The First Maryland Campaign and Hood's Texans
By Gerard Mayers
Note: The author is a reenactor, first a recruit in the 4th Texas, now a member of the Signal Unit, Longstreet's Corps, and a fine amateur historian specializing in Lee's Maryland Campaign.
The month of September is a special one for students of the regiments comprising Hood's Texas Brigade. While Hood's Texans won fame and renown on other fields of battle, the brigade immortalized itself in Civil War history by its participation in the counter-attack into The Cornfield during the Battle of Sharpsburg, September 17, 1862.
The Battle of Sharpsburg was the culmination of a move by Robert E. Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia into Maryland in a three-pronged effort to: first, keep the tactical and strategic initiative (so illustriously won during the Seven Days Battles and the just-concluded Second Manassas campaign) on the side of the Southern Confederacy ; secondly, to draw Federal forces out of northern Virginia and the Valley of Virginia in order to allow for the gathering-in of vitally needed crops and foodstuffs; thirdly, to operate sufficiently north of the Potomac to give Maryland an opportunity to officially join the Confederacy and possibly also take the war into Northern territory (i.e. Pennsylvania).
Advancing into Maryland as part of the Wing of the Army of Northern Virginia commanded by Lt. Gen. James Longstreet, Hood's Division encamped from September 7 to September 11 (approximate dates) in the general area between the Monocacy Junction railway bridge/aqueduct and the town of Frederick. While there, the Texans had a chance to wash their clothes and bathe, oftentimes in the same operation, and rest from the ardors of the previous weeks. Leaving Frederick on September 11 in accordance with its operational orders received as part of Special Order No. 191, the command marched from Frederick to Boonsboro along the National Turnpike, passing through Middletown en route. The macadamized surface of the road and undulating nature of the terrain caused much suffering among the Confederates, as many had worn out their brogans from all the marching and fighting of the previous weeks. Following an overnight rest at Boonsboro, Longstreet (with Lee accompanying) reached the Hagerstown area on September 13 after a forced march of thirteen miles.
In the meantime, Maj. Gen. Daniel H. Hill, entrusted with the rear guard of the Army of Northern Virginia, held his division around Boonsboro and the passes through South Mountain. An unlucky accident of the discovery of a copy of Special Order No. 191 gave Union general George B. McClellan (commanding the Federal force comprised of units from the Army of the Potomac, the former Army of Virginia which Lee defeated at 2nd Manassas, the Ninth Army Corps under Ambrose Burnside from North Carolina and the Kanawha Division from the western portion of Virginia) a fairly good idea of the location of the scattered elements of Lee's army. About two-thirds of the Army of Northern Virginia had gone with Stonewall Jackson to capture Harper's Ferry and secure Lee's communications and supply lines through the Valley to Winchester. With SO 191 in his hands, McClellan ordered an energetic advance against the Confederates on the South Mountain passes and a relief column composed of William Franklin's wing of the Federal army to raise the Confederate siege of Harpers Ferry. As he stood on a prominence not far from his headquarters at the Old Mountain House in Turner's Gap (through which the National Turnpike passed), D H Hill saw two entire Federal Corps advancing against his small command holding not only Turner's Gap but also Fox's Gap to the south. Hill later commented that he had never understood the passage in the Old Testament about an army being terrible in battle array until that morning. Hill knew what he had to do and fast! A heavy Federal column was advancing against Fox's Gap and another column was heading straight for Turner's Gap. It was Fox's Gap that gave Hill the most concern. Loss of that pass through South Mountain would give the Federals the ability to not only flank him off the mountain but also seriously endanger the reserve artillery train and supply trains of the Army of Northern Virginia. Both trains were parked around Boonsboro.
Orders went to George Anderson's Carolina brigade on the road from Boonsboro to Hagerstown to advance quickly to the top of the mountain at Turner's Gap and take the wood road to link up with the small brigade commanded by Brig. Gen. Samuel Garland holding Fox's Gap along with portions of Bondurant's and Carter's Artillery batteries. A message went from Hill to Lee explaining the situation at hand, and stating the urgent need for re-enforcements. When Anderson's brigade (half commanded by Col. C C Tew of the Second North Carolina and the other half commanded by Anderson himself) reached Fox's Gap, it found a scene of total chaos for Confederate arms. Not only had Bondurant and Carter been forced back from their artillery positions, but also the brigade commanded by Garland had been routed and its commander mortally wounded. (Garland would essentially bleed to death on the porch of the Old Mountain House at Turner's Gap.) Though they did not know it at the time, elements of the Federal Ninth Corps succeeded in turning Hill's flank! The North Carolinians pitched in and restored the situation somewhat in favor of the Confederates. A nasty and see-saw battle erupted which basically left the Federals squarely on the eastern (or southwestern) part of the gap but unable to advance. But the Confederate hold on Fox's Gap was tenuous at best; a determined Federal push would leave no option but retreat.
Hill's urgent message to Lee pleading for re-enforcements had its effect. Lee ordered Longstreet to turn around and march immediately for Boonsboro and the crisis on the mountain. Along with others in Longstreet's Wing, Hood's division marched toward the fighting. As members of the Texas Brigade marched through the little village (named for a brother of Daniel Boone of Kentucky fame during the Revolutionary War period), they encountered Lee who had reached Boonsboro in advance of them to assess the situation and confer with Hill. The Texans loudly shouted, "Give us Hood! Give us Hood!" Hood, marching in the rear of his division and under arrest as a result of a squabble with Gen. Nathan "Shanks" Evans over some ambulances captured by the Texas and others of his division during 2nd Manassas, was asked by Lee to forget about his claim to the ambulances and the matter would be dropped. Hood, on point of honor, refused to back down from his position. Owing to the desperateness of the moment, Lee restored Hood to command of his division after extracting a promise for Hood to return to his position of arrest once the emergency had passed. (The matter of Hood's arrest seems to have been forgotten by Lee; the matter was never again brought up owing to the Confederate fight for survival at Sharpsburg and Hood's later promotion to Major General late in October.) To the echo of cheers and shouts, Hood's Texans willingly resumed their rapid march with Hood again in the lead. Arriving atop Fox's Gap after the grueling and dusty forced march from Hagerstown, Hood's division helped stabilize the state of affairs and hold off further Federal advances on that front. At Turner's Gap, the Confederates had, by nightfall, stopped Federal advances on both sides of the Turnpike. North of Turner's Gap, Federal advances up the mountain had been successful but darkness put an end to the fighting.
The Confederate resistance at South Mountain had not held back Federal assaults without price. At Crampton's Gap, Federal units under Franklin forced the Gap after pushing the Confederates from just outside Burkettsville. The Confederate defeat there enabled a Federal advance into Pleasant Valley at the northern side of the mountain. At Fox's Gap and Turner's Gap, the fighting had been savage, confusing and deadly. One of the few completely successful bayonet charges of the entire War occurred during the Turner's Gap fight. It was during this engagement that John Gibbon's brigade of Wisconsin and Indiana regiments was given the "Iron Brigade" nickname.
Late in the night of September 14 and early morning of September 15, the Confederates at Fox's Gap and Turner's Gap retreated en haste down South Mountain, leaving their many wounded and dead comrades for the victorious Federals to deal with. With the chaos, confusion and very dark night, some Confederates became separated from their units and left to their own devices to return to Virginia. A member of Co. E, Fourth Texas, deserted and went over to the enemy during this period. (A large Confederate field hospital at Boonsboro also was left to the Federals in the retreat towards Keedysville and Sharpsburg.) As the Army of Northern Virginia retreated, the Confederates were not only hungry; they were exhausted. The combination of the forced marches, the weather (it had been warm and humid) and the lack of sleep created a situation where straggling became excessive. Many soldiers simply concluded the campaign was over and Lee's army was in retreat back to Virginia; there they headed. Lee was indeed considering retreating back to Virginia and admitting his Maryland campaign a failure. But, as he moved his army closer to the Potomac and encountered the Sharpsburg Ridge, he realized the defensive possibilities of the terrain. He also knew that, while the Potomac made a large bend directly behind Sharpsburg, any engagement with McClellan's army meant fighting with one's back against the wall. A Confederate defeat anywhere near Sharpsburg would mean disaster!
As he pondered his options, Lee ordered his weary veterans into defensive positions enabling them to watch the three bridges crossing The Antietam Creek on the highest possible terrain features available. (The northern, or upper, of the three gave access to the area north of Sharpsburg near the North and East Woods. The middle bridge gave direct access from Boonsboro to the little village of Sharpsburg along the Boonsboro Turnpike after climbing the Sharpsburg Ridge. The lower bridge, soon to be known forever as Burnside's Bridge, provided access to the village from the south.) At almost the same time, Lee received a note from Stonewall Jackson of the successful reduction and surrender of the Federal garrison at Harpers Ferry. This Federal surrender was the largest of U. S. Army troops until the fall of Bataan and Corrigedor in The Philippines during the Second World War.) With this good piece of news, Lee decided to make a stand at Sharpsburg and ordered Stonewall to return with his portion of the Army of Northern Virginia. The stage was now being set for what would be the bloodiest single day of any military action in American history.
In the late afternoon of Tuesday, September 16th, the First U.S Corps under command of Maj. Gen. Joseph "Fighting Joe" Hooker began its crossing of The Antietam Creek at Pry's Mill into the sector of the North and East Woods. During the same afternoon, Hood's Division held position in the fields east of the Dunkard Church (called by many Confederates as "St. Mumma's Church") and the Hagerstown Turnpike. At the approach of Hooker's Corps, Army of the Potomac, the division moved to the left and formed a line of battle. Resting its left on the Hagerstown Turnpike, the division extended along the south edge of D. R. Miller's cornfield ("The Cornfield") and anchored its right flank in the East Woods. The Fourth Texas, Wofford's Brigade, sent forward about a half mile as skirmishers, encountered the division of Pennsylvanians under Maj. Gen. George G. Meade and, with heavy fighting, were forced back from the North Woods. Re-enforced, however, on the right by the Fifth Texas and receiving support from Law's Brigade, the Fourth held the East Woods until darkness concluded the engagement. In this pre-cursor of things to come, the Confederate infantry received assistance from Lane's battery of Georgia Artillery, two guns of Rhett's South Carolina battery located between the Mumma house and Smoketown Road, one gun of Cutt's Artillery Battalion to the west near the Hagerstown Turnpike and Poague's Rockbridge (Va.) Battery of Jackson's Division about thirty yards west of the Hagerstown Turnpike. All the Confederate artillery elements engaged Union artillery deployed on the high ground to the north and east of D. R. Miller's. During the engagement, Col. Liddell, Eleventh Mississippi, Law's Brigade, received a mortal wound. At about 10 pm, Hood's division was withdrawn to the woods west of the Dunkard Church after being relieved by Lawton's and Trimble's brigades of Ewell's division.
At the time of its being relieved from the line, Hood's division had been promised by its commander to be held available to be called upon by Stonewall Jackson in event of any emergency. (It was the only way Hood could persuade Jackson to allow the men to come off the line.) Hood's men had had little sleep; they were starving. The weary men bedded down to get whatever sleep they could whilst awaiting their first hot meal in days.
At about 5.30 am on the morning of Wednesday, September 17th, Hooker advanced his Corps from the North Woods area and the Joseph Poffenberger farm due south on both sides of the Hagerstown Turnpike with its objective the high ground immediately around the white-walled Dunkard Church. (Interestingly enough, the Federals thought the Dunkard Church to be a schoolhouse.) The church's location in a little cul-de-sac along the West Woods made it stand out prominently in the early morning mist. With this action, the Battle of Sharpsburg (Antietam) began. Almost immediately, the air was alive with the shriek and noise of mortal combat. Artillery from both sides began to rend the air with all sorts of sound and explosions. Confederate artillery began to take out members of Federal units within moments of the beginning of the advance; particularly as they passed alongside and around D. R. Miller's farm astride both sides of the Turnpike.
It did not take long for the fighting to become desperate and reach a level of severity unequalled in the War to date. Confederate units belonging to Stonewall Jackson's "Wing" entered the fray and, within minutes, were compelled to fall back to or beyond their original positions due to the lead filling the air and horrific casualties. Lee and Jackson, along with the cooperation of Longstreet, kept finding fresh units and shuttling them to where they would help hold the line. Federal units also would enter the fight and be compelled to retire to their rear from battle fatigue and casualties. The fighting often occurred at practically point-blank rank in the area from D.R. Miller's down to the southern edge of Miller's Cornfield. Already, Miller's Cornfield had become a piece of real estate bitterly contested with repeated Federal and Confederate attacks and counter-attacks. Hooker's men, while taking horrendous casualties, had effectively put Lawton's and Trimble's troops out of action.
Federal units at the southern edge of The Cornfield included the Fourteenth Brooklyn, a Zouave-type unit as well the Second and Sixth Wisconsin of Gibbon's brigade and the Second US Sharpshooters. Remember these units, as they will appear again in the story. The time is now approximately 6.50 a.m. Word had come to Hood that his division was needed desperately to help hold off Federal attacks that were stretching Jackson's hold on the left of the Army of Northern Virginia to the breaking-point. Hood's men had begun receiving their first rations of salt pork or beef and flour at about day-break when commissary wagons reached them. As they began to cook their first hot meal in days, Federal artillery commenced firing into their position, irritating them. The receipt of the order to advance and support Jackson meant an angry, hungry group. The combination of the interrupted breakfast and the dire nature of the military situation soon would immortalize Hood's Texans!
Forming up line of battle west of the Dunkard Church at approximately 7 a.m. with only five minutes notice, the division marched toward deafening sounds of battle and the fog of war. The two brigades comprising Hood's division numbered about 850 to 900 men. The Fourth Texas had an effective strength of about 200, led by their Lt. Colonel, Benjamin F. Carter. Company B, "Tom Green Rifles", mustered about twenty-two men. (Col. Key, colonel commanding of the regiment, was absent sick.) As it advanced past the Dunkard Church and toward the Smoketown Road, the division was aligned in its usual arrangement. Evander Law's brigade was on the division's right with the Texas (Wofford's) Brigade on the left, covering a quarter-mile wide front. The Texas Brigade was ordered, left to right, with the left-most unit anchoring on the Hagerstown Turnpike as Hampton's Legion (Gary), Eighteenth Georgia (Ruff), First Texas (Work), Fourth Texas (Carter), Fifth Texas (Turner). Hampton's Legion was the regiment of direction. Moving toward "the corn" and the East Woods (over much of the ground covered the previous afternoon), the division shortly encountered fierce Federal resistance. The shock of contact was so sudden and so fierce that a surviving Federal soldier compared it to an attack by a bunch of angry hornets! Hampton's Legion came under severe fire from the Federal divisions of Doubleday/Ricketts and the Federal batteries of Matthews and Thompson.
As the rest of the division advanced, it poured a destructive fire into the Second and Sixth Wisconsin (with survivors of the Fourteenth Brooklyn) and the Second U.S. Sharpshooters. Compelled to retire by this sudden assault, the Federals rapidly moved back toward and into the Miller Cornfield. (Miller's Cornfield occupied the area from the western edge of the East Woods to the Hagerstown Turnpike just below D. R. Miller's farm buildings.) Following the retreating Federals, the Texans advanced to the base of a small plateau, about 300 yards from their starting position. While making this movement, the right flank of the Texas Brigade overlapped the left flank of Law. Hood ordered the Fifth Texas to move to the right of Law's men, in the direction of the East Woods. The Fourth Texas, however, found itself unable to return fire or see the enemy owing to the troops in their front and the dense battle smoke. Carter ordered his men to lie down after coming up on the rear of the Eleventh Mississippi of Law's brigade and receiving word from Capt. Sellers of Hood's staff to halt. The regiment did so, but its two right companies did not hear the order and continued to advance toward the East Woods with the Fifth Texas. At the same time, Hampton's Legion and the Eighteenth Georgia found themselves in trouble due to Federal fire from across the Hagerstown Turnpike and Federal artillery. The Federal units successfully were able to pour enfilade fire into the left flank of the division! Almost immediately after ordering the Fourth Texas to lie down, Carter received a positive order from Gen. Hood to move by the left to support the left-most regiments of the Texas Brigade. Wofford and Hood also ordered the First Texas to shift line toward the direction of the Hagerstown Pike.
The Fourth Texas charged near to the fence on the eastern side of the Hagerstown Turnpike, resting its left on the crest of the plateau. There it supported the surviving members of Hampton's Legion and the Eighteenth Georgia. The regiment not only contended against Federals belonging to the Seventh Wisconsin, the Nineteenth Indiana and Patrick's Brigade but also suffered from the artillery fire of Campbell's battery located on and just to the west of the Turnpike. (A visitor to the area today would, if he stood in the corner of South Cornfield Avenue and the Hagerstown Turnpike, be approximately in the position occupied by the Fourth Texas during Hood's counter-attack into "the corn".) The First Texas, on the other hand, drove through the Cornfield to its north-eastern end, far outdistancing the other regiments. It managed to hold its advanced position in the Cornfield/Turnpike area until approximately 9 am when, after suffering truly horrific casualties, was forced to fall back. All the color bearers of the First Texas were killed or wounded; the flag of the regiment fell into Federal hands after being pried loose from the death grip of the captain of Company E.
During the fight in the corn, Candy, the little fox terrier "war dog" of Co. B, became separated and was captured by the Federals. A wounded Corporal George Robertson, while laying in a Federal field hospital, saw Candy being triumphantly paraded around the Federal camp as the littlest prisoner they had captured during the battle. Candy was never seen or heard from again by the Texans. (Interestingly, Candy was well taken care of by all members of the Texas Brigade, never missing a meal. When the Texas crossed a river or stream, Candy was taken care of and carried across by the nearest available Texan.) The fighting took its toll on the members of the Fourth Texas. The little limestone ledges on the field, to which the wounded of the unit crawled for shelter, became instead new sources of terror. The screams of the wounded as they were struck by repeated ricochets form the stone outcroppings were a common occurrence.
By 9 a.m., Hood had to withdraw his battered and decimated division from the field back toward the fields to the west and below the Dunkard Church. The fresh division of Lafayette McLaws relieved that of Hood. The human cost had been staggering after about two hours of mortal combat. As mentioned before, the Fourth Texas took about 200 men into battle, leaving 107 killed or wounded on the field as it withdrew. (Company B suffered losses of five killed, twelve wounded and six missing in action/captured.) Ike Turner's Fifth Texas lost 86 out of 185. Martin Gary, the commander of the Hampton Legion, reported a loss of 53 out of a total of 76, including four color bearers. S. Z Ruff, commanding colonel of the Eighteenth Georgia, suffered a loss of 101 out of 176. P. A Work, of the First Texas, reported losing 186 killed and wounded out of 226, the highest regimental loss of any Civil War regiment in battle (82.3%). Besides losing nine colors bearers, the First Texas had a company (Company F) completely wiped out; Company A with a sole survivor; 2 survivors in Company C and 3 in Company E (the highest battle loss of any company of the entire war). Eleven survivors, the most in the First Texas, answered roll call the following morning. Amazingly or perhaps miraculously enough, not a single one of the senior regimental commanders in the Texas Brigade received as much as a scratch! This is in stark contrast with Law's Brigade, where almost every senior regimental commander was either killed or wounded.
As the survivors filtered back into the West Woods around the Dunkard Church, Hood met with Gen. Nathan Evans of South Carolina. Evans asked Hood, who was eating an apple for breakfast, where his division was. "Dead on the field," was the terse response. Moving some distance to the rear, the division was posted in the shape of a rough V, with orders to collect all stragglers--heedless of division or brigade or regiment---down to the point of the V. Within a space of two or three hours, about 5,000 Confederate had been collected. The men were then formed into companies, regiments and brigades. It was a situation completely unknown in the Confederate army up to that point. No enlisted man knew the officer over him, or his file closer, or perhaps the man to his right or left. The normal surroundings which gave the Civil War soldier his greatest confidence and efficiency was thus removed. The unit received orders to "fall in" to advance at approximately mid-afternoon and marched in column of four by the right flank. As the head of the advancing column approached an apple tree close to its route of march, it encountered General Lee. Standing there with one arm still bandaged from a fall suffered at the conclusion of the Battle of 2nd Manassas and holding his hat in his other hand, Lee said, in a voice loud enough to be heard by several companies at a time: "Men, I want you to go back on the line, and show that the stragglers of the Army of Northern Virginia, are better than the best troops of the enemy." The effect of this was, of course, electrifying. Had they been called into action that afternoon by their chieftain, the "Straggler's Brigade" would have won further glory for the Army of Northern Virginia. But, when dusk fell, men fell out and returned to their commands until only the men belonging to Hood's division were left.
Hood's Texans would go on to win other laurels on other fields, including the Second Day at Gettysburg. But their sacrifice at Sharpsburg is recalled with reverence by all students of the Texas Brigade and of the actions of the Army of Northern Virginia at Sharpsburg. In a letter written to General Wigfall only one day after the Army of Northern Virginia returned across the Potomac on September 20, General Lee paid the Texans perhaps the greatest compliment ever: "General, I have not heard from you with regard to the new Texas regiments, which you promised to raise for the army. I need them very much. I rely upon those we have in all our tight places, and fear I have to call upon them too often. They have fought grandly and nobly, and we must have more of them. Please make every possible exertion to get them on for me. You must help us in this matter. With a few more regiments such as Hood now has, as an example of daring and bravery, I could feel more confident of the campaign."
(The author is grateful to the Antietam National Battlefield Park for its help in gathering material for this article, as well as to fellow Civil War buffs Mark Voss of Houston, Tex. and John Furey, of Binghamton, N.Y. for their contributions. Some material was also located in Vols. VIII and XXIX of the Southern Historical Society Papers.)
|The Texas Brigade monument located on the southern, or Sharpsburg, side of Cornfield Avenue. Dedicated in grateful memory by the State of Texas to her sons who fell in The Cornfield on September 17, 1862. (Photo by author)|
This page last updated 12/17/03