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.

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