During the Civil War, there were a number of events that occurred that were considered “turning points,” or indicators that one side or the other had taken a significant step toward victory. One such event was a battle in Maryland in September 1862 that the South called “Sharpsburg” after the closest town, and the North labeled “Antietam” for a creek on the battleground.
For the most part, historians have used the latter name, Antietam, when describing the bloodiest single day of the Civil War. An estimated 12,410 Yankees and 9,024 Rebels were killed, wounded, or missing for a total of 21,434.
Ironically, the 1st and 2nd Delaware Regiments, each having mustered in some 900 men more than a year earlier, had been anxious to engage in actual combat after serving as guards for facilities such as railroads and bridges. These soldiers got their wish on Sept. 17, 1862, at Antietam.
The mayhem that took place can in part be attributed to the inexperience of the Northern and Southern generals, especially true regarding slow and cautious Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan, commander of the Union Army of the Potomac. At the same time, Army of Northern Virginia commander, Gen. Robert E. Lee, receives credit, considering his army was outnumbered 75,000 to his 52,000.
Jeffrey R. Biggs captured the experience of one of the Delaware regiments this fateful September day in “They Fought for the Union, A History of the First Delaware Volunteers in the Army of the Potomac.” In a chapter aptly titled “Antietam: ‘May God pardon all of us,’” Biggs explains the regiment arrived on the eastern banks of the Antietam on the afternoon of Sept. 16, and engaged “in a lively artillery fight.”
At 4 a.m. on Sept. 17th, the Delaware unit awakened to learn that the corps of which they were a part would make an attack along the Hagerstown Pike in search of the Rebel’s left flank. Unbeknownst to a division of more than 6,000 men, including the 1st Delaware, they were heading straight for the center of the Confederate line.
When the 1st Delaware became engaged, they were taken by surprise. Orders soon came to “Fix Bayonets!” in preparation for an attack on the Rebel position in a sunken road held by units from Alabama.
In some of the bloodiest moments of the war, Union casualties mounted quickly. Of the 286 casualties the 1st Delaware would suffer that day, most took place in the first five minutes of this attack.
Of the 10 soldiers of the 1st Delaware color guard leading the regiment into battle, only two escaped death or wounding. The other eight were dropped by the first Rebel volley emanating from the sunken road.
The 2nd Delaware, dubbed the “Crazy Delawares” for their uncommon bravery on the battlefield, were also up early that day and crossed the Antietam at 8:30 a.m. According to the captain of Company B, William H. Hembold, the entire corps had been fighting all day against the Rebel position along the sunken road, but was having trouble making progress.
In “A Short History of the Second Regiment Delaware Volunteers,” John E. Pickett describes the Crazy Delawares moving forward from the main line, fighting effectively over the fields to the front, and returning to the “cheers and clapping of hands” of their comrades. The strength of the 2nd Delaware that day was 350 men, and their bravery came at a price with 77 killed or wounded.
The 1st and 2nd Delaware regiments had set a precedent that would be repeated during future battles. Besides Antietam, in which they contributed to a victory for the North, their flags would be embroidered with other well-known names: Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, Gettysburg, and the Overland Campaign battles.
The Delawareans spilled much blood for their cause on Sept. 17, 1862. Yet, that was the beginning of hard fighting and dying that took place over the next two and a half years.
Tom Ryan is the author of the multiple award-winning “Spies, Scouts & Secrets in the Gettysburg Campaign” and “Essays on Delaware during the Civil War.” Signed copies are available at Bethany Beach Books and Browseabout Books in Rehoboth. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit his website at www.tomryan-civilwar.com.