McClellan at Antietam

This entry is part 5 of 6 in the series Command Decisions

Battle of AntietamMaj. Gen. George McClellan’s final battle as commander of the Army of the Potomac was Antietam or as Southerners call it, Sharpsburg. The bloodiest single day battle in American history, Antietam is considered a tactical draw, even though the Union Army held the field while Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia retreated back across the Potomac into the safety of Virginia.

After the debacle of the Seven Days Battles, McClellan had withdrawn his huge army south to the James River where it was under the guns of the Union Navy. In August the bulk of McClellan’s command was transferred to the Army of Virginia, commanded by Maj. Gen. John Pope. Almost immediately Pope was engaged by Lee in a series of battles culminating in his defeat at Second Manassas or Bull Run.

After Pope’s defeat, Lincoln reluctantly returned McClellan to Washington where he combined both his force on the Peninsula and Pope’s shattered army into a strengthened Army of the Potomac. Lincoln told his aid John Hay, “We must use what tools we have. There is no man in the Army who can man these fortifications and lick these troops of ours into shape half as well as he. If he can’t fight himself, he excels in making others ready to fight.”

Meanwhile, Robert E. Lee shorn of any adversaries (or so he thought) crossed the Potomac and invaded Maryland on September 2nd. So began the great chase North. The two forces met at Harpers Ferry which Stonewall Jackson masterfully captured on September 15th. Another wing of Lee’s army fought pitched battles were fought on September 14 for possession of the South Mountain passes: Crampton’s, Turner’s, and Fox’s Gaps.

When Lee realized that he was overmatched he ordered his army to withdraw west to Sharpsburg. Meanwhile, an Indiana soldier discovered Robert E. Lee’s orders to his army wrapped around several cigars. McClellan confided to a subordinate, “Here is a paper with which, if I cannot whip Bobby Lee, I will be willing to go home.”

Unfortunately, many historians believe that McClellan failed to fully exploit the strategic advantage of the intelligence because he was concerned about a possible trap (posited by Maj. Gen. Henry W. Halleck) or gross overestimation of the strength of Lee’s army.

Many historians say that even though McClellan brought a larger army that the Confederates to Antietam, he brought one soldier too many: himself. At Antietam, McClellan fought a piece-meal battle. Rather than ordering a general attack in the morning, the battle unfolded from north to south in a piece-meal fashion. These tactics allowed Lee’s outnumbered forces to move defensive forces to the points of the Union attacks.

McClellan also confined his movements across Antietam Creek the the various bridges that spanned the waterway. He believed that the creek was unfordable, yet units of Richardson’s Division forded it at the center of the battlefield opposite. My own second great grandfather recorded this in a latter affidavit.

In addition, McClellan has been heavily criticized for holding back his reserve force under the command of Maj. Gen. Fitz John Porter. When Col. Francis C. Barlow and 350 men of the 61st and 64th New York saw a weak point in the line and seized a knoll commanding the sunken road. This allowed them to get enfilade fire into the Confederate line, turning it into a deadly trap.

The Confederate line broke and created a massive hole in their defenses but there was no force to follow up and rout the enemy. Porter is said to have told McClellan, “Remember, General, I command the last reserve of the last Army of the Republic.” McClellan took his implied advice and failed to commit his reserves into a battle that might have been won if he had used his forces aggressively.

McClellan failed to make the correct command decisions at Antietam and it cost the Union Army a clear victory and an opportunity to destroy Lee’s army. The destruction of the Army of Northern Virginia would have left Richmond virtually defenseless and with their capital city captured the South would have likely lost the war in 1862.




Michael Patrick Murphy

This entry is part 20 of 21 in the series A Soldier's Life

Michael Patrick MurphyThere were hundreds of thousands of soldiers on both sides who joined the armies for a variety of reasons. They came home safely and continued their lives. Michael Patrick Murphy was one such soldier.

An Irish immigrant, he arrived in New York with his brother Patrick in December 1852 on the ship “New World”. Early on he was a bell hanger. It seems that he married Margaret Kelly in Ireland but she must have come over on a different ship. In April 1853 their first child was born, John Stephen. Stephen was his father’s name. Three more children followed: Julia, Thomas and Margaret with Catherine in 1863 following his return from the Army.

In the summer of 1861 Michael enlisted in the Union Army with the 61st New York Volunteer Infantry. He was about 32 years old at the time. It was quite an advanced age in an era when most soldiers were 18 to 30. He was probably elected as the fifth sergeant of Company D due to his age. Mike Murphy stood at 5’9″ with dark hair and blue eyes. In the Union Army during the Civil War sergeants served as file closers in battle and paymasters, quartermasters and other mundane jobs in camp. By mid 1862 he had been promoted to third sergeant.

The 61st NY, 800 strong, left New York in the fall of 1861 and was assigned to the Army of the Potomoc. The regiment was stationed for a short time in Washington, but moved on November 28 – with Howard’s brigade, Sumner’s division – to Manassas in Virginia.  In March of 1862 the 61st N.Y., as part of Howard’s brigade, became part of the 1st division, 2ndcorps, Army of the Potomac.

In the early spring of 1862, the 61st moved on to the Peninsula (Va.) campaign and took part in the siege operation at Yorktown and for the first time became closely engaged in battle at Fair Oaks.  Of the 432 men who went into action, 104 were killed or wounded and 6 were reported missing.  Colonel Francis C. Barlow, who had replaced Colonel Cone (who had resigned), led the regiment into battle.  By the end of this campaign, known as the Seven Days Battles, the 61st gathered at Harrison’s Landing with even greater losses. The 61st fought in most of the battles during the Seven DaysFrancis Barlow campaign including the Battle of Malvern Hill where Robert E. Lee first commanded the Army of Northern Virginia.

After several months of rest, drilling and replenishment (from recruiting), the 61st and the Army of the Potomac were in the thick of it, blocking General Lee’s invasion of the North at Sharpsburg, Maryland. We know it as Antietam and by the end of September 17, 1862 it was the ‘Bloodiest Day’ in American history. At least 23,000 men on both sides were killed or wounded.

As Gen. John C. Caldwell’s brigade advanced around the right flank of the Confederates, Col. Francis C. Barlow and 350 men of the 61st and 64th New York saw a weak point in the line and seized a knoll commanding the sunken road. This allowed them to get enfilade fire into the Confederate line, turning it into a deadly trap. In attempting to wheel around to meet this threat, a command from Gen. Robert Rodes was misunderstood by Lt. Col. James N. Lightfoot, who had succeeded the unconscious Col. John Gordon. Lightfoot ordered his men to about-face and march away, an order that all five regiments of the brigade thought applied to them as well. Confederate troops streamed toward Sharpsburg, their line lost.

In the same day’s battle, Colonel Barlow was wounded and was immediately succeeded by Colonel Nelson A. Miles, an equally brave and gallaThe Sunken Road nt soldier.

Before the battle Sgt. Murphy was assigned to escort six sick men to the military hospital at Harpers Ferry. After a long march he was told that the men couldn’t be admitted because they weren’t sick enough. He reversed course and set off after the army which was now heading to Sharpsburg, Maryland and their fateful encounter with the Confederates. By the time that he rejoined his unit all six men had fallen by the wayside. According to his later affidavit Murphy was the only sergeant left in his company, the others having died of sickness, been discharged or deserted. His description of their action is worth repeating. “We forded the creek and lined up on a rocky ground. We had it hot for some time”. General McClellan insisted that the creek couldn’t be forded and used that as an excuse not send in his 30,000 reserves to break the Southern line and possibly end the war. The adjoining picture illustrates the damage that the 61st and the 64th caused among the Confederate troops in the “Sunken Road”.

After the battle Sgt. Murphy complained of chest pain so his company commander sent him to the hospital where he was diagnosed with a heart ailment. He received a medical discharge in October 1862 and returned to New York where he resumed his life. In 1863 he and Margaret’s youngest child, Catherine, was born. The following year Margaret Kelly Murphy died at 35 on August 17th. Michael Murphy did not remarry for thirty years.

Murphy was a founder of two chapters of the Grand Army of the Republic. He eventually became a prominent Real Estate broker in Westchester County, New York, buying and selling many properties. He was also elected First Justice of the Peace for Westchester County in the 1890’s. The poor Irish immigrant was known as Squire Murphy until his death in 1902.

You may wonder how I know so much about one soldier. You see a piece of him is in me, he was my great-great grandfather and everytime that I look in a mirror his blue eyes are looking back at me, just like my grandmother told me they would when I was a child. We, his descendents have a fierce pride that one of our ancestors helped to save the Union.


The Battle of Antietam

The Battle of Antietam

The Battle of Antietam (called Sharpsburg by the Southerners) was the bloodiest day in American history. In about 12 hours some 23,000 casualties were sustained by both armies. Here are three books that examine the Battle of Antietam and the campaign that led up to September 17, 1862.

The Antietam Campaign by John Cannan (Combined Books, 1990, 1994) is a volume in the Great Campaigns Series. It covers the events of August and September of 1862 following both armies in the run-up to the great battle. This book is very concise, filled with pictures and has an excellent order of battle for both armies. It also has a number of biographies for the leading commanders. This is not an anecdotal work but more along the lines of a retelling of events as the happened, where they happened and how they happened. It can be viewed here.

The Army War College Guide to the Battle of Antietam, edited by Jay Luvaas and Harold W. Nelson (South Mountain Press, Inc. 1987) according to one of the authors helps “to explain how the battle was fought” and “why leaders on both sides acted as they did”. This book examines the battle in detail using extensive area descriptions, may and first-hand “after action reports”. It takes us through the entire Maryland Campaign of which Antietam was the final bloody act. This volume is for the true battlefield scholar who is interested in all of the detail that was involved in the two armies. It can be viewed here.

The third volume that I recommend on this subject is Landscape Turned Red: The Battle of Antietam by Stephen W. Sears (First Mariner Books, 1983). This book also covers the entire Maryland Campaign of August and September of 1862. It examines the campaign through the eyes of the participants and immerses the reader in the impact that the campaign had on the soldiers involved. This book can be viewed here.

Taken as a group these three books gives the reader a balanced comprehensive view of one of the turning points of the American Civil War.


The Opening Salvo

The Opening Salvo

Fort SumterOn April 12, 1861 at 4:30 a.m. secessionist Confederate batteries commanded by Brigadier General P.G.T. Beauregard began the bombardment of Fort Sumter in Charleston (S.C.) harbor. The fort was under the command of Major Robert Anderson who had been Beauregard’s artillery professor at West Point. This was the first of many ironies that the Civil War was to bring about over a span of four long years. Unfortunately, Fort Sumter was not equipped with the type of ammunition that was necessary for this type of contest. After 34 hours of unremitting bombardment Anderson surrendered Fort Sumter on Saturday, April 13th. Fort Sumter was evacuated the next day after a unfortunate 50 gun salute when a Union cannon exploded killing one man and mortally wounding one. A Confederate gunner was killed during the bombardment by a misfiring cannon. Mary Chesnut, in her famous diary, described Charleston residents on The Battery, sitting on balconies and drinking salutes to the start of the hostilities. Anderson’s men were evacuated by ship to New York where they were honored with a Broadway parade. The American Civil War had begun. It ended four years later but not before over 625,000 Americans North and South were dead and uncounted numbers wounded.“The past is not dead, it’s not even past”, William Faulkner. The Civil War is unique in our consciousness. Over the next four years tens of thousands of people will spend millions of dollars to equip and clothe themselves so that the can reenact events that took place 150 years ago. Millions will witness these reenactments. Americans, North and South, have an emotional, almost visceral attachment to the Civil War. Even today we have organizations that encourage our attachment: The United Daughters of the Confederacy (my sister-in-law is a member), the Sons of the Grand Army of the Republic and the Sons of the Confederate Veterans, to name a few. In addition we have hundreds if not thousands of reenactment units that mirror actual regiments of both armies.

With great pride we trace our heritage to men who served on either side. My sister-in-law’s ancestor was a Confederate soldier, John James Davis, who joined the 56th Virginia (Buckingham Grays) when Virginia seceded and returned when Lee surrendered at Appomattox. He walked forty miles home and returned to his life as a rural farmer in Buckingham County, Virginia. During the war he was wounded and captured at Fort Donelson in Tennessee, paroled, exchanged, returned to duty with Pickett’s Division, charged the Federal center at Gettysburg, was wounded again, recovered and fought until the end of the war.

Sgt. Michael MurphyI had two ancestors on the Federal side. Sgt. Michael Patrick Murphy, an Irish immigrant, served with the 61st New York Volunteer Infantry from August 1861 until October 1862 at which time he was medically discharged. During his year of service he fought in the Peninsula campaign in Virginia at the siege of Yorktown, battle of Seven Pines or Fair Oaks, battles of the Peach Orchard, Allen’s farm and Savage Station, White Oak Swamp, Glendale and Malvern Hill. His final battle saw the bloodiest day in American history at Antietam (or Sharpsburg) in Maryland where some 23,000 were killed or wounded in twelve hours. In one part of the field 4,500 New Yorkers fell in 45 minutes! The 61st Col. Francis C. Barlow and 350 men of the 61st and 64th New York saw a weak point in the line and seized a knoll commanding the sunken road known forevermore as Bloody Lane. This set up a murderous enfilade fire into the Confederate line, turning it into a lethal trap. The Confederate line was broken and General Israel Richardson, the division commander, ordered his troops forward. They were stopped by artillery fire, Richardson was mortally wounded and Francis Barlow was severely wounded. My other ancestor, Asa H. Dykeman, was a member of the 47th NewAntietam Bloody Lane York National Guard. This unit was used for rear-echelon assignments both in New York and in the Washington, D.C. area. I am the 3rd cousin, 4 times removed of Confederate General James Longstreet and the 5th cousin, four times removed of General, later Governor of New Jersey Joel Parker. You see what I mean: “the past is not dead, it’s not even past”.

Today, we begin an amazing four-year journey through our past. There will be reenactments, commemorations, parades and numerous other events celebrating and mourning a great national tragedy. There will be arguments and heated discussions about events that took place 150 years ago. We will argue over the causes of the war. Was it to save the Union or free the slaves? Abraham Lincoln called it our “fiery trial”. Ante-bellum America was primarily rural. Post Civil War America was changed. America became urban and industrialized, an economic powerhouse that began to use its vast resources to spread across the continent. Our ancestors would not recognize the country today. They would recognize the flags that they fought under. So enjoy the events and understand that they changed our country and ourselves for all time.