The group had an appointment with Dr. Gordy Dammann at the Antietam Battlefield Visitor Center at 9:30 am. Gordy is an energetic lecturer and expert on Antietam and Civil War Medicine. I knew we were in for an excellent experience after Gordy asked us how much time we had and if we were up for his “deluxe” tour. After our initial talk behind the visitor center to get the lay of the battlefield, it was clear he had researched our friends in the 6th Wisconsin and 27th Indiana. He introduced the role and locations of these particular units and carried a large book, Giants in the Cornfield which documents the 27th Indiana.
After a stop at the Pry House, McClellan’s Headquarters during the battle, we ventured to the Cornfield via curvy back roads including a rustic road that boasts a witness tree and the approximate turn-off where Clara Barton set up her relief station.
The Cornfield is infamous for the both the bloodshed and bravery exhibited in a relatively small parcel of land and in a short period of time. Regarding our trip, it is amazing that both Jerome Watrous and Barton Mitchell fought in this field and both were injured.
We stopped at the location where Watrous and the 6th Wisconsin bivouacked September 16th and Gordy described the tension, nervousness that existed that night. Soldiers typically gathered their playing cards, alcohol, dice, etc. and left them behind lines so they are not carrying them if and when “they meet their maker.” We followed the Iron Brigade’s march alongside the Hagerstown Pike forward that early morning on September 17th. You could imagine the increased fire that was erupting at first from the Iron Brigade’s front as they crested a ridge just north of the cornfield, then from their right. Gordy pointed to the approximate location Watrous was injured and the medical station, in a hollow a short distance away where he was taken to dress his wounds. He was not seriously injured.
The group then stopped at the far southern edge of the Cornfield. We heard about the Confederate General Hood’s angry and hungry Texans who came in to support Stonewall Jackson. We then found the monument to the 27th Indiana which marked their advance 400 yards to our front. Gordy determined Barton Mitchell received his wound in the far northeastern corner of the cornfield as they advanced alongside the East Woods. Iron Brigade soldiers wrote later how the Rebels shot to wound Yankees in the lower extremities as wounds to the legs would require other Yankees to carry their comrade to the rear, further depleting the Yankee line of fire. This may be true or just a coincidence that Mitchell received a serious wound in his calf, probably early on in this fight that would keep him out of the war for over 8 months and is suspected in leading to his death 3 years after the war.
We continued the tour through the Bloody Lane and concluded with the Burnside Bridge attack and final assault on the town around 12:30. It was an incredible tour and several students were appreciative how Gordy successfully simplified a very complicated battle. Following our tour, we ventured about 30 minutes southwest to Harper’s Ferry which is a scenic town soaked in history located at the confluence of the Potomac and Shenandoah Rivers. Knowing we had only one more night in Antietam, I was anxious, however, to get back to Antietam and walk through the Cornfield with Mitchell and Watrous.
Carl, a recent MUHS graduate, volunteered to head out to the field with me after dinner. We brought war letters, books and photographs to better comprehend what the soldiers endured. We walked to the area of the field where Mitchell was wounded and recalled the words of the re enactors in Hartsville we encountered on Memorial Day.
I imagined Mitchell’s faded, expressionless photo and the agony his face must have expressed here and the months of recovery afterwards. We then walked west a few hundred yards to the 6th Wisconsin and Watrous’s location and read accounts from those soldiers. One story that I read aloud out of Lance Herdegen’s excellent book,The Iron Brigade in Civil War and Memory, was of a Wisconsin soldier walking the Cornfield the next day, who described the Rebels lying among his comrades as the “dirtiest, lousiest, filthiest, piratical looking cutthroats a white man every saw. There are no redeeming qualities” (279). The fact these soldiers were intermingled shows the craziness of this fight as the cornfield exchanged hands 6 times.
However, the tone slightly changes when another member of the Black Hats noticed a fallen Texan officer wearing a lady’s watch, and this soldier surmises it was given to him by his wife or fiance as a good luck charm (279). Carl and I surmised that despite which side one fought, both north and south had hometowns that would miss them, mourn their loss and remember them in some way for future school groups like ours to discover.
It was almost 9 pm when a car pulled up and there was Gordy! “I thought you would be out here in the Cornfield!” he shouted. Turns out he had visited the camp site to give the students Civil War bullet souvenirs and the group passed along to Gordy we were out on the field. Standing in the growing moonlight, the three of us spoke about Watrous and Mitchell, medical care in warfare, horrors of combat and what meaning we can take from these battles. “You can just hear these soldiers talking to you, if you listen,” Gordy whispered to Carl and I in the dark Cornfield. Thanks to Gordy and the people and places so far along this trip, I couldn’t have agreed more.