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Col William H Irwin's Official Report

Report of September 22, 1862 on Crampton's Gap and Antietam

W. H. Irwin

[author biography]

Camp near Williamsport, Md., September 22, 1862.

Assistant Adjutant-General.

MAJOR: In obedience to a division order, I have the honor to report that on the 14th instant this brigade was ordered to support Brigadier-General Brooks, who was engaged with the enemy at Crampton's Pass. It moved rapidly and steadily through Burkittsville. The shells thrown at its flank from the battery south of the pass did no injury. The crest of the mountain was reached after dark, and finding that the enemy had broken and that General Brooks had marched in pursuit into the valley, I reported to him just beyond the pass, and by his order established the Seventh Maine, Twentieth, Thirty-third, and Seventy-seventh New York Volunteers close in rear of Captain Ayres' battery, and sent forward the Forty-ninth New York Volunteers as skirmishers by the road leading to the Catoctin Mountain. Several prisoners were taken during the night.

We were encamped at the pass until Wednesday, the 17th, when we moved with the division toward Sharpsburg, near which very heavy and continuous firing was heard, and about 10 o'clock a. m. we formed on the field of battle near Antietam Creek, on the left of the First Brigade, and were instantly ordered into action by Major-General Smith, two of the regiments, the Thirty-third and Seventy-seventh New York, as skirmishers on the right, the Seventh Maine, Forty-ninth and Twentieth New York in line. The brigade, animated by the words and example of General Smith and by its own officers, dashed at the enemy in high spirits and good order, and was soon hotly engaged with them, but they could not endure our charge, and broke in confusion. A severe and unexpected volley from the woods on our right struck full on the Seventy-seventh and Thirty-third New York, which staggered them for a moment, but they closed up and faced by the rear rank, and poured in a close and scorching fire, driving back and scattering the enemy at this point. As soon as my line was formed, facing the belt of the woods and the open ground to its right, the men were ordered down. Pickets were posted on the crest of a small hill along our front, and all kept in readiness to hold firmly to the position or to attack. A battery of the enemy advanced and played with severity along my flank and through the line of the Twentieth New York, which, from the nature of the ground, was compelled to refuse its left, and thus received the fire along its entire front. Sharpshooters from the woods to the right and to the extreme left also opened upon us. Shell, grape, and canister swept from left to right. The practice of the enemy was rapid and very accurate, and in a short time our loss was very heavy, and the dead and wounded encumbered our ranks. They were carried to the rear to a temporary hospital, where Asst. Surg. Richard Curran, Thirty-third New York Volunteers, was assiduous in his attention to the wounded.

About 4.30 o'clock Captain Upton, chief of artillery of Slocum's division, rode to my line, and after we had examined the ground in front of the left attentively, I decided to accept the battery which he earnestly advised me to have planted there. Not a minute could be lost; the enemy were massing in front with the evident design of throwing a powerful column against my left, and they could not be seen, except from that part of the line. I instantly sent word to Major-General Smith, who approved the movement, and I requested Captain Upton to order up the battery, which came into action very promptly, and opened with three rifled guns, which, after playing on the masses of the enemy with great effect for half an hour, were withdrawn, and their places supplied by a battery of Napoleon guns, the fire of which was terribly destructive. These guns were of inestimable value to us, and the coolness and precision with which they were served deserve the highest commendation. It gives me very great pleasure to acknowledge how much I was indebted to Captain Upton, and to the officers and men under his command.

When the battery was in full play, a skirt of wood on my left and front was occupied by sharpshooters, whom, for the protection of the battery, it was necessary to dislodge. The Seventh Maine, under its gallant major (Thomas W. Hyde), was sent forward for this purpose, which they executed in admirable style. The regiment advanced in front of the skirmishers of the brigade on the left. The major threw out skirmishers, who soon drove in those of the rebels from the edge of the corn-field, and the hollow lying this side the timber. The battalion was ordered forward, and ad the enemy opened fire on it from the front and left flank, a charge was ordered, and, with fixed bayonets, the men rushed forward in line with a cheer, advancing nearly a quarter of a mile at the double-quick. The body of the enemy in the orchard to the left being flanked, broke and ran. Those directly in front, behind hay-stacks and outbuildings, also broke, and their colors having fallen, this gallant regiment pushed on up the hill to secure them, when a rebel regiment suddenly rose from behind a stone wall on its right, poured in a volley, and at the same time they double-quicked around to the left, to cut off the retreat. Those in front, seeing the small numbers of the enemy, had rallied, and the enemy advanced in force. Four of their rebel flags were seen, and a battery opened upon the regiment with grape, from which, however, they were partly shielded by the trees in the orchard.

Finding the regiment so severely engaged, I was very anxious to support them, but my orders were positive not to advance my line. I rode rapidly forward, and requested the officer commanding the right regiment of the Second Brigade to support Major Hyde, which he declined to do without orders from General Brooks. I then returned to my own line to ask for a support from the rear, but in a few minutes I had the extreme pleasure of seeing the shattered but brave remnant of the Seventh Maine in good order return to my lines.

No words of mine can do justice to the firmness, intelligence, and heroic courage with which this regiment performed its dangerous task. Their killed and wounded and their colors riddled by balls are the proud, yet melancholy, witnesses of their valor. Alone and surrounded by the enemy, they fought until nearly all their cartridges were expended. They then delivered one fierce parting volley, closed their ranks around their color, and fell slowly back to the line of battle.

I cannot forbear calling the attention of the major-general commanding the division to the gallant soldier and gentleman, Major Thomas W. Hyde, who commanded the Seventh Maine. He led his regiment into action with spirit and courage, handled it under severe fire with judgment, and retired in compact order and with a steady front. Conduct like this requires soldierly qualities of the highest order.

The Twentieth New York Volunteers by its position was exposed to the heaviest fire in line, which it bore with unyielding courage and returned at every opportunity. The firmness of this regiment deserves very great praise. Colonel Von Vegesack was under fire with his men constantly, and his calm courage gave an admirable example to them. Each of their stand of colors is rent by the balls and shells of the enemy, and their killed and wounded is 145. This regiment was under my own eye in going into action and frequently during the battle, and I take pleasure in strongly testifying to its bravery and good conduct.

The Forty-ninth New York, led by its brave lieutenant-colonel, W. C. Alberger, charged with the brigade in the morning of the 17th, driving the enemy before it, and then took its place in line of battle, which it firmly held until it was relieved on the 18th. I greatly regret that Colonel Alberger was severely wounded in the face by a splinter of shell. This officer commanded his regiment with spirit and courage, of which no better evidence can be given than his honorable wound.

The Seventy-seventh New York and Thirty-third New York, under Captain N. S. Babcock and Lieutenant Colonel Joseph W. Corning, on my right, repulsed the enemy handsomely, and then took and held firmly their respective places in line of battle until relieved.

The splendid service of the battery of Lieutenant Martin, Fifth Artillery (part of the command of the often distinguished soldier, Captain R. B. Ayres), which was posted near my right, attracted the admiration of all who saw it in action. For several hours it engaged the enemy at short range and with deadly effect. It is but a matter of course that Captain Ayres and his command should receive the most marked and complimentary notice when under fire, but in this action i felt a particular interest in Lieutenant Martin's battery, for to its fire the safety of my brigade may be largely imputed. Had he not checked the heavy fire from the batteries of the enemy, they would have destroyed the greater part of my command.

This brigade charged the enemy at 10 a. m. on the 17th, drove them from their ground, which before had been severely contested, occupied and held it for twenty-six hours until relieved at noon the next day by General Couch's division. It was under fire constantly during this time in a most exposed position, lost 311 in killed and wounded, yet neither officers nor men fell back or gave the slightest evidence of any desire to do so. My line was immovable, only anxious to be launched against the enemy. I forbear comment on such conduct. It will commend itself to the heart and mind of every true soldier.

The commandants of regiments deserve the warmest commendation. They bore all the peril with their men. They constantly encouraged them, and gave them the noblest example of steady bravery. The line officers emulated their superiors, and the list of casualties among them tells how faithfully they did their duty.

Asst. Surg. Richard Curran, Thirty-third New York Volunteers, was in charge of our temporary hospital, which unavoidably was under fire; but he attended faithfully to his severe duties, and I beg to mention this officer with particular commendation. His example is but too rare, most unfortunately.

I beg to call the particular attention of Major-General Smith to the distinguished gallantry of my aide, Captain E. Martindale, and my assistant adjutant-general, Lieutenant William H. Long. Both of them were constantly under the enemy's fire, and gave me the greatest assistance during the battle, and set and excellent example of courage and endurance to the troops. These gentleman were everywhere that they could be of service, and I beg to commend their intelligence, activity, and courage in the highest terms.

Herewith I present a list of the commissioned officers who were present and engaged in the battle of the 17th instant.

I have the honor to be, very respectfully, your most obedient servant,

Colonel, Commanding Third Brigade, Smith's Division.

Source: OFFICIAL RECORDS: Series 1, Vol 19, Part 1 (Antietam - Serial 27) , Pages 409 - 412


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