Sergeant William H. Harries of the 2nd Wisconsin Infantry Recalls the Battle of Antietam
Major General Joseph Hooker’s 1st Corps was the first Union Army Corps to engage Confederate forces at the Battle of Antietam on September 17th, 1862. One of Hooker’s brigades consisted of the 2nd, 5th, and 7th Wisconsin Infantry, plus the 19th Indiana Infantry regiment–the Iron Brigade. Specifically, the Iron Brigade was the 4th Brigade of Brigadier General Abner Doubleday’s 1st Division of the 1st Corps, and the brigade commander was Brigadier General John Gibbon.
The Iron Brigade bivouacked near the Poffenberger Farm and attacked south across the David Miller farm and cornfield, heading in the direction of the Dunker Church on the north end of the battlefield. The fighting was intense, and the casualty numbers were high; the Iron Brigade had 343 killed and wounded out of approximately 800 engaged.
One of those who fought that day was 19 year old Sergeant William H. Harries of Company B of the 2nd Wisconsin Infantry. Some 35 years later, Harries wrote about his experiences at the Battle of Antietam.
General Hooker crossed Antietam Creek on the afternoon of the 16th by the bridge in front of Keedyaville and the ford below it. The Iron Brigade crossed at the ford. After crossing we turned sharply to the left, feeling our way until the skirmishers became actively engaged, when we halted after dark and bivouacked on the ridge, Doubleday’s Division resting with its right upon the turnpike. While getting into position we could hear the commands given by the officers of the enemy’s troops. The combatants slept on their arms that night, well knowing that the morning would bring bloody work. I slept very little…I felt certain that there would be desperate fighting in the morning and that many of my comrades would fail to answer at roll cll when the morning sun had again sunk behind the western hills. I realized that I might be among the killed…When we woke up in the morning of the 17th, Doubleday’s Division faced south from the Poffenberger farm and beheld a beautiful landscape with gently rolling fields and woods, of which the prominent point appeared to be the little Dunkard church with its brick walls covered with a coating of whitewash, situated on the west side of the Hagerstown turnpike, and backed by the foliage of the west woods.
The cornfield that was soon to be deluged in the blood of blue and gray was on the east side of the turnpike and between Doubleday’s troops and the Dunkard church….
The brigade moved out just as day was dawning in close column by division, the Sixth Wisconsin leading, followed by the Second Wisconsin, Seventh Wisconsin, and Nineteenth Indiana. I was in the first division of the Second Wisconsin. We were hungry, ragged, and dirty. Before starting we pulled up our belts a notch or two. As we had very little to eat the day before and no breakfast at all, this was an easy thing to do. The brigade marched towards the D. R. Miller house and after proceeding about ten rods and before we were deployed, a battery of the enemy opened fire on us. When I saw the battery moving into place, I thought it belonged to our own forces, The first and second shells it threw, exploded above us, but the third, which I think was a percussion shell, struck and exploded in the rear rank of the last division of the Sixth Wisconsin, killing two men and wounding eleven, one of whom had both arms taken off. As I passed to one side to avoid stepping on the killed, the voice of Colonel Bragg of the Sixth Wisconsin rang out, “Steady on the right, Sixth.” We then were deployed in line of battle, marching steadily forward, and when we reached the corn field we halted and began firing at the enemy. We had not been firing very long when a Minie bullet struck me in the left breast. I at once dropped my gun and started for the rear, going back as far as the Poffenberger farm, where I lay down at the side of the house on this farm which was opposite to that from which the enemy’s shots were coming. In a short time the ground about me was covered in wounded. Here the surgeon of our regiment slapped a handful of lint on the wound, cut the shirt and wrapped me with a roll of bandage…
Sometime in the afternoon I was taken from the stone house to a small frame house still farther in the rear, where all the wounded of my company were collected together. I was placed on a blanked with Sergeant Uriel P. Olin, who died some time during the night. He was left by my side until morning when he was taken out and buried…
On the 18th we were taken to a barn in Keedysville, every other place in the village that could be used being already occupied, and from there in a few weeks we were taken to Frederick.
The barn that I was in at Keedysville contained about sixty wounded, all but two or three belonging to the Iron Brigade. Until the Sanitary Commission came along we were in a horrible condition. I do not care to describe my own; suffice to say that I felt like a new creature when I got on a clean shirt.
William H. Harries, “In the Ranks at Antietam”. From Glimpses of the Nation’s Struggle: Papers Read Before the Minnesota Commandery of the Military Order of the Loyal Legion of the United States, 1892-1897, Fourth Series.
Harries recovered from his wounds and returned to the 2nd Wisconsin. He was mustered out as a 1st Lieutenant in June of 1864 when his enlistment term expired. He then served in the Veterans Reserve Corps as a captain. The Veterans Reserve Corps consisted of soldiers who had been wounded or were otherwise not suitable for full campaigning in the field but could still serve in guard duty or other rear echelon roles. Harries remained with the reserve corps for the remainder of the war.