This day in history: the battle of Antietam

Near Dunker’s Church, Antietam. Photo by Alexander Gardner. Public domain.

One hundred and fifty years ago today, Union and Confederate forces clashed at Antietm Creek, near Sharpsburg, MD, in what remains the bloodiest day in American history.  By sunset, 23,000 men lay dead or wounded.  They fell in a cornfield, along a sunken road, and beside a stone bridge – places where George B. McClellan’s Army of the Potomac confronted Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia in the latter’s first incursion into Union territory.  Based on opposition to the war in the north, Lee assumed – perhaps correctly – that a southern victory in Union territory might push the Federal government to peace negotiations.

In one of those moments in history that seem providential in retrospect, on the morning of Sept 13, Corporal Barton W. Mitchell of the 27th Indiana Volunteers found a packet of three cigars wrapped in what proved to be a copy of Lee’s battle plan.  Understanding the importance of his find, Corporal Barton sent the papers up through the ranks.  Upon reading them, McClellan was gleeful and said, “Here is a paper with which, if I cannot whip Bobby Lee, I will be willing to go home.”  He moved his army to intercept Lee near Sharpsburg.

Lee’s army of 55,000 was outnumbered 2-1, but the ever-cautious McClellan committed only 3/4 of his forces, allowing Lee to match him by shifting his own troops across the field as the advantage swung back and forth.  There was no clear winner.  After skirmishes throughout the following day, Lee withdrew from Maryland.

Lincoln fired McClellan for failing to pursue Lee, yet driving the southern troops from northern soil was victory enough for the president to release the Emancipation Proclamation.  Lincoln had been waiting for a northern victory to free the slaves, so the move would not be interpreted as a sign of desperation.  He had a long wait, for the south was largely unbeaten early in the war.  Though abolitionists criticized Lincoln for delaying emancipation, Antietam marked the moment when the war became about something greater than simply preventing secession.

One other consequence of the battle was the publication of battlefield photographs by Alexander Gardner.  Within a month of Antietam, civilians saw the price the soldiers were paying.

Confederate dead in the sunken road. Photo by Alexander Gardner. Public domain.

It’s always moving and worthwhile to remember the sacrifices earlier generations made in the name of ideals that underpin our way of life.  Especially in our current election year, characterized in the media as full of divisiveness, when we remember Antietam, we can reflect how the nation has experienced and overcome divisions far deeper than any we see today.

If Gardner’s photos preserve the tragedy of the civil war, the following clip immortalizes resilience, strength, and hope.  Taken in 1938, on the 75th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg, it shows veterans of the north and south meeting again at the wall on Cemetery Ridge – in a very different spirit than their first encounter.

Identifying a Civil War Soldier

For those interested in Civil War history, there’s a marvelous story on today.  A collector and his family donated 1,000 photographs of enlisted soldiers from North and South to the Library of Congress, and reporter, Ramona Martinez tells of her quest to learn the identity of one of these men who intrigued her with his flamboyant uniform and dashing pose.  You can read the story and see the photograph here:

The collector, Tom Liljenquist, gave Martinez her first clue, pointing out that the young soldier had carved his initials, T.A., into the stock of his rifle.  At the West Point Museum, Martinez learned that the Zouave-like uniform belonged to just one regiment, the 14th Brooklyn, sometimes called the “Red Legged Devils, for the bright red pants they wore.  The 14th Brooklyn served in some of the fiercest fights of the war, including Antietam and Gettysburg

Martinez plugged this information into the National Park Service’s Civil War Database, and found just four men with initials, T.A., in the regiment.  A National Archives researcher helped her narrow it down to two possibilities.  Armed with vital statistics, including the height of the men, Martinez found an antiques dealer in Gettysburg who owned a musket like the one shown in the photograph.  Using the gun as a yardstick, they identified the soldier as Thomas Ardies, who stood 5′ 4 1/2″ tall.

Ardies was wounded at Chancellorsville, but survived the war.  He emigrated to Canada, where pension record notes, “He was always considered a bachelor by all who knew him in the community where he was widely known and most respected.”  Ardies married at age 75, five years before his death, and is buried in Ontario.

Those who have followed this blog for a while know I am fascinated by Civil War history.  Ramona Martinez search for the details of one private soldier’s life highlight an area that’s not as well known as the stories of generals and major campaigns.

I wonder a lot about the lives of private soldiers, during and after the war.  The battles were as horrendous as those of the First World War fifty years later, but history does not record a “lost generation” after the earlier conflict.  Bitterness, economic hardship, and instances of violence,yes, but not the world-weariness that characterized veterans of later wars.  More Viet Nam veterans died of suicide after the war than were lost on the battlefields – nothing like that happened after the Civil War.

We always see history through the filter of our own sensibility.  It’s easy for us to believe the casual brutality we find in the pages of Cold Mountain. It’s harder to imagine the idealism we see in pictures of men like Thomas Ardies.  Maybe that’s why the old photographs are so haunting.

Gettysburg Day: The Third Day, July 3, 1863

On the afternoon of July 3, 1863, 15,000 men of General George Pickett’s division sheltered behind McPherson’s Wood during the fiercest artillery bombardment of the war.  Ninety minutes later, when the cannons fell silent, they passed through the wood and and marched over a mile of open ground to attack the Union center.

Numbers identify trees the War Dept. has identified as survivors of the battle

As you stand beneath the boughs of the trees, and gaze at the stone wall marking the Union position, it is almost beyond imagining what those men were feeling as they formed their ranks.  They were all veterans.  They probably knew what would happen as well as their commander, General James Longstreet, who did his best to talk Robert E. Lee out of the attack.  Lee would not budge.  His men had repeatedly done the impossible; maybe they would do it again at Gettysburg.

Where some of the generals wore plumes in their hats, talked of the bravery of southern manhood, and thought in terms of Napoleonic tactics, Longstreet was a pragmatist who knew that warfare had changed.  He had already invented a new kind of trench, anticipating the tactics of WWI.  He knew that bravery wouldn’t keep you alive when facing the fire of rifled muskets that were lethal at half a mile or when charging into cannons loaded with ball bearings.  He told Lee that no 15,000 men ever assembled could take the ridge, but he was overruled.  When Pickett asked, “Shall I go,” Longstreet could not even answer; all he could do was nod his head.

In one of the most tragic events of the Civil War, the men of Pickett’s division formed their ranks and moved over the fields in lines the northern men found stunningly beautiful, even as they fired their cannons and blew them apart.

Pickett’s 15,000 men suffered 60% casualties that afternoon.  As the survivors staggered back to the woods, Lee met them.  “It is all my fault,” he told the troops.  “All my fault.”  The south never had another chance to win the war.

The only brigade to reach the wall was led by General Lewis “Lo” Armistead.  His story illustrates the brother-against-brother tragedy of the Civil War.  Armistead and Union General John Hancock were close friends during the Mexican War and later in California.  On the night before they took separate trains to join opposing armies, they gathered with other officers to drink and sing and make tearful toasts to each other.  Armistead said, “May God strike me dead if I ever lift a hand against you.”  When he learned that he would have to march against Hancock, who commanded the Union center, Armistead did not think he would survive; he sent his family bible to Myra Hancock, his old friend’s wife.

Armistead was shot three times as he crossed the wall.  As union solders gathered around him, he said, “Tell General Hancock that General Armistead is so very sorry.”

This clip from Gettysburg is one of the most moving of the film and represents one of the saddest events in American history.  It is Armistead who gives the order to March.  It is worth noting that this scene, like most in the movie, was filmed on the Gettysburg battlefield, with the help of thousands of Civil War re-enactors who bring tremendous realism into all of the scenes involving the armies.

On the next day,  July 4, the Confederates reformed their lines as driving rain fell.  Lee hoped Meade would attack, mirroring his own mistake of the day before, but no attack came.  That night, the southern troops left the field and started their march back to Virginia.  Meade pursued the retreating Confederates, but half-heartedly, allowing the remnants of Lee’s army to escape.  WIth vigorous action, he might have ended the war – instead it dragged on for another two years.

Gettysburg: The Second Day, July 2, 1863

By the morning of July 2, both armies were in place on ridges facing each other about a mile apart, but the Union forces, arranged in the shape of a fishhook, had the advantage of easily defensible terrain and ease of communication.  The Confederate line was five miles long and messages were harder to transmit.

Lee planned a series of coordinated, “en echelon” attacks on both flanks.  Timing was critical.  One attack was to follow another, to confuse the enemy and prevent men from reinforcing other parts of the line.  The distance worked against Lee.  So did his unfamiliarity with the terrain.

Battle lines on the afternoon of July 2

The assault was supposed to begin in the morning, but it took Longstreet longer than expected to position his men.  At one point the column came into view of the Union troops, and to preserve the element of surprise, they doubled back and  took a roundabout way to reach their objective.  The assault did not launch until 4:00pm, and Ewell’s planned diversionary attack on the right did not begin start 7:00pm, too late to confuse the northern forces.  To make things worse for Longstreet, his commanders were not in position to roll up the Union flank as Lee had expected.  Instead, the ground before them was well defended.

In the course of the bloody afternoon, both sides realized the hill called Little Round Top was undefended.  Union commanders rushed Joshua Chamberlain’s 20th Maine, including the 114 former-mutineers, into position, with orders to “hold to the last.”

Some historians now dispute the assertion that the Union army would have fallen if Little Round Top was lost, but everyone who ought for the hill that day believed it.  Chamberlain’s men repulsed repeated assaults.  They started the battle with 60 rounds each, but even taking the cartridges of the fallen, they ran out of ammunition before the battle was over.  Under orders not to retreat, but with his men unable to shoot, Chamberlain ordered a bayonet charge, a tactic from the books of military history he had studied.

The Confederates were exhausted.  The day was hot, and many of them had been fighting all afternoon with empty canteens.  When the Union forces came charging downhill out of the trees, many gave up the fight and surrendered.  The others fled.

Chamberlain was wounded in the foot that day, one of six wounds he would receive in the course of the war.  One, in 1864, was so serious he was promoted to brigadier general where he was fallen, since no one believed he would survive the day.  He recovered and his regiment was chosen by Grant as the honor guard at Appomattox when Lee surrendered.

Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain served four terms as Governor of Maine, and thirty years after his stand on Little Round Top, he received the Congressional Medal of Honor.  After retiring from politics, Chamberlain became president of Bowdoin College.  He died in 1914, a few months before the guns of August signaled the world’s descent into another round of the folly he had survived.

Gettysburg: The First Day, July 1, 1863

By the summer of 1863, Major General John Reynolds was regarded by officers of both north and south as the best general in the Union army.  In a confidential meeting on June 2, Lincoln is said to have offered Reynolds command of all northern forces.  Reynolds supposedly said he would only accept if he could have free rein and be shielded from Washington politics, conditions Lincoln could not meet.  This left Reynolds at front of the Union army when Buford sent urgent messages requesting assistance in holding a strong field position against vastly superior forces.  Where many other northern generals would have dithered and delayed, Reynolds understood the gravity of the situation and moved his troops forward with all possible haste.

Gen. John Reynolds. Public domain

He arrived just in time.  After repeated assaults, Buford’s line was ready to break when Reynolds arrived with two corps to counterattack.  Buford and Reynolds’s bold moves preserved the Union position on the heights, which in the end decided the battle.  Reynolds bought the advantage at the cost of his life, for as he urged his men forward, he was shot through the neck and died instantly.

About the time that Reynolds fell, Confederate General Richard Ewell’s troops arrived from the north.  Attacked on two sides, the Union forces fell back through the town and reformed on Cemetery Hill.  When Lee arrived on the field, he ordered Ewell, who commanded Stonewall Jackson’s old brigade, to take the hill, “if practical.”  Jackson undoubtedly would have found it practical.  Ewell did not, and also did not send troops to neighboring Culp’s hill, which the northern forces occupied under the cover of darkness.

The vision and courage of Union generals Buford and Reynolds, combined with the hesitation of Ewell, gave the northern army a huge advantage in field position after the first day of fighting.

John Buford died in December, 1863, in part from the effects of old wounds.  On the last day of his life, Lincoln promoted him to Major General in recognition of his service at Gettysburg.  Buford asked, “Does he mean it?” and when assured that he did, he said, “It’s too late now.  I wish that I could live.”  He died in the arms of fellow cavalry officer, Miles Keogh, who would later ride with Custer to his death on the Little Bighorn.

John Buford monument at Gettysburg

To be Continued

Gettysburg: The Eve of Battle

On the morning of June 30, 1863, Col. Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, awoke with the aftereffects of the heat stroke he had suffered while marching the day before.  Chamberlain, 34, was a professor of rhetoric at Bowdoin College who spoke seven languages, but had always wanted to be a soldier.  He had asked for a leave to join the army the year before but was denied, so he applied for a sabbatical to study language in Europe.  When it was granted, he went instead to the Governor of Maine, who commissioned him a Lt. Colonel in the newly formed 20th Maine regiment.

Col. Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain

On the morning of June 30, Chamberlain had other problems as well:  120 men from another Maine regiment had refused to fight because of a controversy involving their enlistment papers.  They had been sent under guard to Chamberlain, with a note from the commander of the army saying Chamberlain could shoot them “if necessary.”

Instead, Chamberlain used his rhetorical skills to persuade 114 of these men to join the 20th Maine, which had lost more than 700 of its original strength of 1000 men to battle and to smallpox.  This was one of those destiny moments in history; two days later, Chamberlain and the men of the 20th Maine would save the Union army at Little Round Top.


Another key bit of destiny was in play the day before the battle.  Union general John Buford, a cavalry officer who loved the western territories, didn’t know how to curb his tongue, which has never been a good survival tactic in Washington – it got him assigned to a desk.  Just two weeks earlier, he had won command of a cavalry troop of 2500 men and 6 cannons.  His orders had been to shadow Lee’s army from a safe distance and communicate their movements back to the infantry.  But Lee had changed directions during the night.  Suddenly, at noon on June 30, as Buford rode into Gettysburg, that safe distance was gone!  He was faced with Confederate general Harry Heth’s column of 8000 infantry entering the town.

Then, incredibly, Heth retreated.  Buford correctly reasoned that Heth was under orders not to attack until the troops were in place with greater strength.  He could see that the heights around Gettysburg offered excellent field position and whoever occupied them first would have a huge advantage.  He had seen the slaughter that resulted from fruitless charges against such positions.  He sent couriers galloping to the main force and ordered his own vastly outnumbered troops to dig in and prepare to hold until help arrived.

To Be Continued

The Gettysburg Battlefield

I spent the spring and summer of 1973 working at IBM and living with my parents in the western New York factory town they had moved to a year before.  I had just gotten a VW van and while I was there, I offered to take each of them camping to the place of their choice.  My father chose the Jersey shore.  My mother wanted to tour Gettysburg, so that’s where she and I went.

My mother was born in Richmond and remembered seeing old gray-bearded veterans rocking on porches in nursing homes when she was a girl.  Her Uncle Bob was an avid Civil War historian and inspired the same passion in her, which she in turn passed on to me.  I think she first took me to see Gone With the Wind when I was six.  On a summer visit to Richmond, Uncle Bob toured us around local battlefields and bought me a minnie ball.  He had a civil war musket over his fireplace and gave my mother a first edition of General Sherman’s Memoirs.

It was natural then, for us to set out for Gettysburg, but it turned out to be far more than either of us expected.  Growing up on the east coast, I had visited other battlefields, but Gettysburg is about something more than history.  Everyone I have ever met who who has been there has the same thing to say:  Gettysburg is sacred ground.  These are the exact words people use.

Little Round Top, courtesy of

First of all, the battlefield is incredibly beautiful.  In early June, 1973 everything was in bloom.  At the Devil’s Den, my mother said it looked like a team of Japanese gardeners had been working the land for a hundred years.  There was a distinct oriental feel to the granite boulders, the blooming dogwood, and the surrounding fields of wildflowers.

But our nation is filled with natural wonders, and the feeling at Gettysburg is not about beauty alone.  It is like the feeling of peace you sometimes experience in old cemeteries, especially the old ones on the east coast, with statues of sad angels silently keeping watch.  At the start of July, 1863, 150,000 men fought on this ground.  In the next three days, they suffered 50,000 casualties; one out of every three men was killed, wounded, or captured.

In a place of so much horror, you would expect a negative vibe, but Gettysburg is the opposite.  In some places, you lower your voice, as if you were standing in church.  Lincoln got it right in his address:  in some inexplicable way, the blood of so many young men forever hallowed this ground.


I think of Gettysburg and often watch the movie again at this time of the year.  Gettysburg was released in 1993 and was based on the best historical novel I’ve ever read, The Killer Angels, 1974 by Michael Shaara.  The book won a Pulitzer prize, and I believe it is still required reading in military academies.  Over the next few days, I am going to post about what happened there.  This was the turning point of the war.  At moments, the outcome depended on just a few men who did the right or the wrong thing under fire.  Some of these stories are better than fiction.


The soldiers of both armies showed incredible courage, but the south had dominated the battlefields for the first two years of the war.  They had brilliant generals, while the north put the wrong men in leadership roles at precisely the wrong times.  By the summer of 1863, Lee was convinced that a victory on northern soil would finish the north’s already flagging will to fight.

It was just at this pivotal moment that Lee’s own judgement and that of some of his key commanders failed.  At the same time, several Union field commanders made precisely the right moves, and all these actions combined to tip the outcome.  Part of Lee’s problem was beyond anyone’s control – he had lost Stonewall Jackson, the general he called his “right arm,” at the battle of Chancellorsville in May.  The new commanders of the Stonewall brigade did not have Jackson’s uncanny instinct for always doing the right thing.

What was avoidable was the serious lapse in judgement of Lee’s cavalry commander, J.E.B. Stuart.  Cavalry was the eyes and ears of the army, but Stuart had gone “joyriding,” as some of the other commanders put it – tearing through Pennsylvania, trying to sow confusion and panic in the population.  He succeeded, but left Lee without knowledge of the Union army’s location and strength.

On July 29, 1863, Lee’s army was stretched over miles of Pennsylvania roads, vulnerable to attack.  Late that night, an actor-turned-spy named Harrison reported to Generals Longstreet and Lee that elements of a stronger Union force were no more than four hours away.  Lee send word to all his commanders to assemble at a sleepy little town called Gettysburg where all the highways happened to meet.

To be continued.

Finding Your Civil War Ancestors

For a number of reasons, which I will discuss here later, my thoughts at this time of year turn toward the battle Gettysburg, an event in our history that has long haunted and fascinated me, especially since I toured the battlefield one June many years ago.

The campaign began at this time of year, on June 15, 1863.  Bolstered by six months of stunning victories against superior numbers, Robert E. Lee led 70,000 men of the Army of Northern Virginia across the Potomac to invade Pennsylvania.  He planned to strike as far north as the capitol in Harrisburg, or even Philadelphia.  Anti-war sentiment in the north was so strong he believed that one more victory on northern soil would force Abraham Lincoln to negotiate for peace.  He was probably right.

On the battlefield’s web site, I found a fascinating page for locating civil war ancestors:,  If you click the top button on the right, called the “Civil War Soldiers and Sailors System,” you can plug in names and states to search the National Archives data base.

I started by trying my name, because it’s unusual, and discovered eight soldiers named Mussell, seven who fought for the Union, and one Confederate from Georgia.  I doubt that any were direct ancestors, since my paternal great-grandfather didn’t arrive on these shores until 1870.

I searched on my mother’s maiden name, which is more common, but that carried its own difficulty:  she was born in Virginia, her father came from Michigan, her grandfather from New Jersey, and all three states had soldiers with her name.  Out in a trunk in the garage I have an old hand-drawn genealogy, and such tools are likely to be necessary.

The soldiers’s names are matched with regiments, and if you click those, you can see where they were formed, where they fought, and where they were disbanded.  Tragically, in every regiment I checked, the number who died of disease was greater than the number who killed in battle, a statistic that holds for both armies as a whole.

It’s pretty amazing to have this kind of information at our fingertips, and one thing we can be sure of:  everyone who lived in this country 150 years ago was affected.  There were almost a million casualties at a time when the population was only 31 million.  If you are lucky enough to have some letters, a family Bible, an aging relative, or family legends, who knows what you can find with this database.