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Antietam scenes.

by Charles Carleton coffin.

Union burial party at Antietam, from a photograph.

The cannon were thundering when at early morn, September 17th, 1862, I mounted my horse at Hagerstown, where I had arrived the preceding day, as an army correspondent, upon its evacuation by the Confederates. The people of the town, aroused by the cannonade, were at the windows of the houses or in the streets, standing in groups, listening to the reverberations rolling along the valley. The wind was south-west, the clouds hanging low and sweeping the tree-tops on South Mountain.

The cannonade, reverberating from cloud to mountain and from mountain to cloud, became a continuous roar, like the unbroken roll of a thunder-storm. The breeze, being in our direction, made the battle seem much nearer than it was. I was fully seven miles from Hooker's battle-field.

I turned down the Hagerstown and Sharpsburg turnpike at a brisk gallop, although I knew that Lee's army was in possession of the thoroughfare by the toll-gate which then stood about two miles north of Sharpsburg. A citizen who had left his home, to be beyond harm during the battle, had given me the information. The thought uppermost in my mind was to gain the left flank of the Confederate army, mingle with the citizens, and so witness the battle from the Confederate side. It would be a grand accomplishment if successful. [683] It would give me a splendid opportunity to see the make — up of the Confederate army. It would be like going behind the scenes of a theater. I was in citizen's dress, splashed with mud, and wore a dilapidated hat.

While wondering what would be the outcome of the venture, I came upon a group of farmers, who were listening with dazed countenances to the uproar momentarily increasing in volume. It was no longer alone the boom of the batteries, but a rattle of musketry — at first like pattering drops upon a roof; then a roll, crash, roar, and rush, like a mighty ocean billow upon the shore, chafing the pebbles, wave on wave,--with deep and heavy explosions of the batteries, like the crashing of thunderbolts. I think the currents of air must have had something to do with the effect of sound. The farmers were walking about nervously, undecided, evidently, whether to flee or to remain.

“I wouldn't go down the pike if I were you,” said one, addressing me. “You will ride right into the Rebs.”

“That is just where I would like to go.”

“You can't pass yourself off for a Reb; they'll see, the instant they set eyes on you, that you are a Yank. They'll gobble you up and take you to Richmond,” said the second.

No doubt I acted wisely in leaving the turnpike and riding to gain the right flank of the Union line. A short distance and I came upon a Confederate soldier lying beneath a tree. He doubtless supposed that I was a cavalryman, and raised his hand as if to implore me not to shoot him. His face was pale and haggard, and he had dropped from the ranks through sheer exhaustion. I left the poor fellow with the conviction that he never again would see his Southern home.

A mile farther on and I came upon the driftwood of McClellan's army. Every army has its drift-wood soldiers — valiant at the mess-table, brave in the story around the bivouac fire, but faint of heart when battle begins. Some of them were old skulkers, others fresh recruits, with bright uniforms, who had volunteered under the pressure of enthusiasm. This was their first battle and was not what they had pictured a battle to be.

“Where does this road lead to?” asked one with white lips.

“To Hagerstown. But where are you going?”

“Oh, our division has been ordered to Hagerstown,” was the reply as they hastened on.

Ammunition trains were winding up the hill from the road leading to Keedysville. Striking across the fields, I soon came upon the grounds on Hoffman's farm selected for the field-hospitals. Even at that hour of the morning it was an appalling sight. The wounded were lying in rows awaiting their turn at the surgeons' tables. The hospital stewards had a corps of men distributing straw over the field for their comfort.

Turning from the scenes of the hospital, I ascended the hill and came upon the men who had been the first to sweep across the Hagerstown pike, past the toll-gate, and into the Dunker Church woods, only to be hurled back by Jackson, who had established his line in a strong position behind outcropping limestone ledges.

“There are not many of us left,” was the mournful remark of an officer.

I learned the story of the morning's engagement, and then rode to the line of batteries on the ridge by the house of J. Poffenberger; if my memory serves me there were thirty guns in position there pointing south-west. There was a lull in the strife. All was quiet in the woods along the turn-pike, and in the corn-field beyond D. R. Miller's house,--so quiet that I thought I would ride on to the front line, not knowing that the brigade lying upon the ground near the cannon was the advanced line of the army. I rode through Poffenberger's door-yard, and noticed that a Confederate can-non-shot had ripped through the building; another had upset a hive of bees, and the angry insects had taken their revenge on the soldiers. I walked my horse down the pike past the toll-gate.

“Hold on!” It was the peremptory hail of a Union soldier crouching under the fence by the roadside. “Where are you going?”

“I thought I would go out to the front!”

“The front! you have passed it. This is the picket line. If you know what is good for yourself, you'll skedaddle mighty quick. The Rebs are in the corn right out there.”

I acted upon the timely advice and retreated to a more respectful distance; and none too soon, for a moment later the uproar began again — solid shot tearing through the woods and crashing among the trees, and shells exploding in unexpected places. I recall a round shot that came ricochetting over the ground, cutting little furrows, tossing the earth into the air, as the plow of the locomotive turns its white furrow after a snow-storm. Its speed gradually diminished and a soldier was about to catch it, as if he were at a game of base-ball, but a united yell of. “Look out!” “Don't!” “Take care!” “Hold on!” caused him to desist. Had he attempted it, he would have been knocked over instantly.

Turning from the conflict on the right, I rode down the line, toward the center, forded the Antietam and ascended the hill east of it to the large square mansion of Mr. Pry, where General McClellan had established his headquarters. The general was sitting in an arm-chair in front of the house. His staff were about him; their horses, saddled and bridled, were hitched to the trees and fences. Stakes had been driven in the earth in front of the house, to which were strapped the headquarters telescopes, through which a view of the operations and movements of the two armies could be obtained.

It was a commanding situation. The panorama included fully two-thirds of the battle-field, from the woods by the Dunker Church southward to the hills below Sharpsburg.

The Fifth Corps, under Fitz John Porter, was behind the ridge extending south toward the bridge, where the artillery of the Ninth Corps was thundering. Porter, I remember, was with McClellan, watching the movements of the troops across [684] the Antietam--French's and Richardson's divisions, which were forming in the fields east of Roulette's and Mumma's houses. What a splendid sight it was! How beautifully the lines deployed! The clouds which had hung low all the morning had lifted, and the sun was shining through the rifts, its bright beams falling on the flags and glinting from gun-barrel and bayonet. Upon the crest of the hill south of the Dunker Church, I could see Confederates on horseback, galloping, evidently with orders; for, a few moments later, there was another gleam in the sunshine from the bayonets of their troops, who were apparently getting into position to resist the threatened movement of French and Richardson.

Memory recalls the advance of the line of men in blue across the meadow east of Roulette's. They reach the spacious barn, which divides the line of men as a rock parts the current of a river, flowing around it, but uniting beyond. The orchard around the house screens the movement in part. I see the blue uniforms beneath the apple-trees. The line halts for alignment. The skirmishers are in advance. There are isolated puffs of smoke, and then the Confederate skirmishers scamper up the hill and disappear. Up the slope moves the line to the top of a knoll. Ah! what a crash! A white cloud, gleams of lightning, a yell, a hurrah, and then up in the corn-field a great commotion, men firing into each other's faces, the Confederate line breaking, the ground strewn with prostrate forms. The Confederate line in “Bloody lane” has been annihilated, the center pierced.

Just here McClellan lost a great opportunity. It was the plain dictate of common sense that then was the time when Porter's eleven thousand should have been sent across the Antietam and thrown like a thunderbolt upon the enemy. It was so plain that the rank and file saw it. “Now is the time” was the universal comment. But not a soldier stirred from his position. McClellan saw it, but issued no order. All through the day most of the Fifth Corps remained in reserve.

The battle was in the main fought by divisions--one after another. There was no concerted action, no hammering all along the line at the same time. Heavy blows were given, but they were not followed up. It has been said that McClellan's excuse for not throwing in Porter's corps at that moment was the reason given by Napoleon at Borodino when asked why he did not at a certain moment put in the Imperial Guard: “If I am defeated to-day, where is my army for to-morrow?” There was no parallel between Antietam and Borodino. The moment had come for dividing Lee's army at its center and crushing it back upon the Potomac in utter rout. A. P. Hill, on his way from Harper's Ferry to join Lee, was at that moment fording the Potomac at Shepherdstown. This General McClellan did not know, but the fact was before him that French and Richardson had pierced the Confederate center.

With the falling back of the Confederates I went up past Roulette's house to the sunken road. The hillside was dotted with prostrate forms of men in blue, but in the sunken road, what a ghastly spectacle! The Confederates had gone down as the grass falls before the scythe. Words are inadequate to portray the scene. Resolution and energy still lingered in the pallid cheeks, in the set teeth, in the gripping hand. I recall a soldier with the cartridge between his thumb and finger, the end of the cartridge bitten off, and the paper between his teeth when the bullet had pierced his heart, and the machinery of life — all the muscles and nerves — had come to a standstill. A young lieutenant had fallen while trying to rally his men; his hand was still firmly grasping his sword, and determination was visible in every line of his face. I counted fourteen bodies lying together, literally in a heap, amid the corn rows on the hillside. The broad, green leaves were sprinkled and stained with blood.

The close of the battle presented a magnificent spectacle as the artillery of both armies came into play. The arrival of A. P. Hill had a stimulating effect upon Lee's veterans, while the carrying of the bridge and the work accomplished by French's and Richardson's divisions in the center gave great encouragement to the Union army. It was plain that Lee was economical in the use of artillery ammunition. In fact, he had a short supply. The engagements at Gainesville, Groveton, Bull Run, Chantilly, Harper's Ferry, and South Mountain had depleted his ammunition-chests, and supply trains had not reached him from the west side of the Potomac.

Far up on the Union right, as well as in the center, the Union batteries were pounding. I recall a remarkable scene. The sun was going down,--its disc red and large as seen through the murky battle-cloud. One of Sumner's batteries was directly in line toward the sun, on the crest of the ridge north of the smoking ruins of Mumma's house and barn, and there was one piece of which the gunners, as they rammed home the cartridge, seemed to be standing in the sun. Beyond, hid from view by the distance and the low-hanging branches of the oaks by the Dunker Church, the Confederate guns were flashing. Immediately north of Sharpsburg, and along the hill in front, now the National Cemetery, Longstreet's cannon were in play. Half-way up the hill were Burnside's men sending out a continuous flame, with A. P. Hill's veterans confronting them. All the country was flaming and smoking; shells were bursting above the contending lines; Burnside was asking for reinforcements. How quickly Porter's eleven thousand could have rushed across Antietam bridge with no Confederates to oppose them, swept up the hillside and forced themselves like a wedge between Longstreet and A. P. Hill!--but McClellan had only Miller's battery to send him! The sun went down; the thunder died away, the musketry ceased, bivouac fires gleamed out as if a great city had lighted its lamps.

When the soldiers are seeking rest, the work of the army correspondent begins. All through the day eyes and ears have been open. The note-book is scrawled with characters intelligible to him if read at once, but wholly meaningless a few hours later. He must grope his way along the lines in [685] the darkness, visit the hospitals, hear the narratives of all, eliminate error, get at the probable truth, keeping ever in mind that each general thinks his brigade, each colonel his regiment, every captain his company, did most of the fighting. While thus visiting the lines, I heard a song rising on the night air sweet and plaintive:

Do they miss me at home, do they miss me?
‘Twould be an assurance most dear
To know that this moment some lov'd one
Were saying, “I wish he were here” ;
To feel that the group at the fireside
Were thinking of me, as I roam.
Oh, yes, ‘twould be joy beyond measure
To know that they miss me at home.

Both before and after a battle, sad and solemn thoughts come to the soldier. Before the conflict they are of apprehension; after the strife there is a sense of relief; but the thinned ranks, the knowledge that the comrade who stood by your side in the morning never will stand there again, bring inexpressible sadness. The soldiers, with thoughts far away, were apprehensive that the conflict of the day was but a prelude to another struggle more fierce and bloody in the morning. They were in position and lying on their arms, ready to renew the battle at daylight; but day dawned and the cannon were silent. The troops were in line, yet there was no order to advance. I could hear now and then the isolated shots of the pickets. I could see that Lee had contracted his line between Dunker Church and Sharpsburg. His cannon were in position, his troops in line. Everybody knew that Franklin's corps was comparatively fresh; that McClellan had 29,000 men who either had as yet not fired a musket or had been only slightly engaged. Why did he not attack? No one could tell.

Riding up to the right, I found that hostilities had ceased; that the ambulance corps of both armies were gathering up the wounded in the field near the Dunker Church.1 Going out over the ground where the tides had ebbed and flowed, I found it thickly strewn with dead. I recall a Union soldier lying near the Dunker Church with his face turned upward, and his pocket Bible open upon his breast. I lifted the volume and read the words: “Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil; for Thou art with me. Thy rod and Thy staff, they comfort me.” Upon the fly-leaf were the words: “We hope and pray that you may be permitted by a kind Providence, after the war is over, to return.”

Near by stood a wounded battery-horse and a shattered caisson belonging to one of Hood's batteries. The animal had eaten every blade of grass within reach. No human being ever looked more imploringly for help than that dumb animal, wounded beyond the possibility of moving, yet resolutely standing, as if knowing that lying down would be the end.

The assumed armistice came to an end, the pickets stood in hostile attitude once more, but the day wore away and no orders were issued for a renewal of the attack. Another morning, and Lee was beyond the Potomac. I galloped along the lines where his army had stood, and saw the wreck and ruin of battle. I recall the body of a Confederate sharp-shooter, lying in the forks of a tree by the roadside, between the Dunker Church and Sharpsburg. Shells had exploded in the streets of Sharpsburg. The horses of a Confederate battery had gone down in a heap in the public square.

Porter's corps was passing through the town. McClellan and his staff came galloping up the hill. Porter's men swung their hats and gave a cheer; but few hurrahs came from the other corps — none from Hooker's. A change had come over the army. The complacent look which I had seen upon McClellan's countenance on the 17th, as if all were going well, had disappeared. There was a troubled look instead — a manifest awakening to the fact that his great opportunity had gone by. Lee had slipped through his fingers.

1 Surgeon Jonathan Letterman, Medical Director, Army of the Potomac, reports as follows upon the work of his department on the field: “Immediately after the retreat of the enemy from the field of Antietam, measures were taken to have all the Confederate wounded gathered in from the field, over which they lay scattered in all directions, and from the houses and barns in the rear of their lines, and placed under such circumstances as would permit of their being properly attended to, and at such points as would enable their removal to be effected to Frederick, and thence to Baltimore and Fortress Monroe to their own lines. They were removed as rapidly as their recovery would permit. . . . There were many eases both on our right and left whose wounds were so serious that their lives would be endangered by their removal; and to have every opportunity afforded them for recovery, the Antietam hospital, consisting of hospital tents and capable of comfortably accommodating nearly six hundred cases, was established at a place called Smoketown, near Keedysville, for those who were wounded on our right, and a similar hospital, but not so capacious,--the Locust Spring hospital,--was established in the rear of the Fifth Corps for those cases which occurred on our left. To one or other of these hospitals all the wounded were carried whose wounds were of such a character as to forbid their removal to Frederick or elsewhere. . . . Immediately after the battle a great many citizens came within our lines in order to remove their relatives or friends who had been injured, and in a great many instances when the life of the man depended upon his remaining at rest. It was impossible to make them understand that they were better where they were, and that a removal would probably be done only with the sacrifice of life. Their minds seemed bent on having them in a house. If that could be accomplished, all would, in their opinion, be well. No greater mistake could exist, and the results of that battle only added additional evidence of the absolute necessity of a full supply of pure air, constantly renewed — a supply which cannot be obtained in the most perfectly constructed building. Within a few yards a marked contrast could be seen between the wounded in houses and barns and in the open air. Those in houses progressed less favorably than those in the barns, those in barns less favorably than those in the open air, although all were in other respects treated alike. The capacious barns, abundantly provided with hay and straw, the delightful weather with which we were favored, and the kindness exhibited by the people afforded increased facilities to the medical department for taking care of the wounded thrown upon it by that battle. . . .”--Editors.

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