Antietam


Happer
A.G. Happer

To commemorate the anniversary of the battle of Antietam, I thought I'd post a few excerpts from the Antietam chapter in my book Born To Serve, The Major A.G. Happer Story. The then Lt. Happer of Company G, 11th Pennsylvania Vols. was present in the fight at Miller's cornfield, and was wounded there.

 

It is appropriate to take a moment to remember this day and those incredible men on both sides who struggled so fiercely there. So very many men and boys would never return to their homes and families after that day. There should never come a time when their sacrifice is not remembered and acknowledged by our entire country. I know I, will never forget.

 

J. D.

 

…Dawn the next morning, September 17, 1862, was gray and a light mist was in the air. The sun wasn't completely above the horizon just yet and the sounds of thousands of men and animals stirring was in the air. The morning routine of the citizens was disrupted, for they knew what was coming. In town, the people stayed in their homes, on the farms, families went to their cellars. Yes, they thought they knew what was on the way. In a sense, the whole country thought they knew. They were all wrong. What was coming on this day, was unlike anything anyone had ever seen before, or have ever seen since.

 

...General Fighting Joe Hooker started it all off by marching his three divisions down the road driving the rebel pickets into the West Wood. He had his eye on the white building about 800 yards away. The firing was already hot, and he was taking some heavy losses. He noticed the smoke coming from the cornfield and he directed his batteries, 36 cannon in all to fire on Mr. Miller's cornfield. The ensuing carnage was revolting to behold. Parts of rifles, belts, hats and other equipment, along with dismembered human limbs and body parts were clearly seen thrown up in the air above the field. Hooker's men entering the woods on either side of the cornfield were greeted with withering sheets of flame and torrents of lead that filled the air. The Federals came on still, pushing back the Confederates who gave ground grudgingly, making the blue army pay dearly for every inch. Back through the cornfield they went, where finally the gray fighters were too few to resist and they angrily fled.

 

With the whitewashed Dunker church within reach, Hooker's men surged forward. Out of the woods in their front, a gray column exploded at them screaming the rebel yell. The Confederates halted and fired a volley at point blank range, decimating the Federal line. Then, they came on again, bayonets leveled. It was General Hood's Division. Stonewall had called and they came running. They had no help either. The rest of Jackson's troops were decimated, and in no condition to attack again. General Hood's men didn't care, they struck Union troops head on, just north of the church, and drove them back clear through the cornfield, yelling like demons all the way. The Federals stopped and formed behind their guns and the two lines stood and banged away at each other in a stand up fight to the finish...

 

...Hood told a staff officer sent by Jackson “Tell General Jackson unless I get reinforcements I must be forced back, but I am going on while I can.” Hood finally got some help. General Early charged in from the west, while two Brigades from General D. H. Hill charged from the east, driving the Federals back clear to their starting point. Hooker had lost some 2,400 men so far. He sent word to General Mansfield to bring up his corps to continue on with the battle...

 

...For the 11th Pennsylvania, the battle had started in the early morning. They were formed in line of battle on the Joseph Poffenberger farm with the 12th Massachusetts on their right, and the 83rd New York on the left. The 13th Massachusetts was on the far left. At this moment, General Hartsuff, having moved forward observing the ground was severely wounded in the hip by an artillery fragment, and was removed from the field. The command of the brigade went to Colonel Coulter, and the 11th Pennsylvania went to Captain Cook of Company F.

 

...11th PA Chaplain Locke:

“...Volley after volley of musketry lighted up its dark bosom, as line upon line of Confederates issued from it. The fortune of the day seemed suddenly to change. The rebels were now advancing; and our own gallant lines that but a moment before moved through the cornfield in such overwhelming force, came back broken and depleted...” 

 

...General Hooker sent a message to General Ricketts. “Send me your best Brigade.” Now commanded by Colonel Coulter, who cried, ”Forward Third Brigade!” Hartsuff’s Brigade stormed down the hill at the double quick. The brigade went straight on through the East Wood in front of them and smashed into the Confederates in Miller’s cornfield, passing through and over the shattered remains of the three union brigades streaming to the rear. General Hooker was heard to say, “I think they will hold it.” For half an hour there was a stand up fight among the head high cornstalks that were cut down as if by a giant reaper, and so were the men of both sides. Lieutenant Happer was slightly wounded about this time, but stayed with his company. The Confederates wavered, then were reinforced by General Hay’s Brigade, the rough men of the famed Louisiana Tigers. They advanced into the cornfield, immediately coming under an enfilading fire from several Federal batteries, and heavy musketry fire from the 11th Pennsylvania. Hay's men were forced to fall back out of the cornfield to the other side of the West Wood, where it was relieved by Wofford's Brigade, of General Hood's Division and then withdrawn to the fields southwest of the Dunker Church. Of the 550 men engaged, they suffered 323 killed or wounded.

 

The 11th Pennsylvania had advanced to the southern end of the cornfield by about 8:30 or 9 a. m. and was entirely out of ammunition. Coming under fire from the Confederate guns on Nicodemus hill, they were ordered to retire a short distance to the rear and were issued ammunition.

 

A staff officer of the Stonewall Brigade noting the Federal advance through the cornfield:

“The Federals in apparent double battle line were moving toward us at charge bayonets, common time, and the sunbeams falling from their well-polished guns and bayonets gave a glamour and a show at once fearful and entrancing.”

 

Benjamin F. Cook, a soldier in the 12th Mass describing the advance the 13th Georgia in the cornfield:

 "….Rifles are shot to pieces in the hands of the soldiers, canteens and haversacks are riddled by bullets, the dead and wounded go down in scores. The smoke and fog lift; and almost at our feet, concealed in a hollow behind a demolished fence, lies a rebel brigade pouring into our ranks the most deadly fire of the war. What there are left of us open on them with a cheer; and the next day, the burial parties put up a board in front of the position held by the Twelfth Massachusetts with the following inscription: 'In this trench lie buried the colonel, the major, six line officers, and one hundred and forty men of the 13th Georgia Regiment..."

 

One of Hood’s 4th Texans describing their attacks through the Cornfield.

“...the hottest place I ever saw on this earth or want to see hereafter. There were shot, shells, and Minie balls sweeping the face of the earth; legs, arms, and other parts of human bodies were flying in the air like straw in a whirlwind. The dogs of war were loose, and ‘havoc’ was their cry...”

 

…McLaws had been delayed getting to Sharpsburg, but had finally arrived at just the right time. General Lee had sent him to reinforce Jackson, and General Anderson who had arrived with McLaws, to reinforce D. H. Hill. McLaws' men continued on and pursued the fleeing Federals, driving them out of the cornfield as well. The three union corps had suffered over 7,000 casualties so far, General Hooker being one of them. He rode to the north with a foot wound, back to where he started that morning. His corps, Mansfield's, and the used up division of Sumner, all retired northward out of the fight. They reformed back behind the safety of their cannon...

 

...The battle on the right was over. Two whole corps and part of a third, about 31,000 troops in all had been shattered and defeated by Jackson's men. Stonewall had lost almost as many, nearly 5,000. As he sat on his horse Little Sorrel, in the churchyard eating a peach, gazing out over Miller's cornfield now trampled and destroyed and completely covered with dead and wounded men, Jackson turned to General Lafayette McLaws and said, “God has been very kind to us this day.”

 

…At two o'clock in the afternoon, Rickett's Division moved to the right near Sharpsburg pike, to the support of batteries there. It remained there under arms through the following night. Seventy men of the 11th Pennsylvania lay wounded and bleeding in the yard of the Hoffman farm house. Five officers out of the nine they started with were disabled. One of these was Lieutenant Happer. Being slightly wounded, he was able after treatment, to stay with his company. The 11th Pennsylvania had lost about 50 men killed, and 70 wounded out of the nine officers and two hundred and twenty six men engaged. Of the eleven hundred men in Hartsuff’s Brigade that slammed into Miller's cornfield, only five hundred returned.

 

The 11th's regimental Chaplain Locke wrote after the war:

“...There was one thing belonging to the battlefield not to be seen in our hospital, its foul spirit of hate. The term foe was there forgotten. All were now friends. A soldier from Maine and another from Georgia, the one having lost an arm, and the other a leg occupied the same pallet of straw. A South Carolinian, slightly hurt in the head, was the cook for himself and two severely wounded New Yorkers. A volunteer from Pennsylvania and a conscript from Alabama, sheltered under the same tent, were as fraternal in their acts of kindness as though they had fought side by side, and not in opposing ranks...“

 

The twilight was punctuated with haystacks set ablaze by exploding shells. Cries of wounded men could be heard coming from the hay. They had crawled in there for shelter, now too weak to escape the flames, they burned alive. General Lee's line had held and was intact all along the ridge. McClellan had failed to dislodge him.

As darkness fell, the haystacks blinked out one by one, leaving the valley between the ridges in gloomy blackness dotted by the lanterns of the medical corps of both armies, searching for wounded men that could be recovered. From a distance, the flickering lights resembled fire flies on a summer night, except for the moans and cries of the wounded. The dead, as always, were silent.

 

 

Copyright Plum Run Press

All rights reserved