At a town meeting on July 24, 1862 one Congressman “made an earnest appeal for the immediate enlistment of an army to save the Government” while another “asked the young men...to follow him! And give aid to the government and the brave volunteers who enlisted last year”. Those who answered the two calls were to become the 107th NY Regiment and have the distinction of serving under two Representatives, Robert Bruce Van Valkenburgh and Lt. Colonel Alexander Samuel Diven.(1)
Both men served in the 37th Congress and aided in the organization of the 107th from Elmira, NY. Prior to the war, Van Valkenburgh was a lawyer in Bath and a member of the New York State Assembly until elected to the US Congress in 1860. Diven also was a lawyer and a member of the New York State Senate until elected to the US Congress in 1860. In addition, Diven was also an attorney, director, and builder of the Erie Railroad from Elmira to Williamsport which, ironically, was the rail route the regiment took on its way to Washington DC.(2)
The 107th arrived in the capital on August 15, 1862 where for the next three weeks it became part of the city defenses in General Amiel Whipple’s division. On September 6th the regiment received orders to break camp and join the Army of the Potomac en route to Frederick. The 107th was assigned to the 3rd Brigade (Gorgon/Ruger), 1st Division (Williams), XII Corps (Mansfield/Williams). After an arduous three day march, the regiment finally caught up with the XII Corps at Damascus. The 107th continued marching through the countryside of Maryland with Gordon’s brigade but arrived at South Mountain too late to participate in the battle at Turner’s Gap on September 14th. Lieutenant Colby wrote that he ‘heard the reports of distant artillary and once on the summit could see that a fierce engagement was going on across the valley and in the gorges of the opposite range of mountains”. That evening the regiment camped at Bolivar and resumed its march towards Sharpsburg in the morning with the rest of the XII Corps. The New Yorkers passed over the former day’s battlefield and saw that “the dead and wounded were still lying there in great numbers...slain in Battle, clothes have been torn off, their mangled and distorted bodies covered with soot, powder and blood”. The rapid march continued along Boonsboro Pike “on the back of the fleeing Rebels" and the regiment witnessed "broken litters, cast away clothes, greasy and gray Rebel guns piled in stacks, and now and then Rebels themselves either lain decently by the roadside, or left seemingly where they fell”.(3)
Stopping five miles from the Confederate line, the 107th set up camp until they were moved early in the morning of the 16th to near General McClellan’s headquarters at the Pry House. After a quiet day the regiment turned in. Later that evening, around 10pm, the 107th received orders to cross the Antietam Creek via the Upper Bridge. General Alpheus Williams put his division in motion and moved “along an unknown road...passed a stone bridge over the Antietam...branched off into the fields...it was so dark and the forests and woods so deep”. By midnight the XII Corps was positioned about one mile from General Joseph Hooker’s I Corps on the farms of Hoffman and Line along Smoketown Road. As the soldiers bedded down again, field hospitals were busily set up in the farmhouses and the ammunition trains and ambulances rolled by. Waiting in the rain and unable to sleep, the men could hear picket shots nearby. The sounds of impending battle surrounded them. The last thing Williams wrote on the eve of battle was “I shall not, however, soon forget that night; so dark, so obscure, so mysterious, so uncertain; with the occasional rapid volleys of pickets and outposts, the low, solemn sound of the command as troops came into position, and withal so sleepy that there was a half-dreamy sensation about it all; but with a certain impression that the morrow was to be great with the future fate of our country”.(4)
Around 6am sounds of battle from Hooker’s I Corps attack along Hagerstown Turnpike echoed in the distance as the 107th held steady on Smoketown Road. By 720am a battle plan was formed for the XII Corps and it advanced onto the field. General Joseph Mansfield committed his corps in a piecemeal fashion. First to move was Brigadier General George Gordon, then Samuel Crawford, then George Greene, all closed en masse, columns of division. He hoped by using this formation, the new regiments would be tucked in deep and not run from the battle in fear. Gordon’s brigade advanced south along Smoketown Road to the reach the fighting and the 107th NY and 13th NJ, diverged from the main column and formed the left flank to counter any Confederate push out of the East Woods. There the regiment “received orders to pull down the rail fence on the eastern side of the road in order to make it easier to cross the road. Since a fence was an ideal place for an untried regiment to form a line of battle, this, too, was ordered. The line was formed without much trouble, but the fence proved resistant to all efforts to tear it down”. Diven, commanding the right wing, ordered the men to climb the fence instead. Naturally, they became targets as they went up and over but no one was wounded. Van Valkenburgh, commanding the left wing, also gave up on fence and had the men face left and march into the East Woods. The regiment, now broke in two, with half advancing along Smoketwown Road and the other half walking along the edge of the East Woods, finally refused after finding a gap in the pesky fence. The men formed a line of battle of the western side of Smoketown Road and waited in reserve on their bellies.(5)
|107th on Smoketown Rd at 830am|
The next moment brought an oddity for the New Yorkers to observe. A riderless horse passed them by, trotted to the Confederate line, turned around and trotted back. On the ground in front of Company B was Mansfield, shot through the chest. Diven found the surgeon, Dr Patrick Flood, who examined Mansfield and then broke the line of Company F so that the wounded general could be carried off the field.(6)
Understand, the 107th NY was a new regiment that had never seen battle. Within a small space of time, this green regiment had faced a common terrain problem known as a FENCE, been the target of heavy fire, “the shells of the enemy flew over us here---tearing great limbs off the trees and screaming horribly---making us dodge like fun”, and witnessed their corps general killed, “Genl Mansfield rode past us into fhe open lot in front and when within twenty rods of our line was struck by a bullet---which passed through his body---resulting in his death very shortly later”. They had yet to even engage in any significant action and already faced three nerve-wracking experiences. Still, they remained calm and obeyed the next order. The men charged through a 40 acre cornfield absent of corn but instead strewn with dead, quickly hightailed it across the Hagerstown Turnpike, divided their force and either entered the West Woods or pressed on towards the Dunker Church. In an instant the New Yorkers were met with a most unwelcome murderous fire from the Confederates and could go no further. Luckily for the New Yorkers, the 930am lull in the fighting occurred.(7)
|107th advancing further along on Smoketown Rd at 930am|
|107th in position behind Cothran at 1030am|
General Edwin Sumner’s attack in the West Woods ended the lull and the battle was renewed. The attack failed and a retreat out of the woods ensued. The route of retreat was Hagerstown Turnpike which threatened to sweep away the 107th holding fast to its advanced position in the great skedaddle. The regiment had already fallen back through the bloody Cornfield and past a line of artillery that had been formed to support the infantry attack and was almost in the safety of the East Woods when “some general (name unknown) entreated him [Colonel Knipe] to rally what he could of the retreating regiments around his standards and save the battery. This he succeeded in doing, the 107th NY responding to this entreaties and forming on his colors. Other regiments, seeing the posture of affairs, regained their confidence and returned to the field. The battery was saved”. Gordon then ordered the 107th to stay put and support George Cothran’s Battery M, 1st NY Artillery against any Confederate charges. The regiment dropped to the ground and hugged the dirt but was not called to rise as the rebel assaults were repulsed by artillery fire alone.(8)
At 2pm General Henry Slocum’s Division relieved the exhausted New Yorkers. They marched to the rear and finally fixed the breakfast they had missed in the morning. After taking roll, it was determined the regiment suffered 63 casualties in their first battle.(9)
In his Official Report, Cothran stated “the 107th Regiment NY Volunteers, Colonel R.B. Van Valkenburgh, is entitled to great credit for both coolness and courage, and the admirable manner in which it supported my battery during the fight. This being the first time this regiment was under fire, I most cheerfully bear testimony to the excellent bearing of both officers and men while occupying the uncomfortable position of being the recipients of the enemy’s fire while they were unable to return it”. Although Cothran’s opinion is noteworthy, it’s the brigade commander, Gordon, that really demonstrates how special Van Valkenburgh and Diven were, “If I make special mention of the 107th NY Volunteers, of my brigade, it is that I may speak of its colonel and lieutenant-colonel, Colonel Van Valkenburgh and Lieutenant-Colonel Diven, both of whom members of the present Congress, have left their Congressional duties to organize and bring into this field this fine regiment for their country’s service. The example of these gentlemen, leading their men into the fight, cheering them onward, themselves thoughtless of exposure, prominent in the advance, bearing extraordinary fatigues without a murmur, shows a willingness to sacrifice their comfort and their lives for their country. Let others of our prominent men do as they have done, are doing, and the rank and fie of our country will throng to follow such earnest leaders”.(10)
(1) The Civil War Letters of Lt. Colonel Newton T. Colby, New York Infantry. Edited by William E. Hughes, 2003. pg 128-129.
(2) The 107th New York Regiment at Antietam. Gerald Tomlinson & Kay Thomas Finley, 2001. pg 5.
(3) The Civil War Journal of Lt Russell M. Tuttle New York Volunteer Infantry. Edited by George H. Tappan, 2006. pg. 30-31.
Colby pg. 139,
Tomlinson pg. 6.
(4) From the Cannon’s Mouth: The Civil War Letters of General Alpheus S. Williams. Edited by Milo M. Quaif, 1995. pg. 124-124.
Tomlinson pg. 10.
Colby pg. 144.
(5) Colby pg. 146.
Tomlinson pg. 14-15
(6) Tomlinson pg. 15.
(7) Tomlinson pg 16-17.
Colby pg. 153.
(8) OR Vol 19 pg 489, 494, 482. Tomlinson pg. 17-18.
(9) Tomlinson pg. 19
(10) OR Vol 19 pg 482, 494.