Search our Site
Custom Search
Privacy Policy | Terms of Service

Memoirs From A Boy Of 1861

Bookmark and Share

Bloody Lane at Antietam
Image by Tom Johnson.

A Soldier In The 108th New York Volunteers Gave His Account Of The Fighting At The Battle Of Antietam Long Ago, But Thanks To Several Stewards It Has Finally Made Its Way Back To The Battleground


By Tom Johnson
Special for Modern Times Magazine

Sept. 1, 2016 — My grandfather Eugene Flaherty lived through the Great Depression. As such, like many of his generation, he was a packrat who saw continued utility in most objects that other people would readily toss on the scrap heap after they’d served their apparent usefulness.

During a long life, he accumulated all manner of stuff that he stored in army surplus footlockers and metal ammunition canisters (nuts, bolts, tools, anything; everything) in his basement. But what grandpa really loved collecting were books on the history of the American West; everything from scholarly histories and pulp paperbacks written by Louis L’Amour and Zane Grey to magazine issues of Montana and True West. He also had a collection of Civil War books authored by Bruce Catton that I poured over as a youngster when visiting he and my grandmother in Sioux City, Iowa.

Reading Catton’s landmark trilogy of the Army of the Potomac late into the evening (as kids we were allowed to stay up late only if we were reading) stoked my lifelong interest in the Civil War and led me to recently fulfill an obligation I made to grandpa 40 years ago.

A man of economies in most every sense, grandpa came up from the basement one day with a tattered brown envelope that contained Xeroxed, typed pages of a fairly thick manuscript.

“Hang on to this, it’s important,” was all he said. Taking the envelope in hand (not knowing what was inside), I promised him I would.

The cover note to the manuscript was dated 1965 and was written on stationery with a Sioux City Journal letterhead. The note, from a man named Erwin Sias, thanked grandpa (and my Aunt Mary) for typing the Civil War recollections of his maternal grandfather, Erwin C. Payne, a corporal in the 108th New York State Volunteer Regiment who had been wounded at the battle of Antietam on September 17, 1862.

In 1965, Sias was editor of the Journal which was the city newspaper and my grandpa was the manager of KSCJ radio station in town so I surmised that’s how they knew each other. The note indicated that my aunt had typed the recollections from the original pages which the old veteran had written in longhand at the age of 70 at the request of his daughter Jeanette, Sias’ mother, and which were in the family’s possession.

Payne began his 56-page memoir which he entitled A Boy of ’61, with a bit of biography. He was born in the town of Diana in Lewis County, New York on Dec. 16, 1838 on a day with four feet of snow on the ground. “A cool reception for a new baby, but I was not frostbitten nor stunted,” he wrote. Payne’s written “voice,” had a kind of formalized construction typical of that Victorian era. It seemed old-fashioned, quaint and even ironical, especially when recounting the horror of battle at Antietam, the bloodiest single day in American history with nearly 23,000 killed, wounded and missing. But it was also rich in detail with stories of camp hijinks, grumbling and discontent characteristic of soldiers from time immemorial, and what it felt like to “face the elephant” for the first time and stand up to a hailstorm of shot and shell that riddled flags, cornstalks, fence-posts and men.

Payne’s Civil War service was brief – less than two months before he suffered a leg wound at Antietam that knocked him out of the war. He was mustered into Company B of the 108th New York as a corporal on July 27, 1862. The unit was a “green” regiment that had not seen prior combat and was formulated in response to President Lincoln’s call for more volunteers to replace the horrendous losses suffered during the first two years of war in battles against Robert E. Lee’s Confederate Army of Northern Virginia.

At the time of the Maryland Campaign which culminated in the battle of Antietam, The 108th was part of a brigade in General William H. French’s division of the Army of the Potomac commanded by George B. McClellan.

On Sept. 17th, the 108th was one of many units that attacked the center of the Confederate line which was drawn up along a sunken farm lane that the rebels used as a ready-made trench. After that sanguinary day, the road would forever after be called “Bloody Lane.” Payne wrote:

My nervousness was all gone and when I looked over into the sunken road and saw that the Rebs were trying to shoot me, I got mad and sent in the bullets as fast as possible. There was a cornfield just back of this sunken road in which the Rebs were concealed but our boys fired so fast that the corn was soon cut.

As the firing grew more intense, Payne wrote that he spied an officer on a large bay horse riding along the Confederate line.

Our boys commenced popping away at him. I shot twice at him, but he was a long way off so he rode over the hill safe and we were glad of it. I afterward learned that this was General D.H. Hill and as he disappeared over the hill, a shot from one of our batteries across Antietam creek took the front legs off his horse.

The old flag never looked so good to me as it did that day moving amidst smoke with the bullets tearing and riddling it. And it seemed alive as if it wanted to show its victory over the devilish rag of slavery and treason over there in the sunken road.

Regarding the promise to my grandfather, last month I was in Washington D.C. and planned a visit to the Antietam National Battlefield Park just outside the town of Sharpsburg, Md. – a 90-minute drive from the nation’s capitol. I wanted to see the ground over which the 108th New York and Payne fought. I called Keith Snyder, a park ranger at the battlefield, asking him whether someone there would be interested in Erwin Payne’s manuscript: I had been the caretaker for 40 years and wanted to pass the baton if I could. He was interested and we arranged to meet when I visited the park.

Tom Johnson and Keith Snyder, a park ranger at Antietam.
Image provided by Tom Johnson.

The part of western Maryland where the battlefield is located lies just outside the town of Sharpsburg with topography marked by a series of gentle ridges and hollows that swell out from South Mountain, the northernmost extension of the Blue Ridge Mountain chain. Farm fields are broken up by woodlots and limestone outcroppings, all bisected by meandering Antietam Creek from which the battlefield is named.

Next Page —>
Bookmark and Share
The Tahw Planet Earth

Living in a human sanctuary, a young man recounts what he knows about the Earth’s history.

Chapter Six: Closer to the Dream

Marshall realizes his dreams were not as transparent as he had thought, and he is happy it is so.