During the early months of the Civil War, civilians and soldiers — North and South alike — viewed war as a grand adventure comprising glittering cavalcades of marching soldiers and held-high flags. Then came the reality of war, experienced first on the battlefield by amateur soldiers in early summer 1861 and next by civilians some 14-15 months later, as America’s first combat photographers released images of the dead.
But before the photographs portrayed the slain soldiers of Antietam, the soldiers’ words depicted similar images.
In late afternoon on Sunday, July 21, 1861, Union Gen. Irvin McDowell sent the 3rd Brigade led by Col. Oliver Otis Howard of Leeds to attack the far left flank of the Confederate army defending Manassas Junction, Va. Howard commanded four infantry regiments: the 2nd Vermont and the 3rd, 4th, and 5th Maine.
From atop Matthews Hill, the brigade advanced southwest across the Dogan farm, crossed the Warrenton Turnpike, and took shelter in a ravine south of that road. Howard formed his regiments into two lines:
• Up front, the 4th Maine on the right and the 2nd Vermont on the left;
• Behind, the 5th Maine on the right and the 3rd Maine on the left.
Howard advanced his first line south up Chinn Ridge. There the Mainers and Vermonters took a pounding from Confederate artillery and infantry. Howard rode back and brought up his second line.
“We now had to ascend a hill through a thick growth of scrubby oaks and firs, and then we came out upon a broad opening with a wood in front and one in the rear,” Sgt. Frank L. Lemont of Lewiston and Co. E, 5th Maine Infantry, wrote his father, Samuel several days later. “During all this time we were exposed to a galling cross fire, ball and shell coming both ways.”
The 5th Maine boys advanced across a nightmarish landscape. “I noticed many dead bodies as we passed up through the woods on to the hill, and one [body] I noted in particular,” Lemont recalled.
The dead Union soldier — Lemont made no observation as to which regiment the man belonged — “lay upon his right side. He was killed with a six pounder cannon ball. It entered the left arm near the shoulder, and, I should judge, went entirely through his body[,] and I thought at the time that I could run my arm through his body,” Lemont described the horrific scene.
“It was a terrible sight and one I never wish to see again,” he said.
“I stopped for a moment and thought of his friends at the north, perhaps at that very moment sending up a prayer to God for his safety [while] not dreaming that he, around whom their affections twined, was already with his Maker,” Lemont commented. “Such is war!”
Perhaps the novelty of war allowed Frank Lemont (soon to be promoted to lieutenant) to wall off a visceral reaction to the dead men he saw at Bull Run. Just minutes before the 5th Maine advanced, a soldier standing three feet from Lemont had caught a bullet in his head and died immediately.
“He was the first man I saw killed that day,” Lemont told his father. “You may think I have grown hard-hearted when I you that that sight did not … unnerve me in the least …”
Enlisting in the 1st Maine Infantry Regiment at Portland in April 1861, John Mead Gould thought he would leave immediately for Washington, D.C., then literally on the front lines with Confederate troops occupying Alexandria, Va. across the Potomac River.
Then a measles outbreak quarantined the 1st Maine, which did not arrive in Washington until mid-afternoon on June 3. The 1st Maine boys finished their 90 days’ service there, listened to the “repeated rumbling like thunder” to the west at Bull Run on July 21, and headed home 10 days later.
Without ever firing a shot, Gould and his comrades mustered out in Portland on Aug. 5. But many 1st Maine lads (among them Gould) joined the 10th Maine and returned to federal service later that year — and fought at Antietam on Sept. 17, 1862, when the dead piled up in their windrows.
Camping north of Antietam Creek on Tuesday, Sept. 16, the 10th Maine boys awakened at 5:30 a.m. that Wednesday, remembered by 1st Lt. Gould as “not a warm day as the sun was hid by clouds and a breeze was stirring at all times.” Within a few minutes “the ball opened by cannonading and musketry.”
Led by Col. George Lafayette Beal, the regiment belonged to the 1st Brigade commanded by Brig. Gen. Samuel Crawford; the 1st Division commanded by Brig. Gen. Alpheus Williams; and the 12th Corps, commanded by the doomed Maj. Gen. Joseph Mansfield. The 10th Maine advanced along the Smoketown Road to the East Woods and engaged in serious fighting in the morning.
Gould particularly noticed “the absolutely tremendous shelling we were passing under.”
The 10th Maine took casualties, albeit not at as a high percentage of participating soldiers as had other regiments North and South. Wednesday night “we had 92 muskets in stack” at the regimental camp, a considerable reduction in numbers from 24 hours earlier, Gould observed.
Spilled blood etched Antietam into American history for the most battle casualties suffered in one day; the photographers who descended on Sharpsburg after the battle seared Antietam into the 1862 American psyche for the sheer horror depicted in the resulting photographs.
For the Union soldiers occupying the battlefield on September 18-19, only words sufficed as the boys wrote home about the dead. Gould remembered the battlefield as “an immense territory” that measured 2-to-4 miles in length and “from half a mile to a mile wide.
“Yet from any spot in all that vast extent you can not fail to see one dead man at least.” he said on Thursday — and this after dead Union soldiers “had been removed to heaps near the fences” for burial. The Federal dead included 21 from the 10th Maine, according to Gould.
“In the corn field … they (Confederates) lay in scores,” Gould noticed as he walked through that farm field later dubbed The Corn Field. “To the left of this corn field where a pasture was and behind many projecting rocks they lay thick as grasshoppers.
“Nearly all had been shot in the head[,] having been laying behind the rocks,” Gould said.
He stopped to examine many dead Confederates. After a while Gould realized that “there was a sameness to them all, that it failed to impress one as fully as a great variety of uniforms would.
“The everlasting gray and homespun [uniform cloth], the blood and dirt on every face, the same vacant and unmeaning expression, all tended to weary a man looking at the sight,” Gould said.
“The fence were piled with dead where some had got shot in jumping over and others trying to protect themselves behind it,” he recalled. “There was terrible slaughter along the line of greatest elevation … exposed places like these would have always 2, 4, 6 or 10 dead.”
Gould walked among the dead Confederates for some hours. He noticed “a fine looking fellow” — the slain Col. Henry Strong, commander of the 6th Louisiana Infantry Regiment — “lying calmly as if in deep sleep.”
Along the Hagerstown Pike, Gould encountered more Confederate dead, possibly including the swollen bodies portrayed in post-battle photographs. He noticed how “the stone wall and rail fence formed a barrier” against men advancing or retreating. Confederates had died in their scores along the fence.
“It was a horrible sight to see the grey-backs there … they lay in the gutter and on both sides of the fence,” recalled Gould. “The heat had swollen them till they looked like so many bladders …”
In his recollections, Gould adequately described the horror depicted in post-battle photographs soon published across the North. Civilians suddenly discovered the truth that their soldier relatives could not convey by word; war was hell.
“All sense of honor was lost,” Gould realized at approximately the two-hour mark during his walk “among the corpses.” Apparently some surviving Union soldiers viewed the dead Confederates “as so much trophy, so much evidence of the day[’] work.”
John Mead Gould did not share that assessment. To him, “it seemed as if human life was worth nothing and a man’s soul a myth.”
Brian Swartz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. He would love to hear from Civil War buffs interested in Maine’s involvement in the war.