The 21st Georgia: An Unexpected Mission in Antietam’s East Woods

As the 21st Georgia’s battle-tested fighters settled into positions behind the rocks and trees in the southern end of the East Woods, they knew that another Yankee advance would soon enough seek to drive them from their new position.  What they didn’t understand was just how important holding this place was for a Confederate victory at Antietam…

By David A. Welker

The 21st Georgia was organized in an unusual, scattered manner that reflects both the times and the uncoordinated early days of the Confederacy.  Early in the war, many prominent Georgians organized their own infantry companies and offered their service to Georgia’s Governor Brown; however, some dispute between Brown and newly-elected Confederate President Davis prompted Davis to reject their service.  Fortunately, Davis had already authorized former US Army Captain James J. Morrison to organize a Georgia regiment and he welcomed these companies into his unit.  A meeting at Rome, Georgia in late April, 1861 formally joined these companies under Morrison’s command and arranged for each captain to take his company to Richmond, Virginia as soon as they were ready to leave Georgia.  As a result, Companies A and C departed for Virginia at once and camped at Richmond’s old fair grounds, awaiting the rest of the regiment.  But none of the other companies appeared and by June 6th, Morrison could wait no longer; Companies A and C were mustered into Confederate service as the 4th Georgia Battalion.  By early July five additional companies had finally appeared and so on July 9th, 1861 the regiment was mustered into Confederate service as the 21st Georgia Infantry Regiment.  Their scattered arrival and tardiness in forming—they were still short three companies and the last wouldn’t arrive until late August—left the regiment with a higher assigned number than their service date suggested or than many of the men wanted, but nothing could be done.[i]

21st Ga poster

Though finally formed, the confusing changes continued for the 21st Georgia as President

21st GA Mercer

Col. Mercer in his US Dragoons uniform

Davis insisted on using executive authority to personally appoint the regiment’s officers (offering some hint of the nature of the original Brown-Davis dispute).  Despite this meddling, Davis heeded James Morrison’s advice and appointed his cousin, John T. Mercer—who had recently resigned his commission in the 1st US Dragoons to serve the South—as the 21st’s new colonel.  Lieutenant Colonel James Morrison became second in command.  Finally—at least for a few months—the regiment ad settled into its new normalcy. [ii]

Once finally organized, the 21st Georgia consisted of these companies:

  • Company A: Campbell County (Campbell County Guards)
  • Company B: Floyd County (Floyd Sharpshooters)
  • Company C: Fulton County (Atlanta Volunteers)
  • Company D: Polk County (Cedartown Guards)
  • Company E: Floyd County (Sardis Volunteers and Concord Rangers
  • Company F: Troup County (Ben Hill Infantry-Ben Hill Volunteers)
  • Company G: Gordon County (Dabney Rifles)
  • Company H: Dade County (Silver Grays/Yancey Invincibles)
  • Company I: Stewart County (Stewart Infantry)
  • Company K: Chattooga County (Bartow Avengers) [iii]


The unsettled air surrounding the 21st Georgia at its creation remained, however.  When the regiment was ordered to leave Richmond and travel by train to Manassas in the wake of the war’s first major battle there, Company A’s commander Captain Glover—a doctor before joining the army—objected that many of his man were too sick with measles to travel, a plea which Colonel Mercer rejected.  Glover’s refusal to have his sick strike their tents earned him temporary arrest and split the regiment’s officer corps asunder when most of the company commanders sided with their fellow captain.  This rift remained alive until Colonel Mercer was killed on April 18th, 1864 at the Battle of Plymouth, North Carolina.  In the meantime, the incident was closed when the regiment joined Johnston’s army at Manassas and Glover was restored to his company command by General Crittenden, commanding the brigade to which the 21st had just been assigned. [iv]

Captian Thomas Glover

Upon arrival at Manassas Junction, the 21st was assigned to what would soon come to called Trimble’s brigade, when Marylander General Isaac Trimble was assigned to his new position.  Initially joining the 21st Georgia in Trimble’s brigade was the 5th Alabama, 16th Mississippi, 21st North Carolina Infantry and the 1st North Carolina Battalion, and the brigade was assigned to Ewell’s division.  Shortly thereafter, the 21st Georgia and Trimble’s brigade marched to Centreville to join the rest of Johnston’s Confederate army and spend the winter.

In early May 1862, the 21st Georgia and Trimble’s brigade departed to join Stonewall Jackson’s force in the Shenandoah Valley.  There they took part in the Southern victories at Front Royal, Winchester, Cross Keys, and Port Republic.  Now battle tested veterans, by June the 21st was headed back to the Richmond area with the rest of Jackson’s force, joining the Confederate defense of the capital against McClellan’s attack up the Peninsula. There the 21st took part in the Seven Days Battles, seeing action at Mechanicsville, Chickahominy, Cold Harbor, Frazier’s Farm, Savage Station, and Malvern Hill.


21st GA flag

Colors of the 21st Georgia

Barely had the Georgians recovered from driving McClellan’s army from before Richmond when they found themselves marching back toward northern Virginia with Jackson on his flanking march around Pope’s newly-formed Union Army of Virginia.  Finding the enemy on August 9th at Cedar Mountain, the 21st Georgia once again joined Jackson in defeating the Yankees in battle.  Upon nearing the vicinity of Manassas Junction—where a large but lightly-defended Federal supply depot awaited them—General Trimble proposed to Jackson that he be allowed to use the 21st Georgia and 21st North Carolina to strike the depot.  When Jackson suggested that two regiments might not be force enough for this job, Trimble replied “I beg your pardon, General, but give me my two Twenty-ones and I’ll charge hell itself!”  The reputation of the 21st Georgia had, after but a few weeks and a lot of tough fighting, grown into one reflecting the battle-proven effectiveness of these Georgians.  When the “two Twenty-firsts” took an estimated one million dollars of supplies and eight hundred prisoners, their reputation only grew.  When fighting began at the Second Battle of Manassas, the 21st Georgia took a position on the right of Jackson’s line in the Unfinished Railroad cut near Groveton. Here the Georgians held off repeated Union assaults on August 29th and 30th, resorting to throwing rocks from the rail bed at the attacking enemy when their ammunition was exhausted. When Second Manassas had ended the 21st Georgia has lost 16 men for their effort. [v]

After taking part in the Battle of Ox Hill (or Chantilly), the Georgians headed north as part of Lee’s invasion of Maryland.  After reaching the Frederick, Maryland area, the 21st and Trimble’s brigade marched off to take part in Jackson’s brilliant assault on Harpers Ferry, which handed the town and its mass of Federal stores there to Confederate control.  Barely had they completed this task before the 21st men found themselves marching to Sharpsburg to rejoin Lee’s army there. [vi]

Once they reached Sharpsburg, Trimble’s men—now commanded by Colonel James A. Walker—almost immediately moved northward on the Hagerstown Pike and halted behind the Dunker Church, joining Hood’s division.   Here they waited while Hood’s men skirmished with the advancing Yankees in the East Woods.  When the weary Texans were pulled back to the church for a well-deserved rest, Trimble’s brigade found itself marching to replace them.  Heading east across the Pike, they pressed on toward the Mumma family’s farmhouse and deployed along the width of the Mumma’s plowed field, with the 12th Georgia holding the brigade’s left flank on the Smoketown Road and the 1st Georgia settled in on the 21st’s right.  Although the skirmishing on their left had settled into a low-level conflict with the coming darkness, everyone expected the fighting to intensify at dawn.  And even though the 21st Georgia men were battle-tested soldiers, the prospect of more fighting ensured an uneasy night. [vii]


Those men who could sleep on the night of September 16th were awakened by the sounds of a widening battle before dawn.  The 21st men and the rest of Trimble’s brigade remained were they had deployed the night before, as did the men of Lawton’s brigade, which was well to their left and backed now by Hays’ brigade.  The first sign of this change came as Yankee troops, hidden by the cover of darkness and the East Woods, began moving and pushing back skirmishers from Lawton’s brigade, which had been harassing them all night.  As the unidentified Federals advanced out of the East Woods and into the southeastern end of the Cornfield in their front, the men of Lawton’s and Trimble’s brigades waited silently along the southern border of the corn.  Those Union troops were in fact the 13th Pennsylvania Reserves, which pushed into the void left by Lawton’s retreating skirmishers as far as the edge of the Smoketown Road.  And just as the Pennsylvanians opened a “fire, at will” upon the Trimble’s brigade and the 21st Georgia—the rest of Seymour’s Union brigade moved up to their aid.  Once in place, two of Seymour’s Pennsylvania regiments—the 5th and 13th Reserves—opened fire on Trimble’s flank.  The 21st Georgia and the other four five regiments of Trimble’s brigade were getting the worst of this fire because, unlike the wooded Yankee position, they were in the open with no cover at all but the darkness to hide them.  And that, too, was slipping away by the moment.  Within a few moments Union troops had cleared the Confederate presence completely out of the East Woods.      [viii]

Artillery commander Stephan D. Lee could see Trimble’s brigade’s plight and resolved to do something about it.  Two guns of Jordan’s battery soon raced forward with their crews in tow.  But barely had they unlimbered in the rear of Trimble’s position when they discovered that the Union had batteries on this side of the creek, too.  General Hooker himself had ordered Matthews’ 1st Pennsylvania Light artillery, Battery F to unlimber their guns on the high ridge just south of the North Woods and within minutes of deploying they were pouring a deadly-accurate fire into Trimble’s beleaguered men.  Soon they were joined by a second Union battery—Thompson’s 1st Pennsylvania light artillery, battery C—which deployed on Matthews’ right.  And barely had Colonel Lee’s support for Trimble’s beleaguered men arrived when the two Union batteries soon opened on them, too. Before barely five rounds could be fired in Trimble’s support, Jordan’s battery was driven off by the greater Yankee artillery firepower of Thompson’s battery.  Once again alone, things were desperate for Trimble’s brigade and the 21st Georgia.  [ix]

At the same time that the 21st Georgia and Trimble’s brigade were enduring this shelling, the opening Union assault had begun in earnest.  Hooker’s attack toward the Dunker Church had gone badly and two of the three assaulting brigades—Hartsuff’s and Christian’s—had unknowingly been delayed.  But none of this was apparent to the men of the 21st Georgia and others in their brigade.  To their view, the Yankees ensconced in the East Woods had now been joined by a fresh force that had appeared through the Cornfield on the enemy’s right.  Soon enough these newly-arrived Federals would align with the Pennsylvanians who’d emerged from the east Woods earlier, forming 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.  But even with a gap in their force, the Federals were a major threat to the safety of the 21st Georgia and Trimble’s brigade.

With a solid target before them Lawton’s and Trimble’s brigades were pouring a nearly constant fire into the Yankees, which clearly had stopped the Union attack in its tracks.  Colonel Walker had watched his men’s intense efforts but his confidence probably was no greater than that of his Union counterpart, Abram Duryee, only a few dozen yards away.  Walker’s right flank of Trimble’s brigade rested in a plowed field north of the Mumma house and the exposed units there were taking casualties fast.  Something had to change this situation or his command could be swept away by a single blue wave once the Union attack restarted.  As Colonel Walker watched two federal regiments appear to pull back from their position on the western edge of the East Woods—the 2nd Pennsylvania 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 gain 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, the12th Georgia men 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.  [x]



Fighting in the East Woods and the Cornfield

As the tiny 12th Georgia settled into its new position behind the rock ledge, they found it a gift to infantry troops; 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, hidden target but stand and take it.  Seeing the effect 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.  [xi]

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.  [xii]

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 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 and still in line just where they’d fallen.  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.  [xiii]

But by the time Colonel Walker once again reached his attacking brigade, he found 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, a fresh Union brigade—Christian’s brigade, finally restored to order—was advancing through the woods – and the Federals already in the East Woods now had returned the favor and were pouring a flanking fire into his own right-hand regiments in their new, advanced position.  It was a situation the men of Trimble’s brigade couldn’t stand for long and moments later—whether they did so under orders or in reaction to the reality of the situation remains unclear—they fell back to their original post on the Mumma farm fields, along the rock ledge.

The 21st Georgia, however, never got word of this retreat and suddenly the Georgians found themselves quite alone.  So while the rest of the brigade moved to the rear, safety, and well-deserved rest, the 21st men would have to continue holding on against Christian’s brigade as it deployed in the woods.  Unlike the rest of their brigade, for better or worse, the 21st Georgia still had a critical role play in this fight.  [xiv]

As the 21st Georgia held on at the rock ledge, the battle swirled on in the Cornfield and the East Woods.  Not only had Trimble’s brigade (still unknown to the Georgians) withdrawn from the fight, but so had Lawton’s and Hays’ brigades, to be replaced by Hood’s division – the men of Wofford’s Texas Brigade and Law’s brigade.  Holding the right of Hood’s line south of the Cornfield, Evander Law knew that before his brigade could take the right half of the Cornfield, he would have to clear away the Yankee infantry still holding the southern end of the East Woods, as well as the Union artillery—Thompson’s battery—which continued raining shells onto Law’s ranks.  Without a pause, Evander Law set his brigade in motion yet again to reduce these two threats.

To their rear, the men of the 21st Georgia were still clinging to the ground, trying desperately to hold on against the fire from Christian’s men hidden in the East Woods.  They had no idea just how desperate their situation was; the 21st’s isolated position both cut them physically away from the rest of the brigade and took them completely out of the command chain – they were in the wrong place with no apparent hope of being given clear direction to correct this state.  Worse, they’d just gone through a sudden command change because with the regiment’s commander, Major Glover wounded, Captain James Nisbet suddenly found himself in command of this very bad situation.



Capt. Nisbet

Moments before, Captain Nisbet had been knocked to the ground and had only just regained consciousness – only to find himself suddenly in charge of the regiment.  Now Nisbet was pinned to the ground like the rest of his men, unable to advance or retreat.  Looking around to regain his senses, Nisbet realized that someone was calling his name and waving frantically.  Scrambling on all fours, he reached nearly the center of the regiment’s position when he saw Lieutenant James Blevins, now in charge of his own former Company H, fall with a severe shoulder wound that was bleeding profusely.  The 21st’s new commander sent the lieutenant to the rear for medical help, when Captain Merrill Castleberry from Company C scurried over to find out what they should do next.  Barely had the captain’s presence registered with Nisbet before a Yankee ball plunged into Castleberry’s open mouth and exited through the back of his head.  Horrified, Nisbet propped the barely-living man’s head on an abandoned cartridge box to stem the bleeding and keep him from drowning in his own blood.  As he was working to offer his fellow officer what help and comfort he could, Nesbit heard someone call out “They are running!”  Glancing up from his grisly act of charity, the captain realized it was true.  Ordering the men on their feet, he marched them forward across the Smoketown Road to what he thought to be Lawton’s right flank.  Though he was moving back into the fight, apparently being any place else would be preferable to remaining where they were.   [xv]

Advancing so had caught the attention of Colonel Law, now in command of this portion of the fight, and he hastily pushed the 21st Georgia forward on the right of the 4th Alabama and then added the 5th Texas to farther extend his right.  Now Law had in effect two distinct three-regiment brigades at his disposal because during their brief pause his left-most three regiments had drifted obliquely to the left, leaving them facing nearly northward.  This left-hand portion would advance almost directly northward as part of Hood’s division’s attack to retake the Cornfield.  The right half of Law’s brigade—now including the 21st Georgia—moved nearly due east in an effort to retake the East Woods.  This right half of Law’s command, headed for the East Woods, numbered 463 experienced fighters; opposing them in the woods were the three remaining regiments of Christian’s brigade, which numbered 681 men.  [xvi]

Law’s right-hand force—the 21st Georgia, along with the 5th Texas and 4th Alabama—poured into the East Woods as three separate living streams of men, each coming from a slightly different direction.  But once across the wood line, these three streams merged into one, mighty torrent of Confederate force.  The right-most regiments of Christian’s brigade never really had a chance.  The 88th Pennsylvania tried shifting their front to meet the surging enemy mass but to no avail.  They could barely get off a few scattered volleys before Law’s front ranks were upon them, forcing a quick retreat.  Breaking from the right, they fled and as Christian’s Pennsylvanians and New Yorkers flowed out of the East Woods, Law’s Texans, Georgians, and Alabamians flooded into the Yankees’ former position.

21st GA in the EWLaw’s three regiments had barely entered the woods when they halted, reformed their lines, and sought cover behind the trees and rock outcroppings that littered the woodlot.  Though they may have stopped because their commanders realized that every eastward step took them ever farther from Colonel Law and the rest of the brigade—their only reinforcements—or because they lacked orders to do more than clear the woods of Yankees, their decision to stop was of critical importance for Southern prospects in the battle.  For at that moment Law’s men had both removed the Union threat to the Confederate right flank and secured control over the southern end of the East Woods.  And if Law’s men didn’t really appreciate what they’d just done, neither apparently did Union General Hooker.

At nearly the same moment that the 21st Georgia and their counterparts were marching into the East Woods, General Hooker was ordering the next Union attack, sending Meade’s division to attack dead south through the Cornfield to both take that important objective and to come to the aid of Union forces in the woods.  Hooker could see Law’s brigade and its hold on the edge of the East Woods but what he apparently didn’t know was that this was only the tip of Confederate control of the East Woods.  Making matters worse for him, at that moment the only Union presence there were dead or wounded men in blue, or those detached from their now-retired regiments.  The Confederates now held the key East Woods position that dominated the left flank of the ground Hooker and his I Corps had been fighting for since before sunrise.  And without control of that position, probably nothing Hooker could throw through the Cornfield would be able to cross it, much less hold it.  Once underway, Meade’s advance would successfully drive Hood’s weary division from the Cornfield, all right, but the 21st Georgia and their compatriots holding the East Woods threatened Meade’s left flank and ensured he could go no further.  By their mere presence the Georgians had helped stall this latest Union attack; now the arrival of Ripley’s fresh Confederate brigade would drive back Meade’s men.  The last fresh Union I Corps force had failed to take the Cornfield and General McClellan’s battle plan had suffered a major setback.

Ripley’s men pushed deeper into the corn as they drove Meade’s fleeing Yankees ever northward.   But these gains had come with a terrible human cost and soon Colquitt’s brigade was marching north to replace Ripley’s tired men.  As the men of Colquitt’s brigade filed into place, it was immediately clear that they needed help – and fast.  Regiment after regiment of fresh Union troops came onto line in the northern edge of the Cornfield—Gordon’s brigade of Mansfield’s XII Corps, Hooker’s reserve—and it was clear that one brigade wouldn’t hold this force in place for long.  To support Colquitt, General D.H. Hill sent Garland’s brigade forward across the Smoketown Road to shore up Colquitt’s right flank.  Holding the Cornfield from the Hagerstown Pike to the East Woods, Jackson’s Confederates were ready for another frontal assault in the Cornfield.

But in the barely 15 minutes since Hooker had ordered Mansfield’s XII Corps men to attack across the same ground repeatedly trod by his I Corps, Joe Hooker had changed his plans. Though he never explained why this was so, most likely Hooker had realized that the 21st Georgia and Law’s two other detached regiments holding on in the East Woods threatened his new attack more significantly than he’d first thought. In response, Joe Hooker ordered General Mansfield to shift some of his fresh troops to the left with the objective of clearing out the East Woods.  The men of the 21st Georgia had no idea then, but their hold on the East Woods was about to be tested.

It was about 7:30 in the morning and the Confederate hold on the Cornfield and the East Woods now depended on just how quickly Garland’s brigade could get into place on Colquitt’s right.  Colonel Duncan K. McRae now led the brigade in place of General Garland, who had been killed three days earlier at South Mountain, and it was he who received D.H. Hill’s orders to move “to the support of Colquitt, who was then about engaging the enemy on our left front,” as McRae later recalled.  But, McRae added, they were also “cautioned by Gen’l. Hill not to fire upon Colquitt who might be in our front.”   With these two directives in mind, the colonel led his brigade—the 5th, 12th, 13th, 20th, and 23rd North Carolina—forward across Mumma’s plowed field and toward Colquitt’s right.  Stepping off in good order, it would be about the last thing that would go right for Colonel McRae’s command this day.  [xvii]

Barely had they reached the East Woods when things started unraveling.  “Here a state of confusion ensued which it is difficult to portray,” Captain Thomas Garrett of the 5th North Carolina dryly but honestly recalled.  Advancing into the woods in increasing disorder, they pressed onward, “the movements of the brigade…were vacillating and unsteady, obliquing to the right and left [until it] came upon a ledge of rock and earth, forming a fine natural breastwork,” the captain added.  McRae’s line now halted and opened fire.  The brigade apparently had been unnerved even before entering the fight.  Whether it was the result of having to withstand the enemy artillery fire, the lingering effects of the fight they had endured at South Mountain, or the loss of their commander, the fact was they weren’t behaving like the battle-hardened veterans they were, but rather as shaky and unsteady as any of the green XII Corps regiments fighting Colquitt’s line only yards away.  [xviii]

Suddenly McRae’s shaken command came upon an unexpected body of troops.  Some considered them the enemy and opened fire, while others were sure they were fellow Confederates and a cry rose up to cease firing.  “[U]naccountbly to me, an order was given to cease firing—that General Ripley’s brigade was in front.  This produced great confusion…,” McRae noted.  What Garland’s Brigade had found wasn’t the enemy but, in fact, the 21st Georgia, 4th Alabama, and 5th Texas.  Until this moment, their presence on the field had been of nothing but benefit to Confederate prospects but their uncoordinated presence in the East Woods had put them right where no one in Garland’s brigade expected any Confederate troops to be.  The uncertainty of the moment spurred a cacophony in the ranks, with repeated and conflicting orders being shouted, though only some of these emanated from the brigade’s officers.  [xix]

At the same moment that Garland’s brigade was stumbling onto the 21st Georgia and Law’s remaining two regiments, Hooker’s flanking attack to clear the East Woods got underway.  Greene’s division of the XII Corps swept into the northern end of the East Woods, moving to join the fight.  They’d reached the edge of the fighting just as General Williams had taken command of the corps, putting them in the right place at just the right time.  Williams had quickly found General Greene and pointed from Gordon’s left to beyond the East Woods.  Here, Williams explained, they should deploy, their right on the farm lane leading from the East Woods to the North Woods, while their left should extend toward the burning Mumma farm buildings.  Once deployed, George Greene was to start his whole division forward as one—advancing and wheeling gradually to the right, pivoting on Gordon’s brigade’s left in the East Woods—to hit the Rebels in flank.  [xx]

As Green’s attacking Federals hit the East Woods, it was all too much for Colquitt’s men21st GA Retreat and those of Law’s cobbled-together brigade, including the 21st Georgia.  Their right had been turned and now the enemy in front—that they’d checked for so long and at such a cost—was advancing.  The vice that was squeezing them from right and front was turning rapidly into a noose that threatened to take away the whole of two Confederate brigades all at once.  And the men reacted as anyone would in such a spot – they simply ran.  First in ones and twos, then in great numbers until the whole of Colquitt’s brigade melted into a fleeing mass.  Colquitt’s line broke apart from right to left and spread even to two regiments from Ripley’s brigade that had stayed behind to fight—the 3rd North Carolina and elements of the 1st North Carolina—moving at that moment to post on the left of Colquitt’s line.  Colonel Colquitt and his officers would all later try to preserve their brigade’s reputation by claiming in official reports that General D.H. Hill had ordered the whole of the Confederate position back to the Dunker Church ridge.  But even Colonel Colquitt gently alluded to the reality of the situation when he wrote “The enemy closed in upon the right so near that our ranks were scarcely distinguishable.  At the same time his front line advanced.  My men stood firm until every field officer but one had fallen, and then made the best of their way out.”  Edmund Brown of the 27th Indiana was less gentle, recalling that “we see our antagonists rise up and move briskly away, without any regard to order.”  As the 21st Georgia and their fellow Confederates fled from the East Woods, they surrendered it forever to Union control.

But the cost the 21st Georgia paid in the southern end of the East Woods was fearful.  Major Thomas Glover—who’d stood up for his company’s ill men before leaving Richmond only months ago—was badly wounded, as were Second Lieutenant Napoleon Hudgins and Privates Leander Crouch, James Ross, David Welks, and 19 other men.  Many of these men remained behind in the East Woods and would be held captive by the Yankees until exchanged.  Other men of the 21st weren’t so lucky.  At least four men were killed on the battlefield, mostly in the East Woods, and would soon be joined in death by some of the wounded.  Despite these losses, the 21st Georgia continued serving the Confederate cause gallantly. [xxi]

After enjoying a well-deserved rest at Port Royal, the 21st traveled to Fredericksburg in time to take part in the December 13th battle.  In this fight the regiment served on the right of the Confederate line and captured a Federal artillery piece which they were unable to retain because the ground on this part of the line was extremely swampy.  On January 19th, 1863 the 21st was transferred to Doles’ brigade, joining their fellow Georgians of the 4th, 12th, and 44th regiments and with the exception of a brief sojourn to North Carolina, it is with this brigade that the 21st would serve out the remainder of the war.  At the Battle of Chancellorsville, the 21st Georgia took part in Jackson’s flanking attack of General Hooker’s Union position, sustaining heavy losses in the two days of fighting there. [xxii]

At Gettysburg, the 21st Georgia and Doles’ brigade advanced late on July 1st to strike the Union XI Corps north of town.  Defeating and driving into town two Union brigades (first Ames brigade, then Krzyzanowski’s brigade), the 21st advanced toward town.  After failing to cut off the retreat of a third Union brigade (Paul’s), the tired Georgians moved into town and stopped at West Middle Street for the night.  In the morning they advanced to meet the Union position on Cemetery Hill, which they were expected to attack until General Ramseur called off the assault because the Union hold on that spot was too strong.  [xxiii]

In January, 1864, the 21st Georgia was detached for duty in North Carolina, where they rejoined Hoke’s brigade and were reunited with the 21st North Carolina.  Together again, the “two 21sts” participated in the capture of Plymouth and in the Battle of Drewry’s Bluff, after which they returned to Virginia and service in Dole’s brigade.  [xxiv]

Reunited with Dole’s brigade, the 21st Georgia moved to the Shenandoah Valley where they joined General Jubal Early’s force in driving toward Washington, DC in order to draw Union troops away from Petersburg and the Confederate capital at Richmond.  After taking part in the Battle of Monocacy, the 21st reached the very edge of the Union capital but was turned back after the Battle of Fort Stevens.  The 21st Georgia then traveled to Winchester for the third battle there on 19 September before moving to rejoin the main body of Lee’s army before Petersburg.  Here they would endure all that General Grant could throw at them, posted on the right of the Confederate line.

By Early April, 1865, the 21st Georgia—like the Confederacy itself—was worn and on the verge of its demise.  After participating in Lee’s last attack on the Union lines—the Battle of Fort Steadman on March 25th, 1865—and the army’s retreat, little of the regiment remained for Lee to surrender to General Grant on April 9th.  Only two members of the 21st Georgia’s Company A remained with the army by the time it reached Appomattox and surrender, while other companies could muster but a handful of men. The 21st Georgia had truly given the South its full measure of devotion, to the very last man.  [xxv]


[i] Thomas, Henry W. History of the Doles-Cook Brigade, Army of Northern Virginia, C.S.A. (Dayton: Morningside Books, 1988), pp. 342-343.

[ii] History of the Doles-Cook Brigade, pp. 343-344.

[iii] History of the Doles-Cook Brigade, pp. 348-349.  Company E was converted to cavalry and departed for service in Tennessee and Kentucky in May 1862, leaving only nine companies in the 21st until late 1864, when a new Company E joined the regiment.

[iv] History of the Doles-Cook Brigade, p. 349.

[v] History of the Doles-Cook Brigade, p. 356.

[vi] History of the Doles-Cook Brigade, p. 356.

[vii] 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), p. 216.

[viii] OR, Vol. XIX, Pt. 1, pp. 977-978.

[ix] Carman and Pierro, Ed.  The Maryland Campaign, p. 216; Carman and Clemens, Ed. The Maryland Campaign, Vol. II, pp. 55-57.

[x] Carman and Pierro, Ed.  The Maryland Campaign, p. 217; Carman and Clemens, Ed. The Maryland Campaign, Vol. II, pp. 57-61; OR, Vol. XIX, Pt. 1, pp. 976-977.

[xi] OR, Vol. XIX, Pt. 1, pp. 976-977.

[xii] Carman and Pierro, Ed.  The Maryland Campaign, p. 217; Carman and Clemens, Ed. The Maryland Campaign, Vol. II, pp. 57-61.

[xiii] OR, Vol. XIX, Pt. 1, p. 977; Carman and Pierro, Ed.  “The Maryland Campaign,” p. 218; Carman and Clemens, Ed. The Maryland Campaign, Vol. II, pp.61-63.

[xiv] Carman, The Maryland Campaign, p. 224.

[xv] James Cooper Nisbet Four Years on the Firing Line Bell Wiley, Ed. (Jackson, TN: McCowat-Mercer Press, 1914), p. 102.; Priest, Antietam: The Soldier’s Battle, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994), p. 57.

[xvi] OR, Vol. XIX, Pt. 1, pp. 937-938.

[xvii] OR, Vol. XIX, Pt. 1, p. 1040.

[xviii] OR, Vol. XIX, Pt. 1, p. 1044.

[xix] OR, Vol. XIX, Pt. 1, p. 1043.

[xx] OR, Vol. XIX, Pt. 1, p. 475.

[xxi] History of the Doles-Cook Brigade, pp. 356, 366.

[xxii] History of the Doles-Cook Brigade, pp. 356-362.

[xxiii] Bradley M. Gottfried Brigades of Gettysburg: The Union and Confederate Brigades at the Battle of Gettysburg (New York: Da Capo Press, 2002), pp. 523 – 527.

[xxiv] History of the Doles-Cook Brigade, pp.361-362.

[xxv] History of the Doles-Cook Brigade, pp. 362-363.

5 thoughts on “The 21st Georgia: An Unexpected Mission in Antietam’s East Woods

  1. Informative although I already knew a lot of what you wrote. BTW, Col.Glover was killed at 3rd Winchester and is buried there in the Stonewall Cemetery with 5-6 other members killed or died at other times in the war. also, the 21st surrendered at Appomattox with about 65 officers and men, one officer of whom was in command of a company of the 44th Georgia. Stuart McClung,
    21st Georgia Vol.Inf., Co.B


  2. My Great great great uncle Andrew Jackson Harpe from Dooly County Georgia enlisted in Co K 21st GA and served from 2nd Manassas through Regiment’s surrender at Appomattox. Was severely wounded at Antietam and nursed back to health by a fellow soldier (he had contracted diptheria- highly contagious and was placed in dead pile). Continued to fight after recovering, signed surrender papers as one of 7-8 surviving Co. K members, and walked the 800-900 miles back to Georgia after being paroled to his home and wife Matilda (Taylor) Harpe who described him as a skeleton as he walked across the field to the house. Suffered musket and artillery wounds to his legs at Antietam that plagued him the rest of his life.


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