Thursday, April 07, 2016

Ten months after Antietam: Graves, skulls and 'waste of war'

In  an  image shot days after Antietam, a Federal soldier stands by the grave of a Michigan
soldier and body of a Rebel.  Ten months later,  the battlefield was littered with the detritus of war. 
(Alexander Gardner/Library of Congress)

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Nearly 10 months after Antietam, the landscape surrounding Sharpsburg, Md., remained scarred. Bones of hastily buried soldiers poked from the ground. "Sickening to the sight," skulls appeared "here and there," according to a battlefield visitor. The detritus of war—knapsacks, caps, bullets, artillery shells, shoes, boots, haversacks—also littered fields and woodlots, the same visitor noted. The white-washed Dunker Church, the most notable building on the battlefield, remained pockmarked by bullets and artillery fire.
The Antietam battlefield visitor's letter
ppeared in the Gallipolis (Ohio) Journal
and other newspapers in 1863.

On July 15, 1863, the battlefield visitor, probably a soldier from a Massachusetts regiment, wrote a letter to editor of the Boston Journal about his summer day spent at Antietam. The letter, full of vivid descriptions of the battle on Sept. 17, 1862 , as well as the war's lingering effects at Antietam,  was published in the Journal and in newspapers as far away as Ohio. The writer's descriptions of visits to the graves of Union soldiers are especially poignant.  

"It is fresh and green," he wrote about the grave of Prescott Remick at the Smoketown Hospital cemetery near the battlefield. "Its roots are creeping down to the coffin lid, and will draw its nourishment from the mouldering form beneath. Another year and the crimson flowers will bloom with rarest beauty and richest fragrance."

A 19-year-old private in the 2nd Massachusetts, Remick died on Sept. 27, 1862, 10 days after the battle. His brother, 23-year-old Benjamin, also a private in the 2nd Massachusetts, was killed at Antietam. An excerpt from a letter from Prescott's company commander describing the private's wounding at Antietam, and a Wisconsin soldier's letter to Remick's father written three days before his son's death appear below. Both are part of Remick's pension file, available at the National Archives in Washington and online at

The battlefield visitor's letter appears as it was published in the Gallipolis (Ohio) Journal on Sept. 3, 1863.


The army is on the march to-day toward Harper's Ferry. Instead of keeping pace with the columns, I have turned aside for a visit to the field of Antietam. The battle was fought on the 17th of September, last year. Ten months have passed. The leaves of autumn have fallen, the snows of winter, and the rains of summer. It will be interesting to take a look at the field, to note how far time has repaired the desolation—how far nature, with its ceaseless round of change, its growth and decay of leaves, fruits, and flowers, has repaired the waste of war.


2nd Massachusetts Private Prescott Remick, 19, died at the Hoffman Farm Hospital. 
He was re-interred at the Smoketown Hospital cemetery near the battlefield.

On a by-road leading from Benevola to Sharpsburg, two miles east of the battle-field, I came unexpectedly upon the cemetery, where rest the remains of those who died in the general hospital. It is a small enclosure taken from a clover field. Between it and the road is a shady grove of oaks—old trees that have swayed in the winds of hundreds of winters. The shade on this summer morning is calm, deep and holy. From the field there is the odor of clover blossoms. There is not wanting the hum of bees and the songs of birds to lend a charm to the hour. The paling is neatly whitewashed which surrounds the consecrated spot.

Private Prescott Remick's grave at
Antietam National Cemetery
(Find A Grave)
There are a hundred and fifty-nine graves, each with its rounded, white headboard, and rude lettering, with name, company and regiment of the dead. A loving heart, a faithful hand has planted a rose bush above the dust of Prescott Remic, of Company G, 2nd Massachusetts. It is fresh and green; its roots are creeping down to the coffin lid, and will draw its nourishment from the mouldering form beneath. Another year and the crimson flower will bloom with rarest beauty and richest fragrance. (See letter to Remick's father below.)

Lillies are in flower above the remains of Eli Shafer, of the 2nd New Hampshire, and all around are the field daisies, fresher and fairer than those by the wayside and in the fields. So nothing is lost in death. Beauty reappears. The lillies will fade and wither in turn, and become food for other forms of life. The eternal round of things will go on till the last when time shall become eternity.

In the centre of the enclosure is a wooden monument with these inscriptions:

Erected in memory of the Union soldiers who died of wounds received in defense of their country, at the battle of Antietam, Sept. 17, 1862."

"Antietam General Hospital, U.S. A.B.A. Vanderkeift, Surgeon in charge."

"The land that is not worth our death is not worth living for."

"I am the resurrection and the life. He that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live."

Lt. John George, Prescott Remick's company commander, wrote that the private was shot through the
 shoulder at Antietam.  Remick's brother, Benjamin, was killed shortly after Prescott was shot. (


Passing on to the turnpike I came to the farm-house occupied at the time of the battle by Mr. Joseph Poffenberger, now the residence of his nephew. Here was the centre of our right wing. Poffenberger's house is on the east side of the turnpike, fronting west. Behind the house is a high, smooth ridge of land, in blooming clover now, but freshly reaped of wheat at the time of the battle. The Rebels occupied this ridge in the morning, but Hooker pushed them back. There he planted five batteries, which thundered through the day. I well remember the attempt of the Rebels in the afternoon to regain this ridge, how they came down into the cornfield, west of the turnpike, under cover of the fire of their batteries. Hooker, Dana, Sedgwick, Hartsuff, Richardson, Mansfield, all general officers, had been carried from the field wounded. Howard was here on the ridge near Poffenberger's barn, in command. "Give them the heaviest fire possible," said he. How those thirty pieces opened. Crash! crash! crash! How those gray masses waved, reeled, staggered, swayed, to and fro, and then fled!

What a scene there was in Poffenberger's door yard, two noble horses killed by a cannon shot, piercing the neck of one and shooting to atoms the head of the other. There, under the pailings of his garden fence lay the dead of the Pennsylvania Reserves. You could have driven a stage coach through the west gable of the house where a shell had ripped an opening. Over in the field, the west side of the turnpike, dead men in gray were thickly fallen, and still further out, along the narrow lane which runs southwest from the turnpike in front of Poffenberger's, they were as thick as leaves of autumn. How the storm howled through these woods -- fiercer than November blasts. A tornado which wrenched off the trunks of oaks big enough for a ship's kelson, riving and splintering like thunderbolts.

There is a mound of stones and a rude head board, the resting place of Lieut-Col. Stottson, of the 69th New York, lying where he fell, among the limestone ledges within a half a dozen rods of the Rebel line of works. Here the trees are thickly spotted all over. (Note: Writer may have meant Lieutenant colonel John Stetson of the 59th New York.)

I remember, the second day after the battle, a wounded horse from a battery which was standing here. It stood waiting death—emaciated, groaning with pain. I remember the beseeching look, the dumb appeal as I passed by—a look of intelligence, its demand for sympathy and help almost human.

If the blows which Hooker gave her had been a little more powerful, or if Mansfield or Sumner had given theirs at the same time, we should have carried those limestone ledges, folded back the Rebel left, and won the day; but it was not so to be.

Here is the debris of the fight -- old boots, shoes, haversacks, belts, clothes—moldy in the dampness of the weeks. You see flattened bullets among the leaves, the fragments of shells and sickening to the sight, here and there skulls upon the ground, and the bleaching bones of horses and men. The Rebels buried in haste, before their retreat, a portion of their dead, to hide their losses. It was a scraping away of leaves and mould—a shallow excavation. The dead were tumbled in, a few shovels full of earth thrown on top, washed off by the first shower, and the molding corpses became food for the swine.


A cropped enlargement of Alexander Gardner's image of the battle-damaged Dunker Church.
(Library of Congress)

“With what tenacity they held this position.

-- letter writer on Rebel artillery battery near the Dunker Church

Passing down the turnpike you come to the Dunkers' church, a small, square brick, one story building in the corner of the woods a mile and a half north of Sharpsburg. Its walls are pock-marked with muskets and rifle bullets. There are great holes where solid shot crashed through, opening where shells tore out the masonry. It is windowless—simply a monument attesting the fierceness of the fight. In front of it was a Rebel battery. At its door-step lay a Major, a Captain and eleven men, all dead. There was the cannon they had fired, silenced—not a man left!

With what tenacity they held this position. How Mansfield's and Sumner's batteries hurled their bolts upon this spot! I remember one uncomfortably near, as I gazed at this church from our line in that cornfield east of the pike, where Generals Green and Williams stood with the two divisions of Mansfield's corps.

While examining this position, Gen. Green and staff rode up. He kindly pointed out the position occupied by his division during the day, and stated what I did not know before now, that in the charge which his troops made, the Rebel line was driven from its position by the church, and from the woods around it. He also said that if he had been properly supported he could have held his ground. I remember the reserve artillery—fifty pieces—which were behind Sumner and Mansfield, and longed to see them thundering upon the church. If they had been put into position the Rebels would have been routed here.

Green and Williams were obliged to fall back. They took position in the field just east of the turnpike, and not in the roads north of Muma's house, as I stated in my account of the battle. There they waited the approach of the enemy—the long lines and dense masses advancing, like the waves of the ocean, to be hurled back broken, like the breakers from the ledges of Nahant. General Green gave the exact position of the lines.

A cropped enlargement of an image of the Mumma farmhouse, burned during the battle.
(Alexander Gardner/Library of Congress)

Tourists, when they visit the battlefield, may find it by taking the road which leads northeast from the Dunkers' church; to go out about sixty rods and look into the northwest and you will have the direction of the line. Here Stonewall Jackson was discomfitted. He had massed his troops in the woods around the church, and moved out to break our centre. Green and Williams stood in silence. "I did not allow my men to fire until they were within a hundred yards, and then the whole Rebel line melted away," said the General, as we surveyed the spot. I remember that volley. It was one long unbroken roll, like the fall of the walls of a great building—a long, loud roll and crash, and then a pattering fire like raindrops on a roof, with the cannon pounding in like hammer strokes from the sledges of Titans.

There by the residence I met Mr. Muma, whose farm buldings were between the two armies. His family fled before the battle to our lines. Our shell set his barn on fire, and the Rebels, to complete the work, applied the torch to his house. His crops were ruined—his fences all destroyed. But he has not set down and pined and moaned at his loss. A new house is up, fences are rebuilt. The place has been busy, and now the reaper is in his fields, cutting the grain, ranker, richer, fertilized with human blood. South of his house is Mr. Rulett's. Here, leading from the house up to the turnpike, is Bloody Lane. Never shall I forget how French on the north, and Richardson on the south swept past Rulett's through the orchard, up the hill to the lane where H. Hill had placed his men—in the natural rifle-pit which the rains of years had made of the roadway, excavating a trench there, four or five feet in depth. What a fearful slaughter of Rebels! You could have walked up the hill stepping upon the dead all the way.

The ground here is strewn with knapsacks, clothing, hats, caps, cartridge boxes—knapsacks mildewed, mouldy—the names of the owners all obliterated, those who wore them gone, most of them to long and silent homes. How terrific the contest in the cornfield beyond, when Kimball's brigade of French's division charged, and, amid the tall stalks and ripening ears of grain, piled the ground with heaps of dead, thrust through with the bayonet! Now the gentle breeze of the morning rustles the bearded grain -- sweet music! it is peaceful here today. A stranger would hardly discover that so terrible a conflict had been waged within a year. Time, always a waster, is also a repairer; if he wounds, he also heals.


Soldiers stand on Burnside Bridge in this cropped enlargement of  an 1862 post-battle image.
(Library of Congress)

Passing through a gate crossing Boonsboro's and Sharpsburg's pike, I reached the road leading from Sharpsburg to Burnside Bridge. One must see the ground to appreciate the valor of the troops. You see a bridge twelve feet wide and one hundred and fifty feet ling. As you cross it from the east you come against a bank so steep you can hardly climb it. Oak trees shade it. At the top is a stone wall; midway up is an excavation where limestone has been quarried, and you stand by the wall and look down a hundred feet into the river, so near that you can toss a pebble from the wall into the water. Locate here Rebels behind the rail fences, in the excavation, behind the trees, behind rocks, four pieces of artillery, to rake the bridge—sharpshooters at the foot of the hill along the river bank, under the willows, to fire upon the flank of an advancing column. Away up on the high hills beyond are the Rebel batteries in semi circle, pouring their fire down into the valley. Yet against all this the men of Burnside force their way over the bridge, up the hill, driving the Rebels from the oaks, from the excavation, from the walls and the fences, men, some of whom like the 35th Massachusetts, are but a month from their farms and workshops!

I walked all over the ground, examining the positions, and wondered that a feeble force could accomplish so much. I am not versed in military science, and have only common sense to guide me, but I was not able to see at the time of the battle, neither am I able to discover the value of this bridge, or the necessity of carrying it. The hills south of Sharpsburg command it. To make it of any value they must also be carried.

The second struggle was necessarily harder than the first, and there we failed. Burnside had not men enough to accomplish his object. He has been blamed for not making the attack earlier in the morning, but in his testimony before the Committee of Congress he testifies that the attack was made as soon as he received the order -- about half past 10, and that the bridge was carried at 1 0'clock.

In the field beyond the bridge, at the foot of the slopes on which the Rebel lines were concentrated, Burnside suffered severe loss. The dead were buried where they fell  the place marked by rude head-boards of their comrades; but the plow has smoothed down all the hillocks, the head-boards tossed aside, and there is nothing to mark the places of burial but the deeper green of the growing corn.

So they sleep. Their work is done. It was well done. They lived for a purpose. Their works will follow them. There will be peace at last. Then, when the last Rebel is subdued, the last traitor apprehended, the world will see, in the triumph of right over wrong, over despotism, in a firmer Government, a consolidated people, a purified nation, that they died not in vain.


"He suffered considerably," another soldier wrote to Private Prescott Remick's father.
Washington D.C.
Sept. 24, 1862

Mr. Remick
Dear Sir

Last Sunday on visiting the hospitals near the battlefield near Sharpsburgh, Md., I saw your son Prescott, who is wounded through the back. He suffered considerablythe next day (Monday) I saw him again, when I found him much more easyhaving had the ball extracted. He requested me to write you, which I promised to do. He has the sad news to add to that of his fate -- the death of his brother Benjamin -- who was shot at his side just as he himself fell. I could not stay long with him. I am detailed to see to wounded and am permitted to travel at all times between Washington and the battle fields, and may meet him again. I will be happy to answer any enquiries you may make in regard to him as far as I know if you address me at 329 New York Avenue Washington. If I don't answer at once you may know that I am out on the field but on my return will attend to it.

Respectfully yours

Wm. P. Taylor
2nd Wis. Vol.

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  1. Again, thank you, Mr. Banks, for your outstanding posts!

  2. Amazing blog. Having just visited the battlefield today and reading this, it has made the teip even deeper emotionally. Thank you

  3. Amazing blog. Having just visited the battlefield today and reading this, it has made the teip even deeper emotionally. Thank you

    1. Thanks for the kind words, B. Wheatley. JB

  4. Jessica1:57 AM

    My husband is a descendant of Benjamin and Prescott's older brother Nathaniel and I've fallen into a wormhole when it comes to his family tree (which is how I came across your great article). Their other brother John, born between Benjamin and Prescott I think, was wounded at Antietam; he served in Co. G of the 15th Massachusetts Infantry. Their oldest brother Alfred also served in the Union Army, but I haven't done too much research on him yet. Funnily enough, I've found more information on all the Remick brothers besides Nathaniel. Thank you for sharing, especially that letter to the Remick brothers' father! I can't wait to show my husband.