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.
This is the nineteenth essay in our monthly series “Finding Antietam – A Guide’s Story.” Each month, we’ll feature the story of one of our guides and what sparked their interest in Antietam and the Civil War and why they became an Antietam Battlefield Guide. Antietam Battlefield Guide Jim Smith shares his story this month.
Social media did a good thing for me a few years back when I came across a post seeking new Battlefield Ambassador volunteers at Antietam. One of my three principal pursuits of happiness (Rush shows) had dropped the curtain in 2015. It was time to find a new one. Or double down on a passion that had animated me since childhood: Civil War battlefields. Since I was very young, well before I fully comprehended their carnage, battlefields have resonated with me as places where something important happened, intersections with history. My appreciation of the meaning of our hallowed ground has only grown. I had come to Antietam a number of times over the years, including a visit in the (19)70s, when you couldn’t go north of the Bloody Lane, and another glorious day twenty years later that combined battlefield tramping with a ballgame in Frederick. Antietam was one of those major battlefields I was proud to have “checked off” my list as a student of the Civil War.
But here was an opportunity to get to a new level, to learn and engage with visitors at one of America’s most important historic sites, a place that every American who is able should see at least once. After training—from Antietam rangers and guides laden and generous with information—and accumulating some new resources on the battle, I ventured out on the field with my fellow volunteers, posted at stops along the driving tour. A pristine jewel of the National Park Service, Antietam offers not only its pastoral beauty, but also a sweeping and multi-faceted history—military, political, diplomatic, social, memory. I’d long enjoyed listening to interpreters at historic sites. Being on the other side of that equation has been even more uplifting and inspiring. Public history begets a virtuous circle: visitors ask questions; interpreters answer questions or go in search of answers, which usually leads to more questions. The rich history of the Maryland Campaign of 1862 provides an endless warren of pathways and connections, a countless number of avenues to explore, reaching backward and forward in time. It is a central event of the central event of American history, but in addition to the momentous aspects, there are the individual stories, humbling tales of the extreme human experience that was Civil War combat. Volunteering at Antietam, and later becoming a guide, has been a never-ending challenge to up my game. That challenge will never expire.
Driving past the NPS sign, on my way to give a tour, it’s the proverbial “pinch myself” moment every time. Though perhaps somewhat quiet and reserved in most other settings, I often end my day at Antietam with a raspy voice. It is a singular privilege and honor to try to illuminate a bit of history for those who come to the battlefield. Over the years, more than one skeptic has asked me why study these long ago campaigns. Because Antietam is part of our identity; it tells us something about who we are, just like a family remembrance or photo album does for each of us as individuals. And the stories of all who were here—their service and sacrifice—deserve to be remembered. The Civil War remains relevant. That will not change anytime soon.