When we first arrived in Washington, it was filled with wounded and dispirited troops from the campaigns in Virginia. There was drunkenness in the streets as well as brawls. The Army of the Potomac appeared to be leaderless.
Then McClellan was again made general over the army. There were whoops of joy when soldiers heard the news, and it seemed that suddenly the morale, which had been so low, began to improve.
Of course, I had never even seen Little Mac, so my first view of him, as he rode through the troops, was thrilling. This was the man who Theophilus said was going to lead us to victory; this was the man who was going to save the Union. And when Little Mac spoke, it was very clear that he himself believed it. He would be our leader and our savior.
My excitement and anticipation rose higher than it had been since I first arrived in Baltimore. I felt like I could follow Little Mac into Hell and back. And I suppose, in a way, that’s just what I and thousands of other soldiers did that fall.
By the seventh of September, which was a Sunday, Little Mac had already achieved some organization. Our regiment was placed in the XIIth Corps. Meanwhile, word reached us that Lee and his Army of Virginia had crossed the Potomac into Maryland west of South Mountain.
It was near harvest time in Maryland, and the weather held warm and sunny most days. I love September in Maryland. The trees have not begun to turn but the nights are cooler and the aromas of ripe crops are delicious.
Little Mac divided the army into three marching columns. The XIIth was in the middle, on the National Highway. The marching for the next few days was fairly easy as we only covered about 6 miles a day and spirits were high. There was a light breeze which eased the heat of the sun shining down on us. Mile markers were posted so it was easy to keep track of the distance we covered. My feet had healed and no longer bothered me, although I still found boots a nuisance. It was probably fortunate that the marches were short because we had not walked far with full knapsacks before. Besides our rifles or muskets and bayonets, we carried forty rounds of ammunition a blanket roll, a canteen, a tin cup, a bowie knife, rations, and numerous personal items — letters and writing equipment, journals, photographs, etc.
The supply wagons were constantly lagging behind, so we had to forage for food. Women and young ladies often provided food for us, including bread, fruit, and meats. Along the march they put out tubs of water and sometimes lemonade. But sometimes, I must admit, we also took food such as corn and apples from the fields as we marched.
On the second day of the march, we were sitting at the edge of the road resting across from a small copse of trees and shrubs. As I looked towards it, a bit of motion caught my eye. I pointed my rifle at the motion and demanded loudly who was there. Suddenly, peeking out at me was a little, inquisitive face. Had I been a believer in such things I might have thought I was being watched by an elf or fairy, but this was clearly a little boy. When he saw me watching and pointing my rifle at him, he ducked behind a tree. “Come out,” I called. “I don’t bite, and I’m not gonna shoot you.” Cautiously he reappeared. “Come over here where we can jaw,” I invited. He thought about that but finally crossed the road, continuing to stare at me.
He was a sturdy little boy with an inquisitive, delicate face. At most he was about six years old. His dark, wavy hair hung over his ears and eyebrows. His eyes were a striking blue-gray. His mouth was sensitive and shaped like a Cupid’s bow. He wore an old, long-sleeved shirt and overalls. His little feet were bare and quite dirty.
Finally, he asked, “Are ya gonna fight, sir?”
“Oh, I hope so,” I replied.
“Ya must be very brave,” he said.
“No,” I laughed, “I’m prob’ly more crazy than brave. What’s yer name?”
“Walter, sir. What’s yours, sir?”
“Elias,” I replied, before asking, “How old are ya, Walter?”
I heard Theophilus chuckle. “You really don’t have t’ call me sir, Walter. Call me Elias.”
He nodded, then asked, “Would you like some water…Elias?”
“Very much, thank you.”
“I’ll be right back.” And he ran off across the road and through the trees.
“Looks like ya got an admirer,” observed Theophilus, and we both laughed. “I’ll wager that’s the first time you’ve been called ‘sir’.” I nodded.
Walter soon returned carrying two mugs, a pitcher of water, and two apples. He offered the apples to me and Theophilus. Then he very seriously and carefully poured water for us. We thanked him and drank deeply before biting into the apples.
“I hope ya win,” Walter said. “I’ll be waitin’ here when ya come back.” With that, he disappeared once again into the trees. Of course, I never saw him again.
Most of the greenhorns had brought along a great deal of equipment, and soon it began to weigh very heavy on them. By the second day, some were already discarding items they didn’t need, such as extra collars, cholera pills, and food delicacies. By the third day, the road seemed lined with discarded materials. I even saw a portable writing desk or two. Fortunately, listening to the advice of Theophilus, I had only brought what he thought I would need.
Of course, there were constant rumors, most of them about Lee and his army. We learned, or at least believed, that the Confederate Army had made it to Frederick by the seventh. This was confirmed to us on the tenth. But by then they had broken camp and moved north on the old National Road.
By the thirteenth, the XIIth Corps had arrived in Frederick and we camped in a meadow outside of town, sleeping wrapped in our blankets through the chilly, moonless night.
Our reception in Frederick was very enthusiastic. The citizens waved flags and ran out to us with food and drink as we marched. Nowhere was there any sign of support for the Confederacy. We did learn that many of the shops in Frederick had sold out everything of use to the Confederates while they were there. The Rebs were particularly interested in food and shoes. We learned that a great many of them were in fact marching shoeless and had been ever since they left eastern Virginia. What we heard of their condition only served to boost our own belief that we would beat them decisively when we met.
We were roused early on the morning of the fourteenth. It was a bright, clear day, promising to grow hot as the day progressed.
Soon we were ordered to march once again on the Old National Highway towards South Mountain, where rumor told us the Confederates were blocking the passes through. We passed through Middletown and I hoped that perhaps Josiah or my parents would be there to see us pass through, but there was no sign of them.
Branching off the Pike to the southwest we arrived between Fox’s and Crampton’s Gaps with the wooded mountains before us. Since we were the last of the Corps to march, we were held there in reserve.
As we approached the Gaps we could hear musket and occasional cannon fire. It seemed that the Rebels were holding their ground despite our superior forces. The pungent tang of burned gunpowder floated towards us on the west wind as we remained in the increasingly hot sun with nothing to do. We were eager to fight and frustrated that we weren’t sent into the battle, of which we had an excellent view.
Towards nightfall, our troops withdrew, with the rebels still holding the gaps. That night, we camped there as best we could, shivering under our blankets in the cold night air.
Early in the morning we were once again roused and told to prepare to march. Apparently, Lee’s army had withdrawn from all three gaps during the night. We were again in high spirits, believing that we had defeated the Rebs.
It takes a long time to get an army of perhaps eighty thousand men all moving in the same direction, but eventually we all filed through Turner’s Gap, where I saw a battleground for the first time. Dead soldiers, hundreds of them, lay all around, some in grotesque postures, some seeming to be stacked like cordwood, while others lay side by side in a neat row as though they had just fallen asleep there. I was saddened to see that there were a few, mostly Rebs, who seemed to be even younger than I was, perhaps no older than Tony. Inside I wept for them. Burial teams were at work disposing of the bodies from both armies.
As I passed by the dead of both sides, I feared I would vomit, but I managed to control my stomach, barely. This was war. This was where I was headed. It was not glorious. It was not a great adventure. It was frightening and sickening. Now, for the first time, I believed that I could actually be killed, that I could easily be one of those corpses being thrown in a ditch.
Our general of the XIIth Corps, Sumner, was replaced by Mansfield. We never knew why. Soldiers are not supposed to question the decisions of their officers. Mansfield was perhaps the oldest of the generals, and since we didn’t know him, we didn’t have a lot of confidence in him.
We moved on towards Boonsboro, where we were greeted like heroes. Again, women of the town brought us food and water. I drank some of the water but was afraid I would not be able to keep down any food. While there we received word that Harper’s Ferry had fallen to the Confederates.
From Boonsboro we moved on to Keedysville and then to Sharpsburg, all the time following Lee’s army. Sharpsburg was less than 10 miles from Turners Gap. It was a sleepy little town with a few shops that served the local farmers. We all expected that Lee would continue to retreat and at some point return to Virginia, but when we arrived at Sharpsburg, we learned that he had taken up positions near Sharpsburg along Antietam Creek.
The Potomac flows southeast in a winding course at this point, while Antietam Creek runs southwest flowing into the Potomac a bit farther south. So the two rivers formed two sides of a triangle. The first of Lee’s army had arrived there about dawn and had taken up positions to the west of the creek, with the Potomac at its back. “Little Mac” positioned most of his army east of the creek and facing Lee’s army, which stretched out about 4 miles, with Sharpsburg in the middle. As our army moved in there was a scattering of cannon fire from the Rebs, but it did no harm. Mansfield ordered the XIIth Corps to set up camp near Keedysville for the night, as it was too late in the day to start a battle.
That night, as we sat around our little fires eating meagre rations, we all knew that battle was coming, and we could talk of little else. I wrote letters by firelight to Ma and Pa and to Josiah. They said about the same things. Josiah’s letter read:
We are now at Sharpsburg, facing Lee’s army across Antietam Creek. We are certain there will be a battle tomorrow. We are confident we will win, but it could be a costly victory.
I crossed a battleground at Turner’s Gap this morning that was full of the dead and dying. Josiah, we were wrong. War is not an adventure. It’s not exciting. It’s not glorious. It’s sickening. I saw one Confederate drummer boy there, lying with a surprised look on his face and a hole in his chest. He couldn’t have been more than 12.
I don’t know what tomorrow will bring. I don’t know if I will ever see you again. I don’t think I’m afraid, but I now know the costs and what can happen.
If I don’t survive, remember that I go into the battle with my love for you, knowing that your love for me will sustain me. Give my love to your brothers and your parents and tell them that I died believing that our cause is just and right.
I will always love you Josiah, wherever I am.
Tears were running down my face as I finished the letters, addressed them, and turned them in to be mailed.
I slept fitfully that night, my dreams switching between battlefields and the folks at home.
In the quiet of the early morning of the 16th, the battlefield was enveloped in thick fog. It was impossible to determine whether or not Lee’s army was still there. But when the fog cleared later in the morning, artillery pieces on both sides began firing at each other. There was really not much danger to us as the Confederate artillery couldn’t reach us, but the sound was enormous. This was the first time I had been so close to firing cannons. Each time a cannon fired the ground shook and my ears began ringing. Then they would be quiet for a time until one side or the other saw a possible target and began firing again. We were anxious to move into battle, but no word came to form up. We just sat and watched and listened.
The afternoon was overcast and it looked as though we might get rain at some point. The two armies simply sat there, looking at each other. At about 4:00 PM, General Hooker’s Ist Corps began to cross the creek to the north of Sharpsburg and Lee’s army. Then they turned south until they made contact with Lee’s pickets. There were a few sharp exchanges of gunfire, but no battle ensued.
That night we were ordered to not light fires, so we had to make do with green apples and dry coffee grounds. It was an eerie night. There was no moonlight and if one wanted to move it was impossible to see where he was going. It was fortunate that I had written my letters the night before, because I wouldn’t have been able to see them that night. Occasionally we heard a few gunshots, but those were probably pickets who got spooked by something. Since Hooker’s men had moved, we were absolutely certain that the battle would begin on the morrow.
Then, in the night, it began to rain. We sought what shelter we could find under our blankets, but about 2AM we were ordered to pack our belongings and prepare to move out. The march was more a stumble than an orderly march, for we could see nothing. We crossed the Antietam and bivouacked in a farm field which had been fertilized with manure. There we were told to rest until dawn. Sleep was out of the question. Theophilus and I and a few others sat around talking, trying to take our minds off the approaching battle, but that didn’t really help.
By dawn, I was so anxious and excited that I was sure I would burst if the battle didn’t start at once.