|"Our olfactory organs informed us, very perceptibly, that we were in the region of decaying animal matter,|
the Altoona (Pa.) Tribune reporter wrote. Here's Alexander Gardner's image of a dead horse of a
Confederate officer near the East Woods. (Library of Congress)
"His case was at first considered hopeless," an Altoona (Pa.) Tribune correspondent noted about Edmund Russ, "but having survived the wound for a week, his physicians think that, with care, he will recover. He is much prostrated." As Sergeant Russ, a former printer at the Tribune, lay in agony in the West Woods on Sept. 17, 1862, an enemy soldier threatened him with a bayonet.
Eager to file a dispatch to his newspaper about the battle aftermath and first action of the 125th Pennsylvania, the reporter traveled early the next morning to the field. As he closed within a mile or two of Sharpsburg, Md., the first indication a major battle was fought was the stench of decaying animal flesh -- hundreds of horses also were Antietam victims.
Then came the fallen tree limbs, bullet-riddled fence posts and trees and a cornfield "tread into dust." And then there were the graves of Union soldiers, so many that the battlefield seemed to be "vast cemetery."
Later, at makeshift hospitals at Samuel Poffenberger's farm and elsewhere, the reporter found more heart-rending scenes:
"A rebel had received a bullet wound which cut out both eyes and carried away part of his nose. Though apparently strong, his case seemed to us entirely hopeless."
"We witnessed an operation on a man who had been struck with a piece of shell on the top of his head, breaking the skull ..."
"Quite a number of the wounded at [a] hospital had been lying there for a week, with gun shot wounds in their arms and legs..."
"... many of [the wounded] were already beyond the reach of medical skill and were now struggling in the last agonies of death."
Published in the Tribune on Oct. 2, 1862, the correspondent's unbylined account appears below, accompanied by present-day battlefield images. The remarkable report took up nearly five columns in the Pennsylvania newspaper.
|An illustration of Lyceum Hall in Hagerstown, Md., used as a Federal hospital during Maryland Campaign.|
Visit to the Antietam Battle-Field & Hospitals
While stopping in Chambersburg we had a sight of the Pennsylvania Militia who were encamped in that locality and all along the road from thence to Hagerstown. We found Col. J. J. Weitzel, of Harrisburg, with a knapsack on his back and a musket on his shoulder, acting under direction of the Surgeon in charge of the Chambersburg hospital. We also came across Jim Cramer, the "Model Conductor," figuring in the position of Post Master of the regiment to which Capt. McFarlane's Company was attached. Hon. Samuel Calvin, R. A. McMurtrie, candidate for Assembly, James Funk, late sheriff, Essington Hammond, and other notables of the town "over the hill," were in camp, and Jim told us that they performed guard duty cheerfully, and behaved themselves in all respects as became veteran soldiers.
|Post-war image of 125th Pennsylvania|
Sergeant Edmund Russ, who suffered a
bullet wound to his abdomen at Antietam.
(History of The 125th Pennsylvania Volunteers 1862-63)
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Lodgings secured, we felt more comfortable, and turned our attention again to the wounded who were constantly arriving in ambulances and on foot. Those who had been wounded in the arm or shoulder, walked into town and gave their places in the ambulances to those who had been wounded in the legs or about the body and were unable to walk. Thus was kept up a constant stream of stragglers toward the hospitals. Some of the wounded were scarcely able to drag their weary limbs along with them, and appeared to find relief on being permitted to lie down on the pavement in front of the hospitals. When night closed in, every available space in the Court House and Lyceum Hall was occupied by wounded, sick and worn-out soldiers. In an upper room of the Court House were a number of secesh prisoners. Some of our soldiers looked hard enough, but the secesh looked far worse. We wonder how men who are no better clothed and fed can make even a show of fight.
Although the rebels had full possession of Hagerstown and surrounding country for four days previous to the battle, they did no damage to property. The citizens say they behaved themselves very well, with the exception of eating them out of everything in the eatable line. The testimony of the people is, that the Pennsylvania Militia did more damage than the rebels. This made us feel bad, when we considered that most of the people in Hagerstown and vicinity are Union. The rebels were evidently on their good behavior, in hopes of winning the people over to their cause. Failing in this, had they been permitted to remain much longer, they would have taken care of themselves.
|An enlargement of an Alexander Gardner image reveals damage to a fence rail on Hagerstown Pike.|
|Even decades after the war, this fence at Antietam was riddled with bullets. |
(History of the One Hundred and Twenty-fourth Regiment, Pennsylvania Volunteers)
|"The fields and woods were strewn with torn hats, coats, pants, |
shoes, canteens, haversacks, cartridge-boxes, muskets,
good and broken, broken gun carriages," the Pennsylvania reporter
wrote. In a cropped enlargement of Confederate dead near
the Dunker Church, a pair of shoes. (Library of Congress)
The fields and woods were strewn with torn hats, coats, pants, shoes, canteens, haversacks, cartridge-boxes, muskets, good and broken, broken gun carriages, &c., and the graves of the Union soldiers, who had been buried where they fell, gave to every field the appearance of a vast cemetery. In all directions lay dead horses, some of which had been partly burned, but the task of thus destroying them was evidently too great for the force detailed for that purpose and they had been left to the elements and the buzzards. The salubrity of the atmosphere, in this locality was, in consequence, anything but agreeable, and we did not tarry long.
|Samuel Poffenberger farmhouse, the "stone house hospital" described by the Pennsylvania reporter.|
|The original, well-worn steps at the Samuel Poffenberger farm house, a private residence today.|
From this field we passed to the first hospital in the rear of the battle-field, known as the stone house hospital. Here the scene beggars all description. Our own and the rebel wounded were thrown together promiscuously. Five of the rebel wounded, who had died the previous night, were carried out just before we arrived. Every room in the house, the porticos in front and rear, the barn floor and mows, all the stables underneath the barn, the wagon-shed, and around the straw and grain stacks, were crowded with the wounded, many of whom were already beyond the reach of medical skill and were now struggling in the last agonies of death. Among this number were men wounded in every conceivable manner, with shot and shell, in the head, body, arms and legs. What astonished us the most was that they were still alive.
|Confederate dead on the Joseph Sherrick farm. "The secesh|
wounded, and the prisoners who were attending them, were
a sorry looking set of mortals," the Pennsylvania reporter
wrote. (Library of Congress)
We think it would be a bad idea to put the ununiformed militia of the North into the field against the rebels, especially if any of our volunteers were in the neighborhood, because of the similarity of the militia and rebel dress. We heard a number of our soldiers say that, in an engagement, they could not distinguish between them and would be as likely to fire into our own men as the enemy, unless the signals were very distinct. Scarcely two rebels that we saw were dressed alike. Their hats and caps are of every color and quality, and their pants ditto. Their coats were of cotton and mostly of two colors, light grey and walnut, hence the appellations of "grey backs" and "butternuts."
From the hospital above mentioned we passed to the one in which most of the wounded of Cap't Gardner's company had been placed. Here we found the house, barn, wagon shed, and every available spot filled with wounded. After looking up our acquaintances and doing all in our power for them, we walked through the house and barn examining the different cases. We had heard soldiers say that, by constantly mingling with and attending upon the wounded, they lost that feeling for them which they experienced at first sight. We thought this impossible, but two hours among them convinced us that it was possible. Sights which at first made us sick and compelled us to turn away, we could now look upon without a shudder. A gunshot wound in the arm, or leg was, apparently, of no account. We found one man who had been shot through the head just below the temples. It would appear impossible that a man thus wounded should live, yet this man, after having his wound dressed, was walking about the barn, talking with his companions and seemingly giving it little attention. Another man had been struck with a piece of shell which carried away one side of his face and part of his skull. He was still alive, but evidently could not last long.
A rebel had received a bullet wound which cut out both eyes and carried away part of his nose. Though apparently strong, his case seemed to us entirely hopeless. A piece of shell had carried away the roof of the mouth of a Union soldier. In his condition it was impossible for him to take nourishment in any other than a liquid state, and it was hard to think that he must die of starvation, if not from the effects of the wound. Another case was that of a young volunteer from Massachusetts. His thigh had been badly fractured so close to his body that amputation could not be performed, and the surgeon gave it as his opining that his life could not possibly be saved. We could multiply cases, but the above will be sufficient to give our readers an idea of the sights to be seen at one of these field hospitals.
|Susan Hoffman's beautiful farmhouse, probably the "brick house hospital" referred to by the reporter.|
|Wounded were found in "every nook and corner about the house and barn" at the Hoffman farm,|
the reporter wrote. (Read more about the Hoffman farm on my blog here.)
How men can survive their wounds so long, without proper attention, is a mystery to us. And yet you never hear them utter a word of complaint. It is a perfect school of patience. Each one appeared content to bide his time, thinking there were others more severely wounded who deserve attention first.
|Present-day view of interior of Hoffman farm barn, used|
as makeshift hospital by the Federal army.
Having found the Reserves and our acquaintances therein, we prepared to make ourselves comfortable for the night. Three of our party put up with Capt. Bohler, of company H, 12th regiment, of Indiana county. Capt. B. bears the reputation of being one of the finest officers in the corps, and certainly he is a perfect gentleman. He is what might be called a "fighting parson" being a Presbyterian minister by profession. When the Reserves were being mustered he gave up his charge embracing two appointments, and recruited a company of 84 men. He has been through all the battles with the Reserves, and his company has suffered severely, numbering at this time only 32 effective men.
The camp of the Reserves was immediately on the bank of the Potomac, opposite Sheppardstown [Shepherdstown], which latter place was occupied by the rebels. From the bluff on the opposite side of the river it would have been an easy matter for the rebels to have shelled the camp, and such a thing was not unexpected by the officers. While we would have no objections to witnessing such a truly grand sight after nightfall, we confess we would rather be more than half a mile distant at the time, and have the "clock weights," as the boys call them, fly in some other direction than toward us.
If any set of men in the army require rest for a short time, for the purpose of recruiting, it is the Penn'a Reserves. A little over one year ago they entered the army with full 11,000 men; now they number but little over 3,000 effective men. - Dr. Bower, medical director of the corps, informed us that that the loss of the Reserves in killed and wounded, in the late battles in Maryland, was 972 men. One company which went into the fight on the 17th of Sept. with forty men, came out with eight killed and twenty-seven wounded. The boys would like to have a rest for a few weeks, but nevertheless they express themselves willing to go at a moment's notice to any point where Gen. McClellan may order them.
Adjoining the Reserve camp was the camp of the 5th U. S. Artillery, to which is attached the company of men recruited in this neighborhood by Capt. John M. Clark, of this place. We found the Captain and the Altoona boys all right side up, so far as health was concerned, and looking none the worse of the hard service through which they have lately passed. The Captain's company has been strangely fortunate thus far. It was in all the engagements on the Peninsula, in the late Bull Run battle, and in all the battles in Maryland, and yet, if we remember rightly, it has lost but one man wounded.
|"No one can form an idea of the scope of country which it requires to accommodate an army of the size of|
that now under Gen. McClellan," the Tribune reporter wrote. Here, McClellan meets with President Lincoln
near the Antietam battlefield in early October 1862. (Library of Congress)
|"Many of the houses were perforated with balls and shells," the reporter|
wrote about Sharpsburg. The shell in the side of war-time resident
Dr. Augustin Biggs' house on Main Street simulates that
long-ago damage. (Photo courtesy Mark Brugh)
We arrived at Sharpsburg about nine o'clock and proceeded to what was pointed out to us as Gen. McClellan's head-quarters. There was nothing about them to indicate that they were more than common soldiers' quarters, other than a small flag on the largest tent, and a guard of soldiers around it. We did not get a sight of the General, but in this we were not disappointed.
Returning, we walked through the town of Sharpsburg, made famous by the late battle. It is evidently an old town, judging from the appearance of the buildings, and contains but one main street. Many of the houses were perforated with balls and shells, during the battle, and yet a traveler, who did not know that such had been the case, might pass through the place dozens of times without noticing a single mark. As we were on the lookout for such evidences of the engagement we discovered a number of holes in the roof and sides of houses, plainly indicating that those localities were anything but healthful on the 17th ult. But one house in the place was set on fire by the shells. Most of the people left the town previous to the battle and those who remained took refuge in their cellars. So far as we could learn, none of the citizens of the place were injured, although one newspaper reporter has it that a child was killed. Quite a number of cows, hogs, and other domestic animals were killed.
|"...the graves of the Union soldiers, who had been buried where they fell, gave to every field the appearance |
of a vast cemetery," the reporter noted. Next to the body of a young Confederate, a grave of a Union soldier.
(Library of Congress)
|"It is perforated through the roof and sides by dozens|
of shells and balls, and is a complete wreck," the reporter wrote
about the Dunker Church, seen here in a cropped enlargement
of an Alexander Gardner photo. (Library of Congress)
Just beyond the cornfield stands a small church which bears evidence of the ferocity of the conflict in that locality. It is perforated through the roof and sides by dozens of shells and balls, and is a complete wreck. The rebels had taken shelter in a wood just back of this church, from which it was designed to dislodge them by artillery. We had read of trees as large as a man's body being cut square off by balls and shells, but did not realize that such could be. Here, however, we had positive evidence of it. The ground was covered with limbs and tops of trees, the falling of which would have killed as many men as the balls and rendered the place more insecure than the open fields. From the numerous graves of union and rebel dead, the destruction of houses, fences, cornfields and woods, the dead horses lying around unburied, and the shells and balls which could be picked up at every step, we judge this to have been the most hotly contested part of the field. A house and barn situate about one hundred yards from the stone fence alluded to, was burned during the engagement, and every living thing about the premises was either killed or frightened away, as there was not even a chicken to be seen when we were there. If this be the condition of a country after one day's battle, what must be the condition of the valley of Virginia, over which the armies have been fighting for the last eighteen months?
(Click at upper right for full-screen experience.)
We now come to refer to the part taken by "our regiment," the 125th Pa. Vols., in the battle of Antietam. It will be remembered that this regiment is composed of six companies from Blair County and four from Huntingdon County, hence we say our regiment. It will be remembered also that the 125th is one of the new nine month regiments, and that the battle of the 17th ult. was the first in which it took part. On the day of the engagement it had only been under organization about five weeks, and during that time the boys had received but little training. As soon as they arrived at Washington, about a week after their organization, they were set to work on trenches, and kept at that business until ordered into Maryland.
|Sunset at 125th Pennsylvania monument|
in West Woods.
While mingling with the Reserves and other soldiers who had been near our boys during the action, we made inquiry as to their conduct, and the testimony on all hands was that they behaved like veterans. Rebel prisoners taken on the occasion say that there must have been a brigade of the boys, as no single regiment could have cut them (the rebels) up so badly in so short a time. Their superior officers, and all who witnessed their conduct on that trying occasion, award to the men of the 125th the highest mead of praise. All honor to the 125th. Blair County has boasted of her 84th, and she can now boast of her 125th. The latter has brought no discredit upon the former.
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HAT TIP TO ...
... Blog reader Pat Gonsman for calling this story to my attention