Local Stories: Brigadier General Joseph King Fenno Mansfield (1803-1862)
The Battle of Antietam, the bloodiest day of the Civil War, began early on the morning of September 17, 1862 in Sharpsburg, Maryland. Joseph Mansfield, a 58-year-old General in the Union Army, waited anxiously for the signal to lead his ten thousand troops into the fight. When “Fighting Joe” Hooker called for support, Mansfield urged his men forward into the thick of the battle.
As he raced about the battlefield on horseback, Mansfield realized that some of his soldiers were firing into a wooded area which Union troops had occupied just minutes before. Immediately he charged forward, waving his hat and shouting for the line to cease firing. A soldier later wrote that the General “was in a most perilous position…The bullets and missiles were flying like hail and no one upon horse could survive…It seemed as if the very depths of pendemonia had sent their furies, and such a tornado of missile screaming through the air baffles all description.”
While Mansfield rode through the heavy fire, trying to keep his men from firing on what he believed were Union troops, his own soldiers called to him that he was misinformed. The General brought his field telescope to his eyes, and made out the gray coats of the Confederate Army. “Yes, you’re right,” he conceded. At that moment his horse was shot and began to thrash about. As Mansfield dismounted to lead him, his soldiers noticed blood streaming down the General’s chest. A Confederate bullet had pierced his lung—a fatal wound.
Several soldiers carried Mansfield to the rear, slung in a blanket. He murmured, “I shall not live! Oh! My poor family!” Twenty-four hours later, General Mansfield expired.
Joseph Mansfield grew up in his grandfather’s home (now the site of Spear Park), until he entered West Point at age fourteen. A career Army man, Mansfield joined the elite Corps of Engineers; in the Mexican War he distinguished himself for bravery, and in 1853 rose to become Inspector General. He is buried in the Indian Hill Cemetery (corner of Washington and Vine streets).