Friday, August 07, 2015

Letter from Antietam: 'Nothing but murder to place us there'

Walter Smith (upper right) and fellow veterans recounted their Antietam experiences in the
Hartford Daily Times on Sept. 17, 1915. Read my blog post on that here.
His teeth broken by a spent ball and weakened from loss of blood, Walter Smith, a 19-year-old private in the 16th Connecticut, jotted down a 700-word letter to his father a day after his regiment was thrashed at the Battle of Antietam.

Walter Smith in 1915.
"In a few minutes the Rebels jumped on to us when we were ordered to fire which we did," he hurriedly wrote on Sept. 18, 1862, from a hospital near the battlefield. "The Rebs gave us a regular hail of musket balls cutting us all to pieces. It was awful."

Orderly Sergeant Wadsworth Washburn, from Walter's hometown of Berlin, Conn., was killed instantly, Smith explained to his father, and found lying under a tree with the body of Sergeant Edward Parmalee. An aspiring dentist from Hartford, Parmalee was engaged to Washburn's sister. Private Charles Penfield, also from Berlin, lay with a shattered leg in a hospital, perhaps at the German Reformed Church on Main Street in Sharpsburg, where he died on Nov. 26.

Several other soldiers from Berlin survived the battle, wrote Smith, who bitterly noted that it was "criminal carelessness" on someone's part to order the 16th Connecticut into the battle, its first of the war. Confused during the chaos that Wednesday afternoon in the infamous 40-Acre Cornfield, the regiment suffered 75 killed or mortally wounded.  Another 16th Connecticut veteran noted, "Some of the boys got frightened and crawled down under the rocks and behind trees to protect themself [sic]."

"We stood no chance at all," wrote Smith, "and it was nothing but murder to place us there."

Smith was captured with most of the rest of his regiment at Plymouth, N.C, on April 20, 1864. Sent to Andersonville with about 300 others in the 16th Connecticut, he was paroled on Dec. 10, 1864, and survived the war. Smith died on Sept. 13, 1932, four days before the 70th anniversary of Antietam. He was 89 years old.

Here's a complete transcription of Walter's Antietam letter, obtained recently from a Smith descendant:
                                                                           X X X 

6 miles from Boonsboro, Md.

Dear Father,

Thanks to  kind providence, I am at last permitted to write to you. I know you have been anxious to hear from me, but I have not had any time to drop a line since we left Arlington Hights [sic]. Since then we have been on forced marches for a week and a half, chasing after [Stonewall] Jackson.

16th Connecticut Captain Newton Manross 
was killed by a solid shot that took off his
 shoulder, Smith wrote to his father.
We came up with him the day before yesterday, and yesterday we had one of the toughest battles of the war.

Our regiment was ordered up to the front with most of the others, among them the 8th and 11 C.V. We were under fire from Rebel batteries almost all day. We were supporting some of our own batteries most of the time.

At 3 o'clock the fire of the artillery was tremendous, such as I never had conception of; shells burst in every direction, tearing trees and dirt and little pieces flying all around us.

About this time, we were ordered to advance in a cornfield between the two batteries, for what reason none of us could tell, as the Rebs were pouring a perfect storm of shell and grape across there; but we went on and did not halt until we were right before a Rebel battery when we were told Capt. [Newton] Manross (Bristol) was killed by solid shot taking off his shoulder and killing him instantly.

We were concealed from the battery by the corn, and were ordered to lie down and be ready to fire. In a few minutes the Rebels jumped on to us when we were ordered to fire which we did. The Rebs gave us a regular hail of musket balls cutting us all to pieces. It was awful.

I was struck in the mouth by a spent ball, cutting my lips and breaking two of my under teeth. With that exception, I escaped unhurt and am all right now, excepting that I am rather weak from loss of blood, as it bled rather freely. I have just bought an old hen and am having it cooked. The bully 16th is very badly cut up, as I believe they could not muster 600 men this morning.

        16th Connecticut lay in this hollow in the 40-Acre Cornfield before going into battle.

Lieutenant [George] Cook is all right without a scratch. Lieutenant [Henry] Beach was wounded in the shoulder but not seriously. Charlie Roys is all right; also, Henry Savage. Wadsworth Washburn has not been heard from, nor Ed Parmalee, and may have been taken prisoners. (Both found instantly killed and found lying under a tree together.)

A son of a minister,
 Sergeant Wadsworth Washburn was killed
 at Antietam.
(Connecticut State Library)
Charlie Penfield was reported to be lying wounded in one of the hospitals. ... Ed Moore, of Kensington, was wounded in the shoulder but is doing well in one of the hospitals.

H. Belden, O. Belden, M. McCrum, G. Welch, N. Baldwin are all right. W. Andrus, R. Barton and H. Tibbals were left behind sick, and the rest I have not heard from but may be well.

Where the blame lies for ordering us up there, I do not know; but I do know that was criminal carelessness some where, as we stood no chance at all, and it was nothing but murder to place us there.

I am at a hospital now writing on a drumhead on borrowed paper, as mine was all spoiled in my pocket.

I shall probably join the regiment again in a day or two, as soon as I get strong enough. The Rebels broke our center where we were yesterday , but it was closed again and we were reinforced last night with eighty thousand men, and I hope we shall be able to capture Jackson's whole army as he is almost entirely surrounded, when I shall hope we come home. I wish you could write to me often. I have received but one letter from Mother and she said that she had not received any from me. I do not know what to make of it as I wrote to her very soon after we came to Arlington Hights. Write me often and tell me what is going on.

Please excuse my bad writing as I have to write in a great hurry.

Yours truly,



  1. My great-great uncle was there with the 16th, though not one of the soldiers mentioned. Great letter; thanks for this post!

  2. I layed down for a pic in this hollow- it was spooky!