Fifth regiment NH hit hard at Antietam
Troop movements at midday at the battle of Antietam. Circled is the Fifth New Hampshire's position. (Map by Hal Jespersen, www.posix.com/CW)
Editor’s note: The 150th anniversary of the Battle of Antietam, the day more Americans were killed in a single day of battle than at any other time in American history, is Sept. 17. The following, the second of two parts, is by Walter Holden of Franklin, a World War II veteran and expert on the Fifth New Hampshire, who has published articles on the subject. It describes the battle in which the Fifth Regiment New Hampshire volunteers broke through the Confederate line and, as Holden explains, with the proper support should have led an attack that destroyed Lee’s Army and won the Civil War. As it was, the battle was enough of a victory that President Abraham Lincoln released the Emancipation Proclamation. Part I of this article ran in the New Hampshire Sunday News.
Under the brow of a hill, Gen. John Caldwell’s brigade formed in line of battle. Orders came; the regiment advanced to the left flank, then to the right flank, where they stood facing the Confederate line.
“Where is General Caldwell?” Gen. Israel Richardson asked. Col. Edward E. Cross of Lancaster, who had seen Caldwell far behind the brigade, replied, “In the rear.” One of the New Hampshire soldiers happily gave Richardson a more direct answer: “He’s behind the haystacks.”
Richardson turned and shouted, “General Caldwell, come up here and take charge of your brigade.” Despite this command, Lt. Thomas Livermore said that he did not see Caldwell until the fighting was over.
Richardson leaned toward Cross. “Go on, Colonel, and do all you can.” He pointed ahead where men of the Irish Brigade were battling the Confederates in the Sunken Road. “Relieve that regiment.”
As Richardson turned away, Cross was struck on the left cheek and over the right eye by small shell fragments.
Advancing at Livermore’s elbow was Private James Card. “I heard the bullet strike and, turning quickly, saw the blood — as I thought — spurt out from Card’s neck under his right ear. He fell as if struck by an axe. I said, ‘Poor Card!”’ wrote Livermore. To the lieutenant’s surprise, Card rose and joined him in the fight, “doing as well as anyone.”
The Fifth crossed over a rail fence and up the slope into the rain of bullets to relieve the Irish regiment. Behind them, for a hundred yards, the fields were strewn with the wounded and the dead. In front of them was the Sunken Road full of rebel soldiers; on their right a cornfield hid more riflemen firing on them. From a field beyond the right front, near a house, a Confederate battery threw shrapnel toward them. One shot of canister tore the state flag in two and killed or wounded eight men in the flag company. Cross was again wounded, this time on the right arm.
In a bold dash, the Fifth swept across the road and into the cornfield where they quickly took prisoners of their opponents. Now was the time for the brigade commander to step forward and lead the rest of his troops behind the Fifth New Hampshire, which had broken through the Confederate defense, but it was the Confederates who tried that maneuver.
In his journal Cross described the scene: “I ran with him to the left of the regiment and, sure enough, the enemy were coming — a whole brigade. I counted five battle flags and one large stand of colors.” The cornfield had hidden the attackers from sight. Instantly Cross swung his front around in a movement that he wrote was just in time to save the division from being outflanked.
Through the cornfield came the rebels, firing steadily and backed by their artillery. The Fifth had neither artillery nor any immediate infantry help.
“We plied the line with musketry, with all our power and terrible effect, but still they advanced. A color bearer came forward within fifteen yards of our line and waved a rebel flag. Our men fairly shouted: ‘Shoot the man with the flag!’ and he went down and the flag was not raised again,” wrote Livermore.
Fortunately for the Fifth, who had lost a third of their number, Col. Boyd McKeen of the 81st Pennsylvania of their brigade saw their predicament and was rushing his regiment and part of the Seventh New York to their aid. These regiments, side by side, repelled the rebel attack until relieved.
Before the men could find cover, an artillery duel killed and wounded more New Hampshire men. At last Cross brought the regiment to a sheltered spot and called the roll: the total loss was seven enlisted men killed and 106 wounded; one officer killed and 10 wounded. The officer killed was George Gay, who discovered the rebel attack at the cornfield. “Struck on the top of his head by a fragment of a shell, his brain was instantly paralyzed, though his body continued the vital principal for some hours,” wrote Cross.
For a time the Fifth’s main problem was artillery — mostly their own. Their position protected them so that the bulk of the enemy artillery burst either in front of them or a little behind them. The Federal artillery, which had aided their advance, now threatened them.
Along about this time the wounded Richardson’s replacement arrived: Winfield Scott Hancock, who Cross noted “had earned from General McClellan in the battle of Williamsburg the adjective ‘Superb,’ and that he was to command our division.”
“About four o’clock of the afternoon the enemy commenced an attack on the left of our center and we sent skirmishers to meet him,” recalled Cross. “The rifles of my men were very dirty, in some cases the rammers could scarcely be forced home. Still we were not relieved for the reason that there were no fresh troops to spare.” At that time Cross and his men did not know that McClellan sat on his hill and held back his tens of thousands of reserve troops.
(In his study of the battle, “Landscape Turned Red,” Stephen Sears calls McClellan’s slowness “criminal” and claims that it “cost the Union the chance to defeat Robert E. Lee and very probably end the Civil War in 1862.”)
Finally the bloodiest day of the war ended.
“Gladly did we see the sun go down upon the field of battle, and the dull clouds of war roll away,” wrote Cross. “In the place of the din of arms we now heard a perfect chorus of cries of groans and cries of pain from the thousands of wounded that covered the ground in front of our lines. It was impossible to go out on the grounds because of the sharpshooters.”
After the battle, Cross sent Livermore to Gen. Caldwell of Maine to get permission to cross the creek and bury Lt. Gay with military honors. Caldwell refused, but Cross, showing complete disregard for Caldwell’s order, went ahead with the burial exactly as if he had received permission, showing his disdain for Caldwell.
As Livermore tells it, “Colonel Cross preferred charges against General Caldwell for cowardice at Antietam and showed me a long list of witnesses on which my name appeared. I certainly should have testified to his invisibility — except behind the haystack. I have been informed that Colonel Cross went down to General Hancock’s headquarters and, sitting on his horse in the presence of all the staff who were there, branded General Caldwell as a coward. For some reason I am ignorant of — but because of political influence, I suppose — the charges were smothered, though I conjecture with others that had General Richardson listed them, Caldwell’s fate would have been different. But, to our sorrow the gallant ‘Fighting Dick’ had died.”
Caldwell, not a West Point student, was a political appointee as a general and, after the war, received both state and federal appointments. He was discharged near the end of war, but he had conducted himself well enough to command a division and even — during Hancock’s absence — the Second Corps.
Edward E. Cross never got the general’s star he desperately wanted. As he led a brigade into battle at Gettysburg the next summer, Gen. Hancock told him, “This battle will get you a star.” Colonel Cross shook his head. “Too late, General. This is my last battle.” And he was right: wounded several minutes later, he died about midnight. Thomas Livermore rose to command his own regiment, although only in his early 20s. For several years after the war, he spent Sunday afternoons writing his journal, an expurgated edition of which appeared in 1920 as “Days and Events: 1860-1966.” Because of this book, he has been acclaimed “the most famous writer on New Hampshire’s Civil War history.”
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