I attended the 150th Antietam reenactment in Boonsboro, MD this past weekend. I was commanding one of the Federal infantry battalions (the Mifflin Guard). I was a bit concerned because I had had Achilles Tendonitis in the spring and was not fully recovered. I was worried my heel might not be up to it yet. But my heel held up and it was a great event. I left Philadelphia Friday morning and got there around 2. The event was held on some very nice farmland only a few miles north of the actual Antietam battlefield. Registration was quick and easy but the drive to the campsite was over some horrible dirt roads. But after I unloaded and took my car back to the parking field I discovered that the exit road was paved and a far better way to get to my camp. I resolved to try and go back in that way when it was time to leave. I got my camp set up pretty quickly although it was hot and extremely humid. Our camp was a bit cramped, but we made do and a heartening number of my men were showing up. The place was overrun with crickets, grasshoppers and spiders. There was a huge black and yellow one in a big web right behind my tent. My Sergeant-Major had made it the regimental mascot so I dared not get rid of it :) That evening there was a walk-through of the unit commanders for the Cornfield battle which was to take place at dawn Sunday morning. For the other scenarios, the walk-through was to take place just a few hours before the battle, but there would be no way to do that Sunday morning so they had the walk-through Friday evening. The site was really nice with no modern intrusions at all. They had planted about ten acres of corn for us to fight in and it was head-high and perfect. They'd built some rail fences to add to the ambiance. The scenario was very complex with units being put in and taken out and put in again. I had some doubts about the script as a whole, but I was confident I could carry out my assigned role. And that role had been expanded somewhat from the original plans. The Mifflin Guard would see more fighting that way so I was pleased. But the weather was the big question mark. There were some nasty storm clouds rolling by to the west of us with some spectacular lightning, but they only spit a few drops of rain on us so we were lucky—for the moment. I managed to sleep pretty well that night.
Saturday morning was still very humid but not so hot. Rain and storms were forecast for later in the day, but we hoped to fit in the battles between the storms. I assembled the battalion after breakfast and was pleased that we had 171 men in the ranks. This was the largest battalion I'd commanded in quite some time. We marched out to an open field and did our dress parade and then some drill. Then it was time for another walk-through and I sent my men back to camp led by my Lieutenant Colonel. The walk-through was a bit odd because the organizer had the maps rotated 90 degrees from reality and we were all a bit concerned when we couldn't get him to see that. But we all figured out what were supposed to do. I got back to camp with only time to grab a quick lunch and then it was time to form up. The first battle was Fox's Gap which was a preliminary action before Antietam when the Federal army, in overwhelming strength, was forcing its way through the passes in South Mountain against a desperate Confederate delaying action. We got the troops formed and on the road, but there were some very ominous black clouds gathering to the southwest. We moved into our starting positions but the thunder was getting louder and louder. Suddenly, a staff officer came running by shouting: "Everyone back to camp!" We didn't waste any time, but it was too late. The sky opened up and it came down in buckets. It was less than five minutes back to my tent but I was soaked to the skin long before I got there. It was like someone had turned a hose on me. We huddled under tents for about a half hour and the rain stopped. Somewhat to our surprise the order came down to form up and try again. I was immensely pleased that every one of my men answered the call. I heard later that several entire battalions of other troops refused. So we slopped back along the now very muddy roads and fought our battle. It went quite well and pretty close to plan although they had to do some quick changes to account for the missing battalions. My troops acquitted themselves very well and we had fun. Then it was back to camp.
There was a second battle planned for that evening. A dusk battle that was supposed to go on into the dark. I was pretty tired and I was very glad when the word came down that they were cancelling it. We had two battles scheduled for Sunday and that would be enough. So, I had a nice dinner prepared by one of our cooks and a pleasant evening (although it did rain again, on and off) and then early to bed. Reveille was scheduled for 4:30AM for the Cornfield fight. It got pretty chilly during the night as the last of the storms blew through (they had tornado warnings in Washington DC which isn't that far).
Much too soon the bugles blew and I fumbled for a match to light a candle because it was still completely dark. I got dressed after fighting off a large spider who had laid claim to my coat. It was crystal clear with a quarter moon gleaming and Jupiter and Venus and Orion overhead. Beautiful—but chilly. I huddled around one of the fires in my cold, still-dripping clothes. We got a hasty breakfast and then formed up. My battalion would be the first into the cornfield and led the way as the Federal army marched out of camp. The sky in the east was just starting to brighten as we took our positions on the edge of the corn. It was still and misty at ground level and I expected the powder smoke to hang around—and I was proved right. The other battalions moved into position around us and then I was ordered to send half my companies forward as skirmishers into the corn.
For this part of the action we were portraying the 13th Pennsylvania Reserve regiment who styled themselves as "Bucktails" so we all had dead animal parts stuck in our hats :) I let my major command the skirmishers and they quickly disappeared into the corn. He was on horseback (he has some leg problems so he often rides) and I could see him for a bit longer than his men, but the mists swallowed them all up. The rest of us waited, but it wasn't long before our skirmishers met Rebel skirmishers and the fight for the corn was on. After five or ten minutes the order came for the rest of my battalion and the one to the right of mine to reinforce the skirmishers. I commanded the forward and in we went. We caught up with our skirmishers and passed through them and I ordered them to rally and form up on our left. We kept moving and soon I spotted shadowy shapes to my front. Not a solid battle line, but I was posed with a dilemma. I was leading the way because per the scenario I was to stop just short of the far end of the cornfield. With visibility so short I needed to be in front so we wouldn't go too far. But here was the enemy. I couldn't continue forward and attack these guy by myself, but if I stopped and let my troops pass ahead of me how would I know when to halt? I had about three seconds to decide what to do but fortunately inspiration struck. I looked back toward my men and shouted: "Give them a cheer, boys!" and cheered myself. My men gave a hearty roar and when I looked forward the Rebs had vanished! Psychological warfare!
A few moments later I caught sight of the edge of the corn and ordered a halt. We reformed our line and I heard firing to our front so I gave the order to commence firing. No hope for a nice volley under these circumstances so I just told the men to fire at will and they did so with enthusiasm. Soon the smoke was getting thick and the poor visibility became even worse. I walked up and down my line, fighting past the rows of corn. My right was secured by another battalion, but my left was in the air. My skirmishers were supposed to reform and fill that gap, but they were nowhere to be seen. I sent a runner to find my major and hurry him forward. My left company was reporting that the Rebs were starting to flank them, but then my left wing finally came up and stabilized the situation. We stood and fired for quite a while. My orders per the scenario was to hold where I was until I got orders to fall back. But no orders came and the Rebs were attacking in greater numbers. We held them off, but apparently the orders for me to fall back had gone astray because a Rebel colonel came right up to our lines and demanded we give way. The blue battalion to my right was already gone, so I gave the order to fall back. We did so quickly and soon stumbled back out of the corn.
More Yankees, the Iron Brigade no less, were ready to replace us and I rallied my men and put them into reserve behind some Federal artillery. The men were in good spirits—it had been a fine fight and we weren't done yet. We stood there for a while listening to the battle in the corn—and to the side of the corn, there was a parallel battle taking place just to the right and more brigades were committed on each side. The noise, both the firing and the shouts and cheers of the men, was very impressive. The sun was up now, but it could only be seen now and then, a blood-red orb filtering through the gun smoke. The blasts from the artillery reduced the visibility to just a few yards at times. Every now and then we could catch sight of flags above the corn. There was a pause in the noise for a bit and then a huge Rebel yell as Hood's Texas Brigade smashed into the Federal line. The noise grew louder than ever and then Yankees came running out of the corn, Hood's men presumably right behind. My battalion held its fire for a moment to let our own men get out of the way and then we and the artillery opened up. We never actually saw the enemy at all, the smoke was just too thick, but we blasted away for a good ten minutes and then were ordered to advance. We swept forward but the enemy had fled. The earlier fighting had broken down a lot of the corn but there was still plenty left standing. We came through the other side of the corn and I was so proud of my men: our battle line was still almost perfectly straight, I hardly had to reorganize at all. More Federals emerged and we pushed onward. The enemy tried to make a stand but we charged forward and they broke and fled. The day was ours! Or at least this part of it. We still had another battle to fight at noon.
The event organizers had made the questionable decision to have the men stay in the field between battles rather than return to camp. But it was only 8:00AM and the next battle wasn't until noon. A long time to have the men just sitting around. So I had the men stack arms and dismissed them, just telling them to all be back by 11AM. Nearly all elected to go back to camp and quite a few took their muskets with them. I had no idea if they were going to come back or duck out early. I had had about 150 men for the Cornfield battle but there were only 60 muskets left in the stacks. I wasn't sure how much of a battalion I'd have for the last fight. I sat around with my Lieutenant Colonel and Sergeant Major and ate some cookies I had in my haversack. I also changed the shoulder straps on my coat from full colonel to major. The coming scenario would have the Mifflin Guard portraying the 16th Connecticut Infantry. And the real 16th had a fellow named George Washburn as its major—my great-great grandfather. I would wear major's insignia in honor of him. My men had all applauded when I told them that and I was quite touched. We had the pre-battle walk-through at 10 but it was short because the scenario was very simple: we attack, get hit by a heavy counterattack, and get driven off the field. By 11 my men were coming back and I was very pleased that nearly all of them returned. I still had over 100 men in the battalion.
The final battle went pretty well, but it was disrupted by a potentially serious injury among the Confederates. They had to halt the battle and bring on an ambulance, but apparently it looked worse than it was and the man wasn't seriously hurt. We got the fight going again and it was over surprisingly quickly. The Confederate counterattack came sooner than I was expecting and we were driven off the field in short order. We did put up a fight and for a few minutes I had my battalion ‘firing by companies' which had companies 1-3-5-2-4-6 firing in order and they got into a really nice rhythm with a company firing every few seconds, but we couldn't hold long as there were a LOT of Rebs headed our way. So we fell back and fell back and then I gave the command "Run Away!" and we broke and fled—just like the real 16th. We reformed later, cleared our weapons, and I dismissed the men for good. All-in-all it was a great event. I even managed to get packed up and out of there and home at a reasonable hour!