Saturday, September 15, 2018

Teenager's Antietam: Close calls, slumber on amputated limbs

11th Connecticut Private Philo S. Pearce survived the Battle of Antietam and the war.
(Hayes Research Library, Fremont, Ohio via Dan Masters)
Like this blog on Facebook.

Nothing could have prepared 18-year-old Philo Stevens Pearce for the harrowing sights and sounds of Sept. 17, 1862.

Before an attack at Rohrbach Bridge, the 11th Connecticut private narrowly dodged a colonel's falling horse, victim of shrapnel from a Confederate artillery shell. "I can say it took some nerve to keep cool," he wrote decades later in his war memoir, "as shells were bursting all around us."

When Pearce and other skirmishers in companies A and B advanced through a cornfield near Antietam Creek, they happened upon an unusual sight: horns and other instruments left behind by a Rebel brass band that had skedaddled.

Then  the "fun commenced" about 10 a.m.

11th Connecticut Captain John Griswold
was mortally wounded near
the Rohrbach Bridge, commonly
known today as Burnside Bridge.
"Come on, boys!" 11th Connecticut Captain John Griswold shouted as he urged his Nutmeggers to plunge across Antietam Creek with him. On the bluff above the stone-arch bridge, Georgians poured hot lead into the 25-year-old officer and other skirmishers. Clipped in the left side by a bullet, Pearce dived into a ditch, avoiding a more serious wound -- or worse. "This," he recalled, "surely saved my scalp."

Severely wounded, Griswold, grandson of a Connecticut governor, somehow staggered to the opposite bank. Firing all 60 of his rounds in his breech-loading Sharps rifle, Pearce borrowed more from a wounded comrade. "I fired so fast," he remembered, "that my rifle got hot and I had to pour water on it to cool it."

After the Rebels retreated from the bluff, Pearce and two other soldiers scrambled to the other bank, scooped up Griswold and carried the mortally wounded captain to a nearby field hospital -- probably on the Henry Rohrbach farm. But Pearce's battle was far from over.

Ordered by a surgeon to aid with an amputation, the teenager administered chloroform to a severely wounded soldier. Then the surgeon quickly sawed off an arm and a leg, and the limbs were gruesomely tossed through an open window.

"I kept on holding chloroform for a few more," Pearce remembered. "I began to get dizzy from the effect. I staggered outside and when I came to my senses, I was laying on arms and legs.

"This was enough for me around there."


Post-battle image of Burnside Bridge by Alexander Gardner taken n 1862. In his 1925 memoir, 
11th Connecticut Private Philo Pearce writes he was one of three soldiers to carry mortally wounded 
11th Connecticut Captain John Griswold from the far bank after he was mortally wounded. 
(Library of Congress)

Account of Private Philo Stevens Pearce, Co. A, 11th Connecticut Volunteer Infantry of the Battle of Antietam: 

The battle of Antietam was fought September 17, 1862. On the day before, our army was marched into a large field probably one half mile in the rear from where the Rebel line was waiting for us across the creek. We all lay down on our arms that night. Some of the boys were detailed to fill canteens with water. They went to a house on a ridge beyond us to get water from a well. This house was between the two lines. The boys found the Rebels were after water, too. No one was armed. They agreed not to hurt each other. They got into quite a chat and the Rebels said, “We’uns won’t fight you now, but wait until morning and then we’uns will clean you’ns out!”

The boys returned back to us and reported it to the officers, who were fools to go with a squad of men and arrest a few of their men. Of course the Rebels reported this to their men. In a short time, a battery of Rebels opened fire on us, but being dark they couldn’t quite tell where we were. They had range so their shells caused some excitement. We were close together, but our side did not reply. Soon they quit firing but we well knew what would come in the morning. When we received our arms after being mustered into U.S. service in Hartford, Conn., our Co. A and B were presented by the people with Sharps’ breech loading rifles, while other companies had red Springfield rifles. Companies A and B most always were put on the head skirmish line.

On the morning of September 17th, we ate our hardtack without any coffee and were soon called to order. We were on the move, getting the lines formed for an advance, on the ridge above the creek. The Rebel battery got a range on us. Soon our batteries were swung into position and the artillery duel commenced. While our colonel was getting us into line and was on his horse, a shell from the Rebels broke and a piece struck his horse. As the horse fell, I had to dodge to keep it from falling on me. The colonel was not hurt and was soon on his feet, calling us to keep cool. I can say it took some nerve to keep cool as shells were bursting all around us.

       The 11th Connecticut attacked from right to left across this field on Sept. 17, 1862.
                                      (Click at upper right for full-screen experience.)

We were soon ordered forward. Cos. A and B as usual were put on the skirmish line ahead of the battle line.  We deployed in line, being about a rod apart and down the ridge toward the creek. Before we got to the creek, we came into a cornfield. This was quite a protection, but [it did] not last long. In this cornfield, we came upon a Rebel brass band who had run and left their horns and instruments laying on the ground. We came to the edge of the field where there was a rail fence along the road. The Rebel line was just across the creek from us. Now the ‘fun’ commenced.

I don’t think we were over 20 rods apart. Our Capt. John Griswold was a brave man and jumped over the fence saying ‘come on boys!’ I, with some others, did jump. As we did, we got a volley of shots from the Rebel line. I had a ball cut through the top of my left side but did not cut the flesh. I fell into the road ditch where it had been plowed and scraped. This surely saved my scalp. Now it was time to do our duty. Capt. Griswold was hit and he rushed into the creek and kept plunging ahead until he got across. He shouted for us to come and get him but we had our hands full. To say we worked well is putting it mildly. I fired every shot I had and Sgt. [Irving] Stevens, the man next to me, was hit through his left hand and couldn’t fire anymore. He shoved his cartridge box to me and said ‘I can’t fire anymore.’ I fired so fast that my rifle got hot and I had to pour water on it to cool it.

Georgians fired on the Union IX Corps from this position on 
the bluffs above Antietam Creek.  The foliage is much thicker
 today than it was in 1862.
I had a good view of their line across the creek on the ridge. Before our battle line got down, I had fired all my shells and what Sgt. Stevens had left. Each man had 60 rounds and all of our company who did not get over the fence fired all their shells. When the battle line came down, each one fell behind the fence. I lay in the ditch in the front as close as I could as the line was falling over me. This lasted until our men to the right charged the bridge with three charges. This forced the Rebel line back as our men kept crossing and driving the Rebels back. Our loss was heavy. Colonel [Henry] Kingsbury was killed, Lt. Col. [William] Moegling wounded and most all the staff officers killed or wounded.

After the bridge was taken, two men and myself waded the creek and brought Capt. Griswold back. He lived about an hour after we got him across. He gave his watch to the first one over who was Ira Taylor. The other one was Joe Mallory and myself. We carried him back to the hospital on the hill where he died.

The field was strewn with wounded. We had red stripes tied on our arms and were put to work taking care of the wounded. I carried water and helped the best I could. I was working on one of the worst wounded men who had one leg shattered and one arm broken. One of the surgeons ordered us to carry him to the hospital where they amputate. We laid him on the table where surgeons were working in great haste.  I held chloroform to his nose and mouth and soon they had one arm and one leg off, throwing the limbs out the window. As soon as this was done another man was laid on the table. I kept on holding chloroform for a few more. I began to get dizzy from the effect. I staggered outside and when I came to my senses, I was laying on arms and legs. This was enough for me around there.

I made a break back to find where our company was located. I had to pass over the field where our dead lay. Such a valley of death was enough to turn a man’s heart to stone. I could hardly step without stepping over a corpse. The field was literally strung with our dead. Two others and myself were pretty well exhausted and hungry for something to eat. I saw one of our dead soldiers had a knapsack with some coffee and hardtack, more than I had. I thought it was no more use to him. I took my knife and cut the strap, then taking it with me. We went down on the creek bank and made a fire to make some coffee. After eating, we had some strength and satisfied our hunger. Then we went to find our company. I found one of our boys’ rifles which I needed because I left mine on the bank when we carried our captain.

After he was wounded, 11th Connecticut Captain John Griswold was taken to "the hospital on 
the hill"  -- probably Henry Rohrbach's farm. Here are the Rohrbach farmhouse and barn.

When we found our company there were only 18 of the 75 going into action the morning before. The rest were killed, wounded, or missing. A sergeant took charge about 2 o’clock in the afternoon. We formed in line with some fresh troops who had not been engaged in the morning. The fresh ones were placed in advance and we were held in reserve to support them. The Rebel line had fallen back upon a ridge and formed their line again, throwing rail piles and whatever they could get for protection. They waited for us to advance. The green troops in front of us old troops -- all were ready.

Here's how to contribute to the
Save Historic Antietam Foundation:
Donate | Mission | More

Lieutenant [Morris] Kraszynski took charge and said "Now boys, no man falls out to carry back the wounded. Plenty of men to the rear to do this." His language was broken, but he was a brave little officer. Our line was moving forward and our batteries opened fire on the Rebel line with shells cracking all around. We moved ahead on a double quick charge and were close to their heels. As we neared the top of the bridge, bullets were singing thick and sharp. We spotted a four foot wide woodpile in front of us and we were making for it. The first man shot was our lieutenant, struck through the rear part of his pants and hips. The first thing we heard was, ‘Oh my God, I’m shot! Two free men carry me back!’ Just about 10 minutes before, he cautioned us to fall out to carry men back. Some of the boys sang out, ‘You go to hell. Plenty of men to the rear to carry you back!’ We ran forward and covered ourselves behind the woodpile from which we could fire at the enemy with good advantage.

We didn’t remain there long as our boys were going forward at a double quick charge and we were following to support them. The new troops in front made a fine charge but they got impulsive so we had to hold them on our line. When they came back on us, we had a time to hold them and make them fall into our line. I know we had made good work of our guns to keep them from rushing over us. I can say a stampede like this is hard to keep men from pushing through anything. We held and made them get into our line.

Present-day image of Burnside Bridge, also known as Rohrbach Bridge.
The Rebels saw their chance and charged back on our line, thinking they could get our army routed and defeat us. Our batteries in position were waiting for the enemy. When we got in reach of our line, it was our time to make it hot for the Rebels. We broke their line, charged, and gained the rail piles from where they had started. We held them after they again formed but were repulsed and we gained our ground.

It was now getting towards evening and both sides were glad the bloody day was over. Such a sight as that field again where we fought in the forenoon. The field was filled with our men and Rebels. While we were behind the rail piles and the Rebels were making their last charge, in came our wild Irishman  Jim Conboy (of the shell incident). We were firing as fast as we could load and shoot and the bullets were coming over us like hail stones. Jim sang out, ‘Bejabers, hear those muskets sing!’ I can say they were singing but rather the bullets. This showed the grit of which Jim was made. This put us in, mad enough to give them our best licks.

Now evening closed on that bloody day of September 17, 1862. We laid down on our arms that night completely exhausted. Our loss was heavy and our regiment lost with about 250 killed, wounded, and missing.

POSTSCRIPT: After the war, Pearce, from New Fairfield, Conn., lived in New York before he settled in Catawba Island, Ohio, where he married a woman named Ora Barnum, The couple had five children together. A prosperous farmer, he became one of the county's leading citizens. "His orchards are among the best cultivated and most productive," an account published in 1896 noted, "and by his sterling ability and amiable disposition he has won himself a host of friends."

At the request of "old friends," Pearce wrote the 36-page war memoir in 1925, when he was 80 or 81. A typescript copy of the memoir, believed to have never been published, was donated sometime in the 1980s to the Harris-Elmore Library in Elmore, Ohio. (Hat tip: Dan Masters.)

-- Have something to add (or correct) in this post? E-mail me here.


  1. Great post John. These personal accounts of the men who did the fighting are fascinating. Thanks for keeping their memory alive.

  2. Another great post. Thank You, so very much