Wind-stirred flags attracted Confederate attention at Antietam, as Thomas Worcester Hyde realized by mid-afternoon on Wednesday, Sept. 17, 1862.
A Bowdoin College graduate and the only son of a Yankee trader from Bath, Hyde had commanded the 7th Maine Infantry Regiment during the Sept. 14 attack on Confederate-held Crampton’s Gap on South Mountain in Maryland. With Col. Edwin Mason and Lt. Col. Selden Connor absent for various reasons, command had devolved to the quite capable Maj. Hyde.
On Wednesday morning he awoke from “a refreshing” night’s sleep spent “in a half filled hay cart” at the 7th Maine camp in Pleasant Valley, a topographical feature bordering the western slopes of South Mountain. The regiment belonged to the 3rd Brigade (Col. William Irwin) of the 2nd Division (Maj. Gen. William Smith) of VI Corps (Maj. Gen. William Franklin), Army of the Potomac.
Turned back from his Maryland invasion, Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee had deployed his army outside Sharpsburg, a crossroads town bordering the Potomac River. Antietam Creek flowed south through the rolling hills just east of Sharpsburg; taking advantage of the natural protection afforded by the creek, Lee spread his divisions in a north-to-south arc between Sharpsburg and the creek.
Early on Wednesday, Union troops attacked Lee’s left flank. Savage fighting ensued in the woods and a corn field near a whitewashed brick church belonging to the so-called “Dunkers,” immigrant German Christians who practiced baptism.
Before dawn, Union Gen. George B. McClellan summoned VI Corps to reinforce his already damaged army. The 2nd Division moved out around 5:30 a.m.; Hyde mounted his horse and led a “high spirited and happy regiment toward we knew not what.”
By 9 a.m. “the firing ahead of us became louder” as the 3rd Brigade approached Sharpsburg, Hyde said. “We were soon meeting hundreds of wounded [Union soldiers] coming to the rear.”
The 7th Maine followed the 77th New York Infantry, which kicked up road dust that drifted amidst Hyde’s men. The major brought to Sharpsburg only 15 officers and 166 enlisted men, far less than the 1,000-odd men who had mustered with the regiment in mid-August 1861.
Hyde rode a Virginia thoroughbred. As “the artillery and the rattle of small arms grew louder,” he turned in the saddle and looked “back … at the firm set of [7th Maine] faces behind me[,] every one of them known to me personally and never known to lack nerve in danger.”
The 3rd Brigade included the 7th Maine, the 77th New York, and three other New York infantry regiments, including the 20th. William Irwin pushed his brigade across Antietam Creek at Pry’s Ford, and suddenly the 77th New York lads sped into the “double quick as we came to some woods,” so the 7th Maine boys started running, too, Hyde said.
The 3rd Brigade soon reached and turned south on the Smoketown Road. “About 11 o’clock a.m.” the 20th New York “formed in line of battle in the woods on this [south] side” of the creek, recalled the 20th’s Col. Ernst von Vegesack, a Swedish nobleman who had offered his services to the Union in 1861. The 20th New York Infantry was comprised primarily of German immigrants from the New York City environs.
“I could see the long line of Germans moving obliquely to the left” as the 77th New York lads went “straight on,” Hyde said. An Irwin aide ordered him to maneuver the 7th Maine onto the left flank of the 20th New York; Hyde deployed his companies into line and conducted a left half wheel.
Then his men emerged from “the woods and the whole magnificent [battlefield] panorama … was in full view,” he described the vista from his saddle.
With the 33rd and 77th New York regiments forming its right flank, the 3rd Brigade charged south toward the Dunker Church. Hyde saw that Vegesack’s “Germans, some eight hundred strong, were moving in fine line and looked so well that the whole fire of the enemy was being concentrated upon them.”
Confederate sharpshooters lurking in outbuildings on the William Roulette farm died or fled when rousted by the 7th Maine; Hyde lost “a a dozen men” during this excursion, then with his surviving comrades “dashed back again at the run” to form “on the left of the Germans, who had lost heavily.”
Vegesack and his staff officers rode back and forth behind the 20th New York’s line. Exposed to Confederate artillery fire, the regiment took casualties as the 7th Maine lads “hugged the ground” amidst “a lot of boulders in front [that] protected us fairly well,” Hyde said.
Union artillery posted behind the 3rd Brigade shelled Confederate artillery deployed east of the Dunker Church. Hyde watched the battle spread to his left (west) and front (south) as heavy metal whistled and zipped overhead.
The cacophonous din of battle prevented him from hearing (or at least discerning) the particularly heavy shooting taking place along a sunken farm land that crossed the battlefield from right to left, less than a half mile from where the 7th Maine sheltered.
Suddenly Hyde saw the Irish Brigade (identifiable by magnificent green regimental flags adorned with Irish harps) charge “up[hill] to the line over to the left” beyond the Roulette farm. A National Park Service trail now parallels the route taken by the Irishmen through a farm field; near where the trail crests the rise just north of modern Bloody Lane, the Irishmen encountered devastating volleys from the Confederates defending the farm lane.
And there the Irishmen stood and fought around their flags.
In time Hyde looked to his right, where he saw the “more open [ground] in front of the Germans … every few minutes some of them would be struck and go to the rear while scarcely any of our regiment were injured.”
Hyde watched Vegesack, who, with his “revolver in hand to shoot the skulkers” (cowards) trying to slip away from the 20th New York’s line, kept “riding back and forth behind the regiment.”
Confederate cannonballs whizzing overhead, Hyde ran to “Vegesack and told him” that the enemy gunners“were specially singling him out as his colors were held so high.” Hyde “advised lowering them a little.”
“Let them wave. They are our glory,” responded “the brave old Swede” in his Scandinavian accent.
“Of all the foreign officers I knew, and there were scores of them with us, he was the best,” Hyde believed.
Next week: “The 7th Maine were to find their Balaklava” — 7th Maine at Antietam, Part II
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.