17 September 1862
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Pry House Headquarters Army of the Potomac 11 P.M. These once gentle Maryland hills have been witness to scenes of the most horrible carnage imaginable and certainly the most severe fighting seen in this war to date.
The action commenced early this morning and lasted the entire day. Hooker's Corps was the first to become engaged and occupied the extreme Federal right. They met men of Jackson's Confederate Corps in a large cornfield as the first light of dawn approached.
I had just finished a cold breakfast after little sleep and the passage of a damp uncomfortable night in the field, as did nearly all the army, when the sound of what was unmistakably an artillery duel alerted me to the outbreak of fighting. Making my way up a winding country path that was someone's farm, I emerged onto higher ground at the edge of the cornfield where the fierce contest was already at its height. In front of me was Battery B, 4th U.S. Artillery. The Federal guns, all admirably served, had been drawn up in support of Gibbon's brigade of Westerners.
The Federal infantry nearest our position were those of the 2nd Wisconsin of that brigade. The Westerners plunged themselves headlong into the neat rows of corn only to become swallowed up and locked in a death struggle with Texans under Hood. The action swirled back and forth over the field. I lost count of the number of times we lost and then regained the position. Eventually, we prevailed on that portion of the field but at great cost.
Row upon row of the slain littered the ground. The once tall rows of corn had been trampled or cut by gunfire to the point where little of it was left standing.
I encountered my good friend Charles Coffin of the Boston Journal but we did not speak as we were simply too moved by the drama unfolding before us. At one point, a considerable force of the enemy broke through the field only to be met by a hail of canister fire from the guns.
Captain Campbell of Battery B was shot from his horse and mortally wounded, while bravely directing the fire of his battery. As the battle waned on this part of the field, I learned that General Hooker had been seriously wounded and taken to the rear.
I secured my horse and rode in the direction of General McClellan's headquarters. This took a considerable time as I ran headlong into masses of men moving forward to play their part in the widening battle. During my journey I encountered such scenes of slaughter and sacrifice that they are beyond the pale.
Still more fighting erupted in the center of our line, involving Sumner's Corps. At what must have been mid day, I arrived at the army's headquarters to learn what I could of the sweep of events.
The General and his staff occupied a well appointed farmhouse high on a hill, owned by Phillip Pry. Staff aides were seen scurrying in and out at regular intervals as I rode up. From what I could gather, the fighting had indeed moved to the center of our line and our forces were everywhere under extreme pressure. Courier after courier bore messages of impending disaster and pleas for aid.
Numb with fatigue, I sat down on the front steps and tried to collect my thoughts. Suddenly, the Commanding General and several aides emerged from the house with the intention of riding nearer the scene of action. But the General thought better of it and moved to return inside. I rose and called to him. The General was kind enough to inform me that we had been fortunate to secure victory on the northern end of the field.
As always, deeply attached to the soldiers he commands, General McClellan expressed regret that so many brave men had already fallen and that two of his corps commanders were down.
With a firmness born of command, he indicated that something great might yet be achieved with troops under the command of General Burnside. Later, with that in mind, I rode out yet again to find Burnside, somewhere I was told, on the extreme left of the Federal line. When I arrived, it was already late in the afternoon.
Yet the sound of gunfire had not slackened in the least. By the time I located our lines, they had advanced across a bridge that spanned the creek and up onto higher ground nearer the town. The flush of victory was everywhere.
Certainly this was the signal success for which this army had labored for so long. But then all was suddenly changed.
I encountered at first, one or two panicked men and then a steady stream of stragglers, some of whom, identifying me as a correspondent, took hold of my arm and pleaded with me that all was lost; that we were defeated.
These were mostly men from Harland's Brigade of Burnside's command; men of the 16th Connecticut who had never seen battle before.
Many of them had thrown away their muskets, bedrolls, packs, or anything that might slow them down. Nevertheless, I made my way forward to two Federal batteries which had been well placed on a rise of ground just behind an outcropping of rocks and a thin line of trees. The cannoneers were working at a furious pace to support a very long line of Federal infantry below them.
These were the Brigades of not only Harland but of Fairchild and Rodman as well. It was immediately apparent that we had been advancing only to be met by the untimely arrival of a large body of Confederates. A Federal officer turned briefly and shouted in my ear over the din: "that's A.P. Hill come up the Harper's Ferry road." I turned my glass in the direction of the hill opposite and saw what he meant. Still more of the enemy were streaming onto the field. Smoke obscured much of the scene as the wind blew it back in our faces. I was able to see that we had readjusted our lines and were making a stand. Incredibly, the already deafening roar of the guns had increased still further along with a whirlwind of musketry.
The area in contention was a hollow which ran much of the length of the field below us and ended with a farmhouse and various outbuildings to our right. It was now more properly early evening, and everyone I saw looked weary.
A regimental band immediately behind our position struck up several patriotic airs to encourage the troops despite being under severe fire themselves. Rebel artillery was overshooting as they often do. But then the enemy corrected their error and our position was in peril.
Quickly, two men serving the gun in front of me were down and I was compelled to help carry one of the men a short way to the rear where the battery surgeon could attend to him.
Still others and even some of the battery horses were struck by fragments of metal or even hard clods of earth thrown up by the projectiles exploding so near us.
Then, just as quickly, the Federal guns turned on their tormentors on the hill opposite and drove them off. Our lines held.
Now it is late evening or perhaps it is already well past midnight. The action certainly must be resumed tomorrow, for McClellan has Porter's entire corps, held out of today's fight in reserve. Some of Burnside's staff are furious that these men were not better employed. There are suggestions here that this army may shift to the defensive tomorrow to await Lee's attack. Some say we are badly outnumbered. I will leave it to Mr. Smalley of the Tribune to inform you further of the action which took place in the cornfield and in the center of our line and to other pens to relate the sad details of all those who have fallen today.
We are all exhausted here. I am unable to judge who now holds the balance.
However, it is clear that we have severely damaged Lee's army. The evidence is everywhere as the dead are strewn in great numbers over the ground which was contested today.
These dispatches submitted by Thomas M. Sobottke, portraying New York Tribune correspondent Samuel Wilkeson and based on research and observations made on the field at the 135th Anniversary of the Battle of Antietam near Hagerstown, Maryland,
September 12, 13, and 14 1997.