Today, 150 years ago, my ancestor James L. Denton saw the elephant (at a distance) for the very first time. I suspect he was happy to see it … at a distance, that is.
Denton enlisted in the 5th New York (Duryée’s Zouaves) in August 1862. By that time the regiment had been in the field for over a year, becoming known as a favorite of George B. McClellan. Its uniforms were spectacular, modeled on the Zouave template. Among its claims to fame was its gallant stand at Gaines Mill. In short, for Denton to join such an elite unit might have been akin to signing with the New York Yankees.
On his way south from New York to join the 5th, Denton must have learned of the regiment’s fate at Second Manassas, where it was decimated on August 30, 1862, suffering terrific casualties, including some 120 dead. It was a traumatic experience for those who survived. The regiment would no longer be what it once was, and what happened at Second Manassas must have weighed heavily on the mind of Gouverneur K. Warren, who had started out as the lieutenant colonel of the regiment in May 1861, rising to command the unit later that year before being elevated to brigade command in the spring of 1862. That brigade, composed of the 5th New York and the 10th New York, was the third brigade of the second division of the Army of the Potomac’s Fifth Corps: regular infantry units formed the other two brigades. Now it was a shell of its former self, with the 5th having suffered serious losses …. losses Denton was supposed to help make up.
On September 3, Denton and his fellow recruits joined the 5th, which was at Hall’s Hill, Virginia, recovering from the battle. As regimental historian and veteran Alfred Davenport later put it, “The appearance of the men did not tend to raise their spirits much, as we were all on rags and dirt.” That would not be true of the recruits, of course, and I wonder what everyone made of the encounter. Days later the regiment moved out, crossed the Potomac, and started west to encounter the enemy once more. On the 14th the men encountered none other that General McClellan, who assured them that their comrades were driving the enemy from the gaps along South Mountain; the following day Denton most probably saw his first battlefield dead as his regiment passed through Turner’s Gap, where the bodies of D. H. Hill’s Confederates remained unburied. That afternoon the regiment found itself skirmishing with Confederates near Middle Bridge, along the road to Sharpsburg; there the regiment would spend September 16.
On September 17 Warren’s brigade remained in reserve, shifting southward to support the operations of Ambrose Burnside against the bridge that today bears his name. Hours after the bridge was taken, the brigade moved forward across the bridge, encountering the bodies of members of the 51st New York and 51st Pennsylvania, who had stormed the bridge earlier. They observed another Zouave regiment, the 9th New York … Hawkins’s Zouaves … as they were checked short of Sharpsburg.
I have wondered what Denton must have made of his first battle when I walk across the ground upon which he marched … most recently, as you all now know, last June (this should help explain why I did not ford the creek … I was simply following in my ancestor’s footsteps, and the notion that nearly some 150 years later I would be discussing what happened at that bridge strikes me as worth contemplating). One must do a little research to find out where Denton’s regiment was: the location of Warren’s brigade would not be marked on the battlefield proper, unlike other units present at the battle. Indeed, it would not be until I traveled south to Shepherdstown that I would encounter that marker, at the site where Denton and his fellow recruits would fight for the first time.
As if that was not enough, when Mark Grimsley and I led Gettysburg College’s Civil War Institute tour of Antietam last June, I made sure my wife and youngest daughter were present. I didn’t say much about Denton’s experiences (to them or anyone else) that afternoon, but, at our next stop, at the point at which A. P. Hill’s division appeared on the field, I took my wife aside and walked her over to the markers denoting the appearance of the regiment of one of her ancestors, Jordan Snow of the 28th North Carolina, that September afternoon. Indeed, this may have been the day of the war in which our ancestors were in closest proximity on a Civil War battlefield (rivaled, perhaps, by Chancellorsville). You can catch me returning from that mission on the C-SPAN telecast.
Many people will reflect today on the events of September 17, 1862, the bloodiest single day of combat in the American Civil War. I’ll have special reason to think about how it all looked to a young recruit … and to wonder whether, as he looked across the field to see Hawkins’s men checked by Hill’s arrival, he might have caught a glimpse of his future kinfolk.