Photo historian Tim Smith of York County, Va. preserves the memory of Peninsula Civil War veterans by hunting for their likenesses.

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.