An insightful new piece posted on the website Task & Purpose, a news and culture site geared toward American military veterans, considers the circumstances of the 7th Maine Infantry’s role in the Civil War’s bloody Battle of Antietam on Sept. 17, 1862.
That was the deadliest day of fighting in American military history — with nearly 23,000 dead wounded or missing — and the day then-Maj. Thomas W. Hyde would lead a group of Maine soldiers to slaughter.
Hyde’s actions in the aftermath of the 7th Maine’s fateful charge would earn the young officer a Medal of Honor, the country’s highest military honor, awarded for acts of valor above and beyond the call of duty.
He would go on to serve as Maine Senate President and found Bath Iron Works, which still today manufactures U.S. Navy destroyers and remains one of the state’s largest employers.
But as Task & Purpose recalls, Hyde would later look back upon his actions at the Battle of Antietam with some regret, and admitted that, had he stood his ground against a commanding officer, he could have saved dozens of Maine lives.
Had he done that, it’s unlikely events would have unfolded in such a way that Hyde would have been awarded a Medal of Honor, but the 7th Maine Infantry would have remained intact to fight another day.
As it was, the fighting on Sept. 17 was nearing an end, as both sides were drawing back, Hyde’s brigade commander, Col. William H. Irwin, ordered the major to lead the 7th Maine on a charge across a mile of open field against two Confederate brigades, which Task & Purpose described as “dug-in behind stone walls and supported by artillery.”
Irwin had previously faced court martial on five charges, largely tied to repeated cases of drunkenness while on duty, the Task & Purpose piece recalls, and was again intoxicated when he ordered the puzzling charge.
Hyde questioned the call, and Irwin taunted his subordinate, asking, “Are you afraid to go, sir?” Hyde insisted the colonel repeat the order so his Maine soldiers could hear it coming directly from the superior officer, and then the major led his men on what would become for most of them a suicidal charge.
The entrenched Confederates predictably opened fire on the vulnerable 7th Maine Infantry, and less than half — 69 of the 181 soldiers in the unit — returned from the futile effort alive.
Hyde was one of those. The following day, he went back out onto that killing ground by himself and, ducking enemy gunfire, rescued eight of his wounded men, Task & Purpose recalled.
Irwin was relieved of his command in the aftermath of the ill-advised order, while Hyde was ultimately given the Medal of Honor for his heroism against what were impossible odds.
Given the circumstances, it’s hard to argue that both men didn’t get what they deserved.
But Hyde years later would second guess himself — although refusing a direct order from a superior officer in the military is easier said than done, even if the order seems crazy at the time.
Reads the Task & Purpose piece:
“Hyde later wrote that had he been older and wiser and known that the orders came from ‘an inspiration of John Barleycorn [a synonym for grain whiskey] in our brigade commander,’ maybe he would have been brave enough to disobey the order.”