In the Footsteps of Ghosts

February 2, 2018
I spent today chasing ghosts. In late 2014 I learned the story of my great-great-great grandfather (3G) Aretas Culver from Bristol Connecticut, and the tragic story of his Civil War regiment, the 16th Connecticut Infantry. Unlike other units that are celebrated for noble or heroic sacrifice and sturdiness in battle, their story was marked by epic failure at Antietam, and their eventual surrender in North Carolina and subsequent imprisonment at Andersonville. My 3G got home, but did not survive his suffering as a POW. (Their story is chronicled in the excellent and unusual book A Broken Regiment )

I live an hour from Antietam National Battlefield, and I've visited many times. The disconnect of contemplating the deadliest day in American military history happening in such a pastoral Maryland setting is always deeply jarring. But I haven't been to the battlefield since I learned Aretas's story. I didn't know of the critical role his unit played.

These men, who'd had one drill in their three weeks since mustering into service, were guarding the left flank of the Union Army in the late afternoon, as it finally took the field and pushed Robert E. Lee's army back into the town of Sharpsburg and towards devastating defeat. They took the brunt of the charge when the battle-hardened Confederate reinforcements under Gen. AP Hill arrived on the battlefield after covering 17 miles in 8 hours. That forced march that day, which remains among the most amazing feats in military history, literally saved the Confederate Army to fight another day. The 16th had no real chance of success, yet many of the survivors spent much of their post-war lives trying to clear their names of cowardice and blame for the three years of war that followed. Their failure in that cornfield, while completely understandable in the calm hindsight of the historian, nonetheless hung on these men like an albatross long after the battle.

I had never explored the battlefield around the Final Attack. As overwhelming as other parts of Antietam's features can be, one is often pretty saturated by that part of the tour, and the final attack sites aren't on a road. I also never knew of the monument that was erected to their efforts decades later by the State of Connecticut.

So today we went. I had the pleasure and privilege of excellent company in Prescott and Ian, who provided a rich trove of humor as well as military knowledge. We did the battlefield tour, but the whole day was marked by the anticipation of walking in my family footsteps, from the Burnside Bridge to that fateful cornfield where so many had their first horrible taste of battle. We found the monument, and its depiction of their commander Col. Newton Manross who fell vainly trying to rally his frightened and inexperienced neighbors.

Newton Manross was the ancestor of another Colonel, Fred Manross. Fred and his wife Betty were close friends of my grandmother Madeleine, and donated money and land for the library across the street from my grandparents house that bears their name. After his death, Aretas was a member of the detail that accompanied his Colonel's body back home to Bristol. I'd like to think that the bonds of friendship bound our families then as well as during my grandmother's lifetime.

My dad and I made a trip together to his boyhood hometown back in November. We visited the Manross Library, found a lot of family headstones in the nearby cemetery and the final resting place of Colonel Manross just a few yards away. Today felt like completing another journey of sorts, while building new bonds of friendship, as we shared in the exploration of my little treasured story. It is powerful to walk in the footsteps of your family, and to experience ghostly wisps of what they experienced.

Looking out over the rolling fields where the 16th Connecticut first joined the action heading towards the far hill, guarding Gen. Ambrose Burnside's army on the left flank.


The monument on the far hill in the left marks the farthest advance of the 16th. 


The final hill where the 16th were charged on the flank by a battle-hardened Confederate Army, force marched by General A.P. Hill in just 8 hours over the 17 miles from Harpers Ferry and the Federal Armory they had captured in the previous days. The lead units wore Union hats and flew the Stars and Stripes, but their rebel yell as they joined the battle without breaking stride was remembered by many survivors of the 16th for the remainder of their days.


Looking back over the march of the 16th.



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