Wednesday, April 1, 2009

The Advance of Paul Jones Semmes' Brigade

On Sunday, I tried to retrace the steps of Paul Jones Semmes' Brigade as they went into action in the West Woods. Most of the route is now within the NPS boundary but is separated by a bypass highway built in the 60s that connects Sharpsburg and Hagerstown. The highway pretty much runs between the battle lines of Gorman's Brigades (certainly the 15th Massachusetts and the 82nd New York) and Semmes' Brigade and elements of Jackson's Division. If I had all the money in the world, I would pay to have the bypass made into an underpass. That it was built in the first place to run right through the heart of the West Woods action tells us more about how we have viewed the significance of the conflict in this part of the field. What about a highway along the Sunken Road? Anyway, back to Semmes.

Semmes' route runs northeasterly between the Hauser farmstead and the buildings that made up the Alfred Poffenberger farmstead.

The Hauser farmstead was (and is) arrayed on a ridge by the same name. According to the 1860 Federal Census, the Hauser family consisted of Jacob Hauser, 36; his wife, Harriett, 30; and their eight children ranging from 10 years to 8 months. Also listed is Samuel Piper, a 20 year old "farm hand." Hauser listed his the value of his real estate as $5,000 and personal property at $400.

Less than a mile to the East is the Alfred Poffenberger farmstead. These buildings included a barn and the early 19th Century structure known as the Mary Locher cabin. The 1860 census shows Alfred Poffenberger, then 26, resided in the cabin along with his 22 year old wife Harriett, and one-year-old William. Also there were Emma Ziah, a 10 year old, and Peter Krutzer, who is listed as a 28 year old "farm hand." Poffenberger listed the value of his real estate at $3,000 and personal property at $500.

On the 17th, Semmes, a brigade in McLaw's Division, arrives at Sharpsburg sometime after 7 a.m. having marched all night from Harper's Ferry. Ezra Carmen writes that the brigade as it came on the field "was ordered by McLaws to move forward in line to the support of Stuart's cavalry and artillery on the extreme left. The brigade was then on the high ground near the Hauser house, numbered 709 officers and men, and from right to left was thus formed: the 32nd Virginia, 10th Georgia, 15th Virginia, and 53rd Georgia. " (Carman, 263).

Hauser farmstead and ridge in the middle distance. Foundation of the Poffenberger barn in the foreground.

Again from Carmen: "Semmes says, 'Immediately the order was given, 'by company into line,' followed by 'forward into line,' both of which movements were executed, in the presence of the enemy, under a fire occasioning severe loss in killed and wounded.' It advanced steadily two hundred yards, the left passing through the Hauser apple orchard under a severe fire from the 15th Massachusetts and the 82nd New York, when orders were given to commence firing (as Semmes says, at long range for most of the arms in the brigade) for the purpose of encouraging the men and disconcerting the enemy, and the effect was visible in the diminished number of killed and wounded."

Carmen continues: "Crossing the fence which ran nearly north and south just east of the Hauser house, the brigade--under murderous fire--charged across a stubble field, men falling at every step,

and was brought to a halt, the right at a rocky knoll very near the Alfred Poffenberger barn (which gave some protection from the galling fire(fn1) of the 15th Massachusetts on the hillside 130 yards distant) and the skirmishers at the barn and in the old wood road."

[Left. Looking south and west from the stone foundation of the Poffenberger barn to the Hauser farmstead and ridge in distance and the "stubble field" lying between.]

(fn1) Captain P.H. Loud reported that during this advance his 10th Georgia suffered "a most galling fire from the enemy's sharpshooters." {Loud's Official Report, Sept. 23rd, retrieved from} The sharpshooters were probably the First Company, Massachusetts Sharpshooters (Andrew's Sharpshooters) who were attached to the 15th Mass.

Carmen: "The center and left of the brigade were under partial cover of the many projecting rock ledges. The conflict here was at close quarters and very severe, the entire brigade suffering heavily from the fire of the 15th Massachusetts, 130 to 190 yards in front, and an enfilading fire from the right. In advancing to this position and holding it a very few minutes, nearly one-half the brigade was killed and wounded...."

[Left. A farm lane ran from the direction of the Dunker Church northwesterly through the West Woods and then through the Poffenberger farmstead crossing between the barn and the cabin. Is this the trace of the original farm lane? It is currently a service road. In the far distance is the Locher cabin (under cover for preservation) and the foreground a storage cellar. The 15th Mass. is arrayed to the right of this photo.

An outcropping of rock approximately 12 feet high rises just
north of the barn, this is likely the "rocky knoll very near the Alfred Poffenberger barn."]

[Right. The view of the 15th Mass. of the Poffenberger barn just visible through the trees and Hauser's Ridge in the far distance--and the "stubble field." The Locher Cabin is out of the picture, just to the right. The offending bypass runs right through history.]

Walking the West mud.

To be continued....

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