In the Shadow of Burnside's Bridge: Philo Pearce at the Battle of Antietam

Philo Stevens Pearce was a 19-year-old farmer from New Fairfield, Connecticut when he enlisted in Co. A of the 11th Connecticut Volunteers in the fall of 1861. The 11th Connecticut was sent to North Carolina initially where it formed part of Ambrose Burnside’s expeditionary force. In July 1862, it sailed north and was stationed at Fredericksburg, Virginia. The regiment was soon tasked with helping to counter Lee’s invasion of the North which is where Pearce’s account begins.

Private Philo Stevens Pearce, Co. A, 11th Connecticut Volunteers

Pearce’s account of the Battles of South Mountain and Antietam provide a grueling look at Civil War combat as viewed by one in the ranks.

          The last of August the regiment left the city (Fredericksburg, Virginia) and moved north to Washington, D.C. to join McClellan for the Maryland campaign and we were assigned to Harland’s Brigade, 9th Corps. The brigade was in advance towards Frederick on the 12th of September. Our group was Company A, 11th Regiment, Connecticut Volunteers. We kept driving their skirmish line back. Here I will give a little incident that occurred.

          While we were driving the Rebel skirmish line back, we were advancing towards a large plantation house standing on the hill. We came near enough to get a good view and were firing on the Rebel line and forcing them back. As we were getting near the house, we got two direct shots from the gable window and quickly replied in return. When we got to the house thinking some of the Rebels were in there, we searched to find no one- only two young women and their mother.  We concluded that the girls had shot at us as we could not find any men. I can say the girls were bitter. When we passed a piano in the hall, the boys with the butts of their guns soon put the piano out of use. They said ‘Damned if those girls will have any more pleasure with that piano!’ I guess we evened it up for shooting at us. We did not disturb anything else.  As I came out of the house, I saw a rooster run around a barn. I drew a shot on him and soon his head came off. I tied him to my back and went on with the line driving the Rebels back.

Frederick, Maryland during the Civil War

          When we reached the top of the hill above Frederick City, we camped for the night. Here I cooked and ate the rooster. We formed a line in the morning of September 13th and charged down the streets. We made short work in cleaning the streets of Rebels. Frederick City was a good Union town and when the streets were in our hands again you could see the flags waving from windows and houses. There people were so overjoyed by the looks of them. They came out on the streets and passed anything they had to eat to give to us. We had to be on our way and kept chasing the Rebel line as we were close on their heels. The rebels were forced to Fox’s Gap at South Mountain where we had a desperate battle. The Rebel lines were formed on each side of the gap on the side of the mountain running partly on the gap with their batteries of artillery to sweep our lines as they advanced. It was about 4 p.m. before our lines formed into position and were ordered forward. We could see the advantage.

          We had to be contented with it but still our line was firm and determined to close in on them. About this time, their battery cut loose and was making our line begin to waver. Soon our batteries came on with a rush and swung into line to check their cannon. There was a battery of six of our cannon which swung into line close to the head of our regiment. Our company A, being the first company, was ordered to support these guns. We fell back to the rear of the cannon. We lay flat on the ground as soon as those guns opened fire. There was a regular artillery engagement and I can say shells were cracking over us. Our gunners were working like beavers to silence their guns. Our line of battle had not got close enough yet to open up their rifles. The artillery lasted two hours before our line got over enough to open. The enemy got engaged in rifle fire. It was getting dark and still the battle was raging. One of the greatest sights I ever saw was that evening where we lay supporting that battery.

Action at Fox's Gap September 14, 1862. The 11th Connecticut supported the Federal batteries on the right side of the map. Map courtesy of the American Battlefield Trust. 

          At the foot of the mountain, we could see both ways from the flashes of the guns. Our boys had slow work in clearing the side of the mountain, but could see they were getting nearer and nearer. About 10 o’clock, our line forced them back and kept following them until we drove them out. Then we could hear our men giving cheer after cheer and we knew we had gained that day or night. It was a grand sight to look out and see the flash of flames of our boys’ guns getting nearer, climbing higher up the side of the mountain and pushing the Rebels higher up until they carried the fight. Our company ranks did not suffer much as we were supporting this battery of six cannons while laying flat on the ground. Those shells from the Rebel cannons were hot for a while, and they exploded near enough to make us hug the ground as close as possible. Our division General Ferey was killed as he commanded the 3rd Division, 9th Corps. [This is incorrect- Pearce’s corps commander Jesse L. Reno was killed at South Mountain; the 3rd Division commander was General Isaac P. Rodman who was mortally wounded at Antietam three days later.]

          The next morning after the battle we were detailed to help bury the dead. This was always a dread to any of us but it had to be done. Orders had to be obeyed as a soldier’s first instructions are to obey orders without any complaint. I saw one place behind a stone wall after getting to the mountain top 16 dead rebels who had been shot and killed. I saw that they quickly turned black. I wondered why. We asked some of the prisoners to learn why, then they told us the officers gave them gun powder and whiskey to be brave and fight harder. We supposed this was the cause of them turning black so soon.

          An advance was again made on the 15th and 16th of September 1862. The enemy was found concentrated behind Antietam Creek. Here I will say as for my observation it was one of the hardest engagements of our regiment because more men were wounded and killed than in any battle were in. Being in front and being in one of the companies that took active part in Stony Bridge that crossed the [Antietam] creek, our loss was over 200 killed and wounded.

Battle of Antietam September 17, 1862
Map courtesy of Hal Jespersen (

          The battle of Antietam was fought September 17, 1862. On the day before, our army was marched into a large field probably one-half mile in the rear from where the Rebel line was waiting for us across the creek. We all lay down on our arms that night. Some of the boys were detailed to fill canteens with water. They went to a house on a ridge beyond us to get water from a well. This house was between the two lines. The boys found the Rebels were after water, too. No one was armed. They agreed not to hurt each other. They got into quite a chat and the Rebels said, “We’uns won’t fight you now, but wait until morning and then we’uns will clean you’ns out!” The boys returned back to us and reported it to the officers, who were fools to go with a squad of men and arrest a few of the Rebels. Of course, the Rebels reported this to their men. In a short time, a battery of Rebels opened fire on us, but being dark they couldn’t quite tell where we were. They had range so their shells caused some excitement. We were close together, but our side did not reply. Soon they quit firing but we well knew what would come in the morning.

When we received our arms after being mustered into U.S. service in Hartford, Connecticut, our Co. A and B were presented by the people with Sharps’ breech loading rifles, while other companies had red Springfield rifles. Companies A and B most always were put on the head skirmish line. [Pearce is referring to a Model 1859 Sharps’ breech-loading rifle, most famously used by Berdan’s Sharpshooters during the Civil War.]

Model 1859 Sharps' breech-loading rifle carried at Antietam by Philo Pearce and the members of Cos. A & B of the 11th Connecticut Volunteers
Image courtesy of the National Firearms Museum

          On the morning of September 17th, we ate our hardtack without any coffee and were soon called to order. We were on the move, getting the lines formed for an advance, on the ridge above the creek. The Rebel battery got a range on us. Soon our batteries were swung into position and the artillery duel commenced. While our colonel [Henry W. Kingsbury] was getting us into line and was on his horse, a shell from the Rebels broke and a piece struck his horse. As the horse fell, I had to dodge to keep it from falling on me. The colonel was not hurt and was soon on his feet, calling us to keep cool. I can say it took some nerve to keep cool as shells were bursting all around us.
Colonel Henry W. Kingsbury, 11th Connecticut
Mortally wounded at Antietam
Photo courtesy of Find-A-Grave

We were soon ordered forward. Cos. A and B as usual were put on the skirmish line ahead of the battle line.  We deployed in line, being about a rod apart and down the ridge toward the creek. Before we got to the creek, we came into a cornfield. [This field was part of the Henry Rohrbach farm.] This was quite a protection, but did not last long. In this cornfield, we came upon a Rebel brass band who had run and left their horns and instruments laying on the ground. We came to the edge of the field where there was a rail fence along the road. The Rebel line was just across the creek from us. Now the ‘fun’ commenced.

          I don’t think we were over 20 rods apart. Our Captain John Griswold was a brave man and jumped over the fence saying ‘come on boys!’ I, with some others, did jump. As we did, we got a volley of shots from the Rebel line. I had a ball cut through the top of my left side but did not cut the flesh. I fell into the road ditch where it had been plowed and scraped. This surely saved my scalp. Now it was time to do our duty. Captain Griswold was hit and he rushed into the creek and kept plunging ahead until he got across. He shouted for us to come and get him but we had our hands full. To say we worked well is putting it mildly. I fired every shot I had and Sergeant Irving Stevens, the man next to me, was hit through his left hand and couldn’t fire anymore. He shoved his cartridge box to me and said ‘I can’t fire anymore.’ I fired so fast that my rifle got hot and I had to pour water on it to cool it.

          I had a good view of their line across the creek on the ridge. Before our battle line got down, I had fired all my shells and what Sergeant Stevens had left. Each man had 60 rounds and all of our company who did not get over the fence fired all their shells. When the battle line came down, each one fell behind the fence. I lay in the ditch in the front as close as I could as the line was falling over me. This lasted until our men to the right charged the bridge with three charges. This forced the Rebel line back as our men kept crossing and driving the Rebels back. Our loss was heavy. Colonel Kingsbury was killed, Major William Moegling was wounded and most all the staff officers killed or wounded.

Captain John Griswold, Co. A
11th Connecticut Volunteers

          After the bridge was taken, two men and myself waded the creek and brought Captain Griswold back. He lived about an hour after we got him across. He gave his watch to the first one over who was Ira Taylor. The other one was Joe Mallory and myself. We carried him back to the hospital on the hill where he died. [The field hospital had been set up in a barn on the Henry Rohrbach farm located just to the east of the Lower Bridge, now known as the Burnside Bridge.] The field was strewn with wounded. We had red stripes tied on our arms and were put to work taking care of the wounded. I carried water and helped the best I could.

     I was working on one of the worst wounded men who had one leg shattered and one arm broken. One of the surgeons ordered us to carry him to the hospital where they amputate. We laid him on the table where surgeons were working in great haste.  I held chloroform to his nose and mouth and soon they had one arm and one leg off, throwing the limbs out the window. As soon as this was done another man was laid on the table. I kept on holding chloroform for a few more. I began to get dizzy from the effect. I staggered outside and when I came to my senses, I was laying on arms and legs. This was enough for me around there.

Action near the Lower Bridge/Rohrbach Bridge. The 11th Connecticut was part of Colonel Edward Harland's brigade of Isaac P. Rodman's division of the IX Corps. 

          I made a break back to find where our company was located. I had to pass over the field where our dead lay. Such a valley of death was enough to turn a man’s heart to stone. I could hardly step without stepping over a corpse. The field was literally strewn with our dead. Two others and myself were pretty well exhausted and hungry for something to eat. I saw one of our dead soldiers had a knapsack with some coffee and hardtack, more than I had. I thought it was no more use to him. I took my knife and cut the strap, then taking it with me. We went down on the creek bank and made a fire to make some coffee. After eating, we had some strength and satisfied our hunger. Then we went to find our company. I found one of our boys’ rifles which I needed because I left mine on the bank when we carried our captain. [Pearce rejoined his command on the west side of Antietam Creek, the regiment having crossed over at Snavely’s Ford.]

Lieutenant Colonel Griffin Stedman, 11th Connecticut

          When we found our company there were only 18 of the 75 going into action the morning before. The rest were killed, wounded, or missing. A sergeant took charge about 2 o’clock in the afternoon. We formed in line with some fresh troops who had not been engaged in the morning. The fresh ones were placed in advance and we were held in reserve to support them. The Rebel line had fallen back upon a ridge and formed their line again, throwing rail piles and whatever they could get for protection. They waited for us to advance.
Lieutenant Henry J. McDonald
Co. A, 11th Connecticut

The green troops in front of us old troops-all were ready.  Lieutenant [Henry J.] McDonald took charge and said ‘Now boys, no man falls out to carry back the wounded. Plenty of men to the rear to do this.’ His language was broken, but he was a brave little officer. Our line was moving forward and our batteries opened fire on the Rebel line with shells cracking all around. We moved ahead on a double-quick charge and were close to their heels. As we neared the top of the bridge, bullets were singing thick and sharp. We spotted a four-foot wide woodpile in front of us and we were making for it. The first man shot was our lieutenant, struck through the rear part of his pants and hips. The first thing we heard was, ‘Oh my God, I’m shot! Two free men carry me back!’ Just about 10 minutes before, he cautioned us to fall out to carry men back. Some of the boys sang out, ‘You go to hell. Plenty of men to the rear to carry you back!’ We ran forward and covered ourselves behind the woodpile from which we could fire at the enemy with good advantage.

We didn’t remain there long as our boys were going forward at a double-quick charge and we were following to support them. The new troops in front made a fine charge but they got impulsive so we had to hold them on our line. When they came back on us, we had a time to hold them and make them fall into our line. I know we had made good work of our guns to keep them from rushing over us. I can say a stampede like this is hard to keep men from pushing through anything. We held and made them get into our line.

The Rebels saw their chance and charged back on our line, thinking they could get our army routed and defeat us. Our batteries in position were waiting for the enemy. When we got in reach of our line, it was our time to make it hot for the Rebels. We broke their line, charged, and gained the rail piles from where they had started. We held them after they again formed but were repulsed and we gained our ground.
11th Connecticut Monument at Antietam

It was not getting towards evening and both sides were glad the bloody day was over. Such a sight as that field again where we fought in the forenoon. The field was filled with our men and Rebels. While we were behind the rail piles and the Rebels were making their last charge, in came our wild Irishman Jim Convoy (of the shell incident). We were firing as fast as we could load and shoot and the bullets were coming over us like hail stones. Jim sang out, ‘Bejabers, hear those muskets sing!’ I can say they were singing but rather the bullets. This showed the grit of which Jim was made. This put us in, mad enough to give them our best licks. Now evening closed on that bloody day of September 17, 1862. We laid down on our arms that night completely exhausted. Our loss was heavy and our regiment lost with about 250 killed, wounded, and missing.

Philo Pearce gravestone at Catawba Island Cemetery in Ohio

After the war, Pearce moved to Catawba Island in Ottawa County, Ohio where he developed a successful fruit orchard. This memoir (this excerpt is only a small portion of the whole memoir which covered Pearce’s entire Civil War service) was composed shortly before Pearce’s death in 1926 and was typed up by a relative. Sometime in the 1980s, the manuscript was donated to the local history room of the Harris-Elmore Public Library in Elmore, Ohio. Philo Stevens Pearce was born October 12, 1843 in New Fairfield, Connecticut and died July 11, 1926 at age 82 in Danbury, Ohio. He is buried at Catawba Island Cemetery.

Detail from the 11th Connecticut Monument at Antietam


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