|15th Massachusetts Monument at Antietam. Photo by Michael Noirot.|
Creative Commons Licensing.
In some ways, it seems odd that the 15th Massachusetts placed a monument at Gettysburg some fourteen years before they got around to placing one on the Antietam Battlefield. And yet, it also fits perfectly within the unfolding story of battlefield commemoration at the time. While the 15th rendered important service on July 2nd and 3rd, 1863, it was at Antietam where the regiment encountered its most difficult assignment. Despite fighting in more than 45 engagements, the half hour the 15th spent in the West Woods at Antietam was where its blood ran most freely.
At about 9:15 on the morning of September 17, 1862, General John Sedgwick's division of about 5,000 soldiers emerged out of the East Woods and advanced toward the Dunker Church and the West Woods. Sedgwick's troops moved forward in a column of brigades, each of his three brigades lined up one behind another. The first brigade in line was General Willis Gorman's, consisting of the 15th Massachusetts, the 1st Minnesota, the 34th and 82nd New York, and two companies of attached sharpshooters. Gorman's men pushed past the Dunker Church and into the West Woods beyond. When they reached the far side of the woods, more than 20 pieces of Confederate artillery positioned 700 yards ahead on Hauser's Ridge exploded to life, and canister and shell rounds began ripping huge holes in the 15th's ranks. Simultaneously, they received a deadly volley from Paul Semmes brigade, posted less than 50 yards away amongst the buildings, fields and orchards of the A. Poffenberger Farm. For the next quarter-hour, the 15th stood to their bloody work as they traded fire with Confederate infantry and artillery in their front. They managed to gain some ten yards of ground, and their fire briefly managed to silence one of the Confederate batteries. They even captured a rebel battle flag. As Sedgwick's other brigades began to stack up behind Gorman's, the 15th began to experience friendly fire from units posted in its rear. Worse was yet to come. As Lieutenant Colonel John W. Kimball later reported:
The enemy soon appeared in heavy columns, advancing upon my left and rear, pouring a deadly cross-fire on my left. I immediately and without orders ordered my command to retire, having first witnessed the same movement on the part of both the second and third lines.These heavy columns consisted of rebel reinforcements led by the division of Lafayette McLaws. Stubbornly, the 15th fell back while suffering heavy losses. Kimball's report continued:
I desire to say that my entire regiment behaved most gallantly during the engagement, evincing great coolness and bravery, as my list of casualties will show. Although suffering terribly from the fire of the enemy, it was with great surprise that they received the order to retire, never entertaining for a moment any idea but that of complete success, although purchased at the cost of their lives.It was indeed at quite a cost. In just about 25 minutes, the 15th Massachusetts lost more than 340 of its 600 men, a casualty rate of about 53%. They suffered more casualties than any other regiment in the entire battle. And yet, more than twenty years later, when the survivors of the 15th began to think of honoring their fallen comrades, and commemorating their service, they turned first to the Gettysburg battlefield, and waited still another 14 years to commemorate their Antietam Service. Why?
Part of this story relates to the symbolic importance that Gettysburg developed following the war. For a variety of reasons--not all agreed upon--in the post-war years there existed a general consensus that Gettysburg represented the turning point of the war. Through the efforts of John Bachelder and others, Americans came to see the Angle and the Copse of Trees, as the "High Water Mark of the Rebellion." Abraham Lincoln's dedicatory words at Gettysburg also gave the landscape increased meaning. And in the 1880s, when the Grand Army of the Republic assumed a controlling interest in the Gettysburg Battlefield Memorial Association, they began to make strong efforts to convince veterans to place moments on the field, turning Gettysburg into one vast memorial landscape to the Army of the Potomac. The GBMA supported these efforts by acquiring more battlefield land and opening avenues to allow veteran access to that land. With the G.A.R.'s growing political power, soon state legislatures began to provide public funding for regimental monuments.
This story stands in marked contrast to the development of the Antietam Battlefield. In her 2005 Dissertation entitled "Remembering Antietam: Commemoration and Preservation of a Civil War Battlefield," Susan W. Trail argued:
Trail went on to point out that of the five National Battlefields organized by the War Department in the 1890s, commissions of Civil War veterans oversaw four, while Antietam was administered by a miscellaneous board whose first president had no connection to the battle. This board also established a policy of purchasing only narrow strips of land for right-of-way access roads rather than preserving large segments of the battlefield, thus limiting the amount of ground available to place monuments. The board urged veterans to consider erecting larger state monuments rather than individual memorials. Those regiments looking to erect their own monuments often had to deal directly with private land owners to purchase land for the monument, and often these owners had no desire to sell. All of this tended to encourage veterans who fought on both battlefields to look toward the more welcoming environment of Gettysburg to erect memorials, and the once bloody fields of Antietam initially saw little in the way of monumentation. The divergent paths taken in developing the commemorative landscape of Gettysburg and Antietam no doubt continue to influence the memory of these battlefields today.Whereas the alignment between local, state, and national interests generally continued at Gettysburg, particularly with the strengthening of state (Pennsylvania Department of the GAR) and national (Society of the Army of the Potomac, national GAR) aspects of the continuum, there was little movement at Antietam at this time toward such an alignment. Instead, memorial activities generally remained private affairs.
Yet the survivors of the 15th Massachusetts never forgot about their experiences at Antietam, nor did they ever give up their goal of one day having a memorial placed to mark the spot of their horrific fight near the A. Poffenberger Farm. Following their monument dedication at Gettysburg in June of 1886, the Regimental Association took a train from Gettysburg to the Antietam Battlefield, to visit the West Woods. They returned again twelve years later, in 1898. After this excursion, the survivors finally raised enough funds to purchase land from George Poffenberger and erect a monument on the site of their bloodiest experience. The monument was dedicated on September 17th, 1900.
|The Wounded Lion. Photo by Michael Noirot. Creative Commons Licensing.|
A Note on Sources:
For combat descriptions, I utilized the Official Records, the 15th Massachusetts' regimental history (available on Google Books), the National Park Service's West Woods walking tour guide, the Civil War Trust's Antietam Battle App, and John Michael Priest's Antietam: The Soldiers' Battlefield - A Self-Guided Mini-Tour.
For information on the postwar commemorative landscapes of Gettysburg and Antietam, I utilized Susan W. Trail's "Remembering Antietam: Commemoration and Preservation of a Civil War Battlefield" as well as Thomas A. Desjardin's These Honored Dead: How the Story of Gettysburg Shaped American Memory. I also utilized several contemporary articles about the 15th's monument dedications published in the Adams County Star and Sentinel, the Hagerstown Mail, and in the Boston Globe.