Thursday, October 29, 2015

In the footsteps of 8th Connecticut soldiers killed at Antietam

Corporal Robert Ferriss of New Milford, Conn., and Sergeant George Marsh of Hartford were killed
at the Battle of Antietam. Each soldier served in the 8th Connecticut.
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John Rogers and I have explored the Antietam battlefield on our own or together perhaps a hundred times. We have peeked into the Dunker Church, examined the ruins of John Otto's barn, climbed the hill to the out-of-the-way 16th Connecticut monument and driven down the old, gravel Smoketown Road.

But our six-hour trek over the hallowed ground last Saturday was especially meaningful. For one, we had a guest, first-time Antietam visitor Bob Anderson of Naugatuck, Conn. His 8th Connecticut ancestor, Corporal Robert Ferriss of Company I, was killed at Antietam late in the afternoon on Sept. 17, 1862.

On this trip, I was especially eager to visit the ground where 8th Connecticut Sergeant George Marsh of Company A had been killed by the concussion of a solid shot about dawn on the morning of the battle. In the summer of 2014, I purchased from a Michigan antiques dealer two pre-war images of Marsh along with photos of his mother, father and sister.

For Rogers, a Georgia native whose Confederate ancestors had fought at Antietam, this visit was special, too. The retired U.S. Army officer, who lives near the battlefield, brought with him a prized possession that once belonged to 8th Connecticut Private Oliver Case of Company A, who also had been killed at Antietam -- the bloodiest day of the Civil War.


The 8th Connecticut camped here the night before the Battle of Antietam. Sergeant George Marsh
 and  two other 8th Connecticut soldiers were killed here by Rebel artillery.
                                   Interactive panorama: 8th Connecticut camp site. 

When I e-mailed Ann Corcoran days before our Antietam visit, I had hoped she would give us a quick tour of the historic 300-acre farm she and her husband, Howard, have owned since 1986. On Sept. 16-17, 1862, the Union IX Corps camped on the Corcorans' property, which includes part of the old Henry Rohrbach farm, a key staging ground for Union troops. What we got was a terrific, two-hour deluxe tour from Ann, a quick-witted ball of fire. With the three of us packed into her old, green truck, she drove us around her family's farm, pointing out Union artillery positions, a magnificent 300-plus year-old chestnut oak, ruins of a slave cabin and more.

During a previous visit, I was unable to access the area where the 8th Connecticut had camped because the field was planted with corn. But we got lucky this time. The field wasn't planted, allowing us to easily find the spot where Marsh, a 29-year-old color-bearer in the 8th Connecticut from Hartford, had died more than 153 years ago.

From my book, Connecticut Yankees at Antietam:

"Shortly after the sun peeked above the horizon on Sept. 17, 1862, “some curious fools” in the 8th Connecticut climbed atop a knoll on Henry Rohrbach’s farm to sneak a peek at their enemy, alerting Rebels on the far side of Antietam Creek.   Suddenly, a 12-pound solid shot burst from a cannon and crashed into the regiment’s ranks, killing Sgt. George Marsh of Hartford and two other soldiers, wounding four and splattering 19-year-old Lt. Marvin Wait with blood and dirt. The large mass of iron had plowed into the ground in front of the prone Marsh, missing him, but the massive concussion caused his death."

John Rogers inspects the remains of a slave cabin on what was the old Henry Rohrbach farm in 1862.
A massive, 300-plus year-old chestnut oak tree on the Henry Rohrbach farm.
The magnificent branches of the 60-foot tree. 
Perhaps Ferris, Case and their comrades rested under this tree the night before the battle. About 60 feet tall, the chestnut oak undoubtedly was a major presence even in 1862 -- soldiers probably passed it after they were ordered into battle. When Case and Ferriss moved out of their camp on Rohrbach's farm, they may have also passed a small cabin for slaves who were owned by Rohrbach. We examined the remains of  its stone foundation as well as the trace of an old Civil War lane, still visible in a stretch of woods. If only those stones and that massive tree could talk ...


Corporal Robert Ferriss forded Antietam Creek about 1 p.m. on Sept. 17, 1862. More than
 153 years later, Bob Anderson, his great-great-great nephew, stood near the spot.
A humble blogger and Anderson at Snavely Ford, where 8th Connecticut forded Antietam Creek.
After a short visit to the bluff above Burnside Bridge where the Rebels held off the Union IX Corps for about three hours, we walked along the park trail to Snavely Ford. The route the 8th Connecticut and the rest of Isaac Rodman's division took from Rohrbach's farm was on the opposite bank of Antietam Creek -- private property and inaccessible. But from our path we had a great view to our right of the steep, wooded bluffs along Antietam Creek. That high ground was thinly defended by the Rebels during the battle.

When the 8th Connecticut forded Antietam Creek at Snavely Ford about 1 p.m., they came under harassing fire from the Rebels on the bluffs. Soon, the regiments in Rodman's division crossed the shallow creek and were realigned for their march through a ravine toward Sharpsburg.

During our walk, I carefully examined the ground, occasionally kicking the earth and wondering what Civil War relics remained buried there. We also wondered what Case and Ferris must have been thinking as they neared the battlefield. Did they hear the rumble of artillery and musket fire? Or was the sound of battle more like a thunderous clap?

Were they exhausted?

Was Ferris, a 25-year-old color-bearer, worried that he would be a prime Rebel target?

Were they scared?


Close-ups of  8th Connecticut Private Oliver Case's Bible. "If you die, die like a man," reads the
 inscription on an inside page. Case's name, company and regiment also are written on the page.
After a visit to the 16th Connecticut monument, we picked up the route of the 8th Connecticut. A veteran regiment, it soon came under Rebel artillery and musket fire as it made its way up a long slope toward Harpers Ferry Road, near the village of Sharpsburg, Md. As he climbed the slope with Ferriss and the rest of his comrades, Case carried with him much more than a musket and the uniform on his back.

8th Connecticut monument at Antietam.
Flash forward 131 years.

In 1993, John Rogers purchased a Bible for $3 at a community yard sale in Germantown, Md. When he opened it weeks later, he was startled to discover it belonged to Case, who probably had it tucked away in his pocket when he was killed. Shortly after we arrived at the 8th Connecticut monument -- probably the high-water mark of the Union army on the left flank at Antietam -- Rogers pulled the 800-page Bible from a plastic bag and carefully unwrapped it from a small, cloth blanket. Shielding it from the sun, he showed it to me and Anderson. It was the first time in more than 153 years that the Bible had been back to Antietam.

"If you die, die like man," reads the inscription on a page inside the scuffed 1854 King James Bible. In cursive writing, Case's name, company and regiment also appear on the page, below the words "Jennie Case." Rogers, who created a blog on Oliver, speculates that may have been the girlfriend of Case, who never married.

Shot through the head during an attack near Harpers Ferry Road, Oliver, only 22, lay in the field for nearly two days before his body was found by his brothers, who served in the 16th Connecticut.

From Connecticut Yankees at Antietam:

"On the night after the Battle of Antietam, Alonzo and Ariel Case questioned soldiers in their brother’s regiment about Oliver’s whereabouts. The news was not encouraging. One of Oliver’s comrades recalled standing beside him in the thick of the fight, watching him fall and then calling his name.

There was no reply.

Fearing the worst, the brothers had to wait until the Rebels abandoned the field the night of Sept. 18 before they could resume their search the next morning. Each taking a canteen filled with water in hope of finding Oliver alive, they walked the ground strewn with dead as well as the wounded crying for help. “…everyone was looking for some comrade of their own Regiment,” Alonzo Case wrote. Many of the bodies were plundered, according to John Morris, the 8th Connecticut chaplain, the swollen fingers of some cut off to steal their rings. The Rebels were in such a hurry to collect war trophies, according to another Connecticut soldier, that they merely cut out the pockets of dead Yankees instead of rifling through them.

           8th Connecticut dead, wounded lay in this field. Click on image for panorama.

In the afternoon, the brothers’ agonizing search finally ended. They found Oliver shot through the top head, just above the ear. He probably died instantly.

“We wrapped him in my blanket and carried him to the spot where the 16th dead were to be buried having first got permission from the Colonel of the Eighth and the 16th to do so,” Alonzo wrote after the war. Pinned to the blanket was Oliver’s name and age. A board with his name and regiment were placed atop his temporary grave. Two months after his son was killed, Job Case traveled to Sharpsburg for the remains of his youngest son. Returned to Simsbury, Oliver Case was buried in a cemetery high atop a hill overlooking the town.

In a letter home on Sept. 21, 1862, 8th Connecticut Captain Wolcott Marsh described finding the bodies of Case and others from his regiment in the field near Harpers Ferry Road: 

"About 9 O'clock a.m.. Friday we were ordered across the bridge and on to the field where the battle of Wednesday was. The rebels having skedadled the night before and our forces were then following them up capturing many of their rear guard.. We stacked arms and details were sent from different to pick up the dead so that could be buried together. I went up where our regit. was engaged and there what a sight. 30 men from our regit. alone lay dead in a little field and near by was 42 Zouaves (9th N. Y.) and many more from other regt. The first man I came to of my company was Charles E. Louis my acting orderly. Then Corp. Truck my color corporal and close by them lay Dwight Carry, Herbert Nee, Horace Rouse and Mr. [William] Sweet all of my company then passing on to Co. A. were the body's of Oliver Case, Orton Lord, Martin Wadhams and Lucius Wheeler then to Co. K. saw Jack Simons body the only one whose name remember had all body's brought from hill down by several straw stacks."

Like Case, Ferriss was killed about 4 p.m., near the close of the battle. "He fell at his post on the right of his company when he was cheering his comrades and fighting with all his strength," Ferriss' captain, William Roberts, wrote in a condolence letter to the soldier's mother.

For Anderson, the visit to the 8th Connecticut monument -- just yards from where his ancestor was shot through the left breast and killed -- completed a circle of sorts. In June, he and I visited Ferriss' grave in a cemetery in New Milford, Conn. Although he had lived in Connecticut for years, it was Anderson's first visit to his great-great-great uncle's final resting place.

"It was just such a powerful moment to see where he crossed [at Snavely Ford], where he fell and where he was temporarily buried out behind the [John] Otto farm," Anderson said of his visit to Antietam.

From my newly published book, Hidden History of Connecticut Union Soldiers:

"Near the close of the fighting, Ferriss was shot, falling down near his captain and giving him a “very forlorn look.” Roberts asked Ferris if he needed anything, but the “blood rushing from his mouth prevented him from speaking & his head sinking upon the ground satisfied me that he was dying,” he wrote to Ferriss’ mother. “My attention being called to another part of the line,” the officer noted, “I saw no more of him as we were soon ordered away.”

Two days after the battle, Ferriss received a decent burial, laid to rest side by side with other men in the regiment who were killed at Antietam. “Of Robert at home I knew but little,” the officer wrote to Louisa, “but I know well that he was the same steady, honest man on the day of his death that he was the day he left New Milford for the purpose of fighting the battle of his country."


Bob Anderson stands near where his ancestor was temporarily buried on John Otto's farm.
A hundred yards or so behind the ruins of John Otto's Pennsylvania-style bank barn, Rogers pointed out the spot where 16th and 8th Connecticut dead -- including Case and Ferriss -- were temporarily buried after the battle. The remains of some of those soldiers were recovered by the families for re-burial in Connecticut. Among them were 16th Connecticut Sergeant Wadsworth Washburn, the son of a preacher from Berlin, Conn. Others, such as 16th Connecticut Private Henry Aldrich, were eventually re-buried at Antietam National Cemetery.

From Hidden History of Connecticut Union Soldiers:

After the battle, the bodies of the 8th Connecticut color-bearers, as well as those of their comrades and soldiers in the 16th Connecticut, were buried in a long trench on John Otto’s farm, a short distance from where they were killed. The names of the soldiers were carved on crude, wooden headboards so their loved ones could more easily recover their bodies should they be able. Some, including the graves of [Sergeant David] Lake and Ferriss, were also marked by long stakes that were driven firmly into the ground.

In a letter published in the Hartford Daily Courant on Sept. 30, 1862, 16th Connecticut adjutant John Burnham described the burial of men from his regiment on the Otto farm:

"The bodies lie near a large tree standing alone, and which I had blazed on all sides so it can be easily discovered. With the exception of Capt. (Newton) Manross, who was killed earlier in the fight and carried to the rear, they are all together ... I have been particular to mention the precise locality of each (body) so that in the event of the signs being displaced by the elements or otherwise, they may be found; and I trust that anyone who comes to the spot will be very particular and disturb none but those of whom they are in search. ... The collection of the bodies was conducted under my own personal supervision, and after the men had reported them all picked up I examined the whole field myself, so that I am confident none were left on the ground."


Clockwise from top, the remains of Oliver Case (Simsbury Cemetery, Simsbury),
 George Marsh (Old NorthCemetery, Hartford) and Robert Ferriss (Center Cemetery, New Milford
were re-buried in Connecticut.

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

1 comment:

  1. I grew up knowing I had a relative who was in the Civil War but until I became the guardian of the old family documents I never knew the actual story of Robert Ferriss.

    One day I posted a picture of Robert Ferriss on social media for Memorial Day and by chance John Banks saw it. He contacted me and told me about his upcoming project "The Hidden History of Connecticut Union Soldiers " and wanted to tell Robert's story. Little did I realize how much I'd learn about him in the process. My year long discourse with John culminated with perhaps one of the best and most powerful weekends I have ever had.

    It was such a tremendous walk on the battlefield, being accompanied by John Banks and John Rogers. These two gentleman are like walking encycylopedias on the Civil War. As we traced Robert's steps, I learned all about the surrounding battle. It seemed each step I learned something else.

    Words can not express the powerful connection I felt to my great, great, great uncle as I walked the area where he spent perhaps the last peaceful evening he ever spent on earth, walked within yards of his final march to where he gave his last full measure. The perspective I gained from this tour of the battlefield could never be matched by any book or movie. The horrors they experienced could never be artificially duplicated. It was in fact quite eery seeing the barns and springhouses that were converted to makeshift hospitals. John painted such a vivid picture at each stop.

    John described our visit in such great detail here. His books are even better. John loves bringing the stories long forgotten heros to life. I will be forever grateful that he chose to bring Robert's story to life.