Taking the Sunken Road: The 8th Ohio at Antietam

The 8th Ohio Volunteer Infantry was raised through north-central Ohio in the opening days of the Civil War, with companies being raised in Crawford, Cuyahoga, Erie, Huron, Medina, Sandusky, and Seneca Counties. Company A from Seneca County styled themselves the “Seneca Sharpshooters” while Company B from Cuyahoga County called themselves the “Hibernian Guards.”

Co. A- Tiffin, Co. B- Cleveland, Co. C-Bucyrus, Co. D-Norwalk, Co. E- Sandusky, Co. F-Fremont, Co. G-Fremont, Co. H-Medina, Co. I-Elyria, Co. K-Medina

The 8th Ohio, under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Franklin Sawyer at the Battle of Antietam and carried a mixture of arms at the battle. Five companies carried Enfield rifles (Cos. A, B, C, D, and F) one company carried .69 caliber M1842 smoothbores (Co. K), while the remaining four (E,G,H, and I) carried Miles Greenwood converted M1842 .69 caliber rifled muskets. 

The regiment belonged to Brigadier General Nathan Kimball’s First Brigade of General William French’s Third Division of General Edwin V. Sumner’s Second Corps. The brigade consisted of 4 regiments, the 8th Ohio, 14th Indiana, the 7th (West) Virginia, and a newly raised one-year regiment, the 132nd Pennsylvania. The brigade took part in the Federal assault against the Confederate center at Antietam, battling with two brigades for possession of the Sunken Road. This blog post tells their story of trying to take the Sunken Road in their own words...

Lieutenant Colonel Franklin Sawyer: “On the morning of the 16th we were awakened by the roar of artillery in our front, occasionally solid shot dropping among us. One of these came tearing down along our stacks of muskets and striking Corporal William W. Farmer of Co. D, then acting as color bearer, literally cut him in two. The Second Corps occupied nearly the same position during the day, losing but few men though the artillery fire in our front was incessant. The Rebel artillery was posted on a ridge in front of Sharpsburg while the ridge in front of us and other advantageous positions at our right and left were covered with our own guns which kept up an unremitting fire. The men were kept down out of sight, the artillery directing their fire mainly at each other.

                Just in the dusk of the evening, a most terrific artillery duel opened. Some of us crept up the hill among our guns to witness it. Nothing could be more grand. The red glare of flame along the Rebel lines for more than a mile, the answering volumes of fire from our batteries, the bright streams of light along the tracks of the shells, and the livid clouds of smoke as the shells burst in the air constituted a spectacle brilliant beyond comparison. This gradually died away and the men laid down on their arms again to quiet slumber- many, alas for the last time. The night was clear and beautiful, still and awfully solemn. We thought of the morrow."

                 A little after 7 o’clock, Sedgwick’s Division moved out, and ours followed next, then Richardson’s. We moved back to near Keedysville, and then filing to the left, passed down over the bluff banks of Antietam Creek, and forded the stream, then nearly waist deep to the men. As we passed over the bluffs, we came in sight of the battle on Hooker’s left. The enemy’s batteries posted in the neighborhood of some farm buildings beyond Roulette’s farm opened on us while the Federal batteries on the bluffs replied savagely, and as we dropped down the valley we could see grain stacks and buildings on fire on Hooker’s left, and the battle rapidly closing in on that point.

                Crossing the river, we passed to the rear of a wood that shut out our view of the battle. Our column halted to form its line of battle. Sedgwick was already in line, and moving gallantly to the front. General French formed his battle line rapidly, with General Max Weber’s brigade in front, Colonel Dwight Morris’ brigade in the second line, and General Kimball’s in the third. Sedgwick had already struck the enemy, as the roar of his artillery and rattle of musketry plainly told. French ordered his line forward on the left of Sedgwick’s position. Weber pushed out of the woods, driving the Rebel skirmishers before him and engaging a strong force of the enemy in a cornfield and under the cover of buildings and orchards on Roulette’s farm. Colonel Morris following closely was soon engaged also, but the Rebels falling back took post along the crest of a hill back of the Roulette buildings and in a sunken road on the same crest further to the left, and poured in such a deadly fire that both of these brigades gave way and sought cover."

Ezra Carman“While the two brigades were engaged with Rodes and Anderson, Captain S.S. Sumner of the corps staff rode up to French with an order from General Sumner to push on and make a diversion in favor of Sedgwick who was being severely handled by McLaws. The order came when Kimball, following Morris from the East Woods, had passed the Roulette buildings and halted for alignment 350 yards in the rear of Weber and Morris, the right wing (14th Indiana and 8th Ohio) midway in Roulette’s apple orchard, the left wing (132nd Pennsylvania and 7th West Virginia) beyond the Roulette lane. The 8th Ohio rested its left on the lane, on its right was the 14th Indiana; the 132nd Pennsylvania rested its right on the lane, on its left was the 7th West Virginia. The men were lying down and Kimball called them to attention. ‘Boys we are going in now to lick the rebels, and we will stay with them, all day if necessary.’

"Knapsacks were taken off and piled under the apple trees, bayonets fixed, and the entire line, starting at the double quick, moved steadily and magnificently forward over the open plain under a heavy fire of shell and in the face of a sheet of musketry which dropped men here and there. The right wing swept past the 14th Connecticut and over that part of the 130th Pennsylvania on its left, and as it approached the 5th Maryland and some of the 130th Pennsylvania in front, cried, ‘get to the rear you fellows’ and with a roar and a blaze passed over the ridge to receive such a staggering fire from the artillery on the right, and the musketry of Anderson and Rodes in front that it recoiled to the line held by the 5th Maryland. The right wing of the 14th Indiana was closed in to the left, under cover of this ridge, to avoid the artillery fire to which it was exposed, and in this position both the 14th Indiana and 8th Ohio opened a steady fire which was continued until the Confederates were driven from the road or surrendered"

 "As soon as Kimball’s men recovered from the staggering blow, under which they had recoiled, the color bearers of the 14th Indiana and 8th Ohio crawled along the ground and planted their colors defiantly on the very crest of the ridge, the full color guard rallying around them. On these the men formed and lying face to the ground, began their work, firing at the heads and shoulders of such of the enemy as exposed themselves in the sunken road, and at others who were firing from the cornfield beyond."
Lieutenant Colonel Franklin Sawyer

Captain Benjamin F. Ogle, Co. A: “It was one of those clear, serene, sunny mornings, and the sun never looked down upon a more beautiful landscape dotted with cottages and quiet little homes and farms, where fields and orchards were laden with fruits and grain, the bounty of the beneficent heaven, so soon to be drenched in the best blood of the nation. The artillery of the enemy opened fire early in the morning, and they shells came whistling and bursting in our ranks along the whole line. Our infantry lines dashed forward across the creek under cover of the most terrific fire of our artillery on the heights in our rear. Our line lines of battle shoved up to within 200 yards of the enemy, then massed and in an orchard, and the descent of the ground have us advantage enough to fire from the three lines over the heads of the front. Here the work of death commenced and after an hour’s fire, the front line was so completely decimated and what few there was left had shot away all their cartridges and were ordered back. Our line was ordered to charge which was successfully done, driving the enemy over a hill and into a lane, so washed by the rains as to form a natural breastwork, in which they crowded and were reinforced by fresh troops who poured into us a most deadly fire.

                "Our brave boys, so decimated as were our ranks, never wavered or shrank an inch, but stood up to their work with undaunted courage. In the meantime, our artillery had crossed the creek and was reinforced by a battery of flying artillery, and took a post upon the high ground in our immediate rear. The hottest fire of the day was at this point which lasted about two hours at a range of less than 150 yards."

Color Sergeant James Conlan, Co. B: “Color Sergeant James Conlan of the brave Hibernian Guards behaved like a hero. He stood throughout the fray, the mark for hundreds of Rebel rifles aimed especially at him, but he never quailed for an instant. The men of the regiment kept shouting ‘Show them the colors, Jimmy!’ and Sergeant Conlan would shake the colors at the enemy and defy them to get them.” 

Captain Daniel Lewis, Co. C: “In order to get a proper range on the enemy, we had to take position on a knoll which had a gradual descent and at the base of which, and about 30 rods from our line, was a ditch in which one line of the enemy was concealed while just beyond the ditch and in a cornfield were two more lines of the enemy, thus making three brigades drawn up in line in our front, while our brigade was exposed to the fire of all three of these lines of the enemy. The enemy at first disputed our advance to this knoll but we, by a charge of bayonets, soon gained our position when one of the most desperate battles of the war ensured. The enemy fought with stubbornness and desperation, while we fought with equal bravery and effect. The enemy had a battery planted on our front and right from which they poured upon our line a constant volley of grape and canister. Our men never wavered our flinched, but with a coolness unequaled, steadily gained a little ground. The air appeared to be filled with shot and shell and the crack of musketry was perfectly deafening, and a constant and dense column of smoke ascended from the lines.

                While in the midst of this engagement, our ammunition gave out. The men fired their 60 rounds and wanted more. Lieutenant Colonel Sawyer ordered them to supply their arms from the boxes of the dead and wounded, Sawyer carrying boxes himself and distributing them along the line. The enemy in this ditch soon began to waver. This was the signal for our men to charge, and with a loud huzza, we charged on the ditch, taking 150 prisoners. While we were charging on the ditch, the enemy had driven Sedgwick back on our right and were coming in on that flank. We hastily changed front, and by a well-directed volley, so staggered the enemy as to hold them in check until Mansfield came up on our right and drove them from there. About this time, reinforcements arrived and we were taken to a less exposed position. My horse was shot in four different places but I came through without a scratch. Company C went into action with 32 men and lost 20 in killed and wounded. Company C fought as it always has done, with the greatest of courage and coolness."

First Lieutenant Azor H. Nickerson, Co. I: "We reached an orchard with an open lawn extending each way on either side. As the firing commenced, General French being afraid that some of the new troops would not stand under heavy fire, which he knew they must encounter, had ordered General Kimball’s brigade to be held in reserve, and we were halted in the orchard while Morris’ brigade was advanced to the crest of the line of little hills which lay distinctly in front of and parallel with a deep ravine, and a cornfield beyond. As soon as they reached the crest of these rises of ground, they were met by a tremendous volley from the enemy posted in the ravine and cornfield. They wavered for a few minutes, then breaking, came back at a Bull Run pace, threatening to overrun everything that stood in their way. Our lines that stood fast and by shouts of “cowards” and threats to “charge bayonets” on them if they did not halt, they were checked.

             Then came brave Kimball’s order “Forward 14th Indiana! Forward 8th Ohio!” This order, echoed by our no less brave Sawyer, Winslow, and Lewis, was gladly obeyed and moved steadily forward at quick time. We took the ranks of the new regiments with us and went up to meet the foe. Again the enemy poured forth a murderous fire, but this time they got as good as they sent. The new troops encouraged, fought side by side with us gallantly. The air seemed hissing hot with rifle balls. Crashing through our ranks would come terrible discharges of grape and canister, while the bursting of heavy shells from a battery directly in our front would create a juvenile earthquake about the head.

Twice the enemy charged our center and was as many times repulsed. Our ammunition was gone, that of our dead and wounded nearly exhausted. The enemy was being reinforced, but none reached us. “Oh, for a charge” is echoed along the line. The new troops on the right and left have lost some of their field officers and cannot be trusted. Just then, moving up from our left, is seen brave General Meagher with his gallant Irish Brigade. They are charging. The Hoosiers and Buckeyes cannot be held back longer. “Fix bayonets and charge!” With a rush and a cheer, the orders are obeyed and three hundred prisoners are captured in the ravine from which they annoyed us so long. Pushing the enemy back while Meagher is pressing them on the left the enemy are faced around, and on our right, being unsupported, they turn that flank. The 14th Indiana will not run, while the 8th Ohio is on the left, so changing front, the two regiments joined with Meagher’s brigade and side by side they charged across the cornfield, that is, all that was left of them.

At this critical point, General Smith’s Division of General Franklin’s Corps arrived and relieving Kimball’s Brigade, they are brought off to replenish their ammunition and count their losses. Sad duty. Out of 320 who went into the battle that morning, 150 only remained uninjured. Thirty-two are dead; and although our noble surgeon Major Thomas McEbright with his little corps of assistants, under the God-given banner whose device is “Our motto is to save,” are doing all they can, many are dying of their wounds. Lieutenants Lantry and Bill are added; Lieutenants DeLaney and Barnes are mortally wounded; Sergeants West, Varney, Sawtell, and others just as brave will never be with us again. Lieutenants Thompson and Smith have each lost an eye. Lieutenants Craig, Wetherell, and Nickerson have also felt the Rebel hail. Lieutenant Colonel Sawyer, Major Winslow, Adjutant Lewis, Quartermaster Dickinson, Captains Tillotson, Gregg, Kenney, Allen, Reid, and Miller, with Lieutenant Farnum, though narrowly escaping in many instances, are still unhurt. May we soon meet the living. For the dead, we can only say, brave soldiers, gallant comrades, farewell!”

The Sunken Road after the battle as depicted by James Hope.

             “In this road the enemy were almost entirely hid from sight, while we stood exposed to a sweeping fire, totally unprotected. The range being so short and fire therefore so deadly, I thought we should capture the position and not remain there and be wiped out of existence. Springing to the front, I called upon my men to follow me. I believe that nearly the whole regiment followed and we had gotten so near that the Confederates put up on their muskets and ramrods all the old dirty white clothes they could find in token of surrender. A Confederate reinforcing column soon came up in the cornfield back of the sunken road, and I could plainly see the Palmetto flag of South Carolina side by side with the Georgia state colors, as the column deployed into line of battle and opened upon us. At this our friends in the ditch pulled down their white flags and reopened their fire, and all together, they swept the hillside where we stood very much as a stalwart mower cuts a swath in the meadow.” Nickerson fired at a particular Confederate, who fired at him, both missing. While reloading, Nickerson was struck, severely wounded in the right shoulder.

                “On looking around, it did not seem there was a living man near me, till my eyes rested upon a devoted friend. On duty he was Captain Richard Allen and I Lieutenant Nickerson, but when we were off duty, he was ‘Dick’ and I ‘Nick. As I turned, still holding the half-loaded musket in my left hand and growing paler every minute from the loss of blood, he saw that I was badly hurt and calling out said, ‘Nick go to the rear!’ And then, as I still clung to the old musket and looked wistfully back to the spot where my dualistic enemy was safely posted, he put his command in more positive official form and said, ‘Lieutenant, go to the hospital immediately!’

                The hospital on the field of battle is anywhere that the surgeons happen to be. In this case it was the barnyard of the Roulette house and when I reached it the sight was appalling. It seemed as though nearly the whole of my regiment was there.”

Surgeon Thomas McEbright: “After some five days of excessive toil and professional labor with a back nearly broken from continued stooping, I take this first respite from my duties since the battle of last Wednesday near Sharpsburg to report you my version of the misery as it occurred on that part of the field of carnage and death in our immediate point. It was a victory, though dearly purchased, and by it I think the Union saved, and there are those still in the land imposed with the spirit of the revolutionary heroes. “The houses and barns of the neighborhood filled with scenes of horror and suffering that would appall the most hardened in the shedding of blood. At the Roulette barn, where I had my operative depot, oh what a scene of misery! Here were mingled the lacerated and maimed from all parts of the world mingling their plaintive cries and dying groans. Braves from the lakes and mountains of Northern climes as from the magnolia scented cottages of the sunny South. The Rebels especially were objects of my especial commiseration. The extreme wounded were those generally obtained by us, and their dirty haggard appearance, aside from their mangled limbs and contused bodies, is not the most pleasant to look upon. (For I do not exaggerate when I say that the Secesh army as a whole is the filthiest set of beings in appearance (raw Indians and Mexicans not excepted) the world ever saw.  The cry was doctor here and everywhere help implored. The wailing sound dies but slowly in my ears and my dreams are oft disturbed by the revisions of the sights which make even victory sad.”

Assistant Surgeon Samuel Sexton: "“Perhaps no more proper occasion will occur during the war for a reference to what is best for our friends at home to do in the event of another great battle. After the engagement of the 17th, citizens began to arrive on the ground daily until the present writing. Many were curious to see a battlefield, others had friends or relatives wounded or killed. Many came as volunteer surgeons and nurses. Various Christian Commissions came with their useful supplies. And here let me say that if it had not been for the latter, untold suffering would have occurred.

                Of the volunteer surgeons I have one word. They mostly came with a case of amputating instruments displayed in their hands, and paid no attention whatever to the suffering soldier. Their only inquiry was for “operations.” Any unfortunate soldier who happened to be carried to the army hospital away from his division or any luckless Confederate who possessed a shattered limb was sure to receive an anxious examination from the first-class operating surgeon, and if there existed any excuse, he was soon dismembered secundem artem. These cases, after amputation, were always left to some kind medical officer for after attention which is always the most important labor connected therewith. These professional gentlemen paid no attention, as I before remarked, to the wounded soldier’s actual wants, but when done cutting were not again to be found. It is but just to say that there were noble exceptions, but they were very few.

Medical aid after a great battle of greatly demanded, but those who come should expect ceaseless labor for weeks, hard fare, and much minor surgery. The supplies most needed are clothing, surgical appliances, and restoratives as it is impossible for the surgeon to find transportation for when in the field. Woolen shirts and drawers are invaluable, for when the wounded soldier is carried to the field depot, his clothes are often torn in pieces and saturated with blood. Wine, whiskey, and brandy are always needed, not only to relive faintness and exhaustion, but after wounds commence suppurating, they are largely required to keep up the powers of life."

Lieutenant Colonel Franklin Sawyer:"The 8th Ohio was very weak, having only 324 men, our movements of late having been so rapid to our convalescents could not catch up. We had 17 officers and lost 9, two killed and seven wounded, 148 men killed and wounded and eight missing. The officers killed were Lt. Santz and Lt. Harper Bill, who was a great favorite with me, having been for a year our sergeant major and most constantly near me and with me. The generals all compliment the gallant conduct of the 8th and I am certainly proud to be a member of it and share in their praise. I do not intend to carry the idea that the 8th did all the fighting, or any more than its duty."

Captain Benjamin F. Ogle, Co. A: "We have sent to Washington and Frederick to get shovels to bury the dead. The Secesh dead are not buried and they make a horrid scent, too bad to stand. We are so near the battleground that the smell of the dead is almost suffocating. The number is so great that it will be three days before the Secesh are all buried. None of them are yet buried and the stench of them and the horses is horrid.”

Private Cornelius Albertson, Co. C: “Our regiment is very small and we feel the loss of our brother soldiers very much, but such is the fate of war. We have 150 men left in our regiment. This is the hardest looking sight I have ever seen. The Secesh are not all buried yet. I tell you it is an awful sight. We have had a great victory and have taken a great many prisoners. We have been whipping them for seven days and driving them like chaff before the wind and expect a fight tomorrow. I think this will settle the war.”

8th Ohio Monument at Antietam

The various companies were commanded by the following at the battle:
Co. A:  First Lieutenant George S. Smith (wounded in left eye)
Went into action: 39
Casualties: 2 killed, 10 wounded

Co. B: Captain William Kinney (both lieutenants were mortally wounded)
Went into action:
Casualties: 2 killed, 20 wounded

Co. C: Lieutenant Azor H. Nickerson (wounded in shoulder)
Went into action: 32
Casualties: 4 killed, 18 wounded

Co. D: Captain John Reid
Went into action:
Casualties: 3 killed, 10 wounded

Co. E: Captain James E. Gregg
Went into action:
Casualties: 1 killed, 7 wounded

Co. F: Captain George M. Tillotson
Went into action:
Casualties: 5 killed, 16 wounded

Co. G: First Lieutenant Creighton Thompson (wounded in eyes)
 Went into action:
Casualties: 2 killed, 12 wounded

Co. H: Captain Wells Waite Miller
Went into action:
Casualties: 4 killed, 16 wounded

Co. I: First Lieutenant Azor H. Nickerson (wounded in shoulder)
Went into action: 29
Casualties: 4 killed, 15 wounded, 2 missing

Co. K: Second Lieutenant Horace Harper Bill (killed in action)
Went into action:
Casualties: 4 killed, 15 wounded

Carman, Ezra A.  The Maryland Campaign of September 1862. Vol. II Antietam.  El Dorado: Savas Beatie, 2012

Clark, Walter, editor. Histories of the Several Regiments from North Carolina in the Great War, 1861-65. Volume I. State of North Carolina, 1901, pgs. 167-68
Cunningham, David and Wells Waite Miller. Antietam: Report of the Ohio Antietam Battlefield Commission. Springfield: Springfield Publishing Co., 1904
Sawyer, Franklin. Military History of the 8th Regiment Ohio Vol. Inf’y: Its Battles, Marches, and Army Movements. Cleveland: Fairbanks & Co., 1881, pgs. 75-83
Wheeler, Richard. Lee’s Terrible Swift Sword: From Antietam to Chancellorsville: An Eyewitness History. Edison: Castle Books, 2006, pgs. 123-24 (Wheeler quotes Nickerson from one of these two sources: Antietam, a Reminiscence. Azor H. Nickerson. Blue and Gray. II. pgs. 343-347. Philadelphia. PA. 1893 or Antietam-Sharpsburg, 1862. Azor H. Nickerson. Blue and Gray. IV. pgs. 125-134. Philadelphia. PA. 1894)
Williams, W.W. History of the Firelands, Comprising Huron and Erie Counties, Ohio. Cleveland: Press of the Leader Publishing Co., 1879, pgs. 148-49
Bucyrus Journal, October 3, 1862, pg. 1
Bucyrus Journal, October 10, 1862, pg. 1
Cincinnati Daily Commercial, October 1, 1862, pg. 1
Elyria Independent Democrat, September 24, 1862, pg. 3
Holmes County Farmer, October 9, 1862, pg. 3
Norwalk Reflector, September 30, 1862, pgs. 1 and 2
Tiffin Weekly Tribune, October 10, 1862, pg. 1
Tiffin Weekly Tribune, October 17, 1862, pg. 1
Tiffin Weekly Tribune, November 14, 1862, pg. 2
Wheeling Daily Intelligencer, October 14, 1862, pg. 1


  1. Great use of the McE maps! I can see the battle so much better when maps are employed.


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