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A bloody day at Antietam for the Peninsula's 32nd Virginia Infantry

When the bloodiest day in American history finally ended, many units battered by the brutal Battle of Antietam found themselves reeling from once unthinkable numbers of dead and wounded.

But few on either side of the fiercely contested western Maryland creek suffered more than a small band of Confederate infantrymen from the Peninsula.

In less than 30 minutes on the morning of Sept. 17, 1862, about half the 158 men in the 32nd Virginia fell dead, wounded or missing as they drove back a Union attack that almost cracked the left flank of the Army of Northern Virginia.

Seventeen Yankee bullets ripped through their red-and-white flag as they charged through a lethal storm of cannon and musket fire, leaving the 6-foot-tall color bearer inexplicably spared but shearing his flag staff in two. So thick were the bodies of the men who tumbled to the earth that their comrades tripped over their jumbled forms as they hurled themselves forward.

In the weeks that followed, more Peninsula men would die from wounds sustained in the infamous fields and West Woods at Antietam. And for decades afterward, those who survived the war's single most destructive day would look back on the ferocious clash outside the town of Sharpsburg as the regiment's worst and most glorious moment.

The impact of the horrific casualties on the small towns of Hampton and Williamsburg, the farms of Warwick and James City counties and the waterfront enclaves of York County and Poquoson was also severe and lasting.

"When the word started getting back about everybody who had died or been wounded, it was devastating for the families these men had left behind," says historian Tim Smith, whose neighborhood off old Dare Road in York County was among the most affected.

"People were still talking about Sharpsburg when I was a kid."

The home guard

With roots that reach back to the old 68th and 115th Virginia militia regiments of Williamsburg and Hampton — plus a scattering of new volunteer companies spanning the Peninsula — the 32nd Virginia was more diverse than many other Confederate units.

In Hampton and surrounding Elizabeth City County, the Wythe Rifles formed after John Brown's raid on Harper's Ferry in 1859, and many of them boasted training from their school days at Hampton Military Academy.

The well-drilled band also had two things most other companies didn't — modern rifled muskets and uniforms.

"Some studies have found that most of these units were jokes. But not here. They were keener and more disciplined than most," says Hampton History Museum Curator J. Michael Cobb, describing the influence of a military science teacher — Wilfred Cutshaw — who later became the chief artillery officer for Thomas J. "Stonewall" Jackson.

"These were the lawyers, the doctors, the druggists and the mechanics of Hampton. It was Hampton going to war."

The Williamsburg Junior Guard reflected the old colonial capital's more urban and well-educated population, too, plus the West Point training of College of William and Mary President Benjamin S. Ewell.

But in Warwick and York counties, the volunteer companies that cropped up after the war broke out were agrarian, militarily inexperienced late-comers.

Organized at Endview Plantation following the Union occupation of Newport News Point, the Warwick Beauregards were made up largely of wealthy planters, middling farmers and agricultural workers ranging from William G. Young — the county's richest man and owner of 137 slaves — to farmhands.

On the other side of the Peninsula, the York Rangers teemed with small farmers and watermen, many showing a fierce independent streak after generations of relative isolation.

In an era of bad roads and limited travel even by boat, few men from this fragmented region knew one another well enough to have forged connections, says West Point Military Academy historian Les Jensen, a former Peninsula resident who wrote "32nd Virginia Infantry."

But even the many former Unionists among them were united by the specter of Federal troops marching out from Fort Monroe and occupying their homeland.

So defiant were the men of the 32nd that they gave their consent and — in the case of the Warwick Beauregards and York Rangers — took an active hand when the Confederate high command decided to burn Hampton in August 1861.

"Slavery did play a role. This was a place that remembered the Nat Turner rebellion well — and any attempt to free the slaves was seen as a threat," Jensen says.

"But this sense of invasion was the most important factor."

Spies and scouts

Despite that resolve, the 32nd was far too small to defend the Peninsula by itself — and the home ground it gave up in Hampton and Warwick County as it waited for reinforcements was among the first to be lost to the Union.

Confederate commander John B. Magruder quickly recognized that the regiment's value lay not in numbers but in knowledge, however, and he deployed the various companies in ways calculated to make his outnumbered defenders and three lines of earthworks more effective.

For nearly a year they served apart as Magruder strengthened the York-Warwick line, then faced off with the massive Army of the Potomac in its spring 1862 siege against his formidable wall.

"The 32nd played a critical role in the defense of the Peninsula," historian John V. Quarstein says.

"Magruder needed men who knew the roads, who knew the terrain. So they were everywhere, working as guides, working as scouts, working as spies. Many worked as commissaries obtaining food because they knew exactly where to get it."

These detached and scattered duties led to an arrested state of development, however, when the 32nd reunited after the May 5, 1862, Battle of Williamsburg.

Equally problematic was the transfer of its commanders — Col. Ewell and Hampton Maj. John B. Cary — to staff positions.

Worst still was the wave of desertions that reduced the undersized regiment's strength even further. By some accounts, nearly a fifth of the men stayed behind when the unit retreated to Richmond.

"Look how many never left," Smith says.

"They didn't want to leave their homes. They didn't want to leave their families unguarded. And the 32nd never recovered."

Into the breach

Just how badly the regiment fared at first can seen in the July 1, 1862, Battle of Malvern Hill, where the leaderless, disorganized unit disobeyed orders to attack a Union position protected by deadly artillery fire.

Not only did they turn on their heels but they also took the 15th Virginia with them.

"They could see all the Confederates ahead of them being obliterated — and they left the field because they thought another attack was stupid," Jensen says.

"That's when the generals decided they had to do something about the 32nd."

Ten weeks later at Antietam, the regiment was ordered to step into the breach again — this time under an officer who had bolstered their numbers and given them new-found purpose and cohesion.

Led by Col. Edgar B. Montague of King and Queen County, they not only marched into a brutal grinder that had felled thousands of men but rushed to the forefront of a charge that changed the battle's outcome.

"Finally, they're marching together. They're eating and sleeping together. They have an effective leader," Quarstein says.

"And you can see the difference at Sharpsburg."

Pushing to the front as their brigade attacked, nearly every other man in the 32nd fell in the relentless hail of fire screaming in from their front and right. Yet still they hurtled forward until the soldiers in blue finally broke and ran for their lives, reaching the safety of a long stone wall after a lethal chase through a wood and several body-strewn fields.

"They might have drove us clean into Pennsylvania," wrote Pvt. Roland Bowen of the 15th Massachusetts, which suffered almost as much as the 32nd after the tide of battle shifted.

"(But) No ... Southerner is going to catch me unless he can run 29 miles per hour."

Scarred by battle

No one doubted the 32nd's willingness or ability to fight after its performance at Antietam.

So impressed was Maj. Gen. J.E.B. Stuart that he rode down from his battery on Hauser's Ridge, drawing fire from the whole Federal line behind the stone wall as he spurred toward the regiment's exposed position.

"Boys, you are doing good work," he said.

Still, the grisly price of their triumph could be seen strewn across the fields behind them, where 21 men died outright and nearly 60 others lay wounded.

Fewer than 80 managed to walk away unscathed.

"A lot of the men were hit in the head — and most of those died," Smith said.

"They were shot up pretty bad."

Among those who survived, Pvt. William Haynie Wornom of the York Rangers wore his scars for life.

He was still recovering from an ugly wound to his nose and face when he had his picture taken in Petersburg almost a year later.

Cpl. Arthur Shield of the York Rangers recuperated from his wound only to take another bullet in the lung in late 1864. Five years after the war ended, he coughed it out — then died from his long struggle with tuberculosis and pneumonia.

Among the other survivors, only 46 remained when the battered regiment surrendered at Appomattox.

More than 100 of their comrades had died in battle or from disease, and 116 had been captured. Another 205 had deserted, most after enduring years of war.

The last veteran to die was John Presson of the York Rangers, who held court in his rocking chair at Buzzard's Roost Store near Big Bethel until passing away in his 90s.

"It's probably a blessing the Union wasn't broken up," he said in 1933.

"But at the time we wanted to win — we had to win. We were fighting for a cause, and for our own ground."

Erickson can be reached by phone at 757-247-4783. Find more Hampton Roads History stories at dailypress.com/history and Facebook.com/hrhistory.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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