Thomas W. Hyde led the 7th Maine Infantry to glory at Antietam, where 25 of his men died for nothing.
Hailing from Bath, the 24-year-old Hyde commanded the 7th Maine by Sept. 17, 1862, when death, disease, and desertion had thinned the regimental ranks to 15 officers and 166 enlisted men. “They were all seasoned veterans and equal to anything,” recalled Hyde, likely remembering spring 1861, when the 7th Maine fielded a thousand men. “I did not believe the same number of soldiers of the Great Frederick [of Prussia] could have stood against them.”
George McClellan and his Army of the Potomac probed westward through Maryland in mid-September 1862 to find Robert E. Lee’s invading Army of Northern Virginia. The 7th Maine marched with Col. William H. Irwin and his Third Brigade, assigned to the Second Division, Sixth Corps. Irwin’s brigade also included four New York infantry regiments.
Early on Sept. 17, McClellan launched his troops against Lee’s lines outside Sharpsburg, a Potomac River town crisscrossed by Antietam Creek. “We moved with the division toward Sharpsburg, near which very heavy and continuous firing was heard,” Irwin wrote in a Sept. 22 after-action report filed with Maj. Charles Mundee, an assistant adjutant general.
Marching toward the hellish din erupting from the slaughter in the Cornfield and the West Woods and around the Dunker Church, the 7th Maine boys passed “hundreds of wounded coming to the rear,” Hyde later wrote a relative. “It was refreshing to turn from the crowds of wounded streaming back and look at the firm set faces behind me, everyone of them known to me personally, and never known to lack nerve in danger.”
“About 10 a.m. we formed … near Antietam Creek, on the left of the First Brigade, and were instantly ordered into action,” Irwin reported. He deployed two New York regiments as skirmishers and placed the 7th Maine and the remaining New York regiments in a long line.
Crossing Antietam Creek and advancing through the East Woods, the brigade reached the fields near the Dunker Church and then “dashed at the enemy in high spirits and good order, and was soon hotly engaged with them, but they could not endure our charge, and broke in confusion,” Irwin reported to Mundee. The 7th Maine cleared Confederate troops from the William and Margaret Roulette farm, located about a mile east of the Dunker Church.
After dealing with stiffening Confederate resistance, Irwin ordered his men to lay down to lessen their exposure to enemy bullets and cannonballs. Hyde and his men went belly to earth among handy boulders and listened as the roar of battle shifted south toward an Antietam Creek span later immortalized as Burnside Bridge.
The Maine lads rested as “it was drawing near five o’clock,” Hyde remembered. “We were expecting soon to be relieved, little knowing that in a few minutes more the 7th Maine were to find their Balaklava.” He referred to the Crimean War battlefield across which the Light Brigade had charged Russian cannons in October 1854.
Before Hyde’s watch ticked to 5 p.m., Capt. John Wolcott deployed his Battery A, 1st Maryland Light Artillery to shell Confederate troops “massing in front with the evident design of throwing a powerful column against my left,” Irwin reported to Mundee. Wolcott “came into action very promptly, and opened with three rifled guns” that shelled the primarily hidden Confederate infantry “with great effect for half an hour,” Irwin informed Mundee.
“When the battery was in full play, a skirt of wood on my left and front was occupied by [enemy] sharpshooters, whom … it was necessary to dislodge,” he wrote. “The Seventh Maine, under its gallant major [Hyde], was sent forward for this purpose, which they executed in admirable style.”
Hyde sent a depleted company to roust the Confederate sharpshooters hidden on the Henry Piper farm, located less than a mile to the south. Watching the deployment, an irate Irwin rode to Hyde and barked, “That is not enough, sir; go yourself; take your regiment and drive them from those trees and buildings.”
“I asked him to repeat his order and point out the ground again,” Hyde wrote in his Sept. 19 after-action report to Mundee.
“Are you afraid to go, sir?” Irwin snarled before repeating his order.
“Give the order so the regiment can hear it and we are ready, sir,” Hyde responded.
Irwin spoke loudly, then spat, “Those are your orders, sir.”
Enemy troops swarmed around the Piper Farm buildings, fields, and orchard; to reach the farm, the Maine boys must cross open terrain while exposed to Confederate artillery and infantry. Hyde, a combat veteran, knew that obeying Irwin meant death for many 7th Maine lads.
He led them to their Balaklava. Years after the war, Capt. James Hope of the 2nd Vermont Infantry painted several magnificently detailed landscapes of Antietam. One painting depicts the 7th Maine boys, marching in column with their rifled muskets at “right shoulder arms,” crossing the Sunken Road, a country lane that ran between the Roulette and Piper farms.
Caught and slaughtered in the Sunken Road earlier on Sept. 17, hundreds of dead Confederates lay heaped in the road, later called the Bloody Lane. Hyde’s men stepped on human detritus as they crossed the Sunken Road and advanced into the Piper cornfield. There they formed into line.
The road “was so filled with the dead and wounded of the enemy that my horse had to step on them to get over,” Hyde wrote his mother soon after the battle.
He “sent out my skirmishers, who drove the rebel skirmishers in fine style from the edge of the cornfield and the hollow lying on this side of the timber (woods) I was ordered to clear,” Hyde reported to Mundee. “I ordered the battalion forward, and as they (Confederates) opened fire on us from front and left flank I ordered a charge.”
Led by Hyde atop his horse, “with fixed bayonets” the pitiful handful of 7th Maine “men dashed forward in line with a cheer, advancing nearly a quarter of a mile at the double-quick,” Hyde wrote Mundee. “The body of the enemy in the orchard to our left being flanked, broke and ran. Those directly in front, behind haystacks and outbuildings, also broke, and their colors having fallen, we dashed up on the hill to secure them.”
There the 7th Maine experienced its Balaklava. In the letter to his mother, Hyde wrote that “as we (he and horse) breasted this hill, being some twenty feet in front of the regiment, I saw over its top before they (his men) did, and there were several times our number waiting for us” to appear atop the hill.
Hyde maneuvered his men to evade the Confederates who, with their weapons cocked, planned to eviscerate the 7th Maine boys when they emerged on the skyline. However, “a rebel regiment rose suddenly from a stone wall on our right [on the Hagerstown Pike], poured in a volley, and at the same time I saw them double-quicking around to the left to cut off our retreat,” Hyde informed Mundee. “Those in front, seeing our small numbers, had rallied.
“Looking back and seeing no support” — upon this point Hyde was clear — “to escape being surrounded I marched the regiment by the left flank, formed them on a crest in the orchard, poured a volley into those who were endeavoring to cut off our retreat, and faced those in front,” he wrote Mundee.
“Here we received a severe fire from three directions, and the enemy advanced in force. I saw four battle-flags,” Hyde recalled, a fact that indicated he faced four Confederate regiments: the 7th Georgia, a Louisiana regiment, the 2nd Mississippi, and the 1st Texas.
Then “a battery opened on us with grape [shot],” Hyde told Mundee. Although “shielded some” by the orchard’s trees, “we met a heavy loss.”
Low on ammunition, the bloodied 7th Maine “retreated through the orchard, gave them (enemy) another volley as they attempted to follow, which drove them back, and, closing up on the colors, I marched the regiment back in good order to their old position …,” Hyde told Mundee.
In his matter-of-fact report, Hyde made no mention about his close call. During the fighting in the Piper orchard, “my horse was shot through the mouth and the hip,” Hyde wrote his mother. As the wounded horse reared and fell, Hyde slid from the saddle, “and I saw between his legs the colors of the enemy near enough to read the names emblazoned upon them.”
With his men also falling around him, Hyde urged his wounded horse to its feet, then remounted and rode through “a volley fired by two regiments at me … being splashed from head to foot with blood (likely from the horse), I supposed myself wounded.”
He was not, save for a hand scratch.
Confederate soldiers rushed to capture Hyde — and trap him they did against a fence along the orchard’s northern boundary. Almost reaching safety, Hyde had turned back to aid the mortally wounded Color Sgt. Harry Campbell; seeing Southerners rushing toward him, Hyde then turned his horse into the fence, which the wounded mount could not jump.
“‘Back, boys, and save the Major!’” Hyde recalled a Maine sergeant shouting. “They rushed back, delivered a volley which killed six” Confederates “not ten feet from me,” and a Maine soldier “cut down the fence with his huge saber-bayonet and got me out.”
Their retreat covered by Union artillery, the 7th Maine boys reached their original position as 4th Vermont Infantry soldiers cheered nearby. That regiment’s commander, Lt. Col. William Brooks, had begged his own brigade commander to let the Green Mountain boys advance and support the 7th Maine’s attack.
The request was denied.
“We lay down and all were crying like children,” Hyde informed his mother.
According to Hyde, the attack and retreat took about 30 minutes. To Mundee he reported 12 enlisted men and two officers killed, “wounded and brought off, 60; fate still unknown, 16.” With the color sergeant killed “and all the [color] guard shot but one,” his men “brought off our [regimental] flag riddled with balls.”
The final death toll reached 25 men.” Probably incensed at the regiment’s losses, Hyde informed Mundee that “I drove the enemy from the trees and buildings Colonel Irwin ordered me to clear, but for want of support was unable either to push on after his (enemy’s) line was pierced or to hold the position that was gained.”
In a separate letter, Hyde blamed Irwin for the attack’s failure. “In my judgement (sic), we only needed the Vermonters behind us to have cut through to the [Potomac] river, and a few more brigades in support would have ended the business” by shattering Lee’s army.
Irwin pointed his finger elsewhere. In his Sept. 22 report, Irwin never credited himself for ordering the 7th Maine to attack. He also explained why the attack went unsupported, a mistake that sacrificed 25 brave Maine men for no military gain and left many others crippled for life.
“Finding the regiment so severely engaged, I was very anxious to support them,” wrote Irwin, “but my orders were positive not to advance my line.” By sunset, senior officers wondered why, if such orders existed, Irwin had advanced the 7th Maine solo.
“I rode rapidly forward, and requested the officer commanding the right regiment of the Second Brigade to support Major Hyde, which he declined to do without orders from General Brooks,” Irwin attempted to evade responsibility.
“I then returned to my own line to ask for a support from the rear, but in a few minutes I had the extreme pleasure of seeing the shattered but brave remnant of the Seventh Maine in good order return to my lines,” he informed Mundee.
Irwin added that Hyde “led his regiment into action with spirit and courage, handled it under severe fire with judgment, and retired in compact order and with a steady front. Conduct like this requires soldierly qualities of the highest order.”
The sugar-coated malarkey came too late to save Irwin. Sacked as the Third Brigade’s commander on Thursday, Sept. 18, he remained on duty another 13 months before bidding the Army farewell.
Later, after sharing his opinions with other Third Brigade officers, Hyde discovered why Irwin had ordered the suicide charge. He explained in a private letter that “our efforts were resultant from no plan or design at headquarters, but were from an inspiration of John Barleycorn in our brigade commander alone,” and “I wished I had been old enough, or distinguished enough, to have dared to disobey orders.”
William Irwin was drunk when he sent the 7th Maine to its Balaklava.
On Sept. 18, Hyde sought his missing comrades near the Piper Farm. He found eight wounded 7th Maine men, and “I found many more rebel dead than ours — but Oh! Every one of ours had been a friend.”
For his gallant leadership at the Piper Farm, Thomas W. Hyde would receive the Medal of Honor on April 8, 1891.
He had founded Bath Iron Works seven years earlier.