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The Rifles at Sharpsburg (Antietam)—September 1862

By Dr. Walter G. Howell

When General Lee began the Confederate invasion of Maryland in September of 1862, the Rifles for the most part still wore uniforms made before they left Clinton fifteen months earlier. Mississippi started a uniform allowance late in 1862. The Rifles replaced torn and ragged clothing by swapping or buying the uniforms of those being sent home or from the bodies of the dead. The same was true with boots. After a year of wear and tear marching across the peninsula, some men were barefooted when the invasion of Maryland began.
Lee’s army of about fifty thousand moved across the Potomac and on to the town of Frederick without opposition. The appearance of the ragged Confederate column surprised Marylanders who were pro-Union. One observer wrote “Where these dirty, lank, ugly specimens of humanity the men that had driven back again and again our splendid legions? I felt humiliated at the thought that this horde of rag muffins could set our grand army of the Union at defiance.” Another onlooker said “they were the dirtiest men I ever saw, a most ragged, lean and hungry set of souls. Yet there was a dash about them that the northern men lacked.”
Lee’s army rested at Frederick for five days. He sent troops to capture the federal arsenal at Harper’s Ferry. When he learned that McClellan’s Union army of seventy thousand was just fifteen miles away, Lee evacuated Frederick. His army was fragmented, and he had fifteen thousand under his direct command when he took a more favorable defensive position east of the town of Sharpsburg, with the Potomac River to his back and Antietam Creek in front. McClellan’s army reached Sharpsburg and took positions south of the Creek. For a day and a half, McClellan watched while Lee waited. Then McClellan ordered his army across Antietam Creek and attacked on September 17. The Rifles had sixty-six men in rank under General McLaw on Lee’s eastern flank when the fighting started.
The Union army made repeated assaults on a cornfield where Confederates took defensive positions behind fence lines partially hidden by the tall corn stalks. General McLaw held the 18th Mississippi in reserve during the first round of fighting at the cornfield, then ordered the regiment forward in a counter attack. The bloodiest fighting of the battle was at the cornfield, where Union casualties ran as high as seventy percent for some regiments. Though outnumbered nearly four to one, Lee held the Confederate line through the battle.
The Battle of Sharpsburg (Antietam) was the bloodiest single day of fighting in the Civil War. McClellan lost 2,108 killed, 9,500 wounded and several hundred missing—a casualty count of more than 12,400. Lee lost 1,546 dead, 7,750 wounded and more than a thousand missing. Those counted as missing on both sides were probably dead, though never identified. Robert Parish of Clinton, now a sergeant, reported the “Rifles were hit hard in this battle.” Peter Octoff, an Irish laborer from Clinton, was killed during the battle; and Thomas Dunn of Clinton, Louisiana, was wounded and captured by the enemy. Dunn was later exchanged, but he died nine months later from his wounds. Another loss at Antietam was Barney Corson. Confederate authorities finally took note of Corson’s age—fifteen—and sent him home to Clinton for being underage.
Historians consider the Battle of Sharpsburg a military draw, but for General Lee it was too costly. He withdrew his troops to safety across the Potomac River. President Lincoln relieved McClellan of his command and appointed General Ambrose Burnside commander of the Army of the Potomac. Lee and Burnside met in December at Fredericksburg, Virginia.


Editor’s note: 2011 marked the beginning of the sesquicentennial observation of the American Civil War.
This is the eleventh in a series of pieces by Dr. Walter Howell that will follow the movements of the Mississippi College Rifles, the fate of Clintonians  involved in the fighting and other events on the home front.

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