09/19/12 — Historian tells of Goldsboro's sacrifice at Battle of Antietam

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Historian tells of Goldsboro's sacrifice at Battle of Antietam

By Dennis Hill
Published in News on September 19, 2012 1:46 PM

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Pete Coffman describes the Civil War Battle of Antietam during a lecture at Wayne Community College on Tuesday night. A series of lectures on key battles in the war is being sponsored by the Foundation of Wayne Community College and the North Carolina Military History Roundtable. Coffman, who spent 28 years in the Air Force, is currently pursuing for a master's degree in history at East Carolina University.

On the bloodiest day in American history, the regiment that included the Goldsboro Rifles suffered the third-highest casualty rate in the Confederate Army.

At the Battle of Antietam on Sept. 17, 1862, the 27th North Carolina Infantry Regiment lost 61 percent of its men killed or wounded. Out of 325 men who entered the battle, 31 were killed and 168 wounded.

The regiment, which penetrated deepest into the Union line of any Southern outfit on the battlefield, was the only one specifically named in Gen. Robert E. Lee's official report of the battle to Confederate President Jefferson Davis. Lee described the regiment, made up of men from Wayne, Lenoir, Pitt, Guilford, Orange, Jones and Perquimans counties as "standing boldly in line without a cartridge," after they ran out of ammunition but continued to hold the center of the rebel defense.

That fact, along with many others about the crucial day in American history, was part of the latest in a series of lectures on key battles in the Civil War sponsored by the Foundation of Wayne Community College and the North Carolina Military History Roundtable.

Pete Coffman, a retired Air Force veteran who is studying for his master's degree in history at East Carolina University, delivered the lecture at the college Tuesday night.

Coffman spent 28 years in the Air Force. He served with eight combat units, including the Thunderbirds and worked for the U.S. ambassador to the United Arab Emirates. He was History Student of the Year at Mount Olive College in 2010 and is focusing on logistics in the Civil and Revolutionary wars in his studies at ECU.

Two more lectures remain in the Civil War series. A single lecture on the Battle of Goldsborough Bridge and the Battle of Fredericksburg has been divided into two presentations. Fredericksburg will be discussed Nov. 27 by historian Lynn Bull. The Goldsborough Bridge battle will be the focus of a a talk by Randy Sauls on Dec. 11.

The Battle of Antietam, or Sharpsburg, as it was known in the South, was a pivotal moment in the war. Although the battle is often considered to have ended in a draw, President Abraham Lincoln took it as a defensive victory and used it to launch the Emancipation Proclamation.

Coffman described the political climate of the day and the reasons Lee chose to invade the North. The invasion would put pressure on Washington, D.C., and hopefully convince England and France to recognize the Confederacy as a legitimate government. Lee also hoped the move would draw out Confederate sympathizers in Maryland. Lee ordered his troops not to plunder Maryland farms as one way to convince residents that the Southern cause was just.

But Maryland residents did not respond. And as Lee moved north, his troops, hurt by a lack of provisions, began to dwindle. Many Southerners considered the war a defense of their homeland and disagreed with the decision to cross into Union territory. By the time Lee reached the town of Sharpsburg near Antietam Creek, he had only about 40,000 men.

He was opposed by Union Gen. George McClellan, who had already been fired once by Lincoln. But Lincoln was forced to bring McClellan back after other generals failed to stop Lee. McClellan, who had about 80,000 troops, was a cautious leader and was convinced that Lee had 120,000 men.

Lee's situation became dire when a copy of his orders was discovered by an Indiana corporal at an abandoned Confederate campground, wrapped in three cigars.

The orders contained Lee's battle plan, which involved his dividing his force into three columns. But McClellan blew his chance to attack Lee piecemeal by not making a move for 18 hours after discovering the orders.

That enabled Lee to reform his men at Antietam Creek, where the two armies camped on the night of Sept. 16.

The battle that began at dawn the next day started with a Union attack on the Confederate left. After four hours of horrendous fighting, both sides held basically the same position as when the fighting started.

The next phase of the battle involved a sunken road that was later infamously named Bloody Lane for the bodies that lay stacked in it after Northern troops finally drove the Confederates back. Many of the men killed there were from North Carolina units, Coffman noted.

The 27th's moment of glory came when they were positioned just to the left of the lane. After withstanding a Union assault, they charged deep into the Union line but were eventually repulsed and took heavy casualties as they retreated. Still, they held their place in the line for hours without ammunition until they were relieved.

The final phase of the battle took place on the Confederate right, where Union troops tried to cross the creek using a small bridge. It was defended by a small group of Georgia troops and it took until late in the afternoon for the Union to get across. Once they did, however, they were in position to flank the entire Confederate army.

At that moment, Confederate Gen. A.P. Hill arrived from Harper's Ferry after a 17-mile march and his division smashed into the Union troops, forcing them back and effectively ending the fighting.

Lee waited a day, then retreated. McClellan did not pursue him and Lincoln again fired the overly cautious general.

More than 23,000 men were killed or wounded during the battle, making the battle the single bloodiest day in American history.

The battle had the effect of convincing both sides that a peaceful solution to the war would not be possible, Coffman said. And it gave Northerners their first look at what the war was truly was like, since it was the first time that photographers were present. Exhibits of photos of masses of dead soldiers brought the war home to the Northern people, he said, helping Lincoln convince his countrymen that the war was now about a whole new morality and that freeing the slaves was imperative.

Coffman compared it to news coverage of the Vietnam War, which helped sway public opinion at home about the reasons for fighting.

A bus trip to the Antietam battlefield is being planned for Oct. 19-21. Sauls will serve as battlefield guide. Cost is $100, with attendees paying for their own room and meals. For more information about the trip, contact Adrienne Northington at the college at (919) 739-7006.