There was a book published in the 1990’s called The Greatest Generation. Within the pages, the author points out the contributions toward defeating the Axis powers put forth by the American troops, the American government, and the folks who had stayed home to do the unseen work of winning the war. Whether the troops were trudging through the heat of northern Africa, island hopping in the Pacific, or eventually fighting their way into Europe, they fought unbelievably hard out of a sense of unity. The men to your left and right were counting on you to stand your little piece of God’s green earth because if you didn’t, they would be put further in jeopardy. No man wanted to think he had allowed his buddy to be killed or injured through cowardice. This unity in purpose did make them a great generation. But the boys who fought in the battle known as Antietam showed that same sense of unity of purpose to each other in a brand of warfare where a hideous death came at a rate seldom seem during the mid-twentieth century.
By September of 1862, our boys in the 7th OVI had seen more of their world than their parents could have ever dreamed of covering. They had marched through the mountains of modern day West Virginia. They had been to the home state of Virginia. The eastern and southern parts of Ohio had felt their footsteps as well. By September, they were in the neutral state of Maryland as a small part of the Army of the Potomac. Our boys from Ravenna had traveled via their brogans (shoes), as well as steamers (river boats), and rail. In their time since Kessler’s Cross Lanes(Part I & Part II), they had fought in (or been in reserve) in the battles of Cotton Hill, Blue’s Gap, Kernstown, Port Republic, Cedar Mountain, Snicker’s Gap, and the Second Bull Run Campaign. Company G had performed bravely in all these things, and by September of 1862, they believed that one more hard fought and won battle would end the rebellion and send them back home to Portage County.
Then comes the Battle of Antietam.
History records the event at Antietam Creek as the bloodiest day in American History. 23,000 troops were killed, wounded, or missing after the batt – a number significantly higher than the losses of the allies on D-Day. The battle in front of the town of Sharpsburg was a tactical draw, though the Confederates retreated two days later. The Union forces declared the battle a Union victory, one so significant that President Lincoln felt it was time to issue the Emancipation Proclamation.
This then is how history records the battle.
Our boys in the 7th would have been moving as a part of the larger army. They had been on reserve duty during the terrible days of Second Bull Run…not fully feeling the sting of the Union loss of that battle. That’s been only a few weeks ago. No, the 7th had no shame from those days. The roads and paths of Maryland were fairly dry, and the marching had become second nature. In truth, marching, bivouacking, cooking, cleaning your musket…these were the norm for the boys from Ohio. Attending church services on Sunday in camp were the norm. Card playing was the norm. The consumption of alcoholic beverages was the norm. Boredom for our boys was the norm, and anything short of musket fire was seen as a good diversion from the norm.
As the Army of the Potomac came upon Antietam Creek, our boys were positioned on the far north of the line. History records this as the fight for the Dunker Church, but to our boys, the Dunker Church meant nothing. From their position they could see woods and a small road. Ahead of them was another regiment, and a little further on they could barely make out the stalks of a forty-acre cornfield. It was early in the morning on September 17, 1862, and the boys from Ravenna would have known a fight was brewing as the artillery on both sides opened, and the regiment in front of them paced off toward the swaying corn.
They had done this before, but it certainly wasn’t the norm. No human could walk touching the shoulders of the men next to him while carrying his musket at the ready and call it the norm. As the cornfield exploded in battle, the Union forces pushed the Confederate forces back, and to the eyes of the 7th, this would have been seen as a very good thing. But soon afterward, more forces from the south appeared and slammed into the flank of the successful Union regiments. They fell back in haste. Then the order comes, and the 7th goes forward into the cornfield. Suddenly, all is a whirl, the battle is truly upon our boys who push through the field, and then are pushed back by Confederates despite how resolved they are in their duty. In fact, this cornfield changed hands no less than fifteen times on the morning of September 17, and by the time the fighting was through, there was no corn left in the field.
By the afternoon, this part of the battlefield was spent. Both sides had hammered at each other in the woods and cornfield until they were exhausted. Our boys of the 7th held their ground and watched the fighting further along at the sunken road with tired interest. Yet they were acutely aware; if the Confederate line could be broken, the war might be over by night fall.