Clarence Hill – Known and Unknown

ECW welcomes guest author Lawrence S. Freund

On September 16, 1862, Second Lieutenant Clarence Hill was 380 miles from his New York home, and just a couple of miles and perhaps 12 hours from his destiny on the battlefield of Antietam. After days of hard marching, Hill’s regiment of the Union’s Army of the Potomac, part of the Second Corps, had arrived at a Keedysville, Maryland, farmstead owned by the Pry family.[1] There in Keedysville they found “a most remarkable spring of water.” “It gushed out from under a shelving rock, formed a deep reservoir, and then flowed off down the hillside in a beautiful river of sparkling water, enough for each, enough for all, enough for evermore,” recalled one veteran of the regiment. “The thirsty men came to drink as men never drank before.”[2]  For many of those who filled their canteens at the spring, the water would be their life’s final draught.

Clarence Hill was born in about 1840 to a family of modest circumstance in an increasingly prosperous area of New York State, Oswego County. His father was a mechanic and a minor civil office holder, both a Democrat and an abolitionist.[3] When the Civil War commenced in the spring of 1861, Hill volunteered, answering the call of President Lincoln for 75,000 men to serve in the Union Army. Hill travelled to Crown Point, New York, where he joined a local company that would eventually become part of the 34th New York Volunteer Infantry Regiment.

The regiment was mustered into the federal service on June 15, 1861, and arrived at its first duty post, Washington, D.C., on July 5. From there, the 34th was ordered to guard the northern banks of the Potomac River separating Union-held Montgomery County, Maryland, from Confederate troops in Northern Virginia. Days later, while still assigned to the Potomac River area, Clarence Hill’s Company H of the 34th Regiment underwent leadership changes following the departure of its captain. In the series of promotions that followed, Hill, still an entry-rank private, was elevated to second lieutenant.

Detail of map showing burials in the 34th Regiment’s area of combat on the Antietam battlefield. New York Public Library.

Following its engagement in what became known as the Peninsula Campaign, the Army of the Potomac, including the 34th Regiment, was sent by ship to the Washington, D.C., area, and then, on September 8, 1862, the 34th marched to nearby Rockville, Maryland, “where we hear(d),” wrote regimental historian Louis Chapin, “that Lee has crossed the Potomac River at Muddy Branch, with forty thousand men.” From Rockville, the 34th marched through Maryland, arriving in the town of Keedysville on September 15. “For some time, the rebel forces had been gathering on the hills around Sharpsburg three miles to the west, and here was to be our next great battle,” recalled Chapin.[4]

The 34th Regiment departed Keedysville at 7:30 AM, forded Antietam Creek and marched through what would become known as the East Woods and then through an open field filled with corn stalks. Facing them was a timbered area that was later called the West Woods, “into which,” reported the regiment’s commander, Col. James A. Suiter, “I moved my command, still at double-quick, arriving at about twenty yards in rear of a schoolhouse, when I discovered the enemy under the hill. I immediately ordered my command to fire, which they did in gallant order.”[5] The “schoolhouse” mentioned by Suiter was in fact a plain, whitewashed church belonging to the Dunker (also described as “Dunkard”) Protestant sect. Francis A. Walker, historian of the Union Army’s Second Corps, recorded the advance of Major General John Sedgwick’s Division, including the 34th Regiment, through the open field. “It was a beautiful sight, those three lines of battle as they emerged from the first belt of woods, passed through the corn-field, ripe almost to the harvest – and moving steadily westward, crossed the Hagerstown pike. But, surely, they are not going to attack the enemy in that order! … And where are the brigades that are to support them on the right and left, and protect the flanks of this perilously dense column?”[6]

Ninety-eight men of the 34th New York Volunteer Infantry Regiment were wounded during its engagement at the Battle of Antietam on September 17, 1862. Forty-six men were killed, among them 22-year-old Second Lieutenant Clarence Hill. The following day, Lee began to withdraw his troops from Maryland, crossing the Potomac River to safety in Virginia. McClellan chose not to pursue the retreating Confederates. The 34th Regiment remained in the Antietam area until September 22, when its survivors began their march to Harper’s Ferry and then to the familiar camping ground at Bolivar Heights, overlooking Harper’s Ferry. There on September 24, Col. James Suiter paused to write to Edwin Hill in Oswego, explaining that it was his “painful duty” to inform Hill of the death of his son.

He was killed by a gunshot wound in the leg, he dying almost instantly, at the Battle of Antietam, Md., on the 17th inst., while gallantly leading his company in that terrible fight… He left no effects of value, as we were compelled to fall back, and the body was left within the lines of the rebels until the 19th inst., when the ground was recovered and his body decently buried near the spot where he fell, by a church, on the Turnpike leading to Williamsport. A board was placed at the head of his grave with rank and name marked thereon, and a rustic fence built to indicate the place where rests the body of our comrade and friend – the brave and heroic Lieut. E.C. Hill.[7]

Dunker Church, Library of Congress.

Antietam is generally considered the deadliest and bloodiest single-day battle in U.S. history. “Twenty-three thousand men and untold numbers of horses and mules lay killed or wounded,” writes historian Drew Gilpin Faust.[8] “Frequently” – as in the case of Clarence Hill – “closest comrades had sworn to provide one another with ‘a decent burial,’ and men searched the field in the nights and days after great battles to locate missing friends and relatives. Soldiers did the best they could to make such internments respectful.”[9] The bereaved, writes Faust, were often forced to rely on themselves to retrieve the remains of their lost kin. There is, however, no evidence that Clarence Hill’s father or other members of his family sought to retrieve Clarence’s remains from the battlefield.

On October 4, 1866, burial parties started reinterring the dead Union soldiers at the new National Cemetery at Antietam, completing their work in August 1867, including the remains of Union soldiers brought from elsewhere in northwestern Maryland. According to a Federal report, published in 1869, there were 4,667 dead interred in the cemetery (an 1867 report listed 4,695 burials, 2,903 of them known, 1,792 unknown).[10]

In her carefully researched dissertation on the Antietam battlefield and cemetery, Susan Trail – later the superintendent of Antietam National Battlefield – recalled a writer’s observation of a farmer plowing in what became known as the Cornfield, “leaving uprooted headboards behind him in the furrows.”[11] That seems to have been the fate of the headboard carefully placed over the grave of Clarence Hill by the survivors of the 34th Regiment. There is no evidence that Clarence Hill’s grave was later identified and there is no way to check the list of identified battlefield gravesites compiled after the battle by Sharpsburg resident Aaron Good and later submitted to the National Cemetery trustees because it apparently no longer exists, perhaps destroyed by the cemetery managers when it had served its purpose.

In his history of the 34th Regiment, Louis Chapin wrote, “There was an effort made to gather all the dead buried on these fields into the National Cemetery; but of the forty-three men from the Thirty-fourth, killed and buried here, only eleven sleep in identified graves.”[12] Clarence Hill is not among them. In Col. Suiter’s letter to Edwin Hill in Oswego, he wrote of the “gallant” Clarence Hill. “No more will he awake at the tap of the drum at early dawn,” he continued, “to arouse his men to appear at revile roll-call. No more shall the music of musketry incite him to deeds of noble daring.”[13]

Antietam National Cemetery, circa 1890

Clarence Hill left no letters or diaries for future generations to read, he is little remembered in his home community and he died with no acknowledged “deeds of noble daring,” one of some 5,000 soldiers dead at the Battle of Antietam, perhaps 750,000 who died during the war. Despite the efforts of his regimental comrades, his final resting place remains unknown, one of more than 1,800 acknowledged unknown burials in Antietam’s National Cemetery.

Lawrence S. Freund is a former news correspondent and news editor. A graduate of Queens College (City University of New York) and the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, he has written widely on various aspects of American history.


[1] “The Pry Farm,” National Park Service, (accessed 26 September 2022).

[2] Louis N. Chapin, A Brief History of the Thirty-Fourth Regiment, N.Y.S.V (reprinted as To Sacrifice, To Suffer, And If Need Be To Die: A History of the Thirty-Fourth New York Regiment, Galpin Civil War Roundtable, Little Falls, NY, 1998), 60.

[3] “Death of E.M. Hill,” Oswego Daily Times, 3 July 1890, 1; “Edmund (sic) M. Hill, The Sandy Creek News, 3 July 1890, 5.

[4] Chapin, 61.

[5] Ibid., 62.

[6] Ezra A. Carman, The Maryland Campaign of September 1862, Joseph Pierro, ed. (Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group, New York, 2008), 259.

[7] James A. Suiter letter to Edwin M Hill, ”Lieut. E. Clarence Hill,” Commercial Times (Oswego, N.Y.), 7 October 1862.

[8] Drew Gilpin Faust, This Republic of Suffering (Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 2008), 66.

[9] Ibid., 76.

[10] Charles W. Snell and Sharon A. Brown, Antietam National Battlefield and National Cemetery, Sharpsburg, Maryland: An Administrative History, (U.S. Department of the Interior/National Park Service, Washington, D.C., 1986), 15-16.

[11] Susan W. Trail, “Remembering Antietam: Commemoration and Preservation of a Civil War Battlefield,” PhD Diss. (University of Maryland, College Park, 2005), 66.

[12] Chapin, 67.

[13] Suiter letter.

3 Responses to Clarence Hill – Known and Unknown

  1. Wonderful article. The public recognition Lieutenant Hill apparently did not receive in the aftermath of his death is finally accorded him here.

  2. A moving piece. This fall I visited Antietam, including the ground contested by the 34 th NY.

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