Henry Benning meets the 8th Connecticut

Henry Benning meets the 8th Connecticut

Colonel Henry Benning, in command of Toombs’ Brigade on the morning of September 17, 1862, had mounted a very impressive defense and delaying action at the Rohrbach Bridge. His “brigade” consisted of the 2nd and 20th Georgia infantry regiments with “not more than 350 men and officers, the Second having only 97, and the Twentieth not more than 250.”[1] A small contingent of the 50th Georgia Infantry from Drayton’s Brigade guarded Snavely’s Ford the intended crossing site for Rodman’s Division of the Union IX Corps. By one o’clock in the afternoon, the matter was decided both at the bridge and the ford. A final assault of the bridge found success coming more as a result of the Confederate’s loss of men and short supply of Georgians. Colonel Benning had mounted an impressive defensive effort against Burnside’s corps, but now it was time for a hasty withdraw of his shrinking band of infantrymen toward Sharpsburg.

Henry Lewis Benning had struggled to prove to the professional officers of the Army of Northern Virginia that he was not simply another politician turned officer trying to gain votes through his service. Benning wanted to do his duty to the southern cause as his record of service to the Army of Northern Virginia would clearly prove to all. On September 17, 1862, the ardent secessionist and former associate justice of the Georgia Supreme Court was still viewed as fighting more for his own political aims than victory on the battlefield. Soon after raising the 17th Georgia Infantry in his hometown of Columbus, Georgia, Benning had joined the Army of Northern Virginia and immediately found controversy by openly opposing the Conscription Act of the Confederate government as violating states’ rights. Benning had even faced the threat of court martial for his refusal to obey certain orders he felt to be unconstitutional.

However, Colonel Benning’s performance in battle during the Seven Days and Second Manassas battles had proven his leadership abilities to his soldiers who knighted him as “Old Rock.” On this day on the banks of the Antietam Creek, Benning had again proven his steadfastness in battle. His troops had suffered serious losses and now the disappointment of giving up the bridgehead, but they had accomplished their mission. The successful defense of the Rohrbach bridge for over four hours enabled General Lee to “the advance troops of General A. P. Hill” saving the Confederate right flank and possibly the entire Army of Northern Virginia.[2]

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Henry Lewis Benning

The change of position also brought two pieces of good news for Benning. His battered troops would get a well-deserved rest behind the new defensive line being established by Hill’s Division plus the 15th and 17th Georgia regiments had just arrived from their mission in Shepherdstown. Along with a battalion of troops from the 11th Georgia reassigned to Benning by Robert Toombs, the colonel once again had a respectable fighting force. The relief would not last long.

Before Benning could move his newly reinforced, but completely exhausted brigade to their resting location, all hell broke loose on the right side of the Confederate line. After two plus hours of dilatory preparations, Burnside finally had IX Corps organized and moving forward toward the Harpers Ferry Road and the town of Sharpsburg beyond. Even as A.P. Hill’s Division began to arrive to reinforce the Confederate right, it was all hands to the line to meet Burnside’s assault. Henry Benning’s Brigade was halted and turned around to plug a gap in the line along the Harpers Ferry Road.

Benning describes the actions of his brigade and the Union soldiers in front of them:  

The pace was accelerated to a double-quick, which in a short time carried the head of the line beyond the corn-field and in sight of the enemy. A brigade of them was standing composedly in line of battle not 200 yards from the road, apparently waiting for the nearer approach of supports, and neither in their front nor far to their right (our left) was a man of ours to be seen, but three abandoned pieces of ours were conspicuous objects about mid-way between the road and the enemy’s line. Major Little, with his battalion, was in advance. The Seventeenth, under Captain McGregor, was next, the Fifteenth, under Colonel Millican, was next, and a large part of the Twentieth, under Colonel Cumming, again ready for action, notwithstanding the severe work of the morning, brought up the rear. All, however, made but a short line. I carried the head of the line opposite to the right of the enemy, and ordered it to commence firing on the enemy without waiting for the rest of the line to come up. It did so with promptness and spirit. The rest of the line as it came up joined in the fire. The fire soon became general. It was hot and rapid. The enemy returned it with vigor, and showed a determination to hold their position stubbornly.[3]

The “brigade” described as standing in front of Benning’s troops was actually the 8th Connecticut Infantry Regiment who had advanced to within a few hundred yards of the gap in the Confederate line. After the debacle of the 16th Connecticut and the 4th Rhode Island in John Otto’s 40-acre cornfield, the 8th Connecticut found themselves as the lone advancing regiment from Harland’s Brigade. With the three regiments of Fairchild’s Brigade locked in a deadly fight on their right, the Connecticut regiment began to veer to the right in an attempt to maintain contact with Fairchild while continuing to leverage the shelter of the draw they had followed since crossing the Antietam three hours earlier. Each swale brought relief from the Confederate small arms and artillery now focusing on them. Euphoria set in the ranks as one company of the regiment successfully attacked and seized the artillery pieces of McIntosh’s Battery only a hundred yards from the Harpers Ferry Road.

However, timing was not on the side of the Connecticut troops. Benning’s division commander, D.R. Jones, recognizing the hazard of the advancing Union soldiers moving toward the gap in the Confederate line, hastily moved into action. Jones’ order given through Toombs served as the impetus to rush Benning’s Brigade forward in order to prevent a tragic outcome to the battle even while the 8th Connecticut celebrated the capture of McIntosh’s Battery. Just as one highly excited member of the Connecticut regiment sat astride one of the captured cannons waving his kepi, Benning began to bring his troops on line giving the order to commence firing even before the entire line was situated. The Confederate commander’s quick and aggressive action helped save the right of Lee’s line and allowed them to retake McIntosh’s Battery as the Connecticut unit assumed a defensive posture in what now became a desperate fight.

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Benning (commanding Toombs’ Brigade) checks the advance of the 8th Connecticut

One can easily speculate on what might have happened without Benning’s immediate compliance with his orders from Toombs and Jones. The 8th Connecticut could have reached the Harpers Ferry Road and enfiladed the Confederate right. Although, without support, it is unlikely the lone Union regiment on this part of the field could have held for very long. What is clear is that Benning’s Brigade moved quickly and aggressively to help halt the advance of the 8th Connecticut and possibly a much different outcome to the Battle of Antietam. “Old Rock” Benning and his Georgia troops had held the line.

ENDNOTES:

[1] The War of the Rebellion: a Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies (OR), 128 vols., Washington DC: US Government Printing Office, 1880-1901, Vol. 51/Part1 (Ser #107), pp. 161-165

[2] IBID.

[3] IBID.

A Father’s Devotion to His Son

On April 17, 1862, Oliver Case composed a letter to his younger sister back in Connecticut to inform her of some less than flattering rumors that may have begun to circulate back home. From his camp on Bogue Island in North Carolina, Private Case expressed his concern that one of his fellow soldiers was sending news back to Connecticut that Case “will probably never be able to see Connecticut again” due to his recent battle with illness. Oliver wanted Abbie to know that P.A. Matson was not a creditable source of information and had not proven himself a soldier during the recent battle at Newbern. Oliver explained that sickness was common place among the soldiers:

I do not think that there is one in the company but what has had sick spells caused by exposure. I may not live to get home, but I think I stand as good a chance as anyone in the company, P.A. Matson to the contrary notwithstanding.

It seems that Matson may have attempted to distract from his behavior while under fire by spreading rumors about Oliver’s condition. Oliver told Abbie that in the heat of battle, he found no “dread of death that one naturally expects.” But as the 8th Connecticut came under fire from the Confederate soldiers defending Newbern, there was one soldier in the ranks who suffered a much different reaction than Oliver.

P.A. Matson was in the file ahead of me and I could not help laughing to see him skulk and dodge, trying to fall out. When he was hit he fell upon the ground saying, “Oh God, I’m killed. Orderly, be I killed?” I never was more pleased at any thing in my life. That shot was worth a great deal to him for it was nothing but a scratch at most.

While Matson would soon run from the camp of the 8th Connecticut never to be seen again, Case would stay and fight more battles. It seems that P.A. Matson’s words about Oliver never seeing Connecticut again would come to pass in five months from the date of the letter to Abbie. However, Oliver Case would “die like a man” with his face to the enemy during the Union’s final push toward Sharpsburg, Maryland on September 17, 1862. His brothers, both soldiers in the 16th Connecticut, would bury him on the John Otto farm two days later.

Oliver’s sacrifice would not be forgotten. His father, Job Case, was determine that his son would see Connecticut again and rest among his kin in Simsbury. In December of 1862, Job Case made his way to Sharpsburg and likely enlisted locals to help him disinter Oliver’s body and prepare it for shipment to Connecticut. Although I’ve been unable to locate any historical record of Oliver’s funeral, it’s highly likely a funeral did occur as his father’s final expression of devotion to his son.

case3

 

The Landing at Slocum’s Creek

After the much delayed, but highly successful operation to take Roanoke Island, Ambrose Burnside was ready to turn his amphibious force against the Confederate stronghold of Newbern. The city of Newbern was located at the confluence of the Neuse River and its smaller brother, the Trent. The Confederate government had created a District of Pamlico command which made its headquarters in Newbern, a city protected by a string of Confederate forts along the western bank of the Neuse. Gaining control of this area was essential to Burnside’s future objective of taking the important port of Beaufort through the use of the railroads beyond Newbern.

As had been the case with most of his North Carolina operations, Burnside’s movement against Newbern was delayed by bad weather. The initial loadout of troops from Roanoke Island began on the 3rd and 4th of March 1862, but had to be delayed as a gale blew in from the Atlantic.

On March 5th, Oliver Case and the troops of the 8th Connecticut began loading onto the steamer Chasseur. According to Oliver’s letter to his sister on March 11th, the soldiers of the expeditionary force were acting on:

…orders from Gen. Burnside were received that the 1st, 2nd and 3rd brigades should hold themselves in readiness to march on an hours notice, each man to carry one woolen blanket, one days rations in his haversack (two others to be cooked and carried in bulk,) 40 rounds of ammunition in the cartridge boxes and twenty more in pockets. Each man is to be held responsible for his blanket and the excitement of an engagement or of a charge will not be deemed a reasonable excuse for their loss. We are eager for a start and shall probably go today and we expect to make a hole somewhere when we move. It is likely that the fleet and land forces will act in conjunction and while the former peppers them in front, we shall attack them in the rear.[1]

More storms and delays in the loadout from Roanoke Island slowed the process until finally, on Tuesday, March 11th, the fleet began the movement to Newbern. A new round of rainstorms pounded the fleet but subsided by later in the day. The progress of the fleet was slowed again when several ships including the Chasseur were temporarily run aground, a common malady during the North Carolina campaign. All were freed by the afternoon as the entire fleet moved into Hatteras Inlet to drop anchors for the night.

 

Chasseur drawing

Steamer Chasseur from January 4, 1862 edition of Harper’s Weekly

 

With Hatteras Inlet serving as the connection point via shipping lanes to the north, mail was delivered to the expeditionary force including the soldiers of the 8th Connecticut as they laid at anchor in the inlet. Based on Oliver’s description of receiving the letter from his sister on Wednesday, it would appear the mail delivery was not taken on board the Chasseur until the following morning before the ships departed Hatteras Inlet heading up the Neuse River. Just before darkness set in, the fleet reached the mouth of Slocum’s Creek near Burnside’s intended landing site. Given the late hour, there was no choice but to drop anchors and await daylight to before beginning the landing operation.

As more than 10,000 soldiers of Burnside’s command settle in for the night, they receive a late-night morale boost when mail from home is distributed. Every soldier scrambles to find a light source to read the latest news knowing that tomorrow will likely bring battle and it may be many days before more correspondence is received from family and friends.

Sunrise on the morning of March 13, 1862 brings orders from General Burnside to begin the landing operation at the mouth of Slocum’s Creek. Although Oliver confuses the day of the landing, his description of the events of the landing and movements are accurate as he writes that the 8th Connecticut landed in a “small cove and immediately commenced marching up the river [Neuse River].” Oliver and the Connecticut troops are part of the Third Brigade of Burnside’s force commanded by John Parke. The landing at the mouth of Slocum’s Creek is slow as troops are ferried by smaller boats pulled by tugboats into the shallow waters.

 

Slocum Creek landing site map

The Landing Site for Burnside’s Expedition at Slocum’s Creek, March 13, 1862[2]

 

Slocum’s Creek probably seemed more like a river to Oliver and many of the boys from Connecticut compared to many of the creeks back home. The 8th marched along the creek’s edge on what Oliver called “the beach” for about two miles before turning to head inland. Not long after heading away from the water, the regiment came upon a welcome sight that was just too good to resist for some of the troops.

In a short time we came up to an encampment of cavalry which had been evacuated but a short time. Some of the boys fell out and helped themselves to chickens, ham, biscuits etc. We travelled till after sundown over the muddiest road (if road it could be called) that I ever saw. We passed several farmhouses on our journey but most of the road lay through the woods.[3]

Good things cannot last and so it was for the feasting troopers who were soon given the order to move out. In a scene that would be a preview of Burnside’s infamous “mud march” in Virginia almost one year later, the troops struggled against terrible conditions. Oliver described it this way:

We travelled till after sundown over the muddiest road (if road it could be called) that I ever saw.[4]

The Confederate commander closest to the landing, Colonel R. P. Campbell, in command of the Confederate right wing, had interpreted the supporting gunfire from the Union ships as an indicator that another landing of Union troops would follow the first and orders his troops to pull back to the defense line near Fort Thompson. When the Union regiments reach the entrenchments on the 13th, they find them abandoned.

Oliver observed the abandoned enemy camps and fortifications realizing that the soldiers of Parke’s Brigade may have dodged the bullet for this day.

About the middle of the afternoon we came to the first battery, which had just been evacuated and the barracks set on fire, which were still burning as we passed. We found out afterward that if we had been a day later the rebels would have had their forces there and mounted and it would have taken the lives of many men to have dislodged them for it is a very strong point. The fortification is a mile long, with a large ditch in front protected in the rear by breast works of huge trees felled top of one another. It would have been almost impossible to have flanked them and they would undoubtedly have had to be charged upon to have dislodged them.[5]

The expedition continued to march until nightfall when they halted and prepared for follow on operations at daylight the next morning. General Parke reported that “roads generally were in bad order, and the men marched in many localities through water and mud. In addition, heavy showers fell at intervals during the day and night, and although the men had their overcoats and blankets the bivouac was extremely trying.”[6]

After struggling against the terrible road conditions, the troops were allowed to make camp for the night to include building fires using the available pitch pine wood which burned even in the wet conditions. That night, wrote Oliver, the rain “commenced in good earnest” creating miserable conditions for the soldiers who found that “after 12 o’clock very little sleeping was done by the soldiers in this division.” Oliver observed that the milder southern climate granted some relief when the order to move out came at 6 am, although “our blankets were as heavy as 8 ought to be.”[7]

Tomorrow would be a new day as the march toward New Bern continued.

NOTES:

[1] Case Letters, 1861-1862. (11 March 1862)

[2] From Baylor University collection, http://contentdm.baylor.edu/cdm/ref/collection/tx-wotr/id/1846

[3] Case Letters, 1861-1862. (16 March 1862)

[4] IBID.

[5] IBID.

[6] OR, Parke, March 22, 1862.

[7] Case Letters, 1861-1862. (16 March 1862)

Across the Antietam: The Operation at Snavely’s Ford

Snavely sign

One of the facets of studying the life of Oliver Case that I enjoy most is attempting to recreate in my mind the emotion of the situation that Oliver and his fellow soldiers were dealing with at any given moment on the battlefield. This is particularly true when it comes to the events of September 17, 1862, the final day of young Private Case’s life. On a few occasions, I have taken some liberties by projecting emotions into Oliver’s mind based on what I’ve learned about him through his letters and my experience as a soldier. So, I go back periodically to the letters, reports and maps to see if I’ve missed something or if any new information is available to help me get a better sense of Oliver’s experience.

One of the phases of Oliver’s experience at the Battle of Antietam that has long held a great interest for me is the crossing operation by Rodman’s Division at Snavely’s Ford during the early afternoon of September 17, 1862. Recently, I discovered a small detail that caused me to revisit and enhance my view of the operation from Oliver’s perspective. This small detail led me to readdress the entire operation and attempt to piece together a clearer picture of events. A recounting of the events leading up to the crossing operation is helpful to appreciate the soldier’s state of mind at that point.

In the late morning of September 17, 1862, likely around 11:30, the two brigades of Rodman’s Division (Fairchild and Harland) began to move to their left and downstream away from the intense fighting of the morning at Rohrbach’s Bridge. In search of a ford which had been previously identified by an engineer from McClellan’s staff, the Union troops crossed the Rohrbach Road moving toward a large bend in the Antietam Creek.

Ezra Carmen recounts the events:

…Rodman moved from his position on the high ridge at 10.30 a.m., crossed the Rohrersville road about 1000 yards below the bridge, marched some 500 yards after crossing the road, and halted opposite the great bend in the Antietam, where the course of the stream changes from due south to west. Whiting’s five guns were put in position to shell the wooded bluff opposite the ford by which it was proposed to cross, and shelled the road and woods on the opposite side of the creek, driving the enemy from their positions. This fire of Whiting’s enfiladed the line of Georgians, at and below the bridge, and the annoyance it caused them is referred to in some of their reports.[1]

The division was accompanied by a Union battery; Company K of the 9th New York Infantry Regiment (Hawkins’ Zouaves) also known as Whiting’s Battery. The battery was organized in New York City and mustered into service in April of 1861 under the command of Captain James R. Whiting. Interestingly, it was one of only two batteries at Antietam, Union and Confederate, equipped with 12-pounder Dahlgren Boat Howitzers which, as the name implies, were intended primarily for use by the Navy. Whiting’s battery had a total of five guns with three smoothbores and two rifled pieces. The guns were outfitted with unique carriages constructed of wrought iron and highly prized by artillerists for their light weight.

12 lb Dahlgren Boat Howitzer

An example of the Dahlgren Boat Howitzer 12-pounder with wrought iron carriage.

While the work of the gunners seemed to be effective in causing the Georgia infantry to retire from its position on the high bluff across the creek, no soldier of Rodman’s Division would be crossing via this ford.

Meanwhile skirmishers had gone down to the creek and Rodman had come to the conclusion that this ford was not one that could be crossed and directed Colonel Harland to make further reconnaissance.[2]

General Rodman’s reconnaissance was likely to have been comprehensive since the opposing Confederate troops were driven off the hilltop and back toward the Harper’s Ferry Road. However, Oliver Case and most of the other infantry soldiers would have had very limited knowledge about this part of the operation. This is evidenced by the fact that little has been written about it in letters, diaries or even in official reports. It seems certain that Rodman had ordered his commanders to mask their movement to the maximum extent possible by using the hills near the creek as a shield. Only the artillerymen, skirmishers and leaders would have a good view of the creek and the far side.

One of the new nuggets I first stumbled onto came while reviewing (for the 20th time, I think) the battle report of Colonel Edward Harland, 2nd Brigade commander in Rodman’s Division and former commanding officer of the 8th Connecticut Volunteer Infantry Regiment.

Harland recounts the situation as the brigade approached the ford on the south (east before the bend in the creek) bank of the Antietam Creek:

General-Rodman ordered me to detach one regiment for the support of the battery belonging to the Ninth New York Volunteers, and to send the remaining regiments of the brigade across the creek in rear of the First Brigade, and, when I had placed the regiment in proper position, to join the balance of the brigade. I found the battery on the hill just below the ford. I detached the Eighth Regiment Connecticut Volunteers placed it in what I considered the strongest position for the defense placed behind a stone wall, with orders from General Rodman to wait there for orders.[3]

In my previous reviews of this report, I had missed the significant phrase “placed behind a stone wall” referring to the position of the 8th Connecticut on the far bank. In this position, Oliver had an excellent view of the ford and John Snavely’s field and farm on the far side. Today, this is private property, but can be viewed from the National Park Service side of the ford where there is no apparent trace of a stone wall. From existing contemporary descriptions, the September woods were thinner than they appear today giving a clear view of the crossing site.

Hill across from Snavely_s Ford

Snavely’s Ford looking toward the south bank. From behind a stone wall on this hill, Oliver Case and the 8th Connecticut defended a Union battery covering the crossing site.

Sometime before 1 o’clock in the afternoon, the troops of Rodman’s division were prepared to cross the Antietam Creek and move toward the sound of battle around Sharpsburg that had rung in their ears for the entire day.

… [Rodman’s reconnaissance] found a practicable ford, and the column, Fairchild’s Brigade in advance, marched down to it. Whiting’s Battery, supported by the 8th Connecticut, was put in position on a hill just below the ford to cover the crossing. Much time had been lost and it was nearly 1 o’clock… [4]

Carman’s comment about lost time is noteworthy since some might accuse Isaac Rodman with delaying the movement and crossing thereby causing more deaths in the repeated attempts to take the Rohrbach Bridge. However, the pace of Rodman’s movement down the Antietam is easily understood by considering the obstacles he faced. He had received indecisive orders for most of the morning and once he was ordered to shift downstream to the left of the Union line, Rodman without a doubt believed he would be crossing a known ford only a short distance away based on what should have been reliable information from one of General McClellan’s engineers who had allegedly conducted a reconnaissance the previous day. When the two brigades arrived at this supposed ford and prepared to cross, Rodman’s discovery that the ford was impracticable for crossing infantry soldiers caused the need to resume the movement toward Snavely’s Ford. This essentially became a reconnaissance in force, a very time-consuming activity for two brigades of infantry moving in unfamiliar territory.

Whatever the reason for the slow movement, it was now time for the crossing operation to begin. The ford located on the property of farmer John Snavely presented the first practical site for this type of crossing downstream from the Rohrbach Bridge. Moving south and then west (after “the great bend”) from bridge, the opposing bank was essentially a high, continuous bluff which had provided the Confederate defenders an excellent command of the creek. This bluff ended at Snavely’s Ford and morphed into a plain several hundred yards wide and even with the creek bank following the run for about one-half mile to the Snavely farmhouse. A natural draw bordered by a farm road led away from the ford to the northwest toward the town of Sharpsburg. The Confederate commander responsible for defending the ford and the Rohrbach Bridge recognized the danger of failing to defend this position.

The old road, by the upper of the two fords referred to, led over a hill on my right and in my rear, which completely commanded my position and all ingress and egress to and from it below the bridge.[5]

In the mind of Robert Toombs, Snavely’s Ford may have held more tactical significance than the Rohrbach Bridge in the defense of the southern end of the field. A more thorough reconnaissance by Union forces on the day before the battle could have altered the operational plans of McClellan and Burnside and saved the lives of countless Union troops who died attempting to capture the bridge. As it was, the Confederate defense of the bridge collapsed at about the same time Rodman’s soldiers set foot in the cool waters of the Antietam. This situation may have saved Rodman from much stronger resistance by the Confederate defenders.

Snavely_s ford looking south

Modern photo of Snavely’s Ford looking downstream to the south. The trace of the old road used by Rodman’s troops can be seen running parallel to the creek.

Opposing the crossing at Snavely’s was one very thinly manned regiment of Georgia troops extensively bloodied by the Battle of South Mountain only three days before. The 50th Georgia Infantry Regiment had been under the command of General Toombs for only one day before Rodman’s Division appeared to their front across the creek. Toombs had a bleak assessment of the regiment that was now barely the size of a company, but he employed them as best he could.

you placed under my command the Fiftieth Georgia (Lieutenant-Colonel Kearse), numbering, I should suppose, scarcely 100 muskets. I ordered this regiment on the right of the Second Georgia, extending it in open order, so as to guard a blind plantation road leading to a ford between the lower ford before referred to and the right of the Second Georgia Volunteers.[6]

In fact, Lieutenant Colonel Kearse and General Toombs had recognized the strong points overlooking the ford and Snavely’s field. Kearse deployed his troops in what amounted to a skirmish line extending from the crest of the high bluff to the right on the ford (as viewed from the far side) to a point on a rise overlooking Snavely’s field with a clear view of the crossing site. The Georgia troops also received some important augmentation from about 25 soldiers of the Palmetto Sharpshooters, highly skilled marksmen carrying Enfield rifles who were normally assigned to Jenkins’ South Carolina Brigade. To the right rear of the 50th Georgia, Kearse received supporting fire from an artillery battery emplaced just prior to the arrival of the Union troops at the ford.

During the forenoon the Washington Artillery was engaged with the enemy’s heavy Batteries on the opposite side of Antietam Creek…at noon the 4th Company, Eshleman, was moved farther to the right to guard the fords below the Burnside Bridge.[7]

This was one of the four batteries of the Washington (Louisiana) Artillery and was under the command of Captain Benjamin Franklin Eshleman. The 32-year old Confederate artilleryman was actually born into a Pennsylvania Mennonite family relocating to New Orleans only about ten years before the war. He joined the Washington Artillery in May of 1861 and suffered a wound during the First Battle of Bull Run. Eshleman, surviving the war and reaching the rank of Colonel, returned to New Orleans to become a successful and respected businessman for the next fifty years.[8]

BF Eshleman2

Captain B.F. Eshleman, Commanding Officer, 4th Battery, Washington (LA) Artillery, was sent to help check the Union crossing at Snavely’s Ford.

On September 17, 1862, his battery played a key role in opposing the crossing of Snavely’s Ford and the subsequent Union attack toward Sharpsburg. With his four cannon (2 – 6 pounder guns and 2 – 12 pounder howitzers), Eshleman could easily range all of the soldiers of Rodman’s division as they crossed the river.

The fourth, under Eshleman, was not idle during this eventful day, when the battalion was so actively and effectually employed. About noon on the 17th he was directed by General Jones, in front of whose position he was placed, to remove his battery to a position to guard the ford below the bridge held by General Toombs. The battery was placed in position between the Blackford House and the ford, and opened fire upon the enemy, who were crossing in force.[9]

The hilltop location of the battery is visible today to Antietam National Battlefield visitors traveling along Branch Avenue toward the intersection with the Harper’s Ferry Road. While the position was commanding, there were limitations for the Confederate artillerymen that would be revealed as the afternoon progressed.

Eshleman Battery location Snavely_s Ford crossing

Modern day photo taken from the Harper’s Ferry Road shows the exposed hilltop (now a cornfield) from where Eshleman directed fire on Union troops in Snavely’s field.

With the 8th Connecticut perched on the hill above the ford and taking cover behind a stone fence, Private Oliver Case had a panoramic view of the evolving action as the other regiments from Rodman’s Division began to cross the Antietam Creek at around 1 o’clock. Direct fire on the position of the 8th Connecticut was unlikely due to small number of Confederate infantry near the ford and the distance. The soldiers of the 50th Georgia were likely focused on the ford as the Union troops began to set foot in the waters of the Antietam. Fairchild’s Brigade was the first to navigate the ford with the 9th New York (Hawkins’ Zouves) in the lead. A lieutenant in the 9th New York described the action from the perspective of the first Union regiment to cross the ford:

Then came the crossing of the creek. We marched by the left flank down what appeared to be an old wood-road, and filed to the right at the edge of the stream. I do not remember how deep it was, but it was quite an effort to stem the current. When partly across we received the fire of a detachment which was stationed behind a wall at the head of a ravine which opened up from the water towards our left front. I judge there were about two companies of infantry of them. Their fire was not very heavy, rather scattering, and we did not answer it. One reason was that we would have to stop in the stream while firing, and any of our men who might be wounded would be in great danger of drowning, so we urged the men forward and passed the order not to fire. I had two men hit here.[10]

Lieutenant Graham and his fellow soldiers of the 9th New York hurriedly crossed the ford and immediately began to seek shelter from the musket fire of the 50th Georgia. The high bluff to their right gave them cover but presented a new problem with a relatively small area available to stack in the regiment with the only route of advance being up the steep bluff in front of them. While the commanders prepared their companies to ascend the hill, General Rodman joined the regiment to encourage them with this difficult movement.

We then faced to the left, which brought us by the rear rank into line, and marched, or rather climbed, directly up the bluff; the ground in front of my company was very rough and difficult and also very steep. Rodman appeared here again on foot and went up with the regiment.[11]  

The 9th New York was followed across the ford by the other two New York regiments of Fairchild’s Brigade, the 103rd and 89th. With Fairchild’s men clear of the ford, the two remaining regiments of Edward Harland’s Brigade marched along the wooded road leading up to the ford with the 4th Rhode Island Infantry in the advance.

… [the 4th] moved by the left flank to the creek at a ford under fire from the enemy’s skirmishers, who were sheltered behind a stone wall. The Fourth, after crossing the ford, filed to the left (the other brigade going to the right, and the rest of Harland’s brigade not yet having crossed)…[12]

Since a relatively small area existed on the right of the ford exit with three regiments traversing it, Harland’s Brigade was forced to move into Snavely’s open field on the left. This presented to the sparse group of Confederate defenders the opportunity to direct unobstructed musket fire into the ranks of the 4th Rhode Island and the 16th Connecticut, the next regiment crossing the ford. However, the small band of Georgians was no match for the Rhode Island infantry supported by the artillery battery on the far side.

Harland followed Fairchild and while the latter was making his difficult way up the bluff, on the right, the 4th Rhode Island crossed the creek under fire of the enemy behind the stone fence, filed to the left on open ground, then one company to the front and one to the left as skirmishers, and advancing drove the enemy from the stone fence and formed behind it, and almost immediately received a musketry fire from the left, which was almost immediately silenced by Whiting’s guns across the creek.[13]

Carman’s description of this segment of the action is confirmed by the report of Lieutenant Colonel Joseph B. Curtis, the commanding officer of the Fourth Rhode Island Infantry.

…after throwing out Company H as skirmishers to cover the front, and Company K to the left, advanced in line toward the stone wall, the enemy retiring, but shortly after opening a fire of musketry on our left, which was soon silenced by the fire from our battery covering the ford.[14]

Snavely_s Farm and field

Modern photo showing John Snavely’s field briefly occupied by the 4th RI and 16th Connecticut after crossing the ford. A small force covered the field and ford from a stonewall no longer visable on the slope to the right in this photo.

With the first two regiments of Harland’s Brigade safely across the Antietam, only the 8th Connecticut remained on the far side of the creek. However, as the soldiers of the 8th left their defensive positions on the hill and the opposing troops of the 50th Georgia faded away from the stone wall north of Snavely’s field, a new problem presented itself for Colonel Harland.

Shortly after my [Harland] arrival opened an enfilading fire from a section of a battery which had been placed on our left flank. In order to protect the men, I moved the command more to the right behind the crest of a hill, and awaited in that position the orders of General Rodman. While in this position the Eighth Regiment Connecticut Volunteers rejoined the brigade, and I moved still more to the right, in the direction of the bridge, and halted in the woods, just under the brow of the hill.[15]

The highly exposed troops of the 4th Rhode Island and the 16th Connecticut were being rained on by Eshleman’s Confederate artillery battery to the northwest of Snavely’s field. Harland had no choice but to remove the troops from these positions and seek shelter in the draw leading away from the ford to the right of Snavely’s field. Eshleman’s battery was positioned on a spur pointing toward the ford to the southeast. Harland realized that moving his troops quickly to the right and up the ravine would shield them from the line of sight of the Confederate artillerymen.

Snavely Crossing graphics

This map depicts the positions and actions of both Confederate and Union units during the crossing operations at Snavely’s Ford on the afternoon of September 17, 1862.[16]

The commanding view from the hill where Eshleman’s four guns had been emplaced about one hour earlier offered a good fields of fire on Snavely’s field and the first hundred yards of the road leading away from the ford. However, Captain Eshleman’s guns were unable to acquire the troops of Rodman’s Division as they moved to the north under the cover of the same terrain feature that gave the Confederate gunners such an excellent view. Also, Whiting’s New York Battery was able to easily range Eshleman.

Oliver and his fellow Connecticut troopers had benefited by the distraction from the 4th RI and the 16th CT by quickly crossing the ford and moving up to join Harland in the ravine. The thicker stand of trees and the brow of the hill gave Colonel Harland the opportunity to reposition and reorganized his regiments in accordance with instructions from General Rodman prior to commencing the final attack against the Confederate troops now searching for fresh defensive positions closer to the Harper’s Ferry Road. The Confederate general charged with the defense of Snavely’s Ford tried to put a positive angle in his report after the battle.

The Fiftieth Georgia and the company from General Jenkins’ brigade were at the same time ordered to the same position, and were led back by their respective officers. This change of position was made to my entire satisfaction, and with but small loss, in the face of greatly superior numbers.[17]

Of course, Toombs was provided scant resources to stop an overwhelming force attempting to cross in two locations. Considering the size of his force (around 500 at best) versus the opposing Union forces (up to 5,000 or more), the Georgia political general had put up a significant resistance and served the important purpose of delaying Burnside’s corps long enough for A.P. Hill’s division to arrive on the field from Harper’s Ferry. According to Toombs’ battle report, he had recognized the importance of the position and requested reinforcements to stop the Union assaults.

…it was for this purpose that I so often and urgently asked the aid of a regiment on the day of the battle, not having another man available for that purpose. Not being able to get any re-enforcements for the defense of these two fords, and seeing that the enemy was moving upon them to cross, thus enabling him to attack my small force in front, right flank, and rear, and my two regiments having been constantly engaged from early in the morning up to 1 o’clock with a vastly superior force of the enemy, aided by three heavy batteries…the ammunition of both regiments being nearly exhausted, and Eubank’s battery having been withdrawn to the rear nearly two hours before, I deemed it my duty, in pursuance of your original order, to withdraw my command and place it in the position designated by you opposite the two lower fords, some half a mile to the right and front of your line of battle.[18]

For Oliver Case and the soldiers of the 8th Connecticut, they would no longer find themselves last in the line of battle for this day as they had been at Snavely’s Ford. As the attack began against Toombs and his reorganizing units near the Harper’s Ferry road, the 8th Connecticut would be the vanguard of the attack.

ENDNOTES:


[1] Carman, Ezra Ayres, Antietam Manuscript (unpublished), Chapter 21

[2] IBID.

[3] Number 151. Report of Colonel Edward Harland, Eighth Connecticut Infantry, commanding Second Brigade, Third Division, of the battle of Antietam. OR Series I Volume XIX Part I

[4] Carman.

[5] Number 234. Report of Brigadier General Robert Toombs, C. S. Army, commanding division (temporary), of the battle of Sharpsburg. O.R. Series I Volume XIX Part I

[6] IBID.

[7] From War Department Tablet No. 308 located west of Boonsboro Pike near intersection with Rodman Avenue, Antietam National Battlefield.

[8] Obituary of Benjamin Franklin Eshleman, accessed from “Find A Grave” at http://www.findagrave.com/cgi-bin/fg.cgi?page=gr&GRid=66881495

[9] Number 217. Report of Colonel J. B. Walton, Washington (Louisiana) Artillery, of the battle of Sharpsburg. O.R. Series 1, Vol XIX, Part I

[10] Letter of Lieutenant Matthew J. Graham, formerly of 9th New York Infantry, September 27, 1894, extractedfrom “The Ninth Regiment New York Volunteers (Hawkins’ Zouaves): A History of the Regiment and Veteran Association from 1860 to 1900. Access from 1860 to 1900.

[11] IBID.

[12] Number 153. Report of Lieutenant Colonel Joseph B. Curtis, Fourth Rhode Island Infantry, of the battle of Antietam. Series I Volume XIX Part I

[13] Carman.

[14] Curtis.

[15] Harland.

[16] Map adapted from Antietam on the Web, http://www.aotw.org.

[17] Toombs.

[18] IBID.

The Dread of Death

O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory?[1]

The American Civil War connected death and dying to the country’s citizens like no other war before or since with an average of 600 men dying in the conflict every day. That’s more Americans killed than were killed on September 11, 2001 per week for four years, a difficult reality for most of us in modern America to firmly grasp. Two percent of the entire population of the United States (31 million in 1860) were killed, died of wounds or died of other non-combat causes during the war. Everyone, north and south, was touched by the death of a soldier or sailor either directly or indirectly.

Any Civil War soldier who had faced combat, understood that his death could be just over the next hill. Marching over the rolling hills south of Sharpsburg and into the jaws of battle, Oliver Case fully understood that he faced his own morality. He had been here before and he knew the danger…

There is not the dread of Death here as there; but I expect like everyone else to come out alive. I have yet to see the man that did not. It is much the best way on the men to go into action with high hopes and good spirits instead of feeling low and depressed.[2]

Oliver had witnessed the sting of death first-hand. He had seen his friends and fellow soldiers killed in battle. He stood with them as they fought horrible disease to the point of death. Death was familiar to Oliver, but death was not his friend…it was his foe as much as any Confederate soldier he might face. Meeting death was the encounter Private Oliver Case wanted to avoid, but knew that, sooner or later, he would face this enemy and death would come calling for the young soldier from Simsbury, Connecticut. For the Civil War soldier death was part of life and it could not be avoided.

For himself, Oliver Case had resolved long before this mid-September day that he would not run in the face of his own death because a far worse fate would await him. As a witness to the dishonorable behavior of others as death began to stalk them, he wanted no part of such conduct. As he had done before on the coast of North Carolina, he would not falter as the bullet began to fly in his direction. Oliver, rather than choose dishonor, would rely on the mercy of God to choose his fate than the judgments of a pitiless people who would surely sentence him to a lifetime of shame for cowardly bearing before the enemy. In his letters to his sister and brothers, Oliver drawn this as a clear line of battle from which he would not retreat.

Make no mistake, fear always hovered about him. Like the fever Oliver had struggled against for so many of the past months, fear would always return, unwelcomed, but inescapable.  Oliver must have realized that if fear was an inevitable visitor, then he must face it head on and chase it from his mind. It was analogous to leaping into the swiftly flowing Farmington River back in Connecticut and trying to fight upstream against the current. No, rather than struggle against it, Oliver knew that he must ride the strong current of his fear to go where he did not want. Strength came from those men on his left and right who faced the same fear of dying but men with whom Oliver trusted his life. Oliver knew that only his God held his young life and that must be his comfort.

But thanks be to God what is our loss is his gain.[3]

Late in the afternoon of September 17, 1862, the strength of honor bore up the hopes and spirits of Private Case and his fellow soldiers of the 8th Connecticut as the order was given to advance toward Sharpsburg. Their courage would now be sorely tested in these fields and across the rolling hills…[4]

 How long can this continue? Over every hill lies another storm of lead from those Johnnies. Maybe just one more push over that next hill in front of us and then, we’ll make the Harper’s Ferry Road and the town of Sharpsburg. This will all be over if we can just make one more push. I can see two cannons of the enemy guarding the road at the top of that final hill. At least, I can see the business end of the guns as they begin to spew the deadly canister into our ranks.  Artillery incoming! I want to bury my face in the earth. No, it’s ours…over our heads. Hitting all around the rebel cannons. There’s Captain Upham and his company to our left closing up quick on those guns. The smoke is clearing; rebels have abandoned their battery. Maybe we have a chance…we can win a great victory. The war will be over!

Wait…beyond those brave Confederate gunners, officers in gray are shouting at disoriented troops milling around to rally and stand their ground. The reorganizing rebels in front are now firing into our ranks or above our ranks. I’m sure glad this swale is protecting us from their Minnie balls. I see the Zouves to our right…many firing but many falling. Now they are beginning to slowly move back down the slope. Lieutenant Colonel Appelman orders the regiment forward followed by the echoes of the captains. Nobody hesitates. All the boys are rising up all around me. Now I know how Philo Matson felt at Newbern. God forgive me for my ridicule of Philo because I now want to make myself missing from this field. Orton, Martin, Lucius…they jump to their feet…I must go with them. I will not leave them. I cannot disgrace my family. This may be the end, but I will not be branded a coward. God give me courage to face the enemy and, if needs be, my own death!

     106 (2)The field where the 8th Connecticut made their desperate stand just short of the Harpers Ferry Road

I haven’t seen the other Connecticut boys in the 16th since they stepped off into that big cornfield. Lots of firing coming from that direction. I can’t look back…Colonel Harland is urging us forward but he’s on foot and not riding his horse. What a fine officer and a brave man. More firing and a rebel yell rising from that cornfield Ariel and Alonzo marched into…God protect my brothers.

It seems like we’ve barely started to move when Appelman falls to our front. Four men (I don’t know them) are bearing him rearward. There stands Chaplain Morris loading a rifle as the cartridge box dangles from his neck like he’s a common soldier. What is happening? Our position is desperate. The Major screams above the din for the regiment to lie down again. I must reload, aim, and fire. May be ten rounds left in my box. What’s that on our left beyond the enemy battery now abandoned by Captain Upham and his men? Soldiers in blue? But, wait…a flag. The colors are red, white and blue, but not the national colors. I know that flag. I remember from Roanoke Island. It’s a North Carolina regiment and another forming into double file. God help us, we are done for.

The bullets are hitting our ranks thick as flies now from our front and the left. It’s bad for our boys. Thud…Orton is hit on my right and crumbles to the ground. I’m kneeling and reloading but Lucius stands to fire in front of me…he shouldn’t. Too late, he’s shot twice in the chest and spins around falling at my feet…his eyes wide open toward the sky. This is the moment I knew would come. No turning back…I stand, aim at the rebel color bearer, squeeze the trigger…darkness, silence…

The dread of death is no more for Oliver Case…he has finally met death, but on his terms.

I went with my Brother to the Eighth Regiment to learn the fate of my younger Brother Oliver and found only eight or 10 of his company left from about 40 they had in the morning. Was told by a comrade that stood beside him that he fell and he called him by name but no reply. Said he was no doubt killed. The next morning we were marched down near the bridge and lay there all day. No one was allowed on the field as it was held by sharpshooters on both sides. The next day September 19 myself and brother had permission to go over the field and look for our brothers body being very sure he was dead we each took our canteens filled with water and commenced that awful sickening tramp and if I could picture to you the sad sites that we beheld. The ground for acres and miles in length were strewn with dead and wounded. The wounded crying for water they having lain there the whole day before and two nights — but everyone was looking for some comrade of their own Regiment but some time that afternoon we found the body of our brother we were looking after. He was no doubt killed instantly the bullet having passed through his head just about the top of his ears. We wrapped him in my blanket and carried him to the spot where the 16th dead were to be buried having first got permission from the Colonel of the Eighth and the 16th to do so. The 16th men were buried side by side in a trench and they dug a grave about 6 [feet] from them and we deposited the remains of my brother and that having first pinned a paper with his name and age on the inside of the blanket. Then they put up boards to teach with name and Regiment on them. His body lay there until December when father went there and brought the body to Simsbury where it now lies to mingle with the sole of his native town.[5]

IMG_0967 (2)


[1] King James Bible, 1 Corinthians Chapter 15, verse 55

[2] The Letters of Oliver Cromwell Case (Unpublished), Simsbury Historical Society, Simsbury, Connecticut. While his was written regarding the coming battle(s) in North Carolina, the witnesses to his conduct on September 17, 1862 indicate that he continued to face the enemy and perform his duty as a soldier.

[3] IBID. In his letter of January 7, 1862, Oliver wrote these words in describing the death of his friend, Henry D. Sexton aboard a hospital ship in Annapolis harbor.

[4] The following is a fictionalized account from the perspective of Private Oliver Cromwell Case using actual sources that describe this segment of the battle of Antietam and Oliver’s letters written October 1861 to August 1862.

[5] “Recollections of Camp and Prison Life” by Alonzo Grove Case (unpublished), Company E, 16th Regiment Connecticut Volunteers (from the collection of The Simsbury Historical Society).

Why this blog?

Many folks ask me why I would want to spend all this time and energy researching and writing about an individual soldier in the Civil War. This extract from the “About this Blog” page may help explain why I choose to write about one soldier…

A Yard Sale Bargain

People will buy anything that is one to a customer. – Sinclair Lewis

The noise of the crowd faded away as my eyes sharpen focus on the rough, but ornate brown leather marred by a small repair in the upper right corner. I forgot my paternal duties as I lifted the book from its resting place on the blanket to perform a close examination. Having now summoned the powers of both sight and feel, I immediately gained a sense that this was no ordinary yard sale artifact. At the time, I could not appreciate the understatement of that thought.

Some bargains gain value over time. Other bargains have their true value hidden in the history of the item. So it would be for this bargain of an artifact discovered a sunny Saturday morning in Germantown, Maryland. Simply along for the ride with my wife as we moved from neighborhood to neighborhood, we were in search of bargains for the immediate needs of our young family. As she searched for children’s clothing in one multifamily yard sale, my eye caught a glimpse of two items that were out of place. One was an old violin, but it was the beautifully aged leather cover of a small book of some type that fixed my interest.

My interest and expertise, such as it was, would not let me turn away from the book. The visual appeal was enhanced by the feel of the old leather cover in my hand as I examined it closely. Realizing this small book must be an old bible, I carefully opened the cover in an effort to confirm my assessment and determine its age. As I turned to the title page, my initial evaluation was validated. In fact, this was an 1854 edition of a King James Bible printed by the famous Thomas Nelson Publishers in London.

“How much for this?” I asked the proprietor of the collection standing by his goods laid out on the front lawn. His response of three dollars stunned me for a moment but I worked my best yard sale face not to reveal it. Considering the fact that this almost hundred and forty year old bible had to be worth much more than the asking price, I determined to forgo the normal haggling routine and quickly accept the price. As I handed over the three greenbacks and firmly gripped my new possession, I had no foreshadowing of the journey upon which I would now embark, making the purchase price seem even more of a yard sale bargain.

The rest of that Saturday was spent at dozens of other yard sale locations. After arriving home in the afternoon, the cares of family life quickly supplanted my curiosity about the new purchase and I put the bible aside with the resolution that I would explore it when time permitted. Time would not permit a proper examination of the artifact for another two weeks.

When the moment came to again pick up the bible, I carefully began to turn through the opening pages which are normally left blank by the publisher. In this case, someone had written in script on some of these pages. My heart leaped as I read the words on the first page with writing:

Oliver C. Case

Co. A. 8th Reg’t

C.V.

If we suffer, we shall also reign with Him. If we deny Him, He will also deny us.

2 Tim. 2

[unreadable] OCT. 13, 1861

[unreadable]

Well, I now knew this belonged to a soldier likely of the Civil War era based on the publication date of the bible. The following page revealed additional writing in another hand:

If you die, die like a man.

Miss Abbie J Case

Hartford

Conn

Miss Jennie A Hartford

Oliver C. Case

The first words on this page would hold my curiosity captive for years to come, “If you die, die like a man.” Who could this person be, Oliver C. Case? Who would write should a phrase? As an Army officer who had just returned from war only two years earlier, I could not imagine using these words to encourage a modern American soldier. I had to find out more about this man and his story, as I immediately felt the connection. It was the beginning of my calling that would only grow stronger with the passage of time. One factual discovery would beg for two more. Never satisfied to accept that learning about this man and his bible had reached their terminal point, I pressed on.

“If you die, die like a man.”

These are the prophetic words written inside the front cover of Oliver Case’s pocket Bible that he carried into battle as he ascended the rolling hills toward the town of Sharpsburg, Maryland on September 17, 1862. Oliver and many of his fellow soldiers in the 8th Connecticut Volunteer Infantry would die on those hills just short of the Harpers Ferry Road at the end of the bloodiest day in American history. But, as Lincoln put it, “these dead shall not have died in vain” and this site is dedicated to the memory of one of those “honored dead,” Private Oliver Cromwell Case of Simsbury, Connecticut.

The chroniclers of Connecticut’s involvement in the Civil War, W.A. Croffut and John M. Morris, envisioned the challenge in telling the stories of the foot soldiers:

…there is a sense of pain and profound sorrow in the consciousness that it is impossible to render justice to the nameless rank and file who never wore even a corporal’s chevron, but held to their duty with sublime patience. The last of the color-guard, who seized the standard that had dropped from the relaxed grasp of his 3 comrades, and bore it on, and planted it and stood by it on the edge of the rebel rifle-pit; the martyr who perished in prison, and ever since has been marked “missing” upon the roll of regimental casualties; the thousand glorious obscure, who were mown down by the flaming blade of battle, and died singing songs of triumph, and praying for the establishment of Liberty and Law, — these are the true heroes and martyrs of all the wars of the world. 1

The great American poet and volunteer Civil War nurse in the Union hospitals of Washington, D.C. was moved to tell the world of this kind of soldier. On August 10th of 1863, Whitman sat down to compose “a few lines” to the parents of Erastus Haskell, a soldier of Company K, 141st New York Volunteer Infantry Regiment. The poet wanted to relay information about their son who had recently died in the Armory Square Hospital where Whitman had provided him comfort, care and companionship during his last days. One line in his last paragraph gives voice to my purpose in telling the story of Oliver Cromwell Case. Whitman writes, “He is one of the thousands of our unknown American young men in the ranks about whom there is no record or fame, no fuss made about their dying so unknown, but I find in them the real precious & royal ones of this land, giving themselves up, aye even their young & precious lives, in their country’s cause…”2

So, I tell the story of Private Oliver Cromwell Case, one of the real precious and royal ones of this land…

For more on info, please visit John Banks’ excellent blog and the interview he did with me in January 2012.

NOTES:

(1) Croffut, W.A. and Morris, John M., The Military and Civil History of Connecticut: The War of 1861-1865, Ledyard Bill, New York, 1868.

(2) Letter of Walt Whitman to Mr. and Mrs. S.B. Haskell, dated August 10, 1863, access from the Walt Whitman Archive, http://whitmanarchive.org, January 23, 1863.

 

“Ere it was light”

Oliver Case and his fellow soldiers of the 8th Connecticut awoke at daybreak on the morning of September 17th, 1862 to find themselves facing the enemy just a short distance away on the far side of Antietam Creek. “Ere it was light on Wednesday we were aroused blankets rolled up and every man in his accustomed place,” wrote Captain Walcott Marsh of the 8th. (Marsh) With the daylight came the Confederate gunners ability to range the soldiers in blue emerging from the darkness on the Rohrbach farm. It seems that some inexperienced troops from Rodman’s Division when “looking for a glimpse of the rebels” and served as a range marker for the Confederate artillerists. (C&M) The artillery fire had “good range” and quickly found its mark “as they had obtained the exact range [of Rodman’s Division]” positioned on the Rohrbach farm. This artillery fire would exact several causalities in the 8th Connecticut including Sergeant George Marsh of Oliver’s company (A) and three privates assigned to Company K.

So what Confederate artillery units ranged Rodman’s Division at daybreak and where were the guns located? After some research and a couple of terrain walks, I believe I may have a plausible answer to those questions.

The Confederate artillery opposing IX Corps crossing the Antietam included Eubank’s (Va) Artillery Battery. It was assigned to 2nd Battalion of Longstreet’s Corps Artillery which was also known as the Reserve Artillery during the battle of Antietam. This battalion was commanded by Colonel Stephen D. Lee famous for his defense of the Confederate forces in the northern part of the battlefield and for his description of the area as “artillery hell.” Stephen Lee’s battalion arrived at Sharpsburg on the morning of September 15th and after crossing the Antietam Creek, Lee detached Eubank’s Battery which was previously known as Bath Battery, from the battalion and sent them to the right side of the Confederate line to assist with defending against the Union IX Corps in their attempt to cross the Rohrbach Bridge. The battery was commanded by John L. Eubank of Bath County, Virginia and consisted of four different types of guns, a 3-inch ordnance rifle, a 12-pound howitzer, a 6-pound gun and another rifled gun of an unknown type.

The four guns of Eubank’s Battery, according to Ezra Carman’s maps, was situated on high bluff well above the bend in the creek that pointed directly toward Rohrbach’s cornfield and the brigades of Fairchild and Harland which belong to Rodman’s Division. Carman writes that Rodman’s Division “had been put in position in the darkness and when morning came, found itself exposed to the fire of Eubank’s Battery across the Antietam…” (Carman) So, it seems reasonably clear that it was Eubank’s Battery that fired on Rodman’s Division at daybreak, but what about the location of the guns?

Actually, I believe it was one gun from Eubank’s Battery that initially fired on the Union troops that morning and it was located much closer than the battery is depicted on Carman’s map. The first clue is in the letter of Captain Walcott Marsh describing the events of the morning. As daylight began to break “Objects had scarcely become distant around us” wrote Marsh. As the soldiers began to stir, Marsh noted that “the flash of a gun was seen a short distance in front of us on a little hill and in a moment a shell burst over our heads…” (Marsh) This phrase, “a short distance in front of us on a little hill,” is key to understanding the position of the Confederate artillery piece that fired on Rodman’s Division. Several terrain walks quickly revealed that Marsh could not have been describing the location of Eubank’s Battery on the Carman map for it was located on a high bluff at a greater than “a short distance” but still in range.

Lieutenant Matthew Graham of the Ninth New York Volunteers, part of Fairchild’s Brigade, wrote many years after the war that he had observed “considerable activity among some men in grey on the top of one of the hills in our front.” He continued to watch as the Confederate gunners were “apparently shoveling and leveling the ground…preparing a place for their battery to stand.” Graham deduced that the rebels “had gotten their guns up there and were obliged to prepare a platform or level space for them so that the recoil would not force them down the hill.” (Graham)

Eubanks Btty daybreakPossible location of Eubanks’ gun that fired on Rodman’s troops

I set off on another terrain walk to try and locate the precise position of Eubanks’ gun or guns that fired that morning. Interestingly, I stumbled across the site annotated on Carman’s map above by the bright red line. I believe early on the morning of September 17th, 1862, Captain Eubanks, likely acting on information provided by Confederate skimmers positioned near the Antietam Creek or from his own reconnaissance, moved at least one of his artillery pieces to the knoll that formed the inside of the bend in the creek directly opposite the Rohrbach farm. During my terrain walk, I made an interesting discovery.

Eubanks gun positionCould this be the remnants of an emplacement for one of Eubanks’ guns?

I located what appear to be the remnants of fighting position or potentially a gun emplacement in the most likely position as I was able to determine by the accounts of the incident and Carman’s map. Now, I understand this to be somewhat of a stretch since there are many other possible explanations for this site. However, having seen many of these types of positions from Civil War battle sites and having dug a number of modern battle positions myself, this clearly appears to be man-made for the purpose of emplacing an artillery piece. It could well be the result of the Confederate work party observed by Lieutenant Graham preparing a “platform or level space” for a gun to perfectly range the Rodman’s troops on the opposite side of the Antietam.

Eubanks gun viewThe view from the possible location of Eubanks’ gun looking toward the position of Rodman’s Division on the morning of September 17, 1862

Even with the modern growth of trees, this location offers an incredible view of the area occupied by Rodman’s troops that morning. This site is located just below the Georgians Overlook site off the Snavely’s Ford trail and afforded me the opportunity to contemplate the view of the Confederate gunners that morning as “ere it was light.”