“…please tell me what I must do.”

Battlefield dispatches are rare gems within manuscript collections. Many are drafted on scraps of paper and hurriedly composed in the midst of a raging battle. They are shoved in the hands of mounted couriers and officers to be delivered to battalions and regiments fighting either to defend themselves or secure a prominent land feature. Many dispatches have not survived due to the unpredictable nature of combat.

On the afternoon of September 17, 1862, Major General Ambrose Powell Hill moved his “Light” Division forward from Harpers Ferry, Virginia to Sharpsburg, Maryland to reinforce General Robert E. Lee’s Army of North Virginia struggling under the assault of the Union Army of the Potomac. By 4pm, General Hill’s brigades arrived below Sharpsburg nearly in time with the arrival of the Union Ninth Army Corps, which was pushing toward the town from Antietam Creek. As Brigadier General Lawrence O’Bryan Branch’s brigade headed for the flank of the advancing federals, General Hill ordered the Twenty-Eighth North Carolina Troops, under the command of Colonel James H. Lane, to block Union skirmishers from taking the road going to Sharpsburg itself.

After deploying his men as skirmishers, the swirling combat over the procession over that portion of the battlefield led to uncertainty by Colonel Lane. He was out of touch with his brigade commander, and was unable to advance due to additional Confederate forces moving in front of his regiment. In addition, he found his command in line with another Confederate regiment, Seventh Virginia Volunteers, who was likewise separated from its parent brigade. Colonel Lane did not know what he should do, and wrote a dispatch to his superior officer, General Branch. With the confusion on the battlefield, Lane desperately needed information on what his next movement should be in light of the movement of the brigade toward the enemy. Colonel Lane never got an answer to his plea for orders.

Dispatch, Lane to Branch, 17 September 1862

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One Response to “…please tell me what I must do.”

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