Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Antietam: A deadly toll for Grafton, Massachusetts

A close-up of Jonathan's Stow's memorial in Old Oak Street 
Burial Ground in Grafton, Mass.
Jonathan Stow's right leg was amputated after 
Antietam. He died 14 days after the battle.
(Grafton Historical Society)
Fearful that he would be struck by one of the many artillery shells that whizzed near him every few seconds, Jonathan P. Stow lay on the battlefield with a grievous wound to his right leg. "Battle. Oh horrid battle," the 15th Massachusetts sergeant scrawled in pencil in his brown, leather-covered pocket diary as the fighting at the Battle of Antietam swirled about him.

"What sights I have seen." (1)

Indeed, what awful sights the 30-year-old farmer witnessed on Sept. 17, 1862, and for two weeks afterward.

Stow, who had been taken prisoner at the Battle of Ball's Bluff in October 1861 and was released months later, was from Grafton, a town of about 4,100 in the Blackstone Valley of central Massachusetts. At the forefront of the Industrial Revolution, the town about 45 miles west of Boston churned out textiles and shoes in its mills and shops. (In fact, many men from central Massachusetts worked in a burgeoning shoemaking industry, including a 24-year-old private in the 15th Massachusetts from nearby West Brookfield named Justus Collins Wellington. He was killed at Antietam.) Grafton's manpower also fueled the army as more than 400 men from the town served the Union. Many were mustered into the 15th Massachusetts, including Harrison Clisbee, an 18-year-old carpenter; Alfred Snow, an 18-year-old shoemaker; Francis Marble, a 15-year-old shoemaker; Willie Morse, an 18-year-old machinist; and Edward Johnson, a 17-year-old clerk.

Stow's memorial in Old Oak Street 
Burial Ground.
A veteran regiment, the 15th Massachusetts suffered 325 casualties in barely 20 minutes when it was pummeled on three sides by the Rebels about 9:30 in the morning at Antietam. The fighting was so confusing among the old oaks and limestone outcroppings in the West Woods that the 59th New York, in its first battle of the war, fired into the backs of the 15th Massachusetts, undoubtedly causing many casualties.

"In less time than it takes to tell it," a private in the 15th Massachusetts wrote, "the ground was strewn with the bodies of the dead and wounded. In a moment all was confusion, it was every man for himself. We all run like a flock of sheep. The rebs ... mowed us down." (2) After a shell burst near him, Stow felt something damp on his face. He wiped away some blood and then noticed that the soldier next to him had the top half of his head blown off, his brains splashed into the face of another man. Amazingly, a 15th Massachusetts lieutenant may have escaped death when a bullet was blunted by a folded-up issue of Harpers Weekly, a popular Civil War newspaper. 

In 12 heart-rending entries in his diary from Sept. 17-Sept. 29, 1862, Stow wrote of his suffering ("acute, painful misery"); treatment by the Rebels ("show much kindness but devote much time to plundering dead bodies of our men") and his eventual rescue by comrades ("Oh good God, a whole line of our skirmishers are coming") after nearly two days on the battlefield. A doctor thought Stow was a "doubtful" case, but three days after Antietam, the soldier was given chloroform and his leg was amputated at the Susan Hoffman Farm. The large hospital at the farm became headquarters for the Sanitary Commission, a private relief agency that tended to sick and wounded soldiers.

Jonathan Stow died at the Susan Hoffman farm on Oct. 1, 1862. Privately owned,
 the farm looks much like it did during the Civil War.
After his amputation, Stow was placed in a barn near an 18-year-old, Irish-born private from Grafton named James Hughes. Many of the wounded begged for water; horrid sights were everywhere. "There are some dozen or more stumps near me," Stow wrote, a reference to amputated limbs.

Over the course of the next nine days, Stow witnessed the deaths of other wounded, including his fellow townsmen Hughes, who died at 4 p.m. on Sept. 26. "The nervous pains are killing two or three every night," the anguished man wrote in his diary. For Stow himself, his pain was nearly unbearable, but he was thankful for the doctor who treated him, calling him "earnest and too good a man." Although Stow had been adamant about not taking brandy, he acquiesced when he was told he would be dead in three days if he did not. Eleven days after the battle, the weather turned hot, making the stench from amputated limbs and decaying flesh even worse. That odor, Stow wrote, "is nearly as bad as the whole we have to contend."

Private Francis Marble, 17, died of his Antietam
 wounds  on Nov. 26, 1862, more than two months 
after the battle. He is buried in 
Riverside Cemetery in Grafton, Mass.
By Sept. 29, Stow's condition seemed to improve. Moved from the barn to a spot outside in the afternoon, he enjoyed soup, a biscuit and a tart supplied by a nurse. Stow also received four letters but noted that he was "so boozy," perhaps from brandy, that it took him a whole morning to read them. Stow wrote that a doctor dressed his stump "admirably" and that he was "quite comfortable if the quinine does not choke me to death." (Quinine, a drug made from tree bark, was used by Civil War doctors to treat fever.) Later that night, however, Stow had an urgent telegram sent to his father Jonathan back in Grafton:

"Dangerously wounded at Hoffman's hospital near Sharpsburg," it read. "Come instantly."

Two days later, Stow was dead.

Sadly, similar news rocked Grafton again and again and again.

Teenager Clisbee, a private, was killed in action at Antietam.  After his wounded arm was amputated, Private Snow died on Oct. 19, 1862 in Frederick, Md., a town that was described as "one vast hospital" after the battle. Private Morse died of his wounds on Dec. 30, 1862. Private Marble, wounded at Ball's Bluff in October 1861, died of his wounds in a hospital in Annapolis, Md., on Nov. 26, 1862. About a month shy of his 18th birthday, Private Johnson was also killed in action.

In all, 11 soldiers from Grafton died from wounds suffered at Antietam. On a memorial on the town green, their names appear with the names of 49 other soldiers from Grafton who perished during the Civil War, a stunning total for such a small community. Near the base of the old marble marker are these words:

"We died for our country."

(1) Copy of Jonathan Stow diary, Grafton (Mass.) Historical Society

(2) Bowen, Roland E. From Ball's Bluff to Gettysburg ... and Beyond. Gettysburg, Pa: Thomas Publications, 1994
Grafton's Civil War memorial includes the names of 11 soldiers who died from 
wounds suffered at the Battle of Antietam on Sept. 17, 1862. The memorial
 was dedicated in 1867.

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