"The Enemy Sullenly held on to the City"

By Lt. Thomas H. Evans

Reprinted with the permission of Cowles Enthusiast Media, Civil War Times Illustrated magazine and TheHistoryNet.com.
Copyright 1967/1968, Civil War Times Illustrated
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In earlier issues we have presented extracts from the memoirs of Thomas H. Evans, a Welsh immigrant who enlisted in the Regular Army, where he served for eleven years as an enlisted man; then during the Civil War became sergeant major, and finally a lieutenant in the 12th U. S. Infantry. Previous installments describe his experiences in the Peninsular and 2d Manassas campaigns. The manuscript was furnished to CWTI by Mary Evans Todd, of Indian Head, Md., granddaughter of Lieut. Evans. - Editor

On Sunday, September 7, 1862 we left our camp at Tenallytown, just north of Washington, and made the worst dry march of the campaign; yet we did not go above 10 miles. But the road was fine white sand, the heat intense, and the perspiration started in gushes at every pore. I cannot adequately describe it; sweat did not stand like beads on the surface but it ran off us in streams. We wrung our blouses as we would have done after a shower, and moisture trickled from every finger end. The clouds of dust clung to the wet clothes and made us look like millers. Water was rushed for the moment it was seen, and drunk in enormous quantities. It was useless trying to hinder this; remonstrance was useless against the overpowering thirst. After that men could not keep in the ranks, they had either to fall out or fall down.

Straggling cannot be always prevented except by absolute brutality. Good men never straggle without cause. If exhausted by the length of march, intense heat, insufficient halts, and other causes, a man is kept in the ranks until he falls, he cannot be left there for the whole column to pass over him. It will take at least two men to get him to some place of rest and revive him, and these two will not be in a hurry to retake their places, nor with the best will in the world, is it easy to regain a place in a moving column.

Thank God, I never saw a bayonet used on any of our men yet, although as I said before, I heard the order read, commanding its use on stragglers, and threatening officers with irons if from kindness or overly tender feelings they ventured to exercise any discretion in the matter.

From this day forward I do not think I heard any more about straggling. It was such a universal fact this day that for once it was the rule and not the exception. Even the Zouaves gave in, dead-beaten. When we reached Rockville, two thirds at least of the brigade were behind on the road, but almost the whole were up by tattoo.

The company next to mine mustered three men in line, and Capt. S - caused considerable merriment by asking, in his quiet, dry way, "How the devil am I going to form my men by fours?"

We kept on our line of march without anything particular happening till we approached the mountain gaps. On the 14th the Battle of South Mountain was fought, where the Union lost our able General Reno, and many fine officers and men. Our brigade was not engaged, for the enemy were already falling back from their stone walls and strong positions when we came up, so they only favored us with a few longrange shells, which did no damage.

We passed up through Fox's Gap next morning, and the sight was a very sad one. Nearly 200 Union dead in one spot were ranged in three lines, each covered with a blanket. I think these dead belonged principally to the 45th Pennsylvania and 4th Michigan. A burying party was digging an immense shallow trench parallel to the road. The burial service was being read over two officers as we passed, and we halted and uncovered. It was the first time we had seen and heard that solemn service performed since we had been in the field.

Higher up the mountain, the enemy's dead lay in heaps, behind stone walls, in lanes with sheltered banks, on and by the road, in all the sickening aspects and strange positions of violent death by shell, ball, and bayonet, as well as some with calm faces as of sleep, where death had come instantaneously by rifle. One handsome, dark-haired boy I often remember, could not have been more than 16. His musket was in his hands, a smile upon his features, as if his last thought had been of home, parents, and Heaven. There was a black silk ribbon around his neck, under his shirt, and I felt as if I should have liked to stay and bury him and that ribbon, with whatever was attached, sacredly from every prying eye. He had been shot directly through the forehead, and scarcely a drop of blood had flowed, and but for the waxen glaze upon his face, that significant mark on his brow, and his lifeless comrades, he would have looked more like one asleep than dead.

The Union and Rebel wounded had been equally cared for, and were mingled together in various outhouses and in rear of fences with boughs over them. This was all we saw of that battlefield, for we halted only for a few minutes in the gap, and missed many other equally sad sights which were beyond our line of march. A number of prisoners under guard were a short distance farther ahead, and we inspected some of their rations. All we saw were biscuits, if they deserved that name, being simply flour and water mixed and baked in the camp fires. There was no meat of any kind, nor coffee, but some execrably bad, black whisky.

On again through the beautiful state of Maryland, we descended into a wide spreading valley, cultivated, peopled, looking doubly beautiful as contrasted with the accursed swamps of the Peninsula. In fact, our march for days was through an ever varied succession of beautiful scenery, ranges of hills crossing our road from left to right, crowned with woods whose foliage presented every variety of fall colors, the sunlight streaming over them and through openings, harmonizing and blending the different hues. Between these ranges came cultivated valleys with quiet farm houses here and there, orchards with the ripe fruit hanging in clusters, and the fields dotted with cattle and sheep at pasture-still-life in the very lap of war.

On the 15th we halted near Antietam Creek, and knew the enemy were in force in front, and both their and our artillery were busy all next day in getting the range of guns. In the evening the 12th were ordered to hold the bridge across Antietam Creek, on the Sharpsburg turnpike, relieving the 4th.

Companies D and E were first for duty in the front. I commanded Company D this time, and was in charge of both companies, which together numbered about forty-five men. We went out to relieve a company of the 4th, which was deployed about half a mile in advance of the bridge, their left resting on Antietam Creek, the right crossing the road and extending some distance into the broken ground in that direction.
My company at this time numbered only twenty-six men for duty; it had left Fort Hamilton with ninety-eight. I had to extend intervals to cover the ground. The enemy's skirmishers were in front of us, and they had a strong reserve in a haystack yard about 200 yards distant. I had posted my men by sundown, but after dark orders came to fall back 100 yards, close my intervals as much as possible, and keep a bright lookout on the banks of the creek where the corn was over our heads, and through which a body of the enemy might pass and cut us off; and to post men also at intervals all along the road so as to communicate at once to our main body at the bridge.

The night was very dark, and posting men on unknown ground was no easy matter. More than once I went rolling down a steep slope and had to kick my way out through the underbrush and tangled weeds, uncertain whether the next step would not take me into the creek.

While at the farthest point from the road, posting my last sentry, I heard the tramp of horses, at first muffled, as if passing over the turf, then on the road, sharp and quick.

Orders had been given to fire on any party approaching from the enemy's lines, and eight or ten rifle shots followed in quick succession. I hurried as fast as I could toward the road, tripped over a rock into a hole, scrambled out and got to the fence only in time to catch the sound of retreating hoofs. The sergeant's report was that a squad of cavalry had ridden up as if to reconnoiter, but at the flash of our rifles had wheeled and ridden back. I am not by any means certain that these supposed cavalry were not loose horses, who were out for a stroll, for I could not distinguish one of my own men across the road, if he were not moving. We were relieved between 9 and 10, and went back to the bridge to rest for the night. At 9 o'clock the next morning it came my turn again to take post, advancing my men fifty yards farther than the ground occupied yesterday, as it seemed to afford better shelter. But a great change had taken place in the enemy's line. They lay thick behind the fences, around trees, and the haystack yard was full of men. The stack-tops themselves were made reconnoitering points. I had some suspicion that a battery was posted somewhere in the vicinity, but that was not ascertained till later in the day.

Weed's battery was posted on a high bluff in rear of the creek, the 6th Infantry supporting it. Very few of the enemy's shot reached this, but landed among us nicely. Sometimes a shell would burst just over our heads, scattering its fragments among us. Canister would come pattering harmlessly down, and grape plough through; but most of the solid shot went over us, and plunged hissing into the creek, or went tearing through the trees halfway up the bluff.

In the meantime Hooker's corps, having forded the creek to our right, were hotly engaged. As they pressed on in the heat of the fight a flank movement was made against them. The enemy, throwing in heavy masses of troops, forced Hooker's corps back, and the right center divisions were weakened to sul?port it. But after a gallant struggle Hooker turned the tide, the Irish Brigade fighting like heroes and leaving large numbers of their dead to attest the severity of the resistance. Here General Mansfield was killed, and Hooker and many other general officers wounded.

On the left Burnside had his work cut out. The enemy were in possession of a stone bridge, similar to that at which we had been posted the preceding night. I' was raked by the enemy artillery and all its approaches were covered by sharpshooters. There were rifle pits along the banks and breastworks to storm and carry after passing the bridge. Every point where a gun could be placed and worked efficiently was occupied, and these again were commanded by batteries on the ridges in rear and strong reserves in the outskirts of Sharpsburg. After hard fighting Burnside carried the bridge and batteries, but afterwards fell back, leaving a division on the other side.

In the center it seemed we were depending more upon the horse artillery and cavalry than any strong force of infantry. All the afternoon the 12th was in line, leaving only a guard upon the bridge. I am not aware that we had any other support in our rear, and holding this road and bridge was a vital necessity. All our supplies, ammunition, and baggage depended on these being held, and they were held, but if the enemy could have known by how slender a force, the result of the battle might have been very different. One company of our cavalry I saw charge up the road, and a masked battery mowed them down, horse and man. Those who were pressing close behind were dismounted and advanced in skirmishing order, with their carbines, under cover of their horses.

The enemy, beaten on both flanks, did not push us in the center, and sullenly held on to the city. And so night came upon us. We could see by the light of blazing houses the enemy columns moving all night, till we fell asleep, having been in line ever since the evening of the 15th. We rested all next day, the 18th, and during the night the enemy crossed his army again into Virginia. During the day he brought over large numbers of men into Sharpsburg from Virginia by the fords, where we could see them plainly, as if it were their intention to renew the battle, but this was of course only a feint to bring into action a rear guard of fresh men.

The disastrous evacuation of Harpers Ferry told heavily in losses of men and arms against the success at Antietam. I have nothing to guide me in forming an opinion why it was surrendered, but it was sad and humiliating, whatever the cause.

Rebel flags and prisoners were now constantly coming in. Our advance had moved through Sharpsburg to the river. On the 19th our brigade followed and I had a good look over the ground in front of where my skirmishers had been posted. The ravine which I had seen in our front was capable of holding 2,000 men entirely unperceived, and sheltered from everything but shell. The stack field and cornfield surrounding it was ploughed up with shot. On the road were broken rifles, dismounted guns, shot and fragments of shell, and plenty of dead with overcoats and knapsacks, captured during our retreat from Bull Run. Huge corn cakes, two inches thick and from twelve to fifteen inches in diameter lay in piles, and were kicked along the road by our men. They seemed hard and tough enough for trenchers, to judge by the amount of rough usage they took without breaking.

Sharpsburg was a vast hospital, and many of the most exposed houses were badly damaged by shot. A flagstaff had been cut in two, and one of the telegraph posts had a clean hole through it from one of our Parrott 10-pounders. Large numbers of prisoners were in the streets under guard, many of whom had probably been hidden in houses, or straggling around when the Rebel army crossed, and the Sharpsburg boys were amusing themselves at their expense in language that was far more expressive than eloquent.

We passed through the city and encamped beyond, and although we lay there more than a month, watching the fords and picketing the banks of the Potomac for miles, I was never in the city again till we marched through it in November. There was so much to do in preparing papers and returns, answering letters relating to wounded, sick, and missing soldiers, requesting descriptive lists from surgeons of various hospitals where the men were staying, sending in requisition after requisition for clothing and ammunition of which we never got one half, and then only in fractional parts; shoes that seemed to have been picked over in a dozen camps before they reached us, and of sizes that not one pair in six was available; boxes of cartridges without caps, and of wrong caliber; two or three overcoats and pantaloons where we wanted twenty were among the annoyances to be put up with at this time, and of course the wants kept increasing as the nights grew colder.

One Sunday I visited the field hospitals with our surgeon. In every barn and outhouse, and besides these buildings, under fences, screened by boughs, the wounded lay by hundreds. Every bit of canvas in the shape of tents or tent flies had been employed yet were insufficient to meet the wants of so many sufferers. The sight was so sickening and depressing that I was glad to shorten my visit and return to camp.

Drills were kept up constantly, and our picket duty was never less than 24 hours at a time, but our turn did not come around but once a week.

Picket duty as a rule is about the most miserable of a soldier's duties, for it is seldom, no matter how the weather may be, that fires can be permitted, and men get restless and impatient at having to keep quiet so long. The river was very low, and the canal running parallel to and within a few feet of it, was empty. Our advance line was on the bank of the river, our reserve in rear of the canal. We found the best way to arrange the business was to put half the men on duty for 12 hours at a time, posting them by threes, one being on the lookout and relieved every two hours by the others in turn, superintended by the sergeant. The officers visited each post two or three times during the night, and the Field Officer of the Day usually once. The weather during the principal part of the time was very fine, but we had some very different. I have often lain watching the stars for hours and varying lights and shadows, when there was a moon, listening to the moaning river as it passed over a rocky ledge, and the distant cry of the owls in the woods, or the muskrats tumbling down the steep banks into the river, and other nocturnal gamboling about, often close to us.

One morning just at sunrise as I was going my last rounds I pulled aside the thick clustering vines that had encircled a tree on the bank, and looked across the river at a peculiar shade of color that played among the leaves. The trunks of the trees and the ground were in deep shadow, yet I was convinced I saw something moving there. I had a Sharps rifle in hand and I immediately brought it to full cock, as the next most probable thing I should hear would be the whiz of a bullet. I kept my eyes intently on the spot for some minutes without being able to penetrate the shadow, and was about to move away, thinking I had been deceived, when two Rebel soldiers stepped into the line of light, and moved cautiously to the bank of the river. They were entirely at our mercy. Our men were so well concealed that I could not see the second sentry from me, right or left. Two of our men had been wantonly shot dead the day before, within a few yards of where I was standing. I involuntarily raised my rifle, for a man on picket has to be prompt. One word, or my own shot would have sent twenty bullets after them from my own men, and probably stopped their scouting forever. But our orders being not to fire unless fired at, I dropped my rifle, and in a few minutes the Rebel soldiers again passed into the shadow, and we saw them no more. Picket shooting is at best little better than deliberate murder, and I am not sorry they went away unmolested. Until they actually die, they will probably be no nearer their death than in the few minutes they stood there in full view of us, on the banks of the Potomac.

Towards the end of October the canal was filled, and we posted our pickets after that on the Sharpsburg side of the canal instead of on the river as heretofore. One night during a reconnaissance that was made on the other side of the river, we did not get back to camp till nearly midnight, and another event that I forgot to mention was the appropriation of an altogether unprecedented quantity of live stock, which stuck to us like leeches till we got to Falmouth. We had some previous experience among the "Greybacks" but this was as one of our fellows said "Murther entirely-bad luck to it!" Anyway we had to put up with it as best we could, for on October 30 while we were on picket the order came to march. Rations were brought out to us, that is to say, hardtack and raw fat pork, I forget for how many days, but we had nothing to cut the pork, so a good deal of that and a large quantity of crackers were left on the banks of the canal. As we passed over the site of our camp, the last wagons were moving away, and we took our place in the line of march, not knowing where we were going, or if half our portable property was left behind (and we had none of that to spare).

We marched on till afternoon of the next day, and halted for muster at a beautiful spot called Pleasant Valley.

We reached Harpers Ferry early the next morning, and much as I had read of the grandeur of the scenery at this place, where the Shenandoah River breaks through the Blue Ridge, the reality surpassed the description, as Nature's works invariably do. The Potomac and Shenandoah join just below the Ferry, and even at this dry time when water was low, it surged and bubbled over its rocky bed, and among the shallows like a mountain torrent. On the right Maryland Heights towered hundreds of feet above us, rugged, precipitous, and bare except where moss and lichen crept over the face of the stony wall, or shrubs and a few stunted trees sprang from its crevices. In front of us was Bolivar Heights, and on our left and on the Virginia shore Loudoun Heights, all overlooking, all commanding the little town itself, than which nothing that I have ever seen could be in a worse defensible position. From these elevated points shot and shell could be rained down by a troop of children, and not one miss.

But still, why, with the Maryland side in our possession, with plenty of men, arms, ammunition, and provisions, it was surrendered while we were in the field of Antietam, is a mystery to me, and wiser men than I. At the worst it could have but come to that after a week's fighting, and the battle then pending was certain to decide one way or the other. However, it was surrendered and Miles has gone to his account.

We passed the ruins of the arsenal, scarred and blackened by fire. The railroad bridge had been destroyed, nothing remaining but the piers in the bed of the stream, the track torn up, and the rolling stock a wreck. We crossed by a pontoon bridge, and commenced climbing the steep path that put us again fairly on the march into Virginia.

The concluding installment of Evans' memoirs, which describes his experiences in the Fredericksburg Campaign, will appear in a later issue. -Editor

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