Thursday, February 5, 2009

One mile northwest of Sharpsburg, Md., the Roulette farm rests in a hollow near Antietam Creek.

In the middle of the 19th century, William Roulette was considered one of the most prosperous farmers in the Sharpsburg area, growing mostly corn on his fine limestone soil. Then Civil War came to Washington County, bringing widespread destruction.

The Battle of Antietam took place on Sept. 17, 1862, on rolling farmland and wood lots north of Sharpsburg. Roulette’s farm would play a major role in the bloodiest day in American military history.

A 19th-century historian, Thomas J.C. Williams, noted that the day before the battle, “Mr. Roulette took his family six miles north to the Manor Church where they were sheltered by Elder Daniel Wolf, a minister of that church.” The Manor was the mother church of the now-famous Dunker Church on Antietam Battlefield.

Other residents also found sanctuary within the solid stone walls of the Manor Church. With his family secure, Roulette returned to protect his property.

Galling crossfire

Early on the misty morning of what the South will always call the Battle of Sharpsburg, Union Gen. George B. McClellan, commanding the Army of the Potomac, launched massive assaults against the well-protected left flank of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia at the Dunker Church and West Woods.

During the final attack there, Union Gen. William H. French’s division changed direction amid the confusion and battle smoke. Many of French’s legions marched blindly toward the Confederate center, which was deployed in a sunken road — soon to be called “Bloody Lane.”

The old roadbed, worn down over the years by farm wagons, served as a boundary line between the Roulette farm and the Piper farm to the south. In the path of the Union advance stood the Roulette farm. One Federal regiment, about to walk into the jaws of death, was the 14th Connecticut Infantry.

An officer in the 14th reported, “After fording the Antietam Creek, marching about 2 miles, we formed our line of battle in front of William Roulette’s house and barn, which was occupied by the enemy, and having driven them from that position, the right rested in a corn-field and the center occupied a space in front of an orchard. We were exposed to a galling crossfire for three hours, but maintained the position.”

The 14th Connecticut was exposed to Confederate infantry and artillery fire from midmorning to around 1 p.m. Its first position was to the west of Roulette’s lane, facing Bloody Lane. Later, several companies went to reinforce Gen. Israel B. Richardson’s division on the left flank, east of Roulette’s lane in the area where the Observation Tower stands today.

At the height of the bloodletting, Mr. Roulette was spotted at times leaving the protection of his cellar to shout to the Union troops, “Give it to ‘em! Drive ‘em! Take anything on my place, only drive ‘em! Drive ‘em!”

‘Battle With Bees’

If a constant shower of Rebel lead and iron wasn’t enough to cause panic in Union ranks, a member of the 132nd Pennsylvania Volunteers recalled, “The tension was broken unexpectedly as the regiment crossed the farm of William Roulette and a shot from a Confederate fieldpiece bowled over Roulette’s beehives.”

Another soldier with the 132nd also remembered the “hundreds of thousands of irate honey bees that had been stirred to anger when a shell destroyed their hives in the Roulette apiary.”

Memory of screaming shells and military tactics might fade, but the boys from Pennsylvania would never forget their “Battle With the Bees.”

Where Roulette’s farm lane entered the Sunken Road, Gen. John B. Gordon of Georgia was in command of the Confederate defense.

“My rifles flamed and roared in the Federal faces like a blinding blaze of lightning accompanied by the quick and deadly thunderbolt,” Gordon wrote years later. “The effect was appalling. The entire front line, with few exceptions, went down in the consuming blast.”

A Union infantryman observed, “Around the surgeon’s tables in the barn of the Roulette farm amputated arms and legs were piled several feet deep.”

Historian Thomas Williams would write, “The buildings were struck by shot and shell of which they still bear marks. One shell pierced the southern end of the dwelling, went up through the parlor ceiling and was found in the attic.”

William Roulette was fortunate this Confederate projectile had a faulty fuse. Otherwise, he could have been a homeless man - or dead.

Blood and bullets

When battle smoke settled, bodies clad in gray and butternut were stacked three and four deep in some sections of the Sunken Road where Roulette’s lane entered. Crops were trampled flat and strewn with broken caissons, canteens, guns, blankets, dead bloated horses and other countless implements of war.

Oliver T. Reilly, Sharpsburg Civil War historian, collector and tour guide for more than 50 years, would share the tale of two sisters living near the battlefield who exclaimed, “Several weeks after the battle as we were coming up from the Roulette farm we would slip at places in Bloody Lane where blood was the thickest from the dead and wounded.”

Other old-timers of Sharpsburg, describing the Sunken Road, told Reilly, “There was blood that pushed its way through the dust for some distance.” To give an idea of the extent of infantry fire on Roulette’s farm, Mr. Reilly owned and proudly displayed an 8-foot fence rail found bordering Bloody Lane that contained 23 bullets.

Months after the struggle at Antietam, Roulette submitted a three-page itemized list to the Federal government requesting compensation for damage the battle had brought to his property. One item found on the extended list: “Beehives + Bees = $8.00.”

Like other devastated and financially ruined farmers of the Antietam Valley, William Roulette received little assistance from the government. As for damage done to the beehives, the U.S. government refused payment, saying they had been hit by “long-range guns of the Confederate States of America.”

Members of the Roulette family could still count their blessings. They still had a home - unlike close neighbors such as the Mummas, who lost house, barn and all personal belongings, destroyed by fire.

Robert Hubbard

In the days after the bloody encounter, more than 700 bodies — Union and Confederate — were hastily buried in shallow graves on the Roulette farm. One of these unfortunate individuals was Pvt. Robert Hubbard, 14th Connecticut Infantry.

Robert Hubbard was born on April 19, 1831, the second son of Josiah Meigs Hubbard and Sarah Sill Hubbard of Middletown, Conn. Middletown is in Middlesex County, 16 miles south of Hartford. In addition to two sons, the Hubbards were parents of three daughters.

Possessing an adventurous spirit, 21-year-old Robert headed west to the gold fields of California, but after years of panning for gold and working on a ranch, the young man decided to return home to Middletown.

When he got there, the nation was at war. On Aug. 6, 1862, Hubbard enlisted as a private in Company B, 14th Connecticut Infantry. From his first camp in the field, he wrote to his older brother, Josiah, urging him not to join the army but “stay home and take care of the family.” Josiah Hubbard Jr. was married and had four children. Just over a month after sending the letter, Robert would fall at Antietam.

With bullets showing no respect for rank or age, 31-year-old Pvt. Robert Hubbard and 59-year-old Maj. Gen. Joseph K.F. Mansfield - both from Middletown, Conn. - were struck down at Sharpsburg. However, Mansfield (commanding the 12th Corps) was hit by enemy fire while Hubbard was shot by a member of his own regiment. A casualty list notes, “Pvt. Hubbard was accidentally shot and killed at Antietam by an ill-trained fellow comrade in Co. B - east of Roulette’s barn.”

Precious freight

When word reached Middletown that Hubbard had been killed in action at Antietam, the family contacted William Roulette, asking him to make arrangements to send the body home. It is believed Robert Hubbard’s oldest sister, Mary, who was 24 in 1862, made the initial contact.

Based on a story handed down through the Roulette family, Hubbard’s body was originally buried “near the barn next to the corncrib.” Using these landmarks as a starting point, with perhaps Pvt. Hubbard’s name and regiment rough-cut or penciled on a wooden slat from a cracker box, the fresh grave wouldn’t have been too difficult to locate. Once the remains were carefully exhumed and on their way back to Connecticut, Roulette wrote the following letter on the last day of the year:

Sharpsburg, Md.

December 31st 1862

Dear Friends

I have received your draft of $70.00 and have forwarded the remains of your brother by express as you expressed by the dispatch. I did not buy the coffin from the undertaker as I wrote to you. I bought it from the cabinet maker at first cost which saved $15.00 for practically the same kind of coffin. The freight by express was $30.00, the dispatch was $1.15 for disinterring the body and delivering it to the depot at Hagerstown the distance of 13-miles making all the expense $55.00 and I enclose your $15.00 makes in all.

The “freight by express” as referred to in the letter would have been the Cumberland Valley Railroad. During the Civil War, this was the only railroad running out of Hagerstown to Chambersburg, Pa., and on to Harrisburg, connecting with other lines northward to the New England States.

Personally acquainted with grief that death of a loved one can bring, the compassionate farmer finished his correspondence to the Hubbards:

Allow me to introduce to you my family, wife and 5 children, 2 girls and 3 boys of which the oldest Ann Elizabeth 13-years-old. Our youngest died since the battle - a charming little girl 20-months-old Carrie May just beginning to talk. The battle caused considerable destruction of property here. My nearest neighbor [Samuel Mumma] lost his house and barn to fire. I lost valuable horses, some sheep and hogs. Please write as soon as you receive this and inform me whether all is right.

Yours Very Respectfully

William Roulette

Carrie May as mentioned here died just 34 days after the battle. According to family records, Mr. Roulette’s “charming little girl” was the victim of typhoid fever, a common and dreadful illness in the 19th century with symptoms of high temperature and extreme weakness. This highly contagious disease, caused mostly by contaminated water, was contracted and spread during the Civil War by wounded soldiers.

A monument

Hubbard’s remains were re-interred in New Farm Hill Cemetery in Middletown. The following eulogy was given over the final bivouac: “An accident here robbed us of one of our best men, a man exceptionally well qualified for a volunteer soldier on account of his physical training, his intelligence, character and patriotism, Robert Hubbard of Company B.”

On Oct. 8, 1894, the State of Connecticut erected a fine monument on the Roulette farm in honor of its native sons who had served in the 14th Connecticut Infantry. Displaying a trefoil (clover leaf) emblem of the 2nd Corps, the tall granite structure stands with pride just northwest of Bloody Lane. On this sacred ground, companies B and G stood in a cornfield west of Roulette’s lane, facing the murderous fire from the Sunken Road.

Wanting to take life easier, William Roulette turned the farm over to his oldest son in 1887 and moved to a smaller home in Sharpsburg. The 75-year-old farmer died on Feb. 27, 1901. His wife, Margaret Ann (Miller) Roulette, had died 18 years before on Feb. 19, 1883. Both are buried in Mountain View Cemetery on the eastern edge of Sharpsburg, within view of their historic homestead.

On the day of the battle, Capt. Samuel W. Fiske, 14th Connecticut Infantry, witnessed his regiment’s wild, reckless advance across Roulette’s fields, “A scene of indescribable confusion as our troops didn’t know what they were expected to do, and sometimes in the excitement, fired at their own men.”

Considering Capt. Fiske’s report, perhaps Pvt. Hubbard wasn’t the only member of the 14th Connecticut to fall victim to “friendly fire” on that bloody September morning near Sharpsburg.

This story is dedicated to the memory of Earl Roulette of Sharpsburg, a friend of the author. He passed away on Oct. 9. Earl was the great-grandson of William Roulette, whose farm still stands on the Antietam National Battlefield - now owned and being restored by the National Park Service.

• Richard E. Clem is a Civil War relic hunter and frequent contributor to the history page. He lives in Hagerstown.

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