A Soldier’s Letter: John Burnham

Letter from Lieutenant Burnham, 16th Connecticut Volunteer Infantry, to his family following the Battle of Antietam dated October 4, 1862.

My Dear Mother and Family,

I received a short note from Lottie enclosing extracts from newspapers about the fight of the 17th or the “Battle of Antietam.” One thing is certain, it was a “big fight,” as the sixteenth found to their severe cost, and although we got the best of it, on the whole I am unable to key myself up to a very high pitch of exultation over the day’s work. We had the best of the fight because we had advanced our position during the day, but it was at heavy cost and the ground gained was contested inch by inch.

There has been no fighting since, and if our army was not pretty badly handled and about used up, I can imagine no earthly reason why we did not go at them the next day with a vengeance. We lay on our arms all day, the day after the battle, and all night the next night, expecting momentarily to be ordered forward, but we were not.

On Friday, we went on the field and gathered the dead and wounded. The rebels held the field in which the 16th were cut up so badly, and we had to leave the dead and wounded on that account over the whole of Thursday. They were there about forty-eight hours, but most of them, the wounded, said the rebs treated them kindly and gave them water. It was very hot weather but fortunately there was a heavy rain on Thursday night and they managed to catch a canteen or two full of water by holding up the corners of their rubber blankets. One of our men, who was unable to get off the field, managed to pull off one of his boots and caught water in that and drank it.

I was on the field from noon until eleven o’clock at night of Friday, giving my personal supervision to the collection of the dead and wounded. You may be assured it was a trying position.

The position we occupy now is a pleasant one and I would like it if we could remain in it. Thus far, since we have been out, we have seen little but the “circumstance of glorious war,” as someone has aptly said. Yesterday we saw a little of the “pomp” for the first time. The army was received by President Lincoln and Gen’l McClellan, and of course we did our share. Our division happened to be the first one reviewed in Gen’l Burnside’s corps. As soon as the ceremony was over, the division and brigade commanders were ordered to dismiss their commands and join the President’s escort.

If we had been in command of the regiment, we should have trotted back to camp, but I was lucky once again and as we stood for the time being in a Brig. Gen’l and Adj. Gen’l’s shoes, respectively, we had the honor of tagging old “Abe” around on his reviewing tour for a couple of hours and taking a look at between fifteen and twenty thousand men. I had seen “Abe” before but I thought him half so homely. He ought to be wise and good and honest.

Lottie wished me to write what were my personal feelings in the fight. You have all heard a great deal about men going into battle and, after the fighting had commenced, forgetting all about what they were doing. This may be the case to some extent, but in my opinion nothing like what is represented. I had no time to think of danger. I am frank to confess that although I had no idea of running away I trembled.

In relation to the condition of the rebels, I can answer that unequivocally I saw as many as five hundred prisoners I should think in one day and I never saw anything like it. Their hair was long and uncombed and their faces were thin and cadaverous as though they had been starved to death. It is of course possible that it is the natural look of the race, but it appeared mightily to me like the result of short fare. They were the dirtiest set I ever beheld. A regiment of New England paupers could not equal them for the filth, lice and rags.

I hope as I always have, that I may have the courage to do my duty well, not recklessly but with simple bravery and fidelity, so that if I fall you may have the consolation of knowing that I not only lose my life in a good cause but die like a man. One thing I wish to say particularly–this romance about men being shot in the back is all a humbug. A mounted officer is as likely to be hit in the back, and more likely to be hit in the side, than in the front, and don’t ever do an officer the injustice to think ill of him for such a wound…

Bless you all. Yours affectionately,

John

Source: The Brothers’ War by Annette Tapert (Vintage Books, New York, 1988)

This Week in the Civil War: Sep 17-23, 1862

Wednesday, September 17.  The bloodiest single day of the war occurred at the Battle of Antietam near Sharpsburg, Maryland. General Robert E. Lee’s outnumbered Confederate Army of Northern Virginia assembled along Antietam Creek to meet the attack by General George B. McClellan’s Federal Army of the Potomac. The first wave of assaults took place on the Confederate left against General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson’s corps in the woods, the cornfield, the Bloody Lane, and the Dunkard Church. Federal gains were small and costly. The battle then shifted to the center of the Confederate line, with uncoordinated Federal attacks again achieving little. Finally, the battle moved to the Confederate right, where Federals crossing a bridge finally broke through and headed for Sharpsburg. However, they were halted by General A.P. Hill’s “Light Division” arriving from Harpers Ferry to save Lee’s army. McClellan’s piecemeal attacks and failure to use all his reserves also helped save the Confederate army from destruction. The battle ended when McClellan disengaged, making it a draw. Total casualties for this single day were estimated at over 26,000 killed, wounded, or missing. In Kentucky, a Federal garrison of over 4,000 men surrendered to General Braxton Bragg’s Confederates. Federal General Ormsby M. Mitchel assumed command of the Department of the South, stationed along the southeastern coast.

Thursday, September 18.  In the evening, Robert E. Lee began withdrawing the remnants of his army from Maryland. George McClellan did not attack, despite having up to 24,000 fresh reserves. Lee’s withdrawal made the Battle of Antietam a tactical Federal victory, even though McClellan ignored pleas from President Abraham Lincoln to pursue and destroy Lee’s army. On the Atlantic Ocean, the Confederate commerce raider C.S.S. Alabama destroyed the whaler Elisha Dunbar off New Bedford, Massachusetts. Braxton Bragg announced that his Confederate troops had come to Kentucky to free the people from tyranny, not as conquerors or despoilers. Federal General James H. Carleton replaced General E.R.S. Canby as commander of the Department of New Mexico.

Friday, September 19.  In Mississippi, Federals under General William Rosecrans defeated General Sterling Price’s Confederates at the Battle of Iuka. Rosecrans had arrived at Iuka as part of General Ulysses S. Grant’s advance guard, and the Confederates sought to prevent Grant from reinforcing General Don Carlos Buell in Kentucky. Price was awaiting the arrival of General Earl Van Dorn’s Confederates when the battle occurred. Rosecrans, knowing that Federal reinforcements were forthcoming, withdrew southward during the night. The Federal Department of the Missouri was reestablished, and the Department of Kansas was discontinued. In Maryland, George McClellan’s halfhearted pursuit of Robert E. Lee was halted by Confederate artillery.

Saturday, September 20.  In Maryland, George McClellan’s Federals made one last effort at catching Robert E. Lee’s Confederates, but the Federals were repulsed at various points. In Washington, President Lincoln prepared the Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation, which he had first introduced to his cabinet in July.

Sunday, September 21.  In Kentucky, Braxton Bragg’s Confederates advanced to Bardstown in preparation for linking with General Edmund Kirby Smith’s forces. However, this enabled Don Carlos Buell’s Federals to reach Louisville. In California, San Francisco residents raised $100,000 for aid to wounded and sick Federal troops.

Monday, September 22.  In Washington, President Lincoln presented the Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation to his cabinet. Lincoln had been waiting for a military victory to issue the order, and Antietam provided the opportunity. The proclamation technically freed no one since it only applied to slaves in states that rebelled against the U.S.; it exempted rebellious states from freeing their slaves if those states rejoined the U.S. before January 1, and it exempted regions under Federal military occupation. Lincoln also called for congressional approval of compensated emancipation. Thus, the path was partially opened toward a constitutional amendment abolishing slavery.

Tuesday, September 23.  In the Dakota Territory, Federals clashed with Indians at Fort Abercrombie. In Minnesota, Federals under H.H. Sibley defeated the Sioux Indians at the Battle of Wood Lake as part of the Dakota War. On the Ohio River, Confederate guerrillas plundered the steamer Emma at Foster’s Landing. In Tennessee, Federals retaliated against an attack on a ship by burning the town of Randolph. Word of the Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation was beginning to spread throughout the North.

Source:  The Civil War Day-by-Day by E.B. Long and Barbara Long (New York, NY: Da Capo Press, 1971)

Antietam: 150 years ago today

Today is the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Antietam (or Sharpsburg, if you prefer) in 1862. It represents the bloodiest one-day battle in American history with over 23,000 casualties on both sides. Ethan Rafuse provides a wonderful post on this subject, complete with the opening to the film Glory (1989), which began with this battle.

He also noted the letter from Lt Col. Wilder Dwight, who died from wounds at the battle and the letter he wrote was featured in the documentary Death and the Civil War, which I reviewed earlier.

This battle was significant for several reasons. One was that it allowed Lincoln to justify the Emancipation Proclamation, as the tactical draw served as a psychological and strategic victory for the Union, aiding in a small way in keeping the European powers out of the conflict, though this was largely accomplished by this point in 1862.

Also, it was a major setback for Robert E. Lee, as his invasion of the North failed. It represented a series of missed opportunities and blunders that could have ended the war sooner, had McClellan acted more decisively upon finding Lee’s Special Order 191, which was his battle plan, or had McClellan pursued and destroyed the Army of Northern Virginia after the battle.

Though, 150 years old, this battle is still an important event in our history, worthy of continuing staff rides by military educational programs around the country. One of the better books on the battle that is both scholarly and great for a general audience is James McPherson’s Crossroads of Freedom: Antietam, The Battle That Changed the Course of the Civil War (2002), as it discusses the larger significance of the battle as well as how it relates to the concept of freedom at the time. As we approach the anniversaries of some of the most important battles of the war, it will be notable to see how we reflect and what historians write and do to understand the importance of these events against our modern society.