"The roar of the infantry was beyond anything conceivable... Imagine from 8,000 to 10,000 men on one side, with probably a larger number on the other, all at once discharging their muskets. If all the stone and brick houses of Broadway should tumble at once the roar and rattle could hardly be greater, and amidst this, hundreds of pieces of artillery, right and left, were thundering as a sort of bass to the infernal music."

 

Children now play on cannon that represent the Confederate batteries that raked Williams' troops as they entered the battle. The tiny Dunker church, in the background, and the battery position were overrun by Williams' troops. Left unreinforced by a poorly coordinated follow up attack they were forced to retire by a desperate Confederate counterattack.
[See Position from Williams' Point of View]

      "Crossing the South Mountain we descended rapidly to Boonsboro where the people, as at Frederick, received us with great rejoicing. I did not tell you that in marching my corps through Frederick we were greatly cheered and ladies brought bouquets to me as commander. The same enthusiasm followed us everywhere. Citizens met us on horseback and the whole population seemed rejoiced that we were chasing the Rebels from the state. At Boonsboro we passed south towards Sharpsburg, taking across lots and in all sorts of out of the ways. We encamped at a crossroads and for the first time for weeks I slept in a house, the home of a Mr. Nicodemus."

     Lee had drawn up his army between Antietam Creek and the Potomac River to await the assault of the suddenly vigorous Federals. It was delivered at dawn on September 17, 1862 -- the bloodiest day in American history.

     Williams advanced his division in a second wave. As the advance began, General Mansfield was shot dead and Williams was thrust into command of the XII corps at a most chaotic moment. He successfully deployed his troops in two directions to meet the demands of the moment and his left division under Gen. Greene captured the high ground around the Dunker Church. As at Cedar Mountain, he had Confederate position on the verge of collapse.

     Unfortunately, the follow-up attack by Sumner's Corp was mishandled and a vigorous counterattack by Jubal Early forced his troops, with their ammunition nearly exhausted, to retire to the East Woods. Williams' sparkling description tells it all.

    "Oh, how sleepy I was, but there is no help at such times. Up I got and in a few moments the head of my division was moving along an unknown road. We passed a stone bridge over the Antietam and then branched off into the fields. Gen. Mansfield and his escort led the way, but it was so dark and the forests and woods so deep that I could not follow and was obliged to send ahead to stop our leaders repeatedly.

     After a weary march we halted in some ploughed ground and I was told to put my division in column in mass. It took a long time as I had five new regiments who knew absolutely nothing of maneuvering. At length about two o'clock in the morning I got under the corner of a rail fence, but the pickets in front of us kept firing and as often as I got asleep Gen. Mansfield would come along and wake me with some new directions. At length I got fairly asleep and for two hours was dead to all sounds or sensations. I shall not, however, soon forget that night; so dark, so obscure, so mysterious, so uncertain; with the occasional rapid volleys of pickets and outposts, the low, solemn sound of the command as troops came into position, and withal so sleepy that there was a half-dreamy sensation about it all; but with a certain impression that the morrow was to be great with the future fate of our country. So much responsibility, so much intense, future anxiety! and yet I slept as soundly as though nothing was before me.

     At the first dawn of day the cannon began work. Gen. Hooker's command was about a mile in front of us and it was his corps upon which the attack began. By a common impulse our men stood to arms. They had slept in ranks and the matter of toilet was not tedious, nor did we have time to linger over the breakfast table. My division being in advance, I was ordered to move up in close column of companies that is a company front to each regiment and the other companies closed up to within six paces. When so formed a regiment looks like a solid mass. We had not moved a dozen rods before the shells and round shot came thick over us and around us. If these had struck our massed regiments dozens of men would have been killed by a single shot.

     I had five new regiments without drill or discipline. Gen. Mansfield was greatly excited. Though an officer of acknowledged gallantry, he had a very nervous temperament and a very impatient manner. Feeling that our heavy masses of raw troops were sadly exposed, I begged him to let me deploy them in line of battle, in which the men present but two ranks or rows instead of twenty, as we were marching, but I could not move him. He was positive that all the new regiments would run away. So on we went over ploughed ground, through cornfields and woods, till the line of infantry fight began to appear.

     It was evident that Hooker's troops were giving way. His general officers were hurrying toward us begging for support in every direction. First one would come from the right; then over from the center, and then one urging support for a battery on the left. I had ridden some what in advance to get some idea of the field and was standing in the center of a ploughed field, taking directions from Gen. Hooker and amidst a very unpleasant shower of bullets, when up rode a general officer begging for immediate assistance to protect a battery. He was very earnest and absorbed in the subject, as you may well suppose, and began to plead energetically, when he suddenly stopped, extended his hand, and very calmly said, "How are you?" It was Gen. Meade. He darted away, and I saw him no more that day. Hooker's troops were soon withdrawn and I think were not again brought into the field. Was it not a strange encounter?

     I had parted with Gen. Mansfield but a moment before this and in five minutes afterward his staff officer reported to me that he was mortally wounded and the command of the corps devolved on me. I began at once to deploy the new regiments. The old ones had already gotten themselves into line. Taking hold of one, I directed Gens. Crawford and Gordon to direct the others. I got mine in line pretty well by having a fence to align it on and having got it in this way I ordered the colonel to go forward and open fire the moment he saw the Rebels. Poor fellow! He was killed within ten minutes. His regiment, advancing in line, was split in two by coming in contact with a barn. One part did very well in the woods but the trouble with this regiment and the others was that in attempting to move them forward or back or to make any maneuver they fell into inextricable confusion and fell to the rear, where they were easily rallied. The men were of an excellent stamp, ready and willing, but neither officers nor men knew anything, and there was an absence of the mutual confidence which drill begets. Standing still, they fought bravely.

     When we engaged the enemy he was in a strip of woods, long but narrow. We drove him from this, across a ploughed field and through a cornfield into another woods, which was full of ravines. There the enemy held us in check till 9 1/2 o'clock, when there was a general cessation of musketry. All over the ground we had advanced on, the Rebel dead and wounded lay thick, much more numerous than ours, but ours were painfully mingled in. Our wounded were rapidly carried off and some of the Rebels'. Those we were obliged to leave begged so piteously to be carried away. Hundreds appealed to me and I confess that the rage of battle had not hardened my heart so that I did not feel a pity for them. Our men gave them water and as far as I saw always treated them kindly.

     The necessities of the case were so great that I was obliged to put my whole corps into action at once. The roar of the infantry was beyond anything conceivable to the uninitiated. Imagine from 8,000 to 10,000 men on one side, with probably a larger number on the other, all at once discharging their muskets. If all the stone and brick houses of Broadway should tumble at once the roar and rattle could hardly be greater, and amidst this, hundreds of pieces of artillery, right and left, were thundering as a sort of bass to the infernal music.

     At 9 1/2 o'clock Gen. Sumner was announced as near at hand with his corps. As soon as his columns began to arrive I withdrew mine by degrees to the shelter of the woods for the purpose of rest, to collect stragglers, and to renew the ammunition. Several of the old regiments had fired nearly forty rounds each man. They had stood up splendidly and had forced back the enemy nearly a mile. The new regiments were badly broken up, but I collected about one-half of them and placed them in support of batteries. The regiments had up to this time suffered comparatively little. The 3rd Wisconsin and [the] 27th Indiana had lost a good many men, but few officers. I began to hope that we should get off, when Sumner attacked, with but little loss. I rode along where our advanced lines had been. Not an enemy appeared. The woods in front were as quiet as any sylvan shade could be. Presently a single report came and a ball whizzed close to my horse. Two or three others followed all in disagreeable closeness to my person. I did not like to hurry, but I lost as little time as possible in getting out of the range of sharpshooters.

     I should have mentioned that soon after I met Gen. Hooker he rode toward the left. In a few minutes I heard he was wounded. While we were talking the dust of the ploughed ground was knocked up in little spurts all around us, marking the spot where musket balls struck. I had to ride repeatedly over this field and every time it seemed that my horse could not possibly escape. It was in the center of the line of fire, slightly elevated, but along which my troops were extended. The peculiar singing sound of the bullet becomes a regular whistle and it seems strange that everybody is not hit.

     While the battle was raging fiercest with that division the 2nd Division came up and I was requested to support our right with one brigade. I started one over to report to Gen. Doubleday and soon followed to see what became of them. As I entered the narrow lane running to the right and front a battery opened a cross-fire and Pittman and myself had the excitement of riding a mile or so out and back under its severest salutations. We found Gen. Doubleday sheltered in a ravine and apparently in bland ignorance of what was doing on his front or what need he had of my troops, except to relieve his own, but I left the brigade and came back. Finding a battery, I put it in position to meet the flank fire of the Rebel battery and some one else had the good sense to establish another farther in the rear. The two soon silenced this disagreeable customer.

     It was soon after my return to the center that Sumner's columns began to arrive. They were received with cheers and went fiercely toward the wood with too much haste, I thought, and too little reconnoitering of the ground and positions held by us. They had not reached the road before a furious fire was opened on them and we had the infernal din over again. The Rebels had been strongly reinforced, and Sumner's troops, being formed in three lines in close proximity, after his favorite idea, we lost a good deal of our fire without any corresponding benefit or advantage. For instance, the second line, within forty paces of the front, suffered almost as much as the front line and yet could not fire without hitting our own men. The colonel of a regiment in the second line told me he lost sixty men and came off without firing a gun.

     Sumner's force in the center was soon used up, and I was called upon to bring up my wearied and hungry men. They advanced to the front and opened fire, but the force opposed was enormously superior. Still they held on, under heavy losses, till one o'clock. Some of the old regiments were fairly broken up in this fight and what was left were consolidated and mixed up afterward with the new regiments. The 46th Pennsylvania, Col. Knipe, and the 28th New York, Capt. Mapes, commanding, were especially broken. Col. Knipe has just returned to duty from his wounds. He had but one captain (Brooks) in his regiment present and he was killed early. The 2nd Massachusetts, which had done excellent service in the first engagement, was badly cut up and its Lieut. Col. (Dwight), mortally wounded. At 1 1/2 o'clock I ordered them back, as reinforcements were last hand.

     While this last attack was going on, Gen. Greene, 2nd Division, took possession and held for an hour or more the easterly end of the woods struggled for so fiercely where it abuts on the road to Sharpsburg. A small brick school house [actually the Dunker church] stands by the road, which I noticed the next day was riddled by our shot and shell. Greene held on till Sumner's men gave way towards the left, when he was drawn out by a rush and his men came scampering to the rear in great confusion. The Rebels followed with a yell but three or four of our batteries being in position they were received with a tornado of canister which made them vanish before the smoke cloud cleared away. I was near one of our brass twelve pound Napoleon gun batteries and seeing the Rebel colors appearing over the rolling ground I directed the two left pieces charged with canister to be turned on the point. In the moment the Rebel line appeared and both guns were discharged at short range. Each canister contains several hundred balls. They fell in the very front of the line and all along it apparently, stirring up a dust like a thick cloud. When the dust blew away no regiment and not a living man was to be seen.

     Just then Gen. Smith (Baldy Smith) who was at Detroit on the light-house duty, came up with a division. They fairly rushed toward the left and front. I hastily called his attention to the woods full of Rebels on his right as he was advancing. He dispatched that way one regiment and the rest advanced to an elevation which overlooked the valley on our left, where the left wing had been fighting for several hours. The regiment sent toward the woods got a tremendous volley and saved itself by rushing over the hillside for shelter. The rest of the brigade got an enfilading fire on a Rebel line and it broke and ran to the rear. One regiment only charged the front, as if on parade, but a second battery sent it scampering.

     On this ground the contest was kept up for a long time. The multitude of dead Rebels (I saw them) was proof enough how hotly they contested the ground. It was getting toward night. The artillery took up the fight. We had driven them at all points, save the one woods. It was thought advisable not to attack further. We held the main battlefield and all our wounded, except a few in the woods. My troops slept on their arms well to the front. All the other corps of the center seemed to have vanished, but I found Sumner's the next morning and moved up to it and set to work gathering up our stragglers. The day was passed in comparative quietness on both sides. Our burial parties would exchange the dead and wounded with the Rebels in the woods.

     It was understood that we were to attack again at daylight on the 19th, but as our troops moved up it was found the Rebels had departed. Some of the troops followed, but we lay under arms all day, waiting orders. I took the delay to ride over the field of battle. The Rebel dead, even in the woods last occupied by them, was very great. In one place, in front of the position of my corps, apparently a whole regiment had been cut down in line. They lay in two ranks, as straightly aligned as on a dress parade. There must have been a brigade, as part of the line on the left had been buried. I counted what appeared to be a single regiment and found 149 dead in the line and about 70 in front and rear, making over 200 dead in one Rebel regiment. In riding over the field I think I must have seen at least 3,000. In one place for nearly a mile they lay as thick as autumn leaves along a narrow lane cut below the natural surface, into which they seemed to have tumbled. Eighty had been buried in one pit, and yet no impression had apparently been made on the unburied host. The cornfield beyond was dotted all over with those killed in retreat.

     The wounded Rebels had been carried away in great numbers and yet every farmyard and haystack seemed a large hospital. The number of dead horses was high. They lay, like the men, in all attitudes. One beautiful milk-white animal had died in so graceful a position that I wished for its photograph. Its legs were doubled under and its arched neck gracefully turned to one side, as if looking back to the ball-hole in its side. Until you got to it, it was hard to believe the horse was dead. Another feature of the field was the mass of army accouterments, clothing, etc. scattered everywhere or lying in heaps where the contest had been severest. I lost but two field officers killed, Col. Croasdale, 128th Pennsylvania and Col. Dwight, 2nd Massachusetts, several men wounded. Gen. Crawford of the 1st Brigade was wounded, not severely. I marvel, not only at my own escape, as I was particularly exposed, on account of raw troops to be handled, but at the escape of any mounted officer.

     The newspapers will give you further particulars, but as far as I have seen them, nothing reliable.... The "big staff generals" get the first ear and nobody is heard of and no corps mentioned till their voracious maws are filled with puffing. I see it stated that Sumner's corps relieved Hooker's. So far is this from true that my corps was engaged from sunrise till 9 1/2 o'clock before Sumner came up, though he was to be on the ground at daylight. Other statements picked up by reporters from the principal headquarters are equally false and absurd. To me they are laughably canard."

     Following the battle Williams would move the XII Corps to Harpers Ferry and from there to winter quarters at Stafford Court House just north of Fredericksburg where the new year of 1863 was ushered in.

     This account ends the Alpheus Williams 1862 tour. Please check back here and in the table of contents for new additions to the site.  I hope you have enjoyed your visit! If you reach this point, visit the Plug Ugly Interactive and share your observations or hey, email me with your opinions and observations.

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