Burying the Dead at Antietam’s Cornfield

Ron Coddington
· 4 min read

Heavy cannon fire erupted at daylight on September 17, 1862, and soon after Capt. William Swan and Company H fell into line with the rest of the Twenty-seventh New York Infantry and moved out from camp near the top of South Mountain. The men descended the high ground, where they had fought a few days earlier, and took in a panoramic view of the well-cultivated Maryland farmland in the valley below. The New Yorkers had little time to appreciate the picturesque scene, for the sounds of battle from nearby Sharpsburg beckoned.

Carte de visite of Capt. William H. Swan, Company H, Twenty-Seventh New York Infantry, by Mathew Brady of New York City and Washington, D.C., about 1861–1862. Collection of the author.

The regiment entered the village of Keedysville about noon, made its way through streets blocked by ambulances filled with wounded soldiers, passed surgeons with blood-covered hands and instruments, and reached Antietam’s infamous Cornfield two hours after the heaviest fighting had taken place.

“The dead lay so thick that we had to pull them out of the way to make room for the troops to form their lines,” recalled one journal-keeper in the regiment, “The corn was trampled to the ground, and some bushes that were left standing were completely riddled with bullets. Here we formed our line, and remained all day, supporting some batteries, with one company out as skirmishers.” They spent the next day digging trenches to bury the corpses that littered the battlefield. “The bodies of the dead, having lain so long exposed to the sun, were rapidly decomposing, and the stench was almost unendurable. Many of the men could not eat, and became sick from breathing the tainted air.”[i]

It must have been with great relief that the Twenty-seventh left Antietam the following day, and went into camp several days later at Bakersville, a hamlet north of Sharpsburg. Here the men washed their clothes, bathed in a creek, ate good food, and tried to put the recent horrors behind them. On Sept. 29, the same writer noted, “Some of the officers are having a spree, and raising the — — generally throughout camp.”[ii] Chances are Capt. Swan was not among them, for his rheumatism had flared up, likely the result of a month of almost constant marching and exposure in the field.

Dead at Antietam by Alexander Gardner, September 1862. Library of Congress.

Swan, a 44-year-old hotel proprietor in Lyons, New York, was twice as old as many of the soldier boys he commanded. After the war started, he joined the Twenty-seventh as a second lieutenant in Company B. He was immediately detached for commissary duty, perhaps in recognition of his abilities as a hotelkeeper. He was appointed acting assistant quartermaster three months later, and served in this capacity until the following summer, when he received his captain’s bars and transferred to Company H.

The Antietam campaign marked the end of his active military service. The chronic rheumatism prevented him from attending to his duties, and, in November he was sent to Washington, D.C., and admitted to a hospital in Georgetown. He failed to respond to treatment and his health worsened after he fell ill with remittent fever, a telltale sign of malaria. After another month of rest, the regimental surgeon examined him and found that he would “not be able to remain in the field or in active military service through the coming spring without sustaining permanent disability.”[iii] He resigned in March 1863.

Swan resumed his work as a hotel proprietor in Lyons and nearby Cortland, but his health was broken. He died in 1868 at age 52. The cause of his death was attributed to disease contracted in the army. The Lyons Republican noted that he served with “credit and distinction.”[iv] His wife of twenty-seven years, Emeline, survived him.

[i] Fairchild, History of the 27th Regiment N.Y. Vols., p. 95.

[ii] Ibid., p. 97.

[iii] Emeline Teter Swan pension record, NARS.

[iv] Lyons (New York) Republican, April 1868.

Special thanks to Pat Blackwell of Skaneateles, N.Y., and Carol S. Bailey of Lyons, N.Y.

Ron Coddington is a collector of Civil War era images, and the editor and publisher of Military Images magazine. He is the author of three books about Civil War soldiers and their stories. His next book will profile men who served in the Union and Confederate navies. Visit facesofwar.com for more information and a complete index of past columns. Follow Ron on Facebook and Twitter.

This profile originally appeared in the December 2004 issue of the Civil War News.

Faces of War

An Album of Civil War Soldiers and Their Stories

Ron Coddington

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Faces of War

An Album of Civil War Soldiers and Their Stories