Catching the Pitch of the Minies: The 17th Virginia at Sharpsburg

Second Lieutenant Smith Spangler Turner of Co. B, 17th Virginia Infantry was cited for gallantry at South Mountain and was one of the few officers of the regiment to survive Sharpsburg unscathed. Appointed a second lieutenant in April 1862, Turner served with the 17th Virginia through the end of the war. This handsome CDV of the young Virginian has a Lupton & Brown backmark from Winchester, Virginia and is part of the Liljenquist Family Collection of the Library of Congress. 

The fighting at Sharpsburg on September 17, 1862 had raged for hours before Alexander Hunter, a private serving in the 17th Virginia of General James L. Kemper’s brigade of Longstreet's Wing, received the urgent call to fall into ranks and prepare to fight. Kemper’s brigade, including the 55 men comprising what was left of the 17th Virginia, marched a short distance south of town along Harper’s Ferry Road then turned east towards the rolling hills of the Avey farm and took position behind a newly made rail fence. The Federals of Ambrose Burnside’s 9th Corps crossed Antietam Creek at the Rohrbach Bridge and pushed towards town where Kemper’s brigade and the other troops of General David R. Jones’ division awaited them.

Hunter continues the story of the battle of Sharpsburg:

Our position was directly in front of the village of Sharpsburg, on a high hill, behind a new post and rail fence; the topography of the country and the configuration of the ground was peculiar, consisting of a succession of undulating hills and corresponding valleys. The elevation that we were on sunk rather abruptly to a deep bottom, and then rose suddenly, forming another hill, the crest of which was about sixty yards from the top of the eminence where we rested. Any attacking force would be invisible until they arrived on the top of the crest opposite, and in pistol-shot distance, or what we call point blank musketry range.

On our front about a mile away was Antietam Creek, spanned by a bridge. This was guarded by Toombs's Georgia brigade; which was only a skeleton command, being about one-fifth of its full ranks. Our army surrounded Sharpsburg in a semi-circle, and we could lie there and hear and see the raging frenzied battle on our left. The reports of the cannons were incessant and deafening; at times it seemed as if a hundred guns would explode simultaneously and then run off at intervals into splendid file firing.

No language can describe its awful grandeur. The thousand continuous volleys of musketry mingle in a grand roar of a great cataract, and together merging, seemed as if the earth was being destroyed by violence, the canopy of the battle's fume, from this vast burning of gunpowder, rising above the battlefield in such thick clouds, that the sun looked down gloomy red in the sky, while the dust raised by the mass of men floated to the clouds.

Listen! the fight has commenced down at Antietam bridge, where Toombs lies with his Georgians. The Yankees have commenced to shell their front, which, we all know, is but a prelude to the deadlier charge of infantry. The shells begin to sail over us as we lay close behind the fence, shrieking its wild song, a canzonet of carnage and death. These missiles howled like demons and made us cower in the smallest possible space. But what is that infernal noise that makes the bravest duck their heads? That is a Hotchkiss shell. It is no more destructive than some other projectile, but there is a great deal in mere sound to work on men's fears, and the moral effect of the Hotchkiss is powerful. The tremendous scream of this shell is caused by a ragged edge of lead which is left on the missile as it leaves the gun.

Alexander Hunter served with the 17th Virginia until May of 1863 and was captured twice during his two years with the infantry. The first time was June 30, 1862, at the Battle of Frazier's Farm during the Seven Days Campaign and the second time at Antietam. He would transfer to Co. H of the 4th Virginia Cavalry and be captured and wounded multiple times. After the war, he worked for the U.S. Land Office and is buried at Arlington National Cemetery. 

The enemy is silent, but it is the calm that is but a prefix to a hurricane. We made ready and expected to see the victorious Yankees following hard upon Toombs' brigade but an hour or two of absolute inaction followed; no advance nor demonstrations were made in our front, but on the left the battle was raging as fiercely as ever. What could it mean, we asked each other?

At last, towards evening, their shelling was renewed. A battery supporting the first brigade replied to it. Soon came the singing of the Minie balls overhead. There is a peculiar tuneful pitch in the flight of these little leaden balls; a musical car can study the different tones as they skim through the air. A comrade lying next to me, an amateur musician of no mean merit, said, “I caught the pitch of the Minie that just passed. It was a swell from E flat to F, and as it retrograded in the distance receded to D-a very pretty change."

It was now getting late in the afternoon, and the men were becoming cramped from lying in their constrained position; some were moving up and down, some stretching themselves, for there was a cessation of firing in our front-an interval of quiet. It was but a short time, for the guarded, stern, nervous voice of our officer, calling. "Quick, men, back to your posts!" sent every soldier into line. And then, as we waited each man looked along the line-the slight, thin, frail line-stretched out behind that crest of withstand the onset of solid ranks of blue and felt his heart sink within him.

That thin string of tattered men, lying there with their bright rifles clasped tight in their hands, was a mere outline of its former strength, not a sixth of the men remaining in the ranks. Our regiment, the 17th Virginia, that once carried into battle 800 muskets, now stood on the crest, ready to die in forlorn hope, with but 46 muskets. My company, that often used to march in a grand review in two platoons of 50 men each, carried into Sharpsburg but two muskets (the writer and one other), commanded by Lieutenant Perry. It is a wonder that we deliberately made up our minds to die on that hill, knowing what force must be sent against us? [Ezra Carman estimated, based on interviews with Confederate veterans of Antietam, that Kemper’s brigade numbered about 443 officers and men.]

This modern view of the area just south of Sharpsburg shows the approximate location where Hunter's 17th Virginia fought the brigade of New Yorkers led by Colonel Harrison Fairchild of the 89th New York. The monument to the 9th New York of Fairchild's brigade at right center gives an approximate location of the Federal line- the Confederate line was behind a rail fence roughly 60 yards west (to the left in this image) in an area now covered with woods as part of Sharpsburg Park. 

All at once, an eight-gun battery, detecting our position, tried to shell us out, preparatory to their infantry advance, and the air around was filled by the bursting iron. Our battery of four guns took its place about 20 steps on our right, for our right flank was entirely undefended and replied to the enemy. During the fire, a shell burst not ten feet above where the 17th lay, prone on their faces, and literally tore poor Appich, of Company E, to pieces, shattering his body terribly, and causing the blood to spatter over many who lay around him. A quiver of the form, and then it remains still.

Another Hotchkiss came screeching where we lay, and exploded, two more men were borne to the rear; still the line never up the dust until it sprinkled us so, that if it intended to keep the thing up, it threatened to bury the command alive. Oh, those long minutes that we lay with closed eyes, expecting mutilation, and a shock of the plunging iron, with every breath we drew. Would it never end? But it kept up for fully 15 minutes, and the men clenched their jaws tight and never moved; a line of corpses could not have been more stirless.

At last, the firing totally ceases, then the battery with us limbers up and moves away, because, as they said, their ammunition was exhausted. But murmurs and curses loud and deep were heard from the brigade, who openly charged the battery with deserting them in the coming ordeal. It was in truth a desertion, for instead of throwing dreadful fire upon us, they should have laid low and waited until the infantry attack was made, then every shot would have told, every shell or solid shot a help. But they moved away and left us.


Hunter recalled that the Hotchkiss shells fired from 3" Ordnance rifles made an "infernal noise" enhancing the "moral effect of the Hotchkiss. The tremendous scream of this shell is caused by a ragged edge of lead which is left on the missile as it leaves the gun."  

An ominous silence followed premonitory of the deluge. The 17th lay with the rest of the brigade, recumbent on the earth, behind the fence, with their rifles resting on the lower rails. The men's faces are pale, their features set, their throbbing, their muscles strung like steel. The officers cry in low tones, "steady men! steady, they are coming Ready!" The warning clicks of the hammers raised as the guns are cocked, run down the lines, a solemn sound for if you hear that you know that the supreme moment has come.

The hill in our front shut out all view, but the advancing enemy were close on us, they were coming up the hill, the loud tones of their officers, the clanking of their equipment, and the steady tramp of the approaching host was easily distinguishable. Then our Colonel said in a quiet calm tone, that was heard by all, "steady lads, steady! Seventeenth, don't fire until they get above the hill."

Each man sighted his rifle about two above the crest, and then, with his finger on the trigger, waited until an advancing form came between the bead and the clear sky behind. The first thing we saw appear was the gilt eagle that surmounted the pole, then the top of the flag, next the flutter of the Stars and Stripes itself slowly mounting. Up it rose, then their hats came in sight; still rising, the faces emerged; next a range of curious eyes appeared. Then such a hurrah as only the Yankee troops could give broke the stillness, and they surged towards us.

Colonel Montgomery D. Corse, 17th Virginia
Wounded at Antietam

          "Keep cool, men-don't fire yet," shouted Colonel Corse and such was their perfect discipline that not a gun replied. But when the bayonets flashed above the hill-top the 46 muskets exploded at once and sent a leaden shower full in the breasts of the attacking force, not over 60 yards distant. It staggered them-it was a murderous fire-and many fell; some of them struck for the rear, but the majority sent a stunning volley at us, and but for that fence there would have been hardly a man left alive. The rails, the posts, were shattered by the balls; but still it was a deadly one. Fill one load and fire again and again, and for about ten minutes the unequal struggle is kept up. The attacking force against our brigade was a full brigade, 3,000 men strong, and against our little remnant is a full regiment. [Colonel Harrison Fairchild’s brigade was the one that struck Kemper’s line. It consisted of the 9th, 89th, and 103rd New York regiments numbering roughly 940 officers and men.] What hope is there? None. And yet for the space 30 yards apart. We stood up against this force more from a blind dogged obstinacy than anything else, and gave back fire for fire, shot for shot, and death for death.

          Our Colonel falls wounded and every officer except five of the 17th Virginia are shot down. Of the 46 muskets, 35 are dead, dying or stuck down while three, myself among them, are run over by the line in blue, and throw up our hands in token of surrender. Two of them stopped to make our small squad in charge, and the rest of their line hurried forward towards the village. As we turned to leave, we saw our whole brigade striking for the rear at a 2:40 gait. The brigade on our left [Drayton’s] had given away, and the enemy swept on triumphantly, with nothing to bar his progress and save the village, the coveted prize, from falling into their hands; but Toombs' Georgia brigade, which had been driven from the Antietam bridge early in the forenoon, had reformed in our rear, and covered the hamlet.

"The boys charged gallantly over two ridges of ploughed land up to the mouths of the guns. Our color guard was cut down almost to a man and Kimball, our hot-headed lieutenant colonel finally seized the flag himself and wrapped it around him. Strange to say, he was uninjured." ~Private Edward K. Wightman, Co. B, 9th New York (Hawkins Zouaves) 

          When a farewell glance of the ground was taken there was a sad sight as there rested the line of the 17th Virginia just as they had fallen. The three prisoners were hurried to the rear, and on reaching the opposite crest found that our fire had been very destructive; each man had probably killed or wounded his man. On the ground surrounded by a group of officers and a surgeon was the Colonel of the regiment the had charged the 17th. He appeared to be mortally hurt and was deathly pale. Hurrying us back a few hundred yards on the top of a hill, out the reach of shot and shell, captured and captures turned to look at the scene before them. As far as our eye could reach our forces seemed to be giving ground; dark for the Rebels- it seemed to us as if Sharpsburg were to be our Waterloo.

          A frightful struggle was now going on in the woods half a mile or so to our left. It appeared to us as if all the demons of hell had been unloosed-all the dogs of war unleashed to prey upon and rend each other. But a change takes place in this panorama; a marvelous change, before our very eyes. One moment the lines of blue are steadily advancing everywhere and sweeping before them; another moment and all is altered.

          The disordered ranks of blue came rushing back in disorder, while the Rebels followed fast, and then bullets hitting around us caused guards and prisoners to decamp. What was the import of this? None could tell, but still the reflux tide bore us back with it. At last, one prisoner, a wounded Rebel officer, was being supported back to the rear, and we asked him, and the reply came back; "Stonewall Jackson has just gotten back from Harper's Ferry, those troops fighting the Yankees now are A. P. Hill's division." Well, we felt all right if Old Stonewall was up, none need care about the result.

Unidentified soldier of Co. D, 17th Virginia

          Still forward came the wave of gray, still backward receded the billows of blue, heralded by warming hiss of the bullets, the sparking of the rifle flashes, the purplish vapor settling like a veil over the lines the mingled hurrahs and wild yells, and the bass accompaniment over on our left of the hoarse cannonading. Back we went, stopping on top of every rise of the ground to watch the battle. It was nearly night, the last gleam of the sun's rays struck upon the glass windows of the houses of the little village of Sharpsburg, and made them shine like fire, brighter, more vivid, that even the flames bursting from one house that had been set on fire by an exploding shell.

          At last, the stone bridge that crossed Antietam creek was reached. The ground all around the bridge was covered with the dead and wounded, for the Yankees had established a sort of field hospital here, and the desperately hurt in the immediate front were left at this point. And, besides, a fierce struggle had occurred between Toombs and Burnside's corps, and though short it was sharp and bloody. The dead were many. A group of four figures in blue lay together just as they had fallen-all killed by the explosion of a single shell. One of the Georgians lay on his face with his body almost in two parts, looking as if he had been run over by a train of cars; a solid shot had struck him in the center of the body. Another of Toombs's brigade was shot just as he was taking aim; one eye was still open and his rifle lay beside him on the ground. Death had been sudden, instantaneous, and painless. The gun had been fired; a spasmodic contraction of the fingers had probably pressed the trigger and set loose the prisoned missile.

          Night came at last, the carnage of the dreadful day, and the tender, pitiful stars shone in the vast dome above and looked down upon the scene of desolation and death. The firing had ceased and only the sound of the groans, unheard before, of the stricken, the maimed, the dying, and a murmuring breeze stealing across the hills in plaintive sympathy. We were carried on the other side of the stream and placed among our other prisoners taken in the battle-representatives from every command in our army-numbering some 500 men with about a dozen officers. A guard being placed around us, every man's freed spirit was soon soaring away wherever his fancy led him, and slumber for a time held all in her silken chain.

(Official reports for the 17th Virginia state that the regiment went into action at Antietam with 55 men [9 officers, 46 enlisted men] and lost 7 killed and 24 wounded, and 10 missing, 41 of 55 engaged or 74.5%)

 

Source:

“A High Private’s Account of the Battle of Sharpsburg,” Alexander Hunter, Southern Historical Society Papers, Vol. 11 (1883), pgs. 14-21

Longacre, Edward G., editor. From Antietam to Fort Fisher: The Civil War Letters of Edward King Wightman, 1862-1865. Rutherford: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1985, pg. 38

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