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I am a lifelong student of military history with particular interest in the Battle of Antietam. I work for the federal government in Washington DC and have two teenagers who I love very much. I currently volunteer at the battlefield and devote much time to the study of this battle and the Maryland Campaign. I enjoy collecting notable contemporary quotations by and about the men of Antietam. These words often add a degree of color and character not found elsewhere in their stories. A feature of this blog is the presentation of some of these quotes. My perspective comes from a 28 year career in the U.S. Army. Travels took me to World War II battlefields in Europe and the Pacific where American valor ended the tyranny of Nazism and Empire. But our country faced its own greatest challenge 80 years earlier during the Civil War. And it was the critical late summer of 1862, when Robert E. Lee launched the Maryland Campaign that fortune could have gone either way. It is an incredible story of drama, carnage, bravery, and missed opportunities that culminated around the fields and woodlots of peaceful Sharpsburg MD. So join me as I make this journey South from the North Woods.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

"It was galling to have to serve under such people"


Today I discovered an autobiography of George Crook. Crook is perhaps best known as one of the premier Indian fighters in the west after the Civil War. However he participated in many of the important campaigns in the Civil War and was a brigade commander in the Kanawha Division of the Ninth Corps during the Maryland Campaign. His Ohio men fought at the Battle of Fox Gap on September 14th, 1862 and at the Burnside Bridge on September 17th. Crook’s rough autobiography was discovered by Martin F. Schmitt pasted into a scrapbook at the Army War College. Mr. Schmitt subsequently edited and published it in 1946. Titled General George Crook – His Autobiography, (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1946), it covers the period from his graduation in 1852 from West Point to June 18, 1876, the day after the Battle of the Rosebud. Crook was apparently in the process of working on his memoirs when he died in 1890. While his focus is on his campaigns against the Indians both before and after the Civil War, he devotes much attention to his Civil War service and the Maryland Campaign in particular.

This post covers contains Crook’s narrative on the Maryland Campaign. This chapter, aptly titled “It was galling to serve under such people”, begins immediately after the Battle of Second Bull Run with Colonel Crook still commanding just the 36th Ohio Infantry Regiment:

I was shortly after this relieved from my bodyguard duty, and proceeded to hunt up my brigade, in company with Hugh Ewing,Colonel of the 30th Ohio. As we were passing near Gen. McDowell's headquarters, he called us in, saying that as we were from Ohio, and he was so misunderstood and was likely to be more so growing out of this recent campaign, he wanted us to understand the whole matter.

He showed us the correspondence between himself and the Secretary of War in relation to the Peninsula campaign. Here he protested against being sent to Shenandoah instead of being allowed to carry out McClellan's original plan of joining him via Hanover Court House. He showed us the communications pro and con which to my mind made out a very clear case against the War Department.

From here we marched through Washington, where we were joined by the remainder of our division. We marched along with the army going towards Harper's Ferry. We were placed in Burnside's command after McClellan was placed in command of the army. The brigade to which I belonged was composed of the 11th, 28th, and 36th Ohio, Col. Moore in command. While marching through Frederick City [Fredericksburg], our brigade being in advance, Col. Moore with some of his staff got too far in advance of his command, and was captured, which placed me in command of the brigade.

[South Mountain – Fox Gap – September 14, 1862]

After leaving Frederick City we turned to our left, and entered some fields. The country was rolling. At the far end of the field the ascent was rather steep. This side was surmounted partially by a stone wall, with timber beyond. We knew in a general way that the enemy was somewhere in front, but had no idea of their exact locality.

Just under the crest of this hill our division was drawn up in line of battle, while the enemy was occupying the crest in the edge of the timber, and the stone wall. We lay down as close as we could get to the enemy without exposing ourselves. Some of our men amused themselves by sticking their hats on their ramrods, and raising them high enough to meet the enemy's vision. A dozen bullet holes were made through them.

The two lines of battle were not over fifteen or twenty yards apart, with the advantage being on the other side. Fortunately, we received the order to charge just before they were going to charge us, and by taking the initiative, and by the impetuosity of our charge, their ranks were broken. Their men fled, not to return against us any more that day. A great many of their men were killed. Some of them were bayoneted behind the stone fence. Many more were killed farther down in the woods, near an old well or sunken road.

Farther to our right General Reno was killed that day. Our losses were comparatively light. I cannot help but shedding tears over some of my regiment who were killed, and one pretty boy not over 16 or 17 years of age, a nice mother's boy, who lay mortally wounded, whose pleading face looked so pitiable. I had seen so much of them for the last year, knew them all, and felt as though they were my own family.

This was the battle of South Mountain, fought on the 14th day of September, 1862.

I afterwards learned from my family that the farm where this battle was fought was near to, or the same farm where my mother was born and reared.

The next day we took up our line of march by the sunken road, where so many of the enemy's dead were still lying, unburied. We passed by a great many troops, and were shown into a sunken cornfield on the left of our army, or at least my brigade was. The enemy was occupying a bluff about one-half of a mile in front of our line, and as soon as I went into the field, they opened on us with spherical case, filled with old, round musket balls. We lay flat on the ground, and could see the shells coming by their burning fuses long before we could hear the report of the gun. The fuses were so timed that they burst overhead, throwing the musket

balls in our midst, which amusement they kept up as long as it was light enough to see. Strange to say, we had but very few men hurt

by these missiles.

[Battle of Antietam – September 17, 1862]

As I stated before, my brigade consisted of the 11th, 28th, 36th Ohio. The 11th was commanded by Lt. Col. Coleman, the 28th by Lt. Col. Bolinger, and the 36th by Lt. Col. Clarke. As none of our wagons came up, we had to go to bed supperless, nor did we have anything to eat since morning. The next morning my servant went to a house on neutral grounds between the lines of skirmishers. He found that the occupants had fled, but they had left a batch of bread ready to bake, and plenty of nice butter and milk in the cellar. We baked the bread, and returned with such a breakfast that none of us had tasted for many a day.

We could hear firing on our right and front, but knew nothing more. About ten A.M., Capt. Christ on Gen. Cox' staff came to see me, and said, "The General wishes you to take the bridge." I asked him what bridge. He said he didn't know. I asked him where the stream was, but he didn't know. I made some remarks not complimentary to such a way of doing business, but he went off, not caring a cent. Probably he had done the correct thing.

The consequence was that I had to get a good many men killed in acquiring the information which should have been supplied me from division headquarters. I at once sent the 11th Ohio to reconnoiter toward the bluffs from where the shrapnel came the evening before, while I left the 36th near the house, intending, when the position of the bridge was located, to charge it with this regiment and with the 28th Ohio. I went with it to reconnoiter, to our right. I soon saw the situation, and saw that there was a stream running close to the bluff before mentioned, and that the road passed into the bottom of the creek, and thence parallel to the bluff and creek for a couple of hundred yards to the bridge.

I at once ordered a battery of artillery to a commanding position to the right, which commanded and enfiladed the bluffs. In the meantime the 28th found the creek a little further up not over knee deep, with good crossing. As soon as they had crossed, the enemy's position was untenable except with a superior force to the one they had there.

This crossing, together with the enfilading fire of the artillery, caused the enemy to evacuate before I could get back to the 36th. Two Pennsylvania regiments crossed it without loss, and got the credit of taking the bridge. I understood that both of their Colonels were made Brigadier Generals for this service. The 11th Regiment pushed near enough to the bluff to lose a large number of men killed and wounded, amongst the former Col. Coleman.

I learned afterwards that Gen. Sturgis with a division was repulsed in trying to take the bridge earlier in the morning, losing some six hundred men, principally against the bluffs where Col. Coleman lost his life. I was expected to accomplish with my brigade what a division had failed to do, and without ever getting the benefit of the knowledge he had gained in his reconnaissance. Such imbecility and incompetency was simply criminal, a great deal of which lasted until the close of the war. It was galling to have to serve under such people. But many of them, by maneuvering in politics and elsewhere, are looked upon by certain people throughout the land as some of our military luminaries.

After the opposite of the creek, Antietam, was occupied, Gen. Cox came over for the first time I had seen him since the South Mountain fight. I was informed that I was to support the Philadelphia Corn Exchange Brigade, who were going to make a charge to the left of Sharpsburg. I was to use the 11th and 36th, the 28th being detached. I remonstrated that my line would be so attenuated that it would be emasculated, but all to no avail.

While we were lying under the bluffs waiting for the troops to get into position, I strolled up the creek to a wooded knoll that looked over towards the enemy's position at Sharpsburg. I could see from this position. I saw two batteries on a clear field, trained on the road leading to Sharpsburg, evidently intended to open on our troops immediately at the rise of the hill. I reported this to Gen. Cox, who asked Gen. O. B. Willcox to accompany me back and look at the situation. When I had pointed out the batteries, he remarked that they had no men with them, which so disgusted me that I left him and went off.

About two P.M. the Corn Exchange Brigade was in line just on the crest of the bluff, out of sight. They relieved themselves of all encumbrances in the shape of knapsacks, blankets, and a lot of things we people from the West didn't have. Besides, they had on gaudy uniforms, like the Zouave's red pantaloons. Close behind them, also lying in line of battle was my little attenuated line, plainly dressed, unassuming in actions and appearance, looking more like retainers to those in front than what we really were.

Finally the order for the charge was given, but the moment we raised the crest of the hill and were in full view, we were met with such a hail of musketry bullets, with several batteries dealing death and destruction amongst our ranks, that it would seem nothing could survive it.

After reaching the crest of the hill, we had to pass over quite a stretch of ground before we commenced descending into a hollow lying between the ridge occupied by the enemy and ourselves. The enemy not only had a direct, but a cross fire on us. It was in going down this slope that Col. Clarke, commanding the 36th, was killed by a round shot that came from our left. It struck him sideways, just above the hips, tearing him almost in twain. He died instantly.

We were but a short distance apart when it occurred.

By the time we fairly reached the bottom of the hollow, there was not the color of the Corn Exchange left. They had all disappeared somewhere. I noticed comparatively few who were left in the field.

The enemy was occupying a cornfield on this second high ground. The side of this field towards us had a stone fence, behind which we took shelter. To our right a short distance was Gen. Willcox, aiming a gun in person, all his men gone. He sent out word to us to know why in hell we were not advancing. Just then Col. Scammon came up from my left. He was in temporary command of our division, and sent word back to Willcox that if he would give him written orders, he would march.

The facts were that we were the only troops between the enemy and our transportation, hospitals, etc., just on the other side of the Antietam. Then too, the enemy in this cornfield were as thick as blackbirds, and my few orphans would not have lasted ten minutes had we once gone on their side of the fence. We had our hands so full that we knew but little of what was going on elsewhere, but of course knew that a big battle was going on.

And this was the 17th day of September, 1862.

[Aftermath]

Under the cover of dark we withdrew to the crest of the bluffs from where we started the charge from earlier in the day. We lay on our arms all night in the midst of the leavings of the Corn Exchange Brigade. We had been unable to get a full supply of clothing out. Most of our men had not seen shelter tents before, so they were thrilled by these luxuries, and as their owners now returned for them, our men were sick.

It was heartrending to hear the wails of the wounded and dying in our front all night. Our men alleviated all this suffering they could, but we had to keep ourselves intact for fear of an attack. Since in the morning when we breakfasted in the sunken cornfield, we had lost the two commanders of the 11th and 36th, besides many others. Also learned that Col. Jones of the 30th Ohio had been wounded, and fell into the hands of the enemy during the day.

We stopped here all the next day in the hot, broiling sun, still all that was between the enemy and our impediments. Toward evening it commenced raining. Just about dusk we were relieved, and sent back not far from the sunken cornfield, to bivouac for the night.

Here our division was reassembled near a small country house occupied by some of the officers. Col. Hugh Ewing became full of "jig water," and ventilated [sic] himself on Gen. Cox, abusing him for being a coward and imbecile, and declaring he would never obey an order of his again, etc.

Although I was appointed to be a Brigadier General of Volunteers from the 7th of September for the battle of Lewisburg, I did not get it until after this campaign ended.

Soon after we left the Kanawha Valley, the enemy, under Gen. Loring, drove our people out of that country. So I was ordered back to take possession of that country. Soon after we started, Gen. J. E. B. Stuart of Rebel fame made a raid in the rear of our lines. So I was detained at Hancock for a couple of days, hoping I might intercept him. I marched from Clarksburg across the country so as to strike the Kanawha Valley high up, and come on the enemy's flank. But as I neared the valley, they evacuated without any resistance.

Those readers who are attentive students of the Maryland Campaign will notice some discrepancies between Crook’s recollections 28 years after the battle and what we have come to understand as the events that occurred on that day. He confuses Frederick with Fredericksburg. Additionally, he places Sturgis’s attack before his. He recalls supporting the Philadelphia Corn Exchange Brigade during the final attack. There are some interpersonal dynamics that subtley emerge when he mentions fellow Ninth Corps officers like Jacob Cox, Orlando Wilcox, Hugh Ewing, and Eliakim Scammon. Crook’s account makes interesting reading. His prose is engaging, in some places humorous, and indicates a man that maybe does not really take himself as seriously as many military men do. Judge George Crook for yourself.

5 comments:

  1. Jim, now go read Crook's after action report from the ORs and see how little he said years before.
    Ron Dickey

    ReplyDelete
  2. Ron,
    Brevity was the word in his official report. It was written days after the battle and if he had unburdened himself then like he did years later, it would not have gone good for him. He knew how the game is played.
    Jim

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  3. I have commanded and lost men in battle myself and I was struck by the timelessness of the comradeship and commander's sorrow

    "I cannot help but shedding tears over some of my regiment who were killed, and one pretty boy not over 16 or 17 years of age, a nice mother's boy, who lay mortally wounded, whose pleading face looked so pitiable. I had seen so much of them for the last year, knew them all, and felt as though they were my own family."

    ReplyDelete
  4. Having commanded in our current conflict and lost men in it I was struck by the timelessness of the family - like loss Crook expresses.

    ReplyDelete
  5. Rod,
    Thank you for your service. That unique relationship that a leader has his men in combat is timeless.

    ReplyDelete