New on AotW: a handy pocket guide to the field artillery pieces of each of the Confederate and Union batteries at Antietam and on the Maryland Campaign of 1862. In spreadsheet form, it shows counts by gun type for all 135 batteries present, and it’s available as a PDF and also as a link on the main AotW Weapons page .

I welcome your feedback.

OK, so it’s not really a “pocket” guide and the print is really small on a letter-sized sheet. But it is concise and reasonably complete. Perhaps best read zoomed-in on your computer screen.

Some patterns are easy to see in this form. Have fun with the analysis – Confederate vs Federal.

As always, there’s more info about each gun type and every battery online at Antietam on the Web.

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.

This lovely piece is a decorative military record – “very tastefully printed in 10 colors” – for Private Samuel Wilson Evans of the 12th Pennsylvania Reserves. He served from 1861 to 1864 and saw action at South Mountain on 14 September and at Antietam on 17 September 1862.

This certificate was produced by the Army and Navy Record Company, which was started in about 1883 by Walter C. Strickler (c. 1837-after 1920) of Philadelphia – an outgrowth of his personal project to gather an exhaustive timeline for every Union military unit and action of the Civil War. Strickler’s son Theodore compiled some of that work in When and Where we Met Each Other on Shore and Afloat … (1899).

The colorful parts of this decorative record were printed, but Evans’ name and service details are hand-written. It was “presented” in his name to his wife Sarah Jane and daughters Margaret, Nellie May, and Mary Belle on 1 October 1905. The original is about 19×27 inches and it’s online thanks to the Maryland State Archives.

Below is an advertisement in the National Tribune of 5 October 1905. By that time the National Tribune had bought out Strickler, and was offering these certificates on their own. Strickler and the Tribune had been in a marketing relationship for some years before.

County Donegal native Lieutenant James McKay Rorty was Ordnance Officer of the First Division, 2nd Army Corps (Brigadier General Israel B. Richardson) at Antietam. He was heroically and famously killed at Gettysburg in July 1862 while in command of Battery B, 1st New York Light Artillery – a remnant of the old Irish Brigade/2nd Artillery Battalion in which he’d originally been commissioned in 1861.

Equally famously, as a Private in the 69th New York Militia he’d been wounded and captured at First Bull Run on 21 July 1861 and held in a warehouse in Richmond, VA. On 18 September he and two other men, 1Sgt. William O’Donohue and Pvt. Peter Kelly, disguised themselves in civilian clothes and escaped. A week later they made it to the Potomac River and rafted out to Federal gunboats.

That’s the scene in the illustration above, from Frank Leslie’s Pictorial History of The War of 1861, posted online in company with a piece about Rorty from The Wild Geese.

The escapees are (probably) seen in the photograph below – left to right, Kelly, Rorty, O’Donohue – taken later, after all three were commissioned officers. It’s from owner Matt Regan and is online from Harry Smeltzer.

[updated February 2021]

Captain Charles F Walcott is a hero to those who study Massachusetts soldiers in the Civil War (or at least to me) because he wrote the Regimental History of the 21st Massachusetts Infantry (1882). In the preface he apologized for taking more than 15 years to complete the book while raising children and running a law practice in Boston.

A Harvard man, he’d adventured West during a “gap year” in 1857 before law school. He had travelled to Minnesota, “living with the Sioux and Winnebago”, went down the Mississippi to New Orleans and returned home by ship by way of Cuba.

Walcott was the original Captain of Company B of the 21st, commissioned in August 1861, and he commanded it on the Maryland Campaign of 1862 – at Fox’s Gap on South Mountain and right behind the 51st PA & 51st NY over Burnside’s Bridge at Antietam.

He left the 21st Massachusetts in April 1863 and married Anna Morrill Wyman in October.

He did a 90-day stint commanding a local militia unit in the Summer of 1864 then was appointed Lt Colonel (soon Colonel) of the new 61st Mass in September. He mustered out in June 1865.

In 1866 he was honored by brevet to Brigadier General of Volunteers.

He was a lawyer in Boston for the next 20 years and died at age 50 in 1887.

In about 1980 his grandson Dr. Charles F. Walcott (Harvard, Harvard Medical School) donated a box of Indian artifacts to the Cambridge (MA) Library, a few of which are identified as local to Massachusetts, collected by Dr. Walcott. The rest are apparently of unknown provenance. That collection is pictured online via Flickr.

“The only outlier to the Native American objects in the collection is a box containing two bullets and a minie ball from the Battle of Antietam”  – actually 2 minie bullets and a musket ball or cannister shot, I think.

Although not documented, I can guess who first collected some of these objects, can’t you?


The late-1864 photo with his wife is at the Library of Congress (part of the Liljenquist Family Collection of Civil War Photographs).

Dead List update

10 March 2019

I’ve been pushing hard the last few months to get more soldiers into the database on AotW, focusing particularly on those who died on the Campaign.

As a result I’ve posted an update to the list of The Dead of the Maryland Campaign of 1862. It’s now up to just over 6,300 people -  out of the more than 7,600 who died.

There’s so much more to do, but this is a good jump from the previous edition.

Pages for those individuals and thousands more are available on AotW, of course, if you want to see more about them …

I’ve found a fascinating description of the Smoketown Hospital as it was in January 1863 in a letter to an Indiana newspaper. I came upon it while looking into one of the many soldiers of the 27th Indiana Infantry wounded at Antietam, Private Thomas Mitchell Gaskins. 

The writer lists some of the patients, like Gaskins, and their status, which is immediately useful, but his description of the hospital facilities and staff are the most interesting pieces to me.   

Here’s my transcription of the complete letter as published:

U.S. Hospital at Smoketown,
or Antietam, Jan. 15, 1863

Editors Sentinel:   As the people of Indiana take a deep interest in the condition and treatment of our sick and wounded soldiers, enclosed I send you a short statement of what came under my own personal observation. 

At the eleventh hour on the eleventh day of the eleventh month in the year 1918, the Great War ended under the terms of an armistice, a cease-fire agreement, signed at 5 o’clock that morning.

The most immediate requirement of the Armistice was the withdrawal of all German forces to the line of the Rhine River, which, along with “beachheads” on the east bank, was the part of Germany to be occupied by Allied troops. French, British, Belgian, and American.

One of about two million Americans of the American Expeditionary Forces (AEF) in France that day was 23 year old Joseph F. Downey from Scranton, Pennsylvania, my grandfather.

That lovely hand colored map, Territorial Terms of the Armistice, is among a stunning cache of papers he left us. They’ll help me remember him and those millions of others on this centennial of the end of the First World War.

Lieutenant Nathaniel Wales’ story at Antietam may be unique. It is certainly startling: he was saved from a fatal wound by wearing armor at the battle.

I’ve not previously found anything else like this associated with Antietam. Having little experience with the subject, then, I went off to find out something about body armor of the Civil War. As a bonus along the way, I also came upon a number of interesting characters and connections in Wales’ family.

Our man was probably named for his 5x great-grandfather Nathaniel Wales (1586-1681), weaver, who arrived in Massachusetts from Yorkshire, England in 1635. He made the passage in the ship James out of Bristol with other pilgrims including the Reverend Richard Mather (1596-1669), father to Increase, grandfather of Cotton. Wales was later brother-in-law, by the second of his three wives, to Major General Humphrey Atherton. Wales’ descendants were generally successful business people in Boston and nearby towns.

Our Nathaniel’s father Thomas Crane Wales (1805-1880), 7 generations down the line, was prominent in the boot and shoe business, particularly in rubber overshoes and boots. He seems to have been a major player in that market for much of the 1840s and 50s. He had invented and patented a lined, waterproof cold weather boot he called the “Arctic”, which was hugely popular and widely imitated. As a result, I expect young Nathaniel had the benefit of a well-to-do Boston upbringing and education.

He was a salesman in Dorchester when the Civil War began, and also belonged to a Boston militia company called the New England Guard. He was 18 years old when he enlisted as First Sergeant, Company G, 24th Massachusetts Infantry in September 1861. He looks to be a very self-possessed young man.

The fine folks at the Western Maryland Historical Library (WHILBR), on the occasion of the 150th Anniversary of the War, scanned and transcribed a large number of local newspaper pieces for the period 1861-65.  I’ve just picked up on four of these specific to soldiers who died in Hagerstown after Antietam in October, November, and December 1862.

Here’s a sample, a clipping from the Hagerstown Herald of Freedom & Torch Light of 19 November 1862:


For some of these men, I only had known that they had died, but not where or when.  I’ve got some updating to do!