The Dread of Death

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. Per week, that’s more Americans killed than died on September 11, 2001 and the fact that this continued for four years is 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 bullets began to fly in his direction. Oliver, rather than choose dishonor, would rely on the mercy of God to choose his fate. He would not face 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 had drawn this as a clear line of battle from which he would not retreat.

Make no mistake, fear of the unknown always hovered about him. Like the fever Oliver had struggled against for so many of the past months, fear would always return, unwelcomed and 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 the destiny of 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 the Confederate lines outside Sharpsburg, Maryland. Their courage would now be sorely tested in these fields and across the rolling hills…[4]

 How long can this continue? Over every one of these hills lies another storm of lead from those Johnnies. The boys are in fine fighting spirits today, so 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 moving up on 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, I can hear those officers in gray shouting at disoriented troops milling around the road. I hear the cries on the officers to “rally on the colors” and “stand your ground.” The sea of graybacks are swelling and the rebels in front of us are firing into our ranks or mostly above our heads. I’m sure glad this swale is protecting us from their Minnie balls. I see the Zouves to our right…those New York boys are firing hot but many are falling. Now they are beginning to slowly move back down the slope. Lieutenant Colonel Appelman is giving the order for the regiment to move forward followed by the echoes of the captains. Nobody hesitates; not one of us. 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 my 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. What would our mother think if she knew all three of her boys were in the thick of the fight on the same field?

It seems like we’ve barely started to move when old Colonel Appelman falls to our front. Four men (I don’t recognize 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 here comes another one behind themforming 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…if I die, I die like a man. 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]

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[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] What follows 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.

[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).

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A Sad Day in Connecticut

A Sad Day in Connecticut

On September 27, 1862, family members and friends of the soldiers of the 8th Connecticut were officially able to confirm what most of them already knew from telegraph messages and letters coming from the regiment. The regiment had fought valiantly but suffered terrible in the Battle of Antietam. Almost 50% of the soldiers marching into the battle on September 17th were now dead, wounded or missing. Major John Ward’s official casualty report listed 399 soldiers as available for duty that day with 194 of them killed, wounded or missing as of the 21st of September 1862.

Casualty Report 8th CVI 21 Sep 1862

Ten days after the terrible fight had ended, Major Ward’s report was published in the Connecticut Courant with not only the numbers but the name of every soldier killed, wounded or missing in the regiment. It was a sad day for many homes across Connecticut. In the home of Job Case of Simsbury, it was a day of mixed emotions for the family. A sense of relief came over them as the report confirmed that their two older sons, Ariel and Alonzo of the 16th Connecticut, had survived the battle and were not wounded or missing. However, the report also gave them the news they had likely first receive several days earlier…their youngest son Oliver has been killed in action.

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The Two Burials of Oliver Cromwell Case

The Two Burials of Oliver Cromwell Case

As morning broke on the morning of September 19, 1862, Captain Wolcott P. Marsh, Commander of Company F, 8th Connecticut awoke to discover the rebels gone and that he was now assigned to lead the remains recovery detail for the regiment. Appropriately, Marsh, the former lieutenant and friend of Oliver Case, is the first member of the regiment to learn Oliver’s disposition:

We stacked arms and details were sent from different to pick up the dead so that could be buried together. I went up where our regit. was engaged and there what a sight. 30 men from our regit. alone lay dead in a little field and near by was 42 Zouaves (9th N. Y.) and many more from other regit. The first man I came to of my company was Charles E. Louis my acting orderly. Then Corp. Truck my color corporal and close by them lay Dwight Carry, Herbert Nee, Horace Rouse and Mr. Sweet all of my company then passing on to Co. A. were the body’s of Olive[r] Case, Orton Lord, Martin Wadhams and Lucius Wheeler then to Co. K. saw Jack Simons body the only one whose name remember…[1]

These soldiers of Company A are well known to Captain Marsh from his tenure as a lieutenant of the Company prior to being promoted and transferred to Company F. Captain Marsh’s detail goes about their work and the commander “had all body’s brought from hill down by several straw stacks.”[2]

This description taken with Marsh’s report of the unit positions on the day of the battle make it clear that the remains were removed from the “high water mark” area near the present-day monument. The area of the hay stacks is located to the north of the 40-acre cornfield in the area where the 8th CVI step off for the final assault on the day of the battle.

 

Brothers

(Photos courtesy of John Banks and Matt Reardon)

By afternoon, Oliver’s two brothers are allowed on the field to search for their younger brother. This will begin a chain of events which results in two burials and two graves for Oliver. Alonzo writes of seeking information about Oliver on the night after the battle and their journey onto the field two days later:

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 what 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.[3]

 

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The Grass Field behind the Otto Farmhouse, Site of Oliver’s First Burial

 

This was not the final resting place for Oliver. Alonzo continues:

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.[4]

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Oliver’s Final Resting Place, the Cemetery in His Hometown of Simsbury, Connecticut

(Photo credit: John Banks)

 

ENDNOTES:

  1. Letters of Captain Walcott Marsh
  2. IBID.
  3. “Recollections of Camp and Prison Life” by Alonzo Grove Case, Company E, 16th Regiment Connecticut Volunteers (from the collection of The Simsbury Historical Society)
  4. IBID.

 

 

The Common Fate of Two Soldiers

The Common Fate of Two Soldiers

War brings the strangest of twists of fate. It also brings a common destiny between its participants even among two men from opposing sides of the conflict. At the battle of Newbern, so began this shared fate for Private Oliver Cromwell Case of the 8th Connecticut Volunteer Infantry Regiment and Brigadier General Lawrence O’Bryan Branch who would command a brigade at the Battle of Antietam.

First, the fallout over losing the city of Newbern would bring the two men together for the second time on the field of battle.

Blame for a military defeat is always messy business in time of war. The Civil War was no different. The military and political leaders plus the general citizenry of both the Union and Confederacy wanted someone to accept blame and its ugly consequences for a defeat on the field of battle. This phenomenon gives historians to this day a rich trove of study and cause for extensive opining. Among the most famous of these incidences is the defeat of Lee’s army at Gettysburg for which James Longstreet would take a large share of the responsibility among the post-war Confederate writing.

The Battle of Newbern was no different albeit one of the least known in the blame game. The total defeat of Confederate forces defending Newbern was a severe loss for the leadership in Richmond and especially for the state of North Carolina. Only a few weeks before this battle, the Confederates troops defending Roanoke Island quickly gave way to the first of Ambrose Burnside’s amphibious assaults. Now, one of the gateway cities controlling the inland approaches to the transportation hubs of North Carolina had fallen with seemingly little resistance from the Confederate and state troops stationed in a series of fortifications below Newbern.

The immediate commander on the field was Brigadier General Lawrence O’Bryan Branch, a former United States Congressman from North Carolina. Branch had succeeded Brigadier General Daniel Harvey Hill as the commander for the district covering this part of the North Carolina coast but, much like Hill, had no success in convincing the Confederate government in Richmond of the importance of defending this area. While Branch continued to send requests for reinforcements, ammunition and other supplies, Burnside began his assault against the undermanned Confederate defenses. Branch had only 4,000 poorly trained and armed troops with no naval support while Burnside’s forces numbered over 10,000 with gunboat support from the Union Navy. The result of the battle should have been a foregone conclusion.

Branch_Lawrence_O_Bryan_LoC_26684u

A pre-war photograph of Lawrence O’Bryan Branch [1]

 

Branch’s immediate superior commander was Brigadier General Richard Caswell Gatlin, a West Point graduate and native of North Carolina, commanding the Confederate Department of North Carolina responsible for the overall coastal defense of the state. From his headquarters in Goldsboro, Gatlin also requested reinforcements for the coastal defenses to no avail. Born in 1809, the aging Gatlin was suffering from an illness at the time of the battle and was relieved of his command just five days later making it convenient for the Confederate government to pin their scapegoat. Gatlin’s report on the battle admitted the failure of leadership to stop Burnside and “maintain the ascendancy on Pamlico sound, and thus admitted Burnside’s fleet without a contest; we failed to put a proper force on Roanoke island, and thus lost the key to our interior coast, and we failed to furnish General Branch with a reasonable force, and thus lost the important town of New Bern. What I claim is that these failures do not by right rest with me.”

Richard Gatlin

Brigadier General Richard Caswell Gatlin took the fall for the Confederate defeat at Newbern instead of Lawrence Branch

 

The North Carolina press was not kind to either of the generals in command during the Battle of New Bern. One newspaper, in a backhanded jab at Gatlin, wrote, “Schooling never puts brains in a man’s head, nor can West Point make a General who was not born with it in him.”[2] While the paper claimed to believe Gatlin was competent for command, it also stated that “the government should investigate the matter, and if he be found incompetent or derelict, he should be removed.” [3]

On the subject of Branch’s leadership, the same newspaper was even more direct about his responsibility for the defeat at New Bern. Claiming to have originally opposed his appointment to the command position, the paper opined that they “knew he would try, and we had no doubt that he would do his very best to make a General; but we knew, at the same time, that it was not in him, as the disaster at Newbern plainly proves.” [4] The call was for Gatlin, Branch or any other individual or party responsible for the loss of New Bern to “be dealt with promptly and deservedly.” [5]

Gatlin was relieved of his command and formally resigned in September of 1862. Branch was moved north to join the division of A.P. Hill where he would successfully lead troops in the battles of Hanover Courthouse, Seven Days, Cedar Mountain, Second Manassas, Chantilly, and Harper’s Ferry. After pushing his soldiers through a 17-mile roadmarch from Harper’s Ferry directly onto the field in Sharpsburg, Branch helped save Robert E. Lee’s Army of North Virginia from defeat on the afternoon of September 17, 1862.

Branch’s Brigade pushed back forces from Ambrose Burnside’s IX Corps attacking toward Sharpsburg, most notably they poured a galling fire into the flank of the 8th Connecticut Infantry Regiment. Based on my research, there is a high probability that one of Branch’s regiments, the 7th or 37th North Carolina Infantry, fired the shot that struck and killed Oliver Case during their desperate stand near the Harper’s Ferry Road. In a twist of fate, Oliver Case had faced the troops of Lawrence O’Bryan Branch in his first and last combat action.

General Branch would also share another experience with Oliver Case that day. After the timely arrival of his brigade and repelling the attack of the Union IX Corps, Branch and the two other brigade commanders in A.P. Hill’s Division gathered with their division commander and General Lee just east of the Harper’s Ferry Road to confer on the next action of the Confederate forces. As the discussion ensued, an opportunistic Union soldier on a distant hill fired a single shot that hit General Branch in the face and slightly injured fellow brigade commander Maxcy Gregg. The shot was instantly mortal for Branch who fell into the arms of a staff officer.

McIntosh Battery (3)

In the fields beyond this gun, Oliver Case and Lawrence Branch met their shared fate

 

Within mere minutes and a few hundred yards of each other, Oliver Case and Lawrence Branch had sealed their shared fate by a deadly single shot.

 

NOTES:

1. Library of Congress collection.

2 through 5. Semi-Weekly Standard (Raleigh, North Carolina), March 22, 1862 from the Chronicling America: Historic Newspapers collection in the Library of Congress

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.

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.

Oliver Case on the Rohrbach farm: Some opening thoughts…

I have always been committed to determining the routes, camps and battle positions of the 8th Connecticut Volunteer Infantry and Oliver Case. I strive to be as accurate as possible in the hopes of not only being true in the telling of Oliver’s story but also in the hopes that I can physically walk in his footsteps. The location at the top of my list has always been the fields and woods around Sharpsburg where Oliver gave “his last full measure of devotion” on September 17, 1862. I’ve had the good fortune of living a short distance from the battlefield for a number of years and getting to know people interested in and knowledgeable about the battle. Somewhere in the neighborhood of fifty hikes, solo and with a few other brave souls, have allowed me a much closer study of the terrain. Also, it has been my privilege to develop and lead a number of military staff rides at Antietam over the past few years that brought me onto the field and into Oliver’s footsteps. No person has been more helpful in the process of understanding what Oliver Case and his fellow Connecticut soldiers faced at Antietam than John Banks, the author of two outstanding books on Connecticut soldiers and CW blogger of the highest order. A man I am now privileged to call a friend.

About two weeks ago, I was able to join John and Bob Anderson (ancestor of Corporal Robert Ferriss, a member of the 8th CVI color guard killed at the battle) to retrace, to the extent possible, the steps of Corporal Ferriss and Private Case of the 16th and 17th of September 1862. It was a wonderful day as detailed by John Banks.

This outing caused me to revisit the route of the 8th Connecticut during these two days. I have studied in great detail and am very familiar with the actions and route of the 8th after 1:00pm on September 17,1862 as all this property from Snavely’s Ford to the 8th Connecticut’s monument is part of the Antietam National Battlefield and accessible (or at least viewable) from the trail system in the park. I believe I have a solid handle on the last four to five hours of Oliver’s young life and John Banks and I have covered this ground on many occasions.

However, since the property is not accessible by the general public, I’ve always made assumptions about the actions of the 8th Connecticut on the day before the battle and the morning of the battle as they marched in from the Geeting Farm near Keedysville onto the Rohrbach farm near the famous bridge that now bears the name of Ambrose Burnside, their commanding general that day. Since our visit to part of the Rohrbach farm two weeks ago made possible by its current owner, Ann Corcoran, I’ve become determined to pinpoint the locations of the 8th with much a greater specificity. In conducting the research and taking into account what I learned during Ann’s tour of the farm, I may have raised more questions for myself than I answered.

Over the next few posts, I will attempt to lay out my best guess as to the locations of the 8th using Ezra Carmen’s maps as a starting point then modifying them to best represent the information from reports and letters of the men who walked the ground over those two days. Some may dispute my conclusions and additional information may help improve my accuracy which I welcome.

Daybreak September 17 Overview Carman

Daybreak, September 17, 1862 on the southern end of the Antietam Battlefield from Ezra Carman’s map (LOC)