Older senior citizens well remember gathering around the family radio to hear alarming reports of the attack on Dec. 7, 1941, that took the lives of 2,400 Americans. Most of us alive today witnessed the trauma of Sept. 11, 2001, unfolding on national television as almost 3,000 people perished. These were two of the darkest days in American history.
The deadliest event on United States soil, however, played out on Sept. 17, 1863, near Sharpsburg, a town in Western Maryland. The citizens of this area reluctantly played host to some 75,000 Union and 40,000 Confederate soldiers bent on killing or maiming each other.
Named for nearby Antietam Creek, this Civil War battle took the lives of almost 5,000 Union and Confederate soldiers — while another 19,000 fell wounded before darkness mercifully brought a halt to the carnage.
Delawareans would soon learn that many of their fathers, husbands and sons were numbered in the gruesome toll exacted about 100 miles from their homes. These First State combatants mainly fought under the banner of the 1st and 2nd Delaware regiments.
Regimental historian Capt. William P. Seville recorded that the boredom the 1st Delaware experienced on duty near Suffolk, Va. ended when his unit received orders on Sept. 6, 1862. They were to join Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan’s Army of the Potomac as it marched through Maryland to intercept Gen. Robert E. Lee’s first invasion of the North.
Similarly, as John E. Pickett relates in his regimental history, following detached duty near the nation’s capital, the 2nd Delaware caught up with McClellan’s forces at Frederick, Md.
Both Delaware regiments marched northward in the ranks of Maj. Gen. Edwin V. Sumner’s Second Corps. Col. John W. Andrews, a Wilmington native, led the 1st Delaware, while Lt. Col. William P. Baily, also from Wilmington, commanded the 2nd Delaware.
Although the 2nd Regiment had faced enemy fire during the Peninsula Campaign in Virginia, this would be the 1st Regiment’s initial exposure to actual combat. Seville explained that, after the Union army arrived near Sharpsburg on Sept. 16, acting regimental adjutant Lt. James Lewis had the dubious distinction of being the first combat casualty in the unit, when shrapnel from an enemy shell struck him in the foot during an artillery exchange.
Serious fighting began the next day, when McClellan launched a series of uncoordinated attacks against less than half of Lee’s army (the larger segment had marched south to capture the strategic town of Harper’s Ferry). The toll of dead and wounded quickly mounted on both sides, as the Confederates held their defensive positions west of the Antietam against repeated but futile Union attacks.
As in all battles, certain landmarks became fixed in the minds of the combatants, and thus a part of historical lore. Mark Boatner pointed out in “The Civil War Dictionary” that at Antietam these included the Corn Field, the West Woods, Dunkard Church and Bloody Lane.
When McClellan’s troops finally made headway against Lee’s right flank, the contingent from Harper’s Ferry, under Maj. Gen. Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson, arrived in time to thwart this effort. Fighting had been intense, and the casualty count continued to soar.
In a single day, the Union army sustained more than 2,000 killed and nearly 10,000 wounded, with another 800 unaccounted for. The Confederates fared even worse: 2,700 killed, 9,000 wounded and 2,000 missing. A harbinger of bad news for the Confederates was that Lee’s smaller army suffered twice the percentage in losses — 34 percent vs. 17 percent.
According to the U.S. War Department’s Official Records, the combined casualties for the 1st and 2nd Delaware was almost 300, of which 43 died on the battlefield. Since the 1st Delaware at Antietam sustained the majority of these losses, Andrews profusely summed up their performance in his post-action report: “This was our first battle. …. The command exhibited a degree of gallantry, efficiency and personal bravery seldom equaled.”
Pickett described how the 2nd Delaware earned the moniker “Crazy Delawares” at Antietam, when they intrepidly charged the enemy, capturing a number of prisoners and the colors of the 16th Mississippi Regiment. Long after the war, when memories begin to fade, Capt. William H. Hembold earnestly and with a certain amount of embellishment wrote in a letter to his fellow survivors of the regiment:
“Antietam battlefield is the one field above all the others that the Second Delaware should in some way mark. Our work there, in its consequences and effects, was simply tremendous. … We went in and made that charge, and … the entire aspect of this battle had changed…”
On the bloodiest single day of the Civil War, the two Delaware regiments had comported themselves with honor and grit. In the aftermath, they were justly proud of their behavior and performance on the battlefield.
Thomas J. Ryan is a Civil War historian, speaker and author of “Essays on Delaware during the Civil War: A Political, Military and Social Perspective.” Contact him at email@example.com.