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Battle of Antietam focus of next roundtable

| Sunday, July 11, 2010

Were it not for the graces of good luck, Oliver Wendell Holmes would never have served as Associate Justice of the United States Supreme Court. Appointed by President Theodore Roosevelt, Holmes sat on the nation's highest court from 1902-1932.

Were it not for the graces of good luck, Holmes' last day on earth might have been Sept. 17, 1862, during the Battle of Antietam, when he was wounded in action.

Connellsville resident and Civil War aficionado Ken Williams, will be the featured speaker at the July Civil War Roundtable and review Holmes' story.

Williams and members of the roundtable will meet in California University of Pennsylvania's Kara Alumni House from 7-9 p.m. Thursday. Doors will open at 6:30 p.m. Anyone interested in attending the roundtable should call 412-417-1516 or email stonewall1863@comcast.net .

Holmes, a captain in the 20th Massachusetts unit, was shot in the neck and badly wounded during the Battle of West Woods, an early morning engagement at Antietam that preceded the day's carnage.

"As the unit chaplain moved across the battlefield among the wounded, he saw Holmes and asked if he was a Christian," Williams said. "Holmes nodded 'yes' and the chaplain responded, 'That's alright, take care of yourself,' and ran from the battlefield. Holmes nearly died and ended up in a field hospital. Holmes' father, a noted poet, discovered that his son had been wounded and wrote a poem, "Searching for the Captain," which achieved considerable notoriety during the period.

Holmes, who was born in 1841 and 21 years old the summer of Antietam, known as the bloodiest single-day battle in U.S. history, lived to be 93. West Woods was part of that action.

Williams' presentation, "The West Woods of Antietam," details the action following a bloody morning fight in the Corn Field and East Woods, he explained. Union troops had won a shaky command over the northern part of the battlefield. Into the lull that existed, the largest Union Corps, the Second, came onto the field, but in separated pieces. John Sedgwick's division moved rapidly into the West Woods, but soon found itself a victim of a sudden and devastating counterattack, which not only routed the Division but also shifted the tide of battle back to the Confederates.

"While the Battle of Antietam began in the early-morning mist and fog at 5:30 a.m. and lasted under the scorching sun until 5 p.m., the Battle of West Woods represented a brief, but dramatic action at Antietam," said Williams, who has been speaking at the California University Civil War Roundtable gatherings for three years. "In the quiet of the early morning, quiet until Confederate forces attacked, that is, this battle came as a complete surprise as Confederate forces attacked the Union soldiers in their most vulnerable position. Union troops had nowhere to go but to retreat quickly."

Using maps and photos to illustrate his points, Williams, a Burrell High School grad, explained that the Battle of the West Woods, which raged from 9-9:30 a.m., may have lasted only 30 minutes, but he will need double that time to explain what happened. Union forces under Sedgwick numbered some 5,600 men when the battle began, but lost half that number, killed, wounded, or captured.

But Williams' story goes much deeper.

Thanks to his father and family roots, Williams, 52, who obtained a History degree from Gettysburg College in 1979, has been immersed in Civil War history since he was a child when his father bought him a child's book on the conflict.

"I was hooked from that time on," he said, but added that the history of the Civil War is not just in his blood, but in his blood-lines.

Two of his ancestors participated in the Corn Field portion of the Battle of Antietam: Walter Williams, only 16 years old at the time, and his father, Steele Williams, 42, served in the same 11th Pennsylvania unit. Steele Williams, Ken Williams' great-great-great grandfather, was wounded during the battle and dragged from the battlefield by his son, Walter, Williams' great-great grandfather. Steele Williams never recovered from his wounds and was sent home to New Alexandria. He died in February 1864. One summer after Antietam, Walter, who started his military career as a drummer boy and rose to the rank of sergeant, was captured during the first day at Gettysburg, but released the next day. He served until the war's end and died in 1919.

"It may not have been commonplace, but there are other examples of a father and son participating in the same battle," Williams said.

Williams has more than just stories about his ancestors' involvement in the conflict: he has his great-great grandfather's sword and military papers, and Walter Williams' uniform "is somewhere in the family, but no one appears to know where," he said, with a slight chuckle, realizing that, as time passes, mementoes are either discarded or lost, perhaps in an attic somewhere, or perhaps to be discovered by another generation.

But Ken Williams' Civil War story goes further:

He has been a Union Civil War re-enactor with the 105th Pennsylvania, for eight years, having risen to the rank of First Sergeant.

"I have a unique family history with the Civil War," he said, "and I always wanted to become involved in the re-enactments. I tried it out, borrowed a uniform, tried out the equipment, and loved it."

But being a re-enactor can be an expensive hobby, he added, laughing. "I've spent a lot of money, based on the cost of uniforms, rifles, equipment, and travel, but every cent has been worth the time and effort. Re-enacting brings everything to life and enables us to understand more of what happened during that tumultuous time in our nation's history."

Williams, Director of Accounts Receivable and Financial System Administrator for Family Services of Western Pennsylvania, was a park ranger with the National Park Service at Gettysburg from 1979-1981 and has spoken about various topics in the Civil War's Eastern Theater, including the epic three-day battle at Gettysburg.

As a speaker and re-enactor, and especially with family roots in the Civil War, Williams is involved in virtually daily research of some kind about the war. He is working on a book about his ancestors' unit, the 11th Pennsylvania. Thanks to the Westmoreland County Historical Society and the Pennsylvania Archives in Harrisburg, he has already discovered valuable records about the unit.

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