The 9th New York Hawkin's Zouaves at Antietam
It was the morning of September 17, 1862 -- a day destined to become the bloodiest 24 hours in American history -- and the 9th New York quietly steadied themselves for the trial to come.
The Ninth New York was one of the Federal Army's most colorfully-uniformed commands, clad in exotic regalia inspired by the famed French colonial troops called Zouaves. Like many Yankee Zouave units, at the outbreak of war in April, 1861 these sons of Manhattan had raillied to the cause behind a dashing and charismatic leader Rush Hawkins.
Colonel Hawkins was not present at Antietam; ten days earlier he had returned to New York on leave of absence, and the Ninth would go into battle under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Edgar. A. Kimball. While lacking Rush Hawkins' good looks and sartorial splendor, Kimball was equally determined that the Ninth New York live up to the inscription emblazoned on the red silk of the regimental colors: "Toujours Pret"--"Always Ready."
Morning had given way to afternoon and hundreds of men had fallen in repeated attempts to storm the lower bridge of the Antietam before Isaac Rodman's Federal division got underway. With the Ninth New York and Colonel Harison Fairchild's brigade leading the way, Rodman's troops began crossing the creek at Snavely's Ford, just south of the position held by General Robert Toombs' stalwart Georgians.
As the Confederates fell back before Burnside's troops, Southern artillery on the heights directed their fire at the ponderous Federal masses. "The Practice of the rebel artilleryment was something wonderful in its accuracey," Second Lieutenant Matthew J. Graham recalled; "they dropped shot and shell right into our line repeatedly."
Lieutenant Graham was hugging the earth with his comrades in Company H. when he heard his commander shout "Get up the Ninth!" "I turned over quickly to look at Colonel Kimball, who had given the order," Graham later wrote, "thinking he had become suddenly insane." The Lieutenant rose from the ground, "firmly believing that the regiment would not last one minute after the men got fairly on their feet." But Kimball led his Zouaves forward, over the undulating, steadily rising ground. The air was filled with a deluge of bullets, grape, canister and shell," wrote Charles Johnson, who fell with a shot through the left hip. "The mental strain was so great," David Thompson observed, "the whole landscape for an instant turned slightly red."
Ahead of the thinning Federal line, across 500 yards of open meadow, Georgians and South Carolinians of Brigadier General Thomas F. Drayton's brigade awaited the oncoming Yankees from the shelter of a low stone Wall.
When the Ninth New York had approached to within 200 yards of the Rebel position at the stone wall, Lieutenant Colonel Kimball shouted the command "Double quick, charge!" A deadly volley blazed out from the muskets of Drayton's Confederates, and at such close range the destruction in the Zouave ranks was terrible. Scores of men "fell on top of one another," Private Wright recalled, while Lieutenant Graham, his right let shattered at the knee, noted "We all went down together." Struggling to rise, Graham discovered that the Color Guard had been obliterated, and the regimental flags lay on the ground. "One or two men staggered to their feet and reached for the colors," the officer remembered, "but were shot down at once." Suddenly Captain Adolphe Libaire, the 22 year old French-born commander of Company E--the Zouaves' Color Company--dashed forward and snatched up the fallen regimental banner.
According to Lieutenant Homer, Libaire was habitually "quiet, modest" and "unassuming." But rising to the crisis, the soft-spoken Captain was a man possessed. Raising the flag, Libaire waved it over his head and yelled, "Up, dam you, and forward!" -- then sprinted for the wall. "That 'Forward', I for one will never forget while I live," Zouave William Cockefair wrote 35 years later; "all he required was that we follow him. He showed the way." It was a deed that would later earn the young Frenchman the Medal of Honor.
Awed by Libaire's desperate act of gallantry, the New Yorkers regained their momentum. Captain Lawrence Leahy raised the other banner, and followed Libaire, as did Lieutenant Colonel Kimball, Adjutant Homer, and First Lieutenant Robert McKechnie of Company H -- all shouting "Forward!" With their flags and surviving officers at the very apex of the charge, the Zouaves surged ahead to the wall, forcing Drayton's troops from the corpse-strewn breastwork.