Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Antietam: Private William Pratt and a 'chamber of horrors'

8th Connecticut Private William Pratt barely survived the Battle of Antietam.
(Connecticut State Library)
Adapted from my book, Connecticut Yankees at Antietam. E-mail me for information on how to purchase an autographed copy. Click here for the Faces of the Civil War thread on my blog.

Shortly after the sun poked above the horizon on Sept. 17, 1862, “some curious fools” in the 8th Connecticut climbed atop a knoll on Henry Rohrbach’s farm to sneak a peek at their enemy, alerting rebels on the far side of Antietam Creek.  Suddenly, a 12-pound solid shot burst from a cannon and crashed into the regiment’s ranks, killing Sergeant George Marsh of Hartford and two other soldiers, wounding four and splattering 19-year-old Lt. Marvin Wait with blood and dirt.   The large mass of iron had plowed into the ground in front of the prone Marsh, missing him, but the massive concussion caused his death.

As 24-year-old William Pratt hurriedly moved to a safer position with the rest of the 8th Connecticut, an officer noticed blood on the private’s right hand, which was missing a small piece of flesh near the knuckle. “How it was done I never knew,” recalled the soldier from Meriden, Conn. “A stray bullet, a piece of shell or other missile that for a time were numerous about our ears may have been the cause.”

Pratt moved to a safer position with the rest of his
 regiment after Rebel artillery shelled the 8th Connecticut
at Antietam on the morning of Sept. 17, 1862,
killing Sergeant George Marsh (above)
and two other soldiers. (Author's collection)
For Pratt, that morning was just the start of a nightmarish three days in which he was wounded, taken prisoner and clumsily operated on in a fetid, overcrowded barn filled with injured and dying men.

Born Dec. 12, 1837, William was the youngest of the three children of Lydia and Julius Pratt, an astute businessman who was a pioneer in the making of cutlery and ivory combs. Julius Pratt & Co. even supplied John Quincy Adams with a solid ivory cane with heavy gold mountings after the then-congressman and former president argued in the House of Representatives for the right of free speech in 1838.   An ardent abolitionist, Julius had no qualms about standing up to Southerners. When told on the eve of the rebellion that war would end his comb-making business in the South, he reportedly said: “If the South don’t want my combs, on their heads be the consequences.”

One of the wealthier families in Meriden, the Pratts could afford the finer things in life for William, who was 16 years younger than his next-oldest sibling, Julius Jr. After he graduated with a degree in civil engineering from prestigious Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, N.Y. in 1857, William was sent by his father to South America to investigate prospects for the family’s ivory business. Shortly after war broke out, William cut short his foreign excursion, returning home in May 1861 with “war fever,” but his mother was adamant that he stay put. Fearing that his son would end up with a bullet in his head, William’s father was equally adamant. But a little more than three weeks after Lydia died on April 22, 1862, William enlisted as a private in the 8th Connecticut, so upsetting Julius Sr. that he threatened his son with disinheritance and estrangement.

A spirited young man, Pratt may have had a sense of adventure and a fascination with the military embedded in his DNA. His ancestors were among the founders of Connecticut, and his grandfather, Phineas, had a major hand in designing the world’s first combat submarine. Dubbed years later with the unflattering name “The American Turtle,” the contraption, armed with a crude explosive device, attacked a British warship moored in New York Harbor in September 1776. (The mission failed because the bomb exploded far from the ship in the harbor.)

William Pratt's 8th Connecticut crossed Antietam Creek at Snavely Ford during the Battle of Antietam.

                SNAVELY FORD: Click on image for full-screen interactive panorama.

As the Yankees struggled to dislodge the rebels from the bluffs above Antietam Creek and Burnside Bridge, two 8th Connecticut companies were sent upstream about a mile from the bridge to find a ford about 1 p.m. At last across the waist-deep creek at Snavely’s Ford, Pratt and the 8th Connecticut sought shelter under the crest of a hill, where they watched “the peculiar end over end movement of shells nearly spent” go over their heads during an artillery duel.  Famished, the private’s thoughts turned to food -- or lack thereof.  “I think 4 crackers was all Uncle Sam furnished me that trying day,” recalled Pratt, who also remembered an officer in the regiment grinning at him with an ear of raw corn in his mouth, “a substitute for scanty rations or no rations at all.”

 With the Confederates’ thin line buckling above Burnside Bridge, rebels scurried back toward Sharpsburg early that afternoon. A victory appeared within grasp of the Union army if it could cut off the Southerners’ retreat route at the road to Shepherdstown, Va., about two miles away. At about 3 p.m., Col. Edward Harland’s Brigade of the IX Corps was positioned to make a final push, the 4th Rhode Island and the untested 16th Connecticut lined up on the extreme left and the 8th Connecticut on their right. About an hour later, the veteran 8th Connecticut moved forward, quickly advancing far ahead and to the right of their fellow New Englanders, who apparently did not hear the order to advance and later were crushed and scattered by A.P. Hill’s veterans in John Otto’s 40-acre cornfield.

“The formation seemed to be lost,” Pratt recalled.

 The next several hours were a blur for William Pratt and the 8th Connecticut.

        Interactive panorama: 8th Connecticut dead, wounded lay in this field at Antietam.

As he bounded up a ridge, the spires of Sharpsburg’s three churches likely within view, Pratt remembered dodging dead men and horses, seeing wounded returning through the ranks and “skulkers seeking shelter behind their regiments.”  Pratt’s Company K, on the far left of the regiment, was ordered to silence a rebel battery; the cry “Now for Meriden, boys!” was barely heard over the din of battle. Nearly cut off from the rest of the 8th Connecticut, Pratt’s company was fired on from its left flank and rear as well as its front.

After climbing a rail fence, Pratt felt something smash into his leg – the bullet “felt like the sharp blow of a stick on the crazy bone,” he recalled – and tumbled to the ground. “Boys, who will help save Pratt?” a soldier in the regiment cried out shortly before he was killed. In no-man’s land between the lines, William and a comrade lay down, giving the bullets “the right of way over our heads” as the sides blasted away at each other. Perhaps 10 minutes passed, Pratt thought, before a thin line of enemy skirmishers followed by a solid body of rebels swept over them like angry locusts toward Antietam Creek. Trapped behind enemy lines, Pratt and Sgt. Albert Booth, also of Meriden, quickly became prisoners of war.

"With one arm around Booth’s neck, the other on Johnny Reb (and) dragging the wounded leg behind me, I hobbled toward the village of Sharpsburg,” Pratt recalled. “The air was full of missiles (so) the bank of a sunken road offered inviting shelter and we took it.”  Feeling faint from the loss of blood, he gave Booth a few words to tell his friends back home, just in case he was about to meet his maker. By dark, Pratt and his friend had passed through Sharpsburg, arriving at a large barn with a stone basement near the Potomac River. The next day, as rebel surgeons tended to their wounded, Pratt pleaded for someone to remove the bullet from his thigh. He was about to do the gruesome job himself with his pocket knife when a Confederate hospital steward offered to do it for him. For Pratt, it was a decision that nearly had deadly consequences.

8th Connecticut monument at Antietam.  (Photo: Tad Sattler)

The well-meaning Southerner carved up Pratt’s thigh, making an 11-inch cut and removing a long, jagged bullet that was as flat as the blade of a knife on one side. The hospital steward “probably kept it as a souvenir of his first operation,” fumed Pratt, who thought the “bungling work” caused his wound to heal much too slowly. (“My boy, what butcher took out that bullet?” a Federal surgeon later asked the soldier. “He cut within a quarter-inch of the femoral artery.”  If the artery were cut, Pratt would have bled to death in two to three minutes. ) Later that night, the rebels retreated across the Potomac, taking with them their able-bodied Yankee prisoners, including Booth. The barn was a “chamber of horrors,” Pratt wrote, wounded men from both armies, some in death throes, lying on the floor.

Finally rescued by Federal cavalry, Pratt was treated at two other field hospitals. Evidence of the horror of war was everywhere. “Some of the wounded were fractions of men when surgeons got through with them,” Pratt wrote. “One poor rebel had no arms and legs.”

“Some of the wounded were fractions of men when surgeons got through with them. One poor rebel had no arms and legs."


-- 8th Connecticut Private William Pratt on his experience in a hospital at Antietam

After he recovered from his Antietam wound, Pratt quickly rose through the ranks, receiving a promotion to 2nd lieutenant in December and to adjutant in 1863. Pratt was so well regarded that in February 1865, he was promoted to major. He was mustered out of the service that May, shortly after the war ended, as a lieutenant colonel.

After the war, Pratt worked with his father, with whom he had long since reconciled with, in the ivory business and married a New York woman named Sophie Rand, who during a visit to Meriden admired the way he looked while riding his horse in a parade. But Pratt’s war wound had adversely affected his health, and his physician advised him to seek the dry climate of the West.  “He had all the adventurousness of his pioneer ancestors," his daughter, Alice, wrote decades later about the family’s move to Mankato, Minn., in 1870.   In Mankato, Pratt built a house on a bluff east of the Minnesota River and set up a lumber and furniture business to supply the growing farming
community.

But in the late 1870s, a three-year grasshopper plague wiped out the farms and all the dependent businesses, and Pratt lost everything -- his entire inheritance as well as money invested for others.  He then moved alone in the late 1870s to the Black Hills of Dakota Territory, where the gold rush offered new opportunities for lumber and furniture businesses. In 1886, Sophie and Alice moved there permanently, and two more children were born.

Pratt lived out his days back East, in North Carolina and New York. The old soldier died at age 90 on Feb. 17, 1928 in Williamsville, N.Y., almost 66 years after he came within less than an inch of dying at Antietam.

SOURCES:

The account of William Pratt’s experience at Antietam comes from his unpublished manuscript called "My Story of the War," written in 1912. Courtesy of Nicholas Pratt.

Croffut, William Augustus and Morris, John Moses. The Military and Civil History of Connecticut During the War of 1861-65, (New York: Ledyward Bill, 1868), Page 265.

Hartford Courant, Oct. 1 1862 and Aug. 31, 1869.

Centennial of Meriden, June 6-10, 1906. (The Journal Publishing Co., 1906), Page 328.

Pratt, Alice Day. Three Frontiers, (New York: Vantage Press, 1955)


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