"The destructiveness of war" - The Altoona Tribune's visit to the Antietam battlefield
In the wake of the Battle of Antietam, Americans thirsted for news about the horrific events of September 17, 1862.
News reports from the battlefield flashed from the Maryland countryside to all points North with the latest dispatches. Soldiers dashed off notes to their families to inform them of their survival, or penned somber notes to the loved ones of those who didn't survive. Soon after the battle, a team of photographers arrived to capture the horrid images of war.
Yet, the desire to see something of the battlefield first-hand still drew many Americans to the blood-soaked site itself. Less than 20 miles from the Pennsylvania state border, the Antietam battleground became the center of Civil War tourism in the days and weeks after the battle.
Among those making the trek to the battlefield were a team from the Altoona Tribune. Their dispatch, published on October 2, 1862, provides a lengthy analysis of the battlefield's appearance, the carnage of war-time hospitals, and the glories of a local regiment (125th Pennsylvania).
ALTOONA, PA.. THURSDAY, OCT. 2, 1862.
Visit to the Antietam Battle-Field & Hospitals.
It is not our intention to attempt a full portrayal of the horrors which, in the early part of last week, marked the battle-field of Antietam, although we doubt not a portion of our account will be considered sufficiently horrible. We were told by those who had preceded us to this scene of destruction, that we obtained a sight of the tail end only. If that be so, we have no desire to see the whole animal.
While stopping in Chambersburg we had a sight of the Pennsylvania Militia who were encamped in that locality and all along the road from thence to Hagerstown. We found Col. J. J. Weitzel, of Harrisburg, with a knapsack on his back and a musket on his shoulder, acting under direction of the Surgeon in charge of the Chambersburg hospital. We also came across Jim Cramer, the "Model Conductor," figuring in the position of Post Master of the regiment to which Capt. McFarlane's Company was attached. Hon. Samuel Calvin, E. A. McMurtrie, candidate for Assembly, James Funk, late sheriff, Essington Hammond, and other notables of the town "over the hill,” were in camp, and Jim told us that they performed guard duty cheerfully, and behaved themselves in all respects as became veteran soldiers.
Our party arrived in Hagerstown on Monday, 22d ult., and immediately proceeded to the Lyceum Hall Hospital to look up the wounded of the 125th Regt. In this hospital we found Capt. C. R. Hostetter, of Company D, who had received a gunshot wound in the right side, just above the hip bone, the ball just grazing the top of the bone. Although suffering severely at times, he was in good spirits, confidently expecting to be on his feet in a few days and return to take charge of his company.
On another couch lay Serg't E. L. Russ, formerly a compositor in this office. He had received gun-shot wound in the stomach, the ball passing out between his ribs on the right side. While the regiment was falling back from the position to which it had advanced, he loaded his gun as he moved, and would wheel half round to fire, and just as he was in the act of taking aim, the ball struck him. His case was at first considered hopeless, but having survived the wound for a week, his physicians think that, with care, he will recover. He is much prostrated.
At his head lay A. C. Edwards, of Blair Furnace. He had received a gun-shot wound in the right leg just above the knee, the ball coming out at the cap of the knee. It is only a flesh wound, but from its proximity to the knee joint is necessarily very painful. He bears his lot with soldier-like fortitude. It is not likely that amputation will be necessary in his case.
In another part of the hall we found Stephen Beales, from near Allegheny Furnace. He had received a painful gunshot wound in the left arm, just above the elbow. The arm was not broken, but from the fact that he had been almost a week without having it properly dressed, it was much swollen and very painful. It was properly dressed, before our leaving, and he was forwarded to the hospital at Harrisburg.
Another cot contained Sergt. David E. McCahan, from near Hollidaysburg. He had received a flesh-wound in the leg, near the knee. Although of a serious character, he bore his misfortune nobly, evidently glad, as were all the others, that he had escaped with his life.
There was a perfect jam of people in Hagerstown ere we arrived, and each succeeding train added to the number. In vain we searched for a conveyance to carry us to the battle-field, some eleven miles distant. Every horse and vehicle in the town and neighborhood had been pressed into the service of Uncle Sam, or hired at the most exorbitant prices, by curiosity seekers, or those in search of wounded or dead friends. All the hotels were filled to overflowing, and our endeavors to find accommodations therein were crowned with no better success than our search for a conveyance.
A private citizen, on becoming acquainted with our mission and situation, kindly took in our party, thus dispelling our chances for sleeping on cellar doors with our carpet-bags for pillows. Lodgings secured, we felt more comfortable, and turned our attention again to the wounded who were constantly arriving in ambulances and on foot. Those who had been wounded in the arm or shoulder, walked into town and gave their places in the ambulances to those who had been wounded in the legs or about the body and were unable to walk. Thus was kept up a constant stream of stragglers toward the hospitals.
Some of the wounded were scarcely able to drag their weary limbs along with them, and appeared to find relief on being permitted to lie down on the pavement in front of the hospitals. When night closed in, every available space in the Court House and Lyceum Hall was occupied by wounded, sick and worn-out soldiers. In an upper room of the Court House were a number of secesh prisoners. Some of our soldiers looked hard enough, but the secesh looked far worse. We wonder how men who are no better clothed and fed can make even a show of fight.
Although the rebels had full possession of Hagerstown and surrounding country for four days previous to the battle, they did no damage to property. The citizens say they behaved themselves very well, with the exception of eating them out of everything in the eatable line. The testimony of the people is, that the Pennsylvania Militia did more damage than the rebels. This made us feel bad, when we considered that most of the people in Hagerstown and vicinity are Union. The rebels were evidently on their good behavior, in hopes of winning the people over to their cause. Failing in this, had they been permitted to remain much longer, they would have taken care of themselves.
Having secured a conveyance, we left for the battle-field at half-past five o'clock on Tuesday morning, taking the Sharpsburg Pike. The atmosphere was sufficiently cool to render a shawl comfortable. Nothing worthy of special mention, two miles this side of the battle-field. Here our olfactory organs informed us, very perceptibly, that we were in the region of decaying animal matter.
On every rise of ground thereafter we were greeted with the same stench, yet we could see no marks of the battle. Thus we passed on until we arrived at the second toll-gate, which is on the extreme left of the line of battle, the line extending from thence beyond Sharpsburg, being some four and a half miles in length. Here we found the first evidences of a battle, in the limbs of trees cut off by artillery, and trees, fence rails and posts perforated with musket balls.
Passing on a mile further, we came to the noted cornfield, in which, it is said, dead rebels lay as thick as cornstalks, after the battle. For the truth of this we cannot vouch, as all the dead had been buried ere we arrived, suffice it to say, however, the number of graves, and the manner in which they were piled into them, from 100 to 400 in a trench, were almost sufficient to confirm it. On this ground we, for the first time, realized the destructiveness of war, where large armies are engaged on either side. All we had previously imagined sank into insignificance when the reality met our view. Such a sight cannot be described. It must be seen to be comprehended.
Fences, both rail and stone, were leveled with the ground. Fields of corn were tread into the dust and the whole face of the country resembled a wide wagon road. The fields and woods were strewn with torn hats, coats, pants, shoes, canteens, haversacks, cartridge boxes, muskets, good and broken, broken gun carriages, etc. and the graves of the Union soldiers, who had been buried where they fell, gave to every field the appearance of a vast cemetery.
In all directions lay dead horses, some of which had been partly burned, but the task of thus destroying them was evidently too great for the force detailed for that purpose and they had been left to the elements and the buzzards. The salubrity of the atmosphere, in this locality was, in consequence, anything but agreeable, and we did not tarry long.
On every part of the field might be picked up unexploded shells, cannon and musket balls. Conical shells, very much resembling the old fashioned clock weights, appeared to have been most extensively used in this engagement.
From this field we passed to the first hospital in the rear of the battle-field, known as the stone house hospital. Here the scene beggars all description. Our own and the rebel wounded were thrown together promiscuously. Five of the rebel wounded, who had died the previous night, were carried out just before we arrived. Every room in the house, the porticos in front and rear, the barn floor and mows, all the stables underneath the barn, the wagon-shed, and around the straw and grain stacks, were crowded with the wounded, many of whom were already beyond the reach of medical skill and were now struggling in the last agonies of death. Among this number were men wounded in every conceivable manner, with shot and shell, in the head, body, arms and legs. What astonished us the most was that they were still alive.
The secesh wounded, and the prisoners who were attending them, were a sorry looking set of mortals. Scarcely any of them had passable clothing, and many of them had not sufficient to cover their nakedness. We were heretofore disinclined to believe the reports we received, as to the destitution of the rebel army in this respect, but if we may take what we witnessed as a criterion, it is even worse than represented. It seemed to us that they all looked alike. They are all thin in flesh and sallow complected, and almost every one to whom we spoke admitted that they did not get enough to eat previous to their entrance into Maryland. A few bear the impress of intelligence, but most of them are evidently of the poorer class of the South, who, at home, are not as much respected as the slaves. Some of them were Northern men, by birth, who had settled in the South, and when the war broke out they were compelled to go into the southern army. All such expressed the intention of going so far North, on recovering from their wounds, that Jeff Davis would not see them again until the war was over.
Others again were full-blooded "chivalry," and were not sparing in their denunciations of the Abolitionists, whom they vowed to fight to the last. One old man, a Captain, from Mississippi, who was wounded in the arm and knee, said that he considered it his duty, in case he got well, to take his place in the rebel ranks and try us again. No kindness or attention on the part of Union men make any impressions on the minds of bigoted Southerners. So far as concerned attention to the wounded, we could not see that there was any distinction made between Union and rebel.
We think it would be a bad idea to put the un-uniformed militia of the North into the field against the rebels, especially if any of our volunteers were in the neighborhood, because of the similarity of the militia and rebel dress. We heard a number of our soldiers say that, in an engagement, they could not distinguish between them and would be as likely to fire into our own men as the enemy, unless the signals were very distinct.
Scarcely two rebels that we saw were dressed alike. Their hats and caps are of every color and quality, and their pants ditto. Their coats were of cotton and mostly of two colors, light grey and walnut, hence the appellations of " grey backs" and " butternuts."
From the hospital above mentioned we passed to the one in which most of the wounded of Cap- Gardner's company had been placed. Here we found the house, barn, wagon shed, and every available spot filled with wounded. After looking up our acquaintances and doing all in our power for them, we walked through the house and barn examining the different cases. We had heard soldiers say that, by constantly mingling with and attending upon the wounded, they lost that feeling for them which they experienced at first sight. We thought this impossible, but two hours among them convinced us that it was possible. Sights which at first made us sick and compelled us to turn away, we could now look upon without a shudder.
A gunshot wound in the arm, or leg was, apparently, of no account. We found one man who had been shot through the head just below the temples. It would appear impossible that a man thus wounded should live, yet this man, after having his wound dressed, was walking about the barn, talking with his companions and seemingly giving it little attention. Another man had been struck with a piece of shell which carried away one side of his face and part of his skull. He was still alive, but evidently could not last long.
A rebel had received a bullet wound which cut out both eyes and carried away part of his nose. Though apparently strong, his case seemed to us entirely hopeless. A piece of shell had carried away the roof of the mouth of a Union soldier. In his condition it was impossible for him to take nourishment in any other than a liquid state, and it was hard to think that he must die of starvation, if not from the effects of the wound.
Another case was that of a young volunteer from Massachusetts. His thigh had been badly fractured so close to his body that amputation could not be performed, and the surgeon gave it as his opinion that his life could not possibly be saved. We could multiply cases, but the above will be sufficient to give our readers an idea of the sights to be seen at one of these field hospitals.
From this hospital we proceeded across the country, some two miles, to another, styled the "brick house hospital," where our lamented young friend, Fred. C. Ward, had died. Here we found some seven hundred wounded, occupying as before, every nook and corner about the house and barn. Two or three surgeons were busily engaged in amputating legs and arms, trepanning skulls, etc.
We witnessed an operation on a man who had been struck with a piece of shell on the top of his head, breaking the skull. He had lain insensible from the time he received the stroke, on Wednesday, 17th, until the time the operation was performed, Tuesday 23d. As soon as the fractured bone was taken out and the depression removed from the brain, consciousness returned and it required four men to hold him until the wound was dressed. When the surgeon had finished and the man was lifted from the table, he walked several steps and appeared perfectly rational. The surgeon considered his case quite encouraging.
Quite a number of the wounded at this hospital had been lying there for a week, with gun-shot wounds in their arms and legs, and had not yet received medical attention. The reports sent out by newspaper correspondents, to the effect that the wounded were well cared for, no doubt had much to do with preventing the attendance of a sufficient number of physicians. How men can survive their wounds so long, without proper attention, is a mystery to us. And yet you never hear them utter a word of complaint. It is a perfect school of patience. Each one appeared content to bide his time, thinking there were others more severely wounded who deserve attention first.
Night coming on, and there being no accommodations for stragglers in that neighborhood, the people having left previous to the battle and not yet returned, we set out for the camp of the Penn'a Reserves, distant about three miles. Persons who have never traveled in a strange country where no one knows any more than yourself, can have little idea of the difficulties attendant thereon. The battle-field was still thronged with citizens and soldiers looking up relics, and of every squad we inquired the way to the Reserve camp. Each party put us on a new route, right or left, and nearly always wrong. After having traveled about three miles, and laid out a pretty fair worm fence, we came on the camp of King's Division. Again we made inquiry some of the party directing in one direction and some in another, and almost quarrelling over their differences. One said it was half a mile to the right, another a mile and a half to the left, and so on. Finally we found a member of one of the regiments who conducted us to the spot, otherwise we might have wondered around half the night, and been within sight of the camp all the time. The men in the army know but, little about any other than their own regiment, or at most, brigade, hence the difficulty.
Having found the Reserves and our acquaintances therein, we prepared to make ourselves comfortable for the night. Three of our party put up with Capt. Bohler, of Company H, 12th regiment, of Indiana county. Capt. B. bears the reputation of being one of the finest officers in the corps, and certainly he is a perfect gentleman. He is what might be called a "fighting parson" being a Presbyterian minister by profession. When the Reserves were being mustered he gave up his charge embracing two appointments, and recruited a company of 84 men. He has been through all the battles with the Reserves, and his company has suffered severely, numbering at this time only 32 effective men.
The camp of the Reserves was immediately on the bank of the Potomac, opposite Sheppardstown, which latter place was occupied by the rebels. From the bluff on the opposite side of the river it would have been an easy matter for the rebels to have shelled the camp, and such a thing was not unexpected by the officers. While we would have no objections to witnessing such a truly grand sight after nightfall, we confess we would rather be more than half a mile distant at the time, and have the "clock weights," as the boys call them, fly in some other direction than toward us.
If any set of men in the army require rest for a short time, for the purpose of recruiting, it is the Penn'a Reserves. A little over one year ago they entered the army with full 11,000 men; now they number but little over 3,000 effective men.
Dr. Bower, medical director of the corps, informed us that that the loss of the Reserves in killed and wounded, in the late battles in Maryland, was 972 men. One company which went into the fight on the 17th of Sept. with forty men, came out with eight killed and twenty-seven wounded. The boys would like to have a rest for a few weeks, but nevertheless they express themselves willing to go at a moment's notice to any point where Gen. McClellan may order them.
Adjoining the Reserve camp was the camp of the 5th U. S. Artillery, to which is attached the company of men recruited in this neighborhood by Capt. John M. Clark, of this place. We found the Captain and the Altoona boys all right side up, so far as health was concerned, and looking none the worse of the hard service through which they have lately passed. The Captain's company has been strangely fortunate thus far. It was in all the engagements on the Peninsula, in the late Bull Run battle, and in all the battles in Maryland, and yet, if we remember rightly, it has lost, but one man wounded.
Learning that Gen. McClellan's head-quarters were at Sharpsburg, about a mile below the Reserve camp, we concluded to pay a visit to that locality on Wednesday morning. The country in this section appears to be naught but a vast military camp. Every field and wood contains a regiment or brigade, and all the roads leading to the camps are filled with baggage wagons. No one can form an idea of the scope of country which it requires to accommodate an army of the size of that now under Gen. McClellan, or the number of baggage, provision and ammunition wagons necessary to keep it supplied, unless they go and see as we did. The baggage wagons, are more in number than the ambulances, and on several occasions we observed trains of the latter more than half a mile in length, filled with wounded soldiers being conveyed from the field hospitals to the hospitals in Hagerstown and Frederick City. We doubt whether all the baggage wagons and ambulances of McClellan's army could be put on the road between this place and Tyrone (15 miles.) It certainly calls for a master mind to control and direct the movements of so vast an army.
While planning a battle extending over four miles of ground, in which 100,000 on either side are to be engaged, he must descend to the arrangement of such seemingly small matters as that of having baggage trains move at the proper time and ambulances properly distributed over the field. After reviewing this stupendous concern, we readily perceived why so many generals, who are brave and successful at the head of a small force, utterly fail in maneuvering large armies, and, also, why a large army cannot be moved as rapidly as a small one. If Gen. McClellan did not regard the welfare of his men and pushed them ahead without caring whether his provision trains kept pace, we might advance more rapidly, but he would soon have fewer men.
We think that if all the people of the north could get a sight of this vast army, they would not be disposed to grumble at slow movements, but, on the contrary, they would wonder how it was possible to move it from Washington to Sharpsburg as fast as “Little Mac” moved it. We have never, as journalists, or in any other way, complained of the slow movements of our armies, nor have we found fault with our chief officers for not doing this thing or that at such a time, and we now feel much less like doing so. We have seen enough to convince us that we know nothing about such matters, and that those who have not seen what we did know still less. If any reasonable man wishes to obtain satisfaction on this point we advise him to visit the battle-field of Antietam, and the Army of the Potomac. He will come away a wiser man by reason of having learned his ignorance.
We arrived at Sharpsburg about nine o’clock and proceeded to what was pointed out to us as Gen. McClellan’s head-quarters. There was nothing about them to indicate that they were more than common soldiers’ quarters, other than a small flag on the largest tent, and a guard of soldiers around it. We did not get a sight of the General, but in this we were not disappointed.
Returning, we walked through the town of Sharpsburg, made famous by the late battle. It is evidently an old town, judging from the appearance of the buildings, and contains but one main street. Many of the houses were perforated with balls and shells, during the battle, and yet a traveler, who did not know that such had been the case, but pass through the place dozens of times without noticing a single mark.
As we were on the lookout for such evidences of the engagement we discovered a number of holes in the roof and sides of houses, plainly indicated that anything but healthful on the 17th ult. But one house in the place was set on fire by the shells.
Most of the people left the town previous to the battle and those who remained took refuge in their cellars. So far as we could learn, none of the citizens of the place were injured, although one newspaper reporter has it that a child was killed. Quite a number of cows, hogs, and other domestic animals were killed.
Leaving Sharpsburg we followed the pike leading through Keedysville and directly over the battle ground. On the right hand side of the pike is a stone fence about four feet high and over a mile in length. Behind this fence, and in a large cornfield, on the left hand side of the pike, the rebels were posted in great numbers, and it was certainly one of their strongest positions. Our forces were compelled to advances upon them over open level fields, thus exposing themselves while the rebels were entirely sheltered. A lieutenant of an Indiana regiment told us that he was in the column which advanced upon that wall. As soon as the column came within musket range the rebels opened a murderous fire upon it, cutting down men by scores. The order was then given to “charge bayonets – double quick,” whereupon the men sprang forward with a yell and the wall was soon gained. Having reserved their fire until this time, they now poured a terrific volley into the rebels, almost covering the road with dead and wounded. In the meantime our artillery had been shelling the cornfield before spoken of, and the rebels were in full retreat therefrom.
Just beyond the cornfield stands a small church which bears evidence of the ferocity of the conflict in that locality. It is perforated through the roof and sides by dozens of shells and balls, and is a complete wreck. The rebels had taken shelter in a wood just back of this church, from which it was designed to dislodge them by artillery. We had read of trees as large as a man’s body being cut square off by balls and shells, but did not realize that such could be. Here, however, we had positive evidence of it.
The ground was covered with limbs, and tops of trees, the falling of which would have killed as many men as the balls and rendered the place more insecure than the open fields. From the numerous graves of union and rebel dead, the destruction of houses, fences, cornfields and woods, the dead horses lying around unburied, and the shells and balls which could be picked up at every step, we judge this to have been the most hotly contested part of the field.
A house and barn situate about one hundred yards from the stone fence alluded to, was burned during the engagement, and every living thing about the premises was either killed or frightened away, as there was not even a chicken to be seen when we were there. If this be the condition of a country after one day’s battle, what must be the condition of the Valley of Virginia, over which the armies have been fighting for the last eighteen months?
We now come to refer to the part taken by “our regiment,” the 125th Pa. Vols., in the Battle of Antietam. It will be remembered that this regiment is composed of six companies from Blair County and four from Huntingdon County, hence we say our regiment. It will be remembered also that the 125th is one of the new nine month regiments, and that the battle of the 17th ult. Was the first in which it took part. On the day of the engagement it had only been under organization about five weeks, and during that time the boys had received but little training. As soon as they arrived at Washington, about a week after their organization, they were set to work on trenches and kept at that business until ordered into Maryland.
While on their march into and through Maryland they had no time for drill, all their halting time being required for refreshment and sleep. On the day preceding the engagement they were marched several miles, to a position in a ploughed field, where they were ordered to lie on their arms.
At daylight on Wednesday, they were ordered up, without breakfast, to their position in the line. It is needless to say that every man was at his post and ready for combat. After maneuvering backward and forward for a time, the regiment was ordered to advance and hold a position in the woods in front. Skirmishers were thrown forward to find the whereabouts of the enemy. They advanced about one hundred yards and found the rebels in full force.
After engaging them for a short time the skirmishers fell back to their places in the regiment and whole at once advanced. The battery, which had advanced with the regiment at the opening of the fight, had retired, having exhausted its ammunition, thus leaving it, unsupported, against a full brigade of rebels. Our men at once perceived their perilous position, but having been ordered forward, they obeyed, the line never wavering.
The rebels seeing the position of affairs, charged out with a yell, in full force, at the same time endeavoring to flank the regiment on the left. The boys stood their ground firmly, and would have been surrounded and captured, or cut to pieces, had not the Colonel given the order to fall back. A portion of the regiment did not hear the order and only became aware of it when they found themselves alone, and the rebels within twenty yards of them.
The regiment made good its escape in the best order possible, but not without the loss of some as brave men as ever shouldered a musket. Had it been supported by a battery, as intended, the boys would undoubtedly have held their position and driven the rebels from the woods. When they fell back, the guns of Rickett’s battery were sent up to cover up the retreat, and these, with a brigade of Reserves soon made the rebels “skedaddle” faster than 125th had done.
Rich Condon discusses the actions of the 125th Pennsylvania at Antietam on September 17, 1862 and their monument
While mingling with the Reserves and other soldiers who had been near our boys during the action, we made inquiry as to their conduct, and the testimony on all hands was that they behaved like veterans.
Rebel prisoners taken on the occasion say that there must have been a brigade of the boys, as no single regiment could have cut them (the rebels) up so badly in so short a time. Their superior officers, and all who witnessed their conduct on that trying occasion, award to the men of the 125th the highest mead of praise.
All honor to the 125th. Blair County has boasted of her 84th, and she can boast of her 125th. The latter has brought no discredit upon the former.
This is one of the most vivid descriptions I've come across of the Antietam battlefield in the immediate aftermath of the fight. I hope you find it enlightening. - Jake