Sunday, August 19, 2012

Antietam: 'John, poor, poor John, is no more'

Teenagers John and Wells Bingham served in Company H of the 16th Connecticut.
John was killed at Antietam. Wells survived and broke the news of his brother's death
to his father back in East Haddam, Conn. (Photos: Military and Historical Image Bank)
For the Bingham family of East Haddam, Conn., the Civil War was indeed a family affair. Six of  farmer Elisha Bingham's sons served in the Union army. Two of them did not return home alive. Eliphalet Bingham died in Virginia in 1864, and John, only 17 years old, was killed at Antietam on Sept. 17, 1862. John and his younger brother, 16-year-old Wells, served in Company H of the 16th Connecticut. Fighting in its first battle of the Civil War, the regiment was battered by veterans of A.P. Hill's division at Antietam. Many of the men in the 16th Connecticut, scared out of their minds, simply ran for their lives. "The musket balls were falling among us like halestones (sic)," Wells wrote to his father.

Eliphalet Bingham.
(Photo courtesy Tad Sattler)
Wells Bingham survived Antietam, but the psychological burden of his brother's death undoubtedly stuck with him the rest of this life. It fell to the teenager to break the news of John's death to his father. In a letter that I surprisingly discovered at the Antietam National Battlefield research library on Friday afternoon, Wells writes vividly about the late-afternoon fight in John Otto's 40-acre cornfield, witnessing the wounding of his company's captain, his own narrow escape and of the agonizing realization that his brother was killed. For me, the discovery of the letter was exciting, especially after telling this story in November.

Below is a transcript of Wells'  seven-page letter to his father, including misspellings, punctuation mistakes and grammatical errors. The Herbert and Waldo mentioned in the letter are probably relatives of the brothers, although that relationship is unclear and merits further research. Context is provided by me in italics. 

                                                                     X X X

Sharpsburg, Md Sep 20th/62

Dear Father

Having the opportunity, I thought I would write you. It is a sad tale which I am about to tell you. John, poor, poor John, is no more. We have had a serious time of it, the sixteenth. We arrived up with our Brigade that night. We marched (after dark) to within about a mile of the enemy, and slept on our arms. In the morning some of the soldiers went up on a hill, and exposed our position. We soon had shells from the rebbel battery in great plenty. We are briggadded with the 8th and 11th Conn and the 4th R.I. regiments. the shells killed 3 or 4 and wounded a number in the briggade. We were marched into a piece of woods and formed a line of battle, from there we were marched up onto a high hill. all this time the battle was going on only a short distance from us. we had a chance to witness some of the most splendid firing with artillery. we could see the shells and shot strike around the rebbel battery. It took but a short time for our battery to silence theirs.

"While we were sitting on the hill our forces took the bridge over the small river,"
Wells Bingham wrote of the capture of Burnside Bridge.
(Alexander Gardner photo/Library of Congress Civil War collection)
While we were sitting on the hill our forces took the bridge over the small river between us and the rebbels. our briggade forded the stream below the bridge. we had been across the stream but a short time when we had a rebbel battery throwing shells among us. but our battery silenced it in a few moments. About 4 o'clock we were marched over a hill, and down into a hollow, and lay down. We were in this situation about an hour, the shells from both batteries were playing over us. One man in our company lying just behind me was struck by a piece of shell. Cap't Manross was killed while we lay there. We marched from here up to a cornfield. The different companies in our regiment were placed around in different parts of the cornfield, out the way of the shells. We were here when we saw two regiments about a half a mile off. they were rebbels, but they had our uniform and flags so we thought they were all right, but they came on through the cornfield, out of sight, very still, and the first we know they were right upon us. They came right onto the left flank of our company. we jumped up, and fell back a little, and faced them. The officers told us not to fire, for they were our men. They came on with a yell and a rush. Our Cap't was struck down by a musket ball in the thigh. as it struck him he cried "Oh my God. I'm killed. good bye boys. you've lost your Captain. Farewell. Farewell."

Wells Bingham witnessed the death of 16th Connecticut captain
 Newton Manross. (left). When Captain Frederick Barber  of 

Bingham's Company H  was shot, Wells heard him cry out:
 "Oh, my God. I'm killed.  Good bye, boys."

(Manross photo courtesy Bristol Historical Society)

                         X X X

The captain Wells Bingham referred to was 32-year-old Frederick Barber of Manchester. Wounded in the right hip, Barber had his leg amputated in a field hospital set up in a barn. He did well after the operation at first, but died three days after the battle. Barber is buried in Green Cemetery in Glastonbury. Manross, the beloved captain of Company K, had his left arm blown off by cannon fire, a scene seared into the memory of a private in Company H. "I could look down inside of him and see his heart beat, his left shoulder all shot off," Lester Taylor recalled 39 years after the war. An acting professor at Amherst (Mass.) College when he enlisted, Manross is buried in Forestville Cemetery in Bristol.

                               X X X

This hollow is probably where the 16th regiment lay before going into battle at Antietam.  
Here, "the shells from both batteries were playing over us," Wells Bingham wrote to his father.  
Our 1st Lieut tried to form us, but finding he could not, he left the field. all this time the musket balls were falling among us like halestones. The rebbels were then not more than 6 rods (blogger's note: about 33 yards) at the fartherest. While in the company two balls struck my canteen. one went through, the other stayed in. if it had not been for that, the balls would have gone into my thigh, but God ordered it otherwise. Some of our boys went one way and some another. I left the field with Lieut Thompson. I never saw John, Waldo, or Herbert, after we jumped up from the ground. I helped a wounded man from our company over to the Hospital about two miles from the battlefield. I put my blanket over him, and my tent I wound around a mans arm which was wounded, from Michigan. For about a mile after we left the cornfield the shells fell. It gave me a chance to see in reallity what I've pictured only A good many times before. They tried to form us A number of times, but in vain. the 8th 11th Conn 4th R.I. skedaddle as bad as we did. They said they never in their experience wer in such galling fire befor. I saw the coller bearer of the 8th Conn throw down the flag and run. the commander of the brigade threatened to run him through with a sword. he struck him on the arm, the man fell that was the last I saw of him. they led the Brigadde across the river only the way of the shells.

John Bingham and many others in his regiment didn't make it out of John Otto's 40-acre 
cornfield  alive.  The 16th Connecticut monument,  dedicated Oct. 11, 1894, is in the distance.
Herbert joined the Regiment the nex morning. I have not seen Waldo, one of our Sergeants says he helped him to the Hospital. he says he was wounded through the wrist by A musket ball. Jhon was on the right side of the company. I had my place by his side till the day before the fight by some mistake I was placed on the left, I never heard A word from him till yesterday morn when they went out to bury the dead they found him. you can immagine my fealings better than I can describe them, they say he was shot through the left breast probably died instantly, the Rebbels stripped the dead & wounded of every thing they had, John had A good wach wich he bought at Hartford, not much money I guess.

16th Connecticut adjutant
 John Burnham supervised the
 burial of those killed in his
regiment at Antietam. John Bingham 

was among the dead.
They buried 40 I believe, from our reg all in one grave John among them they had boards placed at their heads with there names company & reg inscribed on it. I never saw John, I started to go over and see him once, but I had not gone but a little way before I thought that if he looked like any of them which I saw there, I did not want to see him, John Porter the dearest friend I have here is sick in the Hospital. Wallace, his Brother was shot through the kness but he is doing well.

I stuck to my blankets & tent through the fight but yesterday morning, some one stole it from me. I am without anything but what I have got on my back. A great many of them threw away every thing before & in the fight. Good by.

Remember me in your prayers, from your Son WAB.

One of the unsung heroes of Antietam, 16th Connecticut adjustant John Burnham of Hartford supervised the collection of the dead in his regiment and their burial in well-marked temporary battlefield graves. John Bingham, of course, was among them. "The friends of the killed cannot be but deeply grateful to Adjutant Burnham for his thoughtful labors," the Hartford Courant reported nearly two weeks after the battle.
Neither John Porter nor William Wallace Porter, privates 
in the  16th Connecticut, survived the Civil War. John, 
Wells Bingham's "dearest friend,"  was killed in battle in 1864. 
William died of his Antietam wound 23 days after  the battle. They 
are buried in Glastonbury, Conn.

A 27-year-old private in Company H of the 16th Connecticut, William Wallace Porter of Glastonbury suffered a severe wound in his left leg, which was amputated. Twenty-three days after the Battle of Antietam, Porter died at the German Reform Church in Sharpsburg. William's father traveled from Connecticut to Maryland to retrieve his son's remains. William is buried near Company H captain Frederick Barber in Green Cemetery in Glastonbury. John Porter, who later served in the 1st Connecticut Heavy Artillery, was killed in battle near Petersburg on Nov. 25, 1864. He's buried next to his brother.

John Bingham is buried next to his brother, Eliphalet, in First Church Cemetery in East Haddam. (Watch my video.) Wells Bingham survived the Civil War, and 14 years after Antietam, he received a unique gift from friends in honor of his dead brother, John. Apparently upset over business dealings, Wells committed suicide on Aug. 16, 1904. He was 58.

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