The II Corps of the Army of the Potomac fought in nearly every battle in the eastern theatre from the Peninsula Campaign through the surrender at Appomattox Courthouse. One of the veterans described their advance from the East Woods toward the West Woods at Antietam as being “like wheeling a wheelbarrow up a mile of heaped up cobblestones.” This web exhibit will give an overview of that advance and their fight in the West Woods. In addition, certain members of the brigade had a complicated relationship to abolition, which would be arguably the most important legacy of this battle and the Civil War. However, much like this difficult advance, the path to the permanent abolition of slavery and meaningful freedom was not a smooth one. Instead, it was much like “wheeling a wheelbarrow up miles of heaped up cobblestones.”
Originally known as the California Brigade, the regiments of the Philadelphia brigade were recruited primarily from Philadelphia by Oregon Senator Edward Baker, who had been sent by the people of California to raise a brigade in the name of the state in 1861. At the time, with no rail line connecting the nearly 3,000 miles between the coasts, it was not feasible to transport 3,000 to 4,000 men across the country. By October, the brigade was at full strength and consisted of the 1st, 2nd, 3rd, and 5th California Regiments. With the death of Col. Baker at Ball’s Bluff in October of 1861, the interest of California in the brigade was gone and Pennsylvania claimed it.
The brigade was assigned to the II Corps when the Army of the Potomac was divided into Corps in March of 1862. At the same time, Edwin Vose Sumner was placed in charge of the II Corps. Sumner was a career army officer who had fought in both the Black Hawk War and Mexican War, where he got the nickname “Bullhead Sumner” when a bullet allegedly bounced off his forehead or alternatively because of his booming voice.
In the summer and early fall of 1862, there were still stark divisions among the American public, among politicians, and among the leadership of the United States army in what the purpose of the war should be. Many, including George McClellan, still believed that the United States should fight a “limited war” with the objective being to return to the status quo before the war. This also meant leaving the institution of slavery untouched. However, from its earliest days, the Civil War had begun to challenge and change the system of American slavery. Almost immediately, enslaved African Americans had begun fleeing to Union lines whenever they came within reach. Union leaders and commanders were faced with the decision of what to do with these self-liberated enslaved people. In May of 1861, at Fort Monroe, Virginia, Gen. Benjamin Butler refused to return three escaped enslaved people to their owners claiming that they were “contraband of war,” and could be confiscated since they were being used to wage war against the United States. Soon Congress had acknowledged this policy by passing the First Confiscation Act (August 6, 1861). This left questions about what the status was of these African Americans—the United States was defining them as “property,” but many saw themselves as escaping from slavery when they arrived within Union lines.
Lincoln and his cabinet were grappling with this problem as well. By July of 1862, Lincoln had drafted the Emancipation Proclamation, in which he would use his war powers to free the enslaved in areas in rebellion. However, when he presented the document to his cabinet, they advised that he should not issue it until he could do so from a position of strength—following a Union victory—so that it would not be seen as a measure of desperation.There was reason to be concerned about appearing desperate. For the Union army, the summer of 1862 had been a difficult one. The Army of the Potomac had been pushed back from the gates of Richmond in June, the Army of Virginia had been crushed at Second Manassas or Bull Run at the end of August, and that same summer President Abraham Lincoln had been forced to issue a call for an additional 300,000 volunteers to put down the rebellion.
The Road to Antietam
By September 5th, Lincoln, having no other suitable options, restored General George B. McClellan to command of the Army of the Potomac, and McClellan had begun reorganizing the army on the move as they marched out from Washington, D.C. and into western Maryland. On September 13th two Indiana soldiers found Special Orders 191 that outlined Lee’s troop dispositions, and the following day McClellan launched into action with an attack on South Mountain. The II Corps was not involved in the fighting at South Mountain, but the battle there gave the Union army the first victory that they had had in Eastern theatre in quite some time—a much needed infusion of confidence.
The regimental historian wrote of their time in camp, “On the 16th, shortly after daylight, while lying in camp, the enemy opened on us with their artillery from their lines on the Antietam Creek, and for a little while poured shot and shell into us pretty lively, killing one man and wounding four others. Our batteries soon replied, and silenced them. We made no movement that day, but were ordered to pack everything in our knapsacks so as to leave them behind, and in the evening each man received eighty rounds of ammunition.”
On September 17th, Sumner’s division was ordered to be ready to march an hour before daylight, and reveille was called that morning at 2:00 am. After a long wait, Sumner rode over to the Pry House to speak to McClellan at 6:00 am, however, he was unable to get an audience with the general, and impatiently waited outside until 7:20 when a staff officer emerged and gave him the order to, “move Sedgewick and French across the creek by fords which Capt. Custer will point out to you. You will cross in as solid a mass as possible and communicate with General Hooker immediately.”
At that point, Sedgewick and French’s divisions began moving, while Richardson stayed back to wait for Franklin’s VI Corps to arrive. Sedgewick and French’s men pushed forward across the Pry Ford without taking the time to remove their shoes or roll up their trousers. Sedgewick’s division of the II Corps moved in columns of brigades. Leading the last line in that charge was Oliver Otis Howard. Prior to the Civil War, he fought in the Seminole Wars. Howard lost his right arm at the Battle of Seven Pines a little over three months before the Battle of Antietam. For his action at Seven Pines, Howard was awarded the Medal of Honor in 1893. Because of his piety, he was nicknamed the “Christian General.”
The march through the East Woods into the West was particularly difficult since the soldiers were passing over ground strewn with the dead and wounded from hours of close, brutal combat. Howard described his brigade passing through this area, where it faced, “abundant evidence of the preceding conflict, surely not encouraging to men just coming upon the field. Too many were busy themselves in carrying their wounded comrades to the rear.”
The brigade columns marched side by side with sixty to seventy-five yards separating them. Sumner selected this formation because it could be brought quickly into battle lines with the single command “front” and thrown in on the left or in support of Hooker and Mansfield. In addition to the arrangement of the battle lines, it is important to think about the span of control for Howard. The line of battle of the Philadelphia Brigade would have stretched about 530 yards—nearly five and a half football fields. Imagine being a brigade commander trying to relay orders to all of the regimental commanders to control this unwieldy line. Also, keep in mind, that depending on Howard’s location along the line, because of the rolling terrain he wouldn’t even be able to see the entire length of his line. As he arrived on the field, Sumner was far from sure of the situation, but he assumed that things were going well. However, as he drew closer and heard the sounds of the battle to the North, he began doubting how well the action had unfolded so far.
During this part of the battle, the Union artillery from the I, II, and XII Corps formed almost a half-circle facing the West Woods, stretching from north of the Cornfield, angling at the southern reaches of the East Woods, and continuing along Smoketown Road all the way to where it intersected with Mumma Farm Lane. These Union batteries provided support for troops in the West Woods and attack on the Sunken Road.
Confederate artillery on Hauser’s Ridge played a crucial role in holding off the Union attackers, particularly before Confederate reinforcements arrived on scene. Sam Buck, a Confederate gunner, described the devastating effect of the artillery fire, “I saw more men torn to pieces by shells in that battle than any other during the war.” Union officers also noticed the tenacity with which these artillerists had fought. General Edwin Sumner wrote to his wife after the battle, “The enemy fought like maniacs to give you an idea of it. Nineteen of their men lay dead about a piece of artillery that one of my batteries knocked to pieces.”
Though the Philadelphia Brigade was disconnected from the far left flank of the Union line, this position would be crucial to how the battle in the West Woods would unfold for all of the Union troops there. The 125th PA under Crawford and the 34th NY under Gorman were isolated on the left flank and a gap of approximately 300 yards separated them from the remainder of Gorman’s line, which left the perfect openings for approaching Confederate reinforcements Lee sent Lafayette McLaws's Division to this part of the field. When McLaws arrived on the scene, he would send Paul Semmes’ men to the left and send William Barksdale’s Mississippians and Joseph Kershaw’s men to the right, toward the church. It would be Barksdale’s men who were heavily engaged with the Philadelphia Brigade. Though born in Tennessee, in 1853 William Barksdale was elected to represent the state of Mississippi in U. S. Congress, where he quickly became known for his unwavering pro-slavery and state's rights political views. At the time of the 1860 census, he owned 36 enslaved people. He was also the editor of several pro-slavery periodicals. He was mortally wounded at Gettysburg on the third day.
James Larkin of Company K of the 72nd PA on the far left of Howard’s line recounted the terror of the regiment as the Confederates approached: “Suddenly, loud above the rattle of musketry and the roar of the artillery, that historic rebel yell was heard. To those who have never heard it I will simply say that it is indescribable; but if ten thousand fiends were unchained and let loose it could not be more unearthly.” Ultimately, the 72nd Pennsylvania broke and ran for the East Woods, as the rest of the brigade retreated in better order toward the North Woods. It would be well into the afternoon before the 72nd rejoined the brigade. In a very few minutes, the 72nd Pennsylvania suffered the third highest casualties of any Federal regiment that day - 38 killed, 163 wounded and 36 missing.
The right flank of the Philadelphia brigade line was held by the 71st PA, commanded by Isaac Jones Wistar. Wistar’s right arm was nearly useless from a prior wound, and his left was wounded at Antietam. Wistar commanded a VII Corps Division during the Battle of Yorktown and was instrumental in creating “Slabtown,” a haven for escaped African Americans.
As the line crumbled, the chaos in the Union ranks grew to the point where it was nearly impossible to even relay orders. As Howard described it, “The noise of the musketry and artillery was so great that I judged more by the gestures of the general as to the disposition he wished me to make than by the orders that reached my ears.” Most of the brigade retreated northward, eventually arriving in the area around the Joseph Poffenberger farm. The charge into the West Woods had been deadly for the Union troops. In total, about 2,200 men had become casualties, while the peak of the fighting had only lasted about twenty minutes. That amounts to 40% of Sedgewick’s command. In his Official Report, Oliver Otis Howard said that, “they have poured out their blood like water.” To learn more about the fighting in the West Woods visit our Virtural Tour Page. Though they had been pushed back out of the West Woods, by the end of the day on September 17th, Union troops largely held their ground and had even made small gains on both ends of the battlefield. By the afternoon of September 18th, Lee had begun sending his troops across the Potomac River and back into what was then Virginia. Because of this retreat, McClellan could claim the battle as a Union victory—he had achieved his objective of stopping Lee’s foray into the North.
In turn, McClellan’s victory here had allowed President Lincoln to issue to Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation. On September 22, 1862, less than a week after the battle, Lincoln would release the document. The preliminary proclamation warned that if states in rebellion didn’t return to the fold of the Union by January 1, 1863, enslaved people within their borders would be “thenceforward and forever free.” When it went into effect in January, the Emancipation Proclamation would also include a provision for recruiting African American soldiers; ultimately about 185,000 African American soldiers served in the Union ranks, provided a much needed infusion of new recruits, and establishing a basis for many of these men to convincingly claim that they were entitled to citizenship rights. The Emancipation Proclamation was an important step in leading to freedom for the enslaved in the United States, but the freedom that it granted would remain limited and unstable until the passage of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution in 1865. Still, the document changed the war aims of the Civil War—now, what had been a war to restore the country as it had previously existed became a war for liberation. As a result, European nations were not likely to side with the Confederacy—the army fighting for enslavement.
However, reactions to the Proclamation were mixed both in the ranks of the Union army and among the American public. In Douglass’s Monthly, Frederick Douglass published the following reaction: Free forever’ oh! long enslaved millions, whose cries have so vexed the air and sky, suffer on a few more days in sorrow, the hour of your deliverance draws nigh! Oh! Ye millions of free and loyal men who have earnestly sought to free your bleeding country from the dreadful ravages of revolution and anarchy, lift up now your voices with joy and thanksgiving for with freedom to the slave will come peace and safety to your country.”
In his history of the Philadelphia Brigade, Charles H. Banes states that most soldiers were opposed to the proclamation, “some of whom went so far as to say that they would not have entered the service if this action of the Government had been anticipated. This disaffection increased the demoralization, until its influence began to be exhibited to some extent in every corps.”
Still, not everyone in the brigade felt negatively toward the proclamation. In fact, Oliver Otis Howard, who led the brigade, was an advocate of abolition, and would continue to work towards supporting freedman in a new role after the Civil War. In May of 1865, Howard was appointed as the head of the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands (Freedman’s Bureau) and was the only one to serve in that position until the Bureau was disbanded in June of 1872. The purpose of the Bureau was to transition the newly freed enslaved people into full citizenship. It issued food and clothing, operated hospitals and temporary camps, helped locate family members, promoted education, helped freedmen legalize marriages, provided employment, supervised labor contracts, provided legal representation, investigated racial confrontations, settled freedmen on abandoned or confiscated lands, and worked with African American soldiers and sailors and their heirs to secure back pay, bounty payments, and pensions. In creating the network of assistant commissioners, he relied on men who he had served with during his time in the army. One of those men was Eliphalet Whittlesey, who had been his assistant adjutant general during the Civil War and had proved his mettle to Howard during the battle of Antietam. Whittelsey was the assistant commissioner for North Carolina. Howard also founded Howard University in 1867.
Because of Maryland’s position as a border state, the Freedman’s Bureau played a slightly different role there than it did in states further to the south. In Maryland, activities focused on providing education for freedman, ensuring that they had access to judicial systems, and processing veterans’ claims. The Bureau worked with private charitable organizations as well to provide financial support for the freedom schools even in the face of sometimes violent opposition from whites. Here in Sharpsburg, the Freedman’s Bureau provided funding to the school that operated in Tolson’s Chapel on High Street, which you can still visit today.
The legacy of freedom at Antietam did not end in 1862 or even in 1865. Instead, some of the same men that had been fighting to secure the issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation would continue to lead the effort to support freedmen in their quest to establish themselves and to gain their citizenships. Of course, the road to full citizenship and equality would not be a smooth or linear path. Instead, many of the gains that had been established during Reconstruction would be rolled back in the face of intense racially motivated violence as the 1800s turned to the 1900s. The legacy of Antietam is complex, but one certainty is that it forever changed our nation because of the scale of loss and since it led Abraham Lincoln to issue the Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation.
Last updated: February 6, 2021