HDQRS. FIRST BRIGADE, MORELL'S DIVISION, FIFTH CORPS,
September 25, 1862.
Major FRANCIS S. EARLE,
Assistant Adjutant-General, General Morell's Division.
MAJOR: I have the honor to submit the following report of the action of Saturday last, the 20th September, on the opposite side of the Potomac, between this brigade and a very large force of the enemy:
On the morning of the 20th instant I received from division headquarters the following order:
September 20, 1862.
Commanding First Brigade:
COLONEL: In pursuance of orders from headquarters of the corps, the commanding general directs that you push your brigade across the river to Shepherdstown and vicinity, and report what is to be found there.
By command of Major-General Morell:
F. S. EARLE,
In obedience to this order, I crossed the river at Blackford's Ford at about 9 o'clock a. m., the brigade, consisting of the Eighteenth Massachusetts, Twenty-fifth New York, Thirteenth New York, One hundred and eighteenth Pennsylvania, First Michigan, Twenty-second Massachusetts, and Second Maine Regiments, numbering in all 1,711 men, including officers, some of the regiments having been very much reduced. As soon as the Eighteenth Massachusetts had crossed the ford, it was drawn up in order on the road running below the bluffs toward Shepherdstown, under the command of Major Hayes.
At this moment, and before the other regiments had crossed, Brigadier-General Sykes, who had previously crossed the river, and whose command consisted, as I was informed, of about 800 men, then in advance toward the west, came to me with the information that the enemy were in strong force about 2 miles in his front; that he had sent his aide forward to ascertain the facts in the case, and desired me to remain until his aide returned, in order to afford him support if the report should turn out to be true. I informed him that my orders required me to go to Shepherdstown, but that if he would give me an order to remain I would do so. He accordingly gave me the order for that purpose, and desired that Major Hayes, with the Eighteenth Massachusetts, then drawn up in the road, should take position near but below the top of the ridge, which ran in its general direction parallel to the road and on the left. Major Hayes immediately proceeded to occupy that position. The Twenty-fifth New York, Colonel Johnson, and the Thirteenth New York, Colonel Marshall, having crossed and formed in the road, were directed to take a similar position on the right of Major Hayes, but to reach which it was necessary to pass beyond the ravine by which the Eighteenth Massachusetts had ascended to another ravine a few rods distant, the interval forming rocky bluff nearly perpendicular, up which it was impracticable to advance.
By this time the One hundred and eighteenth Pennsylvania, Colonel Provost, had crossed the ford and formed in the road. They were directed to follow the Thirteenth and Twenty-fifth New York, and to take a similar position below the top of the ridge and to their left. They accordingly followed those regiments, and came into line below the top of the ridge, as directed. The remaining regiments of the brigade namely, the First Michigan, Captain E. W. Belton commanding, the Twenty-second Massachusetts, under the command of Lieutenant Colonel W. S. Tilton, and the Second Maine, Colonel C. W. Roberts, were directed to ascend the ravine by which the Eighteenth Massachusetts had ascended, and to form in a similar manner below the top of the ridge, the two former on the right and the latter on the left of Major Hayes, who was already posted there. These movements were all promptly executed, and in good order. The brigade being then in position, and suitably protected by the ground in front, skirmishers were advanced to the front, and immediately commenced firing upon those of the enemy, who by this time had advanced within musket range, and were deployed along their whole front in large numbers and at very short intervals.
The information respecting the advance of the enemy as at first received was to the effect that the enemy were advancing from the left of the position occupied by my brigade. It was, however, soon perceived that he was not only approaching with a greatly superior force from that direction, but that they were also in equal numbers advancing on our front and on our right. Springing as it were from the bushes and corn-fields which had concealed them to this time, and making their first appearance within short musket range, a rapid and vigorous fire commenced immediately, and notwithstanding the vastly superior numbers of the enemy, every man stood his ground firmly, and the line exhibited an undaunted front.
The action now becoming general, it was apparent that the greatly superior force of the enemy would make it necessary for us to retire. The batteries on the opposite side of the river having been brought into position, opened a heavy fire with good effect upon the enemy though, from the close proximity of the contending forces, it was difficult for them to avoid some damage to our own troops. Some of their shot and shell struck in our rear, and some of the casualties of the day may be attributed to that source.
It was soon perceived that the command of General Sykes on our left was retiring, and they had reached nearly to the foot of the hill when I received orders to retire in good order, and to recross the river. I immediately gave the necessary orders to fall back to the regiments posted, as above described, on the left of the brigade, where I then was, and at once dispatched the orderly to convey the instructions to those upon the right of the line. I immediately followed him to prevent mistake. On my way thither I met Colonel Provost, of the One hundred and eighteenth Pennsylvania, retiring from the field, disabled by a severe wound in the shoulder. I passed rapidly on to the ground occupied by his regiment, and repeated the orders to retire in good order. This order had already been communicated to them by Lieutenant Davis, my aide.
The regiment, then under the command of Lieutenant-Colonel Gwyn, had commenced falling back, but, owing to their large numbers and the uneven character of the ground, not without some degree of confusion. Lieutenant-Colonel Gwyn, although deprived of the assistance of the colonel of the regiment, and laboring under the disadvantage of having under his command a regiment but little drilled, succeeded in withdrawing them from their perilous position, not without loss, indeed, but in a manner creditable to himself and to the character of his command, both of officers and men, for courage and coolness. They had advanced in the excitement of the contest from the cover of the ridge where they had first formed in line, and were exposed to a galling fire from the enemy, who were protected by a ravine in front of them. The brigade being thus withdrawn, the several regiments recrossed the river in good order, and with but little loss in crossing. A few, however, were fatally wounded on the passage.
After crossing, the brigade was reformed in rear of the Second Brigade upon this side of the river, but after remaining in this position for the greater part of the day, and no further attempts being made by the enemy with the view of crossing, the several regiments withdrew to their respective encampments.
It is difficult to do full justice to the gallantry displayed by both officers and men on this occasion without appearing to overstate it. Finding themselves suddenly and unexpectedly attacked by a force so vastly superior, there was no sign of intimidation on the part of any one, and when the order to retire was given it was received with evident disappointment.
I have already submitted in detail the loss in killed, wounded, and missing, to which I beg leave to refer. A summary of the list shows as follows: 92 killed, 131 wounded, and 103 missing.
With much respect, your obedient servant,
Colonel, Commanding Brigade.
Source: OFFICIAL RECORDS: Series 1, Vol 19, Part 1 (Antietam - Serial 27) , Pages 345 - 348