Ordered by Col. William Irwin to take the depleted 7th Maine Infantry Regiment and charge Confederate skirmishers hiding among haystacks at the Piper Farm near Sharpsburg, Maj. Thomas Hyde rode out with his 170-or-so heroes to make a suicide charge shortly after 5 p.m., Wednesday, Sept. 17, 1862.
The Maine lads marched south and “crossed the sunken road, which was so filled with the dead and wounded of the enemy that my horse had to step on them to get over,” Hyde said. “We stopped in the trampled corn on the other side to straighten our line.”
Atop his Virginia thoroughbred, Hyde took position to the right side of that line; riding “a big white horse” borrowed from a colonel, Adjutant William L. Haskell of Portland took position on the left flank.
Steering the 7th Maine toward “a point on the right of Piper’s barns,” Hyde paused, then shouted, “Charge!” The Maine lads rushed “at the double quick down into a cup-shared valley” that gradually rose onto higher ground near a barn on the Piper farm.
“With fixed bayonets the men dashed forward in line with a cheer, advancing nearly a quarter of a mile at the double-quick,” he said.
Along the lines of the 2nd Brigade (the so-called Vermont Brigade), regimental commanders “begged to follow our [unsupported] charge,” Hyde learned later. Lacking orders to support the 7th Maine, brigade commander Brig. Gen. William T.H. Brooks responded, “You will never see that regiment again.”
Even with fewer than 175 men, the 7th Maine’s line covered a considerable distance and moved perpendicular to the stone wall-lined Hagerstown Pike, perhaps not much more than 100 yards away from the regiment‘s right flank.Trying to fire over the heads of Hyde’s men, a Union artillery battery “took out four men of my right company at their first shot,” Hyde growled.
Confederates defending the Piper farm fired fast and furiously. Haskell went down on the left flank when Confederate bullets felled him and his mount (called “old Whitey“), so Hyde steered his horse “in front of the regiment” so his men could see him.
By now enemy troops in the Piper orchard had fled, and “those directly in front, behind haystacks and outbuildings, also broke, and their colors having fallen, we dashed on up the hill to secure them.”
Confederate infantrymen concealed by the Hagerstown Pike stone wall “rose suddenly … poured in a volley” at the 7th Maine lads, then turned to their left and started “double-quicking … to cut off our retreat,” Hyde said.
Because the Maine boys “were going so fast,” the Confederate volley did little damage. Assessing the terrain, Hyde ordered a “left oblique” to place “a rise of ground” between his men and the pike.
The hill on which retreating Confederates had abandoned their flags lay “just to the right of and beyond Piper’s barns,” Hyde noticed from where he rode about 20 feet ahead of his men. Just as “we breasted this hill … I saw over its top” that “there were several times our number [of Confederates] waiting for us.”
To avoid his men being silhouetted and shot against the Maryland sky, Hyde ordered, “Left flank!” The 7th Maine lads angled to the east, ran past the Piper barns, tore apart a fence delineating a “cow yard,” and “went up a rise of ground into the [Piper] orchard,” he recalled.
Color Sgt. Harry Campbell of Co. D carried the regimental flag during the attack. Somewhere near the Piper barns a bullet struck Campbell “in the arm,” Hyde said. “He held it up to me, all bloody, waving the flag.
“Take [the flag in] the other hand, Harry,” Hyde told Campbell.
Spotting the Maine soldiers, the Confederate troops concealed behind the first hill “fired several volleys and then charged after us,” Hyde watched the developing encirclement of his regiment.
“Here we received a severe fire from three directions, and the enemy advanced in force,” he said. Confederate artillery opened fire with grapeshot, and although “shielded some” by the orchard’s trees, “we met a heavy loss,” he admitted.
Struck in its hip and mouth by bullets, Hyde’s horse reared and plunged. Hyde “slipped off over” the horse’s tail and landed on the ground; overhead “the twigs and branches of the apple trees were being cut off by musket balls, and were dropping in a shower.”
Although its blood had splattered Hyde, the thoroughbred “only lost his back teeth” and had “a charge of buck and ball” lodged in his hip.” Remounting, Hyde found his men formed into line in the orchard; delivering “a terrible fire” on the Confederates pouring into the cow yard, the Maine boys left a “pile of dead … there.”
Hyde had earlier counted four enemy regimental flags, including one emblazoned “Manassas.” Badly outnumbered and running low on ammunition, the 7th Maine boys were slowly withdrawing “through the tall picket fence” along the northern edge of the orchard.
As Hyde rode toward his men, he heard Harry Campbell “call out as in pain behind me.” Turning his thoroughbred, Hyde “went back to save the colors if possible.” The apple trees apparently (and only briefly) concealed Hyde from Confederates pursuing the 7th Maine; enemy troops swept past and cut him off.
Turning his horse again, Hyde rode into a fence corner, where perhaps a dozen Confederate soldiers surrounded him.
“Rally, boys, to save the major!” a Maine sergeant bellowed. Rushing to the picket fence trapping Hyde and his horse, 7th Maine lads pushed “the muzzles of their Windsors … between the pickets” and fired a volley that “few of my would be captors” escaped, Hyde vividly recalled that moment for the rest his life.
“Sgt. [Henry F.] Hill [of Co. I] with his sabre bayonet cut through the rails[,] and I was soon extricated,” Hyde said.
As the 7th Maine boys poured from the orchard, Union artillery fired grapeshot into it. While the friendly fire support blocked Confederate pursuit beyond the orchard, Hyde acknowledged that “we were more afraid of the [Union] grape than the enemy.”
The Maine boys delivered a final volley. Hyde “then formed the regiment on the colors, sixty five men and three officers, and slowly we marched back toward our place in line.”
Confederate artillery deployed east of the Dunker Church fired a few rounds at the diminutive line, then fell silent. All along the Federal lines, and particularly “when we came in front of our dear comrades, the Vermonters,” men “rose up and waved their hats” and cheered raucously, according to Hyde.
As the bloodied 7th Maine lads marched toward their initial position on the 3rd Brigade’s left flank, Corp. Warren Ring of Co. A — the sole survivor of the color guard — “brought off our flag riddled with bullets,” Hyde proudly stated. Campbell lay somewhere in the Piper orchard, and all but one member of the color guard had been wounded.
Hyde reported 12 enlisted men, Sgt. Maj. John B. Parsons, and two lieutenants as killed in action. Sixty enlisted men and three officers had been wounded and rescued, and 16 enlisted men were missing.
So were Adjutant Haskell and captains Granville Cochrane of Monmouth, John Cook of Lewiston, and James Parnell Jones of China. Haskell would later die of his wounds. Cochrane was shot in an ankle, Cook suffered a bad leg wound, and Jones was slightly wounded.
Second Division commander William Smith and VI Corps commander William Franklin evidently confirmed on September 18 that Irwin had ordered the suicidal attack “from an inspiration of John Barleycorn,” said Hyde, politely declining to describe his brigade commander as “drunk” when he sent the 7th Maine to meet its Balaklava.
Franklin and Smith sacked Irwin as the 3rd Brigade commander on September 18.
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.