One of the saddest stories of Antietam is that of the vain heroism of the men of the 7th Maine Infantry on the Piper Farm at about 5 pm on 17 September 1862. Their ill-considered charge there destroyed the regiment as a fighting force and obtained little result.

[Battle Map #15 on AotW]

Their commander, Major Thomas Worcester Hyde of Bath, Maine, described it in his after-action report 2 days after the battle and refined his narrative in his later memoir Following the Greek Cross, or, Memories of the Sixth Army Corps (1894), which I’m excerpting here to accompany a new battle map on AotW.

Colonel Irvin [William H Irwin] of the 49th Pennsylvania commanded our brigade at Antietam. He was a soldier of the Mexican War, and had been wounded at Resaca de la Palma. He was a gallant man, but drank too much, of which I was then unaware.

Between four and five o’clock, a Maryland battery [Wolcott’s Battery A, Maryland Light] was brought up on our line, and [Captain Emory] Upton, [Major General Henry W] Slocum‘s chief of artillery, came up to look after it, and Colonel Irvin followed him. As Colonel Irvin passed the battery, its commander, who was Dutch*, complained bitterly that sharp shooters were picking off his men, and pointed out where they were, near some haystacks by Piper’s barns. These were not far from the Hagerstown Pike, a short distance from the main street of Sharpsburg, and behind the centre of the rebel position.

Colonel Irvin rode to where I was lying on the ground, and said, “Major Hyde, take your regiment and drive the enemy away from those trees and buildings.”

I saluted, and said, “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?” said he, and repeated the order emphatically.

“Give the order so the regiment can hear it and we are ready, sir,” said I, which he did, and “Attention!” brought every man to his feet.

We had two young boys carrying the marking guidons, and I told them to go to the rear, but they pretended to do so and afterwards came along. One of them, Johnny Begg, soon after lost his arm, and the other, George Williams, was buried on the field [thankfully not]. Color Corporal Harry Campbell had the colors, and I started to give them to Sergeant Perry Greenleaf [Greenlief], but Campbell felt so badly I let him keep them.

I gave the order to left face and forward, and we marched over in front of the Vermonters [Brooks’ Brigade], as the ground immediately before us was too rough, and was also more exposed to the batteries by Dunker Church. Then, facing to the front, we crossed the sunken road, which was so filled with the dead and wounded of the enemy that my horse had to step on them to get over. We stopped in the trampled corn on the other side to straighten our line, and then I gave the order to charge, directing the regiment on a point to the right of Piper’s barns.

We were moving at the double-quick down into a cup-shaped valley, fifteen skirmishers under Lieutenant Butler in front, Adjutant Haskell on Colonel Connor’s big white horse on the left, and I to the right on my Virginia thoroughbred. My feeling was first of great exhilaration, which was quickly dashed by that wretched Maryland battery, who, thinking to open over our heads, took four men out of my right company at their first shot. Seeing Haskell had fallen, and old ” Whitey,” too, I rode round in front of the regiment just in time to see a long line of rebels rise from behind the stone wall of the Hagerstown Pike, which was to our right and front, and pour a volley into us, which did not do so much damage as was to be expected, we were going so fast.

At this, I gave the order, “Left oblique,” bringing us behind a rise of ground which protected us some from the fire of the stone wall, and then forward to a hill just to the right of and beyond Piper’s barns. As we breasted this hill, being some twenty feet in front of the regiment, I saw over its top before they did, and there were several times our number waiting for us at the “ready,” so I gave the order to “Left flank” before any of my line appeared over the hill or came in sight of our opponents, and then directed the column, still at the double-quick, by Piper’s barns, from which the rebels had gone, straight to a clump of trees where there was a fence and cow-yard, and on to the orchard beyond Piper’s house, as I had seen a force running in that direction to head us off. The men got through the fence easily, and, as Sergeant Benson was wrenching it apart to let my horse through, a shot struck his haversack, and we had to laugh at the flying hard-tack.

As we went up a rise of ground into the orchard, we came in sight of the Confederates who had been waiting for us beyond the hill, and they fired several volleys, and then charged after us. Here we met our heaviest loss. My horse was twice wounded, and as he was rearing and plunging I slipped off over his tail, and can remember, in the instant I was on the ground, how the twigs and branches of the apple-trees were being cut off by musket balls, and were dropping in a shower. Finding he had only lost his back teeth, and had a charge of buck and ball in his hip, I mounted quickly. I saw the regiment had got into line, and, while their numerous pursuers were coming through the fence we had passed, had given them a terrible fire, as the pile of dead found there after the battle attested.

Our survivors had no ammunition left.

Harry Campbell, carrying the colors, was struck in the arm. He held it up to me all bloody, waving the flag. “Take the other hand, Harry,” said I. When halfway through the orchard, I heard him call out as if in pain behind me, and went back to save the colors if possible. The apple-trees were short and I could not see much, but soon found the pursuing enemy were between me and the regiment, and I read ” Manassas” on one of their flags, so I turned about and as quickly as possible gained the corner of the orchard and found the regiment had got through the tall picket fence.

While uncertain how to get out, I was surrounded by a dozen or more rebels, but with a cry of “Rally, boys, to save the major,” back surged the regiment, the muzzles of their Windsors** were pushed between the pickets, and few of my would-be captors got away. Sergeant Hill with his sabre bayonet cut through the rails and I was soon extricated.

Our batteries [Williston’s D/2nd US Arty, others] had been for some minutes throwing grape (case shot) into the orchard, which aided us much, though we were more afraid of the grape than of the enemy. I then formed the regiment on the colors, sixty-five men and three officers, and slowly we marched back toward our place in line. The batteries by Dunker Church opened on us at first, but I guess they thought we had pounding enough, for they stopped after a few shots. But our main line rose up and waved their hats, and when we came in front of our dear comrades, the Vermonters, their cheers made the welkin*** ring. General [William T H] Brooks had told their colonels when they begged to follow our charge, “You will never see that regiment again …”

We did not take a large space on the line as we lay down in the falling darkness, and when [Captain] Channing, [Lieutenant] Webber, Nickerson, and I got together under one blanket for the night, we were womanish enough to shed tears for our dead and crippled comrades. Fifteen officers and two hundred and twenty-five men in the morning, and this little party at night! …

When we knew our efforts were resultant from no plan or design at headquarters, but were from an inspiration of John Barleycorn in our brigade commander alone, I wished I had been old enough, or distinguished enough, to have dared to disobey orders.

Here’s then-Lieutenant Colonel Hyde from a photograph with others of General Sedgwick’s 6th Corps staff at Brandy Station, VA in 1864, wearing his prized Corps badge – the Maltese Cross (Library of Congress).


* I am struck by Hyde’s odd description of that Maryland battery commander as “Dutch.” Captain James W Wolcott was also a Maine man by birth. I wonder if Hyde was throwing an insult, suggesting Wolcott, like Colonel Irwin, was a drinker – as in the common expression “Dutch courage?”

** Windsors – Special Model 1861 .58 caliber contract percussion rifle-muskets with sabre bayonets made by Lamson, Goodnow, & Yale in Windsor, Vermont. From the Maine Adjutant General’s Report for the year 1861:

*** Welkin – skies or heaven. To make the very heavens ring.

Hyde’s complete volume Following the Greek Cross is online from the Internet Archive.

One Response to “The charge of the 7th Maine at Antietam”

  1. behind AotW » Blog Archive » New map and a minor re-org says:

    […] first map was for the tragic attack of the 7th Maine on the Piper Farm at 5 PM [previous blog post], and the second, seen here, covers a series of disjointed but remarkably effective Confederate […]

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