Maj. Hilary Herbert’s Antietam After-Action Report

Richard H. Anderson (courtesy of the National Park Service)

While the actions of Richard H. Anderson’s division on September 17, 1862 are generally known, pinning down specifics has always been difficult. Mostly, that is due to the fact that only one after-action report from the entire division (and it is not from Anderson himself) was reproduced in the Official Records. Robert K. Krick, in his essay about Confederates in the Sunken Road in Gary Gallagher’s The Antietam Campaign anthology illustrates the issue of determining the movements of Anderson’s division and its various brigades:

The disintegration of R. H. Anderson’s division can be seen distinctly from the official reports of its brigades: there are none. Not only did no official report for the division find its way into the published Official Records; there is also none for any of its six brigades, and only a report for one of the twenty-six regiments that made up those brigades. The report of Capt. Abram M. “Dode” Feltus, senior officer present with the 16th Mississippi, is the only one in that standard source out of a potential thirty-three documents. The lacuna frustrates historians; it also illustrates the paucity of command in the division on September 17 (and the haphazard way in which R. H. Anderson administered his division when he returned to its command).[1]

Volume Three of the Supplement to the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, published in 1994, contains a brief (and useless when it comes to Antietam) paragraph written by Col. William A. Parham, commanding Mahone’s brigade, and a report for Ambrose Wright’s brigade written by Col. William Gibson, third in charge of the brigade and its commander at the close of battle on September 17. These two sources bring the number of documents from Anderson’s division up to three out of the 33 Krick counted. Now, here is the fourth (Krick cites Herbert’s report but since it was written in 1864 likely does not count it as an after-action report). It has been cited before in other works but has been used sparingly in studies of the Maryland Campaign.

In 1977, Maurice Fortin published Maj. Hilary Herbert’s History of the Eighth Alabama Volunteer Regiment, C.S.A. in the 1977 issue of The Alabama Historical Quarterly. Herbert was the commanding officer of the 8th Alabama, part of Wilcox’s brigade, at the Battle of Antietam. I stumbled upon Fortin’s work while researching Herbert’s interesting postwar career.

In his previously unpublished history, Herbert specifically notes the lack of sources from Anderson’s division and so fully quotes a report of the 8th Alabama at Antietam “as written in camp at Orange, C. H., in 1864, and approved by the officers who were participants.” Herbert continued, “it therefore happens that this report, written in camp, for the Adjutant General of Alabama is the only official report ever made of our part, or the part taken by Wilcox’s Brigade, in that battle, so far as I have been able to discover.” Now, there are four of the potential 33 accounts from Anderson’s division to see the light of day. The report of the 8th Alabama is reproduced below from Fortin’s article, “Colonel Hilary A. Herbert’s ‘History of the Eighth Alabama Volunteer Regiment, C.S.A.,” which includes parenthetical additions added by Herbert when he wrote his history.

A postwar image of Hilary Herbert (courtesy of the Harvard Art Museum)

Leaving Sharpsburg to our right we made a detour to our left, passing beyond the town and through open fields exposed for a half mile to a withering fire of artillery. Rising a hill into an apple orchard[2]and still marching by the right flank, we came within grape shot range of the enemy’s batteries and within reach of their small arms. We moved forward through a field of corn,[3]which sloped downward from an orchard (near Pfeiffer’s house), and went ‘forward in line,’ on the right opposite the enemy. (Before we had gotten into line Colonel Cumming,[4] commanding the brigade, was wounded and compelled to leave the field.) The fight now became furious. Our Division occupied about the right center of the line, our Brigade on the right of the Division. On the right of the Brigade was a gap in the line unoccupied. (So great was this gap that no Confederates were in sight on our right.) Before getting into position we had lost heavily; Captain Nall[5]had been temporarily disabled by a shell and Lieutenant (A. H.) Ravesies,[6]acting Adjutant, had received a severe wound in the leg.

A compact line of infantry about 120 yards in our front poured a well-directed fire upon us, which we answered rapidly and with effect.

A battery of artillery about forty-five degrees to our right[7](A conversation with Federal General [Ezra A.] Carman whom on a recent visit I found in charge of the battlefield now under Government supervision, developed the fact that this battery was on a height across the Antietam river.) and another at a similar angle on our left,[8]concentrated shells upon us with terrible accuracy. We were unsupported by any artillery on our portion of the line.

Sergeant J. P. Harris, bearing the flag, was soon wounded. Corporal Thomas Ryan of Company E immediately took the colors and was shortly afterwards mortally wounded.

Sergeant James Castello of Company G then seized the flag. Ammunition was being exhausted and men were using the cartridge boxes of their dead and wounded comrades. The enemy’s line in front of us wavered and portions of it broke, but it was re-inforced by fresh troops. Our line to the left was being pushed back by overwhelming numbers. Major Herbert gave the order to the regiment, and we fell back slowly. About three hundred yards in the rear we found Major (John W.) Fairfax, General Longstreet’s ‘Fighting Aide’ as the soldiers called him, endeavoring to rally the troops that had fallen back before us.

Despatching Lieutenant (M. G.) McWilliams (of Co. B.) and two men after ammunition, Major Williams (of the 9th)[9]and Major Herbert railed about 100 men of the brigade and moved forward again. Rising the hill into the apple orchard before spoken of, the enemy were observed coming through the cornfield in front in a strong line. Pouring a volley into them and charging them with a shout, we routed them completely. They rallied, however, and seeing how few we were, formed behind a rock fence on the opposite ridge about 100 yards distant. Taking post in the orchard, the unequal fire was kept up until our numbers gradually melting away under the fire of the enemy (Note: The batteries over the river were firing on us.), it became impracticable to hold the ground longer, and the order was given to retire.

The 10:30 a.m. Antietam Battlefield Board map shows the movement of Wilcox’s Brigade through the Piper Orchard and Cornfield.

Major Williams had now been wounded and the command of the Brigade devolved on Major Herbert, who rallied about fifty men and again advanced to the apple orchard. Here the combat was renewed with exactly the same result. The enemy were again advancing through the cornfield, were again driven back, and again took position behind the rock fence. We retained our position in the apple orchard and continued the fight, the enemy’s balls playing fearful havoc in our ranks. The flag bearer, Sergeant Castello, whose gallantry had been conspicuous throughout the day, received a musket ball through the head. Major Herbert took up the colors, but shortly afterwards gave them to Sergeant G. T. L. Robinson of Company B,[10] who insisted upon his right to carry them. Soon he too fell wounded, and Private W. G. McCloskie of Company G[11]took the flag and carried it gallantly through the day. (Thus the flag that day was carried successively by five different persons.)

From their position behind the rock fence, and with the artillery across the Antietam, the enemy commanded the orchard. It, therefore, became necessary to fall back again, which was done by order, the enemy not again attempting to occupy the disputed ground until later in the evening.

It was near sunset; A. P. Hill’s Division had come up and was hotly engaged with the enemy on our right. (The gap on our right heretofore spoken of as unoccupied was the gap between us and A. P. Hill. We saw no one on our right till A. P. Hill came up.) The enemy making no further attempt against our portion of the line we had moved over to support General A. P. Hill’s left. The enemy (those in our former front) now attempted to gain such a position as to command our left flank.[12]

Brigadier General (Philip) Cook, commanding a brigade of Georgians[13] and with whom Major Herbert was now cooperating, saw this movement, and we changed front to meet it. The nature of the ground permitted us to shift our position without being seen. The enemy now came confidently forward. We were in line just in front of them but concealed by the crest of a hill. When they arrived within thirty yards of us we rose, poured a volley into, and charged them. They fled in confusion, leaving us in possession of the oft-disputed apple orchard and seventeen prisoners besides their wounded. (Note: This possession was only temporary. The artillery over the river compelled us to seek shelter back of the hill behind us.) Thus closed the battle along our position of the line.

On the next day we held our position but there was no serious engagement. (Note: We lost one man under very singular circumstances. He was with the regiment which was lying in its position of the evening before, when a musket ball killed him coming from the enemy’s direction, but we heard no sound of a gun nor did we see or hear any skirmishing during the day.) Our loss in this battle was seventy-eight killed and wounded out of 120 carried into the fight. After the battle, the following men were complimented for gallantry in special orders from regimental headquarters.

            Sergeant G. T. L. Robinson, now Captain, Company B.
Sergeant G. B. Gould. Company G (later appointed 2nd Lt. for gallantry).[14]
Sergeant George Hatch, Company F (later 1st Lt.).
Sergeant (Charles F.) Brown, Company D (later 2nd Lt.).
Private L. P. Bulger, Company B (afterwards Sergeant and killed at Gettysburg).
Private W. G. Mccloskie, Company G.[15]
Private James Ryan, Company I.
Private Peter Smith, Company G.
Private Charles Rob, Company G.
Private John Herbert, Company H.
Private John Callahan, Company C.

“Here ends the official account of the battle written at Orange, C. H.,” Herbert concluded. In his personal narrative about the Battle of Antietam, Herbert also included “the roll of honor as made up by the men for this battle”:

Corporal David Tucker, Company A.
Private John Curry, Company C.
Sergeant T(homas) S. Ryan, Company E.
Sergeant James Castello, Company G—killed.
Private J(ohn) Herbert, Company H—killed.
Private O. M. Harris, Company K—killed.
Private G. T. L. Robinson, Company B.
Private C. F. Brown, Company D.
Corporal J. R. Searcy, Company F.
Private James Ryan, Company I.

“It will be seen that this roll of men is somewhat different from the list of those specially complimented in Major Herbert’s order from regimental headquarters,” wrote Herbet, “the men desiring to honor some not specially mentioned in the regimental order.”

In his history of the 8th Alabama, Herbert wrapped up his chapter on Antietam with the following postscript related to his 1864 report of the regiment’s actions on September 17, 1862:

What I peculiarly regret is that no report of the part taken by Wilcox’s Brigade in this, which was the bloodiest of its battles, appears in the Official Records published at Washington. No report was ever made. General Wilcox[16] was absent, sick; Colonel Cumming, temporarily in command, was disabled by a wound before we had gotten fairly into the fight. Major Williams commanded for less than an hour. I was in command for the remainder of the day, and did not make a report for what appears to me now the clearly insufficient reason that I was not called upon to do so.[17]A sense of justice to the command ought to have given me the courage to take the initiative and send in a full report. Having failed then, I now make amends, as far as may be, by publishing verbatim the report given above, which is official in the sense that, in obedience to the order of the Governor of Alabama, it was written in camp and was submitted to and approved by those who had participated, and it has necessarily included not only the 8th Alabama Regiment, but the handful of men then constituting the Brigade, as showing the park taken by the 8th. The losses of the 5 Regiments of the Brigade were, for the Maryland campaign, and we were not elsewhere engaged, 215 and of these 78 were in our regiment.[18], [19]

[1] Krick, “It Appeared As Though Mutual Extermination Would Put a Stop to the Awful Carnage: Confederates in Sharpsburg’s Bloody Lane,” 240.

[2] Piper Orchard.

[3] Piper Cornfield.

[4] Col. Alfred Cumming.

[5] Either Capt. Duke Nall or Capt. James C. Nall.

[6] Lt. A. H. Ravises.

[7] Either Lt. Bernhard Wever’s Battery A, 1st Battalion, New York Light Artillery, or Capt. Robert Langner’s Battery C, 1st Battalion, New York Light Artillery.

[8] Either Capt. Charles Owen’s Battery G, 1st Rhode Island Light Artillery, or Capt. John Tompkins’ Battery A, 1st Rhode Island Light Artillery.

[9] Maj. Jeremiah “Jere” Henry Johnston Williams.

[10] Listed as G. T. L. Robison in the regimental roster on “The American Civil War Research Database.”

[11] The closest name found in the 8th Alabama’s roster is Peter McCluskey, Company E.

[12] 7th Maine Infantry.

[13] Lt. Col. Philip Cook, 4th Georgia Infantry. Col. George Doles, 4th Georgia Infantry, rose to command Ripley’s brigade when Brig. Gen. Roswell Ripley was wounded. No source, excepting this 8th Alabama report, indicates that Doles relinquished command of the brigade to Lt. Col. Cook.

[14] Possibly 2nd Lt. B. E. Gould, Company G.

[15] See note 11.

[16] Brig. Gen. Cadmus Wilcox.

[17] This corroborates Krick’s statement above about R. H. Anderson’s administration of his division.

[18] Carman, Clemens ed., The Maryland Campaign of September 1862, vol. 2, 602, tallies the brigade’s casualties as 244 total.

[19] Herbert’s report and the italicized sections of this article can be found in Maurice S. Fortin, ed. “Colonel Hilary A. Herbert’s ‘History of the Eighth Alabama Volunteer Regiment, C.S.A.,” The Alabama Historical Quarterly 39 (1977): 77-84. The full digital edition of Fortin’s article can be found at https://archive.org/details/alabama-historical-quarterly-v39n0104.

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2 Responses to Maj. Hilary Herbert’s Antietam After-Action Report

  1. John Horn says:

    Colonel William A. Parham (not “Parran”) of the 41st Virginia led the remnant of Mahone’s brigade at Sharpsburg/Antietam. The brigade took into action 12 officers and 70 men and was attached to Pryor’s brigade. Brig. Gen. Roger A. Pryor took command of Anderson’s division when Anderson was wounded in the approach to Bloody Lane. “The Petersburg Regiment…” (Savas Beatie, 2019) (winner of the 2019 Army Historical Foundation Distinguished Writing Award for Unit History), 115-117. No official reports from Mahone’s brigade survive.
    The 8th Alabama was a truly outstanding unit, with 300 killed or dead of wounds during the war. (The 5th New Hampshire, the Federal infantry regiment with the greatest number of killed or mortally wounded, had 295; some heavy artillery regiments had more.)

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