Sunday, January 18, 2015

To the West Woods: The Correspondence of Henry Ropes, 20th Massachusetts, Entry 8.

This is the eighth entry in the correspondence of Lieutenant Henry Ropes to his family between September 3 and October 5, 1862. Ropes was a Second Lieutenant in Company K of the 20th Massachusetts, Dana’s Brigade, Sedgwick’s Division, II Corps.

Camp on Battlefield near Sharpsburg, Md.
Saturday, 20th September 1862.

My dear Father.

I wrote to you a pencil note yesterday just to tell you of my safety &c. We have had a really terrific battle. Our Division was formed in three lines, the first line Gorman's Brigade,⁠1 the second ours,⁠2 the third Burn's.⁠3 The principal musketry firing was done of course by the first line. We were under a heavy fire, however, and suffered from Artillery while advancing.⁠4 We drove the enemy before us with tremendous loss on both sides. The slaughter was horrible, especially close to the Hagerstown turnpike where the
Detail of photograph of the west side of Hagerstown Pike.
Alexander Gardner, September 20, 1862. Library of Congress.
enemy made a stand by the fences.
⁠5 We finally advanced down a slope, beyond which the enemy held a cornfield and farmhouse with barn and outbuildings, all on an opposite slope.⁠6 The enemy had Cannon planted on the top and constantly swept us down with grape and Shrapnell shell.⁠7 Our line was advanced close to the first, exposing us to an equal fire, while we could not fire at all because of our first line. ⁠8The third line was finally advanced close to the second; all this time we stood up and were shot down without being able to reply. Sedgwick⁠9 and Dana⁠10 were shot, and we had no one to command the Division.⁠11 The enemy in the meantime came round on our left and rear, and poured in a terrible crossfire. Sumner⁠12 came up in time to save the Division and ordered us to march off by the right flank. We did so, but the left Regiments gave way in confusion, the enemy poured in upon our rear, and now the
Edwin Vose Sumner  (1797-1863)
Library of Congress.
slaughter was worse than anything I have ever seen before. Sumner walked his horse quietly along waving his hand and keeping all steady near him. Although the Regiments in rear of us were rushing by us and through our ranks in the greatest confusion, we kept our Company perfectly steady, did not take a single step faster than the regular marching order, and brought off every man except those killed and wounded, who of course were left.
 Rickett's regular Battery⁠14 and some Regiments drawn up at angles to us stayed the enemy, and the broken Regiments reformed in the rear. Our Brigade suffered awfully, the 7th Michigan has only four Officers left.⁠15 The 42nd and 59th New York Regiments broke and gave way most disgracefully⁠16, our Regiment fell into perfect order as soon as we halted, and was immediately advanced to the front, and our Company and Company I sent out on picket. We staid on picket till yesterday morning when, we were advanced as skirmishers and found the enemy had evacuated. We had heard them moving all night and had given constant information of it, and were sure they were retreating.⁠17 Now we are camped on a part of the battlefield. I hear that McClellan is pursuing the enemy ⁠18and that Sumner's Corps is left behind here. We are all quiet and are burying the dead &c.

A Pioneer of our Regiment, by name Bean,⁠19 wishes me to send word of his safety and good health to a Miss Hill who is at the same water cure that Louisa is at.⁠20 Will you please ask Louisa to do so?

Of our Regiment Dr. Revere was shot dead on the field while dressing a wounded man's leg.⁠21 His body was immediately rifled of everything of the least value. Col. Palfrey badly wounded in the shoulder, taken prisoner and released, or rather left behind.⁠22 Capt. Holmes shot through the neck,⁠23 and Capt. Hallowell in the arm;⁠24 Milton slightly in three places;⁠25 Lt. Col. Revere in the arm.⁠26 The losses of other Regiments of the Division are enormous.⁠27 

Shall try to write again soon.

Love to Mother.

Your affectionate son


Source Note

The source for Henry Ropes’ correspondence is the three volume transcription of Ropes outbound correspondence to his father, mother, and his brother, John C. Ropes. The original transcription can be found at the Rare Books and Manuscripts Department, Boston Public Library.

Henry Ropes was killed at Gettysburg on July 3 and from that point on, John C. Ropes undertook a life-long pursuit to memorialize his brother’s life and the regiment’s history. The transcription volumes are the center piece of John C. Ropes work and his legacy. Each of the three transcribed volumes are organized chronologically: Volume 1 is Henry Ropes’ correspondence to his father and mother, and Volume 2 and 3 to his brother, John C. Ropes. For more on the Ropes correspondence, see Richard F. Miller’s excellent essay on historical bibliography at pages 495-499 in his superlative study on the 20th Massachusetts in Richard F. Miller, Harvard’s Civil War: A History of the Twentieth Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry (Hanover and London: University Press of New England, 2005). Any errors in transcribing and annotating the selected correspondence are mine.


1 Willis Gorman (1816-1876), led the first line of Sedgwick’s Division. The 1st Minnesota anchored the right, and moving to the left, the 82nd New York, 15th Massachusetts. The 34th New York had followed the Smoketown Road during the advance and were situated further south at the Dunker Church. For more on the advance of Sedgwick’s Division, see, Ezra A. Carman, The Maryland Campaign of September 1862, Vol. II: Antietam. Thomas G. Clemens, ed. (California: Savas Beatie, 2012), pp. 202-215.
2 Brig. Gen. Napoleon Dana (1822-1905), West Point (1842), situated part of the second line close behind Gorman’s Brigade. The 19th Massachusetts, 20th Massachusetts, and the 59th New York were brought up behind  Dana’s Brigade. At the same time, and on the left of the line, Dana attempted to get the 42nd New York and the 7th Michigan to change front in order to meet the advance of the brigades of Jubal Early, William Barksdale, and G.T. Anderson moving in from the south part of the West Woods.
3 Col. William Wallace Burns (1825-1892), West Point (1847), led the Philadelphia Brigade until a wound received at Savage Station on June 29 forced him to take sick leave from July 10 to October 8. Brigadier Gen. Oliver O. Howard (1830-1909), West Point (1854), commanded the brigade at Antietam and formed the 71st Pennsylvania on the right, then the 106th and 69th Pennsylvania, and the 72nd on the left. While the 71st, 69th, and 106th maintained a fairly contiguous front, the 72nd Pennsylvania had drifted further south and were to the left of the 7th Michigan from Dana’s brigade. The 72nd’s  left came in a few yards north of the Dunker Church and closer to the 34th New York of Gorman’s Brigade. See Cullum’s Register for biographies of Burns and Howard. For more on the Philadelphia Brigade in the West Woods see Ezra A. Carman, The Maryland Campaign of September 1862, Vol. II: Antietam. Thomas G. Clemens, ed. (California: Savas Beatie, 2012), pp. 202-215.
4 Brigade and divisional reports from diaries and letters mention taking artillery fire while advancing across open fields from the East to the West Woods. Some recent research suggests that Hardaway’s, Carter’s and Boyce’s batteries operating at that time in the vicinity of the Sunken Road may have been responsible.
5 Ropes is referring to the post and rail fences along either side of the Hagerstown Pike. See illustration 1. 
6 This was the Alfred Poffenberger farmstead.
7 While in the West Woods, Confederate artillery situated on Hauser’s Ridge 600 yards from the regiment’s front threw grape and case shot at the division.
8 The 59th New York volleyed into the rear of the 15th Massachusetts. Carman wrote about this incident: “By this fire many of the Massachusetts men were killed and wounded, and the most strenuous exertions were of no avail either in stopping this murderous fire, or in causing the second line to advance to the front.” The 15th Massachusetts entered the West Woods 606 in the ranks; their losses there tallied 65 killed and 255 wounded, or, 52.8%.  Ezra A. Carman, The Maryland Campaign of September 1862, Vol. II: Antietam. Thomas G. Clemens, ed. (California: Savas Beatie, 2012), p. 615.
9 Major General John Sedgwick (1813-1864), West Point (1837), commanded the Second Division of the II Corps (Sumner). Shot in the wrist, leg, and shoulder in the West Woods on September 17, he survived, but lost his life at Spotsylvania Court House on May 9, 1864. See further, biographical entry in Cullum’s Register.
10 Dana was seriously wounded in the leg. See further, biographical entry in Cullum’s Register.
11 Howard took command of the division vice the wounded John Sedgwick. Cullum’s Register.
12 Edwin Vose Sumner (1797-1863) commanded II Corps, Army of the Potomac.
14 The Noon to 12:15 Cope/Carman map shows Howard’s and Dana’s brigades 40 yards due east of the Joseph Poffenberger farmstead. Rickett’s two batteries, Thompson and Matthews were to their right and left respectively. Gorman’s brigade is deployed on the Poffenberger farmstead with Dunbar Ransom’s artillery to their left rear. Map of the Battlefield of Antietam Prepared Under the Direction of the Antietam Battlefield Board, … Surveyed by Lieut. Col. E.B. Cope…Position of Troops by E.A. Carman, (Washington, D.C., 1904).
15 Of the 402 men of the 7th Michigan in the West Woods, 39 were killed, 178 wounded, and 3 went missing. Twenty of the twenty-three regimental officers were either killed or wounded. For an excellent account of the 7th Michigan in the West Woods, see Tom Nank’s blog entry titled “The Seventh Michigan Infantry at Antietam” posted at Antietam Journal. See also a list of 7th Michigan casualties at Brian Downey’s encyclopedic website Antietam on the Web.
16 The 42nd New York lost 181 officers and men or 52% casualties. The 59th New York suffered nearly 53% casualties in the West Woods. Carman, pp. 204-206; 615.
17 The Army of Northern Virginia left the field for Virginia during the night of September 18.
18 This is a reference to the Battle of Shepherdstown fought on September 20, 1862.
19 This was either Private Ansel Bean or Private Albert C. Bean. Both served in Company I, 20th Massachusetts. NARA, RG 94, Indexes to the Carded Records of Soldiers Who Served in Volunteer Organizations During the Civil War, compiled 1899 - 1927, documenting the period 1861 - 1866, Roll 0003; George A. Bruce, The Twentieth Regiment of Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry (Cambridge: The Riverside Press, 1906), p. 500.
20 This is probably a water cure spa at Lenox, Massachusetts mentioned in Ropes’ correspondence to his brother on September 3, 1862 (see post here).
21 Dr. Edward Hutchinson Robbins Revere, was the older brother of Major Paul Revere. A graduate of Harvard Medical School (1849), maintained a practice in Greenfield, Massachusetts at the outbreak of the war. He was "performing field surgery when he suddenly found himself in front. He remained and calmly finished the operation before he was shot and killed." Richard F. Miller, Harvard's Civil War: A History of the Twentieth Massachusetts (Lebanon, N.H., University Press of New England, 2005), pp. 25-26, 177.
22 Col. Francis Winthrop Palfrey (1831-1889), Harvard College, 1851, Harvard Law School, 1853, was hit with grapeshot in his shoulder in the West Woods.
23 Capt. Oliver Wendell Holmes (1841-1935). For more on Holmes in the West Woods, see blog posts here of July 21, August 13, August 29, and October 29, and November 11, 2010.
24 Capt. Norwood Penrose Hallowell (1839-1914), Harvard College, 1861 was severely wounded in the arm.
25 Lt. William F. Milton, Harvard (1858). Richard F. Miller, Harvard's Civil War: A History of the Twentieth Massachusetts (Lebanon, N.H., University Press of New England, 2005), p. 54.
26 Lt. Col. Paul Joseph Revere, grandson of Paul Revere and Harvard graduate (1862). He will be killed at Gettysburg.
27 Sedgwick went into the West Woods with 5,437 infantry. Of these 369 were killed and 1,572 wounded--producing an aggregate of 1,941 or 35% casualties. Ezra A. Carman, The Maryland Campaign of September 1862, Vol. II: Antietam. Thomas G. Clemens, ed. (California: Savas Beatie, 2012), p. 351.

No comments: