“No Better, Braver, Truer Officer Ever Served Our Country”
by Phil Spaugy
One hundred fifty-one years ago today, Lt. Colonel Augustus H. Coleman was killed in action leading his men of the 11th Ohio Volunteer Infantry in one of the early assaults on the lower, or Rohrbach, bridge during the battle of Antietam. Born in 1829, Augustus was raised in Troy, Ohio, where his father was a very prominent businessman and active in local politics. At the outbreak of the war, Augustus was 31 years old, residing near Troy with his wife Clara and their two small children, Rachael Augustus and George Edwin. Although Augustus had been appointed to the U.S.M.A. at West Point in 1847, it appears that he had some sort of difficulty with the curriculum and by 1851 had returned to the Troy area to engage in “agricultural pursuits.”
After the surrender of Fort Sumter and upon Presidents Lincoln’s call for 75,000 volunteers, men with the type of military training or background that Augustus had received at West Point were very much in demand. Within 48 hours of the President’s call, he had raised a company of 100 men which, with Augustus as its captain, was soon mustered in as Company D, 11th Ohio Volunteer Infantry, or Militia, for three months service. Later in 1861, the 11th was mustered into U.S. service for a term of three years, with Augustus being named Major of the regiment. By the spring of 1862 he had received a promotion to Lt. Colonel of the 11th.
As part of the famed “Kanawha” Division of the 9th Army Corps, Augustus was conspicuous in leading a bayonet charge to help recover two captured artillery pieces and secure the Federal occupation of Frederick, Maryland, on September 12th. Two days later, he was guiding his men through difficult, mountainous terrain in the tough fight for Fox’s Gap, where, according the regiment’s official report, he “took down the enemy’s colors with his own hands.”
September 17, 1862, found the 11th, along with the 28th and 36th O.V.I. regiments under the command of Brigadier General (and native of Montgomery County, Ohio) George Crook, positioned behind a low hill just to the east of the Rohrbach bridge. Given vague orders to charge over the rise and seize the stone bridge, the “Buckeyes” of the 11th crested the hill and were immediately met with a virtual hail of small arms and artillery fire from the rebel units posted on the west side of Antietam Creek. It was during this advance that Lt. Colonel Coleman (who had dismounted from his horse “Old Bull” just prior to the attack) was shot by a rebel “sharpshooter” and fell with a severe wound to his the right arm, dying within the hour. Without the presence of their commander, the 11th, now under the command of Major Lyman Jackson and under the continued small arms fire from the confederates entrenched across Antietam Creek, fell back to their starting point where they kept up harassing fire against the confederate positions on the west bank of the creek. Later in the day, they joined with several of the other units of the “Kanwaha” Division in advancing across the recently secured bridge to take up a position near the Otto Farm. Forced back by the timely attack of A. P. Hill’s Light Division on the Union left flank, the 11th took cover under the same bluffs that had provided such an impregnable position for the confederate infantry earlier in the day. For the boys from southwestern Ohio, the bloodiest day in American history was finally over. Losses for the 11th that day totaled 4 killed in action, 12 wounded, and 5 missing for a total of 21. Three days later, Major Jackson, in writing his official report of the action on the 17th, described with much emotion the fall of his friend and commander in the following manner:
Lt-Col. Coleman, moving with the left under a severe fire, was shot through the right arm by a sharpshooter, and died in about an hour after. I must say of this that no better, braver, truer officer ever served our country, and no regiment can feel a loss more sorely.”
Augustus’ body was returned to Troy, Ohio, and following a imposing funeral procession he was buried in Rose Hill Cemetery where under a much faded marble stone in the family plot he lies today. In the center of the Coleman plot is a large family monument where weathered words etched in marble relate the story of Augustus’ bravery and of his ultimate sacrifice in the defense of his country. Ironically his commission as Colonel, U.S. Volunteers to command his beloved 11th O.V.I. was dated September 17, 1862.
During my visits to Augustus’s grave I have often wondered if, while mourning her son’s gallant and tragic death, the thoughts of his mother Mary, ever turned from her sorrow, back to her childhood and the place of her birth, a place on the banks of a winding tranquil stream in Maryland, near a small, insignificant village named…Sharpsburg.