Garland’s Brigade at the Cornfield: The Death of a Reputation…and Much More

 

The 5th North Carolina’s Captain Thompson “came up to me in a very excited manner and tone cried out to me “They are flanking us! See, yonder’s a whole brigade!” I ordered him to keep silent and return to his place…but, when this act of indiscretion occurred, they began to break and run…”
By the 17 September 1862 Battle of Antietam, Garland’s brigade had already earned a reputation as one of the South’s most determined, skilled fighting units. Formed just prior to the Seven Days fight, the brigade was created by joining two North Carolina regiments in Early’s brigade—the 5th and 23rd—with the 12th, 13th, and 20th North Carolina regiments, each of which had been on detached duty at home. The all-Tarheel brigade was assigned to D. H. Hill’s division of the Army of Northern Virginia in June 1862, commanded by rising Confederate star Samuel Garland, Jr.

Samuel Garland Jr.

Samuel Garland, Jr.

Born in Lynchburg, Virginia on 16 December 1830, Samuel was a descendant of James Madison and his family was among Virginia’s most prominent. Despite graduating third in Virginia Military Institute’s (VMI) Class of 1849, Garland rejected a military career to follow his uncle’s advice and sought a law degree, eventually graduating from the University of Virginia’s Law School. Shortly after that, Samuel married Elizabeth Campbell Meem on 15 May 1856 and one year later welcomed their first child, Samuel (“Sammie”) Garland III. Tragically, the young family’s happiness was shattered during the first year of the war when an influenza epidemic claimed the lives of both Elizabeth and Sammie. By that point Samuel was already serving as colonel of the 11th Virginia Infantry but returned home for their joint funeral. After returning to the army some friends sensed that Samuel bore a death wish, which many attributed to the heroics he demonstrated at the Battle of Blackburn’s Ford, immediately prior to the First Battle of Manassas. [1]

Garland's house

Samuel Garland Jr.’s Lynchburg, Virginia home

 

Regardless, Samuel’s star continued rising when he was chosen to replace Jubal Early—wounded at Battle of Williamsburg—in command of his brigade, after which Garland was given his own new command, bearing his name. Garland’s brigade’s first major action came at the Battle of Gaines’ Mill, the third day of the Seven Days fight—during which it launched an attack on the flank of the Federal position. Working in concert with A.P. Hill’s strike on the opposite flank, Garland’s brigade’s attack was key to breaking the Union position there. This and other actions during the battles fought to repel McClellan’s Union Army of the Potomac from before Richmond earned Garland promotion to brigadier general and fame as a fighting unit for his brigade.

 

The upward trajectory enjoyed by Samuel Garland and his brigade, however, came Garland stonecrashing to earth upon entering Maryland in September 1862. After reaching Frederick, Maryland unopposed, Lee’s army soon learned that McClellan’s Federal forces were heading north—and fast—even though Lee’s army remained widely divided. Buying time for Jackson’s Command to capture Harpers Ferry, Lee placed the other wing of his army, under James Longstreet, atop the passes of South Mountain. Defending Fox’s Gap—the middle of three passes over the range—during the 14 September 1862 Battle of South Mountain, Garland’s brigade performed heroically. Although they bought General Lee the time he needed, at close of day the South surrendered Fox’s Gap to Union forces. Perhaps worse, the fight claimed the life of General Samuel Garland, Jr. General D.H. Hill praised Garland in his official report, calling him a “pure, gallant, and accomplished Christian soldier. General Garland, had no superiors and few equals in the service.” If Samuel Garland truly had a death wish after losing his wife and child, he’d found it granted on the slopes of South Mountain.  [2]

 

Duncan_K._McRae

Colonel Duncan McRae

Moving westward, Garland’s brigade—now commanded by Colonel Duncan Kirkland McRae, formerly head of the 5th North Carolina and one-time US Consul to France—crossed Antietam Creek sometime on 15 September, along with the rest of D. H. Hill’s division. The brigade was still reeling from the loss of their commander and of the many men killed at South Mountain, so much so that the 12th North Carolina was subsumed by the 5th North Carolina to create something resembling a complete regiment as they moved toward yet another battle. Filing northward along the Hagerstown Pike, the brigade soon moved onto the fields of the Mumma farm north of Sharpsburg, in which they would await McClellan’s army.

 

 

The Yankees arrived late on the 16th, opening a brief firefight in the East Woods and the Garland map 1Cornfield, to the left of Garland’s brigade. After a night of fitful sleep McRae’s 752 men remained prepared for imminent battle, even after Federal General Hooker’s dawn assault through the Cornfield stopped short of their position. McRae’s men watched as their counterparts in Lawton’s and Hays’ brigades fought the Northern attackers to a standstill, then drove them back. When successive waves of Yankee attacks came, Garland’s brigade similarly watched fretfully as first Hood’s division, then the brigades of Ripley and Colquitt turned them back – but without securing once and for all the deadly Cornfield. That these latter two brigades had been called into action must have troubled at least some of McRae’s men because they’d been called forward into battle from positions nearby that of Garland’s brigade. Soon enough McRae’s men, too, found it was their turn to march into the maelstrom in the Cornfield.
It was about 7:30 in the morning and Confederate hold on the Cornfield now depended on just how quickly Garland’s brigade could get into place on Colquitt’s right. Colonel McRae recalled receiving D.H. Hill’s orders to move “to the support of Colquitt, who was then about engaging the enemy on our left front.” But, McRae added, that he was also “cautioned by Gen’l. Hill not to fire upon Colquitt who might be in our front.” With these two directives in mind, McRae led the North Carolinians of Garland’s brigade across Mumma’s plowed field toward the East Woods and their assigned post on Colquitt’s right. Stepping off in good order, it would be about the last thing that would go right for McRae’s command this day.  [3]

 

East Woods

The Cornfield fight–seen from the site of today’s NPS visitors center–with the East Woods on the right

Barely had McRae’s brigade 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, “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. These odd movements apparently were required because the brigade had been unnerved even before entering the fight. Whether it was the result of having to withstand enemy artillery fire, the lingering effects of the fight they had endured at South Mountain, or the loss of their commander, the fact was the men of Garland’s brigade weren’t behaving like the battle-hardened veterans they were, but rather as shaky and unsteady as any of the green Union XII Corps regiments fighting Colquitt’s line only yards away.  [4]
DocFile (2)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 was Law’s and Hood’s regiments—the 4th Alabama, 21st Georgia, and 5th Texas—which remained in the East Woods, fighting on of their own accord.
Until this moment, the presence of these three regiments had been of nothing but benefit to Confederate prospects. They’d occupied the East Woods and held it while their respective brigades had been driven back and time and again they’d denied Joe Hooker control of that key piece of ground. Their ability to do all this without any formal command or orders from Hood, Hill, Jackson or any other senior Southern officer leading this fight was in itself a marvelous piece of soldering and command skill. But now this very set of circumstances would be their downfall and the undoing of very much more. Their uncoordinated presence in the East Woods had put these three regiments 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. [5]
At the same moment that Garland’s brigade was moving to Colquitt’s aid, so was Greene’s division of the Union XII Corps entering the fight. Arriving just as General Alpheus Williams had taken command of the corps from the fallen corps commander Joseph Mansfield, Williams ordered Greene to post his division’s right on the farm lane leading from the East Woods to the North Woods, while the left should extend toward the burning Mumma farm buildings. Once deployed, Greene was to start his whole division forward as one, wheeling gradually to the right and pivoting on Gordon’s brigade’s left in the East Woods. While Gordon’s brigade held the Rebels in check, Greene’s division would hit their exposed right flank. After deadly, costly hours of fruitless fighting, the Union was about to turn the battle’s tide. [6]
Through the smoke, the captain in the company holding the right of Colquitt’s 6th Georgia raced to find the regiment’s commander—Lieutenant Colonel James M. Newton—to warn him of the unfolding Yankee attack. Before Newton could act, though, the 66th Ohio’s first volley tore through the 6th’s ranks, killing both officers at a single stroke. Still awaiting their reinforcements from Garland’s brigade, Colquitt’s men were now caught in a vice that tightened with increasing speed and fury.  [7]

Regimental colors of the 23rd and 12th North Carolina

Union Colonel Tyndale pushed his 28th Pennsylvania deeper into the no-man’s land at the northern end of the East Woods, while his two Ohio regiments moved at the right oblique out of the woods and into confusion. The 66th Ohio’s Lieutenant Colonel Eugene Powell and 7th Ohio’s Major Orin Crane carefully watched the two regiments advance up a slight hill. Peering through the low-hanging smoke, Powell saw a body of troops and ordered his men to open fire. “No!” shouted Crane, they are our men” and for a moment the Ohio regiments teetered on the edge of command chaos. To resolve the dispute, Powell spurred his horse and raced to the 66th regiment, where a hasty volley into the Confederate line resolved the question. Meanwhile, the 28th Pennsylvania moved gradually forward in its grand right wheel, firing volleys as it headed toward the right flank of Colquitt’s line which now was nearly dead ahead of them in the Cornfield.

 

Tyndale’s progress was slow but, unlike so many of Hooker’s earlier attacks, was moving consistently forward. Key to this progress was that rather than simply marching swiftly ahead, Tyndale’s regiments kept up a nearly constant routine of firing and advancing, edging their way forward. So onward pushed the Ohioans and the 28th Pennsylvania, nearly to a position from which to unleash an enfilading fire on the right of Colquitt’s Rebels. Moving deeper into the East Woods, the 66th Ohio’s Eugene Powell found it “beyond description…dead men were literally piled upon and across each other.” But the task of securing the East Woods for the Union was being completed just to their left, and to accomplish it Tyndale’s men wouldn’t have to fire a shot.  [8]
At that moment in the southern end of the East Woods, McRae’s command of Garland’s brigade was rapidly slipping from his grasp. His unsettled men and officers were still struggling furiously to restore order when the final blow came. In their front, a body of enemy troops was moving fast into the East Woods—Tyndale’s Ohioans and Pennsylvanians—headed toward the brigade’s left flank, where the 5th North Carolina was posted. The 5th’s new regimental commander was quick to assign blame for what happened next. “Captain T.P. Thompson, Company G, came up to me in a very excited manner and tone cried out to me “They are flanking us! See, yonder’s a whole brigade!” I ordered him to keep silent and return to his place. The men before this were far from being cool, but, when this act of indiscretion occurred, they began to break and run.”
Run they did, back the way they had come onto the field, back toward the Mumma farm they raced. Jumping fences and bodies and rock piles, dodging around trees, the Southern boys ran for their lives in no particular order. A captain in the 5th Texas ordered his men to fire on their fleeing comrades but then thought better of it. Running up to an officer in Garland’s brigade, the Texan demanded to know his name and regiment. “I’ll be damned if I will tell you!” he snapped and then ran off like the rest of his soldiers. McRae and his officers tried to rally the men but it was too late, they’d lost control and could do nothing to restore order to the mob that had once been Garland’s brigade.  [9]
At just the moment McRae’s men broke, the final shoe of Hooker’s XII Corps attack began to drop. Stainrook’s brigade appeared on Tyndale’s left, just as General Williams had ordered. Despite some initial confusion, Stainrook’s regiments one after another poured themselves into the fight. The 111th Pennsylvania deployed first, guiding toward the left-most regiment in Tyndale’s formation. The 3rd Maryland deployed in the center, while the 102nd Pennsylvania ran to post on the brigade’s left. The effect as each regiment deployed in turn—to Confederates defending the East Woods, it would have appeared as if barely had one regiment arrived when another would appear on its left—added to their momentum, making it seem like the attacker’s resources knew no limit.
It was all too much for Confederates holding the Cornfield. Their right had been turned and now the enemy in front was advancing, too. The vice squeezing them from right and front was turning rapidly into a noose and men reacted as anyone would in such a spot – they simply ran. First in ones and twos, then in greater numbers until the whole of Colquitt’s brigade melted into a fleeing mass. Colquitt’s line broke apart from right to left, sweeping with it Ripley’s 3rd North Carolina and elements of the 1st North Carolina, which had remained behind and was then moving to bolster Colquitt’s left.
Colonel Colquitt and his officers would all later try to preserve their brigade’s reputation

Alfred_H._Colquitt

Colonel Alfred Colquitt

by claiming that General D.H. Hill had ordered the whole of the Confederate position back to the Dunker Church ridge. Even Colquitt, however, gently admitted the situation’s reality writing, “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.” The 27th Indiana’s Edmund Brown was less charitable, recalling “we see our antagonists rise up and move briskly away, without any regard to order.”  [10]
Colquitt tried repeatedly to rally the men “making the best of their way out” until giving up and settling for gathering his shattered brigade beyond the safety of the West Woods and the main Confederate line. As the last few remaining Rebels crossed the Hagerstown Pike for the safety of the West Woods, they surrendered control of the Cornfield to the Union once again.  [11]
This time, though, it would be different. For the last time the Cornfield was changing hands and it would be the last time the Confederacy would ever completely control this decisive spot. As the regiments of the XII Corps swept across the broken fields of corn, grass, and plowed earth they were setting the stage for Union victory – finally. At long-last it appeared that General Hooker would complete his task, would be able to break the Confederate left and hold on to the key high ground and ridge dominating the rest of the Confederate position surrounding Sharpsburg. Perhaps finally General McClellan’s first goal would be achieved and the battle could move on to step two, turning the Confederate right, all in preparation for a grand thrust at breaking the Southern center just north of town.
Garland’s brigade had paid dearly for its failed effort. The combined 5th/12th North Carolina suffered 160 casualties, while the 13th had lost 72, the 20th 41, and the 23rd North Carolina a crushing 253 men. Overall, Garland’s brigade had lost 86 men killed outright and another 440 wounded of the 752 troops Colonel McRae had brought to the fight. The brigade had lost its commander General Garland at South Mountain and now it had suffered 70 percent casualties at Antietam. This had been one costly, devastating visit to Maryland.  [12]
The dissolution of Garland’s brigade has been blamed by historians and veterans of Antietam alike for the South’s failure to hold the East Woods, and with it the Cornfield. Colonel Colquitt laid blame for his command’s failure to hold its position in the Cornfield directly on Garland’s brigade. “In the mean time Garland’s brigade, which had been ordered to my right, had given way, and the enemy was advancing unchecked… With steady supports upon the right we could yet maintain our position.” General Hill rolled the blame even farther downhill dumping it squarely on the 5th North Carolina’s Captain Thompson. Regardless, this finger pointing doesn’t diminish the fact that the brigade’s failure and the failure of its officers—from Colonel McRae on down—to preserve order in the face of an enemy assault set the stage for a potentially massive Southern defeat.  [13]
Simple numbers alone suggest the odds were stacked against the Confederates from the start. Colquitt’s, Garland’s, and Law’s patchwork brigade brought to the field 2,529 men, though this force was certainly much smaller by the time the XII Corps attacked. They faced a Union combined force of 3,896 troops in both Williams’ and Greene’s divisions, which more importantly brought coordination and unity of purpose to their attack which probably were the decisive factors behind the Union’s ability to finally control the Cornfield once and for all.
Still, human nature insists that someone, somewhere pay a price for this failure and this cost quickly fell on Garland’s brigade and its then-leaders. Colonel McRae was spared in his superiors’ official reports, probably because he was wounded in the stampede and had struggled mightily to regain control of his disintegrating brigade. But when the time came to select a new brigade commander to replace Samuel Garland, it was the 20th North Carolina’s Colonel Alfred Iverson, Jr., rather than Colonel McRae, who was given the command. That Iverson was selected despite being junior in rank was a clear sign to Duncan McRae and he resigned from Confederate service on 13 November 1862.  [14]

 

 

Alfred Iverson

Alfred Iverson

To wipe away at least some of the shame Antietam’s failure had left on Garland’s brigade the army engaged in an age-old practice designed to fix reputations – in modern terms, it “rebranded” Garland’s brigade. Renamed “Iverson’s brigade” after its new commander, trouble nonetheless continued dogging the brigade of Tarheels. Not only was General Iverson roundly hated by the officers and men in his command—many wrote to Richmond requesting his removal—but his failed leadership further sullied the brigade’s reputation. After performing well in Jackson’s flanking attack at Chancellorsville, Iverson’s inability to successfully navigate the politics in senior Confederate ranks ensured the brigade failed to receive credit for its efforts; at Gettysburg, Iverson’s poor leadership—directing from the rear—led the brigade into a trap on Oak Hill on 1 July that similarly cost the brigade more lives and further tarnished its reputation. Rebranded once again—this time as Johnston’s brigade for its new commander, former head of the 23rd North Carolina, General Robert D. Johnston—the brigade served throughout the Overland Campaign, fighting honorably and surviving until it finally surrendered at Appomattox Court House.  [15]
It had taken years and hundreds of lives, but Garland’s brigade had regained the honor and sterling reputation earned by the sacrifices of its men, who had finally overcome the failure and devastation they’d suffered before Antietam’s bloody Cornfield.

 

Notes:

[1] Stewart Sifakis Who Was Who in the Confederacy (New York; Facts on File, 1988), p. 100.

[2]  United States War Department  The War of the Rebellion: a Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies (Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1880–1901), Series 1, Volume XIX, Chapter XXI, p. 1020.

[3]  OR, Vol. XIX, Pt. 1, p. 1040.

[4]  OR, Vol. XIX, Pt. 1, p. 1044.

[5]  OR, Vol. XIX, Pt. 1, p. 1043.

[6]  OR, Vol. XIX, Pt. 1, p. 475.

[7]  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. 242-243; Ezra A. Carman and Thomas G. Clemens, Ed. The Maryland Campaign, Vol. II: Antietam (California: Savas Beatie, 2012), pp. 133-142.

[8]  OR, Vol. XIX, Pt. 1, pp. 504-510; Carman and Pierro, Ed. The Maryland Campaign, pp. 242-243; Carman and Clemens, Ed. The Maryland Campaign, Vol. II, pp.133-139; Eugene Powell letter, Antietam Collection, Dartmouth University.

[9]  OR, Vol. XIX, Pt. 1, p. 1044; J.M. Smither, 5th Texas, Antietam Collection, Dartmouth College Library; Sears, Landscape Turned Red (New York: Warner Books, 1983), p. 232.

[10]  OR, Vol. XIX, Pt. 1, pp. 1053-54; Brown The Twenty-seventh Indiana in the War of the Rebellion (Washington, DC; 1899), p. 250.

[11]  Ethan S. Rafuse Antietam, South Mountain & Harpers Ferry: A Battlefield Guide (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2008), pp. 55-56.

[12]  OR, Vol. XIX, Pt. 1, p. 813. The numbers are accurate but the determination of which regiment bore these casualties is a best guess. Colonel McRae’s attachment to his official report listed only the 20th North Carolina’s casualties by specific regimental number; other regiments he declared as the “1st, 2nd, and 3rd regiments.”

[13]  OR, Vol. XIX, I, pp. 1023, 1053-54; Carman and Pierro, Ed. The Maryland Campaign, p. 243; Carman and Clemens, Ed. The Maryland Campaign, Vol. II, pp.136-139; Sears, Landscape Turned Red, p. 233.

[14]  Sifakis Who Was Who in the Confederacy, pp. 188-189.

[15]  Bradley M. Gottfried Brigades of Gettysburg (New York: DaCapo Press, 2002), pp. 527-532.

2 thoughts on “Garland’s Brigade at the Cornfield: The Death of a Reputation…and Much More

  1. Thanks for informative article. I just went to Antetiam Battlefield on December 22. I had an ancestor who was with the Co H, 20th NC. He served with three of his sons (I am descended from the fourth son). One of the three sons was wounded and captured during the Maryland Campaign, he later died and was buried in D.C.
    As for the unit being a hard luck brigade, one of the other brother was wounded and captured at Chancellorsville, and the final brother was wounded at Gettysburg. My ancestor being the old and wise father decided to desert at the beginning of the Gettyburg campaign.

    Like

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