The Morning of Antietam
By W. F. Goodhue. Late Secretary Third Wis. Vet. Association.
It was in the grey of early morning when the Sergeant Major, walking rapidly along the line of sleeping men, awakened us with a gruff voice to roll call. I arose from my greensward bed with a feeling of numbness in my left side, caused by the pressure of my cartridge box against it all night, for we had slept accoutred for the battle which we were certain would occur with the daylight. Even as the roll was being called the musket fire of the picket lines commenced quite briskly, and mounted orderlies came galloping along the lines seeking the regimental commanders for whom they had orders. Behind us we could hear the continuous whinney of artillery horses and the braying of mules hauling the ammunition wagons, all expecting their morning feed, which a very few received. Looking along the line I saw the men wiping the moisture from their muskets, for the dew had been heavy, and just now there was considerable fog. Others were changing their gun caps or adjusting a knapsack, putting canteen and haversack well behind, to give free access to the cartridge box. Others were munching hardtack, and some were smoking. Several of my comrades, with canteens, had gone for water, with the evident intention of making coffee, while others had made little fires for cooking breakfast, taking rails from an adjacent fence for the purpose; when suddenly and sternly came the order to get back into the ranks.
The firing of the pickets had in the meantime become nearer and more lively, to which the men standing in the ranks, leaning on their muskets, listened intently. Should we attack or would we be attacked, we mentally asked ourselves, and more than one soldier glanced about to take in the lay of the land. The premonitions of battle were growing stronger, and the expected breakfast was soon forgotten. The symptoms of an impending battle had been apparent for more than 24 hours, and we knew that the culmination of another great tragedy was at hand. How pallied were the faces of all, with unkempt hair, thus giving them the appearance almost, of wildmen. They did not have the rosy hues of days in the past when arising from the clean and restful bed under the home roof, yet these men standing in battle-line were scarcely old enough to be men and voters at home. They had grimy, sallow features and muscular bodies, lean and guant as hounds, plainly denoting hardships and endurance during the summer of 1862, for this was their third campaign since the spring flowers had bloomed. How quietly they were standing in line, at ease, waiting, for what. The division general and his start came galloping along the line in front of the colors, stopping a few moments to speak to our Colonel, then continuing on.
Immediately after we heard in a steady clear tone from him: Attention, Battallion ! Shoulder Arms ! Close Column by Division ! Forward, March ! Then quickly dismounting, putting horse in charge of a servant, he placed himself at the head of the column, leading the men. A battery of 6 guns moved across the meadow at our right flank, the horses in a trot, without noise, the usual crack of the whip and shout being noticeably absent. It may have been the firm low tone of the artillery captain giving command, caused only the booted spur to be used, urging the horses forward with their heavy engines of war, nor could we forget that the enemy were in all probability advancing upon us at the same moment with equal volcanoes of destruction.
Right Shoulder Shift Arms! came the command from our Colonel. Ascending a gentle rise of ground the column entered a belt of woods of large oak and chestnut trees, the dearth of undergrowth giving it a park-like appearance. Glancing back as we entered, I saw other regiments and batteries following in good order, moving across the meadow, just passed, and compact squares of infantry dimly visible through the mist which dimmed the brightness of the flags hanging limp and motionless against their staff and half concealed banners.
Battallion, Halt! was the command, followed by: Unsling Knapsacks ! which was done in a moment, the men passing them along between the ranks to the right and left of the column, where they were piled up in heaps. Here a captain from one of the companies stepped from the line and approaching the Colonel, saluted him. a few words passing between them, unheard by others. The Colonel turned abruptly on his heal, taking his place at the head of the column, while the Captain, with downcast face, walked to the rear, so very far to the rear that the regiment knew him no more. The bullets from the enemy's pickets now began to hiss among the branches of the trees above our heads. Occasionally one would furrow the bark of a tree with a spiteful whack or with a deadening thud. To describe these sounds, many expressive words could be heard from the troops of the east and west.
The bursting of a shrapnel shell forced from a 12 pound brass Napoleon gun, was described by the word "sping!" An elongated Parrott or Rodman percussion shell, having a vertical rotary motion, seemed to say: "Where are you! where are you!"
Again we moved forward, the battery remaining at a halt. We noticed that the drivers had dismounted and were holding the horses at their heads. Ah, these artillerymen well knew what was in our advance. Infantry has slept many a time on the field, when the artillery was vigorously at work, and likewise with the cavalry, but when infantry meets infantry, there is just cause for anxious solicitude regarding the result of the combat. It is then when "Greek joins Greek" there is no sleep but the sleep of death.
An elongated shell comes crushing through the tree tops above us, the enemy having learned of our presence in the woods from their pickets. Their artillery could not see lis, nor could ours see them. Another shell strikes the trunk of a tree, and bursting, shivers the tree into fragments, the same tailing all about us. We are now treated to a volley of shells and the descending fragments of trees are not unlike the feathery snowflakes. Most of the missles come high above our heads. One, however, comes low enough to kill a member of Co. D, mangling him horribly.
We came upon our pickets here in the edge of the woods. As they sweep by into the mist we are assured of the location of the enemy. As we emerge from the woods and enter upon an open plain the regiment reassumes its compact formation, which had been much broken while in the timber. A deployment into line is ordered, executed splendidly, without slackening our pace. Shells of the rebs are increasing and fragments of the same are continually round about us, causing an involuntary shrinking of the person, not outwardly visible, however. A soldier near the colors is bruised by one of these fragments, causing a break in the line for a minute. Solid shot come bounding along striking the ground in our front. Halting, we look eagerly to the front, trying to locate the source of the artillery fire, but are not able, as the prevailing mist is yet about us. Thanks to this, which in a measure protect us from the shells that fill the air, and mislead the enemy's gunners.
In this din and swirl of cannon shot, we hear but scarcely heed the flying bullets from the enemy's pickets. They too are firing at random in the mist. About 200 yards to our right we could just discern a house, stacks and a well of water, where later the wounded men of both armies crowded about for water. Before us is a corn field
"The standing corn already ripened
That September morn.''
Its yellow tassels drooping with the night's heavy dew. To our right the trees surrounding the Dunkard Church can be dimly seen. We saw the Church later on, encircled with the spitting fire from the rifles of thousands. Its sacred ground became historic this day, as did the cornfield along our front. That immediate locality was the key to the position held by Lee's right wing, and was defended by Stonewall Jackson.
To the left may be seen dark masses of foliage, but the enemy is not discernable. Suddenly, in our rear, cannon boom from our batteries, which have taken position, their shots by the score, passing over us. It seemed as though we could almost touch them in their hurried sweep. We felt, however, this was a waste of ammunition, and that all was at random in the fog.
While the artillery is exchanging compliments there came a prelude to more bloody work. Ready for the fray! is the word. All non-combatants and everything of hindrance is at once discarded. It is a moment of intense anxiety among our boys who await the command to battle ; to look at their faces tells a story of its own. Some are pale and apparently well aware of the situation. A few are eating hardtack, while one may be seen smoking. One hour later this poor boy was terribly mangled by a cannon ball. See that blonde boy near the colors, kneeling on one knee and writing in his diary; something to loved ones afar, doubtless, should he fall in the fateful cornfield just in our front. The same right arm there performed its last work, being amputated shortly after.
How can you distinguish personal bravery among these young men. Their presence upon that exact spot is alone an indication of courage. No man would stand for a moment as they stood only to be wholly dutiful and brave. Army correspondents said in their dispatches that "the troops were eager for a fight." Do you see any eagerness for battle among these men? Do you see hilarity or bombast among them? If ever human countenances depicted determination, although silent, it is here shown in the faces of these soldiers, standing upon the threshold of one of the most sanguinary battles in the annals of war. One of the men, who had been looking intently at the cornfield, bringing himself to "attention" quietly said: "boys, here they come!" At this instant there are bursting volleys of musketry on the left, followed by long rattling rolls of musketry from the extended lines of troops. Further yet to the left there is seen a ribbon-like continuation of sounds similar to the flutter of a flag in the breeze. The tire of the enemy mingles with our own, and the roar of musketry is incessant. Heavy and successive discharges of artillery are almost deafening. Amid this din we could faintly hear the command: 'Attention !' which we quickly obeyed. The fog was now vanishing, but the smoke coming from the artillery hung heavily over the fields, and as the sunlight pierced it, the grayish tints disappeared, and there was left a blue sulphurous tinge, the incarnate color of battle.
Our attention was now drawn !o the cornfield in which we saw several conical shapes dancing above the tasseled stalks. Eagerly we watched them as they came, when, suddenly, as if by magic, the corn disappeared, and a long line of confederate gray covered our entire front! The conical forms we saw in the cornfield, were the tops of confederate battle-flags, now plainly seen, scarcely a hundred yards away. Amid the deafening roar about us, 1 heard a voice behind me shouting: "Ready! Aim! Fire!" and the crash of our guns was like a blow on an anvil, nearly four hundred guns were discharged upon the instant, cutting down men in great numbers in the advancing line. Mansfield's and Jackson's corps, for the third time, during the summer were again in deadly antagonism. Before the enemy's fire, twenty-seven of the Third Wisconsin Infantry fell dead. One hundred and seventy-one were borne from the field wounded,—-the blood of sixty per cent being that terrible day spilled upon the soil of Maryland.
One of our opposing regiments was from Texas, and this Texas regiment stands at the head of the list of confederate regiments suffering the heaviest loss of the war. The Colonel of this particular Texan regiment, says in his report of the great battle of Antietam, that "the greatest loss of my regiment in any one battle, during the entire war, was in the famous cornfield before the Dunkard Church on Antietam field. In that field my color-bearer was shot down, when or where none of us ever knew, and the colors were lost with him."
Two months after the battle, the writer of this, walked over the ground on which we fought that day, and the line of our Brigade was at that time distinctly seen on the ground by cartridge papers,— a long wide swarth they made, as if cast from the hand of the peaceful sower of grain. Mute evidences they were of the terrible punishment this Texas, and its associate regiments, had received at our hands.