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My Ancestor Died in the Bloody Cornfield, Battle of Antietam, September 17, 1862

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John is a mid-Atlantic writer and avid student of history. His current passions are frontier and Civil War history, and genealogy.

Bloody Cornfield, Antietam National Battlefield, Sharpsburg, Maryland | Photo taken in September when Corn is ready for Harvest | Like is was during the Battle

Bloody Cornfield, Antietam National Battlefield, Sharpsburg, Maryland | Photo taken in September when Corn is ready for Harvest | Like is was during the Battle

My Personal Story and Research into this Momentous Battle

My maternal grandmother had in her papers an unpublished manuscript written in the 1920s that traced her Gaston ancestors. I have done additional research using today's genealogy tools and uncovered a link between me and Lt. Robert Hugh Gaston, Confederate States of America. Lt. Gaston was killed in the Bloody Cornfield.

The Gaston family line traces back to immigrants who came from Ireland to the Carolinas in the 1700s. Some of the Gastons moved to Alabama and then to Texas, where Robert lived.

It so happens that I live about an hour and a half from the Antietam National Battlefield. I volunteer at the park several times a year to help my good friend who is the Volunteer Trail Overseer for the "Cornfield Trail" which circles the bloody cornfield where Robert was killed. As trail volunteers, we clean up the trail, trim overhanging vegetation and assist the part maintenance staff in inspecting and reporting on the condition of the trail.

I find it so incredible that we were "overseeing" the Cornfield Trail even before I had made the connection between Robert and myself. We were walking over the very spot where Robert most likely was killed.

Read on to learn more about the battle in the "Bloody Cornfield" of Antietam and my walk around and through the battlefield on the cornfield trail. I'll point out the exact place where cousin Robert was probably killed. Finally, I'll show you where he is said to have been buried in nearby Hagerstown.

William and Robert Gaston

William and Robert Gaston were most likely born in Wilcox County, Alabama -- sons of Colonel and Mrs. R.K. Gaston, a well-known family name in the Carolinas. In 1861 the two boys joined a Confederate volunteer unit which eventually became Company H of the 1st Texas Regiment commanded by Lt. Col, Philip Alexander Work fighting under General Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia.

At the time of the battle, William was Company H commander with the rank of Captain, and Robert was Lieutenant.

Lt. Robert Hugh Gaston, CSA

Lt. Robert Hugh Gaston, CSA

Prelude to the Bloody Battle in the Cornfield

It was dark and wet very early on the morning of September 17, 1862, when my distant cousin Lt. Robert Gaston,1,2 formed his troops near the Dunkard church along the Sharpsburg Pike (Hagerstown Road) near Sharpsburg, Maryland.

Lee's army of 40,000 troops had advanced across the Potomac River into Maryland threatening access to Washington, D.C. and hoping that Maryland residents and farmers would rally to his cause.

U.S. Army General George McClellan had moved his army of 60,000 in place to block Lee's advance.

The stage was set for the Battle of Antietam. September 17th was to be the bloodiest single day in the history of America.

The Antietam National Battlefield

The Antietam National Battlefield Park now covers 3,250 acres of the area where the battle was fought. Not far from the visitor's center is a walking trail about 1.6 miles in length around the perimeter of the cornfield where Gaston was killed. It is called the Cornfield Trail.

Over the years, the National Park Service and volunteers have made steady progress in converting the battlefield back to conditions that existed on September 17, 1862, when the battle raged.

New Book on the Bloody Battle in Miller's Cornfield

1st Texas Regiment Counterattacks, Stops Union Advance, and 80 Percent of its Men were Killed or Wounded

Robert Gaston, along with 80+ percent of his Texas Regiment, were killed or wounded in a ferocious counterattack in the bloody cornfield. 182 out of the 226-man unit were killed, wounded, or missing -- the highest casualty rate of any unit in the Civil War.

At dawn on September 17th, the1st Texas Regiment was in battle formation, at the center of a front occupied by the Texas Brigade, according to the Official Battle Report of Col. W. T. Wofford4, the Brigade Commander. The Brigade moved forward in a field of clover to counter the advancing Union forces. The 1st Texas Regiment found itself ahead of its line of battle and soon moved into the cornfield and became engaged in a ferocious battle with Union forces advancing against them. Wofford wrote that it became impossible to restrain his men in the cornfield. They continued to advance to a breastwork of fence rails (shown in the photo below) when cannons about 150-200 yards away opened fire on them.

The withering fire from the Confederates broke the Union line and forced the artillerists to abandon the cannons, but they soon recovered.

LCol. Philip A. Work, 1st Texas Regiment Commander, wrote in his Battle Report5; "I entered the engagement with 226 men, officers-field and staff-included, of which number 170 are known to have been killed and wounded, besides 12 others who are missing, and, doubtless, also killed or wounded."4 (80.5% casualty rate)

With the few men he had left he withdrew, his men "turning to fire upon the enemy as fast as their pieces could be reloaded and fired"4 while withdrawing.

Fence along North Edge of The Bloody Cornfield -- Trail Stop 4

Fence along North Edge of The Bloody Cornfield -- Trail Stop 4

The Water Letters of Robert and William Gaston, Edited by Robert .W. Glover, (Waco:Texian Press), 1960

The Water Letters of Robert and William Gaston, Edited by Robert .W. Glover, (Waco:Texian Press), 1960

The boys wrote home often and many of their war letters were saved and later published in a small booklet entitled "Tyler to Sharpsburg" (pictured above). Inside are eleven letters from Robert Gaston, three letters from William Gaston, and two letters signed by both brothers, In one poignant letter written on November 28, 1862 to his father, William painfully tells his father about Robert:

"Pa . . . I wrote you soon after the fight and gave you all the information I could about Robert. I hear nothing from him. I feel that he was slain although I can not give him up yet. . . . We were overpowered by the Enemy and compelled to give up the battlefield, leaving behind our killed and wounded . . . [and} were not permitted to go on to the field after the fight. . . . This from your son, W.H. Gaston"

Robert Glover, the editor of the Gaston War Letters, wrote that Company H was almost wiped out in the battle. Glover wrote:

"Further research discloses that Robert died there, quite heroically. His body was found farther within the Union lInes than any other, marking the point of deepest Confederate penetration."

William survived the battle and eventually moved to Dallas where he became a successful businessman.

The Cornfield Trail at Antietam National Battlefield

The Cornfield Trail loops around and through the Bloody Cornfield where 8,000 men were killed, wounded or went missing is the ferocious battle for two hours on the morning of September 17.

The National Park Service guidemap to the Cornfield Trail5 marks 8 spots along the trail where you can view important phases of the cornfield battle. They are shown on the map below:

  1. Union General Hooker's force of 8,000 men began their southward drive here in the North Woods.
  2. They moved onto the open land at received fired at 5:45 AM
  3. Half of one Union brigade were killed or wounded here in about 30 minutes
  4. Fierce and deadly fighting took place along this fence line marking the northern edge of the Bloody Cornfield. (See photo below.)
  5. The Trail enters the Cornfield here. Fighting between the two forces was ferocious among the September cornstalks.
  6. The 1st Texas Regiment began a wild counterattack here and drive the Union forces back to the northern edge of the cornfield, losing 80+% of its men along the way. The circle in the battle map below shows where Robert Gaston was likely killed. The red unit marker at that point on the map shows the farthest advance of the 1st Texas at 7:20 A.M.
  7. Battery B, 4th U.S. Artillery moved to just across Sharpsburg Pike to this spot and blasted deadly fire into Confederate forces.
  8. David R. Miller's home and farm here would never be the same after the battle.
Robert Gaston was Killed Here | Bloody Cornfield Battle Map | The Cornfield Trail

Robert Gaston was Killed Here | Bloody Cornfield Battle Map | The Cornfield Trail

Drawing of Dead Confederate Soldiers near the Dunkard Church and Sharpsburg Pike

Drawing of Dead Confederate Soldiers near the Dunkard Church and Sharpsburg Pike

The "Bowie List" of Confederate Dead in Maryland, published in 1869

The "Bowie List" of Confederate Dead in Maryland, published in 1869

Final Resting Place for Lt. Robert H. Gaston, CSA

Robert Gaston and many others lay dead in The Bloody Cornfield. Union forces ultimately took over the field and Confederate forces were not able to retrieve their dead and wounded.

Robert Gaston and other dead Confederate soldiers were mostly buried in place or nearby. After some years, Governor Bowie of Maryland released a detailed report on the names and places of burial of the Confederate dead prepared from available sources. Although many bodies were identified by name, many were unidentifiable.

This report (shown above), published in 1869, also known as the Bowie List,

" . . . records the location of the Confederate soldiers buried where they fell on the battlefields or near hospitals and homes where they died after three battles in Maryland . . ." including Antietam

Eventually, the States of Maryland, Virginia and West Virginia contributed funds to move the Confederate dead to a designated section of Rose Hill Cemetery in Hagerstown, Maryland in order to give them a proper burial place. According to most accounts, Robert Gaston's final resting place is there in the Confederate Cemetery within Rose Hill, even though he is not named among the list of identifiable bodies there.

Confederate Cemetery, a Section of Rose Hill Cemetery, Hagerstown, Maryland

Confederate Cemetery, a Section of Rose Hill Cemetery, Hagerstown, Maryland

Monument at Confederate Cemetery, a Section Rose Hill Cemetery in Hagerstown, Maryland

Monument at Confederate Cemetery, a Section Rose Hill Cemetery in Hagerstown, Maryland

References

1 A short biography of Lt. Robert Hugh Gaston.

2 Find-a-Grave citation for Lt. Robert Hugh Gaston.

3 Texas Brigade Official Battle Report filed by Col William T. Wofford, September 29, 1862

4 1st Texas Regiment Official Battle Report filed by LCol. Philip A. Work, September 23, 1862.

5 National Park Service, The Cornfield Trail Map.

6 The Cornfield Battle Map at 7:20 A.M., September 17, 1862.

7 The Bowie Report: A descriptive list of the burial places of the remains of Confederate soldiers, who fell in the battles of Antietam, South Mountain, Monocacy, and other points in Washington and Frederick counties, in the state of Maryland. At this site, you can find an interactive document where you can read the entirety of this report.

8 Steven R. Stotelmyer, The Bivouacs of the Dead: The Story of Those Who Died at Antietam and South Mountain.

Other resources:


Comments

John Dove (author) on April 02, 2020:

You are very welcome, Paul. My experience at Antietam is very sobering when I think of all that carnage and our great country split the way it was at that time.

Paul Richard Kuehn from Udorn City, Thailand on March 09, 2020:

This is an excellent article about your distant cousin ancestor Lt. Gaston. It is well-researched and your accompanying pictures and maps tell a superb story that I knew little about. Thanks for sharing.