As a part of my series of posts on the aftermath of the Battle of Antietam, here I offer an excerpt from the well-written history of the 51st PA Volunteer Infantry. Of course, all of those familiar with the details of the Battle know that this was one of the two regiments that successfully captured the stone crossing later to be known as the Burnside Bridge.

As throughout this series, the excerpt will be given in italics, whereas my remarks will be contained <in this fashion>.

October, 1862, was a month of peace and rest to the Union forces comprising McClellan’s army. Citizens began now to flock on the battlefields of South Mountain and Antietam from the North, hunting up the remains of their deceased relatives and friends, with the object of taking them home for Christian burial. <I reference the reader to connect to my friend’s great blog called “John Bank’s Civil War Blog” for story after story of this very thing.>

On Friday, October 3d, a grand review was got up in honor of the illustrious President of the United States, Abraham Lincoln, by the whole body of troops there encamped. President Lincoln reviewed the troops with evident satisfaction, passing in front of each regiment and returning the salutation with dignified grace, his appearance among them causing much enthusiasm. <This section of the history of the 51st really pictures the growing affection among the troops for Lincoln, as well as the growing disaffection for McClellan.>

While at this camp, a portion of the clothing that the men had left behind them at Fredericksburg arrived, adding something more to their comforts.  <Throughout the Union Army, the men had weeks before tossed much of their cold weather equipage to lighten the loads for long marches. So many of the writings from this time speak of wishes that now, with the changing season, they had not done so!>

Orders of the most stringent character against straggling were issued by McClellan, and were read off to each company separately, causing a more mutinous feeling in the army than all the previous orders combined could have done; in fact, the troops as a body had very little confidence in him as a leader, but they had the utmost confidence in his capacity as a promulgator of severe and useless orders; and whatever his prestige and glory might have been, his tyranny to his army had turned all kindly feelings into dislike; for man, partaking of the nature of a “hog,” can be coaxed, but not driven, if he once resolves to be stubborn, even in the army; and the warmest advocates for his military prowess began to designate him as “only a newspaper general,” meaning thereby that he was only made a great general through newspaper puffs.

<The text goes on to speak of a movement of their location from the area near Sharpsburg, to pass over a spur of South Mountain to the southeast to take them into Pleasant Valley. Here they again camped for an extended time, actually must closer to Harpers Ferry than to Sharpsburg. And then the writer picks up again on another straggling order from McClellan … >

On the 15th another order from McClellan was read against straggling, and was still more stringent than any of his former ones, for one section ordered the shooting down of the footsore, famishing, and diarrhea-stricken soldiers. Straggling on a march, as must be acknowledged, is one of the most pernicious vices that ever existed in the army, but it could have been greatly lessened by an ordinary amount of prudence and a little humanity on the part of the commanding officers. The causes for straggling are to be confined principally to the following reasons. First, men being poorly rationed will leave the column and wander off to any house from which they think they can buy, beg or steal food. Secondly, being hurried on the march, their strength fails from not having sufficient rest and food. Thirdly, from being compelled to wear shoes that have little or no shape to them, and (facetiously termed “gun boats” by the men,) are either too large or too small, consequently blistering the feet to such an extent that makes it impossible to keep up with the column when on a rapid march, for in drawing shoes they must take whatever they can get, whether they fit or not. Fourthly, the constant exposure to all kinds of weather while on the march—heat in the day and cold at night, rainy weather, perspiring freely, then lying down to sleep in the open air and becoming chilled, diarrhea and dysentery, chills and fever, and other ailments setting in—debilitates the soldier so that his weakness causes him to lag behind even when he is most anxious to keep up. Take the cases of straggling produced by the above four causes, aggregate them with all others, such as shirking, &c., and it will show a decrease of at least ninety percent. This is no imaginary calculation, but it is from actual observation, and the officers who would advocate the shooting down of all stragglers, have none to censure for the cause but themselves and their own inhumanity, for on all marches the commanding officers have horses to carry them, and it is very easy for those on horseback to say to a poor cripple who is staggering beneath a heavy knapsack, sixty to one hundred rounds of cartridges, a musket and his other accoutrements, “Get up here,” or “go to your regiment.”  <It certainly seems from the amount of time given to this topic in the text that it was a big issue to the men of the 51st and remained a lasting negative memory from their War experience.>

51st PA monument at Antietam

Congratulatory orders were received by the two 51sts from Gen. McClellan, complimenting the two regiments in most flattering terms for taking Antietam bridge, in which he said “the whole day’s fighting would have been lost if you had not succeeded in taking that most important point, the bridge.”

This order was accompanied by one of the same character from Gen. A. E. Burnside. …

On Sunday night, October 19th, the camp of the 51st P. V. was visited by a hurricane, accompanied by a heavy rain; the wind picking up the little shelters and carrying many of them to a great distance, leaving the inmates to receive the drenching rain that was pouring down. Whether the storm had carried away important bridges or not it is hard to say; but a detail was made of all the carpenters in the regiment to go to put up bridges over the Potomac, near Harper’s Ferry, which was two and a half miles distant. …

On Monday morning, October 27th, 1862, the 51st P. V. struck tents and left Pleasant Valley, Washington County, Md., on a march through Virginia, bringing up at Fredericksburg.  

<The following series of pages detail their varied marches and experiences that would take them to Fredericksburg for the mid-December battle at that location. I’ll include some more excerpts certainly at that time.>

About Randy Buchman

I live in Western Maryland, and among my too many pursuits and hobbies, I regularly feed multiple hungry blogs. I played college baseball, coached championship cross country teams at Williamsport (MD) High School, and have been a sportswriter for various publications and online venues. My main profession is as the lead pastor of a church in Hagerstown called Tri-State Fellowship. And I'm active in Civil War history and work/serve at Antietam National Battlefield with the Antietam Battlefield Guides organization. Occasionally I sleep.

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