Thursday, June 18, 2009

"I could not refuse if my life paid the forfeit." A letter from Thomas C. Fisher, 125th Pennsylvania, to his father.

In the fall of 2008 an image of a letter was posted at an auction gallery website. By December 28, 2008 the letter had been sold. What follows is a transcript of that letter from Thomas C. Fisher, in Company C of the 125th Pennsylvania to his father.

I've added annotations to the letter. These annotations come mainly from the History of the One Hundred and Twenty-fifth Regiment Pennsylvania Volunteers, 1862-1863 by the Regimental Committee (Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott, 1906), particularly the memoir of Capt. William W. Wallace published in that history.

Maryland Heights Oct 5th

Dear Father

I had a letter from you some two or three days ago and one from Rash written from New York, and of course they were welcome as news from home is the greatest enjoyment of the soldier. I wrote to you from the Heights yesterday was a week ago, the day after we were moved around on the hill above Sandy Hook[. ][1]

[W]hile encamped there we were visited by Mr. Strickler, Hagy and Squire Snow and John Fockler whom we were all of course glad to see the Old Squire[,] luckily for him[,] had a pleasant night to stay in camp[,] if he’d been with us last night I am afraid he would have suffered a little. On Friday we were moved back again to our present encampment, last night up where we are now. It was unpleasant both to sleep without tents or any shelter of any kind.

You asked in your letter who took charge of the Colors after Geo. Simpson was shot.[2] [F]or my part I did not see anything of them myself as my position was at the right end of the company, when the firing commenced. I stopped some four paces in the advance of the company line as I was more afraid of being shot by the rear rank than by the rebels. I got down on my knees and loaded and fired as fast as I could deliberately, as there is no use wasting ammunition shooting into trees. The order to retreat was given to our company three times before it was obeyed.] [U]ntil I turned around to retreat I did not know there was a single man hurt. The first man I saw was Nicholas Decker badly wounded about the ankle, his ankle bone shattered badly. Capt Wallace, Lieut Ziegler[3] and I helped him behind a large tree when we were compelled to leave him (we have since heard from him he is in one of the Hospitals, his leg was amputated below the knee).[4] After I came out into the field about twenty paces, a member of the 102 New York scrambled up off the ground and prayed me to help him. Of course I could not refuse if my life paid the forfeit. I assisted him the whole way over the field to a place of safety under fire, and perhaps it was my act of mercy to him that saved me. The only running I did was across the field to get out of the range of our battery which was beginning to open on the enemy before I had gotten away from the font of it.[5]

But to return to the colors[.] [T]he true version of the affair as nearly as can be ascertained is as follows. George Simpson was shot dead in the ranks in the woods, the colors were then picked up by a boy in Capt. Gregg’s[5a] company by the name of Eugene Boblits[6] he carried them some thirty paces when he received a ball in his leg and fell. A young fellow in our company by the name of Peterson[7] then called to Walter Greenland[8] “there is the Colors, ” bring them off! Walter picked them up carried them some thirty or forty paces and handed them to Capt Wallace who brought them off the field.[9]

I suppose Rash will be home in a few days with new goods, when you will of course be busy for a while at least. I wish I was there to help you, as you having been sick may overexert yourself.

My love to Mother sisters and all friends. Your affectionate Son Tom

[1] William W. Wallace, Captain, Company C of the 125th Pennsylvania contributed to the regimental history an essay titled “Reminiscent and Historical.” In it, he recounted the regiments action at Antietam. “We arrived at Harper’s Ferry about noon on the 19th, and were kept shifting to and fro between Maryland Heights and Pleasant Valley until October 3d, during which time much sickness prevailed and many died from camp fever, etc.” History of the One Hundred and Twenty-fifth Regiment Pennsylvania Volunteers, 1862-1863 by the Regimental Committee (Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott, 1906), pp. 179-80 (hereafter, History).

[2] Color Sergeant George A. Simpson was killed in the West Woods that day. The statue to the 125th Pennsylvania is modeled after him.

[3] William L. Zeigler, 1st Lt. Company C.

[4] Wallace writes: “Early on the morning of the 18th I accompanied a detail in search of my own compay’s killed and wounded. …Nicholas Decker was our next ‘find.’ Stretched upon the ground with a badly shattered leg, he had been lying there helpless and exposed all these weary hours. All that hospital care and skill could do was done for hime, but he lingered and died October 11th.” History, p. 175.

[5] “The events following the collapse of the southern end of the West Woods unfolded very quickly. To most of the men, the one hundred yard dash from the church to the cover of Monroe’s Battery seemed much longer. The survivors of the 125th Pennsylvania found themselves trapped between Battery D, 1st Rhode Island Battery [Monroe’s Battery] and Kershaw’s South Carolinians.” John M. Priest, Antietam The Soldiers’ Battle, (New York: Oxford University Press, 1989), p. 122.

[5a] Captain Henry H. Gregg, Company H.

[6] Eugene J. Boblits of Company H. “Born December 21, 1846, he was probably one of the youngest soldiers in the army [15 years old at the time of Antietam]. He was one of the color-guard at Antieta, and when that gallant color-bearer, Sergeant George A. Simpson, was killed, Boblits bore the colors until he was also prostrated by a bullet, which left him crippled for life.” History, 207

[7] William H. Peterson, Company C.

[8] Sgt. Walter Greenland was in Company C. He survived the war and became, on March 8th, 1892, Adjutant-General of Pennsylvania. History, 208

[9] Wallace recounted: “The next object that immediately claimed my attention was Seargeant Walter W. Greenland approaching me with the flag in his possession, which he had just received from one of the color guard, who had been wounded. As Walter was not one of the color guard, I relieved him of it, to use it in rallying the regiment.” History, 173.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Texas in the West Woods

This afternoon a young man and his family stopped by the Philadelphia Brigade Monument for a visit. They were from East Texas and were touring the fields Virginia, Maryland, and Pennsylvania.

He was fully outfitted as a Private in the 19th Texas (Company A) and portrayed Pvt. R. C. Cobb of that unit. The 19th came from such East Texas counties as Marion, Panola, and San Augustine. These volunteers saw action in the trans Mississipi theater and participated in the Bayou Teche and Red River Campaigns in the fall of 1863 and spring of 1864. [1]

Today Pvt. Cobb honored another East Texas unit -- the First Texas who came from Harris and Galveston Counties. In the photos here he stands about 150 yards due north of the assembly point of Hood's Brigade (Hampton Legion, 18th Ga., and 1st, 4th, and 5th Texas) at 7 a.m. on the 17th. By 7:20 they had swept out of the West Woods for their rendezvous with Hooker's I Corps in the Cornfield. Of the four regiments, the First Texas suffered the most. "The 1st Texas left their flag, 8 color-bearers and 186 of their 226 men in the Cornfield. Their 82.6% casualties was the most of any regiment of either side during the War."[2]

So who is Pvt. R.C. Cobb? You know, I didn't get his name but I did thank him for his visit and for his dedication to keeping history alive.

[1] Retrieved from
[2] Retrieved from Brian Downey's Antietam on the Web

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Jedediah's Map

The Hotchkiss Map Collection at the Library of Congress contains 341 sketchbooks, manuscripts, and annotated printed maps made by Major Jedediah Hotchkiss (1828-1899), a topographic engineer in the Confederate Army. The entire collection is online at the Library's American Memory Project. A good article by Clara LeGear on the history of the maps contains biographical information on Hotchkiss is available there as well: "The Hotchkiss Collection of Confederate Maps." Library of Congress Quarterly Journal of Current Acquisitions 6 (November 1948): 16-20.

The Hotchkiss map is one of the most topographically detailed maps of the battlefield. For example, compare the detail of the Hotchkiss map below with the same detail of the West Woods in the Cope/Carmen map at the end of this post. (Click on this image and all others to enlarge).I have annotated the map with blue numbers (1 through 4) and a single arrow pointing north. Each of the blue numbers indicates a "draw" or "swale" that is part of the landscape of this part of the woods. It was through these swales, especially 2, 3, and 4 that Barksdale's Brigade and the 3rd South Carolina pursued the remnants of Sedgwick's left.

(Below) Swale # 1 looking north from the fenceline of the woods. The Hagerstown Pike is just to the right.

Below swale 2 from the fence line looking north. This picture was taken from the position indicated by the blue arrow on the Hotchkiss map. The Starke mortuary cannon is in the left distance. (Below) Looking west, standing on the ridge between swales 1 and 2 with 2 in the foreground and 3 in the background (the greener swath of grass). These swales are quite deep and if you stand in them you cannot see much except the sides of the formation. Marty Pritchett, a very knowledgeable volunteer at the park, once described the field as an ocean of stone waves--the waves being the limestone ridges rolling east to west. If you walk the field, you will find yourself bobbing up and down over the waves as you move westward. Experiencing this gives you an understanding of the difficulty of maneuver and maintaining a bearing on such a landscape.

(below) Swale # 4 looking southwest past the Brockenbrough's (Maryland) Battery into the West Woods. This is the shallowest of all of the four.

Compare the Hotchkiss map and the Cope/Carmen map below. Only swale #2 above is represented on the map.

If you are tramping the field, try to carry both maps--one for the topography and one for the units.

Monday, June 8, 2009

Second Corps Hospital--The Susan Hoffman Farm

My route to the field takes me by way of the Keedysville Road. After crossing the stone bridges across the Little Antietam and then the Antietam, the road rises to the west steadily out of the stream valley.

About a mile from the last bridge and to the south lies the Susan Hoffman Farm. This is the view of the farm at about 8:15 a.m. this past Sunday. Click on the photo to enlarge.

"During the Battle of Antietam in 1862, this farm appeared much as it does now. Known as the Hoffman Hospital it provided aid for over 800 federal troops, most of whom were from Sumner's Second Corps. In a report of the Sanitary Commission, an agency similar to today's Red Cross which reviewed conditions at the field hospitals, the Hoffman Hospital was rated as excellent. Doctors Doughtery and Hayward supervised this hospital." [1]

A.N. Doughtery was the Medical Director of the Second Corps. Hayward was probably Surgeon Nathan Hayward, 20th Massachusetts (II Corps). He was captured in the West Woods but released.

J. Franklin Dyer, a surgeon posted to the Hoffman farm hospital kept a diary of his experiences there and on October 1 recorded this entry:

"Hoffman Hospital
October 1, 1862

I have been for three days in charge of this hospital, where I was ordered on the day of the battle. We have been removing the wounded as fast as possible, but have yet one hundred fifty here, all of them severe cases, amputations, fractures, etc. We have seven surgeons of whom three or four each day are unfit for duty, on account of the severe labor of the past fortnight, but each one has his ward to attend, and each one is obliged to dress all the wounds in his ward, none of this being left with nurses. We would have been glad if those surgeons who visited the army soon after the battle had remained to assist us, but they did not seem willing to remain and dress stumps.

Many die of course, as the nature of their wounds is such that a large percentage of deaths is to be expected. I hope that all will soon be removed, as the atmosphere of the whole neighborhood is tainted. Some are to be removed to Frederick, but the greater number will be collected together from the field hospitals and placed in one now being prepared about a mile from here called the Smoketown hosptial. The tents are now being put up. The wounded will be much better off in tents than in houses or barns. [2]

[1] Historic American Buildings Survey, NPS, HABS No. MD-961, Martha Wagner, Historian, 1991.
[2] Jonah Franklin Dyer; ed. by Michael B. Chesson, The Journal of a Civil War Surgeon (Lincoln, University of Nebraska Press, 2003), p. 42.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

West of the Dunkard Church

On Sunday, early in the morning, a cold front rolled through northern Maryland. With it came rain which gave way to blue, sparkling skies, and cool breezes. The field was Spring in all its glory.

At this time of year, before summer vacations, the park is mostly quiet early in the morning. I decided to ramble across the old Poffenberger farm cornfield, due south from my post at the Philadelphia Brigade Monument. This walk, which is more of a cross-country bushwhack, takes you through a growing forest of trees interrupted every so often by a field of brambles and bushes. In the Fall this overgrown and protected land is home to a flock of wild turkeys and a small herd of deer. About midway from the Philadelphia Monument, you'll come across the recently-opened West Woods Trail, and, if you follow it to the left and rising ground, you will come out at the 125th Pennsylvania and 34th New York Monuments about 100 yards west of the Dunkard Church.

I wanted to capture some views of the part of the woods where the 125th Pennsylvania (XII Corps), 34th New York, and 7th Michigan (II Corps) met Barksdale's Brigade, the 49th Virginia of Early's Brigade, and the 2d South Carolina of Kershaw's Brigade a little after 9 a.m. on September 17.

Click on photo to enlarge.
The view above is that spot. Now it is a cornfield but at the time it was, like the rest of the West Woods, filled with 100 year old oaks and other hardwoods, widely spaced, with little underbrush. The photo, composite of three images stitched together, shows a wide angle view of the south- south west. This is the view the front ranks of the 125th Pennsylvania and the 34th New York would have seen as the 2nd South Carolina approached on the left and the 49th on the right. The 125th Pennsylvania monument is visible on the right.

Below is the Cope/Carmen map of this part of the field showing the locations of units between 9 a.m. and 9:30 a.m. The photograph above was taken from a point marked on the map below with blue arrows. The topographical lines show that the field falls away in elevation to the west. The woods are bounded by split rail fences which are represented on this map by squiggled lines. The post fences are represented by dots and dashed lines.

Click on map to enlarge.
The view below is the opposite of the images above. The 125th Pennsylvania and 34th New York Monuments are in the center of the frame. The Dunkard Church lies just beyond the tree line slightly to the right of the center of the photo.
Click on photo to enlarge.

Ezra Carmen, chronicles the events in that part of the field:

"The 2d South Carolina was the leading regiment of Kershaw's Brigade. It was commanded by Colonel John D. Kennedy and numbered 253 officers and men. Kershaw made a brief speech of encouragement and ordered it forward to clear the woods and retake a battery beyond the church, which it was reported had been abandoned. It moved double-quick by the right flank, passed to the right of G.T. Anderson's recumbent men, moved up along the south edge of the woods, and began to climb the fence to enter the woods at a point about two hundred yards southwest of the church, when it was fired upon by the retiring skirmishers of the 125th Pennsylvania. Colonel Kennedy was wounded, and Major Franklin Gaillard succeeded the command, but beyond this the regiment suffered very lightly. Being on lower ground, the fire of the Pennsylvanians went over it. ...After firing at Early and the 2d South Carolina, the Pennsylvania skirmishers rallied upon their regiment, and it opened fire. Monroe's battery threw shrapnel, and Early's men were checked and thrown into some confusion. Some men in front were killed and wounded by their comrades in rear. Colonel Smith of the 49th Virginia was severely wounded but continued on the field, and Lietenant Colonel John C. Gibson of the same regiment was disabled by a wound in the leg. Early's men were old soldiers and well disciplined; the quickly recovered from the confusion into which they had been thrown and returned the fire of the 125th Pennsylvania with great effect. Early led the 49th Virginia in two charges up the hill and then fell back--the better, it is said, to confuse the aim of Monroe's gunners. These movements had the effect of breaking the alignment of the brigade and again throwing it into confusion." [1]

As Sedgwick's Division moved into the West Woods, the 34th New York, the left regiment of Willis Gorman's brigade and the far left of the division, "came up in rear of the left wing of the 125th Pennsylvania, its left going about thirty yards beyond the church. Perceiving that there was no support on his left, Colonel James A. Suiter, commanding the regiment, sent an officer to see what there was in that direction, and he learned that the 2d South Carolina was moving up the hill toward the church. The left of the 34th New York was now refused [see map above] and faced southwest; the right wing, in rear of the left of the 125th Pennsylvania, faced nearly west." The 7th Michigan, part of N.J.T. Dana's Brigade pulled up almost at the same time as the 34th but positioned itself on the right of the 125th. "Almost immediately two volleys in quick succession were poured into the right of the 125th Pennsylvania and left of the 7th Michigan, which broke the former and laid low one-half of the left wing of the latter. At the same time, the entire front of the 125th Pennsylvania and the 34th New York became involved. All these attacks were made by Barksdale's Brigade, a part of Early's, and the 2d South Carolina of Kershaw's. G.T. Anderson's Brigade was advancing to join the fray."[2] The left of Sedgwick's Division now began to crumble.

On my way back north to the Philadelphia Brigade Monument, I heard a booming voice that grew louder as I came nearer to the monument. Was it the ghost of Edwin Vose Sumner? The quiet of an early Sunday morning was certainly broken.

It was National Park Service Historian Emeritus, Ed Bearrs leading a group of headquarters staff around the park.

What a great way to start the day...little did they know that the long march had just begun.


[1] The Maryland Campaign of September 1862: Ezra A. Carman's Definitive Study of the Union and Confederate Armies at Antietam, edited by Joseph Pierro (New York, Routledge, 2008), p. 259.
[2] Ibid., p. 263.

Monday, June 1, 2009

The West Woods Missing: Part 2

On September 20, 1862, B. General Oliver O. Howard wrote the Official Report for Sedgwick's Division. Normally, the division commander would have written the report but Sedgwick was severely wounded on the field and the command (and the report) fell to Howard.

The full report is available online at Brian Downey's encylopedic Antietam on the Web. [1]

In it, Howard describes the battle in the West Woods three days earlier.

At the very end, he gives the tally of the division's casualties that day. Of those wounded, 15% to 20% would die within days, months, or even years of their injuries.

Howard wrote:

"The total loss of the division is as follows: [1]
Command Killed Wounded Missing
General Gorman's Brigade 134 536 88
General Dana's Brigade 128 650 124
General Burn's (or Howard's) Brigade 89 370 109
Company A, 1st Rhode Island Artillery 4 15 ----
Company I, 1st United States Artillery ---- 6 ----
Total 355 1,577 321

What about the 321 men from that division who went missing that day? In an earlier post, five missing from the 72nd Pennsylvania were identified. Who were the others? What became of them?

In the next year, I would like to assemble a list of the missing of the West Woods, both Union and Confederate. This will not be an easy task but I figure it is worth a try. Hopefully, readers may have information as to names and units, and, if possible, information on what became of these casualties of the West Woods.

Antietam National Cemetery

Number 3826, an unknown soldier from Pennsylvania [3] one of over 1,700 unknowns buried in the National Cemetery.

He lies next to Pvt. Henry W. Dean, of Company B, 12 Pennsylvania Reserves (Harrisburg) who was probably killed in the cornfield early on September 17. [2]

[1] BGen. Oliver O. Howard's Official Report (OR), September 20, 1862 retrieved from Brian Downey's website Antietam on the Web at
[2] History of Antietam National Cemetery including a descriptive list of all the loyal soldiers buried therein together with the ceremonies and address on the occasion of the dedication of the grounds, September, 17th, 1867 (Published 1869) retrieved from Western Maryland Historical Library online at
[3] Map of Antietam National Cemetery as designed by A. A. Biggs, M. D., President & Genl. Supt., Sharpsburg, 1866. Retrieved from Western Maryland Historical Library online at