Battle of Antietam Eyewitness Accounts

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The Eyewitnesses of the Civil War Battle of Antietam

"Another day's march brought us to Hagerstown where the cornfields and orchards furnished our meals. The situation, in a sanitary point, was deplorable. Hardly a soldier had a whole pair of shoes. Many were absolutely bare-footed, and refused to go to the rear. The ambulances were filled with the foot-sore and sick."

Pvt. Alexander Hunter,Company A, 17th Virginia Infantry
 

"On the forenoon of the 15th, the blue uniforms of the Federals appeared among the trees that crowned the heights on the eastern bank of the Antietam. The number increased, and larger and larger grew the field of the blue until it seemed to stretch as far as the eye could see, and from the tops of the mountains down to the edges of the stream gathered the great army of McClellan."

Lt. Gen. James Longstreet, CSA, Commander, Longstreet's Corps, Army of Northern Virginia

   

"We were massed `in column by company' in a cornfield; the night was close, air heavy...some rainfall...The air was perfumed with a mixture of crushed green corn stalks, ragweed, and clover. We made our beds between rows of corn and would not remove our accouterments."

Pvt. Miles C. Huyette, Company B, 125th Pennsylvania Infantry

 
     
 

"As night drew nearer, whispers of a great battle to be fought the next day grew louder, and we shuddered at the prospect, for battles had come to mean to us, as they never had before, blood, wounds, and death."

Mary Bedinger Mitchell, (Resident of Shepherdstown)

   

"...I began to feel wretchedly faint of heart, for it seemed timely that the coming of battle meant my certain death."

Pvt. Ezra E. Stickley, Company A, 5th Virginia Infantry

 
     
 

"The stillness of the night is broken by the hostile picket shots close to the front. What are the thoughts that fill the minds of the men as they lie there, anxiously awaiting the morning? Who can describe them?"

Cpl. Arthur S. Fitch, Company B, 107th New York Infantry

     

"Suddenly a stir beginning far up on the right, and running like a wave along the line, brought the regiment to its feet. A silence fell on everyone at once, for each felt that the momentous `now' had come."

Pvt. David L. Thompson, Company G, 9th New York Volunteers

 
     
 

"Our first fire was rattling volley; then came the momentary interval occupied in loading. The rifles were, of course, muzzle loaders, with iron ramrods; the cartridges were new and the brown paper of the toughest description, so that strong fingers were required to tear out the conical ball and the little paper cap of gunpowder. Emptying these into the muzzle and ramming home and capping the piece took time---seemingly a long time in the hurry of action..."

History of the 35th Massachusetts Volunteers

     

"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 the thunderbolts."

Charles Carleton Coffin, Army Correspondent

 
     
 

"I was lying on my back, supported on my elbows, watching the shells explode overhead and speculating as to how long I could hold up my finger before it would be shot off, for the very air seemed full of bullets, when the order to get up was given, I turned over quickly to look at Col. Kimball, who had given the order, thinking he had become suddenly insane."

Lt. Matthew J. Graham, Company H, 9th New York Volunteers

     

"Sometimes a shell would burst just over our heads, scattering the fragments among us."

Lt. Thomas H. Evans, 12th U.S. Infantry

 
     
 

"The third shell struck and killed my horse and bursting, blew him to pieces, knocked me down, of course, and tore off my right arm..."

Pvt. Ezra E. Stickley, Company A, 5th Virginia Infantry

     

"Such a storm of balls I never conceived it possible for men to live through. Shot and shell shrieking and crashing, canister and bullets whistling and hissing most fiend-like through the air until you could almost see them. In that mile's ride I never expected to come back alive."

LtCol A.S. "Sandie" Pendleton, CSA

 
     

"In the time that I am writing every stalk of corn in the northern and greater part of the field was cut as closely as could have been done with a knife, and the slain lay in rows precisely as they had stood in their ranks a few moments before. It was never my fortune to witness a more bloody, dismal battlefield."

Maj. Gen. Joseph Hooker, USA, Commander, I Corps,
Army of the Potomac

"The force of a mini ball or piece of shell striking any solid portion of a person is astonishing; it comes like a blow from a sledge hammer, and the recipient finds himself sprawling on the ground before he is conscious of being hit; then he feels about for the wound, the benumbing blow deadening sensation for a few moments. Unless struck in the head or about the heart, men mortally wounded live some time, often in great pain, and toss about upon the ground."

History of the 35th Massachusetts Volunteers

 
 

"A frenzy seized each man, and impatient with their small muzzle loaded guns, they tore the loaded ones from the hands of the dead and fired them with fearful rapidity, sending ramrods along with the bullets for double execution."

Pvt. G. L. Kilmer, Company I, 14th New York Artillery
   

"The truth is, when bullets are whacking against tree trunks and solid shot are cracking skulls like eggshells, the consuming passion in the breast of the average man is to get out of the way."

Pvt. David L. Thompson, Company G, 9th New York Volunteers
 
     
 

"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."

Charles Carlton Coffin, Army Correspondent

   

"Under the dark shade of a towering oak near the Dunker Church lay the lifeless form of a drummer boy, apparently not more than 17 years of age, flaxen hair and eyes of blue and form of delicate mould. As I approached him I stooped down and as I did so I perceived a bloody mark upon his forehead...It showed where the leaden messenger of death had produced the wound the caused his death. His lips were compressed, his eyes half open, a bright smile played upon his countenance. By his side lay his tenor drum, never to be tapped again."

Pvt. J. D. Hicks, Company K, 125th Pennsylvania Volunteers

 
     
 

"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 kind Providence, after the war is over, to return."

Charles Carlton Coffin, Army Correspondent
     

"Comrades with wounds of all conceivable shapes were brought in and placed side by side as thick as they could lay, and the bloody work of amputation commenced."

George Allen, Company A, 6th New York Volunteers
 
     

"A man lying upon the ground asked for drink--I stooped to give it, and having raised him with my right hand, was holding the cup to his lips with my left, when I felt a sudden twitch of the loose sleeve of my dress--the poor fellow sprang from my hands and fell back quivering in the agonies of death--a ball had passed between my body--and the right arm which supported him--cutting through the sleeve, and passing through his chest from shoulder to shoulder."

Clara Barton

"...two of our army surgeons came into the room and began to tie up my arteries to stop the bleeding, which possibly saved my life. Before they got through, however, several shells struck the house and they left me alone."

Pvt. Ezra E. Stickley, Company A, 5th Virginia Infantry

 
     
 

"When night came we could still hear the sullen guns and hoarse, indefinite murmurs that succeeded the day's turmoil. That night was dark and lowering and the air heavy and dull. Across the river innumeral campfires were blazing, and we could but too well imagine the scenes that they are lighting."

Mary Bedinger Mitchell
     

"All were calling for water, of course, but none was to be had. We lay there until dusk--perhaps an hour, when the fighting ceased. During that hour, while the bullets snipped the leaves from a young locust tree growing at the edge of the hollow and powdered us with fragments, we had time to speculate on many things-among others, on the impatience with which men clamor, in dull times, to be led into fight."

Pvt. David L. Thompson, Company G, 9th New York Volunteers

 
     
 

"Both before and after a battle, sad and solemn thoughts come to the soldier. Before the conflict they were 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."

Charles Coffin, Army Correspondent
     

"I have seen more than I ever expected to see. I have layed on the field in front of the enemy, where the dead and wounded were laying in heaps around us."

Sgt. Jacob Fryberger, Company K, 51st Pennsylvania Infantry

 
     
 

"Before the sunlight faded, I walked over the narrow field. All around lay the Confederate dead...clad in `butternut'...As I looked down on the poor pinched faces...all enmity died out. There was no `secession' in those rigid forms nor in those fixed eyes staring at the sky. Clearly it was not their war."

Pvt. David L. Thompson, Company G, 9th New York Volunteers

Recommended Reading: Eyewitness to the Civil War (Hardcover: 416 pages) (National Geographic; Fists edition) (November 21, 2006). Description: At once an informed overview for general-interest readers and a superb resource for serious buffs, this extraordinary, gloriously illustrated volume is sure to become one of the fundamental books in any Civil War library. Its features include a dramatic narrative packed with eyewitness accounts and hundreds of rare photographs, pictures, artifacts, and period illustrations. Evocative sidebars, detailed maps and battlefield maps, and timelines add to the reference-ready quality of the text. Continued below...

From John Brown's raid to Reconstruction, Eyewitness to the Civil War presents a clear, comprehensive discussion that addresses every military, political, and social aspect of this crucial period. In-depth descriptions of campaigns and battles in all theaters of war are accompanied by a thorough evaluation of the nonmilitary elements of the struggle between North and South. In their own words, commanders and common soldiers in both armies tell of life on the battlefield and behind the lines, while letters from wives, mothers, and sisters provide a portrait of the home front. More than 375 historical photographs, portraits, and artifacts—many never before published—evoke the era's flavor; and detailed maps of terrain and troop movements make it easy to follow the strategies and tactics of Union and Confederate generals as they fought through four harsh years of war. Photoessays on topics ranging from the everyday lives of soldiers to the dramatic escapades of the cavalry lend a breathtaking you-are-there feeling, and an inclusive appendix adds even more detail to what is already a magnificently meticulous history.

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Recommended Reading: The Antietam Campaign (Military Campaigns of the Civil War). Description: The Maryland campaign of September 1862 ranks among the most important military operations of the American Civil War. Crucial political, diplomatic, and military issues were at stake as Robert E. Lee and George B. McClellan maneuvered and fought in the western part of the state. The climactic clash came on September 17 at the battle of Antietam, where more than 23,000 men fell in the single bloodiest day of the war. Continued below...

Approaching topics related to Lee's and McClellan's operations from a variety of perspectives, numerous contributors to this volume explore questions regarding military leadership, strategy, and tactics, the impact of the fighting on officers and soldiers in both armies, and the ways in which participants and people behind the lines interpreted and remembered the campaign. They also discuss the performance of untried military units and offer a look at how the United States Army used the Antietam battlefield as an outdoor classroom for its officers in the early twentieth century. Also available in paperback: The Antietam Campaign (Military Campaigns of the Civil War)

 

Recommended Reading: Crossroads of Freedom: Antietam (Pivotal Moments in American History) (Hardcover). Description: The bloodiest day in United States history was September 17, 1862, when, during the Civil War battle at Antietam, approximately 6,500 soldiers were killed or mortally wounded, while more than 15,000 were seriously wounded. James M. McPherson states in Crossroads of Freedom the concise chronicle of America’s bloodiest day and that it may well have been the pivotal moment of the war, as well as the young republic itself. Continued below...

The South, after a series of setbacks in the spring of 1862, had reversed the war's momentum during the summer, and was on the "brink of military victory" and about to achieve diplomatic recognition by European nations, most notably England and France. Though the bulk of his book concerns itself with the details--and incredible carnage--of the battle, McPherson raises it above typical military histories by placing it in its socio-political context: The victory prodded Abraham Lincoln to announce his "preliminary" Emancipation Proclamation, freeing slaves. England and France deferred their economic alliance with the battered secessionists. Most importantly, it kept Lincoln's party, the Republicans, in control of Congress. McPherson's account is accessible, elegant, and economical. Also available in paperback: Crossroads of Freedom: Antietam (Pivotal Moments in American History)

 

Recommended Reading: Fields of Honor: Pivotal Battles of the Civil War, by Edwin C. Bearss (Author), James McPherson (Introduction). Description: Bearss, a former chief historian of the National Parks Service and internationally recognized American Civil War historian, chronicles 14 crucial battles, including Fort Sumter, Shiloh, Antietam, Gettysburg, Vicksburg, Chattanooga, Sherman's march through the Carolinas, and Appomattox--the battles ranging between 1861 and 1865; included is an introductory chapter describing John Brown's raid in October 1859. Bearss describes the terrain, tactics, strategies, personalities, the soldiers and the commanders. (He personalizes the generals and politicians, sergeants and privates.) Continued below...

The text is augmented by 80 black-and-white photographs and 19 maps. It is like touring the battlefields without leaving home. A must for every one of America's countless Civil War buffs, this major work will stand as an important reference and enduring legacy of a great historian for generations to come. Also available in hardcover: Fields of Honor: Pivotal Battles of the Civil War.

 

Recommended Reading: Landscape Turned Red: The Battle of Antietam, by Stephen W. Sears. Description: The Civil War battle waged on September 17, 1862, at Antietam Creek, Maryland, was one of the bloodiest in the nation's history: in this single day, the war claimed nearly 23,000 casualties. In Landscape Turned Red, the renowned historian Stephen Sears draws on a remarkable cache of diaries, dispatches, and letters to recreate the vivid drama of Antietam as experienced not only by its leaders but also by its soldiers, both Union and Confederate. Combining brilliant military analysis with narrative history of enormous power, Landscape Turned Red is the definitive work on this climactic and bitter struggle. Continued below…

About the Author: STEPHEN W. SEARS is the author of many award-winning books on the Civil War, including Gettysburg and Landscape Turned Red. The New York Times Book Review has called him "arguably the preeminent living historian of the war's eastern theater." He is a former editor for American Heritage.

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