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Chapter III

As the army advanced in Maryland, the military situation became more clearly defined. The Confederate army occupied the passes of the South Mountain range, that is the continuation north of the Potomac of the Blue Ridge and it became evident that to get at the main force of the enemy it would be necessary to wrest from him the passes of this range of mountains. To the Sixth Corps was assigned the attack upon Crampton's Pass, the one farthest south and nearest Harper's Ferry. The head of the column was veered to the south, and passing through the village of Jefferson on the 14th of September, halted a short distance from the town. “Here the sound of cannon from the direction of South Mountain was heard by the men of the 121st. There was a feeling over us all, that a great battle was impending. We knew from common report that Lee, with as great a force as he could muster, was not far away, and this conflict and the part we should take in it was thoroughly discussed as we hurried along. Of one thing we were determined, and that was, that no matter what occurred or in what position we might be placed, we would show the men of the other regiments of the brigade of what stuff we were made, and shame them for the gratuitous ridicule and abuse they had heaped upon us. At last the sound of cannon far off fell upon our ears and a rumor came down the line that the enemy held all the passes of the mountains we were approaching. The sound of cannon grew nearer and we seemed to quicken our steps; [16] and reports kept coming back to us that the enemy was in force a few miles off. In our front, extending as far as one could see, from right to left was a range of mountains, and between us and it, a considerable valley, and nestling at its farther side, near the base of the mountain, was a small village, its tall church spire standing out clear and white against the foliage of the mountain side. Far away to the right, where the sound of the cannon grew upon the ear, the smoke of the guns became distinct and visible, and the faint rattle of musketry was heard. Our road seemed descending the side of a considerable declivity. Very soon a cannon opened in our front, and it was said to be a ‘Johnnie’ battery and some of the men pointed out the position of the enemy on the mountain side. As we hurried down the side of the valley we could see a line of our troops filing off in the fields towards the village of Burkettsville; and farther up the side of the hill, a thin line of men, skirmishers, were moving towards the wooded slope of the mountain side. These were soon fired upon from the timber and returned the fire, and we could see for a short time the puffs of smoke from their rifles. A turn in the road hid them from our sight, but we were interested in another feature of the entertainment. The battery which we had seen on the mountain crest farther up, evidently had us in view, for in addition to its report we heard a strange sound, a whistling, singing noise in the distance, and a solid shot flew over us and buried itself in the soft earth across the creek along side which we were now marching. Instantly many inquiries were made as to what it was, and all about it, and we were told that it was a shot from a Confederate battery fired at us, and that we were now under-fire and within range of the enemy's guns, and might be struck [17] at any moment or instant, with one of those projectiles. One of our company said, ‘Be gad, there couldn't be much harm in it. It sung just like a little burrd.’ A little farther along the road, one of General Slocum's staff officers came galloping along and rode up to the Colonel of the 96th Penn. and gave him some orders, and as we crossed the creek and halted, this regiment moved on quickly and passed us. We were front faced in line of battle, and moved forward a short distance and told to lie down, that we were in an enemy's country, and also told to keep out of sight and not expose ourselves to view, as the enemy were only a short distance in advance of us; and a battle would soon take place. We were also told that because of our being new troops, and undisciplined General Slocum had decided not to put us into battle unless it became necessary; although Colonel Franchot had appealed to him, to let his regiment take the lead, make the charge and do anything that brave men could be asked to do. Where we were, we could see nothing. Troops were passing along in rear of us in a steady, unbroken column; and although there were guards posted in front of us to prevent our moving forward, a lot of us moved along with the column past the regiment, attracted by curiosity and the increasing magnitude of the infantry fire. I went along with the troops in the road as far as the village. A few cannon shots were fired at the column but did no damage.” (B.)

Of the part taken in this battle of Crampton's Pass by the brigade, General Bartlett's report is as follows:

My command after a march of nearly ten miles arrived opposite the village of Burkettsville, and Crampton's Pass, about 12 M. with the 96th Penn. Volunteers as skirmishers. The enemy's pickets retired from the town, and he opened an [18] artillery fire from two batteries upon my line of skirmishers. I was ordered by Major General Slocum to halt until he could move his troops and arrange the plan of an assault, that artillery was of no avail against it, and that nothing but a combined and vigorous assault of infantry would carry the mountain. It being decided that the attack should be made on the right flank of the road, leading over the mountain, I was ordered to lead the column under cover of the artillery fire, and as secretly as possible, to a large field near the base of the mountain, where the column of attack was to be formed, i. e., each brigade in two lines, at two hundred paces in the rear. About 4 o'clock P. M. I ordered forward the 27th N. Y. Volunteers to deploy as skirmishers, and upon their placing the interval ordered between the columns of attack and their line, I advanced at quick time the 5th Maine and the 16th N. Y. Volunteers. My line of skirmishers found the enemy at the foot of the mountain, safely lodged behind a strong stone wall. Their entire line, being now developed, exhibited a large force. The front line advanced rapidly and steadily to the front under a severe fire of artillery from the heights and musketry from behind the stone wall and the trees on the slope above it. Halting behind a rail fence about 300 yards from the enemy, the skirmishers were withdrawn and the battle commenced. By some mistake, more than a thousand yards intervened between the head of the column of General Newton's Brigade and my own, and nothing but the most undaunted courage and steadiness on the part of the two regiments forming my line maintained the fight until the arrival of the rest of the attacking column. On their arrival the 32d N. Y. Volunteers and the 18th N. Y. Volunteers were sent to report to me. The 5th Maine and the 16th N. Y. [19] having expended their ammunition, I relieved them and formed them twenty paces in the rear. The N. J. Brigade now arrived on the left and commenced firing by the first line and the 96th Penn. having joined my command, and been placed by me on the extreme right, it became evident to all that nothing but a united charge would dislodge the enemy and win the battle.

A moment's consultation with General Torbert, commanding the New Jersey troops decided us to make the charge immediately at a double quick, and the order was passed along the line to cease firing, the command given to charge; and the whole line advanced with cheers, rushing over the intervening space to the stone wall and routing the enemy. The charge was maintained to the top of the mountain, up an almost perpendicular steep, over rocks and ledges, through the underbrush and timber until the crest overlooking the valley beyond was gained. The victory was decisive and complete, the routed enemy leaving arms, ammunition, knapsacks, haversacks and blankets in heaps by the roadside. I have the honor to report the capture of one flag by the 16th N. Y. Volunteers.

The action of my own regiments and of the 32d and 18th N. Y. Regiments, who were under my command, recommends them to the highest consideration of their general officers.

Very respectfully, (Signed) Jos. J. Bartlett, Colonel Commanding Brigade.

The losses of the 16th N. Y. in this engagement, was twenty enlisted men killed and one officer, and forty enlisted men wounded. The unusual percentage of the killed to the wounded no doubt resulted from the fact that the enemy fired from above and their bullets took effect in the head and [20] upper part of the body of any one who was hit. It is worthy of note that in this battle, General Upton (then Captain) was in command of the artillery of the division. At the close of the battle the 121st was brought to the front and the task assigned them of hunting up straggling Rebels and guard duty. What the task of gathering up the wounded means, is vividly described in General N. M. Curtis' History of the 16th N. Y. in connection with this battle. Lieut. Wilson Hopkins was in command of the ambulance corps of the Division and this was his first service in that capacity. He wrote of it thus.

Most of our wounded were brought to the hospital by dark. We began to collect the wounded Confederates then, who were found from the base of the mountain, increasing in number as we ascended, to the very top. We carried them to the field hospital till midnight.

The surgeons, overcome by exhaustion, were unable to care for more. We then collected all we could find and placed them in a group near the top of the mountain, gave them food and water, built fires to warm them, and I directed two Confederates, found hiding behind the rocks and uninjured, to remain with their wounded comrades, attend to their wants and keep the fires burning. At sunrise the next morning I went with my stretcher bearers to the camp I had made for the wounded Confederates and found the fires burned out, six of the forty dead; and learned that the two men I had placed in charge of them with direction to keep the fires burning, had, soon after I left them the night before, abandoned their charge and returned to the Confederate army encamped in the valley beyond. We carried the survivors to the hospital, leaving a detail to bury the dead. This was my first experience in gathering the wounded from a battlefield after it had been won. Many [21] have visited such places and reported the sickening sights, but I can not describe their ghastly realities. Later I became more familiar with such scenes, yet I can never forget that dreadful night. Its horrors overshadow all spectacles I witnessed on other battlefields, and the memory of what I saw there will remain with me to the end.

The Union dead were usually sought out by their surviving comrades by regiments, and buried together in orderly manner, and their graves marked by headboards, upon which were inscribed the name, regiment and company of the person buried. The burial of the Confederate dead at Crampton Pass is thus described by Comrade Beckwith: “I went over the line and position occupied by the Rebels for a considerable distance and saw many of them lying on the field dead. Those I saw had not changed much from life, but they lay in all shapes and positions. Many were shot through the head. I came along to a burial detail. They had dug a long trench on the mountain side. The dead Rebels were carried to it and laid side by side until one tier was made, when another was piled on top until all the dead in the vicinity were gathered up, when the earth was put back over the mound.”

During the first months of the war the care of the wounded was left entirely to regimental medical officers. Each regiment was expected to gather up its severely wounded and take full care of them, until they were sent to general hospital. This plan did not work well, because in every battle some regiments suffered many casualties and others scarcely any. Consequently some medical officers would be overworked and others have nothing to do. On this account a reorganization had been made by which the medical force was consolidated in brigade, division and army corps, and thus the labor was more evenly distributed. [22] The hospitals were likewise established so as to give first aid at the front, transport the sick and wounded forward by stages, until they arrived at the permanent General Hospitals for final treatment. After a battle over ground so rough and broken by woods and thickets as this, some of the dead would not be found, and some would be so far from the trenches dug, that they would be covered where they fell, ever so lightly. Passing over this field a few days after the battle, the writer to avoid a bend in the road, took a short cut up the side of the mountain, and in passing by a thicket disturbed a young hog, which had rooted through the dirt on such a grave and was devouring the flesh of the man buried there. It was the first experience he had of the horror of war and prepared him somewhat for the terrible sights that the battle of Antietam had left to chill the blood of the one who passed over it, soon after it had been fought.

The battle of Crampton's Pass was evidently that part of the Maryland campaign intended to relieve the siege of Harper's Ferry, but only two or three days before the victory there, made it necessary for the besieging troops to retire from their position on Bolivar Heights, as General Miles had cravenly surrendered. After the battle and victory of Crampton's Pass the 121st was left to guard the Pass and prisoners, and collect the arms and other munitions that had been left on the field. The rest of the Corps was ordered to follow the retreating enemy who were concentrating at Antietam, or Sharpsburgh.

On the morning of the 18th of September, Captain R. P. Wilson, Asst. Adjt. Gen. of the brigade appeared with orders for the regiment to report as quickly as possible at Antietam. On that date the battle of Antietam was fought, and [23] when the regiment arrived, it was detailed to collect and stack the arms on the field, on the day after the battle. Again quoting from the narrative of Comrade Beckwith,

We reached Antietam battlefield on the 19th (of Sept.), and except some fighting at the river where Lee's army crossed, and an attempt by the Fifth Corps to capture the batteries covering the rear, resulting in the capture of four guns, the great conflict was over. The country around Sharpsburgh is admirably adapted to military operations and affords fine opportunity to maneuver troops under cover and near the front excepting cavalry, the ground being too broken for that arm of the service to operate successfully, and for that reason, I think, large masses of our infantry and the enemy's infantry came within easy range of musketry before opening fire, being concealed by the contour of the ground between them. The consequence was that those who used their arms most effectively and were the steadiest were the victors; and as a rule, our men in the open field were the victors. That the enemy suffered terribly from our fire may be gathered from the fact that for more than a mile I could have walked on their dead bodies, while in some places they lay in groups, and in others as many as fifteen lying in line close together. Mounted officers lay under their horses both dead. A great many dead horses were on the field. Near the church in the edge of the woods, by the sunken road and the edge of the cornfield, the conflict by its results seemed to have been the fiercest. All the dead presented a horrible spectacle, and it would have been impossible to recognize a brother, they were so changed from life. The weather being extremely hot, the men, heated with passion, immediately after death, decomposed rapidly, gases formed, and the bodies swelled up to enormous proportions. [24] For instance, the eyes would bulge out from their sockets and look more like small bladders. Many had burst, so great was the pressure upon their tissues. The remains of the horses looked even worse than those of the men, and for such carrion decent burial was impossible; and so rude cremation was resorted to, and in many cases the ashes of heroic men, dumb brutes and fence rails mingled in one heap; and in the far-off home of the dead hero no thought exists today, but that their loved one sleeps in some National Cemetery, to which his remains were removed from the field where he fell.

I must confess that I had very serious communion with myself in those days. I had before these battles and their real story, no conception of the vast number of soldiers engaged, or of the magnitude of the battles, and how small an atom one little chap like myself was in the great whole, and what a very small loss my taking off would be, in the general result. Everything seemed quite different to me from what it did when hearing the war speeches, and the deeds of valor enacted, at home; and as I thought of the vast number of dead I had seen lying unburied on the field, and the myriads of wounded men, I felt the awful horror of war upon me, and I again felt thankful that we had been permitted to see and know what we were coming to. The abandoning of the dead seemed horrible to me, and I hoped if it should be my fate to perish in battle, my comrades would give me decent burial.

We saw on the battlefield the 13th N. Y. Vol. from our county, and a solemn and sad looking lot of men they were. They had been in the thickest and most fiercely contested part of the battle, and had suffered a terrible loss, and many of the men who had fallen were well known to most [25] of our fellows. Joe Rounds' brother, Armenius, had been reported mortally wounded. He afterward recovered, although pierced through the body and leg with Rebel lead. Joe belonged to our company and was a sergeant, and our visiting with the 34th and our surroundings cast a gloom over the regiment that was only removed by departure to other scenes and new experiences. One incident I will relate in passing, connected with the battle, because of its pathetic side, and the thought that its like was experienced in many more homes, both sides of Mason and Dixie's line. In going over the battlefield picking up arms, we examined the bodies and baggage of many of the dead. A great many had plunder which they had gathered from the rich and loyal country through which they had passed. Some had Confederate money on them — in demand there as souvenirs. One dead Confederate officer, a general, lying near the corner of the fence by the cornfield had the gold braid cut from his uniform. Away over on the right in the woods, I came across a body lying near a tree and partially supported by it. In the right hand was a daguerreotype of a woman and a child, and this Rebel soldier, his duty done, shot to death, had made his way to this spot, taken out the picture of his wife and child, and with his thoughts upon them in their far Southern home, alone, the pangs of death clouding his sight, giving them in his terrible anguish, the unfathomable love of a dying soldier. I did not take the daguerreotype, but some one did; for passing back that way I saw it was gone. Afterward I was sorry that I did not take it, because some day it might have gotten to the wife and child. Perhaps it did. I hope so.

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