HDQRS. FOURTH REGIMENT RHODE ISLAND VOLUNTEERS,
Mouth of Antietam Creek, September 22, 1862.
His Excellency WILLIAM SPRAGUE,
Governor State of Rhode Island.
SIR: I have the honor to submit the following report of the part taken by this regiment in the battle of Sharpsburg on the 17th instant:
On the afternoon of the 16th, Harland's brigade, consisting of the Eighth, Eleventh, and Sixteenth Connecticut and Fourth Rhode Island, left the bivouac it had occupied on the left of the Sharpsburg road, and proceeded in a southwesterly direction, following the general course of the Antietam Creek, for 3 or 4 miles, and took up a position behind a range of hills covering a stone bridge which crossed the creek. The regiment lay upon its arms all night, having its front covered by its own pickets. The Fourth had the left of the brigade line and upon its left lay Fairchild's brigade of Rodman's division. About an hour after light on the morning of the 17th, the enemy's pickets commenced firing upon those of the regiments upon our left, and shortly after they began shelling the whole division line, their range being very accurate. As soon as the firing commenced, the ranks were dressed and the men directed to lie down in their places. The three left companies, being in a more exposed position, were brought in rear of the rest of the battalion.
Orders were received from Colonel Harland to follow the other brigade to the left, but before that brigade could move, the enemy opened another battery on our right, enfilading our position with a fire of round shot, and completely commanding a little rise of ground on our left, which we should have been obliged to cross to roach the ground occupied by the other brigade. This fact was reported to Colonel Harland by an officer, who returned with orders for the regiment to move to the left and rear, thought some woods, in a direction to be indicated by Lieutenant Ives, of General Rodman's staff, who came back with him. The order was executed, the regiment moving by the left flank to the rear through a wooded gully, but partially concealed from the enemy, who continued their heavy fire of shell and solid shot. The regiment was then drawn up in a farm lane, well protected by a hill. As the brigade filed thorough the wooded gully, a battery placed in roar of our original position commenced replying to the enemy, too late, however, to cover our retrograde movement, which was almost completed. Our loss in this affair was 2 killed and 8 wounded, amount the latter the color bearer and two color-corporals.
After about an hour the brigade advanced in line of battle to the top of the hill in front, making a right half-wheel, and after crossing several fields took a position on the top of the hills, at the foot of which ran the Antietam Creek, on the opposite side of which was the enemy. The action on our right was now very sharp, both artillery and infantry being engaged. Our division constituted the extreme left of the line. After a halt of some duration, the division moved by the left flank to the creek at a ford under fire from the enemy's skirmishers, who were sheltered behind a stone wall. The Fourth, after crossing the ford, filed to the left (the other brigade going to the right, and the rest of Harland's brigade not yet having crossed), and after throwing out Company H as skirmishers to cover the front, and Company K to the left, advanced in line toward the stone wall, the enemy retiring, but shortly after opening a fire of musketry on our left, which was soon silenced by the fire from our battery covering the ford.
The enemy then commenced a fire of grape and shell upon us, and the Sixteenth Connecticut, which had just crossed the ford and was taking a position to support our left, retired, passing along our rear. After it had passed, this regiment, by Colonel Harland's orders, took a more sheltered position at right angles to our original one. From here we moved to the right, in the direction taken by Colonel Fairchild's brigade, through a wooded ravine, through which ran the creek. The steepness of the hill-side, the thickness of the wood, and the accurate range of the enemy's batteries made the passage through this defile a matter of considerable difficulty. Upon clearing the woods we lay waiting orders for a short time under a hill-side, which the enemy were shelling, the rest of the brigade having passed on while we were in the woods. From here the regiment was ordered by Colonel Harland's aide to cross the hill behind which it was laying (a plowed field), and to form in line in a corn-field, and to move to the support of the Sixteenth Connecticut, which lay in a deep valley between two hills planted with corn. The regiment moved forward by the right flank in fine order, although subjected to the fire of rebel batteries, of which it was in full view. Descending into the valley to its support, if found the Sixteenth Connecticut giving way and crowding upon its right, compelling it to move to the left, and rendering it almost impossible to dress the line, which an advance in line of battle across two fields of full-grown corn had slightly deranged. It was now subjected to sharp musketry fire from the front, but as the enemy showed the national flag (the corn concealing their uniform), and as our troops had been seen in advance on our right, moving diagonally across our front, the order to cease firing was given, and a volunteer officer to go forward to ascertain who was in our front was called for. Lieutenant George E. Curtis and George H. Watts immediately stepped forward, and placing themselves one on each side of the color bearer (Corporal Tanner, Company G), carried the flag up the hill within 20 feet of the rebels, when the enemy fired, killing the corporal. Lieutenant Curtis seized the colors and returned, followed by Lieutenant Watts. The order to commence firing was then given, and Colonel Steere sent me to the Sixteenth Connecticut to see if they would support us in charge up the hill, but the corn being very thick and high, I could find no one to whom to apply. I returned to tell the colonel that we must depend upon ourselves. He then sent to the rear for support. Before they could arrive, the enemy outflanked us with a brigade of infantry, which descended the hill to our left in three lines, one firing over the other and enfilading us. The regiment on our right now broke, a portion of them crowding on our line. Colonel Steere ordered the regiment to move out of the gully, by the right flank, and I left him to carry the order to the left, of which wing I had charge, the colonel taking the right (the major being sick, and no adjutant, there were only two field officers to handle the regiment.) The regiment commenced the movement in an orderly manner, but, under the difficulty of keeping closed up in a corn-field, the misconception of their order on the left, and the tremendous fire of the enemy, consisting of musketry, shell, and grape, the regiment broke. Colonel Steere, as I afterward learned, was severely wounded in the left thigh, immediately after I left him to repeat on the left the order to leave the corn-field. An attempt was made rally the regiment to the support of a battery at some distance back from the corn-field, but before many had been collected the battery retired, when the efforts became unavailing.
I desire to bring to your notice Lieutenants Curtis and Watts, who volunteered to carry the colors forward in the corn-field, and the following non-commissioned officers and privates: Sergeants Wilson, Company A; Coon, Company B; Morris, Company C; Corporals Leonard, Company A; Farley, Company C, and Privates McCann, Company B, and Peck, Company C, who rallied, after the regiment was broken, on the left of the Fifty-first Pennsylvania, and continued fighting until all their ammunition was gone, when I ordered them to recross the river to regain the regiment. All the food the men had during the entire day was the very small quantities of salt pork and hard bread they were able to find in an abandoned camp, during the short rest after the morning.
The entire loss during the day was 21 enlisted men killed, 5 officers and 72 enlisted men wounded, and 2 missing. A list of the names, as furnished by the captains of companies, has been forwarded to the Adjutant General.
Colonel Steere commends in the highest terms the conduct of the regiment upon that day. I can only add that throughout the day I never saw an officer but that he was encouraging and directing his men.
The men fought well, as is proved by the fact that they were engaged constantly with the enemy during nine or ten hours, all of which time they were under arms; that they finally broke, under such a very severe fire, and the pressure of a broken regiment, is not surprising, although much to be regretted. Of the present state of the regiment I have only the most favorable report to give.
By direction of Colonel Steere, I have organized the regiment into eight companies, the members of Companies I and K being divided among the others temporarily, although in all reports and musters they will be borne upon their own rolls. In this way officers are gained to officer the other companies, and the companies are made practically larger. The three days just spent in camp although broken by marching orders, have in part rested the men from the fatigues of the two battles and constant marches to which they have been subjected since the 4th of this month. The temporary loss of its commanding officer at the time when his experience can be of so much use is a severe blow to the regiment.
I have the honor to be, sir, very respectfully, your obedient servant,
JOSEPH B. CURTIS,
Lieutenant-Colonel, Commanding Fourth Rhode Island.
Source: OFFICIAL RECORDS: Series 1, Vol 19, Part 1 (Antietam - Serial 27) , Pages 455 - 458