Last Words: On the eve of Antietam with Colonel Augustus Coleman, 11th Ohio Infantry

    With the Confederacy on the move following their victories at Seven Days and Cedar Mountain, it was decided to bolster the defenses of Washington by moving a division of battle-seasoned troops from the mountainous region of western Virginia. "On the 18th of August, the 11th Ohio, with the greater portion of the Kanawha Division, moved to Parkersburg and proceeded thence by the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad to Washington, camping near Alexandria," wrote Whitelaw Reid. After missing the Second Battle of Bull Run, the 11th Ohio fell back to the defenses of Washington and, as part of General McClellan's reorganization of the army, was placed in the 9th Corps under Major General Ambrose E. Burnside. They were soon in pursuit of Lee's invading army, determined to drive the Rebels from Maryland. Outside of Frederick, they had their chance.

    On September 14th, "the division crossed the creek and moved towards Turner's Gap in South Mountain. After proceeding a short distance, the division moved to the left and struck the old Sharpsburg road and upon reaching a narrow gorge, concealed by timber and undergrowth, the 11th formed in line of battle. When the order came to charge, the 11th moved along the edge of a strip of woods and by adroitness and bravery drove back a strong force of the Rebels attempting a flanking movement," wrote Whitelaw Reid. "The 11th Ohio was ordered to charge across an open field on the left of the road against a force of the enemy protected by a stone wall. They met the enemy in almost a hand-to-hand fight; muskets were clubbed and bayonets crossed over the low stone wall, but finally the enemy was driven from their position into the undergrowth."

    Exalted at his regiment's success, Colonel Augustus H. Coleman of the 11th Ohio Volunteer Infantry wrote the following letter to his wife two days later. Sadly, it would prove to be his last missive. "While I have been writing, a sharp artillery battle has been in progress before me," he wrote. "I am writing on my knee on a borrowed sheet of paper; would have written sooner but had no opportunity for mailing a letter. My love to yourself and children. I hope I will soon get home to see you." Colonel Coleman would be killed in action the following day at the Battle of Antietam. 

    The letter was published in the September 25, 1862 issue of the Mahoning Register of Youngstown, Ohio. 

Colonel Augustus H. Coleman, 11th Ohio Volunteer Infantry

In the field, 10 miles west of Middletown, Maryland

September 16, 1862

    I received your letter of the 6th just before going into the fight on Sunday. I was very glad to hear from you and that you and the children were well. My regiment has gained considerable credit since leaving western Virginia for their bravery and gallantry. The whole Kanawha Division did nobly; there is no better division in the field than General Cox’s.

    Our first skirmish after leaving Washington was at Frederick City, when the Rebels charged upon and took two pieces of our artillery. I was ordered up with my regiment and promptly retook the artillery and drove the rebels from the city at the point of the bayonet. I led the charge followed by my brave men on the run, yelling as they went. We captured about 40 Rebels and I did not lose a man.

    In passing up the main street of Frederick City, the sight was the most cheering I ever witnessed. The glorious old stars spangled banner was thrown to the breeze from the windows of most all the houses, the women and children cried for joy, the citizens cheering and my men responding with deafening yells as they rapidly passed up the street.

    Our next engagement occurred on Sunday the 14th about four miles west of Middletown, beginning about 9 A.M. and continuing until late in the evening. I was placed on the extreme left of our line in the morning and engaged the Rebels posted in a wood and cornfield directly in my front. I had to advance with my men over open ground, and consequently suffered severely. The regiment on my right at that moment charged upon the Rebels and drove them from their position.

Major General Jacob D. Cox of Ohio
led the Kanawha Division at Fox's Gap and Antietam

    About 4 o’clock, the 11th and 12th Ohio regiments were ordered to charge upon a Rebel battery on our right which had been annoying us considerably throughout the day; this we did, but the Rebels hastily moved their battery to the rear and we encountered a large body of Rebel infantry upon whom we charged and fought them at close quarters for some time, cutting them up badly. I captured a Rebel flag; I ordered the color sergeant to surrender, he refused. I seized his colors and took them from him and one of my men shot him. A few moments after as another rebel regiment was retreating, their color bearer stepped out of the line and halting ten feet from me began talking to some of the men. I called to him to come to me, that he should not be hurt. He, recognizing me as an officer, fired two shots at me when he fell pierced by seven bullets. His shots at me did not take effect. In this encounter I lost 12 killed and 42 wounded while no less than 300 dead rebels lay upon the ground around us. The Rebel slain lay thick upon the ground fought ever by the other regiments and hundreds of prisoners captured.

Map of the Battle of Fox's Gap, Maryland; Lieutenant Colonel Rutherford B. Hayes of the neighboring 23rd Ohio was seriously wounded during the fighting here. (Map from American Battlefield Trust)

    The Rebels are now retreating. While I have been writing, a sharp artillery battle has been in progress before me. I am writing on my knee on a borrowed sheet of paper; would have written sooner but had no opportunity for mailing a letter. My love to yourself and children. I hope I will soon get home to see you.

         Colonel Coleman was mortally wounded the following day at the Battle of Antietam. “Plain and unassuming as a man, he never thrust himself forward for notoriety,” reported the Mahoning Register. “His courage was of that high tone that is never questioned, and his imperturbable coolness was always with it. His death was a glorious one.” Whitelaw Reid states that “Colonel Coleman was an efficient drill master and he brought his regiment up to a high standard of drill and discipline. Always cool, self-possessed, and thoroughly understanding the minutiae of battalion drill, he maneuvered bodies of men with great ease. It was frequently remarked that he could maneuver a regiment in less space than most officers required for company drill. He was sometimes thought too rigid in discipline, but all his measures proved of benefit to the men, and were by them duly appreciated. In times of danger, Colonel Coleman was especially vigilant, and took every precaution against surprise, always visiting picket lines in person, and remaining near the most exposed point. At South Mountain, he displayed the ability of a successful commander. In actions prior to this he had acted well and gallantly, but was in in positions where his services were so marked as in that of South Mountain. He was in the first charge on the bridge across Antietam Creek, and while in the charging column fell, pierced by a Rebel bullet which passed through his arm into his side. Although in great pain, he was in possession of his mental faculties during the few hours he lived. His last words were inquiries as to the fate of his men.”

Thanks to Phil Spaugy and Justin Mays for inspiring the post. 


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