Civil War Letter from Herber Wells

Describing The Death of Capt. Hugh Irish, Wounded Men 
in Company K and The Battle of Antietam
 Short Sketches on Passaic County History, August 1935
By Edward M. Graf


Antietam, Maryland – Battlefield

Photograph from the main eastern theater of the war, September 1862
Library of Congress American Memory Collection

Near Sharpsburg, M.D.

Thurs. Morn., Sept. 18, 1862

Thanks be to God.  I have passed through two fights and have come out unhurt.  But while thankful for my own preservation, my heart is filled with grief and bitterness for the sad fate of Captain Irish.  He fell mortally wounded, while gallantly leading his company in a charge on the enemy.  Our regiment was ordered to advance from a piece of woods, where we stood quite a sharp artillery fire, across a corn field, which we did on double quick through a galling fire, to the further side of the field, along which a lane ran.

The enemy was posted in the woods beyond the lane, about two hundred yards and to reach them we were obliged to get over another fence and take our course across a mown field, which gave the rebels their opportunity, and they did not fail to improve it, for they sent into us a fire which was enough to stagger a well disciplined regiment, to say nothing of such a one as ours.  Well the Captain led the way bravely over the fence, his cry being ‘Rally, Boys, Rally,” to his men who followed him closely.  I was at the head of the company endeavoring to “dress” them to the left when looking around I saw the Captain fall.  I immediately rushed towards him and supported his head, asking him at the time if he was badly hurt.  He could say no more than. “Herber, I am killed,”  a few moans being the only sign from him.  I felt his pulse, which was fluttering and then searched for his wound.  He was shot through his breast with a bullet, which left a small red spot, but which shed no blood.  During this time my situation was very perilous, as the regiment had recrossed the fence, leaving me alone with the Captain.  So I was exposed to the fire of the enemy, as also to the fire from the awkward members of our company, who had to fire over my head to reach the enemy.  However, I proceeded to cut loose his watch, and took from his coat pocket his diary and a letter.  His sword I secured, but I could not obtain his scabbard owing to the straps being entangled.  All these I have with me.  What takes so long to write occupied but a short time.  I then hurried across the fence and got three volunteers to go back with me and get his body, which we did, carrying it back to the cornfield where I left it in charge of the men, directing them to carry it back in the woods while I endeavored to rally the company which, with the regiment, gave signs of retreating.  The efforts to bring up the regiment to its work without reforming them under cover were unavailing, and in the retreat, the men having charge of the Captain’s body left it on the field, much to my regret, as I would not have lost sight of him for anything.  Up to this time I have been unable to reach the field where he fell, as it has been shot over constantly by artillery, but the Lieutenant-Colonel has assured me that the surgeon has taken steps to secure his body.

Now for fight number two.  What was left of the regiment reformed.  I devolved on me to take command of the company as Lieutenant Scott was unable from exhaustion to do so.  I was alone of the officers, being obliged to act as commander and file-closer.  We marched forward and took up position in the woods where the Rebels were.  We fought well here, exposed to a sharp fire – part of a regiment on our right gave way, and the Rebels followed up and poured in a very severe fire on each flank, so that for a time it was sauve qui peut, the regiment officers being in the rear.  I followed the colors with the Lieutenant-Colonel and the Sergeant-Major, back to where we came from, exhausted and tired having been under fire for 6 1/2 hours.  Quite a number of our company are wounded, but we are not sure how many, as may have straggled off.  The file-closers have come in unhurt.

The nearest I came to being hurt was a ball striking my cap on the edge.  The lines are formed for another fight, and how soon we are to pitch in I do now know.

The following are wounded in Company K:
Robert Gammell, flesh wound in leg.
J. Baptiste Guenot, contusion by shell.
Fred C. King, ball through side.
William Bowley, slightly.
Curtis Bowne, flesh wound in head.
J. F. Van Bushkirk, flesh wound in mouth.
Willilam Carter, flesh wound in foot.
John Anderson, flesh wound in thigh.
N. V. D. Zabriskie, slighty in hand.
J. H. Doremus, badly in leg.
C. H. Wanamaker, leg.
Killed, Captain Irish.
Missing, James Dawson, supposed to be killed.

This list is of those known to be hurt or killed.