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Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Note: The following book review is long overdue and something I should have posted more than a year ago.


There is perhaps no more surrealistic or psychologically affecting scene men can experience than when darkness cloaks a battlefield following the close of major fighting. While opposing armies squint through the blue-black ink which is night, the pitiful, tortured cries and groans of the wounded trapped in no man’s land, begging for their mothers, for God’s help, or for water can’t simply be blocked out. Those cries interrupt the sleep of those unharmed, fray the nerves of those who keep watch through the early morning hours, and demand even the most steeled of hearts to helplessly implore themselves and others around them to “do something” to provide quieting relief for the suffering.

That is the picture of Antietam’s aftermath Tom McGrath paints in the opening chapter of “Shepherdstown: Last Clash of the Antietam Campaign.” With additional brushstrokes, a steadily falling rain only increases the misery felt by all. When the following day dawns elements of the Fifth Corps, which had been held in reserve on a distant hill, from where they witnessed magnificent charge after magnificent charge, are shifted to the immediate vicinity of wracked and ruined bodies, where the smell of rotting, bloated cadavers wafts through their nostrils. It is as unsettling a picture to these Union troops as to the one thousand civilians four miles away in Shepherdstown, Virginia, who have opened their houses and churches to the mangled and dying from Lee’s legions who have fallen at South Mountain four days before and their brethren felled as if with a gigantic scythe across the river less than twenty-four hours earlier. McGrath sits silently, brush in hand, ready to dab shades of white, red, brown, and grey, observing as children tear petticoats into bandages, while women bathe wounds with water and lift spoons filled with peas to the lips of the dying as if in final sacrament for those slipping closer to never more. Daylight, too, reveals armies wary of pouncing, wary of leaping forward to continue the attack. They stare across a wasteland of toppled ragdolls until day turns to night again, While McClellan lacks the stomach for gore, Lee slips away to fight on other ground of his choosing, withdrawing across the Potomac a mile or less from the makeshift hospitals of Shepherdstown, leaving a force of forty-four cannons and 600 troops to fight a rearguard.action, if necessary, to ensure the main body of those in retreat reaches the safety of Winchester.

Fast forward to the 19th and peer through McGrath's binoculars as Fifth Corps volunteers, 25 from each regiment, ford the river in late afternoon. Peering back is William Nelson Pendleton, Lee's chief of artillery, who commands the high ground and also fuels rumors of cowardice and incompetence for his behavior at First Bull Run. Lee, if possessing a fault, remains loyal to those most loyal to him. It's a character flaw that seems to run rampant throughout the Confederacy and extends even to the chief occupant of the White House in Richmond. As McGrath points out, Pendleton's orders are clear, but their very simplity confuses him and that unintended confusion will ultimately prove a turning point that leads to disastrous consequences for one Union regiment and scores of more deaths within A.P. Hill's proud brigades.

Quite simply Pendleton's own orders weaken the center of his defenses, the very place where he should be strongest, allowing the wading blue coats to rise out of the water close to sunset and nearly overwhelm his men. Union batteries on the opposite shore let fly and as the sun sinks lower and darkness begins to envelope the heights, confusion sets in, and Pendleton finally orders a disordered retreat. He himself abandons his men and guns, riding alone in pitch darkness, fearful of Lee's reaction to his report that all has been lost, all forty-four guns entrusted to him lost to the enemy.

Lee rises before the sun the following morning, having slept on Pendleton's report and sets wheels in motion. Fitz-John Porter, commanding the Union's Fifth Corps and under a cloud of suspicion himself for disobeying Pope at Second Bull Run, sets his own wheels in motion. He is following McClellan's idea of a pursuit to the letter. His commands are less urgent than those issued from Lee. Neither McClellan or Porter, in their wildest imaginations, can envision that A.P. Hill's divisions have done an about face and are moving in mass formation back toward the Potomac. Porter's is a simple and non-pressing mission. Hill's, in contrast, is measured in expediency; the need to determine Union strength, and, even more importantly, to recover lost artillery pieces. Porter orders a mounted and infantry reconnaissance across the river, to sniff for Lee and, if unscented, provide confirmation that the Confederate dust has fully settled back to earth.

McGrath now replaces the artist's brush with a video camera, alternately panning the Maryland shore as troops gather and leisurely remove shoes and then socks. He frames a wide angle shot, capturing the more frantic pace of the artillerymen as they unlimber and line up their pieces on the rise above. All is absent of sound, all becomes slow motion as regular units of the U.S. Army now begin to cross. Splashing drops of water are captured in freeze frame, the sunlight making them glisten like diamonds. An overhead shot captures a rising cloud of dust that obscures unfurled battle flags and the thirteen stars that adorn their crimson cross. The music begins to swell, tympanis pounding louder, warning of an impending collision as Hill quickens his pace.

Fast forward, as fast and as frantically as McGrath's words leap off the page. U.S. regulars from the 1st, 2nd, 10th, 11th, and 17th infantry, positioned to the left and right of the Charlestown road exchange shots with an enemy emerging from woods and cornfields. Those Confederate numbers are quickly determined to be overwhelming.

The laughter and merriment that had accompanied the First Brigade of the First Division of the Fifth Corps during their own crossing of the river was quickly replaced by seriousness at 9:15 a.m. Colonel James Barnes' original order to proceed by road to Shepherdstown is superceded by one emanating from Gen. George Sykes, commanding the Regulars. Barnes complies and plays traffic cop, directing the 18th and 22nd Massachusetts, 13th and 25th New York, 1st Michigan, 2nd Maine, and the combat virgins of the 118th Pennsylvania to follow trails to the top of the bluffs to protect the right flank of the Sykes' men. Edward Thomas', Maxcy Gregg's, and Dorsey Pender's Southern brigades press closer, braving Union artillery fire that will, over the next two hours, literally shred their ranks.

McGrath's words capture the onward and heroic rush of Confederate forces, bending, but never yielding to the missiles shrieking toward them, closing the gaps in their ranks, firing a volley only when ordered to do so. It is the Regulars that begin to yield first, effectively crippling the defensive left flank when they begin to withdraw. All of the First Brigade stands its ground for most of the next hour, the 18th Massachusetts using up fifty of the sixty rounds carried by each man. With twelve of their number down, the 18th, according to McGrath, then fixes bayonets and is in the midst of launching a charge when the order to withdraw circulates down the line. All the regiments of the First Brigade hear the order, save the 118th Pennsylvania. Their Colonel, Charles Prevost, did, in fact, hear the order, but demanded it be delivered in person by James Barnes rather than a subordinate. His stubbornness in adhering to a strict military protocol would not only result in his being wounded shortly afterwards, but cost his regiment of Philadelphia gentlemen dearly. For the 118th, heretofore untested during their three weeks of military service, the boogey man was about to come calling.

McGrath is fully able to create order from what occurred next. Where chaos and self-preservation were shortly to grip the 118th Pennsylvania like a vice, they stood like men, attempting to fire off shots from defective Enfield muskets. They stuck true, even as some scrambled on hands and knees for working replacements, steadily fixed bayonets when ordered, and continued to hold to their duty even as right, left, and center began to crumble when man after man fell after the audible ssst and thump of a minie ball struck mark.

The video camera comes into play again, with all sequences recorded in slow motion, the audio portion of the text purposely distorted, purposely disorienting. Panic. Fear. The urge to run overwhelming duty, honor, country; the wounded and dying left to make their own way down to the road and river below. Maryland. Where safety is afforded if one can cross a river now seemingly ten miles wide. There is no mercy for those who flee. Their backs are wide targets for the barrel of a Confederate gun. Round after round spins through the air as men take their time, sight up, and squeeze slowly. The 118th falls wherever they're in view. On the road below, on the millrace leading to the opposite shore. The saving grace for more than a few is the unrelenting cannonading by Union gunners stationed on far heights. It is unrelenting, punishing, and accurate, except when errant shells fall short and drop in the midst of the 118th. Three are killed when an iron ball manufactured in a Northern munitions plant finds their hiding place in an archway at the base of an abandoned cement mill.

The story of a small battle fought on Virginia farmland bordering a river that flows past our Nation's Capitol and empties out into the Chesapeake Bay was virtually ignored by veterans who witnessed the carnage and much later by historians. Coming on the heels of the single bloodiest day in American history one can understand how that day, September 20, 1862, could slip away from memory and text. Solomon Beals of the 18th Massachusetts in a letter home, written days after the fight, summed it up best for his immediate time. His words also proved prophetic until 145 years after the fact, when historian and college professor Tom McGrath tried and succeeded mightily in setting the record straight for all.

"You may have heard before about this, but I have not yet seen a correct account of it. The facts as I know them are these."


Note: Tomorrow's post will feature an interview with Tom McGrath, the author of "Shepherdstown: Last Clash of the Antietam Campaign"

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