(The following is a re-post of an article I originally wrote in 2012, on the 150th anniversary of Sharpsburg/Antietam. May we never forget the heroism and sacrifice of these Americans, whether they wore Yankee Blue or Rebel Grey.)
150 years ago today dawn broke on two massive armies nestled between the Potomac River and Antietam Creek near the village of Sharpsburg in southern Maryland. At dusk 3,654 Americans, Confederate and Federal, would lie dead on the field, while another 17,292 would be wounded. 1,800 were missing. Johnny Reb would call the battle Sharpsburg, Billy Yank Antietam. History would record it as America’s Bloodiest Day.
Gen. Robert E. Lee and his 55,000 men of the Army of Northern Virginia had seized the initiative after their victory at Second Manassas and invaded the North. He planned on engaging Gen. George McClellan’s Army of the Republic and deal it a decisive blow on Northern soil, which would hopefully prompt England and France, both reliant on the south’s cotton for their textile industries, to formally recognize the Confederacy, and maybe enter the war in support. Lee also needed to feed his army, and Maryland’s bountiful autumn harvest would do just that while giving a much needed break to Virginia’s farmers who could harvest what remained of their crops free from hordes of hungry troops.
When Lee entered Maryland he divided his army, sending “Stonewall” Jackson to capture the arsenal at Harper’s Ferry. The Army of Northern Virginia was a ragtag force. Barefoot, filthy, dressed in rags and vermin infested, only their rifles were clean. Their disheveled and motley appearance however betrayed their exemplary morale and the ferocity and professionalism with which they fought. Although divided and unkempt, Lee’s army was an extremely dangerous force to be reckoned with.
Faced with such a fearsome foe, McClellan moved his army of 76,000 men with his trademark caution and temerity. Even when two Indiana soldiers found the disposition of Lee’s army wrapped around three cigars (The infamous Special Order 191) which showed he had split into three arms which could easily have been engaged and destroyed in turn, Napoleon’s favorite strategy, he was cautious. Hampered by poor intelligence (Gen. J.E.B. Stuart’s rebel cavalry so effectively blocked Pleasanton’s cavalry probes that McClellan believed he was facing an army of 120,000, more than twice Lee’s actual numbers) McClellan delayed taking action for 18 hours, losing the opportunity to crush Lee.
After a clash at South Mountain on Sunday, September 14, Lee ordered his scattered forces to converge as rapidly as possibly on Sharpsburg to the east. His divided commands were vulnerable and McClellan’s success at forcing Crampton’s Gap denied Lee the sheltering protection of the Blue Ridge Mountains. On Monday September 15 the rebels retreating westward from South Mountain crossed the wood lined Antietam and settled into defensible positions between it and Sharpsburg. That afternoon Lee received word from Jackson, 12 miles to the south that the Federal garrison at Harper’s Ferry had surrendered. But until Jackson’s force of 17,000 men rejoined Lee’s main force, he was still extremely vulnerable. Only the shallow Antietam offered any natural barrier to McClellan’s army of 75,000 men, and it was hardly impregnable.
Lee’s line stretched 4 miles north to south between Sharpsburg and Antietam, with his left flank, commanded by “Stonewall” Jackson, anchored on the Potomac while his “Old Warhorse” Gen. Longstreet commanded the right, stretching from the Sunken Road to the Antietam at Rohrbach Bridge. His back was practically to the Potomac, and his only viable avenue of retreat back to Virginia lay to the south towards Harper’s Ferry. But the disposition allowed for good internal lines of communication which would permit him to rapidly shift forces to critical points of the field.
The morning of Wednesday, September 17 dawned with 70,000 men of the Army of the Republic facing 40,000 rebels.
At 0530 8,600 men of the Federal I Corps under Hooker attacked down the Hagerstown Turnpike. Doubleday’s division attacked out of the North Woods and along both sides of the pike, Meade’s division was in the center, and Ricketts’s division assaulted into the East Woods. Their objective was the single room German Baptist Dunker Church, erroneously believed by men on both sides to be a schoolhouse due to its unassuming appearance.
Facing the Yankee onslaught were 7,700 men of Stonewall Jackson’s Corps under Alexander Lawton and J.R. Jones in line from the West Woods, stretching to the southern end of Miller’s Cornfield. As the Federal troops exited from the North Woods and entered the north end of The Cornfield artillery batteries on both sides opened up. The ensuing barrages would be described by Col. Lee as “artillery hell”. Individual shots became indiscernible and merged into one prolonged deep throated roar.
The Federal artillery devastated the Confederate infantry in the cornfield. General Hooker wrote “…every stalk of corn in the northern and greater part of the field was cut as closely as could have been done with a knife, and the slain lay in rows as precisely as they had stood in their ranks a few moments before.”
The Union line surged forward. Out of the East Woods Ricketts’s 1st Brigade under Brigadier General Duryee advanced into the Cornfield, stepping over Rebel dead and advanced into a blistering fire from Gen. Douglass’s Georgians. Both lines, reinforced with additional brigades, blazed away at each other for 30 minutes “… till the lines melted away like wax.” The Confederate line wavered, Walkers brigade pulling back after losing 228 of its 700 men. The Georgians held fast, despite suffering over 50% casualties, including 5 of 6 regimental commanders and Gen. Douglass himself who died on the field.
As the Georgian line wavered the “Tigers” of the Louisiana Brigade charged into the Federal line and drove them back into the East Woods. The Tigers’ charge was stopped by a battery of 3 inch ordnance rifles firing double and triple canister at point blank range. The Tigers dropped in droves. In 15 minutes of combat the Creoles and Irishmen from New Orleans lost 323 of their 500 men.
Charge and counter charge swarmed across the field. Regimental colors were captured and recaptured, successive color bearers going down to concentrated enemy fire, rifle butts, bayonets and bare fists. By 0700 the struggle for the East Woods and the eastern section of The Cornfield was a bloody stalemate.
On the other side of the field Gen. Gibbons Black Hat Brigade, recently christened with the nickname The Iron Brigade after their tenacious attack on Turner’s Gap on the 14th, had pushed into the northwest corner of The Cornfield. They were raked by fire from Confederates in the south end of the field and from brigades of Gen. Jones division in the West Woods on their right. Reinforced by artillery firing canister and case shot the 7th Wisconsin and 19th Indiana were able to gain a tenuous foothold in the West Woods while the 2nd and 6th Wisconsin, along with the 2nd US Sharpshooters, pushed into The Cornfield. Suddenly a “line of butternut and gray rose from the grass” and poured a devastating volley into their ranks. Volley after volley were exchanged as men frantically reloaded and fired, reloaded and fired, while the wounded desperately looked for help and the dead piled up at their feet. But the Iron Brigade pushed on and by 0645 had pushed a third of the distance from the Cornfield to the Dunker Church.
It was then that two Confederate Brigades under General Starke rushed from the West Woods into the Iron Brigade’s right flank. Taking cover behind a wooden fence railing only 30 yards from the Yankees, they unleashed furious fire into them. The rebels themselves were then caught in the left flank by the 6th Wisconsin advancing south through the West Woods. Gen. Starke fell on the field with three minie balls. The Confederate line was crippled and Federal troops rushed towards the Dunker Church, “loading and firing with demoniacal fury and shouting and laughing hysterically.” surging to within 200 yards of the Dunker Church.
Then, through a gap in the fence behind the Dunker Church the terrifying yip-yip of the Rebel Yell filled the field as 2,300 men of General John Bell Hood charged out of the West Woods. Hood’s men were exhausted and starving, having not eaten a real meal in days and the Federal attack had interrupted their breakfast. They were angry as bears and they vented their fury on the Yankees. Their first volley ripped into the Union line like a scythe. The Iron Brigade retreated to the northern end of the Cornfield, the Confederate moment of peril had passed, for now.
Hood continued his assault into the Cornfield, with the legendary Texas Brigade under Gen. William Wofford on the left, and Col. Evander Law’s brigade on the right. On Hood’s right were the three brigades of Gen. D.H. Hill. The Confederate line surged forward, the Federal’s counterattacked; the fighting raged back and forth, with the Cornfield changing hands no less than 15 times. The Texas Brigade bore the brunt of the fighting, three successive color bearers of the Hampton Legion fell in rapid succession within 50 yards of the Federal line. To their right the 1st Texas charged ahead recklessly. Ahead of them the Union troops lay in the grass, resting their rifles on the bottom rung of a wooden fence. They waited until the Texans’ legs were visible through the smoke and opened fire at a range of only 30 yards. On the Texans’ left they were flanked by fire from across the Hagerstown Pike. Nine of the regiment’s color bearers went down and the standard was lost. In less than 20 minutes the 1stTexas, 226 men strong when they stepped into the Cornfield, lost 186 killed and wounded. This casualty rate of 82.3 percent would be the highest rate suffered by any regiment in the entire war.
At the northwest corner of the Cornfield Union artillery poured fire into the Texans of Hoods division, the fire so intense that cordite smoke obscured targets only 15 yards away. The rebels charged again and again in a desperate attempt to take the guns, but were repulsed by double and triple canister shot.
By 0730 the carnage was massive. Hooker had lost 2,600 men from his I Corps and had been pushed back out of the Cornfield by Hood’s daring counterattack, effectively being knocked out of action. But the savage 30 minute assault had exhausted the Texans, and a fresh Union Corps was entering the fight. In a matter of minutes Hood lost 1,380 men from his already shattered division. When he retreated to the relative shelter of the West Woods a fellow officer asked him where his division was. He replied, “Dead on the field.”
The fresh Corps was Mansfield’s VII Corps, raw and inexperienced men who were facing the elephant for the first time. As Mansfield maneuvered his Corps into place a bullet tore into his chest. The veteran of 40 years of service would die later that day.
After two hours of savage fighting the two opposing forces were in the same positions as they were at dawn, only with different units. The field was littered with human wreckage with no gain to show for it other than to fertilize the corn with blood. Some say that the corn which still grows there today is the tallest stalks in all of Maryland thanks to the ground soaked with blood 150 years ago.
The fighting continued to surge across the 250 yard long and 400 yard wide Cornfield and through the East and West Woods until the Federal attack lost its momentum around 0900. 8,000 men lay dead or wounded, and the day had only just begun.
To the southeast of the Dunker Church an old country road ran from the Hagerstown Pike to the Boonsboro Road. Years of heavy wagons laden with farmers crops using the shortcut to avoid the tollbooth on Hagerstown Pike had turned the road into a wide ditch. It formed a natural trench which the Confederates improvised into a hasty defensive position. The locals called it the “Sunken Road”. By early evening it would be known forever after as “Bloody Lane”.
The weakly defended Confederate center was commanded by General Longstreet. 2,500 men of D.H. Hill’s division manned the line, but three of the five brigades had been mangled in the fighting that morning on the rebel left. Over 5,000 men of French’s division attacked them at 0930. Hill’s men patiently lay in the rifle trench of the Sunken Road and watched as the Federals crested a ridge 100 yards in front of them and dressed their lines. They continued to wait as the Yankees moved down the slope as if on parade. There was no artillery firing in this portion of the line yet, and the silence was oppressive. Still the rebs waited. Col. John Gordon of the 6th Alabama wrote “…some of my impatient men asked permission to fire. ‘Not yet’. I replied. ‘Wait for the order’. Soon they were so close that we might have seen the eagles on their buttons; but my brave and eager boys still waited for the order. Now the front rank was within a few rods of where I stood. It would not do to wait another second and with all my lung power I shouted, ‘FIRE!’
“My rifles flamed and roared in the Federals’ face like a blaze of lightning accompanied by the quick and deadly thunderbolt. The effect was appalling. The entire front line, with few exceptions, went down in the consuming blast.”
The Federals who had received the Alabamians fury were German immigrants of General Max Weber who had mostly seen garrison duty. Now they faced well entrenched veterans at a range of only 20 yards. Yet they held and bravely exchanged fire for five minutes, suffering a staggering 450 casualties.
A second Union brigade also faltered against the confederate line. And a third. Line after line crashed upon the Sunken Road and was repulsed. In less than an hour 1/3 of French’s division lay dead or wounded.
The fourth attack against Bloody Lane was led by Brig. Gen. Thomas Meagher’s Irish Brigade. With their green flag bearing the Irish harp flapping in the wind, Father Corby rode back and forth in front of the line granting the Catholic Rite of absolution, a feat he would repeat at Gettysburg a year later. The Irish lost 540 men before they too were forced to withdraw.
But the Rebels were suffering as well. Gen. Gordon of the 6th Alabama was struck four times and lay on the floor of the lane, face down and bleeding in his cap. He later told friends that if an unknown Yankee had not shot a hole in his hat, he would have drowned in his own blood.
Finally soldiers of the 61st and 64TH New York seized a knoll that allowed them to pour flanking fire down the length of the Sunken Road. The order to wheel right and face this threat was misunderstood by Col. Lightfoot who had assumed command from Gen. Gordon and he instead order the Alabamians to about face and march off the field. The remaining five regiments thought the order applied to them as well and the entire line abandoned Bloody Lane, marching towards Sharpsburg, with the yanks hot on their heels.
A massive artillery barrage organized by Gen. Longstreet drove the Federals back. When one of the guns fell silent due to its crew being dead, Longstreet personally manned it with his staff. A counterattack by 200 men led by D.H. Hill stemmed the Union onslaught and saved the Confederate center. By 1300 over 5,600 men lay dead and wounded along the 800 yard road. It had earned the name “Bloody Lane”.
The final blow fell that afternoon on the Confederate right flank at Rohrbach Bridge on the southern end of the battlefield. There General Ambrose Burnside and his IX Corps was to conduct a diversionary attack in support of Hooker’s I Corps, but not until he had received explicit orders to do so. By 1000, when the orders finally arrived, the fighting in the Cornfield was over and the diversion was no longer needed. What Burnside did not know was that all of the Federal assaults had ground down and he now carried the battle for McClellan.
Facing Burnside’s four divisions of 12,5000 men was a rebel force which had been weakened by the shifting of units to crisis points during the day’s fighting. The Georgia brigade of Col. Anderson had only 3,000 men spread in a thin line. Four brigades were positioned in a weak line along Cemetery Hill to the southeast of Sharpsburg, while 400 men of the 2nd and 20th Georgia regiments faced the brunt of Burnside’s assault which would come across the 125 foot span which would be renamed Burnside’s Bridge. These men were dug into the rocks of a 100 foot high hill which rose above the west bank of the Antietam and offered excellent cover and fields of fire with which the Georgian marksman could sweep the bridge.
Despite the Antietam only being only 50 feet wide at parts Burnside decided he would concentrate his forces on storming the bridge itself. The commanding terrain dominated the only road approaching the bridge and ensured that his regiments would be under fire the entire time. It was an advantage the vastly outnumbered Georgians would desperately need.
While Col. George Cook’s Ohioans stormed the bridge itself, three divisions struggled through dense brush to locate Snavely’s Ford 2 miles downstream in an attempt to flank the Confederate’s domineering positions. The first attempt to cross the bridge was repulsed in 15 minutes of fierce fighting in which the 11th Connecticut, attempting to clear the way for Cook’s Ohio brigade, lost 139 men, a full 1/3 of their strength. Cook himself reached the creek a quarter mile upstream where his men were engaged by rebel skirmishers as he attempted to find his way through the unfamiliar terrain.
A second assault on the bridge by the 2nd Maryland and 6th New York was also swept aside under withering fire. Finally at 1230 a third attack, led by the 51st New York and 51st Pennsylvania was able to cross and get within 25 yards of the Georgian rifle pits. It had taken a howitzer firing double canister down the bridge and the promise of restoring a cancelled whiskey ration to get the men across, but they had at last reached the western bank of the Antietam. By 1300 the Confederates were low on ammunition and the Federals had finally crossed the Antietam at Snavely’s Ford. The rebel line was flanked and General Toombs ordered a withdrawal. The Georgians had stemmed the Federal onslaught for three hours, costing Burnside 500 men while losing only 160 of their own, but when they withdrew the right flank of Lee’s army was exposed and the way to Sharpsburg, and Lee’s escape route to Virginia, lay wide open.
The bridge became a bottleneck, clogging the advance of 8,000 of Burnside’s men, and creating another two hour delay. At 1500 the Union assault began afresh when the 79th New York “Cameron Highlanders” pushed Jones division off of Cemetery Hill and back to the outskirts of Sharpsburg. Rodman’s division on the Federal left advanced towards Harper’s Ferry road, threatening to flank the entire Army of Northern Virginia and block Lee’s avenue of retreat. Only 700 men of Toomb’s brigade faced the 8,000 Yankees.
It was at this moment that providence again saved Lee when the 3,000 men of A.P. Hill’s “Light Division” smashed into the left flank of the Federal line. The rebels had conducted an exhausting route step march of 17 miles from Harper’s Ferry and deployed immediately into battle line, ferociously slashing into the surprised and confused Union ranks. The Federal left collapsed and Burnside, shaken by the violent and unexpected counter-attack, retreated all the way back to the banks of the Antietam. There they spent the rest of the day defending the hard won bridge. The battle was over by 1730. Sunset fell on America’s bloodiest day.
On the field lay 1,546 dead Rebels and 2,108 dead Yankees. Another 8,770 Confederates and 10,293 Union troops were wounded or missing. Although technically a draw, Lee pulled his badly mauled army back into Virginia and left the field in Federal hands, a mark of defeat in the Napoleonic Warfare fought during the 19th century. McClellan however, remaining cautious and timid and now battered by the heavy losses suffered at Sharpsburg, did not pursue Lee across the Potomac and into Virginia. His temerity finally proved too much for Lincoln and he was relieved of command in November.
Antietam was much more of a strategic victory for the Union however. The undefeated Lee had been repulsed, although at a frightening cost, and the governments of France and England wavered in their support of the Confederacy. Any hopes that they would recognize the fledgling Confederate States of America were smashed when Lincoln used the victory to issue the Emancipation Proclamation. By making the war about slavery he ensured that the European powers would shun the Confederate cause. Although the war would rage on for two and a half more bloody years, an unseen turning point had been reached. Ultimately the Confederacy was doomed.