Recently I attended a family reunion on Canandaigua Lake in New York. About 80 relatives from six states attended, including several small-business owners, a slew of teachers, a couple of lawyers, a physician and even an NBA coach. During the festivities we looked at albums with photos of our ancestors who served the Union in the Civil War. After some research and reflection, it dawned on me that our family history might have ended with the Civil War, especially at the fierce battle along Antietam Creek 151 years ago.
On Sept. 17, 1862, Gen. George McClellan's Army of the Potomac met Gen. Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia on Antietam Creek near the village of Sharpsburg, Md. This battle, with its 23,000 casualties, including an estimated 3,600 dead, was the bloodiest single day of combat in American history. Also, the battle stopped Lee's invasion of the North, ensured Republican success in the fall congressional elections, forestalled European intervention on behalf of the Confederacy and allowed Abraham Lincoln to issue the Emancipation Proclamation signaling the end of slavery.
Our family was represented on the field by four ancestors, including my great-grandfather Michael Dalton (bottom photo), an Irish immigrant and farmer from Hopewell, N.Y., who served in the 28th New York Infantry Volunteers that participated in the 12th Corps' attack from the East Woods and across the Bloody Cornfield. One survivor of the attack had over 30 bullet holes in his blanket roll. The 28th took only 65 men into the battle and suffered two killed, nine wounded and one captured. Another great-grandfather, George Lautz, a German immigrant and bookbinder from Buffalo, N.Y., and his cousin Adam Lautz served in the 20th New York Infantry Volunteers assigned to Col. William Irwin's brigade of the 6th Corps.
According to an interpretive sign located on the battlefield today:
The brigade arrived at the field about noon…charged through the batteries and across the fields in their front to check the advance of the Confederates…they received such a destructive fire…as compelled them to retire…to a small ridge where they endured sustained artillery and musket fire for the remainder of the day. Col. Irwin reported the 20th NY Volunteers…were exposed to the heaviest fire in line…the firmness of the regiment deserves very great praise…Finally, a great-great-uncle, Michael Kennedy (depicted on top), an Irish immigrant and farmer from Holley, N.Y., was in the 105th New York Infantry out of Rochester. This unit was in the initial action of the battle and charged from the Northern Woods south through the Bloody Cornfield. In these conflicts over 8,000 men may have been shot. Of course, if either of my great-grandfathers had died in the war all the subsequent contributions of the family would have been lost. Fortunately, my ancestors survived their encounters on that terrible day.
Interestingly, my mother remembered Grandpa Dalton and Uncle Mike arguing long and hard over the relative merits of their regiments at family gatherings in Clifton Springs, N.Y. The old soldiers probably realized the magnificence of the free country they helped to forge in the fires of the Civil War. I wonder if they had an inkling of the magnificent family that succeeded them.