“In the very maelstrom of the battle” – 132nd Pennsylvania Infantry at Antietam
By EJ Murphy - He is a middle and high school social studies teacher in Scranton, Pennsylvania and tour guide for the Waverly Community House’s Destination Freedom: Underground Railroad Walking Tour.
Wishing to relate the goings on of the Army of the Potomac to friend and namesake of his hometown, Joseph H. Scranton, Captain Richard Stillwell of the 132nd Pennsylvania Infantry shared not only the latest gossip but also the personal issues of the men of this newly formed regiment.
“There is a rumor in Camp tonight that McClellan is in Alexandria & that the rebels have crossed the river. As we get no papers we have no means of knowing how this is but if true we will get into business soon,” he related to Scranton.
The business of war had not been kind to these green troops who had been mustered into service just two weeks before Stillwell penned his letter. “Our men are much dissatisfied with not receiving their pay & bounty; neither can the Officers ascertain anything in regards to it from the higher powers. You must wake our Scranton people & get some means devised to assist the families left behind that are not provided for.” After airing his grievances Stillwell related to Scranton the scenes of the 132nd Pennsylvania’s camp in Arlington, near the former residence of Robert E. Lee, the commander of the Army of Northern Virginia.
“The grounds…are handsome,” Stillwell said of the estate. “Stately oaks, Elms, & other forest trees surround the house which of itself is a handsome mansion. I could not help feeling that Lee must have been pretty strong headed to leave his prosperity to go to ruin for the sake of an idea that the South was bound to rule.”[i]
Stillwell and the men in the lower ranks were not the only ones in want of supplies. About a week and a half after Stillwell’s plea the commander of the 132nd, Colonel Richard A. Oakford, also reached out to Scranton in need of the wealthy industrialist’s aid. “It is an old adage that there is no use in having friends unless you can use them,” Oakford wrote. “Now I think this saying is true & take the liberty of calling on you for a little help just now.” Recent Union losses, particularly at the Second Battle of Bull Run, had left the army in search of horses for the men in the field and left little for the newly minted regiments.
“The Army having lost very heavily in horses as well as men has sent all the spare horse forward to the front & it is utterly impossible for us to get horses from the government…Now Mr. Scranton if you will help me out of the dilemma in which I find myself, I will promise as the Irishman in his prayer did. I am nothing like the other blaggards asking favors of you every day but Good Lord only just be after helping me this time & it will be a long time before I be troubling you with any prayers of mine.” [ii]It would indeed be a long time before Oakford would be troubling Scranton, or anyone, with any prayers.
While the 132nd was green in the very truest sense of the term, this was not a unique scenario. According to historian D. Scott Hartwig, “Green troops innocent of training and discipline vital to perform effectively on a battlefield made up nearly one-quarter of McClellan’s infantry.” [iii]The Battle of Antietam would be the 132nd regiment’s trial by fire.
The night before the battle, September 16, 1862, was a quiet one for the regiment. Stationed near Keedysville, Maryland, there was to be no unnecessary noise, no singing or dancing, and no fires to attract the eye of the enemy. The orders were unnecessary as the men felt the need to engage in such behavior. There was to be no frolicking on this “ominously still night.” Adjutant Frederick L. Hitchcock of Scranton found himself sharing sleeping space with some hometown friends in Colonel Vincent M. Wilcox and Lieutenant James Archbald. Some of the soldiers even made a point to share their potential post-mortem plans. As Col. Oakford said while doing a final review of company rosters, “We shall not all be here to-morrow night.”
The next morning contrasted the horror of what was to come later in the day. “Never did a day open more beautiful,” commented Hitchcock while also noticing that there was no reveille to wake the troops; “Too close to the enemy.” The regiment began it’s two-mile trek to the front lines at 6:00 am.
Crossing Antietam Creek was itself a unique experience for the 132nd as it was the first time that the men had to wade waist deep water. This raised no fuss in the ranks, the water being a welcomed obstacle on a warm, humid morning and the only annoyance being a soaked pair of boots. Upon reaching the western banks of the creek, artillery began to ring out and Hitchcock could tell that “we were rapidly approaching the debatable ground.” The artillery explosions and the rapid musket fire, “a most ominous sound which we had never heard before,” gave the men a small taste of what was to come.
“These volleys of musketry we were approaching sounded in the distance like the rapid pouring of shot upon a tinpan, or the tearing of heavy canvas, with slight pauses interspersed with single shots, or desultory shooting. All this presaged fearful work in store for us, with what results to each personally the future, measured probably by moments, would reveal.”
“How does one feel under such conditions? To tell the truth, I realized the situation most keenly and felt very uncomfortable. Lest there might be some undue manifestation of this feeling in my conduct, I said to myself, this is the duty I undertook to perform for my country, and now I’ll do it, and leave the results with God.”[iv]
The nerves of the green troops began to show on the battlefield, for better and for worse. Some men began to fall out of the ranks as they approached the action, some others moved “doggedly forward”, and others experienced the “cannon quickstep” – the nervous, rapid movement to the front brought about by the physical incapability of doing anything else.
At approximately 8:00 am the 132nd formed a line of battle where they moved through “a grove of trees” now known as the East Woods. After reversing their position and swinging around to the left of the Roulette farm house the officers, including Oakford who had eventually gotten his hands on a fighting horse, sent their horses to the rear. The Battle of Antietam had begun for the 132nd.
While may of the men continued to show hesitation in their advance, the officers of the regiment rallied the men under their command. The advance had brought about the first engagement with an enemy, but it was not the butternut clad Confederate foes who gave the 132nd fits just yet. It was a swarm of bees. A Confederate shell had struck a colony of beehives in the Roulette orchard and the troops had now found themselves dodging stingers as well as bullets. The officers continued to rally the men and eventually they took position on the high ground overlooking the Piper Farm and the Sunken Road. “Long after time clouded their memories, long after battle lines and formations became sketchy images, they [the 132nd] remembered their skirmish with the bees.”[v]
At the top of the knoll the regiment received their first Confederate musket volley. It was during this initial action that Colonel Oakford met his end, struck in the shoulder by a Confederate musket ball, severing an artery. His last reported words were “I am shot, take my body home.”[vi] His comrades followed through with their commander’s request in the days after the battle. Upon learning of Oakford’s death, fellow Scrantonian Hitchcock “had no time to inquire.” “We were in the very maelstrom of the battle.”
Forced to continue their advance at a crawl due to the intensity of the Confederate musketry, the regiment ran into another unforeseen and somewhat unusual roadblock in their slow movement towards the Sunken Road – another Union regiment. The 108th New York infantry became bogged down in their own effort to take the Confederate position and it became a hinderance to the efforts of the 132nd. “The inaction of this regiment lying behind us under that tree was very demoralizing to our men, setting them a bad example.”[vii]
Brigadier General Nathan Kimball noticed this inaction and immediately ordered Hitchcock to give compliments to the commander of the 108th while also directing him to move. When approached with the order the colonel, shocked from the scenes of carnage in front of him, merely hugged the ground and made no reply or any attempt to obey. Kimball made another order; “Get those cowards out of there or shoot them!” Fortunately, this drastic measure was not needed as the officers of the 108th, not unlike the officers of the 132nd at the Roulette farm house, rallied their men and got them moving.
Continuing down the slope towards the Sunken Road would give some of the men of the 132nd their first face to face encounter with the enemy. Some men of the regiment stumbled upon Confederate Lieutenant Colonel R.B. Nisbet who had been severely wounded. The troops sent him to the rear for care and upon meeting Hitchcock, the wounded Confederate officer displayed his thanks for the care as well as his fears for his men. “God bless you, boys, you are very kind. I have but few moments to live. You have killed all my brave boys; they are there on the road,” Nisbet reportedly said.
“And they were, I saw them the next day lying four deep in places as they fell, a most awful picture of battle carnage,” later recalled Hitchcock. It would be recollections like this that would change the popular name of the Sunken Road to that of the Bloody Lane. The fighting had been so intense that time itself became a casualty of war.
When ammunition became scarce Hitchcock moved to the rear to re-supply and checked his watch. It was 12:30. “We had been under fire since eight o’clock. I couldn’t believe my eyes; was sure my watch had gone wrong. I would have sworn that we had not been there more than twenty minutes, when we had actually been in that very hell of fire for four and a half hours.”
It was at this point that the Irish Brigade, under command of General Thomas Francis Meagher, made a final and successful charge towards the Sunken Road. Meagher had entered the field of battle with a flash, and maybe a little too much so. “General Meagher rode a beautiful white horse, but made a show of himself by tumbling off just as he reached our line. The boys said he was drunk, and he certainly looked and acted like a drunken man. He regained his feet and floundered about, swearing like a crazy man. The brigade, however, made a magnificent charge and swept everything before it.”[viii]
With the help of the Irish Brigade, the 132nd and the other regiments that comprised Kimball’s brigade of the Army of the Potomac’s II Corps kept the center of the Union line intact. Holding the line had come at the cost of 30 killed, 114 wounded, and 8 missing. The 132nd lost a total of 152 men during the Battle of Antietam on September 17, 1862.
The awful violence and scenes of death and destruction were etched into the minds of the men of the 132nd for the rest of their lives. Their actions at Antietam defined the unit’s character in the years that followed. The men of the 132nd who received their baptism by fire that fateful day carried around those memories for the rest of their lives. In the decades after the Civil War, veterans of the regiment put those blood-stained recollections down in ink for future generations.
Penning an article for the Scranton Republican in March of 1904 a Factoryville veteran of the 132nd, J.C. DeGraw, stated that “The Battle of Antietam was one of the bloodiest and most stubbornly fought contests of the Civil War…Though the result could scarcely be said to be decisive, the effect was a federal victory.” [ix]Robert E. Lee’s retreat across the Potomac River in the wake of the battle did indeed allow the Union to claim a victory, but other veterans from Northeastern Pennsylvania were not shy in their questioning of what more could have been done.
Lord Byron Green of the 107th Pennsylvania had been with the quartermaster’s department during the battle and also had his questions put to the press in the years following the battle. “In the name of reason and military humanity, I ask, why did he [General George McClellan] not attack in the early morning of the 18th day of September, 1862? Thousands of his officers and men were anxiously asking the question. But the answer did not come, aye, never did, nor never will come.”
“Only two knew why – God and General McClellan. Possibly three knew I am half inclined to think that General Lee knew, too. And they never told us the reason, never will.”[x]
The Battle of Antietam’s legacy loomed largely over the men of the 132nd Pennsylvania. When Pennsylvania decided to commemorate the state’s troops at Antietam, this regiment erected a monument of their own.
On Saturday, September 14, 1904, approximately 50 survivors of the 132nd gathered once again at Bloody Lane. This time to commemorate their actions on that warm September day in 1862.
The monument itself was unveiled by Col. James W. Oakford, son of the slain commander of the regiment, with the help of Lewis B. Stillwell, son of Captain Stillwell. Adorning the monument is a bronze plate of Col. Oakford, signaling just what his death during the battle meant to his men. On top is a statue of a Union color-bearer being handed the regimental flag under fire, as indicated by the broken staff that lay at the feet of the soldier. That color-bearer was Frederick Hitchcock, who along with a regimental history, cemented what the battle meant to him and his comrades in the dedicatory address that afternoon.
“If, like our forefathers, it was ours to pass through ‘days which tried men’s souls,’ in the service of our country, like them we have been permitted to reap richly of the harvest of victory, and far over and beyond them, we have seen our beloved country emerge from her struggle for life, purged of the cancer of slavery which produced it, and advance gloriously step by step to the very forefront of the nations, until to-day ‘Old Glory,’ not a stripe erased nor a star dimmed, the Emblem of Liberty, the hope of humanity, kisses the morning breeze all round the world.”[xi]
[i] Letter from Captain Richard Stillwell to Joseph H. Scranton, August 22, 1862. Accessed via The Lackawanna Valley Digital Archives.
[ii] Letter from Colonel Richard A. Oakford to Joseph H. Scranton, September 3, 1862. Accesses via The Lackawanna County Digital Archives.
[iii] Hartwig, D. Scott. “Who Would Not Be a Soldier: The Volunteers of ’62 in the Maryland Campaign.” The Antietam Campaign, Gary Gallagher, ed. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2008.
[iv] Hitchcock, Frederick L. War From the Inside. Time-Life Books, Inc., 1985.
[v] Murfin, James V. The Gleam of Bayonets: The Battle of Antietam and Robert E. Lee’s Maryland Campaign, September 1862. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2004.
[vi] The Pittston Gazette, September 25, 1862.
[vii] Hitchcock, War From the Inside.
[ix] The Scranton Republican, March 27, 1904.
[x] The Scranton Republican, August 26, 1897.
[xi] Pennsylvania at Antietam: Report of the Antietam Battlefield Memorial Commission of Pennsylvania. Accessed via Archive.org.