One of the features of the Antietam Battlefield that is likely lost to most visitors (who do not use the Antietam Guides or happen to be there at the time of day a park ranger leads a car caravan tour) is the location of Nicodemus Heights.
This hill that rises just off the northwest corner of the battlefield marks the left flank of the Confederate line. It was manned by Pelham’s Horse Artillery of Jeb Stuart’s command.
The position was a terrific place for such a disposition, and the artillerists could easily disappear a short distance behind the crest of the hill and onto the slope leading down to the Potomac River. Of course, they occupied this position well in advance of the arrival of the Union Army.
On the 16th, Hooker’s 1st Army Corps began to appear on the Poffenberger Farm beyond the far north end of the battlefield and take position on the next ridge east of Stuart’s men – about 1,000 yard distant. This was done mostly after dark, during an ominous black evening of drizzle interrupted by the occasion firing of pickets.
The actual day of battle started with a bang – the bang of artillery shells fired from Nicodemus Heights. Rufus Dawes of the 6th Wisconsin (and great-grandson of William Dawes – Paul Revere’s riding companion) wrote about the experience:
“About daylight, General Doubleday came galloping along the line, and he ordered that our brigade be moved at once out of its position. He said we were in open range of the rebel batteries. The men were in a heavy slumber. After much shaking and kicking and hurrying, they were aroused, and stood up in their places in the lines. Too much noise was probably made, which appears to have aroused the enemy. The column hurriedly changed direction, according to orders, and commenced moving away from the perilous slope which faced the hostile batteries.”
“We had marched ten rods, when shiz-z-z! bang! … burst a shell over our heads; then another; then a percussion shell struck and exploded in the very center of the moving mass of men. It killed two men and wounded eleven. It tore off Captain David K. Noyes’s foot, and cut off both arms of a man in his company. This dreadful scene occurred within a few feet of where I was riding, and before my eyes. The column pushed on without a halt, and in another moment had the shelter of a barn. Thus opened the first firing of the great battle of Antietam, in the early morning of September 17th 1862.” (pp. 87-88 of “A Full-Blown Yankee of the Iron Brigade: Service with the 6th Wisconsin” by Rufus Dawes.)
Nearby, Captain J. Albert Monroe (of the 1st Rhode Island Light Artillery, and Chief of Artillery of the 1st Division) was having a rather similar experience. He wrote:
“It was the early gray light that appeared just before the sun rises above the horizon, and we could little more than distinguish each other. We had not half finished our meal, but it had grown considerably lighter, and we could see the first rays of the sun lighting up the distant hilltops, when there was a sudden flash, and the air around us appeared to be alive with shot and shell from the enemy’s artillery. The opposite hill seemed suddenly to have become an active volcano, belching forth flame, smoke and scoriae.”
“The first shot apparently passed directly through our little breakfast party, not more than a foot or two above the blanket, and it struck the ground only a few feet from us. Every one dropped whatever he had in his hands, and looked around the group to see whose head was missing. So suddenly did the firing commence and so rapidly did shot follow shot, I felt lost for an instant. I never knew how the others felt, but I at once ordered Hugh Rider, my groom, to give me my mare, who was hitched only about ten feet distant, and by the time he got her to me I had fully recovered from my surprise. (MOLLUS, Vol. 36, pp. 233-234 … “Battery D, First Rhode Island Light Artillery, at the Battle of Antietam, September 17, 1862” by J. Albert Monroe, Lieutenant Colonel of the 1st RI Light Artillery – published in 1886.)
So began a day that would forever mark the lives of Dawes, Doubleday, Monroe and tens of thousands of other survivors. It is said that Rufus Dawes visited most of the fields of the Civil War upon which he fought, but that he never wanted to see Antietam again.
This battlefield! What a place! If you are reading this and have never come – put it near the top of your Bucket List to visit!