“The Batteries On Each Side Ceased Firing”: Civilians In Antietam’s Cross Fire

This marker points to the vicinity of the house.

While the Confederate and Union artillery guns dueled during the morning hours of September 17, 1862, their shells flew over the farm land and homes of local civilians. Long before the Sharpsburg area became a battlefield, it was quiet community with large, prosperous farms. The bloodiest day in American History wrecked the civilian prosperity and forever altered how the landscape would be remembered.

Though many civilian homes and farms were caught in the battle’s crossfire, the Nicodemus family home stood in the middle of the artillery barrage during the early morning hours. As Confederate Captain John Pelham’s guns engaged in a deadly argument with artillery batteries under the watchful eye of Union General Henry J. Hunt, chief of artillery for the Army of the Potomac, shot and shell exploded around the Nicodemus House, prompting a panicked response from the civilians sheltering inside.

W.W. Blackford, a Confederate cavalry officer on the left flank, later remembered the incident:

Between our cavalry lines and the enemy stood a handsome country house in which, it seems, all the women and children in the neighborhood had assembled for mutual protection, not thinking that part of the country would be the scene of conflict. Between us and the house was a roughly ploughed field. When the cannonade began, the house happened to be right in the line between Pelham’s battery and that of the enemy occupying the opposite hills, the batteries firing clear over the top of the house at each other. When the crossing shells began screaming over the house, its occupants thought their time had come, and like a flock of birds they came streaming out in “Mother Hubbards,” and even less, hair streaming in the wind and children of all ages stretched out behind, and tumbling at every step over the clods of the ploughed field. Every time one would fall, the rest thought it was the result of a cannon shot and ran the faster. It was impossible to keep from laughing at this sudden eruption and impossible to persuade them to return. I galloped out to meet them and represented to them that they were safe, probably, where they had been, but it was no use; so swinging up before and behind as many children as my horse could carry, I escorted them to our lines and quieted the fears of the party, assuring them that they were not in danger of immediate death. Seeing what was going on, the batteries on each side ceased firing until the little party was disposed of.

The puzzling, slightly humorous incident has a significant moment. Researching a little farther reveals that Pelham ordered his guns to cease firing when he saw the civilians moving into a dangerous open field. Across the lines, Hunt took note of the cease fire, looked with field glasses, and also ordered a pause. While the women’s panicked decision could have had disastrous and tragic consequences, they were lucky to have run onto the artillery field of two gentlemen officers.

The incident—though lacking military significance—serves as an account of respect and humanity in the midst of one of the fiercest battles in U.S. History. Both Pelham and Hunt recognized the danger to the innocent, foolish noncombatants and paused their deadly duel to allow the women and children to reach safety.

Sources:

Blackford, W.W. The War Years With Jeb Stuart. (Louisiana State University, 1945, 1993). Page 150-151

Maxwell, Jerry. The Perfect Lion. (University of Alabama Press, Tuscaloosa, 2011.) Page 159.

About Sarah Kay Bierle

I’m Sarah Kay Bierle, historian, editor, and historical fiction writer. When sharing history, I try to keep the facts interesting and understandable. History is about real people, real actions, real effects and it should inspire us today.
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2 Responses to “The Batteries On Each Side Ceased Firing”: Civilians In Antietam’s Cross Fire

  1. Robert Rainey says:

    Heart warming story, thanks Sarah.

  2. Renee Howe says:

    My favorite pieces of battles usually have to do with civilian experiences. This is a beautiful glimpse of how soldiers did not get lost in the fog of war. It really shows the humanity of all involved. From the men in charge to the mothers in the house trying to protect their children from hard. Thank you so much for sharing this. It is not something that is seen everyday.

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