Story of Antietam (as told to my son)

KA Kendall
12 min readAug 29, 2020

About the storyteller
Dr. Thomas Nelson Lonsdale was my great-great grandfather. At the age of nineteen, he commenced reading medicine at the office of Dr. Z. G. Martin of Otwell, Indiana. He had only read with him one year when, the war breaking out, he enlisted in the 14th Indiana Volunteer Infantry. He remained out until honorably discharged on June 16, 1864. He later went on to graduate from the Cincinnati College of Medicine in 1875.

About Antietam
The Battle of Antietam took place near Sharpsburg, Maryland on September 16, 1862. It was the bloodiest battle of the Civil War with a combined tally of 22,717 dead, wounded, or missing. Considered a strategic win for the Union, the Emancipation Proclamation was issued five days later.

My little son often asks me for a battle story and he is not satisfied with an account of the general movements and result, but wants the minute details of sights, sounds, and individual action. Here is the story of the Battle of Antietam, as told to him and whatever it may lack it has the virtue of being exact truth.

I was a member of Co. “G” 14th Regiment Indiana V. Infantry. We had Sun Services in West Virginia under McClellan and was with Shields in the Valley, and at Winchester when Stonewall Jackson showed his heels to us; in fact we were so fortunate in the first year of our service as to be victorious in every encounter with the enemy; the result was that when we came to Antietam the regiment was in splendid condition and full of confidence. We joined the Army of the Potomac July 3rd, 1862 and were assigned to the first brigade, Gen’l Kimball composed of 7th W. Va 4th and 8th Ohio 2nd Corps Gen’l Sumner. We took but little part in the actions under Popu, and were in reserve at South Mountain. It was a grand sight, and a splendid action. Our troops dislodged the rebel line and drove them in confusion over the Mountain Crest. In the afternoon of Sept. 16th we bivouvacked near Boonsboro. At dark we could see the flashes of Haukens’ guns; he had attacked Lee’s left wing. Sleeping on our arms that night, we well knew that the morrow would see an historic bloody battle; but if that knowledge disturbed the rest of a single soldier I never knew of it; on the contrary, they slept as only tired soldiers can.

Breakfast was prepared and eaten amidst increasing sounds of conflict; scattering shot and shell were lighting here and there in our camp. In imagination I can yet hear the sickening thud of one shell that struck the body of a soldier in the 8th Ohio who was sitting by a fire cooking his breakfast. More than one fire was unceremoniously scattered by spiteful shots; but that failed to lessen our appetites but it was cooking under difficulties, sure enough.

After what seemed to us a long time we fell in, moved toward our center. We forded Antietam Creek and halted in a woods where we were ordered to stack our knapsacks and load our guns. We then advanced across meadows and stubblefields; our brigade maintained a beautiful line; in fact, it never did better on drill. Off to our right we could see Mansfield’s troops moving up. Shells were bursting in every direction and in all directions the Stars & Stripes waved the prettiest sight of all. When we were within thirty or forty rods of the line of battle our Company came to a picket fence enclosing the yard and garden, the minnie balls were by this time singing about our ears quite lively. The boys sprang at those pickets with a cheer, and the fence disappeared as if by magic.

As we entered the yard, an old farmer sprang out of the cellar, and such antics as he cut I never saw before. He waved his old white hat, shouted, jumped up and down, wanted to shake hands with all of us. We reminded him that he was in danger of being shot, he replied “that he had been cooped up two days and was willing to take the chances for the sake of seeing those dirty rebels drove off his farm.” It was camp talk afterwards that this man received a dollar a body for burying rebels and that he chucked a hundred in an old abandoned well on his farm. How true it was I don’t know.

We passed through the yard into an orchard, where we halted and were ordered to lie down; we were now close up to the line of battle engaged but owing to the formation of the land, the balls were mostly going overhead. Immediately in our front was a new regiment and the poor fellows soon became demoralized and began to leave the front, singly and in squads, long before their ammunition was exhausted and we were soon ordered to take their place so we moved up. Paul Tricku, a Vincennes frenchman, was at my left side, and if ever a man really enjoyed a battle he did. I think he positively loved it soon after starting up I heard a vicious whack and an exclamation from Paul, he was shot through the ankle; he raved and swore in French, American, and Choctaw I think, the burden of his complaint was not getting in even one shot; he said he would be satisfied with even one shot. Poor fellow he lost his leg.

Dr. Thomas Nelson Lonsdale in front of the 14th Indiana Monument, East Cemetery Hill, Gettysburg, July 1913

When we came up to the line of battle we found a few gallant fellows standing on a ridge with no protection whatever; and sixty steps in front down the gentle slope in a sunken road was the rebel line mostly North Carolinians they had splendid cover but when our squirrel hunters opened on them it soon changed the look of things. Probably nine men out of ten in our regiment were trained riflemen, and at that distance would have thought nothing of hitting a squirrel every shot. Certainly shooting at men is different game, but if there is only one-fifth the number who have the nerve to act deliberately they would soon destroy an opposing line; and that very thing occurred here in less than a half hour their fire almost ceased; but from over the crest beyond them, we feared (or at least I know I did) a bayonet charge and we did our best to kill them all before they could reach their ditch. It was truly pitiful to see them tumble as they came down the slope, but on they came and in splendid alignment, their colors fell as fast as they were raised and each time they fell there was a man to seize them but he couldn’t more than wave them once until down he would go. When they came to the road they were tired and wanted to rest I guess, at all events they came no further. That pleased us for they were as near as we wanted them.

During the fight I noticed a tall rebel on our left, who seemed to hold our marksmanship in contempt, he stood up straight as a ramrod even while loading his gun, and fired deliberately as if engaged in a match, feeling certain that he was doing us great damage. I turned my attention to him; I fired at him three or four times finally as I was raising my piece for another shot at him he pitched forward on his face and evidently “slept with his fathers.” It is bad policy for a soldier to render himself unnecessarily conspicuous. There was no doubt a hundred men firing at that man, and there could of course be but one result, death. During the battle my rifle (Enfield) became choked and seeing Corporal Thompson down (wounded), I moved over to the right of the Company to exchange with him. Poor fellow he was severely wounded (leg broken) but he lay there under fire; no one seemed to think of leaving to help him off and he didn’t ask it. I have often seen two or three able-bodied fellows assisting a comrade from the field with a mere scratch on the hand.

My tentmaster, Kelso and Laudermand were on this part of the line and I joined them for a short time; with them was Jim Wilson, an old Kentuckian the three were engaged in firing at a battery that had taken position within a hundred and fifty yards of our line a little to our right. The old Kentuckian was in a perfect fury — why he said “we was havin of as purty a infantry fite as you need want to see and this durned battery is showin foul play” as he would raise his rifle to his shoulder he would (say) “now g-d d — m you I’ll fetch you outer thar” the three men stood up both to load and fire. It was Kelso’s first battle and he was wild with the excitement of battle. I urged him to lie down to load at least; “no,” said he, “they can’t hurt me, they have nipped me in the side a little but it don’t hurt.” I soon returned to my place in line, and in a few minutes, looking over to the right I saw both Kelso and Laudermand stretched on the grass dead. Wilson was still hard at work shooting and swearing, but soon a ball shattered both arms and ended the military service of a splendid soldier.

After two or three hours steady fighting the splendid line that took position on the crest seemed broken up into groups or small squads of men with blackened faces and glistening eyes; the sickening thud-thud heard so constantly accounts for it. Numbers are to be seen lying in pools of blood while still greater numbers are writhing under the surgeon's knife. “Faith I’m goin to have a smoke” exclaimed old Sailor Jack of our company. He laid down his musket, took his knife and pipe, carefully cleaned the latter, then took out his plug of “navy,” shredded of a pipeful, picked up a burning cartridge paper, lighted his pipe with a few vigorous puffs, picked up his gun, and went to work again. All this was done as deliberately as though in the field at work.

Many of the rebels when they had enough tried to leave the field, sometimes as many as twenty would spring to their feet and dart to their rear then such another tumbling as would take place, was pitiful to see I am certain that not one of them ever got fifty steps away. One poor fellow fell across the fence, his head on one side and his feet on the other; and remained a target during the rest of the battle there was about seventy balls struck him. Out of ammunition, boys do you remember what a dismal cry that was; it was heard all along our line that day. The officers gathered what they could from the dead and wounded and an ammunition wagon was brought up to the orchard and we soon had plenty.

During the action I was struck on the right wrist by a spent ball, it felt like a good-sized brick had struck me I saw the hole in my blouse sleeve and imagined that my wrist was all spread out of shape. There thought I, my good right arm is gone, upon examination I found only a blue spot and nothing more; I felt somewhat sheepish and went to work again. I noticed a white flag waving in the rebel line for some time but thought it was a wounded man asking for protection in this way; the officers ordered us to cease firing, and the rebels called to us that they wished to surrender. We started to go to them and when near their line were fired on by a line in their rear. Some of the man thinking the flag a ruse fired on it and we resumed our former position — a new line of rebels moved up and the fun began again fast and furious.

The union line on the right of our regiment gave way and we saw the rebel line pass on the double quick their southern crosses spread to the breeze; a more hateful sight I never want to see. This was a new experience to us we had up to this time never seen the stars and stripes fleeing before the bars or cross. The rebel line wheeled and aimed to take our regiment and the 8th Ohio in the rear and so capture us; but we changed front to the rear and without much difficulty drove them. One of our batteries came to our assistance and did some magnificent fighting at close quarters. How thankful we were to that battery for its timely help. There occurred one of those incidents that seem so wonderful and so convincing to the fatalist, that his theory is correct.

A rebel field officer mounted on a splendid white horse was among the very first to retire, and made frantic efforts to hold his men to their work and I am certain that hundreds of our men fired at him some of them not ten yards distance, yet he escaped without a scratch so far as we could see. Our Lieut. Col John Coons (afterwards killed at Spotsylvania Courthouse) exposed himself all day in a very reckless manner and finally while standing by the Colors was badly wounded. The 14th on this occasion appeared in no need of officers to hold them to their place and duty; every man seemed to feel that we must stay on that line and to have no thought but that victory was to be ours as a matter of course. After we had held that line four hours and twenty minutes under fire constantly, both infantry and artillery; we was relieved and moved a little way to the rear to rest, and what a sad sight was that diminutive line. Three hundred men went into action in the morning and now one hundred and four answer roll call, numbers of them are bleeding from slight wounds. The immortal battle flags are borne in rifle range of the fourteenth Indiana and yet our brigade is the only part of that long battle line that was not driven at some time in the day. General French sent his compliments and said the brigade should be known as the Gibraltar brigade.

The next day we expected to renew hostilities we thought we had enlisted to fight and that the presence of a Confederate Army was sufficient provocation but it was not to be. We gathered our dead and buried them in a garden wrapped in their blankets, placed side by side in a long trench with cracker box lids for head boards. On the 19th we camped in the woods where Hooker had fought, not far from the Dunker Church. The rebel army had withdrawn and details from our army were at work burying the dead which by this time were in horrible condition. The bodies were black and bloated, eyes and tongues protruding. The stench of the field was intolerable, and yet we was compelled to try to eat and sleep amidst it all, while the Confederate army was enjoying the pure air of the Valley.

On the 20th I obtained permission to go over the field sight-seeing. Our camp was about a mile from the position we held during the battle, and the ground between the two positions had been fought over repeatedly as the lines surged back and forth. The blue and grey were mingled as I passed down what seemed to have been a rebel line of battle; their dead lay in line and would have averaged a body for every five feet, they were shot in every conceivable part of the body. One poor fellow had the toes of one foot shot away and had died from lockjaw his body was lying in what doctors would call opisthotonosie nothing touching but heels and head. The sunken road was an awful sight. Dead bodies crossed three and four deep. Blood had literally flown ankle deep. But tongue and pen can only fail to convey any idea of the horrors of such places.

The sunken road was an awful sight. Dead bodies crossed three and four deep. Blood had literally flown ankle deep. But tongue and pen can only fail to convey any idea of the horrors of such places.

We was truly glad to break camp and leave the field. General French was a Baltimorean and as his division suffered a greater loss than any other division at Antietam and was the only part of the line that was not driven during the day, the patriotic people felt proud of him; and the ladies procured a fine rifle properly engraved and sent it to him to be presented by him to the regiment that had behaved with the most gallantry on the 27th. He selected our regiment, of course we were proud of it.

The rifle was placed in charge of the colorguard. John Thomas took charge of it and strange to say carried it through every battle and was never wounded; while in some battles we would lose five or six color bearers and colorguards. They missed him every time, yet he couldn’t shrink or skulk for the boys watched that rifle as jealously as they did the colors. He was fortunate enough to deposit it in Indianapolis.

About the Gallant Fourteenth
The 14th Indiana Infantry Regiment, later referred to as the Gallant Fourteenth, was an infantry regiment and part of the Union Army’s celebrated “Gibraltar Brigade” of the Army of the Potomac during the American Civil War. Organized in May 1861 at Camp Vigo, near Terre Haute, Indiana, it was the state’s first regiment organized for three years of service. The 14th Indiana served in major campaigns and battles in the Eastern Theater, mostly in West Virginia, Virginia, Pennsylvania, and Maryland. During its three years of service, the regiment had a total of 222 casualties (11 officers and 211 enlisted men). Source: Wikipedia