By September 1862, the 7th Maine Infantry had been in the Army of the Potomac for a year. The regiment had seen action earlier in the year in the Peninsular Campaign in Virginia and had fought well. The 7th Maine, along with four New York regiments, made up the Third Brigade of Major General William Smith’s Second Division of the Sixth Army Corps. Earlier in the month, brigade command had been turned over to Colonel William H. Irwin, a Mexican War veteran and commander of the 49th Pennsylvania Infantry of the division’s First Brigade. Irwin’s tenure as brigade commander would last less than a month, but it would have a devastating effect on the 7th Maine.
On the morning of September 17th, the Sixth Corps was located east of Sharpsburg, Maryland, and was marching west towards the town. The Battle of Antietam had opened earlier that morning outside of Sharpsburg, and Union commander Major General George McClellan held the Sixth Corps in reserve on the east side of Antietam Creek near his headquarters. From that location, reinforcements from the Sixth Corps could be sent to either flank or the center as the situation developed. About 11 A.M., two divisions were ordered in to reinforce the Union right, which was on the north end of the battlefield. Irwin’s brigade advanced across heavily contested ground covered with the dead near a white building called the Dunker Church. Irwin’s New York regiments engaged the Confederates near the Dunker Church, while the 7th Maine veered to the south and cleared out some resistance at a farm east of the church. The line reformed south of these positions, with the 7th Maine on the left side of the line.
It was about 1 o’clock in the afternoon when Irwin’s reformed line took up its position, and while still exchanging musket and artillery fire with deadly results, both sides more or less held their positions on the field. Most offensive operations had shifted a couple of miles to the south, where Major General Ambrose Burnside’s Ninth Corps was attempting to cross Antietam Creek on the Rohrbach Bridge, a structure that would soon become better known as the Burnside Bridge.
Later in the afternoon, Battery A of the 1st Maryland Light Artillery of the Sixth Corps’ 1st Division moved into an exposed position near Irwin’s line. The artillerymen began to take casualties from Confederate sharpshooters firing at them from the Piper Farm buildings and haystacks south of the Union line. When the battery commander complained to 1st Division artillery chief Captain Emory Upton about the harassment and casualties, Colonel Irwin, who was with Upton at the time, took action.
Irwin rode up to the 7th Maine’s commander, Major Thomas Hyde, and ordered “Major Hyde, take your regiment and drive the enemy away from those trees and buildings”. The 7th Maine had only 166 men and 15 officers available, much too small a force to advance across open ground in the enemy’s field of fire to accomplish the objective. Hyde questioned the order.
“‘Are you afraid to go sir?’ said he, and repeated the order emphatically” Hyde recalled. “‘Give the order so the regiment can hear it and we are ready, sir,’ said I , which he did”. Hyde moved his men out, and after crossing a sunken road that had been the scene of earlier fighting, and contained so many dead Confederate soldiers that Hyde’s horse had to step on them to get across, the regiment stopped and reformed in line of battle.
Hyde ordered the men to charge towards the barns on the Piper farm, and the regiment advanced quickly. They had covered about half the distance, when Confederate infantry rose up from behind a stone wall to the 7th’s front and right and fired a volley at the Maine men. Hyde ordered his men to the left which took them behind a rise of ground that offered some cover from the stone wall defenders. The 7th Maine was also going up a hill, and as Hyde rode up the hill ahead of his men, he saw “several times our number waiting for us” on the other side, “so I gave the order to ‘Left Flank’ before any of my line appeared over the hill…and then directed the column…on to the orchard beyond Piper’s house”.
The orchard was fenced in, but the men of the 7th managed to knock out sections of the fence and get in. The Confederates that had been waiting for them on the other side of the hill were now coming after them. Hyde remembered “they fired several volleys, and then charged after us”. Hyde was thrown off his horse as it was wounded, but climbed back on. Enemy fire was coming from three directions as the Confederates closed in on the small Federal force and attempted to cut off its avenue of escape. With overwhelming opposition, and the men running out of ammunition, the 7the Maine attempted to fight its way out of the orchard before it was completely surrounded. As the regiment made its way out Hyde found himself surrounded, but his men came back and fired on the Major’s would be captors, and he escaped.
Union artillery covered the retreat by shelling the orchard. During this action, no other infantry came to the aid of the 7th Maine. Irwin later insisted he was under orders not to advance his line. The nearby Second Brigade of the Sixth Corps did not advance either as its commanding general believed any attempt to come to the assistance of the 7th Maine to be an impossibly dangerous undertaking with no chance of success. Out of the 181 total of officers and men of the 7th Maine who went into this action, only 69 made it back to the Union line.
In his after action report, Colonel Irwin was generous in his praise of the conduct of the 7th Maine. He was, however, relieved of brigade command on September 18th. Irwin was a heavy drinker and that is believed to have played a part in his ordering of this unsupported attack against overwhelmingly superior forces. The attack was his idea alone with no orders from his commanders. Irwin returned to the command of the 49th Pennsylvania Infantry. He resigned his commission in October 1863.
The bravery of the 7th Maine Infantry was recognized by officers in the chain of command all the way up to General McClellan. And 29 years after the battle, on April 8th, 1891, Thomas Hyde was awarded the Medal of Honor for his actions that day at the Battle of Antietam.
Driscoll, T. Jeff. “Balaklava In An Antietam Cornfield” America’s Civil War, September 2006.
Hyde, Thomas W. Following the Greek Cross or Memories of the Sixth Army Corps. Boston: Houghton Mifflin and Company, 1894.
Sears, Stephen W. Landscape Tuned Red: The Battle of Antietam. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1983.
U.S War Department. The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies . Washington D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1880-1901.
Whitman, William E.S. and Charles H. True. Maine in the War for the Union: A History of the Part Borne by Maine Troops in the Suppression of the American Rebellion. Lewiston, Maine: Nelson Dingley Jr. & Co., Publishers, 1865.