The 3rd Brigade commanded by Col. William Howard Irwin absorbed casualties from Confederate artillery and rifle fire at Antietam throughout the afternoon on Wednesday, Sept. 17. 1862. Including the 7th Maine Infantry Regiment commanded by Maj. Thomas Hyde, the brigade held ground east of the Dunker Church; from his vantage point amidst the boulders sheltering his men, Hyde had a good view of the central and southern battlefield.
Earlier in the afternoon, as the 7th Maine approached the left flank of the 20th New York Infantry commanded by Col. Ernst von Vegesack, a bullet had struck Lt. Augustus F. Emery of Co. E at his waist. Hyde had watched Emery “jump in the air and fall[,] rolling over several times apparently in great agony,” with his screams ripping across the battlefield.
In mid-afternoon, Emery suddenly rejoined Co. E, where some men likely thought they had seen a ghost. They had last seen him writhing in the Maryland grass. He lived, however, because the “bullet had struck his belt plate” and not penetrated his body, Hyde learned.
Although shooting had lessened along the central and northern parts of the battlefield, Confederate artillery and infantrymen lingered nearby. Between 4 p.m. and 5 p.m., Capt. John Wolcott deployed his Battery A, 1st Maryland Light Artillery south of the 3rd Brigade lines; the battery’s six 3-inch rifled cannons and gun crews were visible from the 7th Maine’s position, at least to those soldiers who dared raise their heads.
Wolcott’s gunners opened fire on the center section of the Confederate lines. The opening salvo caused a chain reaction counterfire from Confederate infantrymen sheltering amidst the haystacks on the Henry Piper Farm, located almost due south and less than a mile away from Battery A.
The farm lay deep inside enemy lines.
Gun smoke swirled in the distance as Confederate sharpshooters targeted the Maryland gunners; Battery A would lose at least one man killed and several wounded this day. William Irwin joined Wolcott, who “complained bitterly … that sharpshooters were picking off his men,” Hyde learned later.
Wolcott pointed out the Piper Farm marksmen to Irwin.
With soldiers’ watches generally pointing toward 5 p.m. (timekeeping was highly inaccurate in that era), Hyde figured his regiment had done enough for the day. “We were expecting soon to be relieved[,] little knowing that in a few minutes more the 7th Maine were to find their Balaklava,” he recalled.
Hyde referred to the Oct. 25, 1854 Battle of Balaklava, fought in the Russian Crimea. A jumbled order had mistakenly caused the charge and resulting destruction of a British cavalry brigade, a military disaster commemorated by Lord Tennyson in his epic poem, The Charge of the Light Brigade.
Irwin rode from Battery A to the 7th Maine. Not bothering to dismount, Irwin told the startled Hyde “to send a company to dislodge” the Confederate sharpshooters at the Piper farm, Hyde reported in his after-action report.
He dispatched a depleted company to engage the enemy. The Maine lads had hardly left the 3rd Brigade lines when Irwin rode back to Hyde and said, “That is not enough, sir. Take your regiment and drive them from those trees and buildings.”
Hyde saluted Irwin, then reported, “Colonel, I have seen a large force of rebels go in there, I should think two brigades. What I had seen must have been reinforcements going to repulse Burnside.”
“Are you afraid to go, sir?” Irwin snarled before repeating the order.
“Give the order so the regiment can hear it, and we are ready, sir,” Hyde replied.
Pointing again at the Piper farm, Irwin repeated his order, swore, and then spat, “Those are your orders, sir.”
Calling his men to attention, Hyde sent Johnny Begg and George Williams, the “two young boys carrying the marking guidons,” to the rear so they could not participate in the attack. Waiting until their major’s attention was elsewhere, the boys slipped into the regimental line.
“Left face!” Hyde shouted. The 7th Maine lads snapped 90 degrees to the left.
“Forward!” Hyde ordered. His men marched past the five Vermont regiments of the 2nd Brigade (the so-called “Vermont Brigade) and formed behind a fence. Hyde’s original second lieutenant in Co. D, Joseph G. Butler of Presque Isle, deployed 15 skirmishers in front of the 7th Maine, which Hyde now turned to the right to face south toward the Piper Farm.
As had the Light Brigade six years earlier, the 7th Maine Infantry Regiment stepped off to fight its own Balaklava.
Next week: Trapped in an apple orchard — 7th Maine at Antietam, Part III
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Brian Swartz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. He would love to hear from Civil War buffs interested in Maine’s involvement in the war.