Human Nature on the Rack~the Battle at Antietam

September 17th in 1862. Near a small town in Maryland, a place of no strategic significance, the battle between Union and Confederate forces began about dawn with an exchange of artillery fire and Federal troops making an initial probe of rebel positions. Before the day was over more blood had been shed on the single day than ever before seen in American history and seldom matched since in the American experience. By dusk the Union forces suffered 2,108 killed; 9,540 wounded and 753 missing or captured while the Confederates suffered 1,546 killed; 7,752 wounded and 1,018 missing or captured. In terms of total casualties [killed, wounded, missing combined] in Civil War battles, Antietam ranks fifth but the others– Gettysburg, Chickamauga, Chancellorsville, and Spotsylvania Court House–were battles fought over a period of days. In terms of civil disasters, the worst was the hurricane which struck Galveston, Texas, in 1900, killing somewhere between 9,000 to 12,000 people.

Graveyard at Antietam

At day’s end, both sides held approximately the same positions. Confederate General Lee had fought a superior Union force to a bloody standstill, in part because many Union soldiers were inexperienced and in part because Union General McClellan held back about 25% of his total force. Worn out by the struggle, Lee began to retreat the next day. McClellan failed to give chase. The Confederate invasion of the North had been stopped and the marginal Union victory gave President Lincoln the opportunity to announce his Emancipation Proclamation. Unbeknownst to both sides, the bloodiest year of the ghastly war loomed over the horizon of the new year.

Here are the words and recollections of some of Antietam’s survivors:

Artillery in action

“Human nature was on the rack, and there burst forth from it the most vehement, terrible swearing I have ever heard. . . . The suspense was only for a moment, however, for the order to charge came just after. Whether the regiment was thrown into disorder or not, I never knew. I only remember that as we rose, and started all the [Confederate] fire that had been held back so long was loosed. In a second the air was full of the hiss of bullets and the hurtle of grape-shot. The mental strain was so great that I saw at that moment the singular effect mentioned, I think, in the life of Goethe on a similar occasion– the whole landscape for an instant turned slightly red. I see again, as I saw it then in a flash, a man just in front of me drop his musket and throw up his hands, stung into vigorous swearing by a bullet behind the ear. Many men fell going up the hill, but it seemed to be all over in a moment, and I found myself passing a hollow where a dozen wounded men lay– among them our sergeant-major who was calling me to come down.”– David L. Thompson, Private, Company G, 9th Regiment, New York Volunteers

93rd New York Infantry at Antietam


“During the whole day our artillery was everywhere bravely and ably handled. Indeed, I cannot speak too highly of the efficiency of our batteries and of the great service they rendered. On more than one occasion when our infantry was broken they covered its reformation and drove back the enemy.The cavalry had little field for operations during the engagement, but was employed in supporting the horse-artillery batteries in the center, and in driving up stragglers, while awaiting opportunity for other service. The Signal Corps, under Major Myer, rendered, during the operations at Antietam as well as at South Mountain and during the whole movements of the army, efficient and valuable service. Indeed, by its service here, as on other fields elsewhere, this corps has gallantly earned its title to an independent and permanent organization. The duties devolving upon my staff during the action were most important, and the performance of them able and untiring. At a later day I propose to bring to the notice of the Department their individual services. With the day closed this memorable battle, in which, perhaps, nearly 200,000 men were for fourteen hours engaged in combat. We had attacked the enemy in position, driven them from their line on one flank and secured a footing within it on the other. Under the depression of previous reverses we had achieved a victory over an adversary invested with the prestige of former successes and inflated with a recent triumph. Our forces slept that night conquerors on a field won by their valor and covered with the dead and wounded of the enemy.”– General George B. McClellan, Commanding General, forces of the United States

Dead near the Dunker church

“The arduous service in which our troops had been engaged, their great privations of rest and food, and the long marches without shoes over mountain roads, had greatly reduced our ranks before the action began. These causes had compelled thousands of brave men to absent themselves, and many more had done so from unworthy motives. This great battle was fought by less than 40,000 men on our side, all of whom had undergone the greatest labors and hardships in the field and on the march. Nothing could surpass the determined valor with which they met the large army of the enemy, fully supplied and equipped, and the result reflects the highest credit on the officers and men engaged. Our artillery, though much inferior to that of the enemy in the number of guns and weight of metal, rendered most efficient and gallant service throughout the day, and contributed greatly to the repulse of the attacks on every part of the line. General Stuart, with the cavalry and horse artillery, performed the duty intrusted to him of guarding our left wing with great energy and courage, and rendered valuable assistance in defeating the attack on that part of our line. On the 18th we occupied the position of the preceding day, except in the center, where our line was drawn in about 200 yards. Our ranks were increased by the arrival of a number of troops, who had not been engaged the day before, and, though still too weak to assume the offensive, we awaited without apprehension the renewal of the attack. The day passed without any demonstration on the part of the enemy, who, from the reports received, was expecting the arrival of reenforcements. As we could not look for a material increase in strength, and the enemy’s force could be largely and rapidly augmented, it was not thought prudent to wait until he should be ready again to offer battle.”– General Robert E Lee, Commanding General, forces of the Confederate States

newspaper illustration of the battle


“The loss of the enemy in killed and wounded was very heavy. Our troops behaved in the handsomest manner, and performed the part assigned to them successfully and with promptness, and in passing through the trying ordeal exhibited the soldier’s noblest qualities. I regret that some of the most valuable officers of the division were killed and many wounded, some of them of those who had distinguished themselves on many previous fields.”– Union General Winfield S. Hancock

the Lutheran church damaged by artillery and rifle fire

“We have to mourn in this action many of our companions as killed and wounded, who go to swell the list of noble martyrs who have suffered in our just cause. I was not to be acquainted with but one of the officers who fell on this occasion – Colonel John B. Strange, Nineteenth Virginia Volunteers. His tried valor on other fields, and heroic conduct in animating his men to advance upon the enemy with his latest breath, and after he had fallen mortally wounded, will secure imperishable honor for his name and memory.I herewith furnish a list of the killed and wounded . . . . As far as practicable the command was sheltered in a hollow in the rear of the artillery. For some four or five hours it was subjected to an almost uninterrupted fire of solid shot, shell, and spherical case, by which a number of men were killed and wounded, which casualties were borne by the troops with remarkable firmness and steadiness. I was subsequently ordered forward on the brow of the hill to dislodge the enemy’s skirmishers, who began to annoy our artillery to the eastward. Here we were more exposed to the Federal artillery than in our former position, and suffered considerably.”– Confederate General Richard B Garnett.

graveyard at Antietam

Compiled from the most reliable sources at my command, the number of wounded amounted to 8,350. This number is not entirely accurate, as many who were slightly wounded were attended to, of whose cases no record could, under the circumstances, be taken. The removal of so large a body of wounded was no small task. The journey to Frederick in ambulances was to wounded men tedious and tiresome, and often painful. It was necessary that they should halt at Middletown for food and to take rest; that food should always be provided at this place at the proper time and for the proper number; that the hospitals at Frederick should not be overcrowded; that the ambulances should not arrive too soon for the trains of cars at the depot at Frederick, and that the ambulance horses should not be broken down by the constant labor required of them. With rare exceptions this was accomplished, and all the wounded whose safety would not be jeopardized by the journey were sent carefully and comfortably away. The hospitals in Frederick were soon established and put in order by Surgeon Milhau, U.S. Army. In addition to the hospitals in the city, two large camps of hospital tents were formed on the outskirts of the city, capable of containing one thousand beds each. One hospital had been established in Frederick some months before our arrival there, but at that time it was filled, and chiefly with Confederate sick and wounded, who had been left there. All the available buildings in this city (six in number)were taken at once for hospitals for our own troops and those of the enemy who should fall into our hands. These were fitted up with great rapidity, particularly so when it is considered that the enemy was in possession of the city the day before we arrived there; that it had to be examined, the buildings selected and prepared, beds, bedding, dressings, stores, food, cooking arrangements made, surgeons, stewards, cooks, and nurses detailed and sent for. This was a great deal of labor, but it was done, and done promptly and well. On the 30th of September these hospitals contained 2,321 patients.The camps to which I have just alluded were formed in October, in very eligible and pleasant locations on the outskirts of the city. In these hospitals and camps 62 surgeons, 15 medical cadets, 22 hospital stewards, 539 nurses, and 127 cooks were on duty during the mouth of October, when all were in operation. During this month 3,032 patients, chiefly wounded, were received into these hospitals, making, with those then under treatment, on the 30th of September, 5,353. Of this number 403 were returned to duty, 23 were discharged, 3 deserted, 4 were sent on furlough, 2,064 were sent to other hospitals, and 253 died, leaving on the 31st of October 2,603 remaining in the hospitals.”– Dr Jonathan Letterman, Medical Director, U S Army

field hospital

“I deem it proper to state that all the killed and wounded of my own brigade were inside of my lines, as I established them after the fight, and that the killed and wounded of the enemy on this part of the field were also within the same lines. All my killed were buried, and all my wounded were carried to the hospitals in the rear, though, by some mis-management on the part of the surgeons or quartermasters, of which I was not aware until too late, some 10 or 15 of my wounded were left in a hospital on the Maryland side of the river when we recrossed.”– Confederate General Jubal Early

straw huts used as field hospital

“The medical department, in charge of Surgeon Cullen, were active and unremitting in the care of the wounded, and have my thanks for their humane efforts. My party of couriers were zealous, active, and brave. They are justly entitled to praise for the manly fortitude and courageous conduct shown by them in the trying scenes of the campaign.”– Confederate General James Longstreet


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