Claimed by the Cornfield: Georgia’s Colonel Marcellus Douglass

With his brigade locked in a nearly point-blank fight on the southern end of Antietam’s Cornfield, Colonel Douglass had already been wounded seven times but remained in command.  Then an eighth Union Minie ball suddenly found him…

By David A. Welker

Marcellus Douglass was born in Thomaston, Georgia on October 5th, 1820.  Little is known of his early years but after graduating from the University of Georgia, Marcellus passed the bar and worked for several years as a lawyer in Cuthbert, Georgia.  During this time Marcellus married Menla Sophia Davis and together they had four children (Eugene, Nellie, Marcellus, Jr., and Jessie).  Similarly, little is known of his early professional life but apparently he’d risen to some level of prominence in Georgia because he was selected as one of only two delegates representing Randolph County on the Georgia Secession Convention, which gathered in Milledgeville from January 16th to March 23rd, 1861.  As a member of this Convention Douglass not only voted to take Georgia out of the Union, on January 19th, 1861 but also helped create Georgia’s first new constitution since 1798.   [1]


Douglass’ enthusiasm for the war must have been great because after the Convention adjourned for the last time in late March, he raised a company of cavalry and offered its services to Georgia.  By June, however, that company had been converted to infantry—perhaps reflecting the excess of volunteer cavalry units, when infantry was what was needed—and was mustered into Confederate service as Company E (the “Randolph Volunteers”) of the 13th Georgia Infantry Regiment, the “Bartow Light Infantry,” on June 19th, 1861.  Marcellus Douglass, having organized them in the first place, was understandably selected as commander of Company E and commissioned a captain that same day.  Promotion came quickly and by July 8th, 1861 Douglass was the regiment’s second-in-command, holding the rank of lieutenant colonel.  [2]

During the war’s first summer, Douglass and the 13th Georgia Infantry were assigned to Brigadier General John B. Floyd’s brigade and posted in western Virginia.  During their time there, Douglass and the 13th took a minor part in the Battles of Sewell Mountain and Laurel Hill before returning to Georgia late in the fall of 1861.  The 13th’s rapidly rising casualties—a result of illness brought on by clothing unsuitable for the “harsh northern climate” of the western Virginia mountains—made the return home a necessity.  By December, the 13th Georgia and their second-in-command once again took to the field, though this time they headed to the warmer climate of the Charleston, South Carolina area.  [3]

On February 1st, 1862 Marcellus learned of the death of his superior—Colonel Ector had passed away in Greenville, Georgia where he’d been trying to recover from the rigors of their early service in the mountains—and suddenly found himself the 13th’s new commander.  With these new duties also came promotion to the rank of colonel.  [4]

whitemarsh-islandSometime after this event in early 1862, the 13th moved to the Savannah, Georgia area along the coast.  During this time Douglass led his regiment in several skirmishes, including one that had the regiment seize a gunboat—which subsequently carried the regiment’s name as its own—and another on April 16th during which they fought the 8th Michigan Infantry on Whitemarsh Island, Georgia.  [5]


By June, the 13th was attached to General Lawton’s brigade and assigned to Jackson’s division in the Army of the Valley, under Stonewall Jackson.  Barely had they begun service there when the 13th and the rest of Lawton’s brigade was reassigned to Ewell’s division, to serve in Jackson’s Command of Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia.

It was under Jackson, Ewell, and Lawton that Douglass and his 13th Georgia took part in their first major fight, the Second Battle of Manassas on August 28-30, 1862.   During this action, Colonel Douglass was required to temporarily take command of Lawton’s brigade when General Lawton assumed command of the division upon General Ewell’s wounding during the fighting at the Brawner Farm late on August 29th.  It was a temporary situation that was to prove “permanent” for Colonel Douglass and would be his last promotion.  Even so, Marcellus led his brigade through the remainder of the fighting that night—facing off with Gibbon’s soon-to-be-famous “Black Hat Brigade,” which would eventually be best known as the “Iron Brigade”—and in holding back a series of attacks on the 30th during the Union’s scattered, uncoordinated assaults on Jackson’s line in the Unfinished Railroad Cut.  [6]

harpers-ferryDouglass led the men of his new command out of Virginia on September 3rd, entering Maryland at White’s Ferry near Leesburg. But it would be only a matter of days before they were back in Virginia as part of Jackson’s Command, threatening Union-held Harpers Ferry.  While much of Longstreet’s Command was fighting at the Battle of South Mountain, along with Jackson’s other troops Colonel Douglass and Lawton’s brigade were capturing Harpers Ferry with barely a fight, taking the town, thousands of prisoners, and tons of Union supplies for the Confederacy.  Most importantly, though, the capture restored life to Lee’s already-flagging invasion of the North.  Barely had Douglass and his men recovered from the shock of this great victory when they were marching to rejoin the rest of Lee’s army, then gathering near Sharpsburg, Maryland.

Arriving at Sharpsburg on the afternoon of the 16th, Douglass’ command grabbed some much-needed rest in a woodlot north of a small, white church, both of which would soon become famous as the West Woods and the Dunker Church.  Late that night, Douglass and his brigade learned that their rest was over when their division commander, General Lawton, ordered them into a grassy field just south of D. R. Miller’s cornfield to relieve Hood’s exhausted division, which had been dueling with Yankee cavalry and infantry.  By the time Douglass and Lawton’s brigade arrived on the field darkness had settled the fight into mere desultory skirmishing.  But everyone knew that this was unlikely to the end of the fighting…   [7]

Dawn brought reinvigorated skirmishing and the advent of fearsome, indiscriminate Union artillery fire dropping into their position from beyond the Antietam.  But when the men sighted a series of Union flags cresting the ridge in their front before fading into the green blanket of Miller’s corn, everyone knew that things were about to really heat up.

lawtons-bde-map-1Colonel Douglass had been monitoring the situation in his front for some time, working to strengthen his line and to fill a gap that existed between his brigade’s right flank and the left flank of Trimble’s brigade, which was posted to his right.  General Lawton had helped fix this problem when he sent a verbal order to Brigadier General Harry T. Hays to bring his brigade out of the woods north of the Dunker Church and onto the field.  At the same time, he sent a message back to General Hood warning him to ready his division to come onto the field to back up whatever was about to happen to Douglass’ men, reinforcing success or staving off defeat.  When Hays’ brigade arrived on the field, Colonel Douglass ordered them to halt in the rear of his command, Lawton’s brigade.  There they would stay for the time being, plugging the gap between Douglass’ men and Trimble’s brigade.  Barely had they arrived when the Yankees struck. [8]

It was just after 6:00 in the morning—as their families back home in Georgia were rising for the day’s work—when Duryee’s Union brigade began its march south through Miller’s cornfield, which itself was about to become famous as the Cornfield.  Each front rank man picking his own row down which to march, 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, headed toward 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 their intended effect and Douglass’ skirmishers of the 31st Georgia came racing out to safety in the brigade’s main line.

“What’s the matter?  What are you running for?” called some of Douglass’ men as their skirmishers tripped over the fence guarding the Cornfield’s southern border in an effort to escape.

“You’ll soon see!” the retreating skirmishers called back to their comrades.  [9]


Those men who stood up could already see the tops of the “striped banners” 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 scattered firefight with the Pennsylvanians, still holding the southern end of the East Woods from the fighting of the previous evening, too distracted to pay attention to other threats.

As the Yankees drew nearer, Colonel Marcellus Douglass ordered his men to pick a row and fire down it when the enemy showed his face.  The colonel himself nervously paced in the rear of his brigade, reminding everyone to fire low and make every shot count.  Nearer and nearer came the enemy, until suddenly…

Duryee’s men could start to see through the sea of green into the brown and gray fields beyond for the first time in several minutes.  They’d covered 245 yards and it had taken only a few minutes but it might have seemed to take hours.  Or maybe only a few seconds, depending upon each man’s perspective.  And even before they reached the fence at the southern end of the Cornfield, the Minie balls made their inevitable appearance.  Descending into them like an unwanted summer hailstorm, the balls 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 now opened fire on the Rebs with renewed fury, probably relieved that their fate once again appeared to be at least in part in their own hands.   Then Duryee’s New Yorkers and Pennsylvanians were stopped by a sheet of lead.

Douglass’ men of Lawton’s brigade now found themselves locked in a death struggle with Duryee’s Union brigade only a few dozen yards away.  The 107th Pennsylvania and 97th New York were getting the worst of it, trading point-blank fire with Douglass’ left-most regiments, 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 Yankee 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 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 the 26th Georgia lost this valuable 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.  [10]

Despite this intense fighting, Colonel Douglass continued pacing the line behind his men, closing up gaps that appeared and exhorting his men to fight.  He was right in the thick of the fighting and sharing the risks of this moment with the lowest of his privates, but this was the kind of leader and man Marcellus Douglass was.  He could lead from no other place than the hottest, most dangerous spot on the field.  The fighting was so desperate and close that Colonel Douglass had already been wounded seven times, by some counts.  Finally a Yankee ball—reportedly the eighth to pierce his body—felled Marcellus Douglass, robbing Lawton’s brigade of its daring commander.  [11]

The war was over for Marcellus Douglass but for his men the fight continued.  Without warning, the Yankees of Duryee’s brigade—isolated and falling by the score from the intense fighting—had had enough and they began to retreat.  Watching the Yankees falling back the way they’d come, Major J. H. Lowe—who’d replaced Colonel Douglass at the head of Lawton’s Brigade—apparently realized that this was the break he and Colonel Douglass had been waiting for and he ordered his brigade forward.

lawton-map-2Up they rose, dressing their lines as they advanced, and pressing into the corn.  In the excitement, Private Martin Van Buren Hawes, an eighteen year old serving in the 31st Georgia, seized the regimental colors and suddenly found himself leading the regiment forward.  All along the width of the field the brigade advanced, moving up the slope toward the wounded Cornfield.  Though they didn’t realize it at the time, as they pressed deeper into the corn and Lawton’s line reached the southern fence line, they’d just retaken the Cornfield for the first time that day.  It had taken nearly 45 minutes for the Cornfield to change hands three times.  And it wouldn’t be the last time on September 17th, 1862 that a Confederate brigade would be called on for this task. [12]

douglass-graveUnion artillery and infantry would eventually drive Lawton’s brigade back—just as they had cleared away Duryee’s Union men before them—but for a time the men of Lawton’s brigade had seemed to have avenged the death of their brigade commander.  For much of the rest of that day Colonel Douglass’ body lay amidst the shattered remains of Miller’s Cornfield, alongside many of the men he’d led for months from Georgia and elsewhere across the South to this fateful spot.  Back home in Georgia, Menla Douglass and her four young children had no idea that morning the price that they, too, had just paid for the cause of Southern independence.  And although they would all be reunited one last time, when Marcellus’s body was returned for burial in his native state, like so many other families throughout the North and South, the Douglass family would never again be the same because of what happened in Antietam’s bloody Cornfield.

[1] Bruce Allardice Confederate Colonels: A Biographical Register (Columbia, Missouri, University of Missouri Press, 2008), p. 132.; Menla Davis, the daughter of Jessie Mercer Davis and Sophia Burton, was born 1835 in Georgia.    After Marcellus’ death at Antietam, she married George Buckner Swann and together they had five children.  She died on December 17, 1892 in Montgomery, Alabama.

[2] Allardice, Confederate Colonels, p. 132.; Roster of the Confederate soldiers of Georgia, Vol.2. (Georgia State Division of Confederate Pensions and Records), p. 285.

[3] Roster of the Confederate soldiers of Georgia, Vol.2, p. 285.

[4] John C. Rigdon Historical Sketch and Roster of the Georgia 13th Infantry Regiment (Georgia Regimental History Series, Vol. 45), p. 53

[5]; Rigdon, Historical Sketch and Roster of the Georgia 13th, p. 52.

[6] Rigdon, Historical Sketch and Roster of the Georgia 13th, p. 53.

[7] 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. 967, p. 954.

[8] 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. 218, p. 220; Ezra A. Carman and Thomas G. Clemens, Ed. The Maryland Campaign, Vol. II: Antietam (California: Savas Beatie, 2012), pp. 61-63; OR, Vol. XIX, Pt. 1, p. 923.

[9] Carman and Pierro, Ed.  The Maryland Campaign, p. 217; Carman and Clemens, Ed. The Maryland Campaign, Vol. II, pp. 57-61; Pharris Deloach Johnson, Under the Southern Cross: Soldier Life with Gordon Bradwell and the Army of Northern Virginia (Mercer University Press, 1979), p. 89.

[10] Carman and Pierro, Ed.  The Maryland Campaign, p. 218; Carman and Clemens, Ed. The Maryland Campaign, Vol. II, pp. 61-63; OR, Vol. XIX, Pt. 1, p. 923.

[11] Carman and Pierro, Ed.  The Maryland Campaign, p. 218; Carman and Clemens, Ed. The Maryland Campaign, Vol. II, pp. 61-63; Johnson, Under the Southern Cross, pp. 91-92.; OR, Vol. XIX, Pt. 1, p. 923.

[12] Gregory C. White “This Most Bloody & Cruel Drama:” A History of the 31st Georgia Volunteer Infantry (Baltimore: Butternut and Blue, 1997), p. 51.

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