Friday, March 8, 2013

Hell for Battery B, 4th U S Artillery at Antietam

The September 17, 1862 Battle of Antietam (Sharpsburg) is often referred to as artillery hell because more than 500 pieces of artillery of all types were used by both armies during the day long engagement.  One could rephrase that statement and write that Antietam was hell for one artillery company, Battery B of the 4th U. S. who lost nine killed and 31 wounded officers and men and 26 horses while supporting the Iron Brigade and other units of the Union 1st Corps on the northern end of the field on that fateful September morning.

At Antietam Battery B was initially commanded by Captain Joseph B. Campbell a June 24, 1861 graduate of West Point who, in May 1862, replaced John Gibbon as commander of the battery when Gibbon was promoted Brigadier General of Volunteers and assumed command of the Iron Brigade.  When Campbell was severely wounded early in the day command devolved upon 36 year old Scottish immigrant Lieutenant James Stewart.

Battery B had crossed Antietam Creek late in the afternoon September 16, 1862, probably at a ford near the upper bridge, along with John Gibbon’s brigade to which it was attached.  Both had bivouacked on the rainy night of the 16th on the Joseph Poffenberger Farm with other elements of Major General Joseph Hooker’s 1st Corps of the Army of the Potomac.

Before dawn on the 17th and before most of the Union troops had risen from their fitful slumber artillery shells fired form Confederate batteries on Nicodemus Heights, west of the Joseph Poffenberger Farm, came crashing into the ranks of the 1st Corps.  Not long after that, around 6:00 a.m., Hooker directed Gibbon to prepare his brigade to advance south  along the Hagerstown Pike to engage Confederate troops commanded by General Thomas J. “Stonewall" Jackson which were about a half mile to their front.  Gibbon ordered Battery B to advance in support of the Iron Brigade.

As the regiments of the Iron Brigade deployed skirmishers and advanced southward Battery B advanced through the North Woods and went into battery in a plowed field approximately 100 yards south of the woods.  Shortly after unlimbering the company’s six Model 1857 Light 12 Pounders (Napoleons) Gibbon directed Stewart to advance his 2 gun section to a position due east of farmer D. R. Miller’s house.  Stewart went into battery east of the Miller farmhouse and directed counter battery fire against Colonel S. D. Lee and Captain W. T. Poague’s Confederate batteries in his front as well as against Confederate infantry regiments in the woods north of the Dunker Church.  

The Iron Brigade was taking heavy casualties from infantry and artillery enfilading their right flank as they advanced southward along and east of the Hagerstown Pike so around 6:30 a.m., Gibbon ordered Stewart to advance his section to a position west of the pike and south of the Miller barn.  Stewart unlimbered his two cannons and while facing in a southwesterly direction directed spherical case against Poague’s Rockbridge battery and Jackson’s troops. 

 According to Johnny Cook, the battery’s bugler, “No sooner had we unlimbered when a column of Confederate infantry emerging from the so-called West Woods poured a volley into us, which brought down 14 of 17 of my brave comrades to the ground.”

As stated in Lance Herdegen’s “The Iron Brigade in Civil War and Memory”,  “Stewart’s horse fell in a hail of bullets spilling him to the ground but he jumped up unhurt and ran to the limber to gather a makeshift force of horse holders and drivers to replace the downed cannoneers.” 

With Battery B’s support the 2nd and 6th Wisconsin of the Iron Brigade were able to break through Jackson’s line as they advanced through Miller’s cornfield and get within several hundred yards of the Dunker Church before a counter attack by Confederate forces under the command of General John B. Hood forced the decimated ranks of the Wisconsin regiments to beat a hasty retreat back through the corn and ultimately to a position west of the pike in the rear of and in support of Battery B.  

By 7:20 a.m., Gibbon was forced to call-up the other four guns of Campbell’s Battery  who came galloping up the Hagerstown Pike and unlimbered to the left of Stewart’s two cannons.  One of the bronze Napoleons was actually placed in the road by Captain Campbell. By this time the battery had changed positions and was now facing southeastward with their fire directed at Hoods troops in the cornfield.  

The intense infantry fire from Hood’s veterans soon wounded Captain Campbell and killed or wounded a number of his cannoneers even though the battery was firing single and double canister as quickly as the guns could be loaded.  As quoted in Herdegen’s book, “The steady firing of Battery B’s guns began to falter.”  

Seeing this, and also seeing that at least several of the guns were firing over the heads of the Confederate troops in their front, General John Gibbon drew his horse up alongside the gun in the road and shouted at the gunner to raise the elevation screw which would depress the muzzle.  He could not be heard above the din therefore “in the full uniform of a general officer, his face begrimed with powder smoke and (with) perspiration running down his face, Gibbon was still servicing the guns of his old battery.”  He raised the elevation screw and with the help of the remaining members of the guns crew, “double charges of canister were thrown into the corner of the cornfield, the aim was low, the stones and dirt on the road was plowed up, the fence rails were splintered and thrown into the air, and as the smoke and dust cleared away, groups of the enemy was seen running toward the rear.” 

With the regiments of Hood’s command that had been engaged with Battery B and the Iron Brigade in full retreat back toward the Dunker Church, around 7:30 a.m., Lt. Stewart was able to limber up the guns of Battery B and head northward down the Hagerstown Pike to the safety of the plowed field south of the North Woods where they unlimbered again around 8:00 a.m. 

Around 8:30 a.m. Gibbon again ordered Stewart to advance the battery to the fields east of the Miller house.  Steward advanced the cannons and came into battery on the left of Captain Dunbar Ransom’s Battery C, 5th U. S. Artillery.  He could not fire the guns here because federal infantry regiments were in position 20 yards in front of the battery.  When Ransom retreated Stewart followed him to the edge of the North Woods where he removed wounded horses and redistributed the remaining men and horses amongst the cannons.  Around 9:00 a.m. when Gibbon, for a third time, ordered Stewart to advance to the position east of the Miller house he was only able to take two of the battery’s guns.  The remaining four were removed to a position north of the Joseph Poffenberger Farm where they were unlimbered with the other 1st Corps batteries to guard the right flank of the Army of the Potomac.  

Stewart's 2 guns of Battery B remained in position east of the Miller house and a little later a little farther south but still east of the Miller house firing in support of Sedgewick’s Division of Sumner’s 2nd Corps as they advanced into the West Woods and later as they retreated northward through the woods. Sometime around noon or 1:00 p.m., Stewart withdrew his section and rejoined the other four guns of the battery on the ridge behind the Poffenberger Farm where they remained for the remainder of the day.  Late in the afternoon, along with other 1st Corps batteries, they lobbed a few shells toward Nicodemus Heights which silenced Confederate artillery fire from that position and convinced Stonewall Jackson it would be foolhardy to attempt to turn the right flank of the Union Army.

Battery B’s losses in action at Antietam on September 17, 1862, which officially included 40 officers and cannoneers killed or wounded and 27 horses killed, was the third highest loss of any artillery company in combat during the entire war.  Three Medals of Honor were earned by members of Battery B at Antietam including one issued to 15 year old bugler Johnny Cook and one each to infantryman William P Hogarty (detached from the 23rd New York Volunteer Infantry) and John Johnson (detached from the 2nd Wisconsin Volunteer  Infantry.)

There is one additional casualty however that appears to have been missed by those compiling statistics.  In an 1893 letter to John Gould, Lieutenant James Stewart refers to the 41st casualty:  “About ten minutes after being placed in command I was struck by a minie ball breaking my waist belt plate and knocking me down.  On getting up I found my sword belt broken in two.  The shock was trouble for some time, but I knew if I should allow it to be known that I was wounded that someone else would be sent to command the battery.  I suffered a great deal and had to use a catheter for many years and sometimes especially when I catch cold the old pain will come back.  General Gibbon does not know to this day that I was wounded in the battle.” 

“To when the battle was over, in place of looking over the field and making notes I had to lie down flat on my back and obtain all the relief that I Possibly could until the surgeon came and helped me out of the pain.”