Wednesday, September 19, 2012

A Dead General

Just minutes before, the Federals had been pushed back off the field to what would become known as Burnside Bridge. The General, his attention directed to a certain portion of the field, was conferring with two other Generals while in the act of raising his field glasses to his eyes. In the next instant, an enemy shot made its mark and ripped into the General’s face, killing him instantly.
AP Hill received his summons around 630am on September 17th to hurry and join Lee at Sharpsburg. Hill began the dusty 17 mile march from Harpers Ferry to Sharpsburg by 7am. The sounds of battle were heard the entire length of the journey. Hill’s men crossed Boteler’s Ford at Sheperdstown around 2pm and were soon spotted for the large dust cloud they kicked up as they advanced to the battlefield. There was a tense moment of confusion... they were proudly wearing their “new” blue uniforms... but then the Confederates flags of Hill’s division were seen flying in the columns.  The forced march left the soldiers exhausted but there was no time for rest as the situation on the Confederate right was in dire straits...

                 (Confederate line along the western edge of the cornfield)

Hill, not wasting time sorting out the columns, immediately deployed his division along Harpers Ferry Road between 340-4pm as the brigades arrived. (1)

(Nice map by NPS)

Archer, Branch, and Gregg threw their brigades into the fray and battled Harland’s brigade (4th Rhode Island, 8th & 16th Connecticut). Initially, Gregg’s 1st & 12th SC assaulted the 16th CT and 4th RI in a cornfield while the 8th CT wandered off (into what should have turned into a suicide mission but somehow they survived their little journey).

(the wandering 8th CT monument)
 As Gregg traded punches with the Federals, Branch’s brigade (minus the 18th NC being held in reserve) arrived on the field and focused their attention on the wandering 8th CT’s exposed left flank. After ten minutes of steady fire from the 7th & 37th NC, the 8th CT defiantly waved their flag at the North Carolinians and retreated back to the safety of Rodman’s division. In the meantime, Gregg ordered the 1st SC Rifles forward as the other Palmetto soldiers were wavering due to a lack of ammunition. The 1st SC Rifles crept up on the flank of the 4th RI which caused this regiment and the 16th CT to flee the field. Minutes later, Archer brought his tiny brigade onto the field to duel against Ewing’s Buckeyes. Archer’s men didn’t last long against the effective fire from the Ohioans who were hiding behind a stone wall. However, Gregg’s 12th SC snuck a flank attack causing Ewing’s brigade to quickly relocate as the advanced position could not be held. (2)
(16th CT monument facing Confederate line and cornfield)
Prior to all this havoc, and minutes after he positioned the 18th NC in its reserve position, Branch rode over to Gregg and Archer to observe the Union position. As the small group huddled, Branch raised his field glasses for a closer look. While doing so, a bullet ripped through his face (cheek or jaw, I’ve read both) killing him instantly. All reports have stated the shot came from a sharpshooter but what exactly does that mean? I will admit I am unfamiliar with how far a rifle could have spit out a bullet but I have looked at the ground where the bullet most likely came from and the shooter would have to have been hanging out in a tree. I can’t imagine anyone in a tree would have made it out alive considering the the amount of action in that area. In addition, the ground on that portion of the battlefield is quite uneven and rough. Supposedly, Branch was on a spot of raised ground but that would require some seriously good timing on the part of the shooter as well as nerves of steel to just hang in a tree and wait to see if he could get a good catch. Furthermore, no one ever claimed the kill. This is a bit unusual since in most accounts that I have read, a shooter who hits a high value target typically claims his work. Why did the shooter not claim the kill? Not even a whisper as to what regiment the shot may have come from. Strange. (3)

Lawrence O'Bryan Branch
However, I have read one account that states a Union volley from 40 yards away was responsible for the fatal bullet. In Robert Krick’s essay about Maxcy Gregg, Krick states that “Gregg was fortunate to have escaped so lightly, for the volley that hit him was apparently the same fire that had inflicted a mortal wound on Gregg’s fellow brigadier L. O’Bryan Branch”. He cites two sources for this statement, a memoir by Alexander Cheves Haskell and a letter to Ezra Carman also by Haskell. The memoir says nothing to suggest that Gregg and Branch were wounded at the same time. I’m still searching for the letter. (4)

It is believed Branch was removed from the battlefield by his slave, Wiley. His remains were then transported to Raleigh and on September 27 were laid in state in the rotunda of the capitol until the next morning when Branch was interred at the City Cemetery. It is also believed that not such a large gathering of people had been in Raleigh since 1844 when Henry Clay visited. (5)
This outpouring was due to his popularity as a North Carolinian and as a US Representative. Branch was born in Enfield, North Carolina in 1828. He attended several colleges, graduated from Princeton, and studied under Salmon Chase in Washington DC. In 1840 Branch moved to Florida where he practiced law and fought in the Seminole War. Twelve years later, he returned to North Carolina and continued on as a lawyer until 1854 when he was elected as a Representative to the US Congress from North Carolina’s 4th district and served three terms. Once North Carolina seceded, Branch offered his services and was appointed quartermaster and paymaster of the Tar Heel’s soldiers. He became colonel of the 33rd in May 1861 and was promoted to brigadier in November 1861. He was in command of New Berne environs until the city fell to Burnside in March 1862. Branch was then assigned a brigade in AP Hill’s Light Division until his death at Antietam. Of Branch, Hill wrote “the Confederacy has to mourn the loss of a gallant soldier and accomplished gentleman, who fell in battle at the head of his brigade”, and Lee further stated “the brave and lamented Brig. Gen. L.O’.B Branch was killed, gallantly leading his brigade”, while one of his beloved soldiers of the 33rd said his brigade “idolized him. He died as a soldier would wish to die, facing the enemy, in the discharge of his duty”. (6)

Something I found very interesting as I read all the Official Reports and some diaries from the men who fought in this section of the battlefield was the continuous mention of corn. Today, we know this corn as the 40-Acre Cornfield but to the guys running around the field in 1862 it was known as a severe pain in the ass as it truly hampered operations. Some quotes about corn---
LCol Joseph Curtis- “from here the regiment was form in line in a corn-field, and to move to support the 16th CT, which lay in a deep valley between two hills planted with [was] almost impossible to dress the line, which an advance in line of battle across two fields of full-grown corn had slightly deranged”.
And even worse situation for Curtis----the 4th RI was “subjected to sharp musketry fire from the front...the enemy showed the national flag (the corn concealing their uniforms)...the order to cease firing was ascertain who was in our front”.
And again more corn issues---“the regiment commenced the movement (retreat) in an orderly manner, but, under the difficulty of keeping closed up in a corn-field...the regiment broke”. (7)
Col Edward Harland---“the right of the enemy’s lines, which was concealed in the edge of the corn-field, opened fire. Our men (16th CT) returned the fire and advanced, but were forced to fall back. Colonel Beach rallied them and returned them to the attack, but they were driven back, this time out of the corn-field...they were again rallied, but as it was impossible to see the enemy...they could not be held”. (8)
Col Daniel Hamilton---The 1st SC “was thrown forward, and, pressing on over fences and every obstacle, reached a high ridge in a corn-field to find a large force (for my regiment to contend with) moving down upon me and endeavoring to seek such concealment in the corn-field would enable them to surprise me, but my gallant regiment were too fully alive to the importance of the position which they held, and commenced a deadly fire upon the enemy in the corn-field”. (9)
Lt JFJ Caldwell---“the 14th [SC] regiment was posted behind a low stone fence...below us stretched a wide field of luxuriant corn...into the cornfield, the 1st, 12th, and 13th regiments were advanced in a line of battle...and soon engaged the Federal line moving through the corn”.
A short while later---“the firing during this period, which was about an hour, was as rapid as possible, and on our side unusually accurate. So dense was the corn that the lines sometimes approached within thirty or forty yards of each other before opening”. (10)
Capt Wolcott Pascal Marsh---The 8th CT “now returned fire & the men went to their work as coolly as if on drill. But we were trapped on our left flank was a large corn field & it was full of rebels on our right was a high hill where they were pouring in a gauling upon us & all this beside those in our front. Where was our support. Where was the the first brigade none of them to be seen on the right where they had gone. Where was the 16th & 4th who were on left & were to engage the rebels in the corn field. Alas! They had been repulsed. It was death to remain in this advanced position longer”. (11)
Corp George Allen---“on our [4th RI] advance into that bloody cornfield no one seemed to know the position of the rebel forces, whether in our front, flank, or rear. The 16th CT, as we were advancing to support them, broke, and came crowding in a confused mob upon our right, and confusion reigned preeminent for awhile. The enemy now poured in a steady fire of musketry, and breasting this storm of lead as best we could, we returned their fire, when suddenly the order was given, ‘cease firing, you are firing upon your own men’. We looked, and there above us on the hill were the Stars and Stripes, the top of which we could just see over the top of the corn. The firing upon our part ceased, and, as stated, it was but a ruse of the enemy to draw us into a trap”. (12)
Who knew corn was so dangerous???

1. Cape Fear Confederates: the 18th North Carolina regiment in the Civil War. James Gillispie, 2012. Pgs 108-109.
2. The Maps of Antietam. Bradley Gottfried, 2012. Pgs 224-229.
3. 37th North Carolina troops: Tar Heels in the Army of Northern Virginia. Michael Hardy, 2003. Pg 100.
4. Smoothbore Volley that Doomed the Confederacy. Robert Krick, 2002. Pgs 164-165.
5. 37th North Carolina troops: Tar Heels in the Army of Northern Virginia. Michael Hardy, 2003. Pg 100.
6. 37th North Carolina troops: Tar Heels in the Army of Northern Virginia. Michael Hardy, 2003. Pg 109.  
7. OR
8. OR
9. OR
10. History of a Brigade of South Carolinians, first known as “Gregg’s” and subsequently as “McGowan’s Brigade. JFJ Caldwell (Edited by Lee A Wallace Jr), 1992. Pgs 76-77.
11. Letters to a Civil War Bride: the Civil War Letters of Captain Wolcott Pascal Marsh. Compiled by Sandra Marsh Mercer & Jerry Mercer, 2006. Pgs 470-471 without corrections.
12. Forty-Six Months with the Fourth Rhode Island Volunteers. Corp. George H. Allen, 1887. Pg 146.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Havoc in Hagerstown, 1860's Style!

On this day, Thursday September 10th, 150 years ago, it was no secret that the Army of Northern Virginia was roaming the Maryland landscape. Although their exact location might yet remain elusive to some, it was no longer a mystery for the citizens of Hagerstown. The reality of the situation came crashing through the streets in the form of the 1st VA Cavalry. It was on this day that the local newspaper, Herald of Freedom and Torch Light (phew, what a name!) smartly packed up and relocated to Chambersburg for the next two weeks. The staff was in the process of setting the typeset for the September 10th edition when it was decided that it was time to go! The next day hundreds more also fled into Pennsylvania as Longstreet’s Division poured into Hagerstown. For those who stayed behind, they found themselves up to their ears in worthless Confederate money or certificates of indebtedness used to pay for every type of good imaginable. The rebels were described as “not only badly clothed and unclean in person, but in a half-starving condition... hundreds are weakened by diarrhea, and worn out by their long march...many express an ardent desire to lay down their arms”.
It was noted that the army had two camps, on the southeast and southwest of town, and remained there until the morning of Sunday the 14th when it began a retrograde movement. By Monday morning all rebels had vacated Hagerstown but the citizens were left in a state of uncertainty. Where did the rebels go and were they coming back? Who could tell? It was an 1860’s edge of the seat nail-biter! And just when the tension became absolutely unbearable “a company of U. S. Regular Cavalry, under Lieut. Tarleton, came charging into town and were received with wild and enthusiastic applause and our town was restored to the shadow of the Stars and Stripes, and to comparative quiet and security. In a very few minutes the Star Spangled Banner which had for days been hidden was thrown flaunting to the breeze, and hearts grew glad and voices loud, amid the exultant joy which filled the public breast”. Happy Hagerstown citizens!
The editors and staff returned to Hagerstown on September 24th and continued on with the typeset and finished pages 2, 3, and 4 of the September 10th edition. What’s remarkable is the change in tone from page 1 to page 2-3. Pre-invasion vs post-invasion mentality. Page 1 has war news which includes an article on Bragg’s army and an interesting op-ed from  ‘A Union Man Who Loves TRUTH’ about how the media distorts the war. Hmm, sound familiar?  Pages 2-3 include lengthy pieces about the rebel slumber party in Hagerstown as well as the battles of Harper’s Ferry, South Mountain and Antietam. Other than the small segment about an escaped boa constrictor, I think the best part of the the September 10-24th edition is from the editors, who wrote-----

When the rebels approached Hagerstown we, in company with hundreds of other Union men, sought refuge in Pennsylvania, and consequently the publication of the Herald and Torch was suspended for two weeks. It was the first time during the twenty-three years we have had control of this paper, that we failed to issue it upon the regular day of publication, and under the circumstances, we presume no subscriber will be ungenerous enough to censure us for deserting our post. We can print no paper under rebel rule, and this is our apology for printing none while that rule extended over Washington County. We have again returned to our sanctum, but being short of hands, and having passed through a week of intense anxiety and excitement, we are unable to do justice to this number of the paper. It was, indeed, with great difficulty that we managed to issue a paper at all, and we must therefore ask the forbearance of our patrons until we can get fairly under way again.

The September 10-24th edition of the Herald of Freedom & Torch Light can be found at (Western Maryland's Historical Library).
*Any factual errors are based on what the editors knew then rather than what I know now.