Saturday, June 15, 2024

The Battle of Greenbrier - in seven chapters

Chapter 1: Greenbrier Maryland

In the Cumberland Valley, Washington County, in the shadow of South Mountain lies Greenbrier Maryland.  Elevation 545', founded in 1792, current population of 72 souls distributed among 14 farms and homesteads.  There are 26 children; from infants to fourteen-year olds.  Those who are old enough, attend school in Boonsboro - a three-mile walk to the south. Most of the young men are in the armies - Union and some Confederate.

It is April 16, 1863.

More a crossroads than a village, Greenbrier does boast one small store
the proprietor of which is also the postmaster.

Names familiar to the valley - Roulette, Poffenberger, Newcomer, Fahrney, and Keedy, are sprinkled around the settlement, most of them farmers, all sustaining themselves with some surplus.  Though not a particularly prosperous community;
it does not know want or hardship.

Sheep, cattle, pigs, goats, corn, wheat, barley and all the other
staples of the valley are in abundance.

Otho Roulette even tried his hand, with some success, with tobacco for a few years
until it exhausted the field.

The fences are always well maintained and there is no understory in tidy woodlots.

Being a cross-roads with a small store, news regularly travels to the hamlet.

The other business (of sorts) in the settlement is a small forge.

The smith, a recent transplant from Hagerstown, claims that he can
"...make anything but money, and mend anything but a broken heart."

Savoring the warmth of the early spring, old Mr. Newcomer sees a lone rider coming down the Rohersville road.

The gathering knot of men learn the unwelcome news that two opposing armies are again in the Valley and headed this way.  Even the most sanguine among them recognize the disruption, displacement, and hardship that looms before them.

Chapter two: The coming storm and evacuation

The people of Greenbrier have been put on notice that a battle is imminent and they must make haste to protect their livestock and valuables. They briskly set about to make their way to neighboring settlements, for untold hours or days.

Their last experience of this sort was not but two months earlier when the Confederates ransomed Smithsburg.  This time, all know their role and are quicker and more efficient at packing their things, rounding up animals, and loading carts and wagons.

There is a sense of urgency though no panic among the townspeople.

They have limited time as they can already hear distant cannon fire to the east.

As much as can be, in the short time remaining, residents gather what they can of the household goods,  bundle it into quilts, sacks, and rolled into rugs, and are carried to the wagons.  The children have already been sent ahead to Keedysville, well out of the path of the armies.

Elmer Poffenberger's oldest boys are charged with seeing after his and Mr. Mumma's cattle.

Old Mr. Newcomer is staying behind to try and safeguard homes and outbuildings.  After hurried goodbyes he watches as his twelve-year-old granddaughter drives a team of his best Belgians to refuge.  Even in the hurried moment he feels some pride in the abilities of the girl.

It is each for the other as neighbors assist neighbors in the evacuation.

By  two o'clock everyone who is leaving is on the road.  It was only  a scant five hours before that a lone Federal cavalryman warned them of the coming fight.

The residents of Greenbrier will be safe, but they are greatly anxious about what scenes of disruption, destruction, hardship, and suffering will greet them upon their return.  Old mister Newcomer has seen many things in his long life, but never a battle...that will soon be remedied.

Chapter Three: Approaching storm.

It was while sorting Autumn's potatoes that old mister Christian Newcomer hears the all-too familiar of what sounds like sustained thunder coming from the west.

Looking down the road the road toward the rumbling he sees motion at the bridge that crosses the Little Greenbrier creek.

Cavalry!  Federal cavalry.

Although Newcomer is a Unionist he hates seeing cavalry, at the gallop, back in the Valley. The last time they had been here the result was the day-long battle at Boonsboro which left him with fences downed, wheat and barley trampled to the ground, livestock run off, and a barn full of wounded Federals for nearly a month,

He hopes that the evacuees made it to safety while the roads were still clear of troops.

He foresees another month of hardship if the last time is any indicator.  His straw had to be burned (after being used as bedding by the wounded), his well was fouled, and his woodlot had to be severely thinned to make new fence-rails when the armies left the Valley.

He had heard that Rebels had been seen again near Sharpsburg but he's become wary of the constant wartime rumors.

Despite his Union sympathies, he'll be glad to see the backs of both armies.

All he can do now is hunker down and await developments...

and so shall we.

Chapter four: 
Make way for the artillery!

The Third Michigan Volunteer Infantry has been on the March for three days coming from Alexandria Virginia towards points unknown to the west.  A halt is called on a dusty Maryland road to give artillery the right of way.

It is becoming increasingly clear to the men of Grand Rapids that they're on
their way to action.

The limbers and caissons are moving with great urgency.

Before too long this wrought-iron tube will be too hot to touch.

Infantry always makes way for the guns.

Despite the dust, this is a welcome break for the footsore men from Michigan.

It's an opportunity to take a long pull from a tepid canteen.

Though a battle-hardened veteran, this sergeant always feels anxious
when artillery is on the move.

Time will tell.

Chapter five:  To the front

Three columns intersect at Greenbrier on their way toward the sound of the rumbling thunder of artillery, two miles distant to the east.

The Third Michigan yields the road to the regulars of Battery K, 4th U.S. artillery, followed by the greenhorns of the 17th Maine regiment of volunteers.

Where only hours earlier old mister Newcomer watched his grand-daughter evacuate with the family wagon, now, from the same vantage point,
he ponders the earnest parade before him.

The jaded veterans of the Third Michigan casually watch the rookies of the 17th Maine jauntily swing by, oblivious of what awaits them.

In service for less than two months the men from Cape Elizabeth are eager to
"see the elephant", however...

the sight of the ambulance corps stretching for a quarter of a mile down the road sobers the older and wiser men of the Pine Tree state.

 Colonel Warren West has been in command only since February, a mere month and a half.

The intersection now clear, colonel Champlin orders the men of Michigan -
"Forward, sons of Grand Rapids!"

And with grim determination the Wolverines step off.

TUEBOR  "I will defend!"

Mr. Christian Newcomer stands alone, watching the receding column and
 thinking about his bygone youth.

Chapter six: The battle is joined.

"My men fell around me like dead flies on a frosty morning." Officer in Dana's brigade

"The thundering of artillery, the roaring of bursting shells, the rolling of musketry, and humming of deadly fragments and bullets. and sometimes the yells of the rebels and our own cheers all seemed to fill the whole horizon and drive peace away forever." 
Thomas Livermore


Editor's notes:  Historians almost universally divide the Battle of Greenbrier into three distinct phases; the great meadow phase, the rocky upland phase, and the walled pasture phase. This narrative will follow that practice. 

Federal artillery was the determining factor of the battle; sixty guns in ten six-gun batteries were brought to the field. Of note is that five of the Union batteries were regular army artillery.  The Confederates had a paucity of guns; sixteen guns in four four-gun batteries, furthermore 25% of their guns were obsolete smooth-bore six-pounders whereas the Federal batteries had a majority of rifled 3" ordnance rifles with a range of up to two miles at great accuracy.

The artillery of both sides made very effective use of canister.  Canister is a projectile that consists of 28 one-and-one-half inch diameter iron balls packed, with sawdust, into a light tin canister.  Effective at ranges under 400 yards, canister turns a cannon into a giant sawed-off shotgun and has devastating results upon the troops against whom it is deployed.

Confederate general Ambrose Powell Hill referred to the Battle of Greenbrier as "Yankee artillery's finest hour."


It is seven o'clock in the morning April 17th,1862 three miles to the west of Greenbrier Maryland in the Cumberland Valley.  The Third Division of the Third Corps, Army of the Potomac, under Major General Alpheus Williams has been dispatched to intercept the combined divisions of Confederate General A.P. Hill, and John Bell Hood of the Army of Northern Virginia.  The Federals have approached the field from the southeast and the Confederates from the southwest.

The great meadow phase: 7:00 - 10:00 am.

On the northern end of the battlefield lies a fifteen-acre meadow.  The battle, which was to have been joined at first light was delayed until the dense fog lifted and the proceedings got underway only at seven a.m.

The clearing fog reveals that the opposing lines are much closer than was thought - opposing sides facing each other at only 200 yards.  With the clear field of fire that the broad pasture afforded, the  opposing lines open fire almost simultaneously and casualties are significant on both sides.

"...a great tumbling together of all heaven and earth - the slaughter on both sides was enormous." Private, 6th Wisconsin

Volley fire continues for nearly twenty minutes with neither side showing any sign of weakening.  The opposing lines are equally matched and neither can find an advantage to dislodge the other.

"The fire now became fearful and incessant...merged into a tumultuous chorus that made the earth tremble a thousand distant drums..." Felix de Fontaine Charleston Daily Courier

"Very soon our Reg was under fire the balls whisin [sic] over us...I commenced loading and shooting with all my might but my gun got chooked [sic] the first round, and I picked up a gun of one of my comrades who fell by my side and continued to fire...I do not know whether I killed any one or not."  Private Calvin Leach, 1st North Carolina.

It begins to appear to the opposing commanders that there will be no decisive moment in the contest as neither side wavers.

Suddenly, the jingle of harness and rumble of limbers heralded the arrival of that which would tip the balance.

Guns are man-handled into battery, horses are led to the rear, and limber chests are hurriedly attended to.

Lanyards are stretched taut...


The ground shook as the guns swept through the rebel ranks.

It was only after the Confederates are flanked by  Union artillery, while under sustained fire to their front, do they finally - after nearly two hours of fighting - retire in some haste from the field.

Thus ended the short, but sharp, "Great Meadow" phase.  The victorious, but severely battered, Federals retain the field, consolidate their position, and await developments.

The rocky upland phase: 9:30 am - 1:00 pm.

The center of the Confederate line - the "rocky upland" is a very strong defensive position.  Although the Confederates are holding the ground with only two depleted regiments, they are initially successfully holding owing to the advantage provided by the rocky slopes, and natural defensive positions.

The fire at this range exacts minimal casualties on either side though the Federals  suffer a higher percentage of killed and wounded. 

Union commanders recognize the advantage of the strong rebel position and are reluctant to mount a direct assault but opt for infantry volley fire at a very long range of 375 yards

The Confederates, though outnumbered, take every advantage of their superior , with its natural rifle-pits and breastworks provided by the many boulders.

Below, the Federals form behind the scant shelter of a low stone wall.

A little over ninety minutes into the exchange four batteries of Federal guns deploy at a distance of one mile and open fire with bolt and case shot.  The results of the shrapnel from the case and the showers of rock fragments from the bolts exact a heavy toll on the two small rebel regiments. 

A battery of Federal rifled guns zeros in the Rebel stronghold.

"The enemy fell like grass before the seemed as if whole companies were wiped out of existence."  Major Orrin Crane, 7th Ohio.

"...legs, arms, and other parts of human bodies were flying in the air like straw in a whirlwind.  The dogs of war were loose, and 'havoc' was their cry."  Soldier, 4th Texas.

 For nearly two hours the valiant rebels absorb the blows as casualties mount. By 12:30 pm the 1st regiment of United States Sharpshooters ("Berdan's") flank the Confederate left, making their position untenable and the desperate defenders are driven in disarray from the heights.  Federal's advance to the former Confederate positions and hold that portion of the field for the remainder of the day.

The walled pasture phase: 2:30 - 5:30 pm.

The walled pasture phase sees Union and Confederate firing lines at a mere 100 yards distant from each other. On the northern side of the pasture are two Confederate regiments - the 2nd Mississippi and the  17th Virginia.  On the southern end of the field are the veteran 3rd Michigan and the rookie 17th Maine.  This will be a close-quarters fight.

The 3rd Michigan arrives on the field.

The "long roll"  signals that battle is imminent.

Movement is seen in the woods beyond the pasture.

The veterans of the 17th Virginia are taking up position.

"Hooker's men were fully up to their work, they saw their General every where in the front, never away from the fire, and all the troops believed in their commander and fought with a will."  George Smalley New York Tribune.

Firing commenced around 3:00 with both sides sustaining numerous casualties at such short range.  After two volleys the order was given to fire by company, then by file, and finally to "fire at will".  The firing continued for forty minutes with neither side gaining advantage.

The order rings out - "Commence firing!"

" The two battle lines, scarcely fifty yards apart, erupted in sheets of flame and smoke."  Private Alexander Hunter, 17th Virginia

"The truth is, when bullets are whacking against tree trunks and solid shot are cracking skulls like eggshells, the consuming passion in the breast of the average man is to get out of the way."  Soldier, 9th New York

On his own and without orders, the inexperienced commander of the 17th Maine, Colonel Warren West, desiring to force the issue, ordered his regiment forward.  As the men from Maine advanced they were met with withering musket fire delivered from the men of the 2nd Mississippi, yet still they advanced.

Even the jaded veterans from Michigan look on in slack-jawed disbelief as the rookie 17th Maine, without support, leaves the firing line and advances toward the enemy.

"The total disregard of all ordinary military precaution in their swift and solitary advance was so manifest that it was observed and criticized as the devoted band moved on."  Francis W. Palfrey, 20th Massachusetts.

 About five minutes before the 17th stepped off a section (two guns) of Confederate artillery arrive and deploy beside the Mississippians.  "Double canister" is ordered and the rebel twelve-pounders open a devastating fire in the faces of the faltering Federals.

Confederate gunners load double canister and open fire immediately.

"Men, I can not say fell; they were knocked out of the ranks by the dozens..."
Major Rufus Dawes, 6th Wisconsin

"...brought down the enemy as grain falls before a reaper." 
Colonel F.M. Parker, 30th North Carolina

Colonel West's ill-conceived effort was broken, and his men, in full and disorganized retreat, took refuge behind the lines of the 3rd Michigan, much shaken and of little use for the remainder of the engagement.

The chaotic retreat of the 17th Maine is halted only by the stalwart lines of the Men from the Wolverine state.

Hoping to capitalize upon the disarray and confusion of his enemy, Colonel John M. Stone of the 2nd Mississippi ordered a counterattack on the heels of the fleeing 17th Maine, but by this time Union artillery had taken the field. 

The men of the 2nd Mississippi advance.

The 3rd Michigan delivers a blistering volley of accurate fire.

The Rebel line staggers only momentarily, before the ranks are closed and the advance proceeds.

Still the Mississippians advanced.

Bugles announce the arrival of a battery of regulars,

Again, as throughout the day, the timely arrival of Federal artillery will turn the tide.

Pioneers quickly dismantle panels of fence to allow the guns passage.,

All down the line, charges are rammed home.

As before, double-canister devastates the Confederate advance, and continues to fire upon the Rebel line forcing the much damaged 2nd Mississippi as well as the men from Virginia to take to their heels.

"...the Rebels followed with a yell but three for four of our batteries being in position they were received with a tornado of canister."  General Alpheus Williams

Rally boys, rally! Die like men; don't run like dogs!"  Mississippi soldier.

The gray flood rearward couldn't be stemmed; the Confederates had lost the day.

With this final act, the curtain came down upon the battle,

"Within a space of four square miles lay two thousand men, some stiff and stark, looking with visionless eyes up into the pitying heavens; some tossing on the beds of the hospital, or lying maimed and bleeding under the trees..."    Union soldier

At the close of a blistering eleven-hour contest the Federals were in possession of the entire field, and Hill and Hood retreat across the Potomac back into Virginia. 

The valiant Third Corps of the Army of the Potomac proved its mettle yet again, and surely not for the final time.

Of 17,000 soldiers, both Union and Confederate engaged, some 2,750 were left on the field dead or wounded.

The war would last another two years, but most historians agree that after the Battle of Greenbriar, the tide had finally turned in the east.

And what of the people of Greenbrier?  

Chapter seven: Epilogue

When the people of Greenbrier Maryland return home they find the village transformed into a hospital filled with misery and suffering. The battle is over but for the people of Greenbrier Maryland the struggle is just beginning.  The South Mountain road is choked with a long ambulance train stretching nearly three miles from the scene of the battle.

The return of the residents nearly coincides with the arrival of the ambulances and the scene is of nearly unimaginable suffering to the people of Greenbrier.

Homes, barns, smokehouses, and all manner of outbuildings have been commandeered by the army to house, however crudely, nearly 1500 wounded soldiers both Union and Confederate.

"They filled every building and overflowed into the country round, into farm-houses, barns, corn-cribs, cabins, wherever four walls and a roof were found together."
Unidentified Hagerstown Woman

"[The Newcomer house] was used by the surgeons for amputation purposes, and dressing wounds, and there were one or two tables in the yard being used for the same purpose, and a pile of severed hands, arms and legs lying on the ground...A horrible and sickening scene to behold such as I never wish to see again.  I staggered from the carriage, but exercising all of my will power, kept from fainting."  Angela Davis

"The doctors would huddle the family all into one little room or turn 'em out.  The house across the way from mine was a hospital, and the family there got what the doctors called camp fever and some of 'em died."  Jacob McGraw

"I have lived through my first battle, and I am well, but when I think of the brave boys who lost their lives yesterday in defense of their country, I feel sad to think that Jeff Davis did not die in their stead"
                                                                                                                     Unidentified soldier, 107th New York

"There is a smell of death in the air, and the laboring surgeons are literally covered from head to foot with the blood of the sufferers."   Peter Alexander

Confederate prisoners are pressed into service as litter bearers taking the
dead to be buried.

The known are interred separately in shallow, temporary graves, a board from a cartridge box serving as a temporary headstone. 
The unknown are laid in a trench with only the number of bodies recorded.

"Oh how dreadful was that place to me where my dear boy had been buried like a beast of the field"

Mr. Newcomer knows it will be quite some time before his sheep can be returned to this pasture and countless others as well, from Tennessee to Virginia, from South Carolina to Pennsylvania.  The final harvest would be close to seven million souls committed to such fields.

It was all so long ago.

Editor's note: In 1922 the Maryland State Lands Commission hired professor Daniel Brewer to survey the Greenbrier battlefield preparatory to designating it "a state holding of preservation for the education and enjoyment of the people of Maryland." 

Brewer's survey comprised about three square miles of the battle area as well as his recommendations.  Although the state legislature approved the establishment of a "state holding" (park) the funding was never approved, and the ground has remained, little changed, in private hands for over one hundred and fifty years.

Herewith are three of the twenty-seven survey photos taken by Brewer.

The "Great Meadow".  The Confederate line was to the right, Federal to the left.

Confederate positions on the "rocky upland."

Federal position at the "walled pasture."

And what of Mr. Newcomer?

His farm became prosperous and he lived to be 
the very respected elder of Greenbrier Maryland.



Of course, there was no Battle of Greenbrier.  The quotes used were actual quotes made by participants in, or observers of, the battle of Antietam.  The only fabricated quote was the one at the beginning of chapter six ascribed to A.P. Hill. The sepia photos in installment six were taken five years ago at Gettysburg.

I've done a few different stories centering around "Greenbrier Maryland".  Greenbrier is based on a tiny crossroads about a mile from where I live - Mt Lena; at least I think it was Mt. Lena, it has no name now, no post office, only a handful of houses, two small partially-dormant businesses (one with a Pepsi machine out front) a church with a cemetery, and a school - Greenbrier elementary school.  I live in a lovely place on the shoulder of South Mountain in Civil War Country.  Antietam, where I worked as a park ranger for eight years is just eleven miles away.

I must acknowledge fellow blogger and toy soldier enthusiast Scott Lesch.  His multi-installment narratives were an inspiration for this series.

 The Battle of Greenbrier was all pretend... 

and isn't that the very essence of playing with toy soldiers?

Until next time

Soldier on!