Captain Von Bachelle and his canine friend sacrifice all in the Cornfield

You may have heard the story of Werner Von Bachelle and his beloved dog, who shared their lives and met their respective fates in Antietam’s Cornfield. But do you know their experiences in the month and hours before marching together into the Cornfield?  Here is their shared story…

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Captain Werner Von Bachelle

Werner Von Bachelle was a man made for military service.  Almost certainly an immigrant to American, perhaps from Germany, Von Bachelle had served in the French Army before coming to America and his previous military experience—combined with his commanding bearing and natural leadership skills—impressed all those who met him, particularly those in his command.  Before the war he’d served in the Wisconsin militia unit known as the “Citizens Corps of Milwaukee.”  When Lincoln’s first call for troops was issued in April 1861, Von Bachelle enlisted along with his militia company at Madison, Wisconsin in what would become the 6th Wisconsin Infantry Regiment.  In May, 1861, barely a month after volunteering for federal service, Von Bachelle was commissioned as a Second Lieutenant and attached to what eventually the 6th’s Company F.  On July 16th, 1861 Werner and the rest of his regiment was mustered into Federal service on July 16th for a term of three years.  Having trained and been encamped in the Madison area since April, Von Bachelle and the 6th men were more than ready to depart for the seat of war, which they did on 28 July. [1]

 

6the WS Flag

After passing through Harrisburg, Pennsylvania on 1 August, they arrived in the Washington, D.C. area two days later and were soon encamped on Meridian Hill.  Perhaps because they weren’t then attached to a larger unit or maybe because they were needed to perform guard duty around the capital, the 6th avoided taking part in the Union disaster at the First Battle of Bull Run. By October, though, the 6th Wisconsin found itself assigned to General Rufus King’s Brigade, which was attached to General Irvin McDowell’s division in the Army of the Potomac.  Von Bachelle and the 6th men found themselves serving alongside other Wisconsin men in the 2nd, 7th Wisconsin and the 19th Indiana – a brigade with which they would be associated most of the war and which would soon enough come to known as the “Iron Brigade.”  [2]

Iron Bde

Werner found himself promoted to the rank of first lieutenant in December and had been further elevated to Captain in May 1862.  During that time, the 6th Wisconsin and the rest of King’s First Brigade had moved to a new camp at Falmouth, Virginia, just across the Rappahannock River from Fredericksburg and along with their brigade, was assigned to the Department of the Rappahannock. By June, the 6th and their brigade comrades were assigned a new commander, Brigadier General John Gibbon, who would instill in the Westerners a West Point-inspired military spirit of discipline and direct the wearing of a new uniform, the US Regulars’ dress coat and distinctive black “1858 Army Hat.”  This gave the brigade a new name, the “Black Hat Brigade” and with this moniker they shifted to the Army of Virginia and moved toward the Shenandoah Valley, chasing Stonewall Jackson’s command.  Although the regiment conducted a number of reconnaissance advances, they remained in their Falmouth camp, still guarding Washington. [3]

 

Von B's DogThen, one day, a stray Newfoundland dog wandered into the 6th’s camp.  It’s unclear if that camp was the one in Washington or the Falmouth post, but regardless which it was, this moment would change Werner’s life forever.

 

It’s also unclear what attracted the small dog to the camp—perhaps the smell of food or a kind hand to pet him—but regardless, he simply wouldn’t leave.  And if he was going to stay, someone would have to be his master.  Certainly the enlisted men hadn’t the freedom and time to take on such a charge, but an officer could and everyone agreed that Captain Von Bachelle, a known lover of dogs, was the just the man.  Though the men may not have known it, Werner Von Bachelle also had no family so now this small dog would become his family.  And once together, nothing could keep them apart.

 

When the 6th Wisconsin headed toward their first major fight, at Groveton on August 29th, 1862, Captain Von Bachelle marched with his pet beside him.  As the 6th Wisconsin moved into position on the right of Gibbon’s line near the Brawer farm, Von Bachelle and his pet were there, fighting only dozens of yards away from Jackson’s own Stonewall Brigade. They both survived that fight, although 75 of their comrades weren’t as lucky.  Retreating into the Washington defenses on September 2nd, master and dog had built new bonds that even few men ever know.

 

On September 6th, the Black Hats—including Captain Von Bachelle and his pal—marched north into Maryland, chasing Lee’s Confederate army in a race that would end on the banks of Antietam Creek.  After enduring terrific fighting at South Mountain—where some sources suggest the Black Hat brigade earned a new name, the “Iron Brigade”—they marched on toward Sharpsburg.  Crossing Antietam Creek in the twilight, Von Bachelle, his canine companion, and the 6th Wisconsin spent the night of September 16th north of ground that in the morning would become the battleground of Antietam.

 

Captain Von Bachelle might have been awakened during the early hours of September 17th, by a soft nuzzling or perhaps a bark by his friend and companion.  However they awoke that morning, the captain and his pet were already on the march at dawn, heading toward the field of battle.  The very first artillery round fired in what would come to be known as the Battle of Antietam broke what morning stillness there was, exploding harmlessly above Gibbon’s surging men.  Pressing on toward the safety of the Poffenberger barn, two more shells came through the waning darkness.  The last of these came to earth in the middle of one of Sam Poffenberger’s threshing machines.  As it blew apart the thresher, jagged shards of metal flew wildly through the midst of Gibbon’s men.  When the smoke cleared, three fellow soldiers in Von Bachelle’s 6th Wisconsin were dead.  Like that first shell, they were a first this day – the first of thousands of Union casualties to fall before Rebel artillery.

 

It was just six in the morning when von Bachelle and Gibbon’s men first stepped from the North Woods into the grassy field beyond.  “In front of the woods was an open field; beyond this was a house, surrounded by peach and apple trees, a garden, and outhouses,” recalled the 6th Wisconsin’s Major Dawes of his first view of D.R. Miller’s farm – the ground on which they were about to fight.  Once clear of the North Woods, Gibbon pulled two companies of the 6th Wisconsin from the brigade’s right to deploy across its front as skirmishers.  As the skirmishers moved into their scattered position, the rest of the brigade deployed in a two-rank deep battle line, after which Gibbon’s command continued forward toward the Union Army’s directed goal – the small, white Dunker Church.  [4]

HD_DunkerChurchC1862

Reaching nearly the center of the Cornfield, Von Bachelle and his Wisconsin comrades were suddenly stalled while the right third of the regiment fought the enemy across the Hagerstown Pike, on their right.  Nearly a third of the regiment and the 6th Wisconsin’s commander would be lost to this firefight, while Dawes, von Bachelle and the remainder of the regiment suddenly found themselves sitting ducks in the corn.  Without forward movement and no enemy at which to shoot, Dawes’ small command was once again under tremendous unseen enemy fire about which they could do nothing.  “The bullets’ began to clip through the corn,” recalled Rufus Dawes, “and spin through the soft furrows—thick, almost, as hail.  Shells burst around us, the fragments tearing up the ground, and canister whistled through the corn above us.  Lieutenant Bode of company “F” was instantly killed, and Lieutenant John Ticknor was badly wounded.” [5]

 

But barely could Dawes consider his very limited options when the men of the “Ragged Ass” 2nd Wisconsin—so named for the tattered condition of their sky blue trousers—came sweeping up on their the left flank.  Instantly ordering his regiment up, the major barked “Forward, Guide Center, March!” and his disjointed line reformed as if once again on parade, joining the 2nd in pressing through the corn.  [6]

 

Union-Advance-Antietam-CornfieldThe 2nd and 6th Wisconsin now headed together through the corn toward the unknown.  The presence of the Rebel skirmishers which had pinned down nearly a third of the 6th Wisconsin meant there was more infantry ahead, but where?  And just as they had no idea where the enemy was or how many of them there might be, nor did they know the Union’s situation beyond their own small bubble of reality inside the corn.  Forging their way through the thick corn, Von Bachelle and the Wisconsin boys continued moving down the gentle slope until they could suddenly see the field’s southern end.  At its immediate edge was a worm fence of the kind they’d seen throughout Virginia, and beyond that, what?  As they reached the fence and halted, it was only then that the two Union regiments realized they’d found the Rebs.  In fact, they’d found the left-most regiments of Lawton’s Brigade, the 26th, 38th, and 61st Georgia.  At first, the Georgians seemed simply to stand there, some of them still rising from the ground and others readying muskets to fire.  And almost at once the opposing ranks, blue and gray, opened fire on each other over the barely 200 yards separating them.  [7]

 

The Iron Brigade’s two regiments had no idea at that moment, caught up with the fury of battle, what they’d done or what it meant to their fellow Union boys only a few hundred yards away on the eastern edge of the field.  To Major Dawes and his fellow Wisconsinites, the enemy had suddenly, unexpectedly sprung from the ground at the southern edge of the Cornfield, for that is what they saw.  What they couldn’t know, however, was that the Georgians almost certainly had been ordered up even before the Iron Brigade regiments had appeared, to take part in Colonel Douglass’ advance by Lawton’s Brigade as it chased Duryee’s fleeing men retreating through the Cornfield.  Attacking unintentionally alone, Duryee’s Brigade had been torn to shreds by enemy fire and simply by appearing and slowing the Confederate counterattack, Von Bachelle and his fellow Wisconsinites had saved the New Yorkers from probable slaughter.

 

Then, nearly without warning, the Confederates in their front pulled back.  But if the Union boys in Gibbon’s two Wisconsin regiments took any great relief in seeing the Georgians fall back from their front, it was a short-lived feeling.  Almost as if on cue a body of fresh Confederate infantry appeared from the depths of the West Woods, heading right for their exposed right flank.

 

These were men ordered forward by Confederate General Starke—Taliaferro s brigade, on the right, and his own brigade—sent at the double quick to stem the rising Yankee flood.  His brigades were now on a collision course with the 2nd and 6th Wisconsin and Phelps’ brigade and General Starke personally led the attack.  Minie balls poured upon them from their front and right flank, as did shells from the two Union guns commanded by Lieutenant Stewart.  One of the first casualties of this deadly fire was General Starke himself.  Midway between the safety of the woods and his objective along the Hagerstown Pike, a volley felled the general.  He was immediately carried to the rear and medical help but it was for naught; within the hour General Starke—like so many of his men—would be dead.   [8]

 

But even with General Starke gone, the two brigades continued wheeling right into position.  Pivoting on the far right of Taliaferro’s line, they finally reached the Hagerstown Pike before they stopped, found spots along the post and rail fence, and opened fire.  Their immediate targets were the 2nd US Sharpshooters, but soon Starke’s and Taliaferro’s men saw the 6th and 2nd Wisconsin boys of the Iron Brigade, just south of the Cornfield’s edge.  After a brief pause to align with the 2nd US Sharpshooters, the Wisconsin men were moving forward, sweeping out of the corn and through the worm fence protecting the southern end of the Cornfield.  “Men I cannot say fell,” wrote Major Dawes, “they were knocked out of the ranks by the dozens.  But we jumped over the fence, and pushed on, loading, firing, and shouting as we advanced.  There was, on the part of the men, great hysterical excitement, eagerness to go forward, and a reckless disregard of life, of everything but victory.”  The movement of the two Wisconsin units mirrored almost exactly that of Starke’s two brigades.  Pivoting on the right of the 2nd US Sharpshooters, the two Yankee regiments raced forward in their own right wheel movement.  When completed, the identical commands brought these lines into a close and deadly standoff, only 30 yards apart across the Hagerstown Pike.  [9]

 

“Now is the pinch,” recalled Major Dawes, “Men and officers of New York and Wisconsin are fused together into a common mass, in the frantic struggle to shoot fast.  Every body tears cartridges, loads, passes guns, or shoots.  Men are falling in their places or running back into the corn.  The soldier who is shooting is furious with energy.  The soldier who is shot looks around for help with an imploring agony of death on his face.”  Huge gaps were appearing in both lines and it was clear that before long one of the two immovable forces would simply disintegrate into nothingness and loss.  The appearance of the rest of Phelps’ men did little more than buy the Union line time. Still, reinforcements were a luxury the ragged Confederates didn’t enjoy; they would need to do something if they were to survive this murder any longer.  Almost as if in slow motion, first one and then another man began crossing the fence over, under, through; any way possible—until so many men were moving it seemed to be part of a plan.  If only they could turn the Yankee’s exposed flank—as their desperate movement suggested—the killing would stop.  For a moment, it seemed to be working.  The 6th Wisconsin and the 14th Brooklyn of Phelps’ Brigade fell back into the corn.  But the 2nd US Sharpshooters plugged the gap, creating an anchor upon which the 6th and 14th clung to restore their line.  The Sharpshooters possession of breech-loaded Sharps rifles—that doubled or more their rate of fire over the rifled muskets everyone else possessed—only added to their hold on the spot.  The Confederates had been so close to victory but it was no use, the unending Union fire turned that section of roadway into a dead zone that no one could enter and live.  Although this standoff seemed to those taking part in it to last for hours, the watches in their pockets would count off only ten minutes.  [10]

 

Casualties in this small portion of the cornfield were fearsome.  The 2nd Wisconsin lost 90 men while the 6th Wisconsin itself lost 147 men here. But perhaps the most touching of the many personal stories playing out on the Hagerstown Pike that morning was that of Captain Werner Von Bachelle and his Newfoundland dog.  Even in this firestorm, Von Bachelle and his dog were together, leading Company F into the fight across the Hagerstown Pike.  And when Captain Von Bachelle was struck dead by a ball, his canine companion refused to fall back with the rest of the 6th, preferring to stay with his fallen master.  Two days later, when the men of Company F would return to the spot to retrieve their captain’s body they found there a terrible sight.  Von Bachelle and his beloved dog lay together in death on the ground, and so would the two casualties of Antietam’s Cornfield remain together for all eternity.

 

W Von Bachelle GraveToday, as we pause to remember America’s fallen veterans of the Cornfield and other such vaunted places, it’s worth a moment to recall the touching story of Werner Von Bachelle and his eternal friend, who were both called upon to sacrifice their very lives for our nation.

 

Notes:

[1] Rufus R. Dawes A Full Blown Yankee of the Iron Brigade: Service with the Sixth Wisconsin Volunteers (Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 1962). p. 93.

[2] http://civilwarintheeast.com/us-regiments-batteries/wisconsin/6th-wisconsin/

[3] http://civilwarintheeast.com/us-regiments-batteries/wisconsin/6th-wisconsin/

[4] Dawes A Full Blown Yankee, pp. 87-88.

[5] Dawes A Full-Blown Yankee, p. 90. The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, Series I, Volume XIX, Part 1 (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1887), p. 255

[6] 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), pp. 221-222. OR, Vol. XIX, Pt. 1, p. 255.

[7] Carman, The Maryland Campaign, p. 223. OR, Vol. XIX, Pt. 1, p. 248

[8] Carman, The Maryland Campaign, p. 223. OR, Vol. XIX, Pt. 1, p. 248.

[9] Dawes A Full-Blown Yankee, pp. 90-91.; Carman, The Maryland Campaign, p. 223.

[10] Dawes, A Full Blown Yankee, pp. 90-91.

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