Nine months before earning the Medal of Honor and winning everlasting acclaim as the commander of the Philadelphia Brigade at the Copse of Trees, Alexander Webb served as the Chief of Staff of the Fifth Corps at Antietam.
Webb was on my radar, not because of his role at Antietam. Before that he served as one of William Barry’s artillery inspectors during the Peninsula Campaign of 1862. I learned that Yale University is the repository of Webb’s extensive collection of papers, maps and photographs. I recently had the opportunity to view Webb’s papers at Yale and hoped to gain insight on his activities with Barry as part of my ongoing artillery research.
Alexander Webb (1835-1911) was born in New York City on February 15, 1835. His grandfather General Samuel Webb was an aide to George Washington and regimental commander during the Revolution. Webb’s father James Watson Webb was a noted newspaper publisher and diplomat. The younger Webb graduated from West Point in the Class of 1855 ranking 13 of 34 graduates. He was commissioned in the 2nd
U.S. Artillery and served in Florida, Massachusetts and Minnesota. He returned to West Point in 1857 as an assistant professor of mathematics while fellow professor John Gibbon labored over his Artillerist Manual
. In January 1861 as the secession crisis worsened, the War Department ordered Lieutenant Charles Griffin, another West Point professor to organize a four-gun artillery battery from the dragoon detachment at the Military Academy. Lieutenant Webb was soon relieved from instructor duty and assigned to the new battery
Webb accompanied the West Point battery, as it was known at the time, to Washington D.C. as part of the beefed up security put in place by Winfield Scott for Lincoln’s inauguration.
In April 1861 when the Fort Pickens relief expedition was fitted out, Webb was attached to Light Company A, 2nd
U.S. Artillery commanded by Captain William Barry. With Webb at Pickens were such future artillery luminaries as Henry Hunt, John Tidball, James Robertson, and Alexander Pennington. Among Webb’s papers is a fascinating journal that covers the often-mundane day-to-day experiences of life at Fort Pickens during the long hot summer of 1861.
Returning in time for the first battle of Bull Run, Webb served as an assistant to Barry, now Chief of Artillery for McDowell’s army during that disastrous battle. In the fall of 1861 Webb obtained a volunteer commission as major of the 1st
Rhode Island Light Artillery Regiment. He worked diligently in organizing that fine body of artillerymen. Webb continued to serve Barry in forging the artillery organization of the Army of the Potomac and assisted Henry Hunt, in establishing the crack Artillery Reserve of the Army of the Potomac. One of those batteries was Battery D, 5th
U.S. Artillery, the former West Point Battery. It was now commanded by Lieutenant Henry Kingsbury (USMA May 1861). Kingsbury had the command prior to his appointment as colonel of the 11th
Connecticut. Kingsbury was a former student of Webbs at the Academy. Now as one of the army’s artillery inspectors, Webb worked closely with Kingsbury. They became very close friends.
At the time, the Artillery Reserve fell under the Fifth Corps commanded by Major General Fitz-John Porter. Largely unappreciated today is the fact that Porter much like Thomas Jackson, Braxton Bragg, and Henry Hunt was renown throughout the artillery community in the 1850s for his legendary exploits in Mexico. On September 14, 1847, the 25 year old from Portsmouth New Hampshire took command of Light Company G, 4th
U.S. Artillery at the Belen Gate after Mexican grapeshot killed his captain and first lieutenant. As enemy fire continued to decimate the ranks of his company Porter himself wounded, pushed his guns to the gates of the city of Mexico blasting thru a path for American storming parties. William Loring once asked what the greatest feat of bravery he witnessed in his life was replied “Fitz-John Porter at the Belen Gate.”
In August of 1862, Webb was promoted to lieutenant colonel and assigned as Porter’s Chief of Staff. He grew very close to Porter and remained a stalwart supporter of the ill-fated general to the end of his days.
Webb corresponded regularly with his father and wife Annie. These letters are located among his papers at Yale. On September 28, 1862, Webb penned a letter to his father-in-law Henry Rutgers Remsen a New York financier and bank executive. Annie asked her husband to send her father an account of the Battle of Antietam. Webb helpfully included a sketch of the battlefield. He marked the map with capital letters (i.e. A
) which he referred to in the letter.
Annie tells me that you ask for an account of the battle. The battle of Antietam. Do you know that although the easiest to comprehend, the best battlefield to take in, in the whole of the war it will probably form the hardest to describe. It was too hard fought at all points, too exciting to attempt put it on paper.
Perhaps some cold blooded reporter with his saddled animal awaiting his determination to [move?] away without a care or a feeling for any side may describe accurately what took place but I doubt it. But I will try. I was with General McClellan nearly all day + I carried messages for both him + Genl Porter + brought them both news from different parts of the field but I do not pretend to tell half.
I reached the battleground the 16that about 12:30 P.M. a good deal in advance of my corps.I was with our advance cavalry. I found Hooker in position on the line east + north of the Antietam a line formerly held by the Confederates, but abandoned by them for Sharpsburg Heights. The point I took then to see the ground was the point occupied by Gen McClellan the day of the battle. Just below me on a hill or ridge parallel to the Antietam River was Hooker’s Batteries shelling the Rebels lines drawn up on the crest of a ridge about 1¼ miles distant. At this moment we had nothing in fact to open with, but the moment I saw the position chosen by the Rebels I knew they were to remain there until one of the armies was beaten. Gen. Porter arrived at the head of 1/3 of his corps at about 3 P.M. & shortly after Gen McClellan accompanied by an immense staff rode up + of course the Rebels gave them a shell or two. This gave us plenty of room on the hill. The staff did not expose itself unnecessarily again since it drew fire on the Genl in Chief. Well that evening then was a push + a firm resistance + Gen McClellan became convinced that the next day was to decide the fate of the Union. Then it was that he started himself to reinforce Hooker who had left his first position at K+ L+ M+ had gone toward the right. Hooker was crossed to the woods at Ethat night. Franklin (brought up from the road to Harpers Ferry) was crossed to support him. Sumner was pushed forward at Dand Burnsides ordered to our left toward the stone bridge at B. Sykes lay behind the ridge at G, H, + I. Morell at Mbehind the batteries at K+ L. Humphreys was sent for to hurry up to join Porter. Couch ordered to come over the mountain by the road at Ato be used at any point. And thus we awaited daybreak.
As soon as it was light the firing began on our right and in a short time the battle opened when Hooker moves in from the woods at E. We see him distinctly drive in the enemy’s pickets. Then his lines advance into the wood and a terrible fire opens upon him. In ten minutes he appears routed, his men are running!! Will nothing stop them? Is this a defeat? May I never be called upon to endure greater agony than at that moment. But soon they stop. They form. The Rebels advance in line; meet a battery, seem to surround it – No! They run like sheep + our lines advance again! This seems ten minutes but it has lasted 1 hour + a half. And then Hooker took that wood four times. And Sumner Ddirectly in front going up the hill in the face of lines of Infantry and those batteries. Look! There falls the green flag. (4) Four times it is down and though they falter still the Irish Brigade moves in. See the men fall in their tracks! All that line of blue is dead + dying. See the great gaps they are closing up now. That is the way to fight. They fight to win… But soon they win back they are driven in by those two batteries at D+ Eand here comes an aide from Sumner. He must have more artillery. He can hold his ground but he cannot advance without more Artillery. Graham of the 1stU.S. Arty is ordered to him from Porter.This battery crosses the ford + advances to Tand taking the fire of the enemy in front + flank + rear he drives off the battery at E+ the lines of the enemy coming out on Smith advancing toward E.He leaves the field in an hour with no ammunition 16 horses killed + 16 men hors de combat. How I did bless that fellow.
And now at Q+ Rin [soon?] advanced Tidball, Robertson, and the other horse batteries with the cavalry. On their left + front are Sykes skirmishers + brigades.
Why dont Burnside advance. “Tell him if it costs him 10000 men he must go in now”; says, G.B. McC.
We hear him. Here comes Flagler.“Burnside has crossed the bridge but Kingsbury is dying.He wants to see you Col Webb.” It is carried but at what a cost! And now the firing is furious. Gen McC rides to Hooker with his staff. He must go there. They want a leader. Hooker is wounded. Let Mead command the whole of the right. Then off he goes + our right goes in with him. They take+ holdthe wood. Sumner moves up to the road. Sykes skirmishers advance to near the town. Burnside gets a Brigade to Bbut it is overwhelmed. Night comes on. We cease firing and the battle of Antietam is over. We had fought 12 hours.
This is its general outline. Its description would fill a quire.
Never ask to undergo such feelings as those experienced by one who knew that but 67,000 of our men were opposed to 100 to 130,000 on the crest of a hill; a hill they had to gain after crossing a rapid stream passable at but three (3) points. If our enemy could not whip us at Antietam he never will if our men fight with the same spirit. And God bless McClellan. All I thought, all I have said, he was he hasprovedhimself to be. God bless + preserve him without His aid we will never succeed + I believe that He is using George B McClellan as his instrument.
The tone of the letter is engaging. We sense Webb’s nervousness, exhilaration, and sometimes sheer terror throughout the many tense moments of the day. “May I never be called upon to endure greater agony than at that moment…”
It is an interesting perspective on how Webb viewed the battle from McClellan’s forward command post at the Pry House. It is in no way comprehensive nor is it intended to be a military report. The letter is merely a hasty recounting of some of the writer’s recollections of the high points of the battle for his civilian father-in-law. The map is particularly interesting and valuable and the references in the letter conveys Webb’s perspective of the battlefield from McClellan’s position.
Webb offers a figure of 67,000 Union soldiers engaged which is probably not far off the mark. He accepts the generally held view that 100-130,000 rebels on the heights of Sharpsburg outnumber the Army of the Potomac.
Webb has a grand view of the action on the upper half of the field. He can see Hooker’s desperate fight on the right. “And then Hooker took that wood four times.”
He watches with great admiration the advance of the Irish Brigade. “Look! There falls the green flag. (4) Four times it is down and though they falter still the Irish Brigade moves in.
…That is the way to fight. They fight to win.
As a professional artillerist, Webb pays particular attention to the artillery batteries that he can view. He recounts the “surrounded” battery in Hooker’s area. “The Rebels advance in line; meet a battery, seem to surround it – No! They run like sheep + our lines advance again.”
This is likely Dunbar Ransom’s Battery C, 5th
U.S. Artillery or one of the batteries in Rickett’s division - Ezra Matthew’s Battery F, 1st
Pennsylvania Artillery or James Thompson Independent Battery G, Pennsylvania Artillery. Campbell’s Battery B, 4th
U.S. Artillery underwent a similar desperate attack by Hood’s Texans but it was on the other side of the Hagerstown Pike and likely not visible to Webb. From his position Webb also tracks the dispatch of Grahams battery in the Sunken Road and its heroic action there (“How I did bless that fellow”)
, and he can see Tidball and Robertson’s horse batteries unlimbering and firing to his left.
We hear McClellan voice his frustration with Burnsides lack of celerity.“Tell him if it costs him 10, 000 men he must go in now.”
There is elation that Burnside is finally moving when they hear the “noise” of the advance. Joy is quickly tempered by the news that Kingsbury is dying. The mortally wounded officer asked for his old friend. Flagler says “He wants to see you Colonel Webb
Webb senses the moment when decisive victory hangs in the balance. Sumner moves up to the road. Sykes skirmishers advance to near the town. Burnside gets a Brigade to B… but it is overwhelmed.
Finally, if Webb had any nagging doubts about McClellan, he now seems assured that Little Mac has finally proved himself by his performance at Antietam. “All I thought, all I have said, he has proved himself to be.”
My thanks to good friend and fellow Antietam guide for his assistance in transcribing the letter and annotating the map.
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