Alone the men of the 97th New York Infantry marched ever deeper into the thick blanket of Miller’s Cornfield, headed toward an unseen enemy that they all knew was waiting for them out there, somewhere…
The 97th New York Infantry—also called the “Conkling Rifles”—was recruited in New York’s Oneida and Herkimer counties and mustered into federal service at Boonville, on February 19, 1862, for a three years’ term. The 97th’s companies were recruited principally from:
- Companies A and C at Boonville
- Company B in Lewis County
- Companies D and F at Salisbury
- Company E at Prospect and the surrounding area
- Company G in Herkimer County
- Company H at Utica and Lowville
- Company I at Little Falls
- Company K at Rome
Under the command of Colonel Charles Wheelock, it departed New York for Washington on March 12, 1862. Initially quartered at Fort Corcoran as part of Brigadier General James Wadsworth’s Department of Washington, during March and April the regiment trained and performed various guard duties in the capital area. In May, the 97th was reassigned to the 2nd brigade, 2nd division, Department of the Rappahannock—commanded by Brigadier General Edward O.C. Ord—and it moved into Virginia, occupying various positions in the neighborhood of the Rappahannock River. On May 28th, the regiment was assigned to yet another new unit, this time to the newly-created Union Army of Virginia under the command of Major General John Pope. Now they found themselves assigned to that army’s III Corps, Second Division, First Brigade. Refreshingly, this change would stand unchanged for many months and place the men of the 97th under the command of Brigadier General Abram Duryee. Under Duryee’s able command and joined by the brigade’s other regiments—the 104th and 105th New York and the 107th Pennsylvania—the 97th would soon taste its first real combat. [i]
For those men who’d joined the 97th to experience battle, so far the war had been largely a massive disappointment. By early June, 1862, the 97th was heading to the Shenandoah Valley as part of the Union effort to stop Stonewall Jackson’s seemingly unbeatable force, guarding river crossings at Front Royal and then moving to guard Catlett’s Station, Warrenton, and Waterloo, Virginia. The 97th boys and Duryee’s other regiments first “saw the elephant” during the Battle of Cedar Mountain, where the regiment lost but one man wounded. The regiment continued moving east toward the capital as Pope chased Lee’s army yet again, meeting on the ground of the previous year’s fighting at Bull Run in August, 1862. Despite some substantial fighting in this Second Battle of Bull Run, the 97th boys avoided heavy losses. The fighting at Second Manassas cost the regiment 25 men, only two of whom were killed. If fact, in all of the action the regiment had endured since leaving New York, the 97th had lost only 111 casualties – and 56 of these were missing, while 10 had been killed in battle. Compared to some regiments, even this early in the war, the Conkling Rifles boys could consider themselves pretty lucky.
Falling back into the Washington defenses in the wake of the disaster of Second Manassas, the 97th found itself once again assigned to a new organization but—mercifully—in the same First Brigade with the same fellow units and commander. Now they were part of the Army of the Potomac’s I Corps—commanded by Major General Joseph Hooker—but still in Brigadier General James B. Ricketts’ Second Division. Heading into Maryland for the first time, chasing Lee’s army once again, the 97th once again made contact with the Confederates, this time at the Battle of South Mountain. Once again, though, the men of the 97th were pretty lucky and the regiment lost only 5 casualties – all of whom were wounded. But for the men of the 97th New York, their good luck in battle was just about played out. [ii]
Crossing over South Mountain after the battle, the 97th and the rest of McClellan’s army pressed westward, finding Lee’s army had taken a defensive stand on the ridges north of the tiny town of Sharpsburg, Maryland. As they approached this position in the darkness late on September 16th, the 97th’s corps commander, Joe Hooker, found himself in charge of the coming battle’s critical opening phase – a massive Union attack to break General Lee’s left flank north of town.
If General Hooker in his pre-dawn planning during the night of the 16th and 17th had missed the presence of Confederate skirmishers opposite the East Woods, by daylight he had become only too aware of the presence of two brigades from Lawton’s division in his front. Hooker—or perhaps Ricketts, acting in his stead—apparently had altered his plan slightly in apparent response to Lawton’s Confederates, which waited in a line on the southern end of Miller’s cornfield to oppose the planned Union advance. Hooker’s plan called for two brigades from Rickett’s Division reaching the Dunker Church at roughly the same time. But now, Duryee’s and Hartsuff’s brigades would move through the open field and strike Lawton’s line frontally, while Christian’s brigade would move along the eastern edge of the East Woods to reach the Smoketown Road, from there they would hit Lawton’s line in flank. This Union pincer movement was almost certainly intended to force the Confederates back to their starting point, clearing the field for the Union drive on the Dunker Church to continue. Regardless who ordered this change, it was a skillful adjustment that failed to consider only one variable – human frailty. [iii]
Almost immediately the human weakness in Hooker’s plan made its presence known. Initially, all seemed to be going well as Hartsuff’s and Duryee’s brigades reached the Joseph Poffenberger farm fields, where they faced to the left and prepared to move south toward Lawton’s waiting Confederates. Shortly after deploying into a battle line—the 12th, 11th, 13th Massachusetts, and 33rd New York, formed from right to left—Hartsuff halted his command to wait for Duryee’s men to move into position on his right. General Hartsuff used this time to do what any West Point-trained commander would do, reconnoiter the ground over which he would be attacking. So while his men waited behind the North Woods and Poffenberger’s woodlot, Hartsuff strode into D.R. Miller’s plowed field and raised his binoculars toward the enemy. Barely had the general started gathering intelligence when a single round fired by a Southern sharpshooter found him. Though the wound would not prove mortal, it had managed to strip from the field Ricketts’ most capable and experienced brigade commander at just the moment Hooker’s attack was getting underway.
General Duryee, however, was almost certainly ignorant of Hartsuff’s wounding and started his brigade forward, as ordered. Facing his command to the left, in a column of divisions—with each of his four regiments in its own battle line, one in front of the next—Duryee marched his brigade onward, cutting south through the North Woods and passing in the process through the ranks of Magilton’s men who were lying among the trees seeking some relief from the relentless Confederate shelling. On their left was the now-immobile form of Hartsuff’s brigade, awaiting orders and struggling to restore command order in the wake of losing the general. Here they stopped for nearly five minutes. Like Hartsuff’s and Magilton’s men, Duryee’s brigade instantly became a Confederate artillery target. “[T]he enemy shell and round shot flying around us like hail, killing and wounding some of our poor fellows” explained the 107th Pennsylvania’s Captain James MacThomson. Then once again they were moving forward. Perhaps General Duryee wanted to get his men moving to limit damage from the Rebel artillery fire, or perhaps confusion was already setting in. Regardless why—and it remains unclear—without waiting for Hartsuff’s brigade to join them, Duryee pressed his men onward into D.R. Miller’s grassy field. [iv]
Alone, Duryee’s men marched through Miller’s open field as Rebel artillery rounds continued raining down on them, tearing holes in their lines and ripping apart the lives of those fathers and sons, husbands and brothers whose bodies made those lines. But these men were veterans who’d experienced such horrors before, so they tried as best they could to ignore the sound of the shells—and what that sound meant to those the shells found—and simply “dressed down” to fill the gaps that appeared here and there when a shell fragment found its mark. Though few of the men would look back, they passed into a swale that was so deep that, from their vantage point, it would swallow the North Woods from view. Once at the bottom of the swale they were briefly hidden from view of the Confederate artillery on the Dunker Church ridge, though not from the guns on Nicodemus Heights, which continued pounding away at them. As they rose from the swale to at the top of a slight ridge, they once again became targets for S.D. Lee’s gunners by the church. [v]
If Confederate artillery was making the most of this situation, the Union had an answer for that. Thompson’s battery C of the Pennsylvania Light artillery—which had advanced just behind Duryee’s men—deployed behind their center as support. Soon Matthew’s battery too came thundering across the field, advancing “Forward on the right, into line, gallop!” Matthews ordered his four ordnance rifles quickly unlimbered so they were nearly in line with Thompson’s guns. When the left-most gun was finally opening up on the Rebs, a member of the battery would note they were barely 10 feet from the western edge of the East Woods. As Duryee’s men started forward once more, a detachment from the 105th New York remained behind as infantry support for Thompson’s battery. Thompson, being short of men, quickly pressed some of the 105th men into service as ersatz artillerymen who proceeded to crew these pieces as if they were trained gunners. The lot of this detachment might have seemed unpleasant to them just then, being sitting ducks for the Confederate shells, but it would unknowingly spare them what awaited their comrades who were marching rapidly away. The bulk of Duryee’s men, who were once more moving forward, might have considered themselves lucky at that moment because they were once again able to avoid at least some of the Rebel shells. But if so, all that ended abruptly as they reached a rail fence and, beyond it, a field tall with corn. They had found D.R. Miller’s cornfield. [vi]
General Duryee had reached a moment of decision that was fraught with tremendous risk, even for this already-deadly situation. The cornfield his command now faced consisted of plants taller than his men and once they were more than a few paces into the field he, like all his subordinate officers, would only be able to effectively command that dozen or so feet he could see around him. This fact meant that it would be a struggle to get his brigade through this field in good order. The field’s layout presented even more significant challenges to his ability to maintain order while marching or, worse yet fighting, through such a place. The rows of any Nineteenth Century cornfield seemed made precisely for men to march down, largely because the requirements of planting and maintaining a growing field of corn necessitated that the farmer plant his rows about the width of one man’s shoulder—roughly two feet or more apart. Here, though, Duryee had found a bit of good luck because the rows of corn in this particular field ran north-south, exactly the direction he wanted to go. In fact, had they been planted the opposite way, east-west, the Union’s opening assault might have stalled then and there. Not only couldn’t Duryee have moved his brigade cross-ways against the rows of corn, but each row of plants rested atop a small ridge intended to give the plants’ roots something to hold onto and enough nourishment to thrive. The effect of this plowing scheme was to create a wave-filled sea of earth, topped by six-foot-tall green cover. Such considerations, if he really weighed them, might only have flashed through General Duryee’s mind because his exposed position in the grassy field left little time for such calculation. The longer his men remained in place, the more solid became the grip on their position held by the Rebel gunners from afar. They couldn’t stay here long. [vii]
Shouting orders, Duryee moved his command out of a column of divisions and into a line of battle. His regiments moved as automatons, executing the commands without thought of what they were doing, focused only on doing what they were told in hopes that it would get them away from the shelling. They’d only been here five minutes but the constant shelling must have made it seem like an eternity. Once the move was completed, the 107th Pennsylvania held the right flank of Duryee’s battle line, with the 97th, 104th, and 105th New York on their left. Every man in the ranks awaited the order to advance, not so much because they wished to attack, but because at that moment retreating might cost as many lives as continuing the attack. Forward they must go. But even when their move was completed, the order to advance did not come. So rather than stand in place and die as willing targets, the command was given to all 1,100 men to lie down. [viii]
While his men lay hugging the ground amid the bursting Confederate shells, General Duryee directed Thomson’s and Matthew’s Batteries to lob several rounds of canister shot into the center of the corn. The intention almost certainly was to flush out any Rebs that might be lurking there unseen—skirmishers or perhaps more—that could create an unpleasant surprise at their most vulnerable moment. As those shells screamed overhead to begin the process of wrecking D.R. Miller’s cornfield, Duryee issued the order to “Rise up!” and to a man, they were on their feet in seconds. Each man already knew that the next order they heard would be “Forward, march!” [ix]
It was just after 6:00 in the morning. Back home in New York and Pennsylvania, the men’s families were just rising for the day’s work on the farm, to open the shop for business, or to head to school. Their day ahead might be filled with routine, the hum of daily life in 1862. But the surreal existence these men found themselves in was different and even the simple act they now carried out took on an odd and ominous significance. Duryee’s men each climbed over Miller’s sturdy rail fence and, each front rank man picking his own row, plunged into the corn. Sliding into the thick corn seemed to sweep the fatal landscape they’d just passed over away from existence. For a few moments, at least, there were no more shells bursting around them and even the sound of their own Union batteries was soon nearly absorbed by the full, green leaves that washed their sweaty faces as they passed. It was like diving into a green sea of plants; it swallowed them whole and they could neither see out nor be seen by anyone outside this fragile, temporary state of existence they’d just entered into. For a few minutes, at least, they were lost in this cornfield. Yet on they pressed, each man trying to maintain his dress with the man on either side, listening for commands from the voices of their now-familiar officers telling them what to do next. The loose Maryland dirt pulled at their brogans and the stalks grabbed at the equipment slung over their shoulders, trying to steal a bayonet from its scabbard here and wrest a tin cup away from its owner there. Regardless who won each of these tiny struggles, on they pressed to the southern end of the field where, as they all by now knew, the enemy awaited them.
Lawton’s and Hays’ men mostly waited and watched the corn in their front for signs of the Yankees that they knew were in there somewhere. Yankee shells lobbed into the corn had had the intended effect – skirmishers of the 31st Georgia had come racing out to safety in Lawton’s main line. “What’s the matter? What are you running for?” called some of Lawton’s men as their skirmishers tripped over the fence guarding the cornfield’s southern border in an effort to escape. “You’ll soon see!” the Georgians called back to their comrades. Those men who stood up could already see the tops of the “striped banner” and the regimental flags bouncing roughly in their direction, but knew little else of exactly where the enemy was. On the right of the tense Confederate line, the men of Trimble’s brigade remained locked in a firefight with the Pennsylvanians holding the southern end of the East Woods, too distracted to pay attention to other threats. Those focused solely on the still-unseen foe waited, watching “their” row because they’d been instructed by Colonel Marcellus Douglass to pick a row and fire down it when the enemy showed his face. Colonel Douglass paced the rear of his brigade, reminding everyone to fire low and make every shot count. Nearer and nearer they came, until suddenly… [x]
For the first time in several minutes Duryee’s men could start to see through the sea of green into the brown and gray fields beyond. They’d covered 245 yards; though it had taken only minutes to do, it might have seemed to have taken hours. And even before they reached the fence at the southern end of the cornfield, the Minnie balls made their inevitable appearance. Tearing like an unwanted summer hailstorm, they ripped through both plant and flesh alike. And while the corn stood in place and simply absorbed the assault, Duryee’s men continued forward to resist this fate. Reaching the end of the field, they finally opened fire on the Rebs.
The 107th Pennsylvania, on the right of Duryee’s line, emerged to see Lawton’s men some 230 yards in front of them, finding cover as best they could behind the low remains of a dismantled fence. Without orders, the Pennsylvanians dressed their lines and opened fire on the scrambling enemy. On the opposite end of the Union line, the men of the 105th and 104th New York emerged to find that the enemy in their front was not focused on them but on Federal troops in a patch of woods to their left. Even better, the main enemy line angled back a bit, offering them room for maneuver. But it was probably the force of their momentum, rather than a considered plan, that carried the two New York regiments into the field beyond. Up and over the fence in their front and forward they pressed, ignoring the growing fire from the enemy. On they drove, moving nearly 150 yards into the open clearing, trying all the while to maintain their connection back to the 97th New York in the center. Once they reached a spot 40 yards or so from the corn, they stopped and opened a withering fire on the Rebs in their front. As the firing intensified into one continuous roll of musketry, Duryee’s regiments, apparently without specific orders, quickly lay down as a simple survival technique. [xi]
Duryee needed help, and fast, if he was to keep hold of this dearly-bought ground. A quick glance to the left of his line instantly revealed just what he needed. The men of the 2nd Pennsylvania Reserves had extended their right out of the East Woods to meet the 105th New York’s left. The effect of this move was to create a solid line of blue reaching from within the East Woods, across the southern end of Miller’s cornfield and nearly to the Hagerstown Pike. Other Union regiments could be seen in the woods, firing as rapidly as possible and using the many rocks and trees there as cover. It was a strong position—much better than his own brigade’s exposed location—and they would be of tremendous help to his men. But Duryee almost certainly knew that these were the Pennsylvanians of Seymour’s brigade, who had been in the woods all night and would be exhausted and probably low on ammunition. Their presence was a help but almost certainly a temporary one. [xii]
Colonel Walker watched his men of Trimble’s brigade stop the Yankee advance and then turn their fire toward the men in their front, hoping to drive them back into the corn or kill them where they stood. But his confidence probably was no greater than that of his Union counterpart, Abram Duryee, only a few dozen yards away. His right flank rested in a plowed field north of the Mumma house and units there were taking casualties fast. Something had to change this situation or his command could be swept away by a single blue wave. As Colonel Walker watched two federal regiments appear to pull back from their position on the western edge of the East Woods—the 2nd Reserves moving to join up with the 105th New York and the 13th Reserves adjusting to that move—he made a decision that, at the time, was probably little more than a move of simple survival for his small brigade. Knowing his Georgians of Trimble’s brigade couldn’t stay where they were, Walker directed his skirmishers forward into the East Woods to see if they could secure a safer, more secure position there. At the same time, Walker used this opportunity to push the 100 men of the 12th Georgia northward and across the Smoketown Road so he could close a regiment-sized gap between his brigade’s left and the right of Lawton’s brigade. Wheeling left, they soon found a low rock ledge, running parallel to the road, upon which to anchor their position. Colonel Walker’s move hadn’t closed the gap but he had taken a first step in the direction of doing so. But more importantly, he’d unknowingly put his men into just the right position at the right time. [xiii]
As the tiny 12th Georgia settled into its new position behind the rock ledge, they found it a gift to the infantry; a strong defensive position that just happened to put them directly on the enemy’s flank. Within seconds, the Georgians began pouring an enfilading fire into the end of Duryee’s left flank, the men of the 105th New York. The New Yorkers returned fire but could do little against this small target but stand and take it. Seeing the impact they were having, Colonel Walker instantly ordered the 21st Georgia and 21st North Carolina to leave his main line and join the 12th at the rock ledge. Soon all three regiments were raking the Union left flank with fire. [xiv]
Barely had the men of the 105th and 104th New York reached their new position in the open field beyond the corn when the Southern fire simply became too much for them. The right of Lawton’s line and Walker’s three regiments of Trimble’s brigade had opened a withering fire which, when joined by S.D. Lee’s artillery from the Dunker Church ridge, simply overwhelmed the two regiments already devastated from their journey to reach this point. They began to fall back with increasing speed until they reached the relative safety of the corn and the rest of their brigade. Marking the effort, though, were the bodies of dozens of their dead and wounded comrades and commanders, including the 105th New York’s Lieutenant Colonel Howard Carroll. They couldn’t know it just then, but in those few early moments of the battle, their dead and wounded New York comrades represented the high water mark of the I Corps effort to reach the Dunker Church. [xv]
Walker knew that this might be an opportunity to dislodge the Yankees that would not soon come again. Even better, he could for the first time see on his left that Hays’ brigade was on the field to his left and moving toward the retreating enemy. Racing forward, Walker ordered his brigade to advance. The men were slow to respond—almost certainly they saw no reason to give up that rock ledge—but soon the whole of Trimble’s brigade was pressing forward. As they moved, Walker glanced back to his former position, hoping to see nothing but instead was surprised to find that a considerable portion of the stout 12th Georgia remained glued to their rock ledge. Instantly, he ran to rouse these men to their duty. But reaching the 12th’s position, he suddenly realized that these men weren’t shirkers, they were dead. A final tally of the 12th‘s butcher’s bill would reveal that 59 of its 100 men had died or were mortally wounded behind that rock ledge, including its commander, Captain James C. Rogers. [xvi]
By the time Colonel Walker once again reached his attacking brigade, he ran into a completely different situation than he’d left only moments before. Hays’ brigade hadn’t been moving to the attack but rather only to bring itself into line with Lawton’s right flank, as ordered. And the retreating Yankees hadn’t broken and run but only fallen back to their original position, from which they reopened fire. Making things even worse, the Federals in the East Woods now had returned the favor and were pouring a flanking fire into his right-hand regiments. It was a situation they couldn’t stand for long and moments later his brigade—whether they did so under orders or in reaction to the reality of the situation remains unclear—fell back to their original post on the Mumma farm fields, along the rock ledge.
The situation on the right of Duryee’s line was little brighter. The 107th Pennsylvania and 97th New York had been engaged in a costly frontal firefight with the left regiments of Lawton’s brigade, the 26th, 38th, and 61st Georgia. Both sides knew this was no way to secure victory, though. Seeing an opportunity to alter the situation in their favor, the 26th Georgia marched at the “left oblique” up to a patch of high ground near the Hagerstown Pike in hopes of finding a way around the right flank of Duryee’s line. The 26th pressed on through the hail and found a position on the 107th Pennsylvania’s flank; reforming their line, they opened a renewed fire on Duryee’s right. But barely had they gained this advantage when the Pennsylvanians instantly robbed them of it. “Refusing the right”—bending the right half of the 107th back from the main line a few paces—instantly covered their once-exposed flank from the Georgian’s fire. Not only had they robbed the Georgians of this prize but their own position was now exposed. And worse, it was disconnected from the rest of Colonel Douglass’ main line. At the same time that the 26th Georgia had moved, their comrades in the 38th Georgia had raced forward in hopes of reaching a rock ledge in their front. But unlike their fellow Georgians in Trimble’s brigade on the opposite end of the field, their quest for safety behind the ledge was not to be. This rock ledge was simply too close to the main Union line and the enemy’s still-withering fire stalled the 38th’s effort almost as it began. [xvii]
The fighting was so desperate and close that the brigade’s commander, Colonel Douglass, had been wounded numerous times. But still he paced the line, closing up gaps that appeared and exhorting his men to fight. Finally, a Yankee ball—reportedly the eighth to pierce his body—felled him, robbing the brigade of its daring commander. Making matters even worse for the Confederates, General Lawton received a wound that soon forced him from the field; though he would recover many weeks later, for now the South’s senior commander of this position was taken away. But before leaving the field, Lawton issued one last order that would come to play a critical role in the South’s prospects that morning; he called over an aide and ordered him to find General Hood, warn Hood that he was wounded, and that the time for Hood to bring up his men was now. [xviii]
Duryee’s line was holding on, but just barely and at a tremendous human cost. Some men were lucky and survived the hail of musket fire, like the 107th Pennsylvania’s Edwin Pearce who wrote his aunt that “a ball passed threw my coat and shirt making 2 holes in each but I thank the Lord it was no worse.” Pearce closed his letter by asking if his Uncle Otto could arrange a transfer to spend the remainder of his enlistment in the Navy. Second Lieutenant Louis Dallarmi, who had served 19 years in the army of his native Bavaria—after emigrating to America, he’d recruited the 97th New York’s German-speaking Company H and was so skilled that a comrade noted “his superior military attainments would have given him a higher rank, had his acquaintance with the English language justified”—had his promising military career cut short while leading Company H into battle. Charles Hayden of the 97th New York’s Company K had his left thumb and finger taken off by a Rebel ball but kept fighting until another round found his chest. Amazingly, Private Hayden collapsed and remained on this spot until much later in the fight, when soldiers of another Union regiment helped him find medical help at the field hospital in Smoketown. Lieutenant Rush Cady noted ten days later the fate of other Company K men, writing “[Storrs] Sherman was squatting down in the act of priming, when hit by a solid shot, which nearly severed both legs at the knees, & took of [off] his right hand at the wrist, the same shot killing Dick Handley instantly, going completely through his body. Sherman’s blood, flesh & pieces of bones flew all over & in the faces of the boys who were next to him. He asked for a drink of water, & then begged Alek to cut his throat, he was in such agony.” [xix]
Duryee might have considered that despite the situation, his men were fighting well and holding their own. But how long could they keep this up? Duryee could clearly see fresh Confederate brigades to his right—Grigsby’s Stonewall Brigade, and others—that could instantly be thrown upon his flank. Great gaps were appearing in his ranks that were no longer being filled; what his thinning line needed—and needed now—were reinforcements. But where were they? He’d passed Hartsuff’s brigade on his way to the front; why had they not come up on his left as General Ricketts had instructed? And where was Christian’s brigade? They had the farthest to march and so could be forgiven for being last on the field, but why was there no sign of them? As more time passed and no one appeared to help him, Duryee could wait no longer to act. They’d been here for nearly 30 minutes, fighting almost alone, and when the final counts were made at nightfall General Duryee would find he’d lost nearly a third of his brigade in this spot. To withdraw signaled failure and invited dishonor but to remain here much longer begged for the death of his brigade. He chose retreat. [xx]
The men about-faced and left the field in generally good order, walking rapidly back through the cornfield which, too, had suffered from this fight. But now the corn offered Duryee’s weary men none of the protection it had on arriving here. Their movement during the fight had flattened most of the southern end of the field. Even as they pressed toward the northern end, it was clear the field was no longer a full, green sea of life but instead—like Duryee’s brigade—it had huge holes rent in its being. The rows of corn now regularly opened into wide gaps, the deadly work of artillery shells that had felled men and plants alike. And, here and there, the flight of Minie balls had clearly cut down corn plants, their existence ended just as surely as the lives of too many New Yorkers and Pennsylvanians. Just as this experience had transformed Duryee’s men, so too had it changed this place. No longer was it a common Maryland cornfield; forever after it would be “the Cornfield.” And like so many of the men and units on this ground on September 17th, D.R. Miller’s Cornfield was slowing being killed.
As they moved out of the corn and back into the open fields beyond, General Duryee finally saw the reinforcements he’d so longed for only a few minutes ago. Letting Hartsuff’s fresh ranks pass though his own, before ordering his surviving men to deploy along the northern edge of the Cornfield, Duryee watched as they covered nearly the same ground his men had advanced over on the way through the Cornfield. Perhaps Duryee felt regret at having ordered the retreat but, even if he did, he must at the same time have wondered what had kept Hartsuff from advancing for nearly half an hour.
The regiment that retreated from Miller’s Cornfield that September day was quite unlike the one that had entered it. Their casualties for this one battle at Antietam, for the barely half an hour they’d been in action, had cost the 97th New York 107 men – more than they’d lost in the war to date. The 24 men killed outright in that half hour—who were left dead at the southern end of the Cornfield—nearly doubled those lost in the war so far. And 15 more men would die of wounds suffered in the Cornfield before it was all over.
And yet the war went on… At the Battle of Fredericksburg, only three months after Antietam, the regiment was prominently engaged but lost only 22 men. The 97th was spared much of the fighting at Chancellorsville in May, 1863 but marched with the corps to Gettysburg. There the regiment—now part of Baxter’s Brigade, Second Division, I Corps—played an important part in holding the right of the I Corps’ position on the Mummasburg Road late on July 1st, the opening day of the battle. The 97th distinguished itself by holding the enemy in check from 12:30 to 3:00 p.m., then charging across the field to the west and assisting in seizing Iverson’s Brigade, capturing of the colors of the 20th North Carolina and taking 382 prisoners in the process. The regiment was commanded that day by Colonel Charles Wheelock until he was wounded and captured, then by Lieutenant Colonel Spofford, who also was captured, placing Major Charles B. Northrup—who had commanded the regiment in the Cornfield at Antietam—once again in command. Of the 255 men remaining in the 97th by the time of Gettysburg, 12 were killed, 36 wounded, and 78 missing.
On the southward march from Gettysburg, the regiment was present at Bristoe Station and in the Mine Run movement. While in camp at Brandy Station, a sufficient number of men reenlisted to secure the continuance of the 97th in the field as a veteran regiment. In June, 1864, it was joined by the veterans and recruits of the 83rd NY Infantry and in August, by the 94th NY, the 26th NY having already been added to it in May, 1863. In essence, four veteran regiments had been so decimated after three years of war that combined they amounted to barely one regiment.
During Grant’s 1864 Overland Campaign, the 97th served in the 3rd and 2nd Divisions of the V Corps. The 97th served with honor during this campaign, taking additional losses during the Battles of the Wilderness, Spotsylvania, the Weldon Railroad, the North Anna River, Totopotomy Creek, Cold Harbor, White Oak Swamp, before Petersburg, and the Appomattox campaign. [xxi]
The 97th New York was finally mustered out near Washington, July 18, 1865. During its service the regiment lost a total of 182 men killed (12 officers and 170 enlisted men), 444 wounded, and 265 missing. The butcher’s bill for the 97th New York was great, indeed, but never was the cost the regiment was called upon to pay during this entire war greater than what it had been asked to sacrifice in Miller’s Cornfield at Antietam.
[i] New York State Military Museum – http://dmna.ny.gov/historic/reghist/civil/infantry/97thInf/97thInfMain.htm.
[iii] The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, Series I, Volume XIX, Part 2 (hereafter referred to as “OR”) (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1887), Vol. XIX, Pt. 1, p. 259.
[iv] OR, Vol. XIX, Pt. 1, p. 262.; Hough, History of Duryee’s Brigade, p. 167.
[v] Ezra A. Carman and Joseph Pierro, Ed. The Maryland Campaign of 1862; Ezra A. Carman’s Definitive Study of the Union and Confederates at Antietam. (New York: Routledge Books, 2008), n, p. 217. Because of army politics and other reasons, Duryee never submitted an Official Report for his brigade’s actions at Antietam (what he did submit was merely a list of officers and men who “behaved with gallantry,” found in OR, Vol. XIX, Pt. 1, pp. 259-260.). However, it is clear from notes and commentary included in Carman’s Antietam manuscript that Duryee provided a detailed account of his command’s actions to Carman, suggesting Carman’s version probably accurately reflects the brigade’s movements and actions.
[vi] Carman, The Maryland Campaign, p. 217.; Richard A. Sauers and Peter Tomasak, Ricketts’ Battery: A History of Battery F, 1st Pennsylvania Light Artillery (Published by Luzerne National Bank, PA, 2001), p. 52.
[vii] The orientation of D. R. Miller’s corn isn’t recorded in most accounts of the battle, although its direction is alluded to in OR accounts and by the direction in which the Union attack occurred. Probably the best sources for this are two drawings—both by participants in Cornfield fight—that show the corn rows running north-south. These are Edmund R. Brown’s The Twenty-seventh Indiana Volunteer Infantry in the War of the Rebellion, 1861 to 1865, First Division, 12th and 20th Corps…by a member of Company C (Monticello; 1899) and Austin C. Sterns’ Three Years with Company K. (London: Associated University Press, 1976).
[viii] OR, Vol. XIX, Pt. 1, p. 262.; Franklin Benjamin Hough, History of Duryee’s Brigade, During the Campaign in Virginia under Gen. Pope, and in Maryland Under Gen. McClellan, and in the Summer and Autumn of 1862 (Albany), 1864., p. 118.
[ix] Hough, History of Duryee’s Brigade, p. 119.
[x] Carman, The Maryland Campaign, p. 217.; Pharris Deloach Johnson, Under the Southern Cross: Soldier Life with Gordon Bradwell and the Army of Northern Virginia (Mercer University Press, 1979), p. 89.
[xi] Carman, The Maryland Campaign, p. 217.
[xii] OR, Vol. XIX, Pt. 1, p. 274.
[xiii] Carman, The Maryland Campaign, p. 217. OR, Vol. XIX, Pt. 1, pp. 976-977.
[xiv] OR, Vol. XIX, Pt. 1, pp. 976-977.
[xv] Carman, The Maryland Campaign, p. 217.
[xvi] OR, Vol. XIX, Pt. 1, p. 977. Carman, “The Maryland Campaign,” p. 218.
[xvii] Carman, The Maryland Campaign, p. 218.; OR, Vol. XIX, Pt. 1, p. 923.
[xviii] Carman, The Maryland Campaign, p. 218.; Johnson, Under the Southern Cross, pp. 91-92.; OR, Vol. XIX, Pt. 1, p. 923.
[xix] Edwin W. Pearce letter, October 16, 1862, Author’s Collection.; Charles H. Hayden letter to Laura Hayden, October 10, 1862. “The Civil War Letters of Charles Harvey Hayden, Patriot & Hero, 97th New York Volunteer Infantry” complied by Al Greening, New York State Military Museum.; Rush P. Cady letter to Gustavus Cady, September 27, 1862. Rush P. Cady Collection, Hamilton College Archives, Clinton, NY.; Hough, History of Duryee’s Brigade, p. 181.
[xx] Carman, The Maryland Campaign, p. 218. In contributing to Carman’s history of the battle, Abrham Duryee would claim that he was told that elements of Seymour’s Brigade—the 2nd Pennsylvania Reserves and skirmishers of the 1st and 6th Reserves—were being driven back by Confederate troops, who were then flooding into the East Woods, threatening his flank and forcing him to retreat. Because there’s no proof that Walker’s attack by Trimble’s Brigade ever entered the East Woods, the claim that an “intelligence failure” prompted his retreat seems to be little more than a convenient excuse for ordering retreat. I believe that, more likely, the condition of his brigade after half an hour of intense fighting and significant casualties had taken their toll, forcing retreat as the only option to death.