Dispatches From Antietam: Irish Join Throng Marking The Battle's 140th Anniversary


Earlier Dispatches: * Day 1 * Day 2 * Day 3

Dispatches From Antietam

Irish Join Throng Marking The Battle's 140th Anniversary

"What can we really expect from 140th Antietam? What would the soldiers of the Irish Brigade and 29th Massachusetts have thought and experienced and how close can we really get in our efforts to emulate them? After the vicious action at Bloody Lane, what did the survivors of the Brigade and the 29th see, hear, and think? What did this battle mean for the men from Massachusetts and those from the Emerald Isle? No one is ready for the event until these matters are given due consideration and reflection. ... Onward to Maryland! -- Capt. Kevin O'Beirne, 29th Massachusetts Infantry (September 10, 2002)
Library of Congress
Dead of the Irish Brigade at Antietam, by Alexander Gardner.

The Battle of Antietam, a standstill really, though Robert E. Lee's Confederate army withdrew, offers us "America's Bloodiest Day," still, after some initial uncertainty about the extent of the casualties caused by the September 11 attacks on New York and Washington.

While the Irish played a major role in the Federal Army's proclaimed Antietam "victory" 140 years ago, the effort literally took, at least half, the life out of the storied Irish Brigade. It is emblematic of an irony of war that the brigade's fame was enhanced in proportion to its calamitous losses, here and at Fredericksburg three months later. More than 1,000 casualties later, though the brigade was never the same, its legend continued to grow.

Indeed, there were more Irish at Antietam than just this brigade. There were Irish who fought and died on both sides beside Antietam Creek, a virtual microcosm of the war that framed it.

How to bring such a ghastly harvest to life? That is the challenge, or the conundrum, facing the expected 12,000 "living historians" flocking to a 612-acre farm 14 miles from the killing grounds this weekend. In a sense, they will attempt to experience the sights and sounds and swirling movements and emotions of the battle, without experiencing the terror of minie balls crashing through tissue and bone.

Courtesy of Mark Susnis
This photograph of reenactors was taken at the Potomac Legion's July 2001 Harrison's Landing, Virginia, living history by wet-plate collodian photographer Chris Morgan.

It is an effort, in the eyes of many, doomed to abject failure, but to its devotees, it provides an extraordinary history lesson, one engaging the body as well as the mind. For students or would-be students of the war, the experience to witness thousands of authentically garbed and equipped troops in even a rough choreography of this epic battle is one not to be missed.

WGT’s reporting crew -- Kevin Gorman, Kevin O’Beirne, and WGT Managine Editor Joe Gannon -- all portraying soldiers, are hand-writing accounts of each day’s action and filing it with the assistance of the event’s media center. Digital images, taken by photographer Brian Alexander, are being e-mailed back to the editorial office in here New York City, where we will put them online with the dispatches the same day.

Their reportage will be the centerpiece of WGT’s commemoration of the battle, which took place on Sept. 17, 1862, near the village of Sharpsburg by the banks of Antietam Creek. About 4,000 died and more than 23,000 were killed, wounded or listed as missing from the day-long fighting, making it the costliest single day in American history. The Irish Brigade lost 540 of its 1,400 men during its assault of "The Sunken Road," which will be reprised Saturday afterno

We take great pleasure in providing you insights, news and experiences of "our men in the field" at this auspicious event, along with exclusive photographs, sent along and posted here on the day they were written or snapped.

Without further adieu, let's turn to our correspondents, who have already begun sending along their unique insights into the battle that was, or shall we say is, Antietam.


The Armies Converge On Western Maryland


Tuesday, September 10, 2002
Hamburg, N.Y.

Why Antietam? It was "Antietam" to the boys in blue, and "Sharpsburg" to those in gray. It was the bloodiest day in American history. And it has recently been dubbed the "turning point of the Civil War". With all those names, no wonder the battle of Antietam Creek, Maryland, stands so high in the pantheon of epic Civil War battles-second only to Gettysburg.
Wet plate ambrotype by Chris Morgan
Kevin O'Beirne, Harrison's Landing, Virginia

As with many other battles in the Civil War, Irishmen and Irish regiments played a major role in the hellacious fighting of September 17, 1862 along the bloody banks of the Antietam. The Union Army of the Potomac's famous Irish Brigade, led by Irish revolutionary Thomas Francis Meagher, achieved enduring fame and glory in its gallant stand against a brigade of North Carolinians in a sunken farm road that would forever afterward be known as "Bloody Lane".

Meagher's boys endured a special hell - concentrated musketry delivered at only thirty yards for a full thirty minutes - but helped to decisively break the Confederate army's center. That September afternoon they wrote for themselves an indelible chapter in the history of the Wild Geese, suffering 540 casualties - only five less than they would lose at Fredericksburg three months later - in that deadly half-hour, out of approximately 1,400 men who marched into battle.

For these and many other reasons, on September 13-15, 2002, over 12,000 Civil War reenactors will meet on a 900-acre farm just south of Hagerstown, Maryland, barely ten miles from the real Antietam battlefield, to attempt to re-create scenes from the battle of Antietam, which occurred almost to the day 140 years before.

Your Correspondent

Your correspondent is, in a small way, a minor veteran of "war reporting," having had the privilege of having my dispatches from the 135th anniversary reenactment of the battle of Gettysburg (July, 1998) produced on this fine site.

Most newspaper correspondents of the Civil War were actually soldiers who wrote letters intended for publication in their hometown newspapers. Accordingly, during the 140th Antietam reenactment your humble correspondent will serve not only as your writer from the field, but he will also serve in the Federal ranks.

During the event, I will be the Officer of the Day - albeit for the entire weekend - for a battalion of approximately 200 Union infantrymen. According to a period soldiers' handbook, "Captains are the officers usually selected for Officer of the Day… The Officer of the Day has charge of the camp or garrison of the command in which he has been detailed. …" [from Customs of Service for Officers of the Army, by General August Kautz, 1865, pp. 260-261]

If the battalion is run in a manner consistent with period military procedures, the Officer of the Day is a busy person! That's my job, in addition to keeping readers of The Wild Geese Today informed of the doings at "the front".

Preparing for the Event

Your Correspondent began preparing for the Antietam reenactment in late November, 2001 by performing research on the 29th Massachusetts and helping to develop our unit's (The Potomac Legion) authenticity standards for the event. Since December, many other unit members have also worked hard to document the actions of and uniforms worn by the 29th during the 1862 Maryland Campaign. One member - Steven Tyler of the Columbia Rifles - wrote a 5,000-word essay detailing the history of the 29th from the spring of 1861 through late 1862.

Because of the ambitious, detailed nature of the legion's plans, significant coordination with other groups and with the Federal "army" high command was necessary. Charles Heath, a PL member who lives in western Maryland, moved mountains and spent literally hundreds of hours to bring the 29th Massachusetts portrayal to fruition. The scope of Charles's exertions on behalf of the unit includes:

  • Assembling a period ration issue of slab bacon, hardtack (which had to be made from scratch), coffee, sugar, and "foraged" ears of corn sufficient to feed 100 men for nearly three days.
  • Organizing and coordinating battalion staff roles.
  • Coordinating the battalion's equipment (i.e., regimental flags, guide flags, horses, a limited amount of mess equipment, etc.).
  • Attending site walks and meetings with other battalion commanders.
  • Coordinating with the Federal army command structure.
  • Coordinating with our comrades of the 3rd USV. Merging two battalion organizations, even for a weekend, takes a lot more effort than it may appear.
  • Organizing the battalion's several campsites, routes of march, and battle scenario portrayals.
  • Communicating the battalion's plans to all PL members and answering their questions.
  • Overseeing the creation and updating of the PL's event website.
  • Coordinating the authenticity inspection of all battalion members upon their arrival on-site, including recruitment of inspectors and development of a detailed inspection checklist.
  • Many other items!
If the legion's efforts at the Antietam reenactment are successful, it will largely be due to the work of Charles Heath.

For all his efforts, Charles will not wear rank during the event; rather, he will serve as one of the battalion's mounted couriers to ensure that logistical aspects of the battalion's plans happen properly. Often, for something as ambitious as the PL's plans for Antietam, one or more people have to work both prior to and during the weekend to fulfill everyone else's event-related desires and foster the mostly-accurate portrayal of a real Civil War regiment.

Another aspect of our preparations is mental. What can we really expect from 140th Antietam? What would the soldiers of the Irish Brigade and 29th Massachusetts have thought and experienced and how close can we really get in our efforts to emulate them? After the vicious action at Bloody Lane, what did the survivors of the Brigade and the 29th see, hear, and think? What did this battle mean for the men from Massachusetts and those from the Emerald Isle? No one is ready for the event until these matters are given due consideration and reflection.

The preparations are as complete as they can be, and the event starts in just a couple days.

The uniforms, blanket rolls, accoutrements, and muskets and swords are packed. The history lessons on what we are portraying have been studied. The drill manuals and Army Regulations have been reviewed several times. Soon the "soldiers" will journey to western Maryland to re-create another chapter in the long saga of Ireland's Wild Geese. Onward to Maryland!

Your Faithful Correspondent-

Kevin O'Beirne
29th Massachusetts Vols.


The Armies Clash in the Defiles On South Mountain


The Crash of the Muskets, but Miller's Corn Field Awaits


Hagerstown, Maryland
September 13, 2002
1:00 pm

Photo by Woodrow Swancutt
Kevin P. Gorman

I approach Sharpsburg, some 30 miles away, after having spent the morning reacquainting myself with my Irish roots at Gettysburg (Pennsylvania).

This morning, my comrades and I from the 155th NYVI (New York Volunteer Infantry) made all the mandatory stops -- we rubbed (Cavan-born Col.) Paddy O'Rorke's nose at Little Round Top, paid our respects at the New York Irish Brigade monument (including leaving a little deposit in the Irish wolfhound's paws), said a quick prayer as we passed Father Corby's statue, and, of course, acquired a few Celtic necessities at the Irish Brigade Gift Shop.

Doyle, Mullen, Bertuca, Biggar, Fleming and I, having paid our respects ,then headed for the Catoctin Mountain pass to set up camp at the 140th Antietam site.

The site is something to behold. The Irish Volunteers are bivouacked in a rather open field in close proximity to the sutler area, and it appears to one that this will be high-traffic area.

If the weather holds, we are in for an ideal event. The ground is, as one would imagine, typical of rural Maryland -- sloping ridges, rocky soil and broken ground.

Expectations are high here, as many veterans of 135th Antietam have commented to me that September 1997's event was the "high-water mark" of their involvement in the hobby. I know that it was for me.

Photo by Brian Alexander
A small portion of the vast Federal camp.

It is good to see the boys again. It has been two-and-a-half years since I was last able to fall in with them. But, already, it seems like only yesterday.

So many of the things I identify with I can share with others here -- I am an American of Irish descent, I am a native of Buffalo, and of course a New Yorker, I am Catholic, I am a lover of history. The camaraderie I share with so many like-minded people in such a historic setting as this is truly special.

We expect The Irish Volunteers to be called to formation shortly. We are to march in short order to join the Fox's Gap attack.

--KP Gorman

Hagerstown, Maryland
September 13, 2002
3:00 pm

We have formed up and, after many stops and starts, the Irish Volunteers have arrived on the field, marching under the flag of the famous 28th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment.

The Irish Volunteers have not marched together for more than a year; however, the First Sergeant of the 28th commented how well our battalion marched as we advanced in line of battle.

I do not know who is being portrayed in front of us, but some of my comrades commented that they heard it was a group of Texans.

Photo by Brian Alexander
Marching out to the first battle.

I have to stop for a moment to divulge a personal "moment" I had as our battle line advanced. My sense of "country" has grown stronger since the events of September 11, and for some unknown reason I had a surge of emotion -- a lump in my throat and a tear in my eye -- when I looked down the line at the beautiful flags of the 28th. The wind had caught them "just right" and as they advanced, with the Irish Volunteers beneath them, I felt a great sense of pride in my country. That image will stay in my forever.

Well, your correspondent has dropped out of the ranks. I have lost my car keys and am late with my deadline to report to The Wild Geese Today. Reader, if you can see this message, that means someone has been able to unlock my car. More on "The Cornfield" tomorrow morning.

--KP Gorman


With the Army of the Potomac, in western Maryland

Friday, 10 o'clock p.m.

HAGERSTOWN, Md. -- The first guns have sounded at the 140th anniversary re-enactment of Antietam, with a vengeance.

Joseph Gannon, 1st Sgt, 27th CT

Of course, unfortunately for us and the Federals, I arrived at 4:30 p.m., just in time to hear the first volley of the event crash through the 600-plus acre site. But we may have not been greatly missed, with 13,490 re-enactors preregistered. Our unit, the 27th Connecticut, had about a dozen of our expected 24 men there for the scenario, a portrayal of the Federals trying to fight its way through Fox's Gap in South Mountain three days before Antietam.

Listening to the incessant rattle of the musketry and numerous cannons, I was struck by the fact that even though only a fraction of the thousands registered could be on the field this early, it sounded as loud as any big event from eight or 10 years ago, before getting 10,000 or more re-enactors together became an annual event. What will it sound like tomorrow when everyone is there!

Meanwhile, re-enactors quickly launched into the time-honored ritual of grousing about the bias displayed by event organizers to our secessionist brethren.

The Confederate campsite is in close proximity to the cornfield, which awaits the dawn tomorrow, when we will portray the savage, back-and-forth fighting through Miller's cornfield that helped launch America's Bloodiest Day. For one, the Federals will have to march more than two miles, giving the Confederates an immediate tactical advantage. For another, the Confederates are closer to the parking lot and the sutler (shopping) area. This is predictable, both the bias and the grousing, as I've seen this done numerous times in my decade of re-enacting.

The Cry: 'Remember '97'

This event has a tough history to live up to. Five years ago, the 135th anniversary Antietam re-enactment, held on this same site in 1997, was, in the opinion of many long-time re-enactors, myself included, the finest ever staged. About 15,000 came then, and more than 100,000 spectators.

The expectation of many re-enactors could prove impossible to meet, but one saving grace for the organizers of this event would be the one abysmal large event from last year, First Manassas. It was so unpleasant and poorly planned that many re-enactors can't remember a single thing about it but the oppressive heat, well into the 90s, with high humidity, very realistic but extremely ennervating all the same.

Actors Stephen Lang is scheduled to be on site tomorrow, reprising his role as "Stonewall" Jackson in the upcoming Turner Films production, "Gods and Generals," directed by Ron Maxwell, and starring Jeff Daniels, Robert Duval as General Lee and, of course, Lang. Lang portrayed Gen. George Pickett in Maxwell's 1993 film, "Gettysburg." The producers were to screen a "sneak peak" of the film Thursday night for any re-enactors on site.

Many of us are waiting to see how "Gods and Generals" portrays Irish Brigade commander Thomas Francis Meagher, who was not accurately nor flatteringly portrayed in the Jeff Shaara novel that inspired the film.

We have a starless, calm night here in western Maryland. The weather is pleasantly warm, with temperatures peaking this afternoon in the low '80s with low humidy.

Pvt. Kevin Casey

With me on the field here was stalwart Irishman Kevin Casey, a veteran police officer from the New Fairfield, Connecticut, department. Kevin, like myself, is a veteran of many commemorations at New York's Calvary Cemetery over the graves of Irish soldiers, such as Capt. Patrick Clooney, slain at Antietam while carrying the flag of the 88th New York, and Gen. Pat Kelly, who suffered grievous wounds at Antietam only to survive and die while leading the Brigade at Petersburg in June 1864.

The 27th Connecticut's Don Hamel expressed surprise that the organizers set up ground charges for the Fox's Gap scenario, portraying part of a very long day facing Confederates defending that mountain defile from tens of thousands of Union soldiers.

The use of ground charges in a Friday battle may bode well for the coming full-scale fights. Word just came around that wake-up call will be at 4:30 a.m. tomorrow for the 6 a.m. fight through the Corn Field.

When the Cornfield battle was staged five years ago, we were amazed to find several thousand spectators had gotten up even earlier than we had to witness the event. The site, according to the official Web site, opens at 3 a.m. for spectators.

Marching blindly toward the enemy through a cornfield in the faint light of early morning is rather nerve-wracking, even when the other side is shooting live rounds. Five years ago we were all struck by how courageous these men must have been to go through that cornfield. I'm sure that feeling will come back to us at 6 a.m. tomorrow.

Reflections on the camp: At any living history or re-enactment, the sights and sounds of the camps at night, with the campfires lit can be inspiring. Tonight, standing on a hillside above the Federal camp in the dark, with the entire 21st century obscured from view, I can readily sense that what I'm seeing is what those men saw and experienced for the full four years of the war.

4:30 o'clock will arrive quickly, so I'll make haste to the camp.

-- 1st Sgt. Joseph E. Gannon, 27th Connecticut Volunteer Infantry

Some related sites:

Copyright © 2012 GAR Media LLC. This article may not be resold, reprinted, or redistributed without prior permission from the author. Direct questions about permissions to permissions@garmedia.com.

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Tags: 140th, American, Anniversary, Antietam, Brigade, Civil, Irish, War


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