THE GETTYSBURG DIARY: The Glorious Fourth (Saturday, July 4th, 1863).

"The Glorious Fourth," Mort Kuntsler's painting of the victory at Vicksburg.

“The Glorious Fourth,” Mort Kuntsler’s painting of the victory at Vicksburg.

July of 1776 proved to be a pivotal day in the history of the American colonies. In this month, the thirteen separate “countries” finally banded together as one country: the United States of America. On July 2nd, the 2nd Continental Congress, representing all thirteen colonies, unanimously declared independence from Great Britain. John Adams, delegate from Massachusetts, wrote to his wife of the day, stating that July 2nd would “be the most memorable epocha in the history of America. I am apt to believe that it will be celebrated by succeeding generations as the day of deliverance,” to be observed and celebrated “from this time forward forevermore.” He would be right about the celebrations, but proved to be wrong about the date. Two days later, on July 4th, Congress officially adopted Thomas Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence, and was officially made public for the first time. With this action, July 4th would officially be considered Independence Day, as the day that the colonists officially threw off the chains of Great Britain, and created what officially became the United States of America.

87 years later, the very existence of the country those men created was at stake. For the argument over slavery and states’ rights had culminated in the costliest war in American history. At its heart lay not only the existence of the United States as a whole, but the idea of freedom as well. In September of 1862, following the Battle of Antietam, Union President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, declaring freedom to all of those slaves in the states still in rebellion. But Lincoln knew that, for it to truly work, the Union would have to win the war. And by the end of June, 1863, it looked as though the war was turning against the Union yet again. Not only were troops in the west bogged down in an endless siege around Vicksburg, Mississippi, but Confederate troops were again moving north, this time into Pennsylvania. IT seemed that, at this moment, the fate of the nation truly hang in the balance. However, on July 4th, 1863, 87 years to the day of the first public reading of the Declaration of Independence, the tide of war changed in favor of the United States.

The first of these changes, and the one which has been the subject of this series of articles, was the culmination of the Battle of Gettysburg. After three days of brutal fighting (July 1st-3rd), Confederate forces under General Robert E. Lee struggled hard against Union troops under Major General George Gordon Meade. Despite a great amount of courage and heroism, the Confederates were unsuccessful at driving Meade’s troops from the field. After a disastrous attack on July 3rd, an assault that would forever be known as “Pickett’s Charge,” Lee’s troops were beaten. Although official casualties have never been fully confirmed, Confederate losses have been estimated at nearly 28,000 of the 75,000 men in the Army of Northern Virginia, over a third of Lee’s forces. Union casualties numbered nearly 23,000. 51,000 men killed, wounded and captured/missing in three days of fighting. On July 4th, Lee finally acknowledged defeat, and began his retreat back to Virginia. Meade and his troops failed to take the initiative and pursue Lee. By the time they finally moved, Confederates were across the Potomac, and back in Virginia. Lee would never again attempt such an audacious invasion again, and was forced to fight a defensive war that would eventually lead to their ultimate defeat two years later.

On the same day that Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia began the retreat from Gettysburg, Union troops in the western theater achieved an equally important victory. For several weeks, the forces of Major General Ulysses S. Grant had laid siege to the Confederate city of Vicksburg, a vital city along the Mississippi River. At last, with food supplies spent, and the troops no longer able to hold out against the continual assault, the Confederates finally surrendered on July 4th. With Vicksburg gone, control of the Mississippi lay almost entirely in the hands of the Union armies. The Confederacy was officially split in half, and Grant’s start reached its highest peak in the west. With further success at Chattanooga in November, Lincoln knew that Grant was the man who could win the war for him. In March of 1864, Grant was called to Washington, where he was promoted to Lieutenant General, and placed in command of all Union forces in the field. And now, he would face Lee on the fields of Virginia, and one of the greatest contests in military history would soon begin.

With the Union victories at Gettysburg and Vicksburg, the Confederate momentum was officially rocked to its core. With Lee’s great army decimated at Gettysburg, and the vital city of Vicksburg in Union hands, the tide of war shifted to the side of the United States. In less than two years, the war would successfully be won, and the United States restored. It is for this reason that July 4th, 1863, has the right to be called “the Glorious Fourth.”

In the next edition of THE GETTYSBURG DIARY, we will look at Lincoln’s famous address at the dedication of the National Cemetery in Gettysburg, and how his words showed the transformation of the man revered by many as “the Great Emancipator.” Due for release on Tuesday, November 19th, 2013.

THE GETTYSBURG DIARY: Culp’s Hill – Gettysburg’s Often-overlooked Front (Friday, July 3rd, 1863)

One the final day of the Battle of Gettysburg, Robert E. Lee planned for a massive assault against the Union center. This attack would become legendary, and forever be remembered as “Pickett’s Charge.” In this assault, over 12,000 Confederates under General James Longstreet would move on the Union troops on Cemetery Ridge. The attack was easily repulsed, with over half of the troops who attacked killed, wounded or captured. It was a terrible gamble that several of the officers, including Longstreet himself, felt was not worth the risk. And those men were proven right at a terrible cost.

View of Culp's Hill, where the Union left flank was situated.

View of Culp’s Hill, where the Union left flank was situated.

However, on the morning of Friday, July 3rd, while Lee planned the massive assault on the Federal center, another Confederate assault took place on the Union left, on a ridge known as Culp’s Hill. This hill was the part of the high ground that Lee had hoped to secure in the latter part of July 1st, and for which General Richard Ewell became a scapegoat for the Confederate loss by not continuing the successful momentum of that day and taking that heights beyond the town. On the afternoon of July 2nd, Ewell ordered his men to attempt to take the ridge, but the attack was unsuccessful. The following morning, and against Lee’s orders, the attack was resumed on the hill.

Instead of writing a lengthy summary of the battle here, I have decided to link to an article from the website called North against South, which has a great article on the fighting at Culp’s Hill on July 3rd. That article can be read here.

The failure to take Culp’s Hill on the morning of July 3rd, added to the additional failures of “Pickett’s Charge,” as well as the cavalry attack to the rear of the Union lines by Jeb Stuart, helped make Gettysburg a complete failure for the Confederates. Had General Ewell pushed on after the successes of July 1st and taken Culp’s Hill then, the outcome of the battle may have been different. But alas, Confederate fortunes at Gettysburg, which had been high following the first day’s actions, petered out, and turned in favor of the North. And with the end of the day on July 3rd, Lee and his men knew that the battle had ended disastrously for them.

In the next edition of THE GETTYSBURG DIARY, we look at July 4th, 1863, and how the combined Union victories at Gettysburg and Vicksburg proved to be another major turning point in the war.

THE GETTYSBURG DIARY: James Jackson Purman – Medal of Honor Recipient (Thursday, July 2nd, 1863)

The Medal of Honor is the highest military award given to the soldiers of the United States Army. It is awarded for “conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of life above and beyond the call of duty.” At the Battle of Gettysburg, only 63 of the 80,000 Union soldiers who fought there received the honor. One of those men to receive America’s highest award was James Jackson Purman. His gallantry may not have been as high as those of other men who won the award, but for the men he led, his actions were no less important.

James Jackson Purman, after the war.

James Jackson Purman, after the war.

James Jackson Purman was born in Pennsylvania in 1841. At the time of Gettysburg, he was serving as a Lieutenant in Company A of the 140th Pennsylvania. On July 2nd, 1863, his company was involved in the fighting in the Wheatfield on the Union left flank. At the risk of his own life, he, along with Captain James Pipes, voluntarily moved a wounded comrade to safety, before falling himself with a wound to the leg. He lay on the ground there until the next day, when he was finally removed from the field. His leg was amputated, but while being treated, he fell in love with one of the nurses, Mary Witherow, whom he later married. On October 30th, 1896, over thirty-three years after the fight at Gettysburg, he was awarded the Medal of Honor for his bravery under fire in moving his comrade to safety (Captain Pipes was also awarded the same honor).

Following Gettysburg, he worked as a schoolteacher before starting work with the U.S. Pension office in 1881. James Jackson Purman died in Washington, D.C. on May 11, 1915, and is buried in Arlington National Cemetery along with his wife. But his legacy, and the legacy of those men who fought at Gettysburg, continues to inspire the people of America to this day. Recently, acclaimed actor Stephen Lang brought Purman to life in a one-man performance, where he portrayed Purman as if he was giving a speech at the 50th Anniversary Commemorations of the Battle of Gettysburg in 1913. That performance, as well as a Q&A with the actor, can be found here.

In the next edition of THE GETTYSBURG DIARY, a look at the often-overlooked attack on Culp’s Hill on the third day of the battle.

 

THE GETTYSBURG DIARY: John Buford, Unsung Hero of Gettysburg (Wednesday, July 1st, 1863)

Some will say that the largest battle of the American Civil War was destined to be fought at Gettysburg in July of 1863. Because many roads led to the small Pennsylvania town, it was an ideal place for all the scattered divisions of the Confederate and Union army to converge. And since both armies were moving along those same roads toward Gettysburg, a conflict there did appear inevitable. However, it can also be said that the selection of the place that would become the bloodiest battleground of the war was done by a relatively unknown cavalry commander: Brigadier General John Buford.

Brigadier General John Buford

Brigadier General John Buford

John Buford came from a somewhat distinguished military background. His grandfather had served with Robert E. Lee’s father, “Lighthorse Harry” Lee, during the American Revolution. Graduating 16th in his class from West Point in 1848, Buford primarily fought against the Native Americans out west, until the outbreak of civil war. Although tempted to join the Confederacy (As a native Kentuckian, and from a slave-owning family), he chose to remain loyal to the United States and the Union Army. During the early years of the conflict, he served as assistant inspector general to the army, before being promoted to Brigadier General and placed in command of cavalry brigade of the II Corps of the Army of Virginia, under Major General John Pope. Under his command, the cavalry fought well at Second Manassas in August of 1862. Buford received a wound to the knee while personally leading a charge in the battle. The wound was not serious, and he returned to active duty, serving as chief of cavalry in the Army of the Potomac in the latter part of 1862, and saw action at Antietam and Fredericksburg.

When Joseph Hooker took command of the Army of the Potomac in 1863, Buford was made commander of Reserve Cavalry in the 1st Division of the Cavalry Corps. In June, he saw action at the Battle of Brandy Station, considered the opening battle of the Gettysburg Campaign. But it would be at Gettysburg that he and his cavalry would play a crucial role in the campaign. Riding into town on June 30th, Buford learned from scouts that the entire Confederate army was concentrating in their direction, and that he would soon face a large force. Buford already saw the value of the ground around Gettysburg, and vowed to hold his men against an assault until the I Corps under Major General John Reynolds arrived.

On the morning of Wednesday, July 1st, Confederate troops under General Harry Heth of A.P. Hill’s Corps moved toward Gettysburg hoping to acquire some shoes for the men, many of them barefoot. He expected that there would be no resistance, except maybe for some local militia. Instead, coming down the Chambersburg Pike, his men ran into Buford’s two cavalry brigades under Colonels Gamble and Devin. The first assault was done with just one brigade, and was quickly repulsed. Heth then decided to deploy his entire division to attack them. Over the next couple of hours, the fighting was intense, and Buford’s men came close to breaking. However, before his men broke, Reynolds’ I Corps arrived on the field. As the infantry moved into position to face the Confederates, Buford and his men were able to fall back, knowing that they had held the field. For the rest of the Battle, Buford’s men would be responsible for guarding the supply wagons for the Army.

Following the battle, Buford continued to serve with great distinction. However, by December of 1863, it was apparent that the General was falling gravely ill, possibly from typhoid fever. He was at the Washington home of his good friend, General George Stoneman, when he died at 2 P.M. on December 16th. That same day, Abraham Lincoln promoted Buford to Major General for his meritorious service at the Battle of Gettysburg.

John Buford’s legacy is a great one. He may not have achieved the fame of men like Lee, Meade, Longstreet or Hancock, but his contribution to the war was just as vital. And if he is remembered for nothing else, we should remember this man as the one who chose to make a stand against the Confederates at Gettysburg. It was his decision to defend the ground there, and this decision led to Gettysburg being the site of the largest and costliest battle of the American Civil War. This battle served as a major turning point in the war, leading to ultimate Union victory not only in the battle, but in the conflict itself. For this reason alone, John Buford should be remembered as one of the greatest Union officers of the American Civil War.

In the next edition of THE GETTYSBURG DIARY, we look at the actions of one of the officers serving in the Wheatfield, and how his bravery won him the Medal of Honor.

THE GETTYSBURG DIARY: The Eve of Battle (Tuesday, June 30th, 1863)

Gettysburg1

The day before the opening of the Battle of Gettysburg proved to be rather dramatic for the Confederate and Union forces. Both sides began to marshal their forces, but neither side was ready to risk a general engagement just yet. But as fate would have it, both armies would be marching along roads toward a small town in Pennsylvania, and into three of the most crucial days in the history of the United States.

For the Confederates, things began to turn against them from almost the very beginning of the campaign. The main problem stemmed from a man who, until this point, had proven himself capable as a Cavalry officer: Major General James Ewell Brown “Jeb” Stuart. Having been humiliated at the Battle of Brandy Station on June 9th, Stuart took his cavalry on a “joyride” around Pennsylvania, causing havoc wherever they went. However, Stuart’s actions proved to be a problem. The cavalry had always been the eyes and ears of the army. But with Stuart and his troopers out of the picture, General Robert E. Lee, and the rest of the Army of Northern Virginia, marched through enemy territory blind.

Without Stuart’s cavalry, Lee was forced to rely on spies to obtain his information. In the last two days of June, Lee received word from a spy that the Federal forces were already on the move, and were moving faster than the Union forces had ever been known to march. With time already against him, Lee realized that the army had to concentrate, to face the Union forces. The troops would concentrate at a little town where several roads converged at one point: Gettysburg.

For Union forces, the campaign saw the placing of another officer at the head of the Army of the Potomac. Having lost confidence in Joseph “Fighting Joe” Hooker (Hooker had also lost confidence in his own leadership abilities), President Lincoln knew that another leader had to be found in a hurry. He originally offered command to Major General John Reynolds, who declined the command. One June 28th, command of the army was given to Major General George Gordon Meade. Having proven himself as a fairly capable commander, he was also known to have a short temper, and was not easy to get along with. His prickly demeanor earned him the nickname “Old Snapping Turtle.” With no time to lose, Meade hurried his troops north to face off against Lee. With the summer already hot, it proved to be a rough march, with many men falling due to heat exhaustion, with several dying. Still, the men pressed on. Once again, the will to win had returned to the army.

On Tuesday, June 30th, two Union cavalry brigades under command of Brigadier General John Buford arrived in Gettysburg. Confederate troops had already been through the town. They arrived to find the residents already worried about a possible fight. Receiving word from several scouts, Buford knew that the Confederates were concentrating in the direction of Gettysburg. With this information, Buford decided to place his troops on good ground northwest of the town, and hold out against any Confederates who came their way, until Union troops under Reynolds I Corps could arrive. It was a decision that would have great ramifications on the American Civil War.

In tomorrow’s article: A look at the unsung Union Cavalry commander who chose the ground where the bloodiest battle of the war was fought, and helped change the course of the war for the Union…

THE GETTYSBURG DIARY: Introduction

Pickett's Charge, the climax of Gettysburg

Pickett’s Charge, the climax of Gettysburg

This past Sunday marked the 150th Anniversary of the Battle of Brandy Station, the largest cavalry battle of the American Civil War. This battle marked the first battle in a campaign that would culminate with the Battle of Gettysburg, the bloodiest battle fought during the conflict. This campaign and battle would prove to be a major turning point in the war. The Confederate tide in the Eastern Theater, having ridden high following the battles at Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville, would begin to ebb, while Union momentum would finally begin to build toward ultimate victory. Lives would be changed forever, and nothing would be the same.

As we look back on this campaign over the next month, we cannot help but ask several questions about who fought in it, what took place, and how the events of that period helped shape the country we live in today. Not only would thousands of lives be lost in this campaign, but those that survived through it would not be the same. Men who were relatively unknown prior to the events of this period would soon become household names. Officers with boyish charm would become bitter, depressed men into their dying days. And local scenery such as Devil’s Den, the Wheatfield, the Peach Orchard, the Round Tops, and Cemetery Ridge would forever be etched into the annals of military history. But ultimately, this campaign would change the face of the war, and lead to ultimate Union victory during the war.

Over the next couple of weeks, we shall be looking at various people, places and events that shaped this campaign, and how they shaped the outcome of this campaign. All of this will culminate with a three-part series on the Battle of Gettysburg, which will be released on July 1st, 2nd and 3rd, respectively. We here at Civil War Diary look forward to sharing these stories with you.

BOOK REVIEW: “The Last Days of Stonewall Jackson”

The Last Days of Stonewall Jackson: The Mortal Wounding of the Confederacy’s Greatest Icon (Emerging Civil War Series)

Authors: Chris Mackowski and Kristopher D. White (With Contribution by Steph Mackowski)

Publication: Savas Beatie Publishing (El Dorado Hills, California), 2013

LastDaysofStonewallJacksonCover

It is considered by many to be the moment in the American Civil War that changed everything. On the evening of May 2nd, 1863, Confederate Lieutenant General Thomas Jonathan Jackson, the “Mighty Stonewall,” was wounded by friendly fire while doing reconnaissance following the greatest success of his career: the Flank Assault at Chancellorsville. The wounded Jackson was taken to a field hospital, where his left arm was amputated. Removed to safety at Guinea Station, his wounds appeared to be healing. But alas, pneumonia set in, and the General died eight days after he was shot. The events that transpired in the days before, and the years after, “Stonewall” Jackson’s death, are covered in the latest edition of the Emerging Civil War Series. Written by historians Chris Mackowski and Kristopher D. White, The Last Days of Stonewall Jackson: The Mortal Wounding of the South’s Greatest Icon, tells the story of this pivotal event in American history.

Mackowski and White have done thorough research into this story, presenting the wounding of Jackson, the dangerous journey to get him to a field hospital, the surgery, the removal to Guinea Station, and his subsequent death, in nearly-minute detail. But what sets this account apart from other tellings of the story is the fact that Mackowski and White are terrific writers. The work actually connects the reader personally to Jackson, making his wounding and subsequent death from pneumonia very emotional. This gives their work an emotional power that is rare for books on Civil War and American History.

But the book does not stop with the death and funeral of the Confederacy’s greatest icon. The Last Days of Stonewall Jackson also covers the curious story of Jackson’s amputated arm, as well as the decline and restoration of the exterior office building of the Chandler House at Guinea Station, where Jackson spent his final days. The efforts to preserve the building now known as the Stonewall Jackson Shrine is told in great detail, and the great writing keeps this part of the story from becoming dull and tedious.

In addition to the powerful main text, the authors have included several pages of appendices that readers will find incredible. From Jackson’s pre-war life in Lexington, Virginia, to memorializing the “Mighty Stonewall” in art, to exploding the greatest “What if…” of the war, the appendices offer readers even more information on Jackson and his life. But perhaps most fascinating and entertaining of all is the section “Stonewall Jackson in Memory,” which delves into the legend of the “lemon myth” that has stayed around Jackson ever since his death. The book also includes suggestions for further reading on the life of Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson.

As a student of Civil War history, I find The Last Days of Stonewall Jackson to be an invaluable addition to any Civil War library. The authors have written a fascinating and emotional account of the death of the man who was, to many in the South and the North, the greatest General the Confederacy had. The book includes additional information on Jackson, as well as some fantastic period and modern images related to Jackson and his life. If you are a student of this period of American history, or someone wishing to learn more about this tragic period, then this book is definitely a must-read. This book comes highly recommended!

Grade: 9.5/10, or A.

Help Historic Latta Plantation in Huntersville, NC!

For those of you who support historic preservation, here is an opportunity to help support an historic site in North Carolina that is in danger of losing a good portion of its funding!

A View of Historic Latta Plantation in Huntersville, NC.

A View of Historic Latta Plantation in Huntersville, NC.

Located in Huntersville, just north of Charlotte, Historic Latta Plantation is one of the state’s most treasured historic sites. Built in 1800 by James Latta, an Irish immigrant, the site was purchased by William Sample in 1853. The site has connections to the American Civil War, as several of Sample’s sons joined the Confederate Army as part of the 53rd North Carolina Infantry. In the 1970s, Latta Place, Inc. began to secure funding to restore the plantation house. The site opened in the later part of that decade. The site was then transferred to Mecklenburg County. Today, Historic Latta Plantation is a non-profit organization dedicated to the preservation of the site’s rich history.

Today, the site is hosts over thirty different events, and several summer camps for children. Between 12 and 20,000 school children visit the location every year. The site also hosts an annual Civil War Reenactment, which draws hundreds of visitors each year. In addition, the site provides one of the most tranquil places you could ever visit. Except for the Visitor Center and the occasional airplane flying over, you would scarcely believe that you are in the 21st Century.

But now, Latta Plantation is in danger of losing its funding from Mecklenburg County due to proposed budget cuts. The site has only a handful of full-time staff to run the site, and has already had its funding cut drastically. If the county does go through with its plan to cut funding to the site, it would greatly hinder the site, and its continued programs.

A petition has been started to encourage the commissioners of Mecklenburg County to not cut its funding to Latta Plantation. I encourage everybody who is interested in saving this valuable piece of history to sign the petition. The link to the petition can be found here. And for more information, you can visit the official website to learn about the Latta Plantation, and why it is important not only to North Carolina history, but to overall American history as well. Please, do not hesitate. Help support this beautiful historic site today!

CONNECTIONS TO THE PAST: Part One – Primary Documents

The first part in a series of articles discussing the personal connections we have to the people, places and events of the Civil War era.

Although the events of the American Civil War are a century-and-a-half behind us, there are still many things that connect us to those people, places and events that shaped this important part of American history. One of the most important are what have been termed “Primary Documents” by modern scholars. From diaries and journals, to letters home, to telegrams and after-action reports, to discharge and parole papers, these are our most important, and most intimate, connection to the people who lived at this time. It is by reading these primary documents that we can get a sense of who these people were, what they were fighting for, and how combat affected them mentally, physically and spiritually.

I am currently in the middle of working on my Master’s Thesis, the final research project for Graduate School. I am focusing my research on two units that fought in the American Civil War. One of those units is the Confederate 49th North Carolina Troops. As part of the research, I have to go through many primary documents pertaining to the unit. Not only has this been very good for my research project, but it has also been an eye-opening look into the lives of the men who fought in the unit. Much of what I have found has been truly memorable, and also heartbreaking.

In all the research that I have done so far, three moments stand out for me. The first was on my first research trip in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, back at the end of November this past year, to go through the Southern Historical Collections. I went through several documents, but probably the most fascinating that day was the diary of Captain Henry A. Chambers, who served in Company B of the 49th North Carolina, which he kept between June 1863, and April 1865. The diary gives many detailed accounts of the battles the unit fought in during that time, as well as his feelings about the outcomes of those conflicts. His description of the Battle of the Crater, fought on July 30, 1864, is truly memorable for its great detail, and its heartbreaking description of the loss of men (The full transcript of his diaries, including the one kept 1863-65, can be found here).

The second moment came the following day, as I was going through the special collections at Duke University in Durham, NC. I was going through the papers of John Lane Stuart, who fought in Company D of the 49th NC. He wrote several letters to his family at home. But while going through the packet of documents, I stumbled across two small slips of paper. Both were the parole papers given to him after the war had ended, and he had taken the oath of allegiance to the United States. These are important, because there are apparently only a few of these parole slips known to exist. What is also interesting to point out is that, in the first one given to him in August of 1865, the man writing the document misspelled his last name. On the document, the man filling out the form spelled it “Steward.” But when Private Stuart affixed his signature to the document, he spelled it the correct way. This is fascinating, and a bit humorous as well. The other one, which is a “copy” of the oath given to him a month later, the name is misspelled again, this time as “Stewart.” These are unique documents to see, and to find them was a real treasure.

The last moment, and probably the most emotional one, was going back to UNC-Chapel Hill a couple of weeks ago to do more research for the project. This day, I went through the Phifer Family Papers, and some of what I found truly moved me. One of the soldiers who’s letters I went through was Ed Phifer, who went on to be a Lieutenant in the 49th NC. He wrote several letters home, each time wishing members of his family well. As I did a quick look through other letters, I came across a slip of paper folded in two, covering a document that was a little more brittle than the other documents I looked through that day. As I opened it to investigate, I discovered it was the funeral notice for Lieutenant Phifer, who died after suffering wounds. I went back, looking through other documents, and discovered a telegram sent on July 18th, 1864 from Petersburg by his brother to his family notifying them of his death. It was very heart-wrenching to realize that the man whose letters I was going through was one of the men who did not return home from the war. Although I did not know him personally, I did begin to well up a little bit for him and his family, knowing that he gave his life for his home and family, and that his loved ones would not see him again in this life.

To go through these primary documents from the war is to connect personally with the men and women of that time period. To see how they lived through America’s darkest days. To read for yourself what they fought and died for. And most important of all, to feel a personal connection to the events of the American Civil War, a feeling that historical books cannot give you. To me, these documents are just as important a connection as the battlefields and structures of the period that are preserved. For it is through these letters, diaries, journals, and other items that the men themselves are given life again. I encourage everybody to take a day or two to visit the places that hold these types of documents, to see for yourselves the private collections of the men and women who shaped the most important time in our nation’s history.

Antietam 150th: The Bloodiest Day Remembered

On September 17th, 1787, the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia approved the final draft of the United States Constitution, and thirty-eight delegates, including George Washington, the President of the Convention, filed forward to sign the document. It was a great moment in American history. “In writing the Constitution, the Founding Fathers launched a daring experiment. The idea that a free people could begin a new country by designing their own government and writing down the laws and principles they would follow had never been tried before. The Constitution has guaranteed freedom, equality, opportunity, and justice to hundreds of millions of people.”[1] However, this document, birthed out of the promise of freedom for all Americans, allowed for the continuation of slavery in the United States. The question of slavery would not be answered until the American Civil War, a conflict where the issue of slavery and freedom was at its very heart. A century-and-a-half later, the very existence of the country for which the Constitution was created, as well as the question of slavery, would be fought over for twelve agonizing hours along a creek named the Antietam, near a small Maryland town called Sharpsburg.

The road to Antietam began on August 30th, 1862. On that day, Confederate General Robert E. Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia dealt a severe blow to Union General John Pope and his army at the Battle of Second Manassas. It was a major triumph for Lee and his men. They had successfully prevented George B. McClellan and the Army of the Potomac from taking Richmond the past July. Now, another large army had been defeated, and forced to retreat from Virginia. Now, Virginia was briefly free of Federal troops. Lee, not one to rest on his laurels, planned a bold move. He planned to take his army north into Maryland.

Lee had several reasons for doing this. With the fall harvest coming along, he could feed his army well. Maryland was also a state being held in the Union by force, and the presence of Confederate troops in that state could be viewed as liberation. He felt the state might show them hospitality, and the army might receive additional troops from the state as well He also saw a chance to possibly move into Pennsylvania, if things went well. Success in the northern states might also convince European powers to intercede in the war on Confederates behalf. Although some felt skeptical that a move into Maryland, which might be construed as an invasion, would succeed, the plan was approved. On September 4th, 1862, the Army of Northern Virginia began to cross the Potomac River into Maryland, for the first invasion of northern soil by Confederate troops. He divided his army into four wings. Three of the wings were sent with General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson to deal with the Union garrison at Harper’s Ferry, West Virginia. The fourth segment would move along the Blue Ridge Mountains.[2]

In Washington City, Union President Abraham Lincoln was having serious troubles. His last three army commanders had proven to be the wrong man for the job. Irving McDowell had been defeated at First Manassas in July of 1861. George McClellan had lost all nerve and had retreated from the Peninsula the past July. And John Pope had been defeated at the Second Battle of Manassas in August. Lincoln was desperate for a victory, so he reluctantly returned McClellan to command of the Union troops in the field. On September 13th, McClellan received a piece of luck in his hands. A copy of General Lee’s Special Orders 191, detailing the troop movements of the entire Confederate Army, was found in a field wrapped around some cigars. McClellan knew the chance to defeat Lee was given to him. “I have all the plans of the rebels and will catch them in their own trap,” wrote the exuberant McClellan to President Lincoln.[3]

On September 14th, 1862, Confederates were surprised by the Union assaults at Fox’s and Crampton’s Gap along South Mountain. Although they stood defiantly, the Confederates were no match for the oncoming Federals, and Lee was forced to order a retreat. However, Lee halted the retreat when word reached him that Jackson’s attack on Harper’s Ferry was succeeding. He stopped his men near the town of Sharpsburg, Maryland, along a stream known as Antietam Creek, to wait for further word. The following day, Jackson wrote that the garrison had surrendered. Lee decided to wait along the Antietam to reunite his force. While Jackson ordered A.P. Hill and his division to remain at the Ferry to parole Federal prisoners, he took the remainder of his force to reunite with Lee. By the end of the 16th, he had rejoined Lee at Sharpsburg. Still, Lee had only some 38,000 troops, and was outnumbered by McClellan three to one. But McClellan would once again prove being inept to command and his failures as a leader would result in the bloodiest single day in American history.[4]

The Battle of Antietam began at dawn on September 17, 1862. “The Union army launched assault after assault against the Confederate left – precisely where Lee had positioned Jackson. Fierce fighting raged incessantly for nearly four hours in” the Miller Cornfield,” the East Woods, and the West Woods. About midway through the butchery, as Jackson’s reserves were thinning, John Bell Hood rushed forward with his division, the Texas Brigade leading the charge.”[5] Although the Texas Brigade suffered heavy losses, they halted the Union momentum.

The Miller Cornfield, site of some of the heaviest fighting at Antietam.

Also involved in the fighting around this sector was the 49th North Carolina Troops, which would see heavy fighting in the West Woods. Although not present at the battle himself, a member of Company I of the 49th, William A. Day, wrote of the battle in his history that he wrote some thirty years later. “We were in the battle all day and made several charges on the enemy, driving them back several times,” Day wrote.[6] The battle along Jackson’s sector raged for four hours, and although the attacks by six Union divisions had caused the Confederate left to buckle, it did not break. When the first phase of fighting at Antietam was over, over 8,000 men were killed or wounded.[7]

The next phase of fighting shifted to the Confederate center, where Confederates held a depression known as the Sunken Road. Here, Federal troops would once again attack in wave after wave. Amongst the units charging against this position was the Irish Brigade, led by General Thomas Francis Meagher. Although they showed gallantry in the fight, they were unable to successfully drive Confederates from their position. However, Federal attacks did inflict serious casualties. The road became covered in Confederate dead, with blood filling the bottom of the depression. From this time forward, the Sunken Road would be forever known as the Bloody Lane. “The Confederate line broke here after three hours of valiant defense, but the Federals failed to exploit the breach.”[8] 5,500 Confederate and Union troops fell in this phase of the battle.

The Sunken Road (left), and the field Federal troops crossed to get there.

The third and final phase of the fighting shifted to the Confederate right, where Major General Ambrose Burnside attempted to dislodge Confederates on bluffs overlooking the Antietam. He first tried to send troops over a narrow bridge that now bears his name, but to no avail. However, Union troops were able to forward the Antietam downstream, and were successfully able to push the Confederates from their positions. However, just “as Burnside was about to smash Lee’s right, more help arrived: A.P. Hill’s division hurrying up from Harper’s Ferry. Hill’s men swarmed onto the battlefield, stunning Burnside and driving him backward – thus securing Lee’s line and ending the battle at dusk. It represented a remarkable effort by Hill, who had marched his men seventeen miles in seven hours and battled for another three, saving Lee’s army from certain defeat.”[9]

Overlooking the site of A.P. Hill’s attack at Antietam.

With Hill’s successful counterattack, the Battle of Antietam was over. Confederate losses totaled 10,316 killed, wounded and captured or missing. Union losses amounted to 12,401. In just twelve hours of fighting, both sides had lost over 22,700 men, the highest casualty numbers for any single day in American history. And the battle that was fought became a tactical draw for both sides. Although Lee had suffered the loss of nearly a third of his army, he remained in place the following day, as if daring McClellan to strike again. But McClellan chose not to do so, and on the night of the 18th, Lee began to pull his army back across the Potomac, to the safety of Virginia. McClellan chose to not follow, allowing the Confederates to escape.

Although Lincoln was furious with McClellan for not chasing Lee, he realized that the Confederates had been thwarted in their attempt to invade Maryland. This gave the President the “victory” he needed to change the aim of the war. On September 22nd, 1862, five days after the bloody fight at Antietam, Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, stating that any slave held in bondage in those states in rebellion would be forever free as of January 1st, 1863. With this document, Lincoln gave the war a dual purpose: preserve the Union, and end the scourge of slavery. This document also helped to keep European powers at bay, and Confederates began to realize that a war over the very question of slavery was one they could not win. So, it can be said that the Battle of Antietam was truly the beginning of the end of the American Civil War for the Confederacy.

Works Cited and Consulted

Bennett, William J., and Cribb, John T.E. The American Patriot’s Almanac. Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishing, 2008.

Day, William A. A True History of Company I, 49th Regiment, North Carolina Troops, in the Great Civil War, Between the North and South. Newton, NC: Enterprise Job Office, 1893.

Frye, Dennis E. “Bloody Antietam: ‘The Most Terrible Clash of Arms…’” Gods and Generals: The Illustrated Story of the Epic Civil War Film. New York: Newmarket Press, 2003.

McPherson, James M. Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era. New York: Oxford University Press, 1988.


[1] William J. Bennett and John T.E. Cribb, The American Patriot’s Almanac (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishing, 2008), 354.

[2] Dennis E. Frye, “Bloody Antietam: ‘The Most Terrible Clash of Arms…’”, Gods and Generals: The Illustrated Story of the Epic Civil War Film (New York: Newmarket Press, 2003), 113.

[3] Frye, 113.

[4] Frye, 113-114.

[5] Frye, 114.

[6] William A. Day, A True History of Company I, 49th Regiment, North Carolina Troops, in the Great Civil War, Between the North and South (Newton, NC: Enterprise Job Office, 1893), 28.

[7] Frye, 114-115.

[8] Frye, 115.

[9] Frye, 115.