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Thomas W. Hyde led the 7th Maine Infantry to glory at Antietam, where 25 of his men died for nothing.
Hailing from Bath, the 24-year-old Hyde commanded the 7th Maine by Sept. 17, 1862, when death, disease and desertion had thinned the regimental ranks to 15 officers and 166 enlisted men.
“They were all seasoned veterans and equal to anything,” recalled Hyde.
Early on Sept. 17, Gen. George E. McClellan launched his troops against Confederate lines outside Sharpsburg, Md., a Potomac River town crisscrossed by Antietam Creek. The 7th Maine fought with the Third Brigade commanded by Col. William H. Irwin.
Marching toward the hellish din erupting from the battlefield, the 7th Maine boys passed “hundreds of wounded coming to the rear,” Hyde later wrote. “It was refreshing to turn from the crowds of wounded streaming back and look at the firm set faces behind me, everyone of them known to me personally, and never known to lack nerve in danger.”
The 7th Maine went into action at about 10 a.m. and, later that afternoon, lay down among boulders to avoid enemy bullets and cannon balls. The Maine lads rested as “it was drawing near five o’clock,” Hyde remembered. “We were expecting soon to be relieved.”
Then Irwin ordered the 7th Maine to clear out Confederate sharpshooters hidden on the Henry Piper Farm, located less than a mile to the south. Hyde sent a depleted company; an irate Irwin rode to Hyde and barked, “That is not enough, sir; go yourself; take your regiment and drive them from those trees and buildings.”
“I asked him to repeat his order and point out the ground again,” Hyde wrote in his Sept. 19 after-action report.
“Are you afraid to go, sir?” Irwin snarled.
“Give the order so the regiment can hear it and we are ready, sir,” Hyde responded.
Irwin spoke loudly, then spat, “Those are your orders, sir.”
Enemy troops swarmed around the Piper Farm buildings, fields and orchard; to reach the farm, the Maine boys must cross open terrain while exposed to Confederate artillery and infantry. Hyde, a combat veteran, knew that obeying Irwin meant death for many 7th Maine lads.
Years after the war, Capt. James Hope of the 2nd Vermont Infantry painted several magnificently detailed landscapes of Antietam. One painting depicts the 7th Maine boys, marching in column with their rifled muskets at “right shoulder arms,” crossing the Sunken Road, a country lane that ran between the Roulette and Piper farms.
Past the road, Hyde “sent out my skirmishers, who drove the rebel skirmishers in fine style from the edge of the cornfield and the hollow lying on this side of the timber [woods] I was ordered to clear,” he later wrote. “I ordered the battalion forward, and as they [Confederates] opened fire on us from front and left flank I ordered a charge.”
Led by Hyde atop his horse, “with fixed bayonets” the pitiful handful of 7th Maine “men dashed forward in line with a cheer, advancing nearly a quarter of a mile at the double-quick,” Hyde wrote. “The body of the enemy in the orchard to our left being flanked, broke and ran. Those directly in front, behind haystacks and outbuildings, also broke, and their colors having fallen, we dashed up on the hill to secure them.
“As we [Hyde and his horse] breasted this hill, being some twenty feet in front of the regiment, I saw over its top before they [Hyde’s men] did, and there were several times our number waiting for us” to appear atop the hill, Hyde remembered.
He maneuvered his men to evade the Confederates. However, “a rebel regiment rose suddenly from a stone wall on our right [on the Hagerstown Pike], poured in a volley, and at the same time I saw them double-quicking around to the left to cut off our retreat,” Hyde wrote. “Those in front, seeing our small numbers, had rallied.
“Looking back and seeing no support, to escape being surrounded I marched the regiment by the left flank, formed them on a crest in the orchard, poured a volley into those who were endeavoring to cut off our retreat, and faced those in front,” he wrote.
“Here we received a severe fire from three directions, and the enemy advanced in force,” Hyde recalled. Then “a battery opened on us with grape [shot],” and although “shielded some” by the orchard’s trees, “we met a heavy loss.”
Low on ammunition, the 7th Maine “retreated through the orchard, gave them another volley as they attempted to follow, which drove them back, and, closing up on the colors, I marched the regiment back in good order to their old position,” Hyde reported.
During the fighting in the Piper orchard, “my horse was shot through the mouth and the hip,” Hyde later wrote his mother. As the wounded horse reared and fell, Hyde slid from the saddle, “and I saw between his legs the colors of the enemy near enough to read the names emblazoned upon them.”
With his men also falling around him, Hyde urged his wounded horse to its feet, then remounted and rode through “a volley fired by two regiments at me … being splashed from head to foot with blood (likely from the horse), I supposed myself wounded.”
He was not, save for a hand scratch.
Confederate soldiers rushed to capture Hyde — and trap him they did against a fence along the orchard’s northern boundary. Almost reaching safety, Hyde had turned back to aid the mortally wounded Color Sgt. Harry Campbell; seeing Southerners rushing toward him, Hyde then turned his horse into the fence, which the wounded mount could not jump.
“‘Back, boys, and save the Major!’” Hyde recalled a Maine sergeant shouting. “They rushed back, delivered a volley which killed six” Confederates “not ten feet from me,” and a Maine soldier “cut down the fence with his huge saber-bayonet and got me out.”
Their retreat covered by Union artillery, the 7th Maine boys reached their original position, where “we lay down and all were crying like children,” Hyde informed his mother.
According to Hyde, the attack and retreat took about 30 minutes. He reported 12 enlisted men and two officers killed, “wounded and brought off, 60; fate still unknown, 16.” With the color sergeant killed “and all the [color] guard shot but one,” his men “brought off our [regimental] flag riddled with balls.”
The final death toll reached 25 men.
Later that night, after speaking with other Third Brigade officers, Hyde discovered why Irwin had ordered the suicide charge.
He was drunk at the time.
For his gallant leadership at the Piper Farm, Thomas W. Hyde would receive the Medal of Honor on April 8, 1891.
He had founded Bath Iron Works seven years earlier.
Brian Swartz may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit his blog at http://maineatwar.bangordailynews.com.