nier Mollus War Papers

War Papers

John Conline, Captain U. S. A. (Retired)
Original Member of the Michigan Commandery, Insignia Number 4926
Military Order of the Loyal Legion of the United States
Read January 7, 1897 (First Published 1898)

Transcribed by Robert Tavernier
(May 2004)

In compliance with a verbal request to the effect, I have the honor to herewith present to the assembled members of the society of Union officers and soldiers of the late rebellion, my personal recollections and observations on the Maryland campaign and the great and decisive battle of Antietam, Maryland (or Sharpsburg), fought on the 17th day of September, 1862 between the Army of the Potomac, commanded by General Geo. B. McClellan, and the Army of northern Virginia, under the Confederate General Robert E. Lee.

A few collateral facts and quotations from other sources of information are presented, in order to make the record of events and incidents under consideration as far as practicable complete, accurate, and it is hoped, interesting. I was born on the 1st day of January, 1846, in the village of Rutland, which is pleasantly located in the picturesque and beautiful valley of Otter Creek, in the State of Vermont, noted for its fine marble, exquisite scenery, and as the home of the Green Mountain boys of revolutionary and later fame in the military history of our nation. I was, therefore, fifteen years, three months and eighteen days old, when the Sixth Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, on its way to the front, was fired upon by a mob in Pratt Street, Baltimore, on the 19th day of April 1861.

This unlooked for event, was in effect a danger signal, which at once arrested the attention of the loyal American people everywhere, and caused them to realize that war, which they sincerely hoped might be averted, was actually upon them. On this memorable date, the First Vermont Volunteer Infantry was organized from the uniformed militia companies of the state, and on the same day I enlisted as a private in the Allen Greys, of Brandon, Vermont, and a few days after became sick, and had my military ardor somewhat dampened by rejection on account of extreme youth and illness. All hopes of becoming a soldier for the time being were rudely dispelled. The regiment assembled at Rutland, Vt., before moving to the theater of war, and in the energetic rush of preparation, on or about May 9, 1861, I was sent for to assist in making necessary military papers in the office of General H. H. Baxter, adjutant-general of the state, preparatory to the departure of the regiment next day. While in the office at 11 p. m., Captain Tuttle, of the Cavendish Light Infantry, called on General Baxter and reported that one of his men was sick and could not go. I arose, or rather jumped up from the table where I was working, and said I would go in his place if the uniform would fit me. The officers talked matters over a few minutes and accepted my offer, and at midnight I went to the fair grounds, where the regiment was encamped, proceeded to the tent of the invalid, tried on his uniform, examined his rifle and equipments; was pleased with the fit of the uniform, and the rifle did not appear to be to heavy to carry; so I gave the young man my suit of clothes to wear home, the bargain was completed and satisfactory to both. The young man started home on the morning train next day, and the ticket agent at the depot, who knew me well, recognized my clothes and wondered what had become of me; he probably sent word to my father, for I saw him on the lookout as my company filed into the cars at 8 a.m.May 10, 1861, and turning my head in the opposite direction, I was not recognized and escaped. I did not feel safe, however, until the train was speeding rapidly to Troy, N. Y., where upon our arrival we were honored with an address by the distinguished General Wool. Completing service with the First Vermont Infantry, three months' men, and re-enlisting in the Fourth Vermont Infantry, I joined the latter regiment during the siege of Yorktown, Va., and became a member of the Vermont Brigade, composed of the Second, Third, Fourth, Fifth and Sixth Regiments of Infantry, otherwise known as the Second Brigade, Second Division, Sixth Corps, Army of the Potomac. Colonel Wm. F. Fox, U. S. Volunteers, in his book of Regimental Losses in the American Civil War, gives a list of eight or ten famous brigades pre-eminent for their fighting qualities, as shown by losses in action. In this roll of honor, the old Vermont Brigade stands at the head of the list. The greatest loss of life, says Colonel Fox, in any one brigade during the war, occurred in the Vermont Brigade of the Second Division, Sixth Army Corps; and from over two thousand regiments in the Union armies, the same authority selects three hundred fighting regiments which lost from 134 to 224 men each, killed and died of wounds received in battle; of this number Vermont furnished nine, which includes all the regiments of our brigade. Passing over the interval from Yorktown to the second Bull Run, interspersed with fatiguing marches and one of the most brilliant victories that ever adorned the pages of history and other feats of arms, with one or two reverses which did not worry us in the least, but somewhat alarmed our friends at home, we find the Army of the Potomac before Washington, brave, compact, well organized, in a fine state of discipline, with splendid officers, and the best blood of the Nation in its soldiers, who were animated by the most exalted patriotism, and moved by a determined and undaunted spirit; with excellent small arms for the infantry, and artillery which was really magnificent in the accuracy and effect of its fire in action. Its condition left little to be desired except a commander of energy and courage. The reports in circulation at this period of its disorganized and demoralized condition, which have come down even to our own time, are the sheerest humbug and nonsense, not to use harsher terms. The soldiers of the 6th Corps, who were simply a fair exponent of the rest of the army, marched in the evening up Pennsylvania Avenue, through Washington, early in September, to Maryland, in the highest spirits; in fact, the Maryland campaign was looked upon in the light of a holiday excursion or picnic, and the panicky canards received through the medium of the papers of the time only excited their derision and contempt.

These false reports, however, served a good purpose in deceiving the enemy and making them over-confident and spurring our own people to greater efforts to avoid possible disaster.

On the easy marches from Washington through western Maryland, we were impressed with the remarkable beauty of the gently rolling country, covered with farms under the highest state of cultivation, with well-kept fences, tracing the outline of beautiful fields of grass, corn, wheat, oats and other products of the earth, with cozy farm houses nestling among the trees and shrubbery, and great barns soon to be filled to repletion. The balmy air of repose seemed to pervade everything, and the atmosphere becoming hazy in the distance, lent an indescribable charm to the enchanting mountain scenery in the remote horizon.

In brief, Lee's army crossed the Potomac to threaten Pennsylvania, liberate Maryland, defeat the Army of the Potomac, and capture Washington. Concentrating at Frederick, Md., about September 6, 1862, his plan was matured and given to his generals. Lee learning that the Army of the Potomac had left the vicinity of Washington, and was moving in force on Frederick, retired from this position on the 10th and 11th westward across the mountains, and the Union forces occupied the town on the morning of the 12th. Lee's plans were embodied in an order of march, which by accident came into McClellan's possession at Frederick on the 13th and the latter consequently had an immense advantage over the opposing army, which could have been destroyed in detail by an energetic officer of the same ability; however, McClellan did well, although he might have done immeasurably better. The 6th Corps advance westward from Frederick, crossing the Catoctin range, passing through the small town of Middletown, in a beautiful valley of the same name, to the pretty village of Burkittsville, about a mile from the base of the South Mountain range, near and on the road to Crampton's Gap, where we arrived early on the 14th. The Vermont troops, passing through Burkittsville westward, came to a large barnyard with a big barn and haystack in front in the direction of the enemy, and the 4th Vermont, being in the lead, came to a halt near the haystack until the rest of the brigade came up. In the meantime, General W. T. H. Brooks, with his aides, Captain Parsons of our regiment and others, arrived in the yard near the barn. At the same instant the Confederates, whom we could not see, opened a brisk infantry fire upon us while we were at a halt awaiting developments. I saw Captain Parsons on horseback examine the ground in front, and heard him report to General Brooks that the woods at the foot of the mountain were full of rebels; meanwhile the rebels kept up a warm fire, which, fortunately for us, was too high to do great damage, although the air seemed filled with hissing rifle balls. The general, whom the Vermonters greatly admired, was on horseback at a halt and moved rather uneasily in his saddle, and said to Captain Parsons, "I don't think there are quite so many as all that," and at once gave orders for deployment and assault upon the enemy's position, which was seemingly very strong.

All the companies of the 4th Vermont moved in succession to the south and west of the barn, which acted as a partial screen and protection, to the front, and formed line of battle, in a very large open field by the movement known as companies left front, into line. We did not let the grass grow under our feet in executing this maneuver for obvious reasons. In short, our line was formed with great rapidity, the direction being north and south parallel to a long, well built stone wall, from behind which the enemy kept blazing away at us. As the line was formed, I had a fine opportunity to look over the battlefield before the charge.

During the formation of this advance line, from the open spaces on the crest of South Mountain, the Confederate batteries opened on us with a very noisy shellfire, which so far as I could see, did us little harm. Of course, the roar of artillery and rattle of musketry for about ten minutes was interesting; only the latter, however, was dangerous. The artillery was posted too high to do anything but accidental damage. The instant the line was ready, we charged, with bayonets fixed, at double quick, across the open level field to the stone wall where the enemy was posted. Before we got to the wall, the rebels began to run singly, then in little squads of three or four, and finally, as we were about to reach the wall, they all broke pell mell up the slightly inclined open plain, from the wall to the foot of the mountain about 400 yards distant. Many of them halted, turned, and fired at us. The wall reached, we opened fire upon the rapidly vanishing Confederates for two or three minutes; and climbing over it, the line quickly advanced after the demoralized enemy, until we reached the trees at the foot of the mountain, when we were free from the artillery fire. We then began to climb the steep mountainside and arrived at the crest nearly out of breath, where we found a very narrow plateau with a road in the middle, running north and south along the crest. We moved to the right in column towards Crampton's Gap, capturing a brass mountain howitzer named the "Jennie," and a few prisoners, about seventy-five in all. In military parlance, the Vermont Brigade made a brilliant charge against the enemy in the open field and carried the crest and Crampton's Gap by storm. We rested a short time on the ridge, which commanded a magnificent eastern view of harvest fields in the exquisitely beautiful Middletown Valley, through which we had so recently passed; and to the westward lay, seemingly at our feet, the equally picturesque Pleasant Valley, through which meandered the now famous little stream known as Antietam Creek, near and to the east of Sharpsburg, where the battle of Antietam was fought. Other corps of our army captured almost simultaneously Turner's Gap, to the north of us, in the same range. The rebel corps of Longstreet and Hill got away from our front when they were driven from the passes of the South Mountain range, and Lee, by forced marches, concentrated his army in line between Sharpsburg and the Antietam in his front, on the 15th, 16th and 17th of September. The ground he occupied was well chosen and favorable for a defensive battle. On the 15th and 16th, while Lee was on the defensive behind the Antietam, awaiting the arrival of Stonewall Jackson, the Union army moved in several columns across the valley and was posted on the heights east of Antietam, nearly parallel to the Confederate line, which could be plainly seen on the other side of the river. Our artillery was placed in commanding positions at intervals along and in rear of our line, so as to enfilade, if possible, the enemy's infantry, and be most effective against his artillery. On the 17th of September, 1862, the several corps of the Union army, in order from left to right were Burnside's, Porter's, Sumner's, Franklin's (partly in reserve), Hooker's and Mansfield. Mc- McClellan's plan was to cross the Antietam by the various fords and bridges and carry the enemy's position by direct assault preceded by a heavy artillery fire.

For one of the best descriptions of the battle, which I have read in recent years, you are referred to Swinton. A very fine map of the battlefield, showing the location of the troops at different stages of the battle, may also be found in Nicolay and Hay's life of Lincoln, Vol. 6. I will conclude by stating what I saw and heard. The 6th Corps arrived on the field opposite the center about 11 a. m. on the 17th; the day was fine and the roads were in good condition. Our ears were greeted by the deafening roar of about 200 pieces of artillery; hissing, exploding shells filled the air, and the rapid fire of musketry was also heard at intervals at varies points in front. From an artistic standpoint, the spectacle was grand beyond description. The Vermont Brigade moved down in column to the Antietam and crossed by a ford near the center of the Union line, and marched nearly south, protected on our right by low, undulating ground, a few trees and an occasional house, until we arrived at a large corn field in front, with a small grove of low trees on our right. My regiment, the 4th Vermont, then formed line very quickly, and charged rapidly across the cornfield to its outer edge, which was parallel to and about 150 yards from the famous sunken road or bloody lane. Arriving at the edge, we were received by a storm of shot, shell and rifle bullets, which a kind Providence decreed should pass over us; in other words, the rebels fired too high. We were at once ordered to lie down, heads towards the enemy and resting on our knapsacks. While we were lying down the rebel infantry fire slackened in our front, but their artillery shelled us unmercifully for perhaps twenty-five minutes or more. One of their shells exploded about two feet from the ground and not more than twenty feet directly in front of me, and covered us with sand, gravel, and dirt. E. S. Cooper, the soldier next on my left in ranks, was struck on the top of the head by a piece of this shell was dangerously wounded and taken from the field. I do not know what other damage was done by it, but with my usual good fortune I did not get hit. There was a small haystack to the right and front of my company, the color company of the regiment, which protected us a little from direct fire. While in this position, which it seems we were ordered to hold, because we reserved our fire, I saw the 7th Maine Infantry make a magnificent charge on our left across this same cornfield, until their right rested on the left of our line. Their beautiful State and National colors glistened in the light as they advanced to their position. When they halted about thirty remained standing in line near the colors, a most heroic band, while half the regiment on either side of the colors was either killed or mortally wounded and fell dead in line before they could lie down in their assigned place, by a terrific infantry fire from the sunken road. Meanwhile, opposite the right and front of our regiment, from a slight eminence, a section of one of our batteries got a raking fire on the rebel line in the sunken road, and with grape and canister shot, administered an awful retribution and silenced the fire on our front and left by the almost total destruction of the Confederates in position opposite. It was now almost dark, firing ceased, and we held the line taken. About 11 p. m. we heard the rattle of the wheels of the Confederate ambulances arriving on the field to withdraw the wounded. The soldiers knew at once that the enemy was stealing away, but no action was taken, at least on our immediate front.

The next morning, the 18th, we had leisure to examine the field of battle in our front, and the sight, which met our gaze, was so shocking and frightful as to be almost beyond belief. The Confederate dead were laid out in rows on boards, so close together that one could hardly take a step without stepping on the slain. The sunken road was also partially filled with dead all along our front. One of the sights not to be forgotten, was that of a Confederate trying to escape to the rear across a rail fence on the west side of the sunken road; he had his right foot across the rail, the left in a partial kneeling position, with one hand holding a piece of apple in his mouth, shot dead transfixed and erect with seven bullet holes in his back.

Lieutenant-Colonel Lightfoot, of the Confederate army, was left dangerously wounded on this scene of death. I heard him call attention to his condition and Colonel Foster, of my regiment, gave orders to have him properly cared for.

The rebel army having retreated, we marched through Sharpsburg, where the loyal citizens were pleased to see us, and had our colors flying from their windows to cheer us on our way.

In general, the blows inflicted by each army on the other were great and sever; the Confederates, however, had much the worst of it, as they were forced from their first line to the second, from which they retreated in the night, leaving their dead unburied and the Army of the Potomac in possession of the field.

The numbers engaged, the percentage of killed and wounded, the persistent tenacity with which it was fought, the brilliant charges and great courage displayed on either side, and its ultimate effect on the war, ranks the battle of Antietam among the greatest in history.

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Conline, John. 1898. RECOLLECTIONS OF THE BATTLE OF ANTIETAM AND THE MARYLAND CAMPAIGN: A Paper Read before the Michigan Commandery of the Military Order of the Loyal Legion of the United States, January 7, 1897. Stone Printing Company, Detroit, Michigan, Volume 2, pp. 110-119.

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