Deadly Indecision in Maryland

Guest Post by Michael C. C. Adams

Before Gettysburg and Vicksburg, we had Cincinnati and, more especially, Sharpsburg, Maryland.

The repulse of Robert E. Lee at Gettysburg and the fall of Vicksburg to Ulysses S. Grant in early July 1863 are often seen as marking the high tide of the Confederacy. Yet any real hope of successfully establishing an independent Southern nation rode on coordinated offenses into Tennessee, Kentucky, and Maryland, launched a year earlier in summer/fall 1862. The strategy was to push the Confederate frontier to the Mason-Dixon Line, gaining the rich resources of the Border States and providing a buffer zone for the lower South.

It was expected that the people of the Border States would flock to the rebel flag, but the actual reception was lukewarm, a poor omen for the coming operations. The offensives in the west failed when Confederate forces were turned back at Louisville, Kentucky, and then Cincinnati, Ohio, in September, before being mauled at Perryville, Kentucky, on October 8.

In the east, Lee came up from Virginia into Maryland in early September, and was brought to a standstill on the 17th by General George B. McClellan in fighting along Antietam Creek outside the small town of Sharpsburg, thirteen miles south of Hagerstown. This battle was one of the bloodiest in American history, illustrating the hell of Civil War combat and darkening the lives of many survivors.

Things went wrong for the rebels from the beginning. The Confederate supply system was already failing. The men lacked shoes, decent uniforms, and adequate provisions, leading many to drop out of the marching ranks. Dust hovered in thick clouds over the hot, dry summer roads. An angry staff officer, Alexander Haskell, jumped from his horse to berate a straggler huddled in a fence corner. He quickly realized the boy was suffocating and desperately began clawing muddy snot from the lad’s nose.

Lee intended to live off the land, but he seemingly mistimed his move, as crops were still green. One gaunt and smelly rebel, begging food from Maryland housewife Mary B. Mitchell, told her, “I’ve been a-marchin’ and a-fightin’ for six weeks stiddy, and I ain’t had n-a-r thin to eat ‘cept green apples and green corn.” A civilian who toured the battlefield said one could trace the rebel lines by “a ribbon of dysenteric stools just behind” their positions, marking where they had run back to vacate their inflamed bowels. Soldiers on both sides never got to the battlefield but dropped out on the march, preying on civilians for what they needed. The inhabitants were also stripped of food, water, fences, and barn planks for firewood by soldiers who remained in the ranks and were sent on authorized foraging details by their officers.

Anticipating battle induced chronic stress. Joseph E. Crowell, 13th New Jersey, said of waiting to go in that “a peculiar atmosphere of impending disaster surrounded us that was indescribable.” The fighting was ferocious. In close combat, men faced smoothbore Napoleon cannons double-shotted with canister, metal cylinders, or bags filled with iron balls that, on discharge, spread out like a giant shotgun blast. Union General John Gibbon, observing the effect of this fire on John Bell Hood’s Texas Division when assaulting his lines, witnessed whole ranks go down, the dead piled on top of each other. He saw “an arm go 30 feet into the air and fall back again.” The general wrote that “It was just awful.”

Hailstorms of minnie balls, fired from Springfield and Enfield rifled muskets, produced massive carnage. The effect can be gauged from the damage inflicted on General John B. Gordon, defending a section of the Sunken Lane at the heart of the rebel position. Gordon was shot through the right calf and then higher up the same leg. A further bullet tore up the tendons of his left arm, followed by a ball that ripped through his shoulder. Still at his post, the general took a fifth round, to the head, and fell with his face in his hat, almost drowning in his own blood, had it not run out through the bullet holes in the cloth.

Men said it seemed the day would never end and that the sun stood still in the sky. The wounded suffered the worst. Jonathan Stowe, 25th Massachusetts, was able to scribble, “I am wounded! And am afraid shall be again as shells fly past me every few seconds . . .” The fighting finally died down with nightfall and was not renewed on the 18th, leaving Lee to withdraw south. But the consequences of slaughter were not ended. Around the small town of several hundred inhabitants lay 6,000 dead or dying, alongside 17,000 wounded (four times the number that fell on D-Day in June, 1944).

Arrangements for retrieval were inadequate to the task. Bodies bloated and stank; wild hogs fed on the dead and near-dead. In desperation, burial parties threw corpses in shallow mass graves or stuffed them under porches and in compost piles. The remains of fifty-eight rebels were found in one well. The stench remained so bad that a pall hung over the countryside for weeks. One farmhand recalled: “We couldn’t eat a good meal and we had to shut the house up just as tight as we could of a night to keep out that odor.”

Many men bereft of their senses wandered the countryside aimlessly, victims of concussion from shell blasts and emotional shock (what today we would call traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress disorder). Colonel Raymond Lee, 20th Massachusetts, meandered off and was found four weeks later, ten miles away, penniless and filthy from chronic diarrhea. Confederate General Lee had little tolerance for men who “lost their character.” He told Charles Squires of the Washington Artillery, “The infantry, sir, are straggling,” adding angrily, “Captain, our men are acting badly.” The Richmond government estimated that 40,000 Confederate soldiers were illicitly away from the armies following these hard campaigns.

Civilians, too, suffered emotional trauma. Union Colonel Elisha Rhodes saw a woman in the town of Burkettsville, Maryland, wandering aimlessly among the dead soldiers. And in Sharpsburg, Captain William W. Blackford, 1st Virginia Cavalry, saw women and children rushing through shell fire, consumed by hysterics, “like a flock of birds . . . hair streaming in the wind and children of all ages stretched behind.” Survivors relived the horror. Private Heber Wells, 13th New Jersey, after “a very bad attack of nightmare,” confessed that “all who had taken part in the battle of Antietam were still thinking of the horrible sights during the day and dreaming of it at night.”

It was months before the people of this area of Maryland returned to relatively normal life, only to be caught in the war’s dark side again the next year when the armies traversed Maryland during the 1863 Pennsylvania campaign. Northern war correspondent Whitelaw Reid described Union stragglers in Frederick, Maryland, on the eve of Gettysburg: “The town is full of stragglers, and the liquor shops are in full blast . . . drunken soldiers are making night hideous; all over the town they are trying to steal horses or sneak into unwatched private residences or are filling the air with the blasphemy of their drunken brawls.”

Photographers covered the slaughter at Antietam with a thoroughness not seen before. Pictures taken by Matthew Brady and his assistants showed rebel dead piled high in the Sunken Lane, riddled corpses behind the fence rail bordering the cornfield, swelling bodies laid out by the Dunker Church. Thanks to the invention of the stereoscope, attributed to Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr., customers could purchase photographs designed to be seen in realistic 3-D. Shop windows in the big cities were filled with images fresh from the field. “Mr. Brady has done something to bring home to us the terrible reality and earnestness of war,” editorialized the New York Times on October 20, 1862. “If he has not brought bodies and laid them in our door-yards and along streets, he has done something very like it.”

Opinion differed on whether exposing the public to stark scenes of battle deaths was helpful or destructive of morale. Holmes himself thought everyone should understand the war’s reality. Walt Whitman was not so sure. Although the silvery moon-lit images of some of his war poetry reflect his own fascination with the photographs, he felt it best that mothers, sisters, and wives not know the full truth of what had happened to their menfolk. The actual impact of the new medium is still debated. Did images of bloated corpses slow recruitment and damage popular support for the war effort on either side? Or did the public become used to pictures that quickly became repetitive?

The camera could not take action pictures and so shots of corpses swelling on the field multiplied instead. Did this lead to sensory saturation? As there was no color photography, civilians didn’t see dead faces turning green, yellow, and black. The men behind the cameras seem to have shied away from showing the dead in the most advanced stages of decay, when heads were three times their normal size and huge pus-filled blisters covered the features. They rarely showed bodies exploded by shells, and I am not aware of any pictures showing a sight that haunted soldiers: body parts blown into the branches of trees. Brady and others even rearranged the dead in romantic poses, choosing handsome young men as their subjects.

The debate over how much the public should see continues to rage today. The Pentagon, regretting the unfettered TV coverage of combat operations in Vietnam, which some believe injured popular support for the war, carefully screens what we may see of the so-called War on Terror, restricting coverage to limited photo ops of flag-draped coffins.


adamshell-contrastMichael C. C. Adams, Regents Professor of History Emeritus, University of Northern Kentucky, is the author of Living Hell: The Dark Side of the Civil War and The Best War Ever: America and World War II, both published by Johns Hopkins.