Monday, August 15, 2016

Notes from Antietam battlefield: 'Good bye if so it must be'

Tintype of 7th Michigan Private Basil Leon DeShetler. (Image courtesy Jeff Makholm)
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Amid the roar of artillery, thunderclap of thousands of muskets and cries of battle, four seriously wounded Union soldiers dashed off notes as they lay incapacitated during the Battle of Antietam. Each man was wounded within a short distance of each other that awful Wednesday morning of Sept. 17, 1862. None of them survived.

Two of the soldiers served with the veteran 7th Michigan—one a Methodist minister who had a wife named Lucinda and eight children; the other an unmarried officer who had been born in Clear Spring, Md., about 25 miles from the battlefield. The other two soldiers served in Massachusetts regiments—one a farmer from Grafton, a town that suffered a horrendous toll at Antietam, while the other was a Class of 1855 law school graduate from Harvard and a former prisoner of war. Their veteran regiments—the 15th Massachusetts (Ball's Bluff, Fair Oaks, Malvern Hill) and 2nd Massachusetts (Cedar Mountain and Winchester)—had fought in Virginia during the first 15 months of the war. But Antietam was a much different, and much bloodier, battle than any of these four soldiers had experienced.

Mortally wounded at Antietam, Basil DeShetler
 was the married father of eight children.
(Image courtesy Jeff Makholm)
BEFORE THEY CROSSED ANTIETAM CREEK, 7th Michigan soldiers received 40 rounds of cartridges for their boxes and 20 more for their haversacks. "Any goodbyes were said and letters were sent home to our loved ones," a 7th Michigan soldier recalled about the night before the battle. "Prayer meetings were held throughout the army…" (Hat tip: Tom Nank)

After the Michigan soldiers advanced from the East Woods in line of battle with others in the II Corps, a small, whitewashed brick church perhaps in view through the battle smoke, Rev. Basil Leon DeShetler of Company D was knocked to the ground with a wound to his right hip. A devout and patriotic man, the 7th Michigan private frequently dashed off short notes in his diary. In July 1862, he wrote this stirring entry in pen:
"I hope to hear a voice above the roar of cannon and the din of battle, full of sweetness and majesty, in which are blended the sympathy of man with the omnipotence of God saying to my poor soul, 'Thy sins are forgiven thee, be of good cheer.' The man who is willing that the Union should be divided by the sword of treason may have been born in America, but he cannot have an American heart..."
While he lay wounded at Antietam, the 32-year-old soldier grabbed a pencil and again opened his small pocket diary. "At sunrise in battle," he had scrawled earlier that day, but then added: "7 AM at which I am wounded.  This is written on the spot wherein I lay. May God bless me and forgive all my sins, through Jesus Christ."

Taken to the Susan Hoffman farm hospital on the Keedysville Road, DeShetler died nearby at the tent hospital at Smoketown on Oct. 9, 1862. After the war, his body was recovered and re-buried at Antietam National Cemetery.

Basil DeShetler described himself as a "soldier of the cross" in his war-time diary.  
In this entry,  Basil DeShetler, a Methodist minister,  noted he was wounded 
at Antietam: "Bless me and forgive all my sins through Jesus Christ." The entry was made
the morning of Sept. 17, 1862, but was written on a page for 1861 in the diary.
(Diary images courtesy Jeff Makholm)
LIKE DeSHETLER, 7th Michigan Captain Allen Zacharias was from Monroe County, south of Detroit and west of Lake Erie, An 1860 University of Michigan graduate, he was a professor and principal at the State Military Institute in Brandon, Miss., when the war began. One of seven brothers, three of whom served in the Union army, Zacharias enlisted in Company K of  the 7th Michigan as a 1st lieutenant on June 25, 1861. Nearly nine months later, he was promoted to captain.

7th Michigan Captain Allen Zacharias.
While at Fair Oaks, near Richmond, the 29-year-old Maryland-born officer wrote a note, dated June 28, 1862. It included details of his life and these 42 words:
"Friend, If you find my body lifeless upon the field, bury it decently, mark its resting place, and inform my friends in the regiment and my father. Do this and you shall be liberally rewarded and have the gratitude of my friends." 
When the 7th Michigan pushed toward the West Woods at Antietam with the 69th and 72nd Pennsylvania, it found disaster. General John Sedgwick's division, which also included the 15th Massachusetts, was flanked by the Confederates and routed in about 30 minutes of savage fighting. The 7th Michigan suffered 50 percent casualties in the nearly 300-man regiment, and three officers, Captain James Turrill and lieutenants John Clark and John P, Eberhard, were killed. Severely wounded in the spine and apparently unable to talk, Zacharias was found clutching a piece of paper in the West Woods by a soldier from Maine. Written in pencil on an old envelope, the heart-rending note to his family read:
"Dear Parents, Brothers and Sisters:  I am wounded, mortally I think. The fight rages around me.  I have done my duty, this is my consolation.  I hope to meet you all again.  I left not the line until nearly all had fallen and the colors gone.  I am getting weak, my arms are free, but my chest is all numb.  The enemy trotting over me, the numbness up to my heart.  Goodbye all.  Your son, Allen.
Tucked into his pocket diary was the note he had written at Fair Oaks regarding the disposition of his body should he be found dead. The short Antietam battlefield note to his family was sent home to Michigan by a private in the 4th Maine Battery.

On Jan. 9, 1863, the Maryland Press, a Hagerstown newspaper, reported the death of Zacharias.

Initially, Zacharias was sent to a field hospital. "He was shot near the right shoulder blade, the ball striking the spinal chord, and passing near—perhaps entering the left lung," the Monroe Commerical reported on Oct. 2, 1862. "His legs were paralyzed, but he has had no fever—a favorable symptom. The surgeon could not yet tell the extent of the damage—it might be temporal and or it might be serious."

Soon, the Michigan officer was sent to recover at the house of a well-to-do farmer and friend named Joseph B. Loose in nearby Hagerstown, where he was visited by family members that included his father and sister. But Zacharias never recovered, and he died there on New Year's Eve 1862. On Jan. 3, 1863, he was buried next to his mother in the German Reformed Church cemetery in Ida Center, Mich.

 Sergeant Jonathan Stow of the 15th Massachusetts had his leg amputated at the Hoffman farm.
(Photo courtesy Richard Gold)
PERHAPS AT THE SAME TIME Zacharias wrote the note to his family, a soldier in the 15th Massachusetts was jotting an entry in his diary as he lay in agony with a wound to his right leg in the West Woods. A 30-year-old sergeant, Jonathan P. Stow struggled to describe the scene:
Battle oh horrid battle. What sights I have seen now see around me. I am Wounded! And am afraid shall be again as shells fly past me every few seconds carrying away limbs from trees and scattering limbs around. Am in severe pain. Furies how the shells fly. I do sincerely hope shall not be wounded again. We drove them first till they got sheltered then we had a bad place. Oh I cannot write.
Stow received care from the Rebels, who abandoned him when they retreated into Virginia on the night of Sept. 18. Two days after the battle, he was found by Federal soldiers and transferred to the Hoffman farm, where he had his right leg amputated. In his diary, he continued to document his plight and the horror faced by other wounded Union soldiers:

Sept 18th – Thursday.  Misery. Acute, painful misery.  How I suffered last night.  It was the most painful of anything have experienced. My leg must be broken for I cannot help myself scarcely any. I remember talking and groaning all night. Many died in calling for help. Sergt. Johnson, who lies on the other side of the log is calling for water. Carried off the field at 10 AM by the Rebs who show much kindness but devote much time to plundering dead bodies of our men…Water very short. We suffer much.
15th Massachusetts Sergeant Jonathan Stow.
(Grafton, Mass., Historical Society)

Sept. 19th –Friday. Rained only a little. I had a rubber blanket and overcoat. Rebs retreat. Another painful night. Oh good God, a whole line of our skirmishers are coming…There are lots of us lain out…By and by our boys come along.  What lots of the 15th. Captain comes down to get the names and has coffee furnished us.—Twas the best cup I ever tasted. Dr. looks at my wounds and calls it a doubtful case. Get me on ambulance at 3 PM but do not get to the hospital till nearly dark.  Plenty of water  which gives us a chance to take down inflammation. Nurses worn out by fatigue. Placed on straw near the barn.

Sept. 22nd – Monday. Two men died last night…How painful my stump is.  I did not know was capable of enduring so much pain. How very meager are accommodations – no chamber pots & nobody to find or rig up one.  How ludicrous for 2 score amputated men to help themselves with diarrhea.

Sept. 23rd – Tuesday.  Oh what fearful long nights. What difficulties we have to contend…Relief can hardly be found. I have at length got my limb dressed by volunteer surgeon. But never was so exhausted for want of refreshment.
Sept. 28th – Sunday. Oh what lengths to the nights. The horrid smell from the mortifying limbs is nearly as bad as the whole we have to contend. Mrs. Lee and another lady are here daily dispensing cooked broths…They seem to employ  their whole time for us.  Move outdoors in the PM. Excessively hot.

Sept. 29th – Monday.  Slept little more comfortable last night. Got nice soups and nice light biscuit and tart also nice butter from Mrs. Lee. Also she gets me milk again this morning. How the quinine keeps me parched for water and so sleepy and foolish. Am much better off here than in barn.  10 AM my comrade died from the 18th Minn. Regt. I rec’d 4 letters from friends or home but am so boozy it takes the whole AM to read them.  Mr. Dr. Kelsey dressed my stump admirably and am quite comfortable if the quinine does not choke me to death. It is far more quiet here but begins to rain.

Later that night, however, Stow had an urgent telegram sent to his father back in Grafton: "Dangerously wounded at Hoffman's hospital near Sharpsburg," it read. "Come instantly."

Two days later, he died—one of 11 soldiers from Grafton to die of wounds suffered at Antietam. Stow's remains were sent home to be buried in the Old Oak Street Burial Ground.

15th Massachusetts Sergeant Jonathan Stow died at the Hoffman farm, a major 
Union hospital at Antietam. (Image courtesy Richard Gold) 
Wilder Dwight lay wounded near the Hagerstown Pike on the morning of Sept. 17, 1862.

ABOUT 2 1/2 HOURS BEFORE ALL HELL BROKE LOOSE for the U.S. Army in the West Woods, Wilder Dwight, a lieutenant colonel in the 2nd Massachusetts, jotted a short note to his mother.

"We are engaging the enemy and are drawn up in support of [General Joseph] Hooker who is now banging away most briskly," the 29-year-old officer wrote in pencil in neat cursive. "I write in the saddle to send you my love and to say that I am very well so far --"

By September 1862, Dwight was a veteran of several battles and had even spent time in Rebel captivity after his capture near Winchester, Va., in late May 1862. (Days later, he was exchanged for a Southern officer.)

At about 9:30 a.m. at Antietam, the 2nd Massachusetts was in a bad fix. Sedgwick's division had been routed, and the Massachusetts soldiers aimed to stop Rebels streaming from the West Woods. As Dwight commanded the regiment near the Hagerstown Pike, a bullet tore into the lawyer's left wrist and hip, sending him crashing to the ground in agony.

2nd Massachusetts Lieutenant Colonel Wilder Dwight
was mortally wounded at Antietam on Sept. 17, 1862
(Massachusetts Historical Society collection)
"The regiment soon fell back a short distance," a 2nd Massachusetts officer recalled, "and men were ordered to carry him, but the pain was so intense that he refused to be moved."

While the fighting swirled about him, Dwight pulled from his pocket the note to his mother that he had begun earlier that morning. This time, the words he wrote were nearly indecipherable:
"Dearest mother, I am wounded so as to be helpless. Good bye if so it must be. I think I die in victory. God defend our country. I trust in God & love you all to the last .Dearest love to father & all my dear brothers. Our troops have left the part of the field where I lay -- Mother, yrs Wilder
"All is well with those that have faith."
Blood from his wounds stained the paper.

Eager to help the man who gained his acquittal in a manslaughter case before the war, a private in the 2nd Massachusetts courageously ventured into no-man's land with a canteen filled with water. "When I got near the road I had to crawl on my hands & knees," Rupert Sadler wrote seven days after the battle. "The rebels had not advanced any, & I saw a horse which I thought was the Colonels. While I was examining it a squad of rebels saw me, & before firing at once at me, I laid down behind the horse until they stopped."

Soon, Sadler spotted Dwight lying with his head against a rail, his thigh bone apparently shattered. The private offered to bind his wounds, but Dwight refused, saying it was no use. He gave Sadler and other soldiers in the regiment directions for carrying him, and they lifted him into a cornfield, where a regimental surgeon examined him.

The next day, Dwight was carried three miles in shifts by a 12-man detail of new recruits to Boonsboro, Md., because an ambulance was unavailable. The lieutenant colonel was cared for there in the bedroom of a brick house owned by a farmer named Thomas, a Union sympathizer. Dwight's eyes were pale and sunken, recalled 2nd Massachusetts chaplain Alonzo Quint. On Sept. 19, he took a turn for the worse. The chaplain said a prayer over Dwight, whose face lit up when his mother was mentioned. A little after noon, he cried, "O, my dear mother," and died about 15 minutes later.

"Dear Wilder Dwight!" 2nd Massachusetts Lieutenant Henry Stone wrote after his comrade's death. "He was the best man in the world."

On Sept. 25, 1862, Dwight received a hero's funeral in Boston and was buried in Forest Hills Cemetery.


Stained with his blood, this is the first page of a three-page note Wilder Dwight 
wrote to his mother from the Antietam battlefield.
(Massachusetts Historical Society collection)

Near Sharpsburg. Sept. 17th 1862. On the field

Dear Mother,

It is a misty moisty morning. We are engaging the enemy and are drawn up in support of Hooker who is now banging away most briskly. I write in the saddle to send you my love and to say that I am very well so far --

Dearest mother, I am wounded so as to be helpless. Good bye if so it must be ...

Severely wounded in the right leg, Wilder Dwight could barely finish the note.
(Massachusetts Historical Society collection)

I think I die in victory. God defend our country. I trust in God & love you all to the last Dearest love to father &all my dear brothers. Our troops have left the part of the field where I lay -- Mother, yrs Wilder

The conclusion of Dwight's heart-rending note.
 (Massachusetts Historical Society collection)

All is well with those that have faith

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  1. More than absolutely anything else, it is letters like this, like Dwight's, where he can barely hold the pen, has almost no strength to form the words, these bring home the stark, utter reality of the war and the very personhood of the men who fought it. (Jo Anzalone)

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  2. This post and the letters bring home in a very personal and poignant way the patriotism and faith of these men. Heart rending... Thank you, Mr. Banks, for once again bringing the War and the soldiers home to us on such an intimate level.

  3. Anonymous8:57 PM

    These poor dudes. Such sad storie s. Stories that must be told! Post script.. The "two sides" hate each other far more today (2018) than i'm sure they did back then!!

  4. I read almost all of your blog posts. This is one of the most poignant ones I've ever seen. Thank you for sharing!

  5. Anonymous9:48 PM

    My G.G.Grandfather was captured with Col. Wilder Dwight at the First Battle of Winchester. Though my G.G.Grandfather was a Private, he was not released from prison until December 1862 at Stafford Court House. Surviving a minnie ball to the knee at Chancellorsville, and a battlefield promotion to Corporal after a Corporal from his company was shot and killed at Spangler's Spring in Gettysburg. I passionately follow the American Civil War, and in particular the 2nd Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry Regiment. I always imagine and wonder if my G.G.Grandfather spoke to Col. Dwight while captured....this and many other small historical moments causes me to think of the rarity of surviving any of these battles which reminds me of the thankfulness I have being Here and able to study and learn from our History.

  6. Anonymous11:34 AM

    This lost generation of men whose greatness went unrealized. Such a loss for such a gain. Never was a war fought such as this. So much death un needed, for freedom of others besides themselves, and they had no idea. What they thought they were fighting for was not procured. Sad dark times.

  7. A wonderful piece, John, full of the poignancy and sadness of these personal battlefield episodes. As a Christian, I was particularly interested in DeShetler and Dwight, who with their mortality as good as gone, found solace in their faith in Christ, and the glorious immortality His Gospel promises.

  8. So poignant that tears are streaming down my face 😭❤️