About Me

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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 young adult children who I love very much. I currently volunteer at Antietam 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. Since 2013 I have been conducting in depth research on the regular artillery companies of the Union Army and their leaders. I hope to turn this into a book on this subject in the future. 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. 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.

Sunday, July 28, 2019

Where Men Only Dare to Go

Carnage around the Dunker Church scene of Parker's Battery
Royall Figg was a charter member of William W. Parkers “Boy Company” so called for the extreme youth of many of its members.  He was about 20 years of age when he enlisted around March 1, 1862 and served with distinction through three years of war.  Parker’s battery joined Stephen D. Lee’s battalion of artillery and served under that outstanding commander at Second Manassas and Antietam.

In 1885 Figg wrote a remarkable first hand account of his experiences with the battery titled Where Men Only Dare to Go or the Story of a Boy Company, C.S.A.[1]Many nineteenth century accounts are tedious and hard to connect with.  Figg’s writing style however is engaging and the book is hard to put down as he evokes his life of a gunner with great warmth and humor. 

The book came to my attention while preparing for a talk on Confederate artillery commanders at Antietam. I discovered it in the bibliography of Herman Hattaway’s excellent biography of Stephen D. Lee.[2]

The carnage sustained by Parker’s battery and Lee’s battalion in general at the Battle of Antietam made a deep and lasting impression on Figg.  He recounts with excruciating detail the terror of being under the fire of the Federal guns of position east of Antietam creek.  Several passages are particularly moving and appear below.

After Lee’s triumph at Second Manassas, Figg foreshadows the approaching fight in Maryland: “Sharpsburg loomed grim and ghostly in the fateful future, but we saw it not; and Antietam was murmuring our death-song, but we heard it not.”[3]

Figg describes in almost reverent words the soldiers love and respect for their commander Stephen D. Lee: “Lee was the officer who was destined to win our soldier-love in the great battle soon to be fought at Sharpsburg. I say ‘solder-love’ for is it not true that men love a brave man-almost idolize him-in time of great danger, simply because he is brave?”[4]

Figg describes an incident on the evening of September 16thas Federal troops under Joe Hooker approached the field.  As he says the incident is amusing in retrospect, though at the time it was difficult to appreciate the humor:  “We were under a heavy artillery fire, and bullets also were too plentiful for comfort. Twilight was deepening into night, when a shot from a Federal battery passed through two horses, casting quite a deluge of blood and flesh upon Private Clark, who was holding them.  ‘Lieutenant, my brains are out!’ he feebly exclaimed. ‘Then you have the biggest brains I ever saw!’ replied Lieutenant Brown.  Little doubt was entertained at that moment even by the Lieutenant himself, that these would be Clark’s last words. You can scarcely imagine Clark’s satisfaction, however when the real source of the sanguinary baptism was discovered.”[5]

The young gunner now goes on to relate his experiences on the 17thof September, “a day of wrath”: “Lee’s army stood on that bloody day as one to three against the advancing hosts of McClellan; and of all the enemy generals McClellan was the most feared.”  It is interesting to hear how McClellan’s reputation  was viewed by at least one common soldier.  We of course know that Robert E. Lee himself echoed these sentiments when after the war he was asked which of the Federal generals he considered the greatest, and his emphatic answer was “McClellan by all odds.”[6]

Figg now relates the terrible experience of being shelled by enemy artillery.  He narrates several episodes: “The charge in one of the guns explodes prematurely and sends its ‘rammer’ whizzing over to the enemy, at the same time burning and almost blinding dauntless George Jones.  A shot crashes through a caisson, and McNeil, who escapes as if by a miracle, significantly holds up the blessed beads given him by the good ladies at Frederick….A shot ploughs through the bowels of our lead horses and crushes the leg of Warburton, the driver. The two remaining horses plunge wildly about, trying to extricate themselves from the fallen horses in front. At this critical moment Joe Hay, with his pocket-knife, cuts the harness, and we are then ordered to fall back.

The unerring fire of the Union guns of position continued to batter Parker’s band of young artillerists just yards from the Dunker Church.  Finally ordered off the line to refit, Lee called upon the boys later in the day to go back into action one more time.  Figg recalls his battalion commander’s immortal words over twenty years later as he calls for his men to return to the line:  “You are boys, but you have this day been where men only dare to go.  Some of your company have been killed; many have been wounded. But recollect that it is a soldier’s fate to die! Now, every man of you who is willing to return to the field, step two paces to the front! As Lee spoke these words he seemed a very god of war; and his eyes flashed command, not entreaty.  Weak and almost dazed by the scenes of horror through which we had passed, stern Duty calls, and we obey. The significant ‘two paces’ is stepped and a volunteer section, led by Lieutenant J. Thompson Brown returns once more to confront the now exultant enemy.[7]  

The seemingly unending day continues.  Finally “the autumn sun is fast declining to his rest, as we continue to to fire slowly and feebly.  The enemy replies as if he, too, is weak and shattered.  Sons of the North and sons of the South are lying thick upon the hillsides and in the valleys.  Sharpsburg is groaning, and Antietam is running red; and there will be weeping among the blue hillls of Virginia and on the banks of the Savannah, and the praries will hear the voice of lamentation, and the Hudson will answer in bitter and melancholy refrain.

The sun is set, and bloody Sharpsburg is a thing of history.[8]

[1]Where Men Only Dare to Go or the Story of a Boy Company, C.S.Aby Royall W. Figg
LSU Press (2008), with a Foreward by Robert K. Krick
[2]General Stephen D. Leeby Herman Hattaway University Press of Mississippi 1988
[3]Where Men… p. 32.
[4]Ibid p. 39.
[5]Ibid p. 41.
[6]Ibid p. 42.  Leeby Douglas S. Freeman Volume IV page 477
[7]Where Men… p. 44.
[8]Ibid p. 47.