Ben Witcher’s Story

26 June 2019


B. Witcher’s battlefield map (detail, click for full)


The map above is centered on the eastern part of the Miller Cornfield near the East Woods at Sharpsburg on the morning of 17 September 1862. There has been heavy fighting here since dawn and, along with other regiments in action, the 6th Georgia Infantry has been nearly wiped out. It is between 8 and 9 in the morning.

Stephen Sears, in his classic Antietam book Landscape Turned Red (1983), wrote this dramatic vignette of that time and place:

Private B. H. Witcher of the 6th Georgia urged a comrade to stand fast with him, pointing to the neatly aligned ranks still lying to their right and left. They were all dead men, his companion yelled at him, and to prove it he fired a shot into a man on the ground a few yards away; the body did not twitch. Private Witcher was convinced and joined the retreat. 

Over the years since I first read it, I had forgotten Benjamin Witcher’s name, but not that story. Who could forget that imagery? Even in combat, the shock of shooting into one of your own mess-mates would have been horrendous.

At least three other well-known books on the battle have used this anecdote, too, citing Landscape as their source. If you’ve read any of the basic literature, then, you will have seen it, and you’d remember.

But I’ve just found it isn’t true. It didn’t happen that way.

I came back to this story this week when student of the 6th Georgia Infantry Barry Truluck brought young Private Witcher to my attention, nudging me to add him to the AotW database (he’s there now).

As is my habit, I wanted to quote Private Witcher directly on his bio page.  Tom Clemens kindly provided me a scan of the letter Witcher wrote to John Gould in 1891, which Mr. Sears had also used as his source for that passage.

Here’s my transcription [notated] of the pertinent part of that letter. The page image, in Witcher’s handwriting, is below.

… A comrade by my side suggested we had better leave as that [Federal] line is going to charge, but noticing the men lying along the fence I replied no, we have a line, let them come, but, says he, these men are all wounded & dead and shook several to convince me; then, says I, the quicker we get out of this the better.

At this time there were only three others besides myself that started. At this time the Federal line fired & killed one of the four & wounded two others, so I came out alone bringing one wounded … to [the Dunker] church in [the] West Wood. I saw no other troops of ours until I got to church. Here I found a small body of Texans …

B. Witcher letter (pages 1 & 4)


You’ll quickly notice a few things about this narrative.

First, and most obvious, is that Ben’s partner didn’t shoot into a body near him, he shook several of them.  I assume Sears misread the letter, perhaps in a rush. He did have a lot of material to work with.

But another thing you might notice is that Sears’ version has simplified the story and omitted details that show how truly desperate the situation was, perhaps better than the “shooting” did.

Ben says there were only four of them left, and three were hit when they stood to run.  By the end he was the only one alive and unhurt in his regiment, at least on that part of the field.

It might not be the kind of language that would sell books today, but I love the way he tells this. His narrative is understated, but this style will be familiar to readers with military experience.  It has power in its own right.

By now, 2019, at least three authors since Sears have used his version of the story, and it’s easy for me to say in hindsight, but here’s a prime example of how trusting a secondary source can bite you. A fresh look at the original would have saved them.  But then, that’s a lot of work.

There is some good news on that front, though: while I was searching online yesterday to see if I could find other examples of this story in print, I found Scott Hartwig’s article for the May 2018 America’s Civil War magazine.  I suspect it, and his other Antietam articles, prefigure the second volume of his Maryland Campaign study.

Scott played it this way:

Ben Witcher was along the Cornfield fence, unaware of the calamity engulfing his regiment. A comrade advised him that it was time to get out. Seeing a line of men still lying down along the Cornfield fence around him, Witcher defiantly said no and to “let them come.” His friend shook several of the men to show Witcher they were all dead or wounded. Suddenly aware of the disaster sweeping toward him, Witcher started off with his friend and two other men. Union bullets cut down all of them except Witcher.

I think that’s a pretty fair re-telling.

Any way you read it, though, you know Ben Witcher was in a hell of a spot and very lucky to have lived through it.



Benjamin Herndon Witcher (1841 – 1900) wrote John Mead Gould (1839 – 1930), late of the First, Tenth and Twenty-Ninth Maine Regiments about these experiences at Sharpsburg in a letter dated 25 June 1891. I added some punctuation to make it easier to read.

In addition to this story, Ben wrote 6 pages of details about the movements of his and other regiments on that day, and particularly the whereabouts and actions of General D.H. Hill.  And he included his own map.  Witcher had other correspondence with Gould and with Ezra Carman of the Antietam Battlefield Board, as well. He was apparently a good source for General Carman’s manuscript.

The letter above and those of many other veterans are in the John M. Gould Collection of Papers Relating to the Battle of Antietam, Dartmouth College Library, Hanover, NH [finding aid]

D. Scott Hartwig’s America’s Civil War article is From the Crossroads: Deadly Debate, and is online thanks to the publisher, HistoryNet.

Stephen W. Sears’ book, quoted above, is Landscape Turned Red: The Battle of Antietam (New York: Houghton-Mifflin, 1983).  His footnote for the quote cites “B.H. Witcher, 6th Georgia, Antietam Collection, Dartmouth”.



One Response to “Ben Witcher’s Story”

  1. Gary Rohrer says:

    Thanks for sharing, Brian. The more I read about Sears and his work, the more tarnished it becomes and the less credibility he has with me.

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