Antietam: On the Eve of Battle

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Feb 5, 2017

Antietam: On the Eve of Battle​

Posted on September 16, 2021 by Kevin Pawlak
The evening of September 16 always draws my mind to the Antietam battlefield. 159 years ago tonight, Union and Confederate soldiers settled down for a tense night around Sharpsburg, Maryland. In some cases, they lay within earshot of one another. After darkness ended a brief but fierce clash in the East Woods, soldiers on both sides knew what the morrow would bring–a battle with incredible implications about the future of the United and Confederate States of America.

September 17, 1862, produced battle sounds that could be heard as far as Washington, DC. Only scattered picket shots punctuated the otherwise quiet eve of battle, a stark contrast to the cacophony of sounds to be heard the next day. “Everything became terrifically quiet,” remembered Sgt. Francis Galwey of the 8th Ohio Infantry. “For the quiet that precedes a great battle has something of the terrible in it. Everyone knows that there must be fought a bloody battle tomorrow and all are therefore anxious to save their strength for the contest.” Galwey’s commander, Lt. Col. Franklin Sawyer, remembered of the night of September 16, “The night was clear and beautiful, still and awfully solemn. We thought of the morrow.”

Thoughts of tomorrow’s horror prevented many men from sleeping that evening, especially for the opposing troops in close proximity to one another west of Antietam Creek. “Picket-firing, and movements of artillery and troops, gave little chance for sleep that night,” recalled a 12th Massachusetts soldier. No matter, for a drizzling rain soaked away any comfort most of the men might have found.

In his recollections of service, the 12th Massachusetts’ Pvt. George Kimball captured the essence of the night of September 16:

Strong picket lines were thrown well out and in a cold, drizzling rain we lay down to sleep… All through that long, cold, dismal night the crack of rifles greeted the ears of Hartsuff’s troops. Occasionally Doubleday’s artillery thundered out its defiance, only to be answered by the heavy roar of the enemy’s guns as they savagely belched forth their acceptance of the challenge. Everything betokened a desperate battle on the morrow and no one who lay that night among Hartsuff’s men will ever forget the terror, the anxieties, and the discomforts of his experience.

Read more at the link above.