‘Senseless Slaughter’: The Inside Story of the Battle of Antietam

‘Senseless Slaughter’: The Inside Story of the Battle of Antietam

Christopher Miskimon, Warfare History Network

History, Americas

9 NY assaulted the high ground south of Sharpsburg on the afternoon of the battle.  They lost 63% of those engaged during this action. Antietam Staff/NPS Photo-Original sketch by Edwin Forbes

It was fought with honor.

In the late afternoon of September 17, 1862 the 7th Maine Regiment received new orders. The Battle of Antietam had raged throughout the day. Thousands were dead and even more lay wounded on the field or suffering in hospitals behind the lines. After horrible combat at places known afterward as The Cornfield and Bloody Lane, the fighting climaxed at the lower bridge over Antietam Creek that historians called Burnside’s Bridge in memory of Maj. Gen. Ambrose Burnside who failed to capture it in a timely fashion. The 7th Maine was about to enter this action and its place in the history of the American Civil War.

Twenty-one year-old Major Thomas Hyde, a native of Bath, Maine, commanded the regiment. The regiment was part of Colonel William H. Irwin’s brigade of Maj. Gen. William Franklin’s VI Corps. The unit was seriously understrength that day. Only 181 men remained of its original complement of 1,000.

Hyde’s regiment had gone into action at the Bloody Lane and then taken up a position behind limestone outcroppings on the rolling hills west of Antietam Creek that afforded it a measure of protection from enemy fire. In that location the men dodged desultory enemy fire. When they could, the regi-ment’s marksmen sniped at enemy artillerists and officers. 

Hyde and his men expected that when night arrived they would be relieved; however, like other regiments they lacked knowledge of how the battle was progressing. Irwin eventually issued new orders to Hyde. He told the major to lead his regiment in an attack against the Piper Farm where Lt. Gen. James Longstreet and Maj. Gen. Daniel Harvey Hill had cobbled together infantry regiments and batteries for a final stand following the Confederate retreat from the Bloody Lane.

Hyde believed the order was foolish. He told Irwin that an unsupported attack against such a position was tantamount to suicide. He felt a personal responsibility for his men and was unwilling to lead them in such a perilous attack. Irwin repeated his orders and then asked an insulting question meant to goad Hyde into leading the attack. “Are you afraid to go, sir?” asked Irwin.

 Hyde wanted the men of the regiment to know that it was Irwin’s idea and not his own. “Give the order so the regiment can hear it, and we are ready, sir,” Hyde said.

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