How A Drunk Decision By A Terrible Commanding Officer Led To A Medal Of Honor

This painting, called "Wasted Gallantry," shows the gallant but futile charge led by Maj. Thomas W. Hyde during the Battle of Antietam, September 17, 1862.
Painting by James Hope

Stop by the shipyards at Bath, Maine, home of Bath Iron Works, and the sight is impressive: Massive docks and cranes loom over the Kennebec River, while hulls of the U.S. Navy’s finest new destroyers rise out of the water, like so many shrouded ghost ships. For over a century, the shipyard has been producing ships for the Navy. What many do not know is that its founder, Thomas W. Hyde, of Bath, Maine, was not in any way a Navy man. In fact, he was an Army officer in the Civil War who happened to have one of the worst commanding officers ever.

Thomas W. Hyde as a young Army officer during the Civil War.

Hyde enlisted into the U.S. Volunteers, the state forces that were mobilized in response to President Abraham Lincoln’s call for 75,000 troops in 1861 as the hostilities between the North and South began. Because of his education at Bowdoin College (where he probably had another Maine man who would become prominent in the Civil War, Joshua Chamberlain, as his professor) and Chicago University, he was given the rank of captain in the 7th Maine Volunteer Infantry Regiment. He was soon after promoted to major, still at the young age of 21. It was in this capacity that he found himself serving on the single bloodiest day in American military history: September 17, 1862, during the Battle of Antietam.

The battle raged the whole day across the green fields and woodlands of rural Maryland where Americans slaughtered each other wholesale. Over 113,000 Americans fought each other for 12 hours. At the end of the day, nearly 23,000 had been killed, wounded or captured. An estimated 3,600 men had been killed in action, more than the 2,499 who were killed in the Normandy Invasion in 1944. Hyde’s regiment had been mercifully spared from the brunt of the fighting and was taking shelter from artillery fire on the slope of a ridge. The action appeared to be over for the day, as both sides drew back to consolidate their lines and lick their wounds. Desultory cannon fire rang out on parts of the line, including from a Union battery near the 7th. The battery commander angrily reported to division artillery officer, Capt. Emory Upton, who happened to be standing with Hyde’s brigade commander, Col. William H. Irwin, that his position was unsustainable due to Confederate sniper fire coming from a nearby orchard.

Irwin knew what to do about this.

A veteran of the Mexican War, Irwin viewed himself as an excellent battlefield commander. His peers begged to differ, especially those of the Regular Army, who respectfully asked him to hold a school of tactics and maybe learn some himself. On these occasions, according to his court-martial testimony, his response was, “Go to hell!” That’s right, court martial. Irwin was brought up on no less than five charges, ranging from his odd technique of assembling his entire command under arms as the men were readying for bed to ask their permission to be absent from the regiment, to the charge of being so drunk during a grand review that he could barely sit on his horse. Indeed, the majority of the charges brought against him seemed to center on his habitual abuse of intoxicating substances. During the court martial, this assertion brought an angry tirade from the colonel on the finer points of Army drinking, saying that his right to invite other officers to drink was, “as clear as his right to invite a brother officer to dinner, to offer him a cigar, or a glass of water.” He further asserted that he was never in “such a state of intoxication as to be unfit for my duty.” Note, he did not say he was never drunk; just never too drunk.

Since Sept. 17 was a day that ended in “y,” Irwin was once again exercising his right to drink. When he looked across the mile of open field and saw the positions of at least two Confederate brigades, dug in behind stone walls and supported by artillery, it was extremely logical in his mind to order the 181 men of the 7th Maine to go drive away the rebels. Hyde, unlike Irwin, was sober, and could scarcely believe his ears and asked the colonel if he was serious. “Are you afraid to go, sir?” demanded Irwin, apparently believing that attacking a subordinate’s honor was effective leadership. Hyde bristled at the assumption and replied, “Give the order so the regiment can hear it, and we are ready, sir.” Irwin gave the order loudly to the men of the 7th Maine, who probably started at him in shock.

Leading his regiment, Hyde guided them across the corpse-strewn fields as the Confederates looked on in confusion. Rebel officers later wrote that they did not understand why one small regiment would advance openly, in the face of thousands of dug-in Confederates. Such a sight might have caused the Confederates to wonder if this was some new federal ruse. Confederate gunners were evidently not so philosophical, immediately opening fire on the 7th with about a dozen cannons.Hyde expertly maneuvered his regiment to take advantage of the small gullies and curvatures of the earth to keep the regiment shielded from as much enemy fire as possible. Eventually, the Mainers reached the small apple orchard, where they charged the Confederate marksmen with bayonets fixed, driving them off. In doing so, they incurred the wrath of three brigades of infantry and several batteries of artillery that raked the tiny regiment from three sides.

The soldiers now found themselves in an impossible position. Hyde himself was penned in by a fence line and was nearly captured when his horse was wounded and fell on top of him. As he went to the aid of a wounded sergeant, his men shot and killed his Confederate pursuers, allowing Hyde to regain his own battered line. Looking back at the Union lines, Hyde hoped to see some friendly units coming to his aid, but instead saw no movement whatsoever. Irwin afterward claimed to have been ordered to not move his lines forward and blamed other units for not supporting the 7th. Other units, notably one Vermont regiment, asked to go to the aid of the 7th but were told that it would be a suicide mission. Under fire, the Mainers withdrew and made a somewhat orderly retreat.

Upon reaching their lines, the 7th was greeted with cheers from the neighboring Vermont brigade, but as Hyde later wrote to his mother, “We lay down and were crying like children.” Only 69 of their original 181 made it back to their lines. The next day, Hyde returned to the battlefield alone and was able to bring back eight of his wounded men, under fire the entire time.  Irwin was relieved of command that same day.

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. His bravery in the ordeal was unquestionable and he would go on to command his own brigade by the end of the war. Indeed, he led the apex of the final Union attack outside Petersburg on April 2, 1865, which broke the last Confederate lines outside the city and drove Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee to retreat to Appomattox. At the war’s end, Hyde was given the honorary title: major general of volunteers.

Following the war, Hyde showed the same relentless motivation as he had at the Battle of Antietam, serving three terms in the Maine senate. He probably assumed that after facing three Confederate brigades alone, politics was no problem. In 1884, he founded Bath Iron Works. Seven years later, the United States granted him the nation’s highest award, the Medal of Honor. Characteristic of the citations of the time, his own award narrative was concise and without detail: “Led his regiment in an assault on a strong body of the enemy's infantry and kept up the fight until the greater part of his men had been killed or wounded, bringing the remainder safely out of the fight.”

Knowing Thomas Hyde’s courageous, humble, and self-sacrificing nature, he was probably okay with this.

These and other stories about Thomas Hyde’s life can be found in his autobiography “Following the Greek Cross; or, Memories of the Sixth Army Corps,” originally published in 1894.

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