Saturday, May 21, 2016

Antietam: Where General Longstreet, staff manned cannons

Confederate artillery position on Henry Piper farm, near Bloody Lane.

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After the Confederates were finally forced from the Sunken Road at Antietam on Sept. 17, 1862, a wave of Yankees threatened the Rebels' thinly held center on Henry Piper's farm. A battery of Miller's artillery (above interactive panorama) had been positioned near the Sunken Road at about 10:30 a.m. to support the infantry in the lane. Later, one of the battery's caissons was hit by a Union artillery shell, and Confederate artillerymen were killed or injured, leaving the gun crews short during a critical juncture in the battle for the Rebels.

Confederate General James Longstreet
(Library of Congress collection)
Among the soldiers to come to the rescue was General James Longstreet himself, wearing carpet slippers instead of boots because of a sore heel. He held the bridles of  horses of some of his staff, who went into action as artillerymen in Piper's apple orchard.

As the Yankees drew near, Colonel John Rogers Cooke of the 3rd Arkansas reported he had run out of ammunition. Longstreet ordered him to hold his position -- by bayonet, if necessary. The officer replied that he " 'would 'hold till ice forms in regions where it was never known,' or words to that effect," Longstreet wrote decades after the war.

Moxley Sorrel, a member of the general's staff, described the desperate scene in his memoirs:
"The gunners had fallen by their places, which were temporarily without cannoneers. Longstreet was with us. [John] Fairfax, [Thomas] Goree, [Van] Manning, [James] Walton, myself and perhaps some others took our horses bridles as we leaped from them to the guns. The position was most important and it would never do for those 'barkers' to be dumb, even for a minute; so at it we went, the improvised gunners, and were afterwards cheered by being told we did it well and could always get a gunner's berth when we might want it. I had the rammer, No 1 I think it is. in the drill. Our fire was really strong and effective until some reliefs from the Washington Artillery came up ventre a terre and with hearty shouts took their guns in hand. The enemy opened a severe fire on us, but fortunately none of our party was hurt. We mounted again with cheerful grins at our sudden adventure and Longstreet, much pleased, turned his attention to other imperiled points."
The Confederates' center held that afternoon, and a disaster was averted for General Robert E. Lee.

Longstreet and Confederate General Daniel Harvey Hill established a headquarters at Piper's farmhouse, seen below in another interactive panorama. The barn, greatly enlarged from its war-time appearance, was used by the Rebels as a hospital.

More than a decade ago, when the Piper farmhouse was open as a bed & breakfast, I stayed there for two nights. On my last evening, I sat on the porch and watched the fireflies light up over the fields. "We like to think the souls who fought here are still among us," the B&B owner said.


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