For thousands of families across the North and South, 150 years ago today was another day for the losses the country suffered at the brutal Battle of Antietam to sink in. Families would have found out through newspapers and letters from the loved ones lost, and reminders would have been constant. For the family and comrades of Lieutenant John A. Clark there was a reminder, if they ever saw it, that would have better conveyed the chaos that their relation experienced at Antietam than anything else. This took the form of a photograph taken in the days following the battle that clearly showed the initial resting place of John Clark, along with a Confederate whom he had fought against.
John A. Clark was born in Michigan to a family of farmers who had emigrated from New York.
In 1860 he was living on a farm near Monroe, Michigan with his parents, grandmother and two siblings. While not a very wealthy family, John’s father did seem to make a decent living for the time. Shortly after the outbreak of the Civil War John enlisted in the 7th Michigan Infantry as a private on June 19th, 1861. His regiment was sent to join the Army of the Potomac in the fall of 1861, and from there it served with the II Corps on the Peninsula. During the Maryland Campaign in September of 1862 John, now a 1st lieutenant, was sent forward at the Battle of Antietam on September 17th towards an area now infamous, the West Woods.
Above: John A. Clark, about age 22, after his promotion to lieutenant in 1862.
The 7th Michigan was a part of John Sedgwick’s Division of the II Corps. It had been ordered forward to deliver the finishing blow after the I and XII Corps had made steady but costly progress through the Miller Cornfield. Their target was a patch of woods just to the north of the Dunker Church on the west side of the Hagerstown Pike. Here the battlefield was relatively quiet, and it seemed that Sedgwick’s Division could break through the Confederate defenses, reach the Potomac River, and lead to the destruction of Lee’s Army.
As fate would have it, however, timely Confederate reinforcements under Lafayette McClaws arrived from the south. Due mostly to luck, many of McClaws’ men came in directly on the left and rear of Sedgwick’s men, sending them into a panic. Firing into the federals from three sides, Sedgwick’s Division and the 7th Michigan suffered horrendous casualties before making a confused and disorderly retreat back to Union lines. Officers like John Clark would have frantically tried to rally their men, keep discipline, and deliver fire onto the surging Confederates. Actions like this tended to put them in the line of fire, and John was killed during the fight.
Days later, a photographer came to the ground where the 7th Michigan had been driven from at Antietam. There, he found two dead soldiers; one buried, and one unburied.
The unburied soldier was a young Confederate, possibly killed during the Confederate retreat from the Cornfield that preceded the West Woods. In the background many more dead soldiers and horses can be seen. In the foreground next to the Confederate, is a marked grave of a Union soldier.
It’s the grave of John A. Clark, whose name is clearly visible on the makeshift headstone. This grave would only be temporary, as John’s family had the means to pay for the transport of his body home to Monroe, where he is now buried in that town’s Woodland Cemetery.
While John’s story was tragically common 150 years ago, this documentation about what happened to his body after his death, as well as the condition of battlefields after the fighting, is an exceptional resource to better understand the Civil War.