By Lynn Cunningham
Antietam’s battlefield lies peaceful and serene today among the cornfields and monuments and markers, dedicated reminders of a fierce battle fought here 150 years ago. In 1862, September 17, these gentle hills and ravines were covered with the cries of battle, the atmosphere thick with gun smoke and whisks of mini-balls going out to meet their marks. The South was invading Northern territory in the first significant battle not on their home turf. It all took place near Sharpsburg, Md., and assumed it’s name from a creek nearly, Antietam.
This battle amassed more soldiers than any before the Civil War and any one battle since for the United States of America’s military forces. More Americans opposing each other died here than during any other battle in our history, then or since. There were 23,000 casualties. Shelby Foote, Miss. author and Civil War historian, assessed the conflict as a crossroads in our history. He said “The Civil War defined us as what we became, good things and bad things. It was the crossroads; of our being, and it was a hell of a crossroads; the suffering, the enormous tragedy of the whole thing.”
To remember this battle in commemoration of the horrific price paid by both sides, a monument was placed in a cornfield, on private property within the bounds of the Antietam National Battlefield. In August of this year a marker was dedicated honoring the 11th Miss.
Regiment, which was made up of regiments from across our neck of the woods. “ The Neshoba Rifles” Co. D, Philadelphia, “The Noxubee Rifles” Co. F, Macon and from Aberdeen, Co I “ The Van Dorn Reserves.” “The University Greys” Oxford, were University of Miss. Students who left their books to become soldiers overnight as did most of the other Confederate volunteers. President Jefferson Davis wrote a letter to the Ole Miss student body urging all to keep to their books. But they signed up anyway and the halls of learning at the University were silent, closed down due to lack of students.
The gallant “Greys” fought in almost every major battle in which the Army of Northern Virginia was engaged from First Manassas, on July 21, 1861 to the climax of Pickett’s Charge during the Battle of Gettysburg. The remaining Greys suffered an astounding one hundred percent casualty rate at that charge.
The 11th Miss. was part of Gen. Hood’s Division, Gen. Law’s Brigade and Gen. Thomas Jonathan (Stonewall) Jackson’s Corps. On Sept. 17th they were encamped on the banks of Antietam Creek having marched from Harper’s Ferry and the victory there to join Gen. Robert E. Lee’s larger forces. About 6:00 a.m. as hoecakes were being cooked for breakfast the Confederate pickets on guard duty came running through the north cornfields shouting alarm. Gen. Hooker’s 12,000 man army was coming straight for them having found out the Rebels had arrived overnight. Food was tossed, guns were grabbed and men were mustered to meet the enemy. The 13th Miss. was also engaged at Antietam and three of them we know are of the McMillin Clan of Winston County; Private Samuel Fitten McMillin, his younger brother, Private Leroy Davis McMillin and their brother-in-law Private Louis Lickenfield. Dr. Lamar McMillin of Vicksburg, alive and well today, is the direct descendant of Samuel F. McMillin. Cousin Albert McMillin of Winston County, grandfather of Jim McMillin and Barbara McMillin Webb allowed that his father fought in the Civil War but it is not known whether he fought at Antietam or not. Samuel and Leroy, their sister Elizabeth McMillin Lickenfield and her husband Louis are all buried within 50 yards of each other in the Masonic Cemetery in Louisville where they all lived after the war. You may have relatives who served at Antietam or in some other engagement of the War Between the States, 150 years ago.
Gen. Hood’s Division fought bravely that fateful day, Sept. 17th, 1862, from 6:00 a.m.-9:00 a.m. but they were outnumbered two to one by the Union forces who were defending home ground. By 3:00 p.m. the exhausted Confederates, losing casualties in the hundreds, retreated back to Virginia their home territory. Simple landmarks took on legendary status once the smoke of battle cleared including the Cornfield, Dunker Church, the Sunken Road, and Burnside Bridge. You can see Dunker Church today if you visit Antietam National Battlefield Park.
Lee was forced to order his battered army to withdraw across the Potomoc into the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia. Gen. A.P. Hill and his forces having stayed at Harper’s Ferry to shore up security after getting rid of Union invaders, arrived at Antietam in time to hold the Yankees off during the retreat but too late to win a battle.
The dedication ceremony for the marker honoring the 11th Miss. Regiment was held under a tent on a ridge alongside Cornfield Ave., which paves a street over the land, which was a battlefield in 1862, now a calm and quiet refuge for crops and park visitors. Prof. Emeritus (U. of Miss.) David G. Sansing welcomed gathering guests and recognized the generous Maryland resident who allowed the marker to be placed on her cornfield property, within the bounds of the park.
John R. Neff Director of the Center for Civil War Research, Dept. of History, U. of Miss., spoke of the burden of memory placed upon all of us who came after this battle and great conflict of war among ourselves. Our generation so far removed in years from 1862, looks back to a scene misty and dim with the passage of time seeing only a shadow of the reality. But the families of the men who died, here and in every battlefield, remembered only too clearly the tragedy of that reality. Our memory is self-imposed, Dr. John Neff suggested, compared to their’s, they who had the sorrow staring them in the face. Our memory seeks to grasp the thoughts, fears, and hopes, which dominated the minds of people in that young United States of 1862. Remembering and considering the reality grown dusty is all we can do to see that our nation having been whole, then broken by civil strife, then made whole again under dire circumstances and pain is how we arrived today as the United States of America under one flag and pledge. An elegy offered as the benediction at the ceremony was composed and delivered by W.R. “Billy” Ellis a native of Brooksville whose ancestors were soldiers in the 11th Miss. Regiment. A part if it is included here.
Up Sharpsburg’s bloody plain they came so handsome, proud and young. Above their gleaming bayonets, those glorious banners hung. With out a thought of turning back or quailing from the fray, the Eleventh Mississippi charged into fame that day.
They gave their dashing spirit for their kinsmen and their state and we who love their memory, this ground we consecrate.
This cornfield was the altar for those brave boys’ Tithes of Blood that swells in us a passion like old Jordan at the flood.
On other battlefields and cemeteries, tributes and dedications are made in pledge not to forget the sacrifices and the history, which made our country a united people. The Winston Guards of the United Daughters of the Confederacy participated in a ceremony to dedicate a marker to Benjamin Graves Higginbotham in White Cemetery. He served with the 14th Miss. Regiment “The Meridian Invincibles” of Lauderdale County. Wilson Carroll tells in the Northside Sun the story of his great-grandfather Charles Carroll a private in the 33rd Miss. Infantry “The Amite County Defenders” Co. K. He fought in the Battle of Corinth and also in Atlanta and Nashville.
A memorial Illumination ceremony is held in December at Antietam National Battlefield when luminaries are set out for one evening to represent every confederate and Union soldier who fell here. A similar ceremony takes place at Shiloah Battlefield in Tennessee around Christmas. It is a fitting annual tribute to those who helped bridge that gap in history between broken and whole, a nation united once again.