by Jim Smith
Around 4:00 p.m. on September 17, 1862, Capt. Adolphe Libaire, Co. E, 9th New York Infantry, picked up his regiment’s fallen flag and shouted to his men, “Up, damn you, and forward!” At that moment, Libaire was more than 4,000 miles removed from his May 2, 1840 birthplace of Baccarat, France, a combatant in the central event of his adopted country. Libaire’s Civil War service had begun in April 1861 when he enlisted in New York City. By the following month, he was a captain in the 9th New York, a regiment also known as “Hawkins’ Zouaves” in honor of their colonel, Rush Hawkins. Posted to the Outer Banks in September 1861, the 9th New York took part in Ambrose Burnside’s North Carolina coastal campaign in early 1862 and then joined the IX Corps when it was formed during the summer.
On September 17, Libaire and the 9th New York began the day on the east side of Antietam Creek. While their IX Corps comrades confronted the imposing Confederate position at the Lower Bridge, the 9th New York and other regiments of Isaac Rodman’s division sought an alternative crossing, passing on the steeply banked ford a few hundred yards downstream from the bridge for the more negotiable Snavely’s Ford. Across the creek by early afternoon, the regiment took cover behind the ridge on which Union artillery was banging away at Confederate guns to their front. Just past 3:00 p.m., the IX Corps began its advance to assault the right end of the Confederate line arrayed along the Harpers Ferry Road and the heights of Sharpsburg.
As they climbed the rolling and uphill terrain, Libaire’s regiment was “[g]etting Hell on the right” from Confederate gunners and “lost men at almost every step,” as one veteran remembered. When the 9th neared the main Confederate line, Confederate infantry unleashed “a crashing volley of musketry” from behind a stone wall. A private in Company C wrote the “air was filled with a deluge of bullets, grape, canister and shell.” As the regiment struggled to move forward, “[t]he whole color guard lay prone, the colors on the ground.” Men from several companies rushed for their flags but “were shot down in succession as each raised his flag.” One of them, hit in the arm by a bullet that first went through the staff, maintained his grip on the flag and yelled, “Forward” just as another bullet struck him in the left eye. Capt. Libaire took hold of the regimental flag and began swinging it around his head as he exhorted his comrades, “Come on, boys! Come on!” According to the account delivered at the dedication of the regimental monument at Antietam, the 9th’s Col. Edgar Kimball had earlier told Libaire, “I will commit this flag to your keeping,” to which Libaire replied, “I will bring it back in safety, or you will never see my face in this world again.” Though “[i]t seemed instant death to carry the old flag that day,” Libaire planted it on the stone wall. Libaire’s Medal of Honor citation recounted that he “seized the regimental flag and with conspicuous gallantry carried it to the extreme front, urging the line forward.”
At a terrible cost, the 9th New York and its fellow brigade regiments broke up the main Confederate line along the heights of town. Their success was short-lived. With little in the way of reinforcements or coordination from the rear to exploit their success, the 9th New York did not advance much further. Meanwhile Confederate troops arriving from Harpers Ferry struck the left end of the Union line and unraveled the uneven advance of the IX Corps. The Federal assault fell back from left to right. Libaire’s regiment lost more than 60% of its number, including 45 killed in action, 12 from Company E. Though they had not achieved the complete victory they sought, Capt. Libaire, the 9th New York and the rest of the Army of the Potomac had battered the Confederate army enough that it withdrew from Union soil on the night of September 18.
Libaire and the regiment mustered out in the spring of 1863 upon the expiration of the 9th’s term. After the war, Libaire became a U.S. citizen in 1866 and was a member of the New York Stock Exchange from 1869 to 1904. At an 1891 regimental reunion with veterans of the 3rd Georgia, Libaire gave the visitors a tour of the exchange. He died in 1920 and is buried in Brooklyn, New York. As part of an effort to recognize immigrant Medal of Honor winners, the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services field office in Baltimore is named in honor of Adolphe Libaire.