At 6am on the morning of 17th September 1862, Colonel Henry B. Strong and his largely Irish 6th Louisiana Volunteers were drawn up in woods slightly to the north-west of a small Dunker Church, near the town of Sharpsburg, Maryland. The regiment, which by this point in the war numbered little over a 100 men, would soon be asked to march out of these woods, and advance towards a piece of arable land that would later become a symbol for the carnage of the American Civil War- The Cornfield. (1)
Irishman Henry B. Strong was a clerk in New Orleans, Louisiana before the outbreak of the war. The forty year old was a married man who lived in the city and state that contributed more Irish soldiers to the southern cause than any other. In 1860 over 28,000 Irish lived in the State of Louisiana, and over 20,000 of them in New Orleans. Unsurprisingly it was a rare Louisiana regiment that did not count at least some Irish amongst their number. When war descended in 1861, Henry Strong recruited and commanded the Calhoun Guards, who would become part of the 6th Louisiana Volunteers. By August 1862 he had risen to command of the regiment, part of Brigadier-General Harry T. Hay’s famous Louisiana Brigade. (2)
The carnage in the Cornfield had already commenced before the 6th Louisiana were committed to the fight, as the Union I Corps began its assault and a savage artillery duel raged. Confederate positions in the Cornfield became hard pressed and turned to the Louisiana Brigade for support. The Irishmen and their comrades marched out of the West Woods and across the Hagerstown Pike, into a ploughed field 300 yards behind the frontline. Even though the men lay down to reduce their exposure, artillery began to take a toll on their numbers. Finally, with Lawton’s Georgia Brigade (under the command of Colonel Douglass) to their front enduring a storm of fire, Hay’s men went forward to the attack. The General ordered his men to commence firing as soon as they reached the first line, and they advanced a further 150 yards into the Cornfield, driving the enemy back towards the East Woods. The Irishmen fought for half an hour against Union troops positioned in the woods edge. They quickly found themselves in a horrendously exposed position, taking fire both in front from infantry and in flank from Union batteries. There was no option but to retreat. In a matter of minutes the brigade had been mangled. Of the 550 men that Harry T. Hays took into the fight, 323 became casualties. It was now just after 7am. (3)
Hays pulled his brigade back to the Dunker Church and John Bell Hood’s Texans took up the fight. The Louisianans returned to the field shortly after midday, where they halted behind Hood’s men and were again subjected to artillery fire. They remained in position until 5pm. However, it had been the morning fighting that had done the damage. Of the just over 100 men of the 6th who entered the cauldron around the Cornfield, 11 were killed and 41 wounded. Colonel Henry B. Strong was not amongst those fortunate enough to have survived to regroup behind the Church. (4)
It would have been sensible if Henry Strong had chosen to advance that morning on foot, but he elected not to do so. Instead he rode into action, no doubt determined to set an example for his men. Mounted on his fine looking white horse, the Colonel became a target almost immediately. The regiment had barely entered the battle before he and his horse went down, in the south-east corner of the Cornfield near the edge of the East Woods. Lieutenant George Ring recalled that he was ‘killed while bravely leading his men in the charge’. When the Irishman went down Ring quickly rushed to his side, where he was himself hit: ‘I was struck with a ball on the knee joint while I was kneeling by Col. Strong’s body, securing his valuables. I got another ball on my arm and two on my sword in my hand, so you see I have cause to thank God that he has protected me in this great battle.’ Ring’s injuries bear testament to the storm of fire the men were then exposed to. As the battle teetered back and forth a Union officer picked up one of the Colonel’s gloves and waved it above his head in triumph. (5)
On the day after the Battle of Sharpsburg some men of the 6th Louisiana returned to collect the body of Colonel Henry B. Strong. His horse remained where it fell, stripped of its harness and equipment. William A. Frassanito has identified a Library of Congress image of a white horse lying dead with trees in the background as the very same animal that Strong rode into action. Photographed where it lay in the Cornfield, it has become a lasting image of the fighting.
The Irish Colonel himself remains something of an enigma. Little information is available on his life, and although he was born in Ireland, his county of origin is not recorded. James Gannon has sourced a photograph of him which appears in Irish Rebels, Confederate Tigers. One of the only other publications that he is included in is the Bowie List, published in 1869. This book details the then burial places of Confederate soldiers who died as a result of the battles of Antietam, South Mountain and Monocacy. The entry for the former New Orleans clerk reads simply: ‘In the hollow south of Dunkard Church, 75 steps and 10 feet east of a walnut stump towards pike.’
(1) Gannon 1998: 132- 135; (2) Gannon 1998: 328, 335, Gleeson 2001: 27, 35; (3) Hays O.R., Gannon 2001: 132- 139; (4) Ibid; (5) Gannon 1998: 136-137; (6) Antietam on the Web: Officers: Henry B. Strong, Gannon 1998: 138, Frassanito 1978, Western Maryland’s Historical Library: Bowie List
*With special thanks to Andy Hall at the Dead Confederates site for the use of the horse photograph, taken from his post ‘They lay as thick as autumn leaves’, which includes an account by Brigadier-General Alpheus S. William’s of seeing the dead animal on the battlefield.
References & Further Reading
Frassanito, William A. 1978. Antietam: The Photographic Legacy of America’s Bloodiest Day
Gannon, James P. 1998. Irish Rebels, Confederate Tigers: A History of the 6th Louisiana Volunteers, 1861- 1865
Gleeson, David T. 2001. The Irish in the South 1815- 1877
Sears, Stephen W. 1983. Landscape turned Red: The Battle of Antietam
Official Records 19 (Part 1) Report of Brigadier-General Harry T. Hays, 1st Louisiana Brigade