Good source, bad source

23 January 2007

I’ve been lured again by a pretty picture to post about being open to options when interpreting historical information. The image is from the Century Illustrated Monthly Magazine, May 1886:

McClellan rides the line at Antietam (Forbes)click to see larger image
General McClellan riding the line of battle at Antietam.
(by Edwin Forbes, after his sketch made at the time.)

The troops were Hooker's and Sedgwick's, and the time about 11 A. M. of September 17. General McClellan rode his black horse, “Daniel Webster,” which, on account of the difficulty of keeping pace with him, was better known to the staff as “that devil Dan.”–EDITOR.

I think this is pure fantasy. I don’t remember another reference to such a ride, certainly not in advance of the Federal line between the East and West Woods, as shown here. However, combat artist Forbes was on the scene that day, so maybe I shouldn’t dismiss this image entirely …

The consensus is that the General Commanding stayed at his perch at the Pry House overlooking the field from east of Antietam Creek most or all of the day of the battle. You’ll read of the leisurely pace at Headquarters on September 17th. There is bustle as his commanders and staff come and go, to be sure, but the General himself is calm. The “big-picture” man is unexcited by petty details; those the responsibility of his Corps commanders.

So where, if ever, did Edwin Forbes see the General riding near troops in the field at Sharpsburg?

Might he have done so on the east bank of the Antietam before Summner’s Second Corps crossed on the morning of the 17th? Did McClellan venture near or across the Middle Bridge near midday to confer with Sykes about opportunities there? Did he come onto the field at some later time of day, perhaps after the battle wore down?

There’s likely more to this story. I’d appreciate hearing from anyone with more specific information on this subject.

For the flip side of the coin, here’s a related thread about skepticism. I hope it’s healthy.

In May and June, 1886, The Century published a series of articles on the Maryland Campaign of 1862, leading with General McClellan’s overview, and including pieces by Generals DH Hill, JG Walker, and James Longstreet. All of whom, by the way, probably had axes to grind.

Browsing my old, smelly, leather-like volume of The Century for those years, I found an intriguing side discussion about the “Reserves at Antietam”. It refers to the tantalizing possibilities for a Union breakthrough at the center of the Confederate Line about midday of the battle. The subject is covered quite nicely by Tim Reese in On the Brink, an article he wrote last year for AotW.

T.M. Anderson
T.M. Anderson, Ninth US Infantry

Here is the Century discussion:

The Reserve at Antietam
(September 1886)

The Antietam articles in the June CENTURY have renewed the old question as to why McClellan did not press his advantage on the afternoon of Sept. 17th.

At the battle of Antietam I commanded one of the battalions of Sykes's division of regulars, held in reserve on the north of Antietam creek near the stone bridge. Three of our battalions were on the south side of the creek, deployed as skirmishers in front of Sharpsburg. At the time A. P. Hill began to force Burnside back upon the left, I was talking with Colonel Buchanan, our brigade commander, when an orderly brought him a note from Captain (now Colonel) Blunt, who was the senior officer with the battalions of our brigade beyond the creek. The note, as I remember, stated in effect that Captain Dryer, commanding the Fourth Infantry, had ridden into the enemy's lines, and upon returning had reported that there was but one Confederate battery and two regiments in front of Sharpsburg, connecting the wings of Lee's army. Dryer was one of the coolest and bravest officers in our service, and on his report Blunt asked instructions. We learned afterwards that Dryer proposed that he, Blunt and O'Connel, commanding the Fourth, Twelfth, and Fourteenth Infantries should charge the enemy in Sharpsburg instanter. But Blunt preferred asking for orders. Colonel Buchanan sent the note to Sykes, who was at the time talking with General McClellan and Fitz John Porter, about a hundred and fifty yards from us. They were sitting on their horses between Taft's and Weed's batteries a little to our left. I saw the note passed from one to the other in the group, but could not, of course, hear what was said.

We received no orders to advance, however, although the advance of a single brigade at the time (sunset) would have cut Lee's army in two.

After the war, I asked General Sykes why our reserves did not advance upon receiving Dryer's report. He answered that he remembered the circumstance very well and that he thought McClellan was inclined to order in the Fifth Corps but that when he spoke of doing so Fitz John Porter said: “Remember, General! I command the last reserve of the last Army of the Republic.”

He either fears his fate too much,
Or his deserts are small,
Who will not put it to the touch,
To win or lose it all

Thomas M Anderson.
Lieut-Colonel Ninth Infantry, U. S. A.

The poetic quote is from James Graham; clearly a shot at McClellan for not choosing to commit reserves to an attack in the Center. Oddly, Anderson’s original after-action report (AAR) following Antietam can be summarized by one of its sentences:

During the battle of Antietam we were held in reserve, and took no part in the engagement or in the operations which immediately preceded or followed it.

On to the next witness:

The Reserve at Antietam.
(January 1887)

GENERAL FITZ JOHN PORTER writes to say of Colonel Thomas M. Anderson's communication in the September CENTURY under the above caption, that no such note as “Captain Dryer's report” was seen by him, and that no such discussion as to the opportunity for using the “reserve” took place between him and General McClellan. General Porter shows that nearly all of his Fifth Corps (according to McClellan's report, twelve thousand nine hundred strong), instead of being idle at that critical hour, had been sent to reinforce the right and left wings, leaving of the Fifth Corps to defend the center, a force “not then four thousand strong,” according to General Porter's report.– EDITOR.

Except for elements of Sykes’ Regular Division, I do not believe the V Corps was deployed across the Antietam at any time prior to late afternoon on the 17th. Even by then, it was 2 brigades of Morrell’s Division which were sent to the right, in support of Sumner. Burnside got no help on the left beyond the Regulars already mentioned. Hardly “nearly all” of the Corps.

By afternoon, Franklin’s Sixth Corps had come up and filled the role which Porter credits here to the Fifth. The Fifth Corps at Antietam on that day consisted of Sykes’ and Morrell’s Divisions. Its third division–Humphreys’– arrived near Sharpsburg early on 18 September. See also Porter’s 1862 report, for his own words.

Is there anything in this statement attributed to Porter that is arguably true?

More Light on “The Reserve at Antietam”.
(March 1887)

AFTER reading the article of Colonel Thomas M. Anderson on the above subject in the September (1886) number of THE CENTURY and the reply of General Porter in the January (1887) number, I feel as if a word or two on the subject might clear up a little of the obscurity connected therewith. The note in question may have been delivered as stated, but that Captain Dryer did not reach the enemy's lines by three hundred or four hundred yards, I know personally, for I had to go to him at the farthest point of his advance. In this, therefore, some one seems to have been mistaken, as well as in the object for which the Second, Fourth, and a battalion of the Twelfth United States regiments were sent across Antietam Creek. As Adjutant-General of the First Brigade of Regulars, I was ordered to detail a regiment to support (I think it was) Tidball's battery, which had been ordered, and was about to take position on the Boonsboro pike, on the Sharpsburg side of the bridge over Antietam Creek, near J. Meyer's house. The roster decided that the Twelfth should be the regiment, and Captain (now Colonel) M. M. Blunt, who was in command, was ordered to do the work.

Tidball went into position, and I believe had eight or ten horses killed before he could fire a shot–even if he did fire one. It was madness to stay there, however, for the little good to be accomplished, and he withdrew. At the first onslaught I was ordered to send another regiment, and the lot fell to the Fourth Infantry, commanded by Captain Hiram Dryer, who was senior to all the other officers on that side of the creek. When he obtained the position where Tidball was supposed to be, the battery was not there; but the location for the regiments was a good one, and being less subject to the enemy's fire where they were than where they had been, no order was given for their withdrawal, General Sykes supposing that in the absence of proper orders to advance the troops would remain quiet. Gallant and impetuous as Dryer always was, he could not remain idle, and it was soon observed that he was pushing his men forward on each side of the pike towards the crest occupied by the enemy, with a view, as it was afterwards understood, to charge and take a battery there.

Having observed this, and knowing it was not the intention, nor could we afford, at that particular time, to make any forward movement on the center, I reported this to Generals Sykes and Buchanan,who were together at the time, and I was directed by General Sykes to proceed at once to the advanced position which Captain Dryer had obtained (being within three hundred or four hundred yards of the enemy's batteries) and direct him to withdraw his troops immediately to the original position at the head of the bridge, and then to report in person to General Sykes. During my absence at the front, I believe, the note in question was received. When Dryer reported, those who were present know that the interview was in no wise a subject of consultation.

Had Captain Dryer been permitted to make the charge he was contemplating, his regiments, which we from our position could (but be could not) see, would have found, instead of a single battery, some eighteen guns covering their front, and he would never have been able to reach them; and he could never have returned, after an unsuccessful charge, because he was nearly a mile away from any support whatever. His men would have been annihilated by the concentrated fire that the enemy could have poured upon his small force. It was confidently believed, however, by the two brigades of regular infantry that if they had been thrown forward at any time towards the close of the day of the 17th, supported by Morrell's division, they could have carried the center, and thus could have enabled General Burnside to drive the enemy from the field on the left.

Wm. H. Powell,
Captain Fourth U. S. Infantry.
BOISE BARRACKS, IDAHO, January 4, 1887.

So Powell suggests things were not exactly as Dryer reported–there was no gap, actually, in the Confederate Line–and that Sykes knew this from him. Thus a discussion with General McClellan was neither held nor necessary.

However, Sykes’ AAR repudiates this, saying

The troops under Captain Dryer behaved in the handsomest manner, and, had there been an available force for their support, there is no doubt he could have crowned the Sharpsburg crest.

Tidball commanded Battery A of the 2nd US Artillery. In contrast to Powell’s telling, Carman, on the battlefield tablet for this unit mentions only that Tidball was relieved to replenish ammunition between noon and 3:00 PM, and returned to the same spot on the field afterward.

Both Sykes’ and Dryer’s reports differ from Powell’s 1887 account in saying that Buchanan ordered his pickets in, but that Dryer and command were not recalled from their advanced line til after dark.

Powell seems to be overstating the strength of the Confederates at that point and attempting to discredit Dryer. I don’t know why.


If nothing else, the exchange above argues the merits of basic cross-checking and supports one of my cherished peeves:

Battles and Leaders, the four volume compilation of first-person Civil War accounts from the pages of The Century, is widely quoted as gospel by all manner of historian. Without care for the context, however, that is poor practice. It may give insight into how the actors wished to be remembered and how we saw the War 25 years on, but B&L fails the primary source sniff-test.

3 Responses to “Good source, bad source”

  1. Harry says:


    As if you needed any more tantalizing:

    In “Taken at the Flood”, page 413, Joe Harsh states: “Sometime bewteen 2:30 and 3:00 McClellan arrived on the scene behind the East Woods” to meet with Sumner. Note 81 reads: “This dramatic incident and its problematic timing will be discussed in detail in a future study.” Not the kind of footnote I like – but note 82, which follows a description of the trip, references “McClellan’s Own Story” and Charles Griffin’s report.

  2. Brian says:

    Yo Harry – thanks for the pointers.
    I’ve read (and re-read) Harsh. Didn’t remember that reference. I wonder if he’ll actually do that ‘later study’ or if he’s hoping you or I will :)

    I’d have thought that Geo McClellan on the battlefield would have been noticed and mentioned by more people. Sumner doesn’t, but his report is very high level, so no surprise.

    Griffin’s Antietam report, btw, doesn’t seem applicable on McClellan specifically, but does have a nice reference to Porter ordering his brigade to the right after 4pm on the 17th – apropos to the discussion in the second part of this post about Porter’s credibility in 1887…

  3. behind AotW » Blog Archive » McClellan on the field at Antietam says:

    […] I have some follow-up to the last post, about General McClellan dashing over the field during the battle of Antietam on 17 September 1862. Happily more battle illustration is required in accompaniment. […]

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