“The ball opened this morning…”

As the dawn broke just before 6:00 AM on the morning of September 16, 1862, Oliver Case and his comrades in the 8th Connecticut Volunteer Infantry Regiment awoke from what must have been an uncomfortable night of sleep in a stubble field on the Geeting Farm just outside of Keedysville. After viewing the horrifying results of the battle at Fox’s Gap on South Mountain the previous day, the troops marched about five miles from the gap to the Geeting Farm where they arrived after midnight. After the success at the South Mountain gaps, the Union commander George McClellan was now in pursuit of Robert E. Lee’s Army Northern Virginia who found themselves desperately racing to reunite at Sharpsburg before the Union could attack. The soldiers in blue could sense that a renewed battle was now possible at any point along their route of march. The urgency in their commanders’ voices was evident as orders were passed down the line to press onward. As one company commander from the 8th recalled the night of the September 15th, “…we marched quite a number of miles that day and night to the little village called Keedysville (or some such name) where by midnight we got a chance to lie down for night.”[1]

But as daylight broke over South Mountain behind their hastily assembled bivouac, the soldiers would wait for orders to move. The morning of waiting was not to be wasted by the seasoned troops of the 8th Connecticut who quickly made good use of their time at the Keedysville farm by gathering some local products for breakfast. While food for the soldiers may have been “rare” as the regimental historian put it, “the men got corn in prime from the fields and ate roasted ears and green fruit.” Fires were built for cooking using nearby fences for fuel and “the army soon made the area bare from all its needs.”[2] Water was also in good supply on the farm also known as Crystal Spring or Locust Spring. It provided an excellent source of clear, cool water from the spring near the farm house and it’s likely that Oliver Case filled his canteen from the spring as the regiment awaited orders on the 16th of September. Ironically, some of Oliver’s fellow soldiers would return to this farm in less than 36 hours as patients in the Union hospital established in the farmhouse. For more on the hospital and the farm, see John Banks’ excellent post on his blog.

Commonly referred to in military circles as “hurry up and wait,” this period of waiting and inactivity interspersed with orders to prepare to march followed closely by cancelation of those same orders could be very trying on psyche of the average soldier. Veteran units like the 8th Connecticut had considerable experience with this phenomenon and the individual soldiers had developed their own coping mechanisms. Oliver Case often used the downtime to write his sister and others even when the regiment was on the move. “Having a few leisure moments of spare time I thought I could improve them no better than by writing to you” he penned to his sister as the soldiers waited for their ship at Perryville, Maryland in November of the previous year.[3] It’s also possible that Oliver Case turned to another source of comfort and reassurance as the battle loomed close. Oliver very likely opened his pocket Bible for what may have been the final time that morning on the Geeting Farm to find those words invoking courage inside the front cover, “If you die, die like a man.”

Case Bible2Did Oliver Case open his Bible for the final time on the Geeting Farm, September 16, 1862?

There was good reason for the soldiers of the 8th Connecticut to seek words of comfort and courage that morning. Three hours after daybreak around 9:00 AM, “the ball opened” with the Confederate artillery gunners on the far side of Antietam Creek dropping shells among Union forces.[4] As the soldiers of IX Corps had moved off the road to bed down the previous night, long lines of wagon trains containing the supplies and baggage of the corps had moved up on the road toward Sharpsburg. In the light of morning, they became a tempting target for the artillery batteries of the Confederates. Union artillery batteries answered the salvos with counterbattery fire from their positions on the Ecker farm closer to the banks of the Antietam Creek and near the Middle Bridge. Longer range shells from the Confederates fell amongst the baggage trains sending them running for cover. Captain Marsh of the 8th Connecticut reported that the “baggage wagons which had come up during night were soon sent skedaddling to the rear” of the awaiting infantry troops. While damage was minimal, Marsh remembered that “two or three mules were killed and a wagon or two were smashed up and a few soldiers killed and wounded.”[5]

As the artillery duel kept up for most of the day, the Connecticut soldiers continued to wait along the side of the road for orders. Finally, the orders came late in the afternoon at around 4:00 PM by some reports. Harland’s Brigade was to move forward toward the sound of the guns still dueling across the Antietam. It seemed the time for battle could be close but alas it was not to be on this day. After marching only about one mile, the 8th Connecticut and the rest of the brigade took a left turn off of the Porterstown Road onto a road running from Porterstown to the Rohrbach farm along the back side of the Ecker farm.

8th Route of March 4PM 16 Sep 624:00 PM September 16, 1862 – Harland’s Brigade and the 8th CVI move forward to the sound of the guns

As the troops filed off onto this road leading to the Rohrbach farm, the artillery battle continued but now Oliver Case and his comrades could see the Union batteries doing their work. The 8th Connecticut moved “forward to the line of hills on which our artillery was posted when filed off to left and kept on undercover of hills as much as possible for mile or more but not unobserved by our foe for they shelled us continually but doing no damage.”[6] The movement by the Connecticut troops was slow as the entire Union IX Corps prodded along the Ecker farm with wagon trains, artillery batteries and infantry troops clogging the small farm road forcing many to resort to cross country marching.

During this movement, the hurriedly assembled and hastily transported to the front 16th Connecticut Infantry Regiment joined Harland’s Brigade giving it four infantry regiments. It had been a long journey for the green regiment.

“…Adjutant Burnham, who had been absent, returned with the order that we were wanted at the front. This took us a little by surprise as we did not expect to go into battle so soon. But on went the bundles, and after a tedious march through ploughed fields and forests, passing brigades and divisions, the booming of artillery and bursting of shells sounding louder and louder, we finally joined a brigade consisting of the 4th R. I., and the 8th and 11th C.V.”[7]

With the brigade now complete, Edward Harland would now prepare to emplace his troops for the night on their new home, the Rohrbach farm.

 

NOTES:

[1] Letters of Wolcott P. Marsh (unpublished), accessed from The Eighth Regiment Connecticut Volunteers at Antietam website, http://home.comcast.net/~8cv/8cv-frame.html

[2] Croffut and Morris, 1868.

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

[4] Diary of Charles S. Buell, 8th Connecticut, as published on Antietam on the Web, http://antietam.aotw.org/exhibit.php?exhibit_id=369

[5] Marsh.

[6] Marsh.

[7] History of the Sixteenth Connecticut Volunteers, B.F. Blakeslee, The Case, Lockwood & Brainard Company, 1875.

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