— Part II of a four-part series printing Sundays in June.
As William Ferguson Leslie and the 11th Regiment Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry were making their way through Virginia in autumn of 1862, Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee was writing his final orders to implement his invasion of Maryland.
Having some awareness of imminent peril, President Lincoln ordered Gen. George McClellan to unite with Gen. John Pope at Washington and organize the armies for active operations to meet the Confederate threat.
The 11th Regiment quickly moved to Upton’s Hill, where they were re-fitted.
On the morning of Sept. 6, Lincoln gave the verbal order that McClellan assume field command of the now-consolidated Army of the Potomac, and the 11th felt the urgency.
They were now attached with both the 12th and 13th Massachusetts and the 83rd New York as part of the Third Brigade, Second Division, First Corps commanded by Maj. Gen. Joseph Hooker.
Washington was in a partial panic and a gunboat lay in the Potomac near the White House. Later that evening, the 11th crossed the Potomac and by midnight was rapidly marching through the darkened streets of Georgetown. They turned to the north and left Washington near today’s Wheaton, then turned west to meet the Confederate threat. The night of Sept. 13 found them encamped at Monocacy Bridge.
Morning reveille sounded at 3 a.m. on Sept. 14 for the First Corps and they were quickly on the march through Frederick, then westward over the National Road as the Rebels were unifying near Sharpsburg. The First Corps advanced west through the Middletown Valley to Turner’s Gap, and late in the afternoon fought on the Union right at the Battle of South Mountain.
Bloody day at Antietam
The fighting for the 11th was light and casualty reports varied, but for an unknown reason Pvt. Leslie was mistakenly listed as wounded. Casualty errors were common in the Civil War on both sides and occurred on a regular basis. Even Col. Richard Coulter, the Greensburg native, was once reported as killed.
But Leslie was fine and – along with the whole Federal army – spent the night of the 14th massed on the mountaintop in and around the deserted Confederate breastworks. Then, fueled with intelligence gained by the discovery of Lee’s general movement command Special Order 191, now known as the “Lost Order," they rapidly advanced in the direction of Sharpsburg. There, on good ground he found to his advantage along Antietam Creek with a quick escape route over the Potomac, Lee decided to turn and fight.
The daylong Battle of Antietam Creek was fought on Sept. 17 and entailed three engagements at different times of the day on completely different areas of the field. The First Corps opened the battle on the Union right at first light and it was over before 11 a.m. The center was fought at midday several hundred yards to the south in the area known as the Sunken Road. From midmorning further south, Gen. Ambrose Burnside and the Union left struggled to cross the Rohrbach Bridge, today known as the celebrated Burnside Bridge for the general’s gallant charge. Burnside finished up at dark, culminating the day in triumph for McClellan.
Coulter’s men fought at the David R. Miller “Cornfield” and the adjoining “East Woods” in early morning.
They faced three brigades of Georgia and Louisiana regiments commanded by Brig. Gen. Alexander Lawton of Stonewall Jackson’s command.
At Lawton’s rear, on a plateau east of the Dunker Church, were 14 guns of Lee’s artillery ranged and waiting.
Known as the Flower of the Confederate Army, all were placed there to stop what Lee anticipated to be one of the heaviest Union assaults.
Hooker’s Second Division crossed the Big Antietam over the “Upper Bridge,” then traveled west as his objective was to gain the high ground between the Antietam and the Potomac. He followed the elevation toward Sharpsburg, feeling for Lee’s flank – his troopers filling their haversacks with apples as they went.
Into the Cornfield
Artillery and musketry was heard from the cavalry vedettes and infantry skirmishers just before and long after dark as the First Corps arrived into the Sharpsburg area. Then the Federals were ordered to lay on their arms for the night. As the armies were resting so near to each other, there would be no reveille sounded on the morning of battle.
Well before dawn, company sergeants slipped across the ground, quietly awakening the men. Against a force largely unknown, two Union brigades were the first to go forward, partially through the Cornfield, and fought at daybreak, then were ordered to withdraw. Thereafter, Coulter entered into the fight, and under withering artillery and rifle fire advanced the Third Brigade, consisting of about 1,000 men, into battle.
The 13th Massachusetts and the 83rd New York were positioned on the left and were fortunate to be afforded some shelter by the trees of the East Woods.
The 12th Massachusetts and the 11th Pennsylvania marched on the right, wholly through the Cornfield. Upon seeing the regimental flags and the lines of gleaming bayonets coming at them amongst the tassels, the Rebels in the adjoining pasture began pouring shot and shell into the corn. The troops exited through a skirt of broomcorn and leaped over a snake-rail fence
– then dressed their lines and came up 70 yards beyond, where the two regiments formed side-by-side and stood fully exposed.
There was a brief pause to allow a thick cloud of smoke to drift clear.
Then in a thunderous crash of musketry, North and South exchanged what was described as a “blizzard of fire” and the most deadly confrontation of the war so far. With little fortifications or protection for either, each stood in full view of the other across less than 100 yards of pasture, delivering and receiving withering volleys in a musketry slugfest while suffering heavily under the other’s fire.
McClellan’s big guns from across the Antietam soon found the range and artillery bursts from both sides filled the air with shot and shells. Here they maintained a sanguinary contest where the brutal suffering was mutual.
Col. James Walker of Lawton’s command noticed from a distance that only a handful of soldiers from the 12th Georgia Regiment had gone forward when ordered. The remainder were seen lying behind a low rock ledge. Surprised by such misconduct of this courageous veteran regiment, he quickly went to their position only to find all those men either dead or wounded, including their commander.
Heavy losses on both sides
Desolation began to pervade both sides as their lines were rapidly thinning. Some of the Georgians abandoned exposed positions in the pasture and began looking for shelter.
The survivors scrambled among the dead and wounded for cartridges. The losses were becoming agonizingly apparent on Coulter’s exposed right, as men were making persistent demands for ammunition that did not come.
Then the situation went from bad to worse for the Union troops, as the
550-man brigade led by Confederate Brig. Gen. Harry Hays was fed into the fight.
Known as the famous Louisiana Tigers, they were multinational denizens recruited out of the New Orleans waterfront. Many were unsavory types who had previous military experience in local militia units or as mercenaries.
Thievery and drunkenness were often associated with these colorful Louisianans – but in battle, they had a reputation as fearless, hard-fighting shock troops and were often called upon to turn some desperate situation around.
In his official report, Hays wrote that as he came up, he did not halt his troops upon reaching the established battle line but rushed his brigade right up against the 11th Pennsylvania and the 12th Massachusetts in a blistering charge. Coulter described it as “exposed to a most galling fire”; another soldier later wrote, “no tongue can tell, no mind conceive, no pen portray the horrible sights I witnessed this morning.”
Four flag bearers of the 11th were shot down in rapid succession during the engagement and at one point the entire color guard of the 12th Massachusetts went down in a heap.
But Hays was soon checked and then repulsed.
Here Pvt. Leslie was shot through his left calf. His friend, George Scott of Ligonier, helped him off the field and to the cover of
the East Woods – where, along with the other wounded, Leslie found some shelter.
The weight of Hays’ attack caused Coulter to report that fire from the
12th Massachusetts and the 11th Pennsylvania lessened every moment, as heavy casualties were being inflicted and would soon be withdrawn but not before they exacted an equal toll on the Rebels.
The brigade was engaged for about 30 minutes. By the time they reassembled in the relative safety of the rear, more than half of the 11th Pennsylvania Regiment lay dead or wounded.
Recovery and rejoining
The 12th Massachusetts suffered an appalling 67 percent casualty rate with only 40 men remaining, the highest percentage of loss for any Union regiment that day.
The Louisiana Tigers suffered nearly as greatly, sustaining 61 percent overall casualties while all of its regimental commanders were either killed or wounded.
Sallie, the 11th’s canine mascot, received her first wound as a ball grazed her side.
Coulter would be recognized for valor, but his men would fight no more that day.
This portion of the Miller farm changed hands numerous times over the next several hours, but as more Federal divisions were committed, the battle for the Cornfield was won as they swept Jackson from the field.
The battle would continue to rage on further south until dark – resulting in an overall Union victory and giving President Lincoln the confidence he needed to usher in the Emancipation Proclamation.
With a cumulative total of about 23,000 casualties in all, the battle became the bloodiest single day in American military history – to that point.
Leslie spent the next several days at the regimental hospital at the nearby Hoffman Farm and contracted catarrh – a respiratory ailment likely caused by exposure. The affliction of the mucous membrane of the nasal passages was a common ailment of soldiers on both sides.
He was then transferred to Finley Hospital in Washington, D.C., and admitted on Sept. 23. There, in recovery, he celebrated his 19th birthday.
After a several-month hospital stay, he rejoined the regiment in the winter of 1863.
In the meantime, the 11th was engaged at Fredericksburg on Dec. 13, with a depleted force of only 183 men.
Three standard bearers were shot down in the fighting beyond the Bowling Green Road and the regiment suffered 85 casualties – including Col. Coulter, who was badly wounded.