Human Interest Stories From Antietam: Vignette 2

by Brett Schulte on April 2, 2008 · 0 comments

Fellow blogger Scott Mingus has been writing a series of books on “Human Interest Stories” of various Civil War campaigns. Recently, I looked at Human Interest Stories from Antietam and promised to provide a few more stories from the book. This is the second of four entries I hope to devote to the subject. I’ll include a vignette from each chapter of the book. Please note this series can be purchased from Colecraft Books.

Chapter 2: South Mountain and Harper’s Ferry

Pg. 32-33

The Confederates held a strong position protecting Turner’s Gap with infantry in several key locations on the heights. The Federal soldiers were compelled to carry the seemingly impregnable position by direct assault. One group of Rebels occupied a ledge on the extreme right, unseen to the Union attackers. They unleashed a volley at Col. Hugh W. McNeil and a small contingent of the Thirteenth Pennsylvania Reserves of the I Corps. McNeil instantly commanded, “Pour your fire upon those rocks!” His men hesitated, as they were not accustomed to receive a collective order, as they had always picked their individual targets. “Fire!” thundered the colonel; “I tell you to fire on those rocks!” The men obeyed, spraying balls at the unseen foe up the mountainside.

For some time an irregular fire was kept up, with the Bucktails (so named for the deer tails worn in their hats) sheltering themselves as best they could behind trees and rocks. McNeil finally caught sight of two Rebs peering through an opening in the impromptu works, getting ready to aim. The eyes of the men followed their commander and half a dozen breech-loading rifles were leveled in that direction.

“Wait a minute,” said the colonel, “I will try my hand. There is nothing like killing two birds with one stone.” The two Confederates were not in a straight line, but one stood a little distance back of the other, while just in front of the foremost was a slanting rock. Colonel McNeil seized a rifle, raised it, glanced a moment along the polished barrel; a loud report followed, and both Rebels disappeared. At that moment, a loud cheer from the rear lines rent the air. “All is right now”, cried McNeil; “Charge the rascals!”

The men sprang up among the rocks in an instant. The Confederates turned to run, but encountered another detachment of the Bucktails and were obliged to surrender. Not a man of them escaped. Everyone then finally saw the object of the colonel’s order to fire randomly among the rocks. He had sent a party around to the rear and used the random fire from downhill to attract their attention. It was a perfect success. The two Rebels by the opening in the ledge were fund lying there stiff and cold. McNeil’s bullet had struck the slanting rock in front of them, glanced off, and had amazingly passed through both their heads. There the lump of lead lay beside them, flattened. McNeil picked it up and put it in his pocket as a souvenir of South Mountain.

Hugh McNeill was still carrying the “lucky” bullet a few days later when he was killed at Antietam.

Frank Moore, Anecdotes, Poetry, and Incidents of the War: North and South 1860-1865. (New York: Publication office, Bible house, J. Porteus, agent, 1867).

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