It has been a while since I have made a history-related post, and I was reminded that today is the anniversary of the battle of Sharpsburg, Maryland. 159 years ago.
While many look at the battle of Gettysburg as the deadliest of the Civil War – and it was – it also lasted over a course of several days. Sharpsburg, on the other hand, was a one day battle and due to that, is recognized as the single deadliest day in American military history.
I have always been intrigued by this battle. And not just because I have walked the fields of conflict. My own family participated in the battle, and witnessed the carnage that day. In a 1905 letter to his daughter, one of my kinsmen – Sergeant Major Newsom Edward Jenkins of the 14th North Carolina – wrote of the battle. At the time, he was serving as an Orderly Sergeant and the acting Commissary. His old Company – A, the Roanoke Minute Men – on the eve of battle had no commissioned officers in the field. He recalled:
“The men had a premonition of an engagement, something you feel, but cannot explain, and my old company… wanted to know who would take them in if we had a fight. I promised I would stay and go with them – we were soon ordered to change our position. We were moved to a position in a lane known (now) as “Bloody Lane,” fronting up the creek. Our position was on the left center of the Brigade [Anderson’s Brigade, comprising the 2nd, 4th, 14th & 30th NC]… Soon after we had taken this position, we saw the columns of enemy moving towards us. Col. R.T. Bennett commanding the regiment… told me to take the Company out and deploy them as skirmishers, and go out to meet the enemy… we fired on them when they got in range. They then fired a volley into us. I ordered a retreat, we fell back to our position… but we had one of our best men killed [Bob Shearin] before we got back and several wounded. The lines of the enemy came up and charged our position a half dozen times or more, but we drove them back, and held our position for three hours under a terrific fire from the infantry line while shells were plowing the fields around us and clearing every thing in its sweep.”
Ultimately, the lines of Anderson’s Brigade were overwhelmed, flanked, and captured. What was left of the 14th Regiment in the Lane surrendered about 80 men. Of the twenty-eight from Company A who began the battle, nine were killed, and eighteen wounded and/or captured.
Amazingly, when Jenkins wrote this account some forty plus years later, he particularly recalled his capture by the command of Charles Augustus Fuller of the 61st New York Infantry, and asked his daughter to try to locate him. Fuller was also a Sergeant at the time of the battle, and ultimately rose to the rank of Lieutenant before his discharge due to wounds. His account, “Personal Recollections of the War of 1861,” is an excellent biography of his service and the history of his regiment.
To take the story a step further, I went on a tour of Sharpsburg in the late 1990s. As we walked the Bloody Lane, our tour guide began to recite the story of his own great-grandfather who had been on the field that day. Who was that man? Sgt. Charles A. Fuller. And there we all were, some one hundred and thirty years later the descendants of those same men, meeting under much different circumstances.
It doesn’t get much more close to history than that. “The past is never dead. It is not even the past.” – William Faulkner
Images: (1) Post war cabinet card of Newsom Edward Jenkins, donated by my family to Duke University; (2) the carnage of the Bloody Lane, photograph likely taken by Alexander Gardner, Library of Congress; (3) Charles Augustus Fuller of the 61st New York, image from Antietam on the Web (https://antietam.aotw.org/index.php)