Monday, March 07, 2016

'One vast graveyard': Doctor's remarkable Antietam letter

Dr. Augustin Biggs, shown in an illustration published in 1882.
(History of Western Maryland, Volume II)
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Click here for 11th  Connecticut veteran's account
of  the attack at Burnside Bridge.
In October, friend of the blog Dan Masters of Perrysburg, Ohio, called to my attention a fascinating post-war account written by an 11th Connecticut veteran about the regiment's failed attack at Burnside Bridge during the Battle of Antietam (right). Masters recently shared with me another gem -- a remarkable letter written on Sept. 29, 1862, 12 days after Antietam, by Sharpsburg, Md., doctor Augustin Biggs, who experienced first hand the battle and its terrible, bloody aftermath. Masters' introduction of Biggs as well as the doctor's Antietam letter, which was published in an Ohio newspaper, appear below. 

Dr. Biggs' letter is believed to be reproduced in its entirety here for the first time since it was published in the Ohio newspaper more than 153 years ago.

Based on his conversations with soldiers on both sides, Biggs estimated Confederate casualties at Antietam as "7,000 killed and 20,000 wounded." Exact numbers will never been known, but those figures are too high. According to the Official Records of the War of the Rebellion and the Antietam Battlefield Board, the Confederate figures were 1,550 killed and 7,750 wounded. As in all wars, rumors and speculation were rampant during the Civil War.

During a December visit to Sharpsburg with my daughter, the former Biggs house, built in 1789, was for sale. The sale closed recently and new owners have moved in. Biggs cared for wounded soldiers there after the battle.

The following letter, originally published on the first page of the Oct. 16, 1862, issue of the Weekly Lancaster Gazette in Lancaster, Ohio, was written by noted Sharpsburg resident Dr. Augustin A. Biggs, who later served as the first president and superintendent of Antietam National Cemetery. Biggs wrote this letter nearly two weeks after Antietam to his uncle, Elijah Kalb, the postmaster of the small Fairfield County town of Rushville, Ohio. Kalb was the younger brother of Mary Biggs, the mother of Dr. Biggs. As noted in the letter, he was familiar with the environs of Sharpsburg.

Dr. Biggs was born to John and Mary Biggs on Dec. 27, 1812, in Double Pipe Creek, Md., and attended Jefferson Medical College of Philadelphia before entering the practice of medicine in Sharpsburg during the 1830s. Dr. Biggs specialized in obstetrics, helping deliver more than 3,000 children during his 53-year career.

A county history described Biggs as  "of a gentle and retiring nature, but at the same time he took an active interest in everything pertaining to the welfare of the community. In politics, he was a Whig before the Civil War and during the war was a strong Union man. He represented the state of Maryland as a trustee and one of the original incorporators of the Antietam National Cemetery, and was first president of the Board. As general superintendent of the cemetery during its construction and up to the time of its transfer to the United States, he was originator of the plan upon which it was laid out and of the order of the graves. His patriotism and unselfishness enabled him to link his name for all time with one of the most beautiful of our national cemeteries.”

In the letter, Dr. Biggs relates his impressions of the invading Confederate army, as well as his experiences during the battle as he huddled in his home with his family while the town was subjected to shellfire. The home in which Dr. Biggs and his family passed the battle (109 West Main St. in downtown Sharpsburg) still exists and is known as the William Chapline House, now listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The gable side of the house still shows shell damage, which Dr. Biggs describes in this letter.

During the battle, Dr. Augustin Biggs and his family huddled in their house on Main Street. 
(Above: Google Street View)
An embedded artillery shell symbolizes the damage done to the Biggs house during the battle.
(Mark Brugh)

Sharpsburg, Maryland
September 29, 1862

Dear Uncle:

I feel like again resuscitating my correspondence with you, but not for publication; yet at the same time will not restrict you in publishing such items of interest as you may think proper. To give you a correct history of the events in and around Sharpsburg for the past two weeks would be a task impossible for me. Furthermore, we are yet in such confusion, and my mind so distracted, that it would be difficult for me to gather up all that might be interesting to you. I will, however, commence with the first appearance of the rebels in our vicinity. First was their cavalry, next their infantry and artillery, and in a very short time our town and neighborhood was swarming with rebels.

They were poorly clad, indeed, and but few dressed alike -- barefooted, dirty, and filthy in the extreme. To judge from appearances they have had no change of dress the past twelve months. Some few were clad in Union soldiers’ dress. Most of them indecently ragged and their person exposed. They wore a dejected countenance and were seldom seen to smile or indulge in any hilarity, from the officers to the privates. This feature was remarkable. They seemed to have no disposition to keep themselves clean, and from appearances their persons are as filthy as time could make them -- all alive with vermin. I conversed with many and believe there is universal dissatisfaction in their army. Thousand would desert if they could, but they say their families and property are in the South and to go North they could never return to their friends, and would be deprived of all that they have in this world. Many are anxious for the South to get whipped and the war brought to a speedy termination. Whenever an opportunity offers, they destroy and throw away their guns. They say fight they must while under their officers, and before going into battle each man has to fill his canteen with whiskey and gunpowder. This was the case before the battle of Sharpsburg.

The battle of Sharpsburg commenced on Tuesday the 16th just about 4 o’clock P.M., principally with artillery. On the next day (Wednesday) was resumed and continued without intermission until after dark. The line of battle was five or six miles long. [General George] McClellan’s left wing extended below the bridge across Antietam on the road leading to Shewman’s. His center at the bridge at Mumma’s Mill, William Roulett’s, Joseph Poffbarger’s, David B. Miller’s to William F. Hobb’s farm. The hardest fighting was between William Roulett’s and Henry Piper’s. I suppose you recollect a lane on the right of the Hagerstown road, about a half mile from Sharpsburg, leading to William Roulett’s (formerly John Miller’s) running from thence to the Boonsboro Pike at the culvert of said pike. It was in this road the rebels had concealed themselves behind the banks and adjacent cornfield. It was at this place the slaughter on both sides was the heaviest. It was here that the Federals made a charge on the rebels and drove them back with terrible loss. In this road they laid in piles three and four deep. In the cornfield almost every step for several hundred yards around, dead rebels could be seen. The sight was awful.

ABOVE AND BELOW: Cropped enlargements of  Rebel dead in Bloody Lane.
(Alexander Gardner photos: Library of Congress)

“In this road they laid in piles three and four deep. In the cornfield almost every step for several hundred yards around, dead rebels could be seen. "

-- Dr. Augustin Biggs, describing the scene at Bloody Lane

In the space of a quarter of a mile dead rebels were strewn over the ground, also fragments of clothes, hats, caps, guns, horses, shells, and fragments of shells, and mounted artillery in such profusion that one could not step foot upon the ground without stepping on some of the effects of the mighty struggle between the contending armies. The bodies of the men were laying around mangled in every conceivable manner. Legs off and heads and parts of heads off, and mortal wounds of every description -- the most were from rifle shots. In this road, large puddles of blood were visible for several days after the battle. One rebel lay across a fence with three bullet holes in his posterior. I have not learned how many fell, but from all information I could get from the rebels, and our own men, the rebel loss was about 7,000 killed and 20,000 wounded at the battle of Sharpsburg. Their loss since the invasion of Maryland is estimated at 60,000 killed, wounded, and taken prisoners.

"I cannot account for [George] McClellan not renewing
the fight on Thursday," Biggs wrote of
the Union's commanding general at Antietam.
(Library of Congress)
On Thursday, the rebels sent a flag of truce for permission to bury their dead, which was only an excuse to obtain more time to make their escape -- in fact, they commenced retreating Wednesday night which was continued all day Thursday and Thursday night so that by Friday, all with the exception of some who refused to go were safely over the river on the Virginia side. I cannot account for McClellan not renewing the fight on Thursday. If he had done so, he would have captured the great bulk of the rebel army. The retreat of the rebels was in much confusion, for they left their dead and a great number of their wounded on the battlefield. On the day of the battle, they carried a large proportion of their wounded to Shepherdstown and in the direction of Winchester. Some of their dead they also carried away. There are at this time about 4,000 wounded in Shepherdstown.

Our neighborhood is one vast graveyard. The rebels are buried in ditches dug sufficient to hold as high as eighty-piled in such a manner as to be barely covered sufficiently over the top layer of men. The stench is becoming so disagreeable, particularly after sundown, that we can hardly endure it. In addition to the dead rebels, we had about 400 dead horses on the field. I cannot describe all as it really was and is at this time. One thing is remarkably strange, and that is the rapid decomposition of the dead rebels. On Friday, I rode over the battlefield and with few exceptions they were all swollen and perfectly black, while the dead Union men were pale and looked as though life had just departed the body. All I met observed the same contrast. It must be owing to their taking freely of gunpowder and whiskey.

I must say a little more about the character of the rebels. They were destitute of everything necessary to sustain life and comfort. I never saw a set of men reduced so far to the point of starvation. They would eat anything, no matter how dirty or filthy it was, to satisfy their craving appetite. They came upon like a gang of hungry wolves or hyenas. Nothing could be hid from their grasp. All the fruit and vegetables of every description were devoured by them. Nearly every house was robbed of everything eatable. Some few that remained at home succeeded in saving what they had, but all who were forced to leave town lost everything. When they once had possession of a house, it was stripped clean, even the children’s clothes, knives, forks, dishes, and bed clothes --- in fact nothing escaped, for what they could not use, they willfully destroyed. Two thirds of the families in the place had nothing but the clothes on their backs. After the battle, several poor people in town had their houses burned down, after first being robbed of all that was in them. Money, jewelry, and all articles of any value to them was carried off. I never thought that human nature in a civilized land could lose, to such a degree, all sympathy for their fellow beings. They entered several poor people’s houses and robbed them of everything they had in this world. Stealing and plunder seemed to be their profession and design. They appear to have lost all feelings of humanity and self-respect. They would strip themselves naked in the street and sit down and deliberately pick the vermin from their ragged garments.

“One shell exploded just over my head and some of the fragments struck the rim of my hat. "

-- Dr. Augustin Biggs

The rebels had their batteries planted on the hill above town extending in line opposite the line included above. This, as a matter of course, drew the fire of the Federals upon our town. I remained with my family in my house, otherwise would have lost all by the thieving rebels. Thanks to a kind Providence, we all escaped being hurt, although the shells were flying and exploding every moment around us. We suffered but little in comparison to others. One shell passed through the parlor window and exploded, tearing up and destroying things at a great rate. In a few moments, I entered the room and found nothing was on fire. Two shells went through my stable; one through my hog pen and five struck my house, but none went through the wall. One shell exploded just over my head and some of the fragments struck the rim of my hat. One man had his leg shot off on my pavement, and another instantly killed just above my house. None of the citizens got hurt as far as I know. There were sixteen rebels killed in town during the shelling.

Alexander Gardner's photograph of  the destruction of Samuel Mumma's farm. Dr. Biggs 
described the devastation in his letter to his uncle. (Library of Congress)
A cropped enlargement of Gardner's image of Mumma's farm.  
During the battle, Jacob Grove's house at 100 W. Main Street in Sharpsburg "was set afire
 and came very near setting the whole town on fire," Biggs wrote.
(Google Street View)
All this time, some were busy robbing the vacant houses. Two rebels in James Hill’s house were killed in the act of breaking open his safe. Few houses escaped unhurt.  As many as six shells passed through some houses and destroyed everything in their course. On Wednesday night, J.H. Grove’s house was set on fire and came very near setting the whole town on fire. My house caught fire three times, but I succeeded in putting it out. David and Samuel Reed’s barn burnt down the same night. On the day of the battle, the rebels set fire to Samuel Mumma’s house and barn, which with all his hay and grain, were burnt to ashes. Nearly all the horses are taken away; hogs and cattle killed and corn fed to their starving stock. William Cronises’ store was broken open and all his goods taken. At present, it is a strange sight to see fowl of any description.

We have nearly the whole of McClellan’s army quartered here, at Harper’s Ferry, and Williamsport. For five miles around nearly all the fences are gone, and this seems as one vast plain. We are all in a destitute state, and if the government don’t relieve us, this neighborhood is ruined. All is lost, and in all probability, the farmers will not be able to put out any grain this fall. Truly now I have written you a doleful letter and in my next my mind may be more composed and have more time to give you other items of interest.

Yours Truly,
A.A. Biggs

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  1. I'm afraid this letter is written by a man with a completely jaundiced eye, John. It is entirely overboard, overdone, and largely comprised of baloney.
    I mean, come on! The dead Rebels are all black but the dead Yanks are all white and lovely?? The Rebels didn't have food yet they had an abundant supply of...of...whiskey? Good grief! Sure they were ragged compared to the Federal soldiers. At the time of Sharpsburg their government hadn't started a systematic distribution of uniforms. Yes, they were thin and they were hungry. They'd been living mostly on green corn and green apples when they could get even those and those play havoc with the digestive system. Yes, the Mumma farm was burned, but it was not in town. My historical expert on the area says that what Biggs reports in his letter as typical Confederate behavior regarding the town has no basis in fact at all. His description better fits the Union army in Fredericksburg where they ripped pews out of churches and threw them in the streets, threw ladies' dresses and pianos into the streets in needless destruction. But how could you really EXPECT someone who had such firmly established opinions as Biggs to report in an unbiased manner? I mean, it can be done, but is rarely done. Biggs makes no attempt whatsoever to be unbiased. His whole intent is to make the Confederate army come across as less than human savages. It reminded me of the attitude of the English army toward the Highland Scots after Culloden.

  2. Well, of course it is. Augustus Biggs was a strong Union man. He was writing a post-battle account as he saw it. He wasn't a journalist charged with getting both sides of the story.

  3. Invading army? Who invaded who?