A Casualty at Antietam

The afternoon grew late before the 23rd Ohio Volunteer Infantry finally joined the fray. The battle at Antietam had waged since the early morning hours of September 17, 1863. However, as part of Maj. Gen. Ambrose Burnside’s IX Corps, the 23rd had sat across Antietam Creek, listening to the battle ebb and flow throughout the day to their right. Finally, Burnside’s men moved forward, attempting to force a crossing over a stone bridge in their front. With stout Confederate resistance on the opposite bank, other units of Burnside’s command took a different path into the growing fight on the Federal left flank. 

The 23rd Ohio was part of Col. Hugh Ewing’s brigade of the Kanawha division in Burnside’s corps. The Ohioans, as well as their sister regiments in the brigade, experienced trying days over the last week. The hard-marching had taken its toll on the unit since early September, but the worst was still ahead. On September 14, the 23rd Ohio fought valiantly at the battle of South Mountain, taking heavy casualties during the fight. Because of the losses of the most recent battle, a massive leadership shakeup posed yet another challenge for the unit to overcome in the subsequent days.

With the death of General Jesse Reno at South Mountain on September 14, Jacob Cox, commanding the Kanawha division during most of the Maryland campaign, was elevated to command of the IX Corps. Although the corps belonged to Burnside, he had been given the task of commanding one of the wings of the Union army since early in the campaign. Between Burnside’s elevation and Reno’s death, a new commander for the Kanawha division was needed. Col. Eliakim Scammon, late commander of the 23rd Ohio Volunteer Infantry, was tapped for the job. Scammon, commanding the brigade in which the 23rd belonged at time, now needed replaced. Col. Hugh Ewing, brother-in-law and foster brother of William T. Sherman filled the vacancy. The command shuffle was not over, however. Lt. Col. Rutherford B. Hayes, one of two future presidents that served with the 23rd during the war, had been wounded at Fox’s Gap on September 14. With Hayes out of action, the 23rd needed a new commander. Filling Hayes’ role as regimental commander was Maj. James M. Comly. Thus, in the course of just two weeks, command changes and casualties left the 23rd, and other units of the IX Corps, with new corps, division, brigade, and regimental commanders. How these new commanders would perform in the coming days was yet to be seen.

As other units of the IX Corps attempted to cross Antietam Creek at the lower bridge, Ewing’s brigade was tasked with finding another crossing site downstream, maneuver across the stream, and then flank the Confederate forces defending the bridge out of position. After some time, the brigade and the 23rd found a suitable location to get across. Splashing across the the Antietam at Snavely’s Ford, Ewing’s men moved forward into position to join the rest of the IX Corps units assembling for a final push against the Confederate right flank. (The two 51st’s, the 51st Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry and 51st New York Volunteer Infantry, had succeeded in getting across the lower bridge, driving the Georgian defenders from the position. The flanking party had little effect in materially assisting the main effort to get across at the lower bridge.) 

Once the weight of the IX Corps’ attack moved forward, it was not long before the 23rd Ohio had reached a stonewall in their front. As Major Comly and his men paused at this position, the terrain, casualties, and speed of the attack having disorganized the ranks, the major looked to reform, regain command and control, and utilize the strong defensive position for the time being. While paused at the wall, off to his left flank, Comly noticed bright, blue Union uniforms. The uniforms looked brand new, having only recently been issued. Comly believed reinforcements had arrived on his left. His assessment had dire consequences for the men in the 23rd. 

The soldiers maneuvering off to his left that Comly believed to be Federal reinforcements were actually North Carolinians of Brig. Gen. Lawrence O. Branch’s brigade. Part of Maj. Gen. A.P. Hill’s Light Division, these North Carolinians had been part of the capture and plunder of the Federal garrison at Harpers Ferry, trading worn and tattered uniforms for new Union blue. Believing them to be support, Comly ordered his men to hold their fire. By the time the Confederates finally opened on Comly’s line, they had moved completely on his flank and in his rear. The results of the Ohioans holding their fire and allowing their position to being outflanked were deadly. After being fired upon, and realizing this was not friendly fire, Comly quickly ordered his men to change front to meet the new threat, but casualties mounted. Orders came down the line to the Federal units around the Ohioans to fall back. Unfortunately, those same orders did not initially reach Comly, and Hill’s ferocious assault continued to inflict damage to the ranks of the Buckeyes. Finally, the orders to fall back reached Comly, but it was too late for over twenty-percent of his command. 

Cenotaph of Charles Long in a churchyard cemetery in Poland, Ohio.

Among the eight killed, fifty-nine wounded, and two missing-in-action was twenty-two year-old Charles M. Long of Poland, Ohio. Poland, a small village just outside of Youngstown, Ohio and only several miles from the Pennsylvania border, had been home to the Long family for over a decade by the time Charles enlisted in the 23rd Ohio Volunteer Infantry in 1861. Now, with the death of their son, and their inability to retrieve his remains from the Antietam battlefield, the Long family, father John and mother Jemima, erected a cenotaph in honor of their son at their local house of worship, Poland Presbyterian Church. Today, the cenotaph still remains in the old graveyard located next to the church. Inscribed under Charles’ name was a painful reminder of the cost of this war for the nation and the Longs, “He laid down his life for the country he loved.” Charles remains now rest inside Antietam National Cemetery where they were placed during the removal of the Union dead from the battlefield during its creation.

The loss of Charles must have been too much for his grieving parents in the coming years with the daily reminders of his loss ever present in Poland. By 1870, the family had moved westward and had settled in Kansas where they remained on the census rolls through 1900. Charles’ story is just one of the more than 23,000 stories of the casualties at Antietam. Despite more than 157 years of time, if we listen closely, their stories still have much to tell.

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