In a December 1905 piece in the Richmond Times-Dispatch, Senator John W. Daniel, introducing Emmett M. Morrison’s memoir of the Battle of Sharpsburg, wrote

… In many a nook and cranny in Virginia, too, is a valiant leader of his neighbors, who commanded and guided them in the battle shock, and stepped behind the scenes to the work of restoration when war’s dread thunders stormed no more.

One of these is Colonel E. M. Morrison, of the 15th Virginia Infantry, who now resides at Smithfield, in the Isle of Wight County, and who is yet busy with his tasks.

The 15th Virginia lost at Sharpsburg 58 per cent. of its men, which is 23 per cent. more than the Light Cavalry Brigade of the English army, lost in the world-heralded “Battle of Balaklava.” Our folks write poems in honor of the Light Brigade and our schoolboys declaim Tennyson’s verses; but what do we know of our own boys who stood proof on this red day at Sharpsburg?

E. M. Morrisonclick to see larger image
Lt. Colonel Emmett Masalon Morrison (c. 1863-65)

At Antietam on the Web we’ve made it our mission to remember some of those ‘boys’, like Emmett Morrison, who indeed stood proof …

Morrison was severely wounded at Sharpsburg on 17 September 1862 while in command of the remnants of the 15th Virginia Infantry Regiment. John Priest, in A Soldier’s Story, recounts the events:

… Captain Morrison fired all the cartridges in a dead man's box and stepped a few yards away from the firing line where he picked up another and rejoined the fighting as was his habit. He shot two rounds and was preparing to fire the third one when something knocked him unconscious. About a minute later, he came around as four of his men lifted him onto a stretcher and started rearward with him. A projectile prostrated the stretcher party. The fragments splattered Charlie Watkins' brains all over Morrison, causing him to release his grip and dump the captain while he struck the ground with a sickening thud. Billie Briggs, another stretcher bearer, crashed to the earth with a broken thigh. The third man in the party lost the second and third fingers on a hand and the fourth one was also wounded.

Within seconds, several men ran over to carry Morrison off, but he sent them back into the ranks, where they were really needed. The captain watched the regiment bolt into the woods near the Nicodemus farm, then very slowly hobbled and crawled to one of the huge haymounds near the West Woods. A mess of blood and brains from head to foot, the captain listened to his blood slosh over his feet as it rolled down his pants legs into his boots. Among the wounded in the hay stack, he found Lieutenant John Nussell (15th Va) [John Kerr Fussell (1835-1909, Richmond)] he immediately tended to Morrison, whom he considered more seriously hurt than he. Nussell cut away Morrison's right coat sleeve to stop the bleeding at its source. He discovered that the shell fragment had carried away the captain's right shoulder joint…

Emmett Masalon Morrison (1841-1932) was born and raised in Smithfield, Virginia, and completed his formal education at the Virginia Military Institute (VMI), one of the nation’s premier military schools, in the War’s first year, 1861.

Morrison in group at VMI September 1860click to see larger image
Henry K. Burgwyn (front row, center), William H. Bray, Emmett M. Morrison, William A. Smith, Richard L. Williams (VMI, 1860, later drillmasters at Richmond)

In April of that year Morrison was assigned to Camp Lee, a camp of instruction in Richmond, as part of a group of volunteers from VMI. They were drillmasters: teaching new Virginia State troops the basics of soldiering.

In April 1862 he was elected Captain of Company C, 15th Virginia Infantry, and joined the Regiment in the field. That summer they saw action around Richmond defending against Federal General McClellan’s Peninsular Campaign, and were then with General Lee at Second Manassas, before crossing the Potomac near Leesburg on 7 September 1862 at the start of the Maryland Campaign.

By that time Captain Morrison was the senior officer present and was in command of the depleted Regiment (there would be only 128 officers and men of the 15th present for duty at Sharpsburg).

The 15th Virginia, part of Semmes’ Brigade, was with General McLaws in the attack on Harpers Ferry from the Maryland side, and they were posted in Brownsville Gap on South Mountain–from which spot they watched the fight at Crampton’s Gap on the 14th–before returning with McLaws’ Division to Sharpsburg early on the 17th.

After resting near the village of Sharpsburg for most of the morning, the Division was ordered to the Confederate Left to help stop the massive Federal assaults on that part of the field. Morrison later described their introduction to the great battle:

About 11 A.M. we unslung knapsacks … every man fills up his canteen; foward, march, double quick … just before we got to where the fighting was we halted and were told to leave what we had there … as we were going into the fight …

The field we fought over was enclosed by a chestnut rail fence and near its corner a gate, and near the gate a small but beautiful tree. The head of the regiment filed through the gate on the run, rapidly swung into position as best we could, forming on the regiment to our right and firing as we came into line.

As we got close to them, one hundred to two hundred yards, I should say, we could see individual men, officers I suppose, running backward and forward through the smoke …

After his horrific wounding in that action, the Captain was captured at a field hospital near Sharpsburg–having been left behind too ill to travel when Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia returned to Virginia on 18 and 19 September–and held as a prisoner of war at Fort Delaware. He was there until paroled to Fort Monroe, Virginia in March 1863. He was exchanged and returned to his regiment in April.

While imprisoned, Morrison was appointed Major (to rank from 19 August 1862) and then Lieutenant Colonel (24 January 1863) of the 15th Virginia.

He served at that rank until very near the end of the War when he was captured in action at Sayler’s Creek on 6 April 1865. He was incarcerated at the Federal prison at Johnson’s Island (near Sandusky, Ohio). At War’s end, in July, he took the oath of allegience to the United States and returned to his hometown.

After the War Morrison was a teacher and principal of the Smithfield Academy, a County Surveyor, married the former Sarah H. Wilson (1872), was appointed superintendent of the County Schools (1882) and postmaster of Smithfield (1894).

Emmett Morrison lived to the advanced age of 90, dying on 8 June 1932.

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Notes

John Priest’s account, from pages 130-132 of Antietam: The Soldiers' Battle (1994 ed.), cites Edward M Morrison [sic] from his 1905 Times-Dispatch memoir on the 15th Virginia at Sharpsburg. This is the source of the additional Morrison quote as well. It is also found in the Southern Historical Society Papers, Vol. XXXIII, Richmond, Va., January-December 1905.

Biographical and military service details are from Louis Manarin’s, 15th Virginia Infantry, (1990; pp. 24-31, 110), part of H.E. Howard’s Virginia Regimental series.

The drawing of Morrison in the uniform of a Lieutenant Colonel, above, is probably contemporary with his service at that rank, and was done by a Private Newman. It is in the collection of the Museum of the Confederacy, Richmond.

The picture of the five VMI cadets is from an ambrotype taken in September 1860 and was posted online from by the VMI Archives.

2 Responses to “Captain Morrison’s red day at Sharpsburg”

  1. Scott Hann says:

    In the VMI group shot which one is Morrison? To me, the man in the center resembles him the most, but he is already identified as Henry K. Burgwyn.

  2. Brian says:

    Hi Scott – good question. The VMI exhibit (moved, now here) doesn’t specify other than Burgwyn. I played with that picture a while before giving up. I’d only be guessing if I tried to ID Cadet Morrison.

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