the midst of a heap thirteen bodies of the men who died to protect it.

The rest of the Texas Brigade wheeled toward the Hagerstown Turnpike and blazed away. Losses on both sides were terrific. The commander of Battery B went down in the hail of fire. A fifteen year old soldier, Johnny Cook, led his commander to safety, returned, and served on a gun crew during the hottest part of the fight. Another soldier, borrowed from the 23rd New York, found himself the lone survivor of his gun crew. Undaunted, he coolly loaded and fired on his own. Not satisfied, he rejoined his regiment and continued the fight. Both of these soldiers received the Medal of Honor.

On the opposite end of the Cornfield, near the East Woods, Law’s Brigade of Hood’s Division drove the Federals over the fence bordering the north edge of the field. The 2nd Mississippi regiment continued to advance and found themselves in a storm of shot and shell from front and flank. Federal reinforcements poured in and Hood’s Division relinquished their hard won position. The Cornfield had changed hands for the second time that day. The 2nd Mississippi regiment chose one man per company for its Roll of Honor. Keith read the names of each man aloud. Most of them gave their lives at Sharpsburg.

John Hoptak set the scene following the struggle for the Cornfield, when Edwin “Bull” Sumner rode onto the field and led Sedgwick’s Division to disaster in the West Woods. John has a way of evoking sympathy for the scapegoats of the Army of the Potomac at Antietam. Had Sumner been released earlier in the morning as he desired, and with his entire corps, perhaps his assault would have met with more success. John did not absolve Sumner, however, of the chaos wrought by the formation of Sedgwick’s Division in its attack, which he demonstrated physically, organizing our group into three successive lines.

After a short break, we moved on to Bloody Lane. Here again, French’s Division stumbled into the attack in three successive lines. Here we walked in the footsteps of the 5th Maryland Regiment. The sunken road, invisible at first, rises into view as you crest the higher ground in its front. The chilling aspect of rifles rested on fence rails awaiting the soldiers of French’s Division as they marched over this same ground truly comes home as you move in their footsteps. Ranger Brian Baracz, who provides much of the tactical detail at each stop, relates that Colonel Gordon of the 6th Alabama claimed the entire Federal front line fell at the first fire. Brian builds a comprehensive picture of the events of this chaotic battle using carefully selected anecdotes in the words of the soldiers themselves. That French’s units did not disintegrate entirely is a tribute to the bravery of these men and their officers. Keith described the heroism of Lieutenant Charles Tanner of the 1st Delaware, who advanced under the withering fire from the lane in an attempt to save his regiment’s colors from capture. He was wounded in the process, but did save the colors, and received the Medal of Honor for his bravery.

As French’s Division ground to a halt before this withering fire, Richardson’s Division assaulted the Bloody Lane to their left. In front of the Irish Brigade, about 100 yards from the lane, stood a fence that threatened to impede their advance. Private Samuel Wright recklessly exposed himself, tearing down the fence, doubtless saving many lives that may have been sacrificed in crossing the obstacle under fire. The Irish Brigade slugged it out with G.B Anderson’s men at a distance of perhaps 30 yards. In the confusion that ensued among the Confederate defenders of the lane as one officer after another was shot down, a misunderstood command resulted in the withdrawal of Rodes Brigade, and the entire position collapsed. Richardson, while attempting to organize another assault to carry the day, was wounded by an artillery shell before he was able to do so.

Later in the day, the VI Corps arrived to shore up the Federal defenses on this part of the field. Irwin’s Brigade faced the remnants of D.H Hill’s division on the Piper Farm. Why he ordered the 7th Maine regiment forward to attack rebel positions that had resisted much stronger assaults earlier in the day is beyond understanding. Perhaps he was drunk, as Major Thomas Hyde, commander of the 7th Maine, alleged afterward. The Maine men never had a chance, and suffered heavy casualties to no good purpose. But as Keith explained, the bravery and coolness under fire displayed by Major Hyde earned him a citation for the Medal of Honor. Richard Curran, an assistant surgeon in Irwin’s Brigade, also earned the medal on this part of the field, recklessly exposing himself far more than his responsibilities required to aid the wounded left in the wake of Irwin’s disastrous assault order. A sad close to the action on the northern end of the battlefield, and yet heroism and compassion still rise above the folly of this final act at the Bloody Lane in the battle of Antietam.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Morning in the Cornfield

Morning in the Cornfield. A gray dawn. The rain, heavy at first, tapers off to a drizzle. Rain quiets the crowd and adds a somber tone to the scene, already heavy with the memory of sacrifice 147 years ago today. Rangers Keith Snyder, Brian Baracz, and John Hoptak read from diaries, letters, and reports of men who survived this fight, “the very vortex of hell.”

Battery B, John Gibbon’s old outfit, the man who trained the Iron Brigade. Their fire tore through Confederate ranks, knocking dirt, rocks, fence rails, and men about with each discharge of canister. Keith describes this moment in the chaos of battle so you can almost see it.

We move on the fence bordering the northern edge of the Cornfield and move south through the “corn.” A ranger reads from a soldier’s account – “Men I cannot say fell; they were knocked out of ranks by the dozen.” Soldiers of the 12th Massachusetts, which lost 67% of its strength that morning in less time than I will it take to write this post, describe a scene of complete horror. Both sides stand toe to toe, blazing away with equal abandon. When the morning waxes in to afternoon and fighting on this part of the field subsides, over 2000 men lie in the Cornfield and surrounding woods.

Ranger Keith Snyder reminds us we are standing on sacred ground. “If you don’t think so,” he says, know that only two days ago a soldier of New York, whose remains were found in the northwest corner of the Cornfield, departed for Saratoga National Cemetery in his home state, to be buried there with full military honors. This soldier, and so many others like him in his generation and our own, has earned our undying gratitude for laying his life on the altar of freedom. And so we gather today and remember.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

"Squawk Boxes"

If you have been touring battlefields as long as I have, you have listened to more than your share of recordings over a tinny speaker scattered around the auto tour routes of our national battlefields. I call them "squawk boxes." Sadly, many of these no longer work, and I wonder if the parts to repair them are still available. On my recent trip to Petersburg National Battlefield, almost all of them were broken. I won the dollar in the picture from my friend when I bet the next squawk box would be out of order.

I don’t recall many of these at Gettysburg, but one stands out that was installed on Oak Hill near the observation tower. The narrator described how the XI Corps line was “smashed” by Jubal Early’s Division. The narratives may not have weathered the test of time well, and might seem a bit camp to modern ears, but they bring to mind the days when my Dad first introduced me to these places. For me, they are as integral a part of the landscape as the cannon, rail fences, and monuments.

My favorite squawk box of all time stands along the line of artillery pieces facing the Hornet’s Nest at Shiloh. “Get every gun you can find,” the narrator booms, quoting General Ruggles. This one still worked four years ago when I visited Shiloh – impressive considering I first listened to it almost twenty years before. Antietam has one at the Cornfield tour stop. I am planning to spend Thursday there for the all day anniversary hike, so I’ll be sure to check on it.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Petersburg: Battery 5 and the Dimmock Line

From Petersburg

The Federal Eighteenth Corps, under William F. “Baldy” Smith, crossed the James and advanced on Petersburg., supported by Augustus V. Kautz’s cavalry division. As his troops approached the Dimmock Line, the main defenses of Petersburg, Smith discovered they were lightly manned and determined to attack on a broad front with dispersed formations to minimize casualties.

PGT Beauregard, in command of the rebel forces defending the city, scrambled for troops to man its fortifications. Lee, with the Army of Northern Virginia, remained north of the James, unwilling to uncover Richmond until he was certain about the destination of the majority of Grant’s forces. Beauregard would have to defend the city’s fortifications, known as the Dimmock Line, with a scratch force consisting of Henry Wise’s Brigade and reinforcements rushed to the scene from Bermuda Hundred.

Battery 5 (see slideshow) guarded the western face of a salient in the Dimmock Line jutting northward along the bed of the Petersburg and City Point Railroad. Without sufficient supporting infantry, the battery itself was indefensible. Smith’s troops attacked near dusk. They overran Battery 5 and large portions of the Dimmock Line, but failed to advance beyond Harrison Creek (see slideshow) to the west. Beauregard positioned his reinforcements on high ground along Harrison Creek and braced for another assault on the following day. Fighting from these new positions, the rebels gained enough time to establish a permanent line along the Jerusalem Plank Road farther west.

Today, the Petersburg Visitors Center stands nearby the remains of Battery 5. The fortifications are well preserved and offer an excellent example of the forts both armies used to position batteries at various points in their lines at Petersburg. In the woods just beyond Battery 5 stands the Dictator (see slideshow), a monstrous Federal seacoast mortar used to shell batteries north of the Appomattox River during the later stages of the siege.

South of Battery 5, and the next stop on the tour route, lies Confederate Battery 8, renamed Fort Friend after it s capture by troops of the USCT during the mid-June fighting. This fort offers a study in reversing works, as the Federals refaced the ramparts and enclosed the position once they captured it.

From Petersburg

Monday, September 7, 2009

5th New York (Duryee's Zouaves) Commemoration

From 5th New York

The men of the Co. A, 5th New York Infantry (Duryee’s Zouaves) marched quietly, the lieutenant’s voice calling the cadence as they approached the regiment’s monument on the crest of the hill above Young’s Branch on the battlefield of Second Bull Run. The day is clear and hot, though perhaps not as humid as the August day one hundred forty-seven years ago when the regiment met its destiny atop this same hill.

Together with the 10th New York, another Zouave outfit, the 5th New York made up Warren’s Brigade of Porter’s Fifth Corps, Army of the Potomac. While Porter’s corps wasted its valor assaulting Stonewall Jackson’s position along the unfinished railroad in the area known as the Deep Cut, the 5th NY rested on the flank in reserve. Without warning, men of the 10th NY dashed past, fleeing the skirmish line in terror. The sledgehammer blow of Longstreet’s Corps was about to fall on the unsuspecting veterans of the 5th NY. Undaunted, they tried to form line. In their short and futile attempt to stem the tide of Longstreet’s assault, the 5th NY suffered 300 casualties of 500 men engaged.

Given the magnitude of their sacrifice at Second Bull Run, the veterans of the 5th NY saw fit to place their only monument atop that same ridge where they left so many of their comrades behind. In continued remembrance of their sacrifice, current members of the 5th NY meet on the battlefield each year on the anniversary of the fighting. After a guest speaker set the scene, the unit came to attention and the color bearers rested the national and regimental flags in the corners of the wrought iron fence enclosing the monument. Each member present posted forward, saluted the monument, and called the roll of men of their assigned company who gave “the last full measure of devotion” at this very spot one hundred forty-seven years ago.

I am confident the veterans of the 5th NY would have approved of this humble ceremony commemorating their service in the central conflict of this country’s existence. Once they had passed on, their monument fell into disrepair, its location on the battlefield largely forgotten. In the 1980’s, reenactors of the 5th NY took it upon themselves to refurbish the monument and established the annual ceremony I attended this past week. Without the efforts of organizations such as Co. A, 5th NY, we might conveniently forget those they seek to commemorate. The way they have chosen to do so is, I think, uniquely fitting.

Friday, September 4, 2009

Bobby Horton

I purchase the Songs of the Union CD by Bobby Horton at the Petersburg Visitors Center this past weekend. The only period music I've ever owned was on the soundtrack to the Ken Burns film. I purchased this on cassette, because I had no CD player at the time (I also walked to school uphill both ways, etc., etc.). That wore out long ago, so the Gettysburg soundtrack has been my old standby for lack of anything else.

Those of you who play Talonsoft or HPS games by John Tiller will recognize Horton's music instantly. Incidentally, he also happens to be the man behind Ken Burns's soundtrack as well. I now find myself humming and singing these tunes through the day. I didn't really plan it this way, but for me the music opens a new path to understanding the soldiers of the Civil War.

For those of you interested in this sort of thing, Bobby Horton has produced 4 CD's of Union tunes, 5 Confederate, and the soundtrack to the NPS film at Vicksburg NMP. Check out his music on Amazon or at

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Preservation Victories

Given the recent news on the fate of the Wilderness Battlefield, I thought some good news from the perservation front might be in order. I received a notice from CWPT President Jim Lighthizer today announcing the succesful acquisition of development rights to land at the center of the Port Republic battlefield in the Shenandoah Valley. Jackon's Valley Campaign is one of my favorites and CWPT previously preserved and interpreted land at both Port Republic and Cross Keys. Congratulations to CWPT, the Shenandoah Valley Battefields Foundation, and all who contributed to this worthy endeavor. On a more personal note, I visited numerous battlefields this past weekend on my annual Civil War battlefield tour. The tour included several sites that represent major victories for battlefield preservation.

I last visited most the eastern and western front sites at Petersburg many years ago. The area around the Crater seemed much improved. Parking has been relocated to a less intrusive spot, and the overall viewshed was more open than I remember. As we toured the area, park work crews removed trees, opening the viewshed from Fort Morton and the fourteen gun battery toward the Crater. Visitors will soon be able to view the scene from the perspective of Ambrose Burnside. Forts Fisher, Wadsworth, and Gregg on the western front are in an excellent state of preservation and well maintained. Sadly, the brochure boxes at the latter two sites were empty, so be sure to check at the visitors center beforehand for a copy of these guides. We detoured five miles south from Fort Wadsworth to visit Reams Station, a site preserved largely by the efforts of CWPT. Though a bit overgrown, the core of the battlefield is preserved. Here visitors can stand in the apex of Hancock's earthworks along the old Weldon Railroad (current Halifax Rd.) in the very position where Mahone's forces captured a 12 pounder that now resides in the visitors center.

From Petersburg we raced north, running out of daylight, toward the North Anna battlefield in Hanover County. This park exists mainly through cooperation by CWPT, Hanover County, and a local quarrying company. You may have read about the earthworks here. I was a bit underwhelmed at first, comparing them to the massive earthworks of Petersburg. Nevertheless, as my friend pointed out, these are temporary infantry works. With that understood, they truly are remarkable examples of the fortifications used by the armies in the Overland Campaign. As the interpetive signs indicate, the works here along the western face of Lee's famous inverted 'V' position demonstrate varying methods of construction and placement of traverses, not to mention positions to the rear constructed for a brigade commander and his staff. Definitely worth a visit, and a great success story of cooperation and compromise between competing interests.

Casting the war behind fortifications aside, we ventured to Trevilian Station and Brandy Station the following day. Both of these battlefields exist through the cooperation of dedicated local preservationists and CWPT, along with the Civil War Trails program. The Ogg Farm, which saw heavy fighting on the second day of Trevilian Station, remains largely undisturbed, and recent Civil War Trails markers detail the action there. Brandy Station is simply one of the most beautiful places I have visited in Virginia. I could have been developed into a racetrack. Admittedly, Fleetwood Hill has been partly lost to a mcmansion, but the successes are substantial. The area around St. James Church features excellent viewsheds and an interpretive trail covering Buford's advance from Beverly Ford. The Graffiti House, home of the Brandy Station Foundation, offers a quick orientation film, guided battlefield tours during the Summer, and interesting examples of Civil War graffiti lining the walls of the house. The house was scheduled to be burned down when the former owner discovered the graffiti beneath the existing wallpaper. For the rest of the story, I encourage you to visit.

Last up on our weekend tour were the battlefields at Manassas. Many of you are aware of the recent landscape restoration efforts of the park. I recall walking along the Deep Cut years ago and the difficulty of understanding the fighting that occurred there due to the tree growth in the area since the Civil War. The slope from Featherbed Lane to the Deep Cut is now open ground, and the clearing has been completed almost to the Brawner Farm area, opening a viewshed that did not exist previously. While this land was preserved long ago, I am excited by the landscape restorations completed by the NPS both here and at Gettysburg (I'm sure there are other projects in the works as well). Let's hope these efforts, and the funding to support them, continue.

I'll be posting more about my tour within the next few weeks. In the meantime, I hope this provides a tonic for those of you, like myself, who were disappointed in the recent news about the Wilderness Battlefield.