Marching to Antietam: On Campaign with the 1st Minnesota
Many of us hate Monday mornings, and on Monday morning September 15, 1862, General Willis A. Gorman appeared to be suffering from a case of the Monday morning grumps. The trouble started when he directed Co. L of the 1st Minnesota Infantry to deploy in skirmish line in front of the brigade advance; the Minnesotans dutifully tramped out in front and once they reached the furthest point that Gorman had directed them to march out to, they went to ground. The captain sent back for orders and was told to pull his men off the line and get them some breakfast. On the way back, the company met General Gorman who, just having returned from General George McClellan’s headquarters, was in a foul mood.
“In a passionate and angry way peculiarly his own, the General accused our company of straggling and demanded of Captain Russell what had become of his men. On being informed by the Captain that all were present who went with him in the reconnaissance, the General declared it was not so and ordered us back to our former position. We then countermarched and followed the General to the top of the mountain. There, at a public house, where we were kept waiting a full half hour, the General may have procured something to improve his spirits. At last, he appeared and in the blandest manner ordered us to return to camp and get our breakfast as quickly as possible so as to be ready to march with the regiment. It thus seems that jealousy, because Captain Russell did not wait his order to return, or the want of his morning bitters or something unknown to the writer caused his to do us a great injustice by countermanding Colonel Sully’s order,” recalled one veteran. “It is unfortunate to say the least that a man who has capacity for a General should measurably destroy his influence with his soldiers by such petty acts of tyranny or freaks of passion.”
The following account written by a member of Co. L of the 1st Minnesota Volunteer Infantry known only as “Sharpshooter” was published in the October 3, 1862 edition of the Weekly Pioneer & Democrat of St. Paul, Minnesota.
|Sergeant James Ackers of Co. H of the 1st Minnesota sports his overcoat and striped trousers. The Kentucky native was killed in action July 2, 1863 at Gettysburg.|
In hospital near Sharpsburg battlefield, Maryland
September 19, 1862
On the 11th instant, General Sumner’s corps forming the right wing of McClellan’s advance reached Hyattsville in full view of Sugar Loaf Mountain at an early hour. The 1st Minnesota was in the rear of the division, but in this case (as is usual when danger is near), it was called to the front at double-quick speed and, with our own skirmishers in advance, swept over the abrupt hills in line of battle. Our regiment did not come upon the enemy, though some skirmishing occurred in other parts of the field. Having gained a strong position, we rested for the night. Co. L, the Sharpshooters, was the advance picket and the regiment lay upon its arms as a reserve.
On the 12th, our corps advanced in three columns of the Fredericktown road, the center column with the artillery and cavalry, keeping the road, and a flanking column about 200 yards distant on either side, marching through field, ravine, and forest. Our division was on the left of the road and the country being exceedingly hilly and broken, we were either climbing or descending an abrupt hillside nearly all the time which made our march a tiresome one in the hot sun, and especially so to your correspondent whose flesh was newly acquired since a late illness and whose feet had become tender during a two month’s sick leave. But with all the weariness of the march, I could not help admiring the beauty of the scene as the three long columns stretched in even measure over hills and through valleys, occasionally screened by cornfields, forests, or hillsides. We were sometimes cheered by the fife and drum or rallied from a short repose by the “attention” call of the regimental buglers. Foot-sore and weary, our regiment that night lay down to rest on a beautiful slope, facing the rising moon which we watched till we fell asleep.
On the 13th, we again moved in three columns, Sedgwick taking the road, and our company of sharpshooters in connection with Co. I was provost guard to the division. It was our business, therefore, to prevent all straggling and compel every soldier by the wayside to advance who had no sick pass from some physician. That day we passed the Monocacy River at the point where the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad crossed that river and saw the ruins of the magnificent iron bridge which the Rebels had blown up just a few days previous. At this point, for miles, evidence was abundant that the enemy had encamped in force. The stench of offal, the carcasses of horses, the old campfires, the cornfields stripped of ears, and worn-out clothing cast aside all indicated a large force and a prolonged stay.
Three or four miles beyond the river we came to Fredericktown, a really beautiful city about the size of St. Paul, Minnesota. A thousand Union flags decorated the streets and buildings; a thousand ladies greeted us with smiles and cheers and handed to the thirsty soldiers the cooling draught of water. All conspired to cheer us on our weary way. Many of the ladies asked why we had not gotten there sooner, and when told that we had nearly killed ourselves to reach there, thanked us. They said the Rebels had been there in force about five days previous and only the day before the last of them disappeared. They took from the citizens what they chose and paid in Confederate scrip; they would pay with nothing else and when asked to take the same trash in payment for what a citizen might buy of a Rebel, refused it. Altogether, the presence of Jackson’s men was not very profitable to the people of Fredericktown. Passing through we camped about a mile from town near the city reservoir. And this reminds me that a better watered country cannot be named than that we have traversed from Washington to this place. It is also a country abounding in beautiful landscape.
|A Confederate $10 bill dated September 2, 1862 printed at Hoyer & Ludwig in Richmond, Virginia. Ceres rests upon a bale of cotton giving the promise to pay the bearer six months after a peace treaty was signed with the United States.|
On Sunday the 14th, we took an early start for the mountains beyond Fredericktown, and to inspire us we had the roar of cannon ahead. Taking a wrong road cost us two or three hours’ time and made our day’s march considerably harder as it was nearly night when we had climbed and descended the mountain on the other side. When we had reached the western slope, we could distinctly see the smoke of every discharge of the cannon, the sound of which would not reach us for near a minute.
When we had partially crossed the intervening valley, we took positions as if to camp for the night; but just as the boys had begun to cook their suppers, we were called into line and in immense columns, the whole army poured forward in a direct line towards where the cannon told us the fight was raging. This part of our march, about eight miles, was nearly all the way over a succession of ridges and ravines which made down from the mountain. Part of the time we would go at double-quick time, and then again have to wait while those in advance were passing some almost impassable ravine or creek. It was after dark when we reached the large stream which here flows at the base of the mountain, the bridge across which had been destroyed by the enemy. We plunged in and forded the stream. By this time, the firing had ceased. The battle of the day was over, and we began to meet the wounded. A stretcher passed us on which, we were told, rested the mangled body of General Jesse Reno.
From this point, our advance was silent and cautious. Gorman’s brigade was marched directly to the battlefield. The tramp of men was the only sound, save the groans of the wounded. The darkness itself was horrible because we knew not how much horror it concealed. Silently and cautiously, we were guided to the very front, and there, amid the awful shade of the mountain, and darkness, and death, the weary brigade after a march of 20 difficult miles lay down to rest with their arms in their hands and with all their equipment on. Wet from profuse perspiration and the fording of the river, the air of night chilled us all, and but little rest was obtained.
At break of day on the 15th, Co. L (Captain William F. Russell’s Sharpshooters) was called to skirmish through the woods and over the hills in advance where the enemy’s battery had been the evening previous. In connection with the 15th Massachusetts Sharpshooters, we did so, and had the satisfaction to see the last picket guard of the Rebels disappear over the mountain.
I wish here to relate an incident that seriously interfered with both the temper and the condition of the company. General Gorman, who sent us on this rather perilous adventure, went back to General McClellan’s headquarters to report. Meantime, the morning advanced, the sun came out burning hot, and the columns of our advancing army pushed on up the mountain road beyond the point the line of skirmishers were told to reach. We were all tired, foot-sore, and hungry for the loss of supper the evening previous and the want of breakfast that morning. Under these circumstances, it seemed perfectly proper that Captain Russell should send back for order and to whom should he send, in General Gorman’s absence, but to Colonel Alfred Sully? He did so send, and in reply received orders to take his company back where they could breakfast and thus be ready to march.
While passing down the road to where wood and water could be procured, we met General Gorman on his return. In a passionate and angry way peculiarly his own, the General accused our company of straggling and demanded of Captain Russell what had become of his men. On being informed by the Captain that all were present who went with him in the reconnaissance, the General declared it was not so and ordered us back to our former position. The returning Massachusetts company received the same order, and we then countermarched and followed the General to the top of the mountain. There, at a public house, where we were kept waiting a full half hour, the General may have procured something to improve his spirits. At last, he appeared and in the blandest manner ordered us to return to camp and get our breakfast as quickly as possible so as to be ready to march with the regiment. It thus seems that jealousy, because Captain Russell did not wait his order to return, or the want of his morning bitters or something unknown to the writer caused his to do us a great injustice by countermanding Colonel Sully’s order. The result was that before we had time to cook and eat our breakfast, the brigade was ordered to march and Co. L, weary and dispirited, with coffee swallowed hot and in haste or not at all, took up their line of march for Antietam Creek. It is unfortunate to say the least that a man who has capacity for a General should measurably destroy his influence with his soldiers by such petty acts of tyranny or freaks of passion.
Letter from “Sharpshooter,” Co. L, 1st Minnesota Volunteer Infantry, Weekly Pioneer & Democrat (Minnesota), October 3, 1862, pg. 8
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