September 1862: "10.A.M. commenced shelling them in a cornfield across Antietam Creek..."

By Joan Fink, Volunteer

William Clark Hawes diary, 14 to 19 September 1862

William Clark Hawes diary, 14 to 19 September 1862

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    “The battle field presents an awful spectacle this morning & the ground for miles is covered with dead & wounded in many places 3 & 4 deep.” This is how William Clark Hawes, of Milford, Massachusetts, described the scene before him on the morning of 15 September 1862 after a long day of fighting in the Battle of South Mountain during the Antietam Campaign (page 7). Hawes, a private in the Eighth Battery Massachusetts Light Artillery Volunteer Militia, kept a diary that provides a detailed account of the critical days between 14 and 19 September when General George B. McClellan and the Army of the Potomac confronted Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia in and around Sharpsburg, Maryland.

    The Eighth Battery formed under Asa M. Cook in May of 1862. William Clark Hawes enlisted for six months’ service on 30 May 1862. Hawes and his battery were attached to the Ninth Corps and participated in the battles of Groveton, Second Bull Run, and Chantilly. Upon completion of the Bull Run Campaign, the battery resupplied in Washington before participating in the Antietam Campaign. During this campaign, the Army of the Potomac pursued Confederate General Robert E. Lee and his Army of Northern Virginia, who had invaded Union soil by entering Maryland on 4 September 1862. On 14 September the two armies met at South Mountain, just outside of Sharpsburg, Maryland. Hawes writes of his battery’s involvement in securing Fox’s Gap, describing the chaos that ensued as the battery attempted to charge up the mountain and position its guns to defend against the rebels (pages 2-7).

    Throughout his diary, Hawes offers his opinion as to the quality of leadership provided by the Union officers. In one particularly critical commentary, Hawes indicates that he considered Ninth Corps’ commander General Jesse Reno’s decision to send the battery charging up South Mountain an ill-conceived and poorly planned move. Hawes notes that “had General Reno advanced the Infantry or Cavalry as skirmishers the panic would never ensued but to advance a battery up a strip mountain without knowing what was ahead and without proper support showed very little generalship but on the other hand showed culpable negligence on the general commanding” (Page 6). Reno was killed in action at South Mountain.

    Hawes’ entry for 17 September 1862 provides a detailed description of the Battle of Antietam, also known as the Battle of Sharpsburg. On that day, General Joseph Hooker and the First Corps of the Army of the Potomac launched an assault on the Confederate Army’s left flank. Hawes recounts the horror of the battle, including the bloody attack that occurred across Miller’s Cornfield, resulting in a large number of dead and wounded on both sides (page 10). Later in the day Hawes notes that a regiment of “ZooZoos,” --slang for Zouaves, soldiers that adopted the specialized skills and unique uniforms used by some light infantry companies in the French army -- incurred heavy casualties and were particularly glad to welcome the arrival of the Eighth on the field (page 12). At the day’s end, Hawes reports, “Our folks hold the ground taken,” before closing with a reflection on the enormity of the losses on both sides (page 14). The Battle of Antietam is still considered the single bloodiest day of battle in the history of the United States in terms of the number of dead, wounded, and missing American soldiers.

    On 18 September, Hawes describes the depleted state of both armies noting neither side was “anxious to bring on a conflict” (page 15). The following day he notes that the Confederate troops had marched into Maryland singing “My Maryland,” a song derived from an 1861 poem by James Ryder Randall whose lyrics called for Maryland to join the Confederacy in fighting the Union. In closing his account of the Campaign, Hawes writes, “this raid has proved a might sorry thing to them & I guess they wont sing ‘My Maryland’ any more at present” (pages 19 & 20).

    On 29 November 1862, Hawes was mustered out of service as his term expired. In January 1863 he reenlisted for three years of service with the Fifteenth Battery Massachusetts Light Artillery. He was discharged in December of that year to accept a commission as a lieutenant in the 162nd Regiment New York Volunteers. Hawes died in Alexandria, Louisiana, on 29 May 1864, six days after having been shot at the Battle of Cane River. A captain in the 162nd New York wrote to Hawes’ family in Massachusetts noting that his fellow officers wept for him.

    Sources for Further Reading

    The single-volume William Clark Hawes Diary held by the MHS covers the extent of Hawes’ service with the Eighth Battery Massachusetts Light Artillery Volunteer Militia, 24 June to 8 December 1862. Entries include descriptions of travel south by train; marching through Washington, Frederick City, and Middletown, Maryland; action seen in battle; weather; equipment and supplies; and general health and well-being of the troops.

    The MHS holds a number of other manuscript collections that contain firsthand accounts of soldiers’ experiences at Antietam, including the Caleb H. Beal Papers, Elijah Couillard Letters, and the William H. West Papers.

    McPherson, James M. Crossroads of Freedom: Antietam. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002.