Private Witcher in the Cornfield at Sharpsburg


Fewer ads. Lots of American Civil War content!
JOIN NOW: REGISTER HERE!

Brian Downey

Private
Joined
Aug 5, 2005
Messages
44
The combat in farmer David Miller's cornfield at Sharpsburg on 17 September 1862 was ferocious. The 6th Georgia Infantry of Colquitt's Brigade was nearly wiped out at the eastern end of that field along the East Woods by about 8:30 that morning.

map_3.gif

[full map at Antietam on the Web]

There's a well known story connected with that action which first appeared in Stephen Sears' classic Antietam book Landscape Turned Red (1983):

Private B. H. Witcher of the 6th Georgia urged a comrade to stand fast with him, pointing to the neatly aligned ranks still lying to their right and left. They were all dead men, his companion yelled at him, and to prove it he fired a shot into a man on the ground a few yards away; the body did not twitch. Private Witcher was convinced and joined the retreat.

At least three other books on the battle have used this anecdote since then, too, so if you've read much about Antietam, you've probably seen it.

Here's the kicker - I’ve found it isn’t true. No one shot into a corpse.

I was working on Private Ben Witcher's page on AotW this week, and read the original letter Witcher wrote in 1891 - Stephen Sears' source for the tale. Here's what Ben wrote [with my notes and some punctuation]:

… A comrade by my side suggested we had better leave as that [Federal] line is going to charge, but noticing the men lying along the fence I replied no, we have a line, let them come, but, says he, these men are all wounded & dead and shook several to convince me; then, says I, the quicker we get out of this the better.
At this time there were only three others besides myself that started. At this time the Federal line fired & killed one of the four & wounded two others, so I came out alone bringing one wounded … to [the Dunker] church in [the] West Wood. I saw no other troops of ours until I got to church. Here I found a small body of Texans …
He shook rather than shot bodies to be sure they were dead. Makes more sense, too, doesn't it, for all sorts of reasons?

I think the way Witcher wrote it makes a better story, too. Sears skips the crucial detail that these are the last 4 men of the regiment on the field, and only 1 of them returned unhurt. That tells you a lot about what those men experienced.

I presume Mr Sears simply misread the letter, and I'm not poking him for that. Mistakes happen. If there is poking due, it's for the authors who followed Sears and took his word rather than looking at the source for themselves.

By the way, one author who is going to get it right is Scott Hartwig. You probably know he's working on the 2nd volume of his massive Antietam study, and previewed it a little in an article in the May 2018 America’s Civil War magazine. I found that when I was googling to see who else had fallen into the Sears' trap. Scott didn't.

Here's part of that original letter, for those from Missouri :smile:

witcher_letter_med.jpg


Ben Witcher's page on AotW is here: http://antietam.aotw.org/officers.php?officer_id=17959
 

Dusty

Corporal
Joined
Jun 22, 2017
Messages
366
Location
Chambersburg Pennsylvania
Thank you for that. I was to the battlefield about a year ago and spent quite a few hours there and watched the video in the Visitor Center. Then last weekend I made a quick pass through the battlefield as my main objective was to visit Shepardstown. It only takes me approximately 50 minutes to get there depending on how fast I drive. Thanks also for the link. I have read Sears’s book on the battle. Quite good reading.
On a side note, even though Gettysburg is a vast, interesting and very great battlefield park to visit, along with the museum and Visitor Center and the shops in the town, there is just something I like better about the rolling hills and the beautiful picturesque restored farms at Antietam. It is to me, a beautiful solemn place to visit. I could sit on the bench in the West Woods and look at the cannon and just think, for a long time. I really like it there.
 

Bruce Vail

1st Lieutenant
Joined
Jul 8, 2015
Messages
4,045
The 6th Georgia suffered approximately 200 casualties out of approximately 250 engaged - an 80% casualty rate. The largest casualty rate during the war is ascribed to the 1st Minnesota Infantry which suffered 82% casualties at Gettysburg.
Any reason to think these figures for Ga. 6th are any more reliable than most other Confederate casualty stats (that is to say, generally unreliable)?
 

AUG

Major
Retired Moderator
Joined
Nov 20, 2012
Messages
6,998
Location
Texas
The 6th Georgia suffered approximately 200 casualties out of approximately 250 engaged - an 80% casualty rate. The largest casualty rate during the war is ascribed to the 1st Minnesota Infantry which suffered 82% casualties at Gettysburg.
The 1st Texas reported a loss of 186 out of the 226 present at Antietam, or 82% (initially reported as 182 losses, but later revised to 186). However, Col. Philip A. Work later wrote in a postwar letter that only 211 were actually engaged, so taking that into account, the regiment suffered a loss of 88%.


Edit to add: According Col. John T. Lofton's history of the 6th Georgia in Heroes and Martyrs of Georgia by James M. Folsom (compiled and published in 1864), p. 26:

"Our loss on this field was almost incredible. We went into the battle with not more than two hundred and fifty men; and of this number, eighty-one were left dead on the field, one hundred and fifteen were wounded, and about thirty taken prisoners."

John T. Lofton was then captain of Co. K and assumed command of the regiment after the battle.
 

lelliott19

Captain
Forum Host
Silver Patron
Joined
Mar 15, 2013
Messages
5,950
The 6th Georgia suffered approximately 200 casualties out of approximately 250 engaged - an 80% casualty rate.
Casualties of the 6th Georgia in the Battle of Sharpsburg as reported in the Southern Recorder. (Milledgeville, Ga.), October 21, 1862, page 2. Recapitulation by me; hopefully I counted correctly. I'm not sure why Alex Martin of the 49th GA is reported among the casualties of Co I of the 6th, unless he was fighting with them that day? I thought the 49th GA was left at Harper's Ferry with Col Ed Thomas? Anyway, note that I did not include Alex Martin in the recapitulation totals.
1561692611297.png

1561692586786.png
 
Last edited:

lelliott19

Captain
Forum Host
Silver Patron
Joined
Mar 15, 2013
Messages
5,950
I'm not sure why Alex Martin of the 49th GA is reported among the casualties of Co I of the 6th, unless he was fighting with them that day?
Sure enough.....the carded records of Pvt John A Martin, Co K, 49th Georgia, indicate that he was "wounded in Maryland while absent from Regt." and Hospital records confirm that he was wounded in left shoulder GS; admitted to Chimborazo No 3 on Nov 5, 1862.
1561693911604.png
1561693979273.png
 

JPK Huson 1863

Brev. Brig. Gen'l
Forum Host
Joined
Feb 14, 2012
Messages
18,818
Location
Central Pennsylvania
I'm still back there at 82 and 88 percent. I'd heard of 1st Minnesota's losses but not 1st Texas. Those numbers are really hard to wrap your head around.

These stories that become sourced material, sourced by the next guy and the next can cause a lot of contention beyond confusion. Agree Sears misread Witcher's account ( how many threads do we have where someone is asking help with era handwriting? ), it's not always benign. Those writing agenda fueled nonsense have had it spread the same way. ( I'm talking about instances like William Herndon's putrid attacks on Mary Lincoln when I say agenda ). It's another good lesson in checking credulity at History's door.

Having said that, sometimes it has to be a matter of what @ErnieMac posted- a good story and one you'd have to want to believe. Didn't that poor mythical girl whose child's father was a bullet just get discussed again?
 

Bruce Vail

1st Lieutenant
Joined
Jul 8, 2015
Messages
4,045
Casualties of the 6th Georgia in the Battle of Sharpsburg as reported in the Southern Recorder. (Milledgeville, Ga.), October 21, 1862, page 2. Recapitulation by me; hopefully I counted correctly. I'm not sure why Alex Martin of the 49th GA is reported among the casualties of Co I of the 6th, unless he was fighting with them that day? I thought the 49th GA was left at Harper's Ferry with Col Ed Thomas? Anyway, note that I did not include Alex Martin in the recapitulation totals.
View attachment 313605
View attachment 313604
It's often that "Missing" category that can throw the casualty stats out of whack. You can't really talk about the difference between 80 percent and 88 percent with this kind of variable.
 

Brian Downey

Private
Joined
Aug 5, 2005
Messages
44
It's often that "Missing" category that can throw the casualty stats out of whack. You can't really talk about the difference between 80 percent and 88 percent with this kind of variable.
I agree that "missing" is not much help. Casualty lists like this are excellent resources (thank you Laura!), but only starting points. Later information often clarifies that missing status.

In this case, by way of examples, Captain Charles Anderson, Co. C was actually wounded and a POW at Fort Delaware, later exchanged. The Lambs of Co. I - Sgt Samuel and Pvt William - were in fact both killed at Sharpsburg. There are 87 other stories in there somewhere.
 

rpkennedy

Major
Joined
May 18, 2011
Messages
9,808
Location
Carlisle, PA
It's often that "Missing" category that can throw the casualty stats out of whack. You can't really talk about the difference between 80 percent and 88 percent with this kind of variable.
In my experience, those listed as missing fall into 2 categories: those who were captured and those who were killed but were never identified. In many cases, records exist for those who were captured but those designated as missing who have no further records anywhere of their whereabouts almost certainly died on the field.

Ryan
 

rpkennedy

Major
Joined
May 18, 2011
Messages
9,808
Location
Carlisle, PA

ErnieMac

Brigadier General
Moderator
Forum Host
Silver Patron
Joined
May 3, 2013
Messages
8,909
Location
Pennsylvania
Any reason to think these figures for Ga. 6th are any more reliable than most other Confederate casualty stats (that is to say, generally unreliable)?
Probably not. If anything the data @lelliott19 provided may indicate casualties were actually heavier. It does show the regiment suffered devastating losses comparable to the worst suffered by any other regiment during the War.
 

rpkennedy

Major
Joined
May 18, 2011
Messages
9,808
Location
Carlisle, PA
Probably not. If anything the data @lelliott19 provided may indicate casualties were actually heavier. It does show the regiment suffered devastating losses comparable to the worst suffered by any other regiment during the War.
I wouldn't be surprised. Between South Mountain and Antietam, Colquitt's Brigade was pretty wrecked.

Ryan
 

Bruce Vail

1st Lieutenant
Joined
Jul 8, 2015
Messages
4,045
I found the same list of casualties in another newspaper, the Weekly Constitutionalist. (Augusta, Ga.), October 15, 1862, page 8. This one has a narrative appended to the bottom of the list and is signed. Seems it was sent by Chaplain A. (Alexander) M. Thigpen.
View attachment 313709
It was Garland's Brigade that "ingloriously fled" the Federal attack. A nice recap of the Brigade's progress in the Cornfield can be found here:

https://antietamscornfield.com/2017/12/20/garlands-brigade-at-the-cornfield-the-death-of-a-reputationand-much-more/
 
Last edited:

rpkennedy

Major
Joined
May 18, 2011
Messages
9,808
Location
Carlisle, PA
From Georgia's records for the 6th Georgia at Antietam:

Killed and Mortally Wounded
Lt. Colone James M. Newton
Major Philemon Tracy
2nd Lt. Robert P. Jordan (Co. A), Brigade Assistant Adjutant General
Abner McCook (Co. A)
Captain John G. Hanna (Co. B)
James A. Bowman (Co. B)
John H. Clymer (Co. B)
John B. Guinn (Co. B)
John W. Hale (Co. B)
Jason Rockholt (Co. B)
David Samples (Co. B)
Stephen Corder (Co. C)
John C. Gamage (Co. C)
James M. Giles (Co. C)
William G. Hartley (Co. C), wounded and captured, died 10/24
William H. Lightfoot (Co. C)
John Mills (Co. C)
David J. Bailey (Co. D)
Green B. Bankson (Co. D), wounded and captured, died 10/4
James J.D. Berry (Co. D)
Robert M. Brownlee (Co. D)
George B. Elder (Co. D)
Augustus F. Mills (Co. D)
Frank A. Moore (Co. D), wounded and captured, died 9/17
John L. Slaughter (Co. D), died 9/17
Sergeant Thomas H. Walker (Co. E)
Corporal Frank W. McCallan (Co. E)
Corporal Nathaniel B. Harris (Co. E)
A.J. Derriso (Co. E)
William H. Harris (Co. E)
Shadrick F. Jackson (Co. E)
Edward Madden (Co. E)
Alfred W. Martin (Co. E)
Henry T. Parham (Co. E), died in September
William R. Parker (Co. E), died 10/27
John J. Rowell (Co. E), died in September
W.R. Rowell (Co. E)
Elias Allen (Co. F)
William H. Dalton (Co. F)
G.W. Everett (Co. F)
2nd Lt. Jesse Reed (Co. F), died 9/21
Daniel N. Royal (Co. F)
1st Sergeant James A. Rucker (Co. G)
Jesse E. Bartlett (Co. G)
William W. Bartlett (Co. G)
Aaron J. Duke (Co. G)
Dolphin D. May (Co. G), died 11/14
James D. Royal (Co. G), died unknown date
Captain William F. Plane (Co. H), wounded and captured, died unknown date
Jr. 2nd Lt. Joseph C. Floyd (Co. H)
James M. Adams (Co. H)
Richard D. Cowart (Co. H)
Abel Knight (Co. H)
Joshua Nelms (Co. H)
James T. Simpson (Co. H), died unknown date
Seaborn Sutton (Co. H)
John M. Williams (Co. H)
Captain Frederick D. Wimberly (Co. I)
Sergeant Henry H. Bullard (Co. I), wounded and captured, died unknown date
Sergeant Samuel D. Lamb (Co. I)
Daniel D. Davis (Co. I)
Francis M. Johnson (Co. I)
William F. Lamb (Co. I)
Bryant E. Nobles (Co. I), died unknown date
Sergeant Henry M. James (Co. K)
Joel H. Latimer (Co. K)
Joel V. Wynn (Co. K)

Wounded
Captain William McIntosh Arnold (Co. A)
Alexander H. Chancey (Co. A), also captured
Sidney Lewis (Co. A)
Elias Roberts (Co. A)
James H. Rogers (Co. A)
1st Lt. William M. Tidwell (Co. B)
2nd Lt. William F. Wilkinson (Co. B)
Jr. 2nd Lt. John H. Basden (Co. B)
Levi Winters (Co. B)
Captain Charles D. Anderson (Co. C)
Thomas A. Lowe (Co. C)
William M. McDonald (Co. C)
Willis T. Odum (Co. C)
John J. Rumph (Co. C)
George W. Slappey (Co. C)
Russell W. Slappey (Co. C)
Ebenezer W. Turner (Co. C)
Captain Larkin D. Watson (Co. D)
2nd Lt. Thomas N. Brownlee (Co. D)
Corporal James G. Moore (Co. D), also captured
Bryant A. Collier (Co. D)
Benjamin N. Coody (Co. D)
James E. Coody (Co. D)
William S. Hudgins (Co. D)
John W. Saunders (Co. D)
John B. Thomas (Co. D)
2nd Lt. Thomas J. Marshall (Co. E)
Corporal Richard M. Bazemore (Co. E)
Corporal Henry C. Bowers (Co. E)
Corporal Napoleon B. Newsom (Co. E), also captured
Jones W. Arnold (Co. E)
William H. Hortman (Co. E)
John T. Jones (Co. E)
James T. Lucas (Co. E)
G.W. Martin (Co. E)
Abraham Nathan (Co. E)
Michael Radsford (Co. E), also captured
James M. Roberts (Co. E), also captured
Benjamin Stembridge (Co. E), also captured
John W. Williams (Co. E)
Sergeant Henry M. Putnam (Co. F)
Thomas L. Fagan (Co. G)
Washington F. Peterman (Co. G)
C.H.H. Adams (Co. H)
John Adams (Co. H)
Joshua F. Adams (Co. H)
William A. Adams (Co. H)
Ennis G.W. Allen (Co. H)
Benjamin Bailey (Co. H)
Robert Bailey (Co. H)
Benjamin F. Collins (Co. H)
Charles B. Collins (Co. H)
Henry B. Herrington (Co. H), also captured
William Huff (Co. H)
James M. Jeffries (Co. H)
George W. Johnson (Co. H)
Joseph Nelms (Co. H)
William C. Odum (Co. H)
A.J. Permenter (Co. H)
Wilson L. Spurlin (Co. H)
Lewis G. Tyus (Co. H)
William H. Wagner (Co. H)
Sergeant William W. Glover (Co. I)
Corporal Thomas Arrington (Co. I)
J.W.W. Bozeman (Co. I)
W.H.H. Coley (Co. I)
James T. Coombs (Co. I)
William A. Edmonds (Co. I)
Washington Edwards (Co. I)
John S. Johnston (Co. I)
Thomas Thompson (Co. I)
William E. Faust (Co. K)
James Fitzgerald (Co. K)
Walter W. Stevens (Co. K)
McCarty W. Tucker (Co. K)

Captured
Louis F. Anderson (Co. C)
Samuel M. Cox (Co. H)
Fleming Powers (Co. K)

Ryan
 
Last edited:

Fewer ads. Lots of American Civil War content!
JOIN NOW: REGISTER HERE!

Top