The Storm of Blood That is Sure to Reign: At Antietam with the 2nd North Carolina

     In part 3 of this series, Lieutenant John Calvin Gorman of the 2nd North Carolina describes his participation in the Battle of Antietam on September 17, 1862. General George B. Anderson’s all-North Carolina brigade consisting of the 2nd, 4th, 14th, and 30th regiments took a position along the Sunken Road that morning and fought for hours against repeated Federal assaults. The casualties were horrific, as Gorman’s regiment lost two-thirds of the 300 men that marched into battle that day, and Gorman himself was wounded twice, once in the head and a second time in the foot.

The combat in this sector of the field was incredibly violent and intense. “The air is full of lead, and many are shot as they are aiming at the enemy, and the groans of the wounded are heard amid the roar of musketry,” Gorman remembered. “Colonel Charles Tew was killed about 11 o’clock, a Minie ball penetrating his brain. It is certain death to leave the road wounded as the balls fly so thick over us. We hear reinforcements coming up behind us, but the fire is so hot they were not able to come to our succor and were forced to fall back.”

Gorman’s letter, written to his wife and mother while he was convalescing from his wounds in Charlestown, Virginia just four days after the battle, was originally published in both the October 1, 1862, edition of the Raleigh Semi-Weekly Standard and the October 6, 1862, edition of the Spirit of the Age, also published in Raleigh.

To read part 1, click here.

To read part 2, click here

 

John T. Fraley of Co. E of the 2nd North Carolina, posed here with a fierce-looking Bowie knife, was serving in the ranks as a sergeant at Antietam. He was commissioned lieutenant a week after the battle after the regiment's heavy losses and would serve at that rank until 1864; he was wounded May 12, 1864 at Spotsylvania Courthouse and died three days later. 

 Charlestown, Virginia

September 21, 1862

 Dear Wife and Mother,

          The enemy was wary and though making demonstrations, did not dare to cross Antietam creek which remained the dividing line between us until Wednesday morning. We threw out skirmishers to the creek bank, placed our artillery in position, and though desultory fighting between the pickets was continuous and not an hour passed but the booming of cannon and the whiz of shell grated on the ear, we ate, slept, and stood in line of battle through the long hours of Monday night, Tuesday, and Tuesday night.

On Tuesday, one division of Jackson’s victorious corps joined us. They had, while we were fighting on South Mountain on Sunday, been busily fighting near Harper’s Ferry, and succeeded on Monday evening in capturing the whole garrison of 13,000 Yankees, 15,000 stand of arms, and about 90 of the most improved pieces of field artillery together with a large lot of ammunition, clothing, shoes, horses, and wagons. I have seen all the captured articles myself.

A U.S. Model 1861 Springfield rifle lockplate recovered from Antietam.
(The Horse Soldier of Gettysburg) 


Our battle line was now formed anew. Jackson’s troops were put on the right, D.H. Hill in the center, and Longstreet’s on the left facing the creek with their backs towards the Potomac. All day long Tuesday we could see heavy columns of Yankees arriving in front of our lines and I felt that the crisis was near.

At daylight on Wednesday morning, we were awakened by heavy artillery and musket firing on our left and each man was ordered to his place. Desperate and heavy does it rolls from the left and the sound seems to come nearer. Soon we see the wounded coming limping towards us, and they say the enemy has attacked our left flank in heavy force and our men are falling back. Look at that cloud of dust! Our artillery is retreating and while we are straining our eyes in the direction of the retreating mass of men that are just emerging in view, away over the open hills on our left.

A galloping courier arrives and directs General Hill to change his front to the left. Quickly we are faced to the left, marching through a growing field of corn, and then filed to the left in a long lane that runs parallel to our left flank. Our whole division take position in the lane: Ripley on the extreme left, Garland’s next, Rodes’ next, and Anderson’s on the right. Away goes Longstreet’s retreating line to our rear. In a few moments I could see the advancing line of Yankees. Three heavy columns are approaching us, extending to the right and left as far as we can see, each column about 100 yards behind the other, and the nearest scarce 400 yards distant. To oppose this was Hill’s weak little division, scarce one-fourth as large and my very heart sank within me as I heard General Anderson say to one of his aides to hurry to the rear and tell General Hill for God’s sake send us reinforcements as it was hopeless to contend against the approaching columns.

Lieutenant Gorman overheard his worried brigade commander Brigadier General George B. Anderson hurrying an aide to the rear asking for reinforcements as the Federal line approached his position along the Sunken Road. Anderson was struck by a Minie ball in his ankle that morning which forced him to relinquish command. The North Carolinian died a month later following surgery on his infected foot. 


It was now about 8 o’clock. The battle had begun also on the right of our first position and Jackson was hotly engaged. Sharpshooters were sent about 50 yards to the front of us, and our lie ordered to lie down in the lane and hold their fire till the enemy was close to us. I stood near Colonel Tew on the crest of a hill in front of our position and gazed with tumultuous emotion over the fast-approaching line. Our little corps seemed doomed to destruction, but not an eye flinched, nor a nerve quivered, and you could observe the battle light of determination on every countenance. I then felt sure that we would do honor to our noble old state that day though we would not live to see it again.

On moved the columns until I could distinguish the stars on their flaunting banners, see the mounted officers, and hear their words of command. Just then, a Yankee horseman waved his hat at us, and Colonel Tew returned the compliment. It was the last I saw of the colonel. Our skirmishers began to fire on the advancing line, and we returned to ours. Slowly they approached up the hill and slowly our skirmishers retired before them, firing as they come. Our skirmishers are ordered to come into the line. Here they are, right before us, scarce 50 yards off, but as if with one feeling our whole line pours a deadly volley into their ranks. They drop, reel, stagger, and back their first lines go beyond the crest of the hill. Our men reload and wait for them to again approach, while the first column of the enemy meets the second, they rally, and move forward again.

Colonel Charles C. Tew, 2nd North Carolina
Killed in action


They meet with the same reception and back again they go to come back when met by their third line. Here they all come. You can see their mounted riders cheering them on and with a sickly “huzzah” they again approach us at a charge, but another volley sends their whole line reeling back. They then approach the top of the hill cautiously, and lying down, we pour into each other one continuous shower of leaden hail for four long mortal hours. The whole air resounds with the din of arms. Musket, rifle, cannon, and shell pour forth an avalanche of lead and iron.

Our men are protected by about six or eight inches of the wear of the road, but that is great protection, and they fire cautiously and are apparently as cool as if shooting at squirrels, taking sure aim every fire. The protection, however, is not sufficient. The air is full of lead, and many are shot as they are aiming at the enemy, and the groans of the wounded are heard amid the roar of musketry. Colonel Tew was killed about 11 o’clock, a Minie ball penetrating his brain. It is certain death to leave the road wounded as the balls fly so thick over us. We hear reinforcements coming up behind us, but the fire is so hot they were not able to come to our succor and were forced to fall back.

Our numbers are perceptibly reduced by deaths and wounds and our fire slackens, while the enemy has succeeded in planting a battery that rakes the roads and sends many to eternity at every discharge. Our left has given away and the enemy has already crossed the line in our rear. At last, the order is given to fall back and the few that remain uninjured fall sullenly back. The enemy, however, has been so badly punished that they are not able to follow us immediately. We rally behind a stone fence and await their approach, the whole division hardly making a respectable regiment. Reinforcements arrive, the enemy approaches, but fall back in disorder before a fire from behind the wall that fairly melted their ranks. Their retreat is followed up by the fresh troops of A.P. Hill who have just arrived.

James Hope's painting of the corner of the Sunken Road occupied by the 6th Alabama and 2nd North Carolina underscores the carnage of this portion of the field. A local resident visiting the area a few days after the battle commented that "the dead were lying so thick in this lane that it looked like the living mass." 

When night sets in, the enemy is whipped three miles from the battlefield on the left, while the receding fire that blazes horribly from the right indicates that on the right, too, the enemy are sullenly retreating before the invincible forces of Jackson. That day is ours but dearly won. Six to eight thousands of our brave boys lay around dead or wounded in that day’s fray, while the ground is made blue by Yankee carcasses. They left fully 4,000 dead on the field and their wounded must be immense. Our regiment brought only 100 out of the fight, just one-third it carried in, while other regiments suffered worse.


This map of the Sunken Road shows the relative positions of Rodes' and Anderson's brigades about 10 o'clock on the morning of September 17, 1862 as they faced off against Nathan Kimball's, Dwight Morris, and Max Weber's brigades of General William French's division of the Second Corps. 

The next morning, the Yankees sent in a flag asking permission to bury their dead, and all that day was devoted to that purpose and to taking care of the wounded who are now hospitalized at Sharpsburg, Harper’s Ferry, Charlestown, Winchester, and throughout the country on the Virginia side of the Potomac. Each army was so disorganized that neither was able to make another offensive move.

On Friday the 19th, our army crossed the river into Virginia and encamped in the woods near Shepherdstown. The enemy took the movement as a retreat and on Saturday morning undertook to cross at the same ford but were met by our forces and driven pell-mell across the river with fearful slaughter. Our loss was slight. Our army has again crossed into Maryland and occupy the same places they did before the battles, while Stuart with his cavalry is at Hagerstown near the Pennsylvania line. I do not know what will happen next.


A chunk of a tree from Antietam holding at least four musket balls. (Heritage Auctions)


Now, as I have given you an account of the battles, I will give an account of myself. I do not know all that are killed and wounded in the regiment, nor even my own company. I know that Colonel Tew is killed, and Captain Howard taken prisoner. Captain Hunt of Co. I was wounded and taken prisoner. Lieutenant Applewhite of Ci. D was wounded in the arm, and I hear there are only three officers with the regiment. I was slightly wounded on the head and in the right foot about 1 o’clock by a bursting shell. I had no bones broken. I was able to get off the field myself and did so without being hit again. Many others tried it, but I am the only one I know of who attempted to leave the field wounded that was not shot again.

I went to the rear, had my wounds dressed, hired a horse, and knowing the vicinity of the battlefield would be crowded with wounded, came to this place. There are about 400 wounded in the hospitals here and they are treated as well as if they were at home. Every woman in the town is a devoted Southron and they all vie with each other in their kindness to the wounded. I am so fortunate as to be able to secure quarters with a rich Presbyterian family, where every lady about the house does as if she could not do enough for me. They want to wait on me too much. There are three other wounded officers in the office with me, and I am not able to eat the good things that are showered upon me at all hours of the day.

I am in perfect clover and stow away large quantities of luscious grapes, apples, peaches, pears, while preserves, cakes, and pies lie untasted around me. I shall be loathe to go back again to green corn, badly cooked flour bread, and fat middling. I would come home and see you, but my wounds are not respectable enough to ask for a furlough; besides, it is 100 miles to where a railroad is running and what few men I have left are without a single officer. For three or four days before the battles we suffered much. We had to lie out in line of battle without blankets and take the sun, rain, and dew, and I never got a mouthful to eat but green corn from Saturday night till Wednesday night. Notwithstanding all that, I enjoyed excellent health.

  

Source:

Letters from First Lieutenant John Calvin Gorman, Co. B, 2nd North Carolina Infantry, Spirit of the Age (North Carolina), October 6, 1862, pg. 3

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