William Hanlin, 150 Years Ago Today . . .


Harper’s view of Antietam – it undoubtedly resembled nothing of the kind.

William in the early morning hours, with Hooker – never a favorite – observing for McClellan:

They broke – they did not run, but neither did they stay, it was more of an insolent slink, backing away from our overpowering fire, a few turned and fired – like throwing pebbles at a hurricane, they moved a little quicker, trotting, firing relentless, then, only then,finally, sprinting …. disappearing over a swale, leaving the field coated with gray and butternut bodies, clumps, pieces.

Our lines swept past the church, into a broad clearing, I could hear men cheering over the still steady thump of artillery.  I spurred Clio gently, readied to turn her, already formatting my report —  “We turned Lee’s flank,” seemed simple and blunt, I rehearsed it in my head, had to it sounded so utterly fantastic even as I watched it happening. I pulled Clio’s reins at the precise moment every sound on the field – artillery, random shots, screams, yells, shrieks, moans, wail of wounded horses – was drowned out by the high-pitched, pervasive, spine shattering, ululating quiver of the rebel yell.

They came out of nowhere and they came hard, as if on some personal, long standing vendetta and slammed into our lines at an oblique angle that buckled it, pushed men back on top of the lines behind in some kind of perverse accordion effect,  Shock troops of the first order, the Texas flag everywhere,  quivering with hostility. No long range firing for them, they wanted at us, shit, they wanted at our throats; volleys flared, died, hand to hand combat in clumps, tangles of blue, brown, gray …. we reeled, literally and metaphorically, the lines serpentined, broke in sections like a snake getting hammered with a five machetes at once, the still quivering pieces spouting blood and moving back, back behind the church, seeking shelter in the woods, the cornfield suddenly not all that far away …..

….I watched rapt, unmoving, even though every fiber of my being knew it wrong to be simply watching – it was peripherally obscene, like opening a door  . . . . .

William reports to McClellan, is sent back out, gets to the center of the field in time to see General Mansfield picked off by a sniper, another Confederate flanking attack that crumples the division up with ease, spreading chaos.  William is pushed thorough panicked men, finds a fold in the ground to follow in safety (Antietam is a rolling complex of hills, swales, ridges, like someone threw a blanket over a hundred crumpled up newspapers) he passes dozens  in the lees “none appeared hurt, they had, instead, the downcast, guilty yet defiant eyes of men who had decided they were defeated well before empirical evidence proved it.  They seemed content to the man to lie in the long, cool grass and listen to the battle above, no longer with any rooting interest in the result…”

A dozen turns, ground shaking from artillery that will never stop, metal screaming over, William lets Clio dictate the way, she wanders behind another soft hill, this one “jammed with men sitting, standing, slouching against the hillside, some tending wounded, the dead given reverential and/or superstitious space making them more nakedly obvious.  No shirkers these, they were survivors of an assault – of what, I had no clue.  No officers among them, I assumed whey were lying somewhere up top.”

He finds Wilkes, also supposedly observing, he has adopted these ‘orphans’, begs William to take over – they want to fight, join the next assault, crave leadership.  William, as we know by now, cannot say no, even when he crawls up the hill with Wilkes and sees what repulsed them: “a half mile into a broad, open, blue carpeted slope, just below another, sharper rise, was a little farmer’s lane worn deep into the earth from use over a dozen peaceful generations.  Like thousand of others in the East except this one ran zig-zag before the rise and the slat fence bristled with rifles held by men so densely packed they were individually indistinguishable – just a jelled mass of gray, butternut and motley under every manner of hat imaginable while their rifles glistened in the mid-morning sun.”

After watching several assaults viciously repulsed, Wilkes, William, and their ad hoc, rag tag command join Thomas Meagher’s Irish Brigade, agree to form a skirmish line on the far left flank.  William coaches his tiny command to drop when the rebel rifles come up, stand and fire when they reload ……

. . . we were either unseen or ignored until we were a hundred yards off – the rebels were reloading, a hideously gapped Irish Brigade unloosed a massed volley into the packed road, no one was concerned with a strung out line of eighty men – I made a motion, we ran . . . five, six steps . . . I was close enough to see hurried concern on those reloading nearest . . . another step, their ramrods coming out, caps being set on nibs, hammers cocking, I stopped, spread my arms wide, slashed down with my sword, knelt, hard . . . a hot wind passed above my head like a million angry bees moving as fast as a train, the roar pressed into my ears, smoke stung my eyes, nose, mouth, lungs; choking, I jumped up, turned to see the damage, a handful down, stared for a moment – yards behind us a solid wall of blue advancing . . . .up,  we ran forward, the firing to the right constant, no time to look, I watched a scarecrow of a wildly bewhiskered rebel pull his ramrod out of what looked like a brand new rifle and bend his shaggy head to fit the cap . . .  we were not going to get there before they fired …..

. . . sword flaying, left arm waving, I screamed “Down!” and hit the ground the exact moment minie balls whined and whistled by my head . . . a sharp tug to my left shoulder, a quick peek, my shoulder strap was gone . . . the bullets passed, I jumped up, turned my back to the road –  not without a chill – motioned us forward, most were up, some were sprawled unnaturally, I turned to run . . .  the fucks were on to us, only some had fired, the rest waited for … now . . .

. . . . they fired, a buzz, tap on the left side of my head, like a teacher’s snapped ruler, followed by a stinging, burning pain and the sensation of warm liquid being poured down my neck . . .  I must have stopped, I was among the men, they stopped to fire, I bent over to find a body – shit, I had my choices there – tossed the sword, snatched a Springfield, cartridge belt from a man missing half a chest, raised the piece and called the charge . . .

. . . they had sensed it before I called it – if indeed I did yell anything  and did not imagine it later- we surged forward, sprinting, yelling, adrenaline made my legs quiver . . . the men behind the fence fired, turned away and  . . .

. . .  I slipped, fell hard on wet grass, tried to jackknife up, slipped again, had the brief, terrifying sensation of there being something horribly wrong with my legs, if I still had any , swallowed bile and looked down – I was whole, I was also entangled in someone’s red-white gelatinous intestines . . . vomit burned my throat, scorched my tongue, I spit, hit the mass, felt as if I had desecrated hideously, quelled my panic as best I could and ripped my way out with an elastic, sucking sound . . . I half-tripped, half slipped for a good ten yards until I got traction . . . I was just behind my men as they vaulted, climbed, and smashed through the fence, the backs of the former defenders scrambling up the slope above us, . . .

     . . .  flushed with victory, we stood in horror, all of us – the trench we stood in, wide enough for a hay wagon, at least four feet below the field, was piled, obscenely piled, with dead and dying, the dead far easier to take, the wounded  crawled grotesquely, like maggots on the corpse of a large, hideously mauled animal, the smell of blood and excrement already rising  through the powder . . . .



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