When Tim Smith was growing up during the 1950s and ‘60s, many Civil War veterans from the Dare and Seaford sections of York County still lived on in the memories of relatives, friends and neighbors who had known them and heard their stories.
Several members of his family fought in the war and survived to come home to the marine railway and boatyard they’d operated on Chisman Creek since 1842. Two railway employees returned from the conflict, too, and many of the tales they shared under a tall shade tree at lunch each day were passed on to Smith by his father and grandfather.
Not until he reached his 30s, however, did the stories of his youth combine to give him a decades-long purpose. That’s when Smith began to hunt for wartime images of the men whose lives were being forgotten.
“It just seemed important to find them and preserve them so that all they went through during the war wouldn’t be lost,” he says.
“These images helped put faces on the stories I’d heard and grown up with — and they all deserved to be remembered.”
Smith's stories and the images he's found have made major contributions to history's understanding of the 32nd Virginia Infantry, which incorporated men from Hampton, Williamsburg, Poquoson and Warwick, York and James City counties when it was mustered in during the early days of the war.
Open almost any book that explores what happened here during that conflict and chances are you'll see an acknowledgment thanking Smith for his indispensable help in rounding up pictures.
Despite all the Civil War history that took place on the Peninsula, however, by far the worst and most glorious day in the chronically undersized regiment's life took place on Sept. 17, 1862 far away in the fields and forests alongside Antietam Creek in western Maryland.
The bloodiest single day in American history was the bloodiest for the Peninsula, too, which took such a beating during its successful counterattack against a Union thrust that it was listed in the honor roll of high-casualty units known as "Fox's Fighting Regiments" after the war.
Nearly half the men went down in a valiant mid-morning attack that inflicted similar casualties among the men of such units at the 15th Massachusetts, which defended a position now marked by an evocative stone sculpture of a wounded lion.
Just minutes before, in fact, the Union troops thought the tide had turned in their favor as they sliced through the remains of an earlier Confederate assault. But then the bullets started to fly from their flank and rear.
"Fall back? Ain't the rebels falling back themselves?" recalled Pvt. Roland Bowen of the 15th Massachusetts. "But then I saw it was no joke, the bullets actually came from the rear. All hands ran for their life.
“They might have drove us clean into Pennsylvania as well as not... (But)No God Damned Southerner is going to catch me unless he can run 29 miles per hour.”
You can find out more about the brutal Battle of Antietam -- also known as the Battle of Sharpsburg -- as well as the 32nd Virginia in my package of stories on the unit scheduled for Tuesday.
Look also for my accompanying interview with Smith, who can be seen in the video at the top of this post.
-- Mark St. John Erickson