Observations on the Carnage of a Dreadful Day at Sharpsburg

by NEW YORK DIGITAL NEWS


In 1866 Private Alexander Hunter, formerly of the 17th Virginia Infantry’s famed “Alexandria Riflemen,” wrote an illuminating personal account of his Civil War experiences, “Four Years in the Ranks.” That account was later used for Hunter’s popular “novel” Johnny Reb and Billy Yank, published in 1905, and was the source of the article “Crossing the Rubicon” in America’s Civil War’s September 2021 issue, which recounted the experiences of the cocky, daring “High Private” at Second Manassas, Ox Hill (Chantilly), and during the Army of Northern Virginia’s march to Sharpsburg, Md., in August–September 1862.

Alexander Hunter
The date this postwar photo of Alexander Hunter was taken is unknown. It appeared in his 1908 book, “The Huntsman in the South.”
(Library of Virginia)

The pages from Hunter’s 1866 manuscript on his time with the Alexandria Riflemen (Company A) are mostly missing for the Battle of Antietam (known better to Southerners as the Battle of Sharpsburg). Possibly the relevant pages were taken out to be used, and then misplaced, for Hunter’s articles in the Southern Historical Society Papers in 1882-83 (“A High Private’s Sketch of Sharpsburg,” Volumes 10–11) and later a shorter version, titled “The Battle of Antietam,” in SHSP for 1903’s Volume 31. His colorful writings of the Army of Northern Virginia’s attempted liberation of Maryland from Federal control ranged from humorous to horrific.

As with many veterans, story details could change over the years. Hunter was no exception, as he wrote in the decades following the war mildly conflicting accounts about the combat south of Sharpsburg late on September 17. Published below is an assortment of Hunter’s writings of that period, with paragraph breaks added in places to help readability.


The night of September 14, 1862, in the wake of a bloody day of fighting at South Mountain, the worn-out and famished Alexander Hunter could do little more than collapse at an old sawmill on the side of the Sharpsburg Road. He would be awakened the following morning by his 17th Virginia comrades, marching to the west from Boonsboro. The 17th had become a shell of itself: just 46 muskets and nine officers from a regiment that only a year earlier had boasted 880 men. These enduring veterans were part of James Longstreet’s old “First Brigade,” now commanded by Brig. Gen. James Kemper—a brigade, Hunter would write, whose strength had fallen to merely 320 effectives from 2,800 or so men four months earlier.

[T]he brigade marched toward Sharpsburg. Squads from the different companies obtained permission to forage for themselves and comrades. Being the only private left in my company, I joined two expert foragers of Company H….

On our way across the field we stopped at a fine looking mansion… [and] knocked at the door—there was no response, and then after waiting awhile…we walked in…to our astonishment [it] was entirely deserted….Not a thing had been taken away, the parlor door was open, and all the elegancies of the drawing room were scattered about, and not a soul near[.]

[I]f I had been skeptical before of an early battle, this hasty abandonment would have convinced me of that fact….[T]here sat the cat on the window-sill; indeed the home-life had been so recent within the house that it was difficult to realize that our hostess’s step would not at any moment sound upon the stairs and her voice be heard in greeting.

We had no time to linger, the warning notes of the cannon reverberating in our ears while we were in search of something to eat. The cupboard, like that of an ancient miser, was empty; so was the kitchen, hence we went to the spring and filled our canteens with ice-cold water, glad to get it if nothing more substantial….

I went to the dairy, inside was…several buckets and cans of milk, over which the rich yellow cream had already risen…that had been placed there in the morning. Up in the loft were ranged barrels of cider and Brandy—having about half a dozen canteens with me I filled them equally with the three fluids, after drinking as much as I could….An animated discussion took place. The whole squad, except the sergeant, wanted to carry the barrel and leave everything else behind….

The discussion waxed high, and to end the matter the sergeant stove in the head of the barrel with the butt of his musket, and the precious liquid that would have made glad for a time at least, the whole brigade, poured in a useless stream upon the floor….[I] pursued my course onward considerably stimulated. I could not help wondering, what in the world made those persons leave so suddenly. I looked around, no enemy in sight, and they certainly weren’t leaving on our account, for we had had possession of this part of the country for the last three days. Anyhow I felt deeply grateful for there [sic] leaving their Brandy & milk, to say nothing of the luscious grapes, which hung in clusters from their vines, and I hereby thank them—be they Yank, or Reb….

Long and lovingly were many lips glued to the mouths of those canteens, and honestly the owner’s health was drunk [to], not asking or even caring whether he was friend or foe; our Colonel [Montgomery] Corse blessed us as he took a long, lover-like kiss from the mouth of my canteen, I intended saving some in case I was wounded in the coming battle, but when the vessel was returned to me there was not a drop left.

Recalled Brig. Gen. David Rumph Jones, Hunter’s division commander: “[O]n the morning of the 15th….My command took possession of the heights in front of [facing east] and to the right [south side of the Boonsboro Pike] of the town being the extreme right of our whole line…my entire command of six brigades comprised only 2,430 men.”

David R. Jones
Brig. Gen. David R. Jones, the 17th Virginia’s division commander, was part of West Point’s famed Class of 1846. He died of heart disease four months after Sharpsburg.
(Heritage Auctions)

Late in the evening the column halted near Sharpsburg, a little village nestling at the bottom of the hills, a simple country hamlet that none outside, save perhaps the postmaster, ever heard of before, and yet which in one day awoke to find itself famous, and the hills around it historic. This tiny town was a quiet, cool, still place—like the locality where Rip Van Winkle lived his days….

The hamlet was deserted now…not a soul was to be seen, the setting sun tinged the windows with its glowing rays, and made more vivid the dark background of the high hills beyond…ah, many eyes, all unconscious, looked their last upon the glowing incandescence as they stood on the crest watching the bright luminary go down.

Jones’ brigades commanded by Kemper and Brig. Gen. Thomas F. Drayton moved into the vicinity where Jacob Avey’s farm sat, on the southeast edge of town. The 80-acre Avey Farm had an orchard of more than 30 trees, pastureland, and to the west a cornfield (about 100 yards wide and 300 yards long) that was on high ground near the Harpers Ferry Road.

The Avey residence was the only home on the south side of Sharpsburg’s southernmost street. The Avey home sits on the west side of the Rohrersville Road; the thoroughfare that runs out of town through a slight valley to the southeast to Burnside Bridge—the modern-day road has been altered substantially from the original roadbed.

Running somewhat perpendicularly from, and generally south out of the ravine to higher ground, was a long fence, roughly 300 yards of stone. As the ridge crested southward, the fence changed to post-and-rail, continuing another 200 yards. Drayton’s Brigade was positioned behind the stone portion of the Avey Farm fence, and to its right Kemper’s Brigade had the post-and-rail section.

The 17th of September was a bright & beautiful, sweet, morning,…the sun arose in cloudless brilliancy, and all nature appeared to have donned her gaudiest colors, so rich…in the autumn robing…its beauties were soon lost on us though, for as the morning advanced, and as we felt our limp haversacks, the sole absorbing thought crossed each man’s mind of where is our breakfast coming from? …Had we been well fed, and with nothing to do, there were none that could not have lain at ease, and enjoyed the fine view—with the fair garden country spreading out all around, looking at its best.

But sentiment could find no place in a man who had nothing but the memory of what he had eaten to fill his stomach…a painful fact that unless something was done at once, we would all have to fight on empty stomachs. The men began to grumble…and a long line of famine-drawn faces and gaunt figures sat there in the ranks, chewing straws merely to keep their jaws from rusting and stiffening entirely.

The storm so long gathering was about to burst, but the men having become callous and indifferent from extreme hunger, thought that only in case of a victory they would find plenty of the enemy’s haversacks to satisfy the cravings….

At last as our patience was becoming rapidly exhausted, and the animal in our nature was becoming fearfully developed….Just about this time a cow—a foolish, innocent, confiding animal…with a pathetic look in her big eyes…—not knowing soldiers’ ways, came grazing up to our lines; a dozen bullets crashed through her skull, and a score of knives were soon at work….Everything was eaten, even her tail, that was but an hour ago calmly and easily switching the flies from her back. Some soldier skinned it, burnt it over the fire, and picked it clean in a few minutes….

The Yankees were preparing for their battle. On the heights, some two thousand yards away, fresh batteries would take their position and open; ours would reply, and so, as the hours of the forenoon wore on, the war clamor grew greater, and soon on our left the splashes of musketry, and then the steady, rattling discharges showed the battle was fairly joined.

Antietam battlefield near the Dunker Church
Though the ground appears peaceful in this post-battle photo, this section of the Antietam battlefield near the Dunker Church witnessed some of the morning clash’s bloodiest fighting.
(Virginia Museum of History and Culture)

The order was given to “Fall in” and our skeleton brigade took up their position on top of a high hill behind a post-and-rail fence…we slept like logs, though the fight at the Dunker Church on our left was raging in all its fury.

We moved several times in the course of the day, but at noon the final position was selected behind a post-and-rail fence near where we first stopped.

The reports of the cannon were incessant and deafening: at times it seemed as if a hundred guns would explode simultaneously, and then run off at intervals into splendid file firing. No language can describe its awful grandeur. The thousand continuous volleys of musketry mingle in a grand roar of a great cataract, and together merging, seemed as if the earth was being destroyed by violence, the canopy of the battle’s fume, from this vast burning of gunpowder, rising above the battle-field in such thick clouds, that the sun looked down gloomy red in the sky, while the dust raised by the mass of men floated to the clouds…it seemed as if Hades had broken loose….

The 17th Virginia was positioned in view of Brig. Gen. Robert Toombs’ defense of the Rohrbach Bridge over Antietam Creek, which Maj. Gen. Ambrose Burnside’s 9th Corps finally broke through about 1 p.m.

Toombs’ brigade came rushing back, its lines broken, but its spirit and morale all right. The enemy are silent, but it is the calm that is but a prefix to a hurricane.

We made ready and expected to see the victorious Yankees following hard upon the heels of the retreating Rebels, but to our astonishment an hour or two of absolute inaction followed; no advance nor demonstrations were made in our front, but on the left the battle was raging as fiercely as ever. What could it mean, we asked each other, but none could solve the question….

It was now getting late in the afternoon, and the men were becoming cramped from lying in their constrained position; some were moving up and down, some stretching themselves, for there was a cessation of firing in our front—an interval of quiet. It was but a short time, for the guarded, stern, nervous voice of our commanding officer, calling, “Quick men, back to your posts!” sent every soldier into line. And then, as we waited, each man looked along the line—the slight, thin, frail line—stretched out beyond that crest to withstand the onset of solid ranks of blue, and felt his heart sink within him. Yet who could but not feel pride in such soldiers as these….They had kept up in this campaign solely by an unquenchable pride and indomitable will. As dirty, as gaunt, as tattered as they looked, they were “gentlemen.”

My! my! What a set of ragamuffins….It seemed as if every cornfield in Maryland had been robbed of its scarecrows and propped up against that fence. None had any underclothing. My costume consisted of a ragged pair of trousers, a stained, dirty jacket; an old slouch hat, the brim pinned up with a thorn; a begrimed blanket over my shoulder, a grease-smeared cotton haversack full of apples and corn, a cartridge box full and a musket. I was barefooted and had a stonebruise on each foot…but there was no one there who would not have been “run in” by the police had he appeared on the streets of any populous city, and would have been fined next day for undue exposure. Yet those grimy, sweaty, lean, ragged men were the flower of Lee’s army. Those tattered, starving, unkempt fellows were the pride of their sections….

All at once, an eight gun battery, detecting our position, tried to shell us out, preparatory to their infantry advance, and the air around was filled by the bursting iron.

This article first appeared in America’s Civil War magazine

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Our battery [Captain James S. Brown’s Virginia “Wise Artillery” of four 6-pounders] took its place about twenty steps on our right; for our right flank was totally undefended. [The 7th and 24th Virginia Infantry were to Hunter’s right, but apparently out of his sight.]

Oh those long minutes that we lay with closed eyes, expecting mutilation and a shock of the plunging iron, with every breath we drew—would it never end? But it kept up for fully fifteen minutes, and the men clenched their jaws tight and never moved; a line of corpses could not have been more stirless.

The shells begin to sail over us as we close behind the fence, shrieking its wild song, a canzonet of carnage and death. These missiles howled like demons, and made us cower in the smallest possible space….But what is that infernal noise that makes the bravest duck their heads? That is a “Hotchkiss” shell….It is no more destructive than some other projectile, but there is a great deal in mere sound to work on men’s fears, and the moral effect of the Hotchkiss is powerful.

…a shell burst not ten feet above where [we] lay…and literally tore poor Appich, of Company E, to pieces, shattering his body terribly, and causing blood to spatter over many who lay around him. A quiver of the form, and then it remained still. Another Hotchkiss came screeching where we lay, and exploded, two more men were borne to the rear; still the line never moved or muttered a sound. The shells split all around, and knocked up dust until it sprinkled us so, that if it intended to keep the thing up, it threatened to bury the command alive.

At last! at last! the firing totally ceases, then the battery with us [Brown’s] limbered up and moved away, because, as they said, their ammunition was exhausted; but murmurs and curses loud and deep were heard from the brigade, who openly charged the battery with deserting them in the coming ordeal.

At 3 p.m., 8,500 Federals deploy in lines over three-quarters of a mile wide. On Hunter’s front are 940 troops from Colonel Harrison Fairchild’s New York brigade.

An ominous silence followed premonitory of the deluge….the infantrymen, who had lain there face downward, exposed to the iron hail, now arose….[Their] faces are pale, their features set, their hearts throbbing, their muscles strung like steel.

Soon came the singing of the minnies overhead. There is a peculiar tuneful pitch to the flight of these little leaden balls; a musical ear can study the different tones as they skin through space. A comrade lying next to me, an amateur musician of no mean merit spoke of this. Said he, “I caught the pitch of that minnie that just passed. It was a swell from E flat to F, and as it retrograded in the distance receded to D—a very pretty change.”

The hill in our front shut out all view, but the advancing enemy were close on us, they were coming up the hill, the loud tones of their officers, the clanking of their equipments, and the steady tramp of the approaching host was easily distinguishable….We could hear the rat-a-plan of their drums…

Montgomery D. Corse
Montgomery D. Corse, who first gained fame during the Gold Rush of 1849, served with the Army of Northern Virginia the entire war.
(Library of Congress)

Then our Colonel [Corse] said in a quiet calm tone that was heard by all, “Steady lads, steady! They are coming. Ready!”

The warning click of the hammers raised as the guns are cocked, ran down the lines, a monetary solemn sound—for when you hear that the supreme moment has come.

We heard the commanding officer of the unseen foe give the order “Forward, march! Dress to the colors! Double-quick!”

Each man sighted his rifle about two feet above the crest, and then, with his finger on the trigger, waited until an advancing form came between the bead and the clear sky behind.

As we lay there with our eyes ranging along the musket barrels…we saw was the gilt eagle surmounted the pole, then the top of the flag, next the flutter of the Stars and Stripes itself slowly mounting—up it rose; then the tops of their blue caps in sight; still rising, the faces emerged; next a range of curious eyes appeared, then such a hurrah as only the Yankee troops could give broke the stillness, and they surged toward us. It was the only battle in which I ever engaged where the forms and faces of the foe were plainly visible.

“Keep cool, men—don’t fire yet,” shouted Colonel Corse; and such was their perfect discipline that not a gun replied. “Don’t fire men until give the word,”

Less brave, less seasoned [Federal] troops would have faltered before the array of deadly tubes leveled at them, and at the recumbent line, silent, motionless and terrible, but if there was any giving away we did not see it….Not until they were well up in view did Colonel Corse break the silence, and his voice was a shriek as he ordered: “Fire!”

[T]he forty-six muskets exploded at once, and sent a leaden shower full in the breasts of the attacking force, not over sixty yards distant. It staggered them—it was a murderous fire—and many fell; some of them struck for the rear, but the majority sent a stunning volley at us, and but for that fence there would have been hardly a man left alive. 

The rails, the posts, were shattered by the balls; but still it was a deadly one—fully one-half of the Seventeenth lay in their tracks; the balance that is left load and fire again and again, and for about ten minutes the unequal struggle is kept up….

Every man in our line began to load his musket with frenzied haste…and lay silent and expectant; we could easily hear the [Federal] officers expostulating and urging the men to reform, and they made a rush a second time, but it was without heart, and when we poured in a close fire, they broke in panic and disappeared, officers and men, over the brow of the hill. We had no time to feel jubilant, for the rattling of drums in our front, the measured tread, the clanking of accouterments showed that the Yankee reserves were coming up. We braced ourselves for the shock, and every man looked backward, hoping to see reinforcements, but not a soul could be seen between us and the village….

We had barely loaded and capped the muskets when the blue line came with a rush….

Before we could load a third time[,] the two lines of battle of the Federals, now comingled as one solid bank of men, poured a volley into us that settled the matter….

I can never forget that moment; it was photographed indelibly on my mind; the sun glanced and gleamed on the level barrels, and the black tubes of the muzzles, not over twenty feet away, turned on us with deadly meaning. I crouched to the ground, and fortunately I was behind a post instead of a rail; I shut my eyes; a second of silence, then a stunning volley, the crash of splintered wood, a purple smoke, smell of sulphur, the spat and spud of the bullet, and the Seventeenth Virginia was wiped out….Our Colonel falls wounded; every officer except five of the Seventeenth is shot down; of the forty-six muskets thirty-five are dead, dying or struck….

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Fairchild’s Federals suffer heavy casualties during the engagement, too, with total losses reaching nearly 50 percent. Also of note was the capture of the 103th New York’s regimental flag by a 17th Virginia lieutenant—reportedly the only Union flag captured at Sharpsburg.

Just as the bluecoats were climbing the fence I threw down my musket and raised my hand in token of surrender….Two of them stopped…the rest of their line hurried towards the village. As we turned to leave we saw our whole brigade striking for the rear…and the enemy swept on triumphantly, with nothing to bar his progress…

There was but one of our regiment who was taken prisoner besides myself, [Charles A.] Gunnell [of D]….Two of our victors…kindly allowed us to walk up our line to see who was killed. It was a sad, sad sight; Colonel Corse lay at full length on his face, motionless and still; I thought at the time he was dead; I stepped across the dead body of our brave color-sergeant [color-corporal Washington Harper], and near him with a bullet through his forehead, lay that gallant, handsome soldier, Lieut. Littleton, of the Loudoun Guards….

My guard said to me: “It’s all up with you Johnnie; look there.” I turned and gazed on the scene. Long lines of blue were coming like the surging billows of the ocean. The bluecoats were wild with excitement, and their measured hurrah, so different from our piercing yell, rose above the thunder of their batteries beyond the bridge. I thought the guard was right, that it was all up with us, and our whole army would be captured…. it seemed to us as if Sharpsburg was to be our Waterloo.

Viewing the Antietam battlefield
A Union soldier, sitting atop a tree stump, views Antietam Creek through binoculars from General McClellan’s headquarters, in an Alexander Gardner photo dated September 18. One of Andrew Humphreys’ batteries rests in a nearby field at left.
(Library of Congress)

The sudden arrival of Maj. Gen. A.P. Hill’s Light Division completely changes the narrative. Hill and his men had left Harpers Ferry early that morning and had traversed roughly 17 miles to reach the endangered Confederate right flank beginning about 2:30 p.m.

We, Yank and Reb, were sitting down taking a sociable smoke when all at once we were startled as if touched by an electric shock…a change takes place in this panorama; a marvelous change, before our very eyes…we saw emerging from a cornfield a long line of gray, musket barrels scintillating in the rays of the declining sun and the Southern battle flags gleaming redly against the dark background. They seemed to have struck the Federal advance on the flank.

It appeared to us as if all the demons of hell had been unloosed—all the dogs of war unleashed to prey upon and rend each other; long volleys of musketry vomited their furious discharges of pestilential lead; the atmosphere was crowded by the exploding shells; baleful fires gleamed through the foliage…while the concussion of the cannon seemed to make the hills tremble and totter.

The disordered ranks of blue come rushing back in disorder, while the Rebels followed fast, and then bullet-hitting around us caused guards and prisoners to decamp. 

“What does this mean?” we asked.

At last a prisoner, a wounded Rebel officer, was being supported back to the rear, and we asked him, and the reply came back: “…those troops fighting the Yankees now are A.P. Hill’s division.” How the Southerner’s face glowed as he told us this; what a light leaped into his eyes, wounded as he was.

Still forward came the wave of gray, still backward receded the billows of blue, heralded by warning hiss of the bullets, the sparkling of the rifle flashes, the purplish vapor settling like a veil over the lines, the mingled hurrahs and wild yells, and the base accompaniment over on our left of the hoarse cannonading. Back we went, stopping on…every rise of the ground to watch the battle….We were thinking of that line of motionless comrades lying on the crest of the hill down beside the fence; and wondering if the sun was lighting up their pallid faces.

Night came at last, stopping the carnage of the dreadful day, and the tender, pitiful stars shone in the vast dome above and looked down upon the scene of desolation and death. 

Robert Lee Hodge writes from Old Hickory, Tenn. He can be reached via robertleehodge.com





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