Friday, September 29, 2017

Elizabeth Piper and the Battle of Antietam

Over the past 18 years, I have spent countless hours in front of a microfilm machine reviewing Civil War era newspapers with the aim on extracting soldiers' correspondence, and to date have found thousands of letters. Many of these are rather mundane explanations of campaigns or life in camp, while others grab your attention through their immediacy and sheer power. It was such a rare treat today while I was scanning through the pages of the Wilmington Watchman (Wilmington, Ohio) that I stumbled across a letter written from a civilian whose home was right in the middle of the bloodiest single day battle of the Civil War: Antietam.

This isn't the first time I have discovered a civilian account of Antietam buried in an Ohio newspaper (the Dr. Augustin Biggs letter I found in the Weekly Lancaster Gazette was featured in the spring 2016 issue of the Maryland Historical Magazine, and on John Banks' superb Antietam blog, see here:, but reading Elizabeth Piper's account of her experiences during the battle felt very much like striking gold a second time.
This letter was written by the 22 year old daughter of Henry Piper to her friend Miss Sallie Farran of Wilmington, and was handed by Sallie's father James W. Farran to the editors of the Watchman. The editor commented that the letter “was very interesting and we commend it to the perusal of our readers,” additionally stating that the letter “bears upon its face the imprint of truth and honesty.”

As stated above, Elizabeth Piper was the 22 year old daughter of Henry and Elizabeth (Betsy) Piper, whose farm was located just south of the Sunken Lane. Henry and Betsy had eight children, although only five were living at the time of Antietam: Barbara Ann (born 1829), Samuel (born 1836) Mary Ellen (born 1841), Susan Sevilla (born 1845), and Elizabeth (born 1840); three children had passed away before the war including Martha Ann in 1839, John in 1851, and Jane Catherine in 1852. At the time of the battle, Henry Piper and his family operated a prosperous farm that consisted of a large wheat field and a 25 acre cornfield that had not yet been harvested. The farm also featured a 15 acre apple orchard, as well as the house, outbuildings, and barn located in a hollow. The Piper's owned six slaves at the time. I've seen some accounts online quoting both Samuel Piper and Mary Ellen Piper, but I think the letter below is the first account from Elizabeth to see the light of day in many a year.

The Piper Farm was selected by General Robert E. Lee as the center of his position at Antietam, and he arrayed a series of artillery batteries along the north side of the farm to provide support to the Confederate center located along the Bloody Lane. Elizabeth's letter picks up the story of when the Confederates arrived in the area on Monday morning September 15, 1862...

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.

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.
Sharpsburg residents fleeing town on Monday September 15, 1862 (Alfred Waud courtesy of Library of Congress)

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 (September 18) 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.

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 everything 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.

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. 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.
The Bloody Lane at Antietam by Alexander Gardner (Library of Congress)

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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