Saturday, September 30, 2017

A farmer's daughter: 'The room was full of dead men!'

In an undated image, the Henry Piper farmhouse.  (Library of Congress)
The Piper farmhouse and outbuilding date to the war. (Library of Congress)

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Confederate General James Longstreet used 
Henry Piper's farmhouse as headquarters
during the Battle of Antietam.
(Library of Congress)
About 15 years ago, I stayed in the room James Longstreet may have slept in at the old Henry Piper farmhouse, the general's headquarters during the Battle of Antietam. Although I didn't see any ghosts during my visit at the bed and breakfast, I watched an eerie scene from the porch one inky-black night: fireflies flickering over the rolling fields near the house. As I rocked in a chair, the B&B owner told me something I never forgot. "We like to think the souls who fought here," Lou Clark said of Mother Nature's light display, "are still among us."

We can only imagine the death and destruction that took place in late-summer 1862 on Piper's farm, in the center of the Confederate line, just south of the infamous Bloody Lane. Elizabeth Piper, who fled the property with her family before the battle on Sept. 17, witnessed it first hand.

In a remarkable letter written on Oct. 4 , 1862, and published in the Wilmington (Ohio) Watchman 19 days later, Henry Piper's 22-year-old daughter described Confederates arriving at the farm two days before the battle. She also claimed she met Longstreet, Robert E. Lee and Daniel Harvey Hill on the Piper's porch.

But it was the horrible aftermath of the battle that was seared into Elizabeth's brain.

"When I reached home, I could scarcely recognize the place," she wrote in the letter to her friend, Sally Farran of Wilmington. "I entered the yard, which was covered with bloody clothing, straw, feathers, and everything that was disgusting. I went up the steps and opened the dining room door and was thunderstruck. Great Heaven! What a sight met my gaze. The room was full of dead men! Pools of blood were standing on the floor. "

Henry Piper
 Jacob Rohrbach Inn)
Used as a makeshift hospital, the Pipers' house had been "pillaged from garret to cellar," according to Elizabeth, a Unionist. In October 1862, her father filed a damage claim with the government for $25. Later, he filed another claim, asking for thousands more. An award was approved for $2,488.85 -- a figure that included $25 for damage to the house and barn, $300 for damage to fencing,  $117 for bacon, lard and tallow and $72 for wine and condiments. But the amount was not paid because Piper had not produced a certificate of loyalty. (Hat tip: Jacob Rohrbach Inn blog.)

Elizabeth Piper's letter  -- discovered recently on microfilm in an Ohio library by friend of the blog Dan Masters and first published on his blog -- was described as "very interesting" by the Watchman editor.  "...we commend it to the perusal of our readers,” he wrote, adding it “bears upon its face the imprint of truth and honesty.”

            PANORAMA: The 7th Maine made a futile attack through the Piper orchard.
                                    (Click at upper right for full-screen experience.)

Near Sharpsburg, Maryland
October 4, 1862

Dear Friend,

As all have gone from home this morning I find it very lonesome and I know of no mode in which I could more pleasantly pass an hour or two away than in answering your letter which I received a few weeks ago; but I write this letter under far different circumstances than the last I wrote you. I suppose you know to what I refer: the battle of Antietam, or more properly called the Battle of Sharpsburg though I presume you have no idea how it was.

You have heard of the Rebel army crossing into Maryland. They were in the state a week or more before they were molested. On Sabbath morning, General McClellan's army overtook them on South Mountain which lies between Frederick and Boonesboro. The Rebels were there defeated. The first I saw of the Rebels was early Monday morning. They would come in six, eight, and ten at a time for breakfast. About 9 o'clock, I went up on the hill above our house as I heard the Rebel army was all moving across the river. The principal part of them was then crossing into a field about half a mile from where I stood. I was there perhaps ten minutes, when I observed they again had marching orders. In a short time, I perceived them throwing down our fence, and the whole column was entering. In a few minutes, the fences were all level with the ground and as far as the eye could see was one living mass of human beings.

In her 1862 letter, Elizabeth Piper claimed she met
Robert E. Lee, James Longstreet and
 Daniel Harvey Hill on the family's porch
before the Battle of Antietam.
(Library of Congress)
At 10 o'clock, Generals Longstreet, Lee, and Hill were on our porch. We inquired of them if there was any danger, and if they anticipated having a battle. They answered us they did not -- that they intended only remaining an hour or two and passing on, although they admitted it was the most splendid position they could possibly have. I inquired of them why they were planting cannon in every direction? They replied it was merely to cover their retreat, and gave us every assurance if there was any danger whatever, they would give us warning in time. Our yard was so crowded that it was almost impossible to move. I had often heard of the condition of the Rebel army, but thought it must be exaggerated, but a great many had no shoes, no hats, in fact they were filthy in every respect. They would eat anything they could lay hands on. I believe we fed 200 in half a day, besides the officers who took dinner with us.

Our house was completely surrounded with cannon and before 2 o'clock I was startled to hear the report of the cannon of the Federal army, which was not more than two miles back. The shell exploded about ten yards from the house and wounded two men. The next moment a messenger came directing us to leave the house instantly as it was in the range of the Federal army's guns. We took a few dresses on our arms, locked up the house, and started off. The man who is living with us took the horses and we all walked about a mile and a half when father said, if possible, we should walk on and they would go back for the buggy. They again reached the house though it was raining grape and shell in every direction.

We went three miles back of the Rebel lines to my uncle's place (Samuel Piper) where we remained Monday and Tuesday and Wednesday till the afternoon, when the Federal army began shelling a house just below where we were. We were quite near the river and there was no other alternative; we were compelled to cross into Virginia, and remain until that battery was removed. We then returned to uncle's and remained until Friday morning [Sept. 19] when we heard they were all gone, or at least the greater portion of them.

We knew it was impossible to get home with the buggy or horses and, as excitement gives strength, Sue and I determined to walk home. A gentleman offered to accompany us and off we started, prepared to encounter all we should meet. We had not proceeded more than a mile when we came to a Rebel hospital. I stopped a few minutes to look at the wounded. It was sickening in the extreme. My heart bled to see human beings in such a state of suffering. The yard was filled with the dead, dying, and wounded, the latter dying from starvation. I had nothing with me to give them, so I procured a few apples with great difficulty and gave to a few. You could hear nearly all of them calling their dear old mothers' names, or their wife, sister, or some other absent loved one.

Henry Piper's  barn, enlarged since the battle. (Library of Congress)
An undated image of slave quarters on the Piper farm. (Library of Congress)
Another undated view of  the slave quarters. (Library of Congress)
But not to tire your patience, I will hurry on. The road and fields were strewn with haversacks, canteens, guns, and other articles in every direction. Trees and fences were knocked down and deep holes plowed in the earth by balls, shot, and shell. As we came home, my heart almost died within me. However, I did not think of turning back.

When I reached home, I could scarcely recognize the place. I entered the yard, which was covered with bloody clothing, straw, feathers, and everything that was disgusting. I went up the steps and opened the dining room door and was thunderstruck. Great Heaven! What a sight met my gaze. The room was full of dead men! Pools of blood were standing on the floor. I only looked one glance and passed on. I next went into the parlor. The dead had been removed from here, but the carpets were full of stains, the furniture broken up, and everythe ing destroyed. The house had been pillaged from garret to cellar. Our clothing was taken, and what they could not take was torn up, in fact everything of any value whatever was gone. Our shoes, stockings, shawls, dresses, bonnets, even down to our toothbrushes, and if you would have gone from cellar to garret, not a mouthful could have been found to eat. Our cattle had been killed; the sheep, hogs, chickens, and everything were gone. We had 300 chickens, besides turkeys, geese, etc., but now we have not one.

In Alexander Gardner's image, Confederate fallen in Bloody Lane.
"The dead were lying so thick in this lane," Elizabeth Piper
wrote, "that it looked like the living mass."
(Library of Congress | See "NOW" version here.)
The officers had the dead removed from the house and I put the colored men to removing the carpets, charging them to clean the floor before they left. I then prepared to leave, when in the yard I first noticed what I had before failed to see. I looked in the orchard and the adjoining fields and they were dotted with dead. In the meantime some of our friends, having heard that we had gone home, came in and we, with a number of others, went to that part of the battlefield which was in the upper orchard and our cornfield where those desperate charges were made. You could have walked five miles and not been off the battlefield. No tongue can tell or pen describe the horrors of the battlefield. The lane that separates our farm from Mr. [William] Roulett's had been washed into a tolerably deep gulley, and this was used as a rifle pit. The dead were lying so thick in this lane that it looked like the living mass. [See large-format Then & Now on my photo blog here.]

In the evening I went to Sharpsburg. I did not return until Monday. The dead had not all been buried when I returned. I tell you we are living in style now; no carpet on the floor in some of the rooms and only one room in the house that a cannon ball had not penetrated.

Everything is remarkably high priced.

My friend, I have not told you half, but I can write no more at present. Do not understand me to say that all the damage was done by the Rebels; at least half was done by Federal forces.


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