Massachusetts

Henry Tisdale at the Battle of South Mountain: ‘As the ball struck me it gave me a shock’

Henry Tisdale was a 25-year-old sergeant in the 35th Regiment of the Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry when a Confederate sniper shot him in the thigh. It happened at the Battle of South Mountain, the bloody prelude to the deadliest one-day battle of the war — Antietam.

Confederate troops marching through Frederick, Md., probably on Sept. 12, 1862.

Confederate troops marching through Frederick, Md., probably on Sept. 12, 1862, toward the Battle of South Mountain.

Gen. Robert E. Lee’s forces had invaded Maryland near Boonsboro, and Lee intended to capture Harper’s Ferry. In desperate fighting at three mountain passes, the Army of the Potomac drove them off the mountain. Fighting lasted 12 hours, with 6,100 men killed wounded or missing.  Tisdale was shot at Fox’s Gap.

Also wounded at Fox’s Gap was a future president of the United States: Rutherford B. Hayes as commander of the 23rd Ohio Infantry. Another future president, William McKinley, also served in the 23rd at Fox’s Gap as a commissary sergeant.

Henry Tisdale

Tisdale was born in Walpole, Mass., on March 9, 1837, the oldest of seven children. He worked as a grocery clerk in West Dedham (now Westwood), Mass., when he enlisted in the Union Army on July 10, 1862. Tisdale felt it his Christian and political duty to do so, and believed every citizen ought to feel the same.  He recorded those thoughts in his diary, which he kept from 1862-65.

Henry Tisdale, after the war.

Henry Tisdale survived the war after Confederate forces captured him. He married, opened his own grocery and had a number of children. During his lifetime he showed the diary to no one and never spoke of the war. But the day before he died he gave them to his son Roscoe and told him not to open it until after his death. He died on May 31, 1922.

Taint of Slavery

Henry Tisdale was a religious man, and on the day of the fighting he described the march through Frederick, Md.

Passed through two or three small villages; these and the farm dwellings and buildings we have passed are far from equaling in style or taste those of the North, showing many of them in a dilapidated appearance, and far more whitewash than paint.  One feels already the taint of slavery upon the land in the somehow thriftless and want of enterprising look of the country. 

He knew a battle loomed.

Prospects of our getting into action before night multiply causing a sort of feverish excitement to come over me. Help me my heavenly Father to do my duty in thy fear and for glory for Christ’s sake, Amen.

He then described what happened next in his diary six weeks later, on Oct. 29th, 1862. Around 4 p.m. his brigade received orders to march four miles to the battlefront. “A rough march,” wrote Tisdale, “climbing steep hills, some almost mountains crossing rough fields through corn fields and some of the way at double quick.” They met many wounded and, as they approached the battleground, saw a dead body here and there. 

The Battle of South Mountain

A little after 5 p.m. his brigade found itself “mid the stern realities of actual battle” — the Battle of South Mountain. The soldiers knew because of “the screaming of shot and shell and rattling of musketry.”

The sight of the wounded sent a kind of chill over me but in the main feelings of curiosity and wonder at the scene about me took hold of my mind.

Battle of South Mountain

They drew up in the line of battle in a cornfield and then advanced through a field. They then reached a wood where they met a few scattering rebels, as the main body retreated.

In entering the wood came upon a large number of rebel dead lying in a ravine, presenting a sad and sickening sight.  They were making an advance upon our lines, but when crossing the ravine, were met by a volley from the 17th Michigan which so thinned their ranks that on that part of their line they made a precipitate retreat. 

Just after entering the wood, a rifle ball passed through Tisdale’s left leg just opposite the thighbone. As it struck, it gave him a shock, and he thought it must have shattered the bone. For a moment he didn’t dare move. Then he did move and discovered he only had a flesh wound. He felt thankfulness to God that he didn’t suffer a dangerous hurt. He thought some straggling rebel or sharpshooter in a tree must have fired the shot, because they hadn’t reached rebel lines.

Found myself in a few moments growing weak and tying my towel above the wound to stop its bleeding. 

He tried to make for the rear to find a surgeon. 

Wounded Confederate

Tisdale then encountered a wounded confederate. As he limped off, a wounded rebel sitting against a tree and asked if he had something to eat.

Exhibiting a loaf and going to him I opened my knife to cut off a slice when he placed his hands before his face exclaiming “Don’t kill me” and begging me to put up the knife and not to hurt him.  Assuring him I had no intention of hurting him I spoke with him a little.  Found he had a family in Georgia, that he was badly wounded and was anxious to have me remain with him and help him off.  But found I was growing weaker from loss of blood and that the surging to and fro the troops about us made it a dangerous place so limping and crawling was obliged to leave him and move for the rear. 

He was taken to a straw bed in a garden outside a cottage and had his wound dressed. He learned his regiment lost a few wounded, including a colonel who lost his left arm and a soldier who lost one of his feet.

Lutheran Church in Frederick. Henry Tisdale may be in this photo taken by Matthew Brady.

Lutheran Church in Frederick. Henry Tisdale may be in this photo taken by Matthew Brady.

“He bore his amputation manfully,” wrote Tisdale. Wounded men of both rebel and union forces filled the house and outbuilding, “many moaning piteously throughout the night or until death put an end to their sufferings.”

Recovery

Tisdale then moved to the Lutheran Evangelical Church in Frederick, Md., converted into a hospital.

A rough board floor was laid over the tops of the pews.  Folding iron bedsteads with mattresses, clean white sheets, pillows, blankets, and clean underclothing, hospital dressing gowns, slippers, etc. were furnished us freely.  The citizens came in twice a day with a host of luxuries, cordials, etc. for our comfort.  The church finely finished off within, well ventilated and our situation as pleasant and comfortable as could be made.  A few rebel wounded were in the building.  Some of the citizens showed them special attention bringing them articles of food, etc. and giving none to the others.  The surgeons put a stop to this however by telling them that they must distribute to all alike or they would not be allowed to visit the hospital at all, this was much to our satisfaction. Remained in Frederick until Sept. 30th, getting on slowly, having my wound dressed twice a day.  A liberal supply of reading material and other comforts furnished by the citizens.

When Tisdale could go about on crutches, he received orders to go to Philadelphia. 

This story was updated in 2021.

 

 

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