American Civil War
Wednesday, 17 September 1862
Army of the Potomac under George B. McClellan: approx 74,000, 294 Guns
Army of Northern Virginia under Robert E. Lee: approx 35,000, 230 Guns
Weather: Rainstorm the night before, ending in the early morning hours. Ground fog at dawn for an hour or so. Otherwise clear, though the air was apparently windless and heavy, becoming "smoggy" with gunsmoke pretty quickly.
Sunrise: 05:53 Sunset: 18:16
( NOAA Improved Sunrise/Sunset Calculator from date and coordinates)
Caveats: Okay. Let me be upfront right off. This isn't an obscure battle to aficionadi of the American Civil War. Get over it. I named this domain "Obscure Battles" for this blog years ago, when my first articles were a series of obscure battles (to most normal people). And I have since done battles much more well known--at least to people who paid attention in their high school history classes and don't get all their information from Tik Tok. So it is with this.
As usual, my own take on this battle is what is obscure. And, I'm sure, wrong.
Perhaps as much as any battle in American history (or world history for that matter), Antietam is rich with detail and anecdotes of the fighting. I have to admit, in writing up this vast battle, it is tedious to cover all of it. For those of you wanting juicy, minute-by-minute accounts I heartily recommend Stephen Sears' book, Landscape Turned Red, or John Priest's collection of personal memoirs, Antietam: The Soldiers' Battle. These and other books listed in my bibliography below. Otherwise I'm going to cover the broad action.
A Personal Note: Two decades ago I visited this battlefield and spent three days
there walking over almost every inch of the ground, listening to Park
Rangers/Historians (like Paul Chiles) describe the battle. So it has a
personal appeal to me, something I had meant to write about and do maps
of for some time. So while this is not an "obscure battle", it is certainly something I have been working on for several years.
This map shows unit positions at the beginning of the battle, from just before sunrise to about 06:30. Details of the ground, the nature of the crops in the fields, the fences and roads, were derived from the incredibly detailed series of maps done by Carman and Cope from 1899 to 1908, on the Library of Congress's Website. The footprint of the unit markers are to scale, based on reported or estimated strength levels. ©Jeffery P.Berry Trust 2023 protected by Digimarc digital watermark.
A mess of a battle that ironically saved the Union and freed four million Americans from slavery
Because my country and its media seem to be writhing in the dark fantasy of another impending civil war (I mean, wouldn't that be fun?), I've been thinking of and re-reading histories of our last one. As with all contemplation of history, the parallels are chilling. And frustrating how we never seem to learn. But fortunately there are also fundamental differences. Nevertheless, I felt compelled to deal with this battle, which though a tactical mess, turned out to be a turning point, not just in the American Civil War, but in the history of human rights in my country and the world.
Toward the late summer of 1862— well into the second year of the war—things were looking pretty dire for the survival of the American republic. Though there had been some Union victories in the West (Shiloh, Fort Donelson, Fort Henry, Pea Ridge, and New Orleans), and though the Confederacy was increasingly blockaded from its trade with Europe by the U.S. Navy, things were not looking good for the United States. Anti-American parties in Europe's two superpowers, the U.K. and Napoleon III's France, were clamoring for their governments to intervene and put an end to the American experiment in self-government, which had too long been regarded as a bunch of arrogant, shrill trouble-makers. The textile industries in Europe were also in terrible recession because of the cut-off of Southern cotton due to the Union blockade. While the U.K. would eventually exploit its recently acquired empire in India as an alternative source of cotton and though there was enough warehoused supply in England to last until the end of 1862, that country faced record unemployment in its huge textile industry. Because of this, the Civil War was having a political knock-on effect on Britain's Liberal Palmerston Government. Even though Britain and France had both outlawed the slave trade in their own empires, they hypocritically reaped economic rewards from its continuation in the United States. They were getting intense domestic and political pressure at home to end the American Civil War, to recognize the Confederacy (even with and especially for its slavery), and to get on with life. Sheeze!
had long realized that the true animus behind Southern secession and the
war had been slavery. He ran for office on eradicating it. And when he
was elected, the Southern state legislatures, anticipating his
anti-slavery agenda, just took it upon themselves to start leaving the
Union one after another, as some (especially South Carolina) had been
repeatedly threatening to do practically since the Constitution was
ratified 72 years before. It's a threat we've heard time and time again
ever since, whenever certain states think their "rights" as states have
been violated by a "tyrannical" Federal government. I don't think an
election year goes by without Texas threatening secession.
the second year of the war, Lincoln realized that in order to retain
the continued backing of his own newly-formed Republican Party, he had
to move toward Emancipation, but without losing the remaining slave
states in the Union to secession (Kentucky, Maryland, Missouri, and the
soon-to-be newest state of West Virginia). This was also a midterm
election year, and, as in most midterms, the incumbent party was worried
about losing seats in Congress. So "Abolitionist" Republicans were
clamoring that something be done to move forward the single issue that
had swept them into power in 1860 in the first place. This issue was
something that was the elephant in the room. (Get it? "elephant"?
Republican Party?...oh, never mind.)
But there was a slight problem.
until the summer of 1862, except in the West as I mentioned above, the Union had been
suffering defeat after defeat on the battlefield. The two major European powers, Great Britain and France, were debating whether to intervene to
impose an end to the war and recognize the Confederacy, and resume their
importation of cotton, which, as I said, was vital to those countries'
textile industries. For Britain, the strongest of the European powers
(economically at least), the hypocrisy of backing a slave power like the
Confederacy held a political booby trap. Britain had officially
outlawed slavery since 1834 throughout their empire (well, officially
anyway). Certainly there was mass unemployment and recession, but to
come to the open defense of slave drivers would have spelled political
suicide in the Palmerston Liberal Government. The Tories were loudly clamoring for intervention, hoping for the final end to the American "experiment" and the re-acquisition of Britain's North American colonies. Parliament and the Palmerston government were being
lobbied heavily by Confederate emissaries to do so, citing their
faction's cavalcade of military victories in Virginia and Kentucky.
Napoleon III of France was personally less anti-slavery, or at least indifferent to it, and somewhat prone to support the Confederacy if it would back his long attempt to add Mexico to his empire. But it was still a political gamble for him to openly support another country's secessionist region if doing so would harm his own country's economy. Also, like the U.K., France had officially abolished slavery throughout its empire at the inauguration of the 2nd Republic in 1848. But the French economy was still limping from its stalemated war against Austria in Italy two years before. And Napoleon III's adventure in Mexico was stalling (e.g. the disastrous French defeat at the Battle of Puebla on el Cinco de Mayo five months before). So the Confederate envoys were hopeful they could persuade the French dictator to back their case for recognition in exchange for supporting the claim of his hoped-for client, Emperor Maximilian I (and Last) of Mexico (actually, and ironically, an Austrian.)
But by September the
American government was sensing things could flip either way for it in
Europe. An intervention by either Britain or France could spell disaster
for the Union. Much as an intervention by so-called "neutral" powers to enforce a ceasefire in Ukraine could spell disaster for the existence of that country today.
Though Lincoln had drafted and polished his
Emancipation Proclamation since July of 1862, he felt and was advised by
his cabinet and party that, if issued prematurely, it would merely seem
like a last, pathetically desperate gesture, and might actually
precipitate foreign intervention. He was also worried about losing the
four remaining slave states (so you don't have to scroll up: Kentucky, Missouri, Maryland, West Virginia). He'd
also risk losing the backing of the wavering pro-Union Democrats in the
North, who weren't all that keen on emancipation, which their base
considered an entirely different issue from secession. There was a
midterm election looming in November and Lincoln was worried about
losing his Republican majority in Congress. If all of these threats were
to materialize, the country would go down blub-blub, without having
practically emancipated one enslaved person or saving the Union.
As I reread all of
this history of my country's Civil War, I was struck by the parallels in
our own times with the economic and political stress all of the NATO
countries and other democracies in the world are feeling from Russia's
current invasion of Ukraine. All of the free democracies have declared
moral opposition to it, and doing what they can to support the
Ukrainians, but they are also suffering economically from the sanctions
on Russian energy exports and most recently by the grain blockade
re-initiated by Putin's Russia on Ukraine (reneging on an earlier agreement not to interfere with those). In 1862 the British and French, as well as smaller European countries, were feeling the same moral vs economic dilemma vis-a-vis the American Civil War, but over cotton instead of fossil fuels and grain. The only factor that isn't the same is that no one had nuclear weapons back in 1862.
by September, Lincoln needed one game-changing victory in the East,
closer to Washington and the press, before he felt he had the political
capital to issue his Emancipation Proclamation and give the country that
higher moral purpose for the war. It was initially about secession, of
course; but the reason the Confederate states seceded in the first place was their
opposition to emancipation. They were inextricably linked.
|George B. McClellan|
Posing as "The Young Napoleon"
He did love to pose.
Yet Lincoln's tools were dull.
with the string of incompetent generals he had appointed to lead the
Eastern Theater armies, who all had presided over defeat after defeat,
and after the last humiliation of Second Bull Run
in mid-August, Lincoln was forced to offer the command again to George
McClellan. The President was reluctant to do this because McClellan had
spectacularly failed in his Peninsula Campaign in Virginia earlier in
the year. "The Young Napoleon", as his fawning entourage and the Democratic press
nicknamed him, actually won battle after battle in that venture (the Seven Days Battles),
inflicting horrific casualties on the outnumbered Confederates. And yet
after each tactical victory, seizing defeat from the jaws of victory, The Young Napoleon would retreat. He did this over and over until he
backed himself against the James River. Lincoln, exasperated by
McClellan's ineptitude, cowardice, and weak excuses, finally ordered him
to pack up and come back to Washington, relieving the Young Napoleon of
command. "Little Mac" (as he was supposedly also fondly known by the Union
soldiers, though I suspect that was so much press puffery too) blamed
his failure in the Peninsula on Lincoln (whom he dubbed "a Well-Meaning Baboon" and, "the Original Gorilla"...and probably other simian
epithets) for not sending him enough reinforcements, and ammunition, and other supplies. He had been
complaining throughout the campaign that instead of vastly outnumbering the
Rebels (as was actually the case), it was he who was outnumbered; his estimate of Lee's army growing by 100,000 each week.
was one of those blustery generals who was more concerned with the
press and his self-image that with actual fighting. He frequently wrote
his wife, Ellen, describing himself as the country's savior, appointed
by God. He actually wrote this, over and over. He must have been a eye-rolling joke for those non-sycophantic officers on his staff and under his command.
And certainly we've seen enough of his self-anointed, "heroic-victim"
type in our own time (not naming any names). I have long wondered what Ellen, his wife, really
thought of him. Did she "Yes, Dear," him throughout the war?
Confederacy, on the other hand, was blessed with McClellan's almost exact opposite. Robert
E. Lee had been appointed command of the Army of Northern Virginia (ANV)
by President Jefferson Davis since the wounding of its previous
commander, Joe Johnston, during the Battle of Seven Pines during the Peninsula Campaign.
It was Lee who was responsible for the bitch-slapping of the Army of
the Potomac month after month throughout the summer of 1862. Though the
Union troops in Virginia had fought ferociously, they had been led by
one incompetent commanding general after another (including McClellan).
Lee seemed unstoppable. Even when he lost a battle (as he did
throughout the Seven Days Battles and would again at Antietam—ooops,
spoiler), he never quit. And his men grew to feel they were invincible,
even when hungry, barefoot, and skinny from starvation. The prevailing
myth among them was that one Johnny Reb could lick ten Billy Yanks.
of the global implications of the Confederacy's survival, Lee and
Jeff Davis concurred that while the ANV was beating the Yankees in
battle after battle on Virginia soil, it was strategically vital to take
the war up North to prove to the world's superpowers that the
Confederacy was going to win, and that it would be best for those powers
to intervene to back its independence. Oh, and yeah, to resume the flow of cotton to European mills—an economic crisis I'll elaborate on below.
And even though the South was for
the time winning battle after battle in Virginia, the fact that so much of the war
was fought in that state meant that Virginia farmers, commerce, and
people were suffering. It was another reason to take the war into the
North. Make the people of Maryland and Pennsylvania suffer and see how
long they'd support the war. Also, many in the South were
convinced that the people of Maryland would rise up and join them (being
in a slave state themselves). This was based partly on the Confederate
misperceptions of the significance of the Baltimore Riot in
1861 and the somewhat pro-Confederacy sentiments in eastern Maryland,
particularly on the Chesapeake. But western Marylanders were, for the
most part, not pro-secession at all. They wanted to stay out of it. It
reminds me of the gross miscalculation that Vladimir Putin made of his
reception in "liberating" Ukraine earlier in 2022. Like the Ukrainians,
the white people of western Maryland had no interest in being "liberated" by the
Confederates. In fact, as Lee was to find to his chagrin, his invasion
would set off a virulent pro-Union backlash in Maryland.
after its humiliating defeat at Second Bull Run, the Army of the
Potomac had been reforming around Washington. As I earlier pointed out,
Lincoln felt he had no choice but to fire its latest hapless commander,
John Pope, and, running out of available talent, reinstate McClellan. As
the Young Napoleon had initially organized the Army of the Potomac, he
seemed the likely man to reorganize it. Lincoln, though, was not
optimistic about McClellan; he just felt he had no other option at the
|Not all papers admired "The Young Napoleon".|
historic claim to his popularity has always mystified me. When
McClellan was the Army of the Potomac's commander during the Peninsula,
he had not exactly shown brilliance, nor followed up the repeated
battlefield victories of his troops with strategic offense; he just kept
retreating and retreating until his back was to the James River. But then his
reputed military genius may have been propped up by biased reporting
of the press lackeys who were following McClellan, Democrat-biased papers like The New York Herald,
as well as the subsequently published letters the Commanding General
himself had written to his wife, whining about how nobody appreciated
him and that he had only nit-wits to work with... blah, blah, blah. In fact, he said again and again how
nothing was his fault; it was always those "traitors in Washington" who
wouldn't send him enough troops. Or sandwiches.
Since some isolated experiences during the Mexican-American War fifteen years before, he also had no actual combat experience. The only other battle he had remotely been close to was Rich Mountain in
1861, where, like the Peninsula and, we'll see, later Antietam, he had led from the
rear. This small battle he prematurely assumed he lost because he heard
Rebel cheering in the distance. But it was his subordinate, William Rosecrans, who counterattacked and beat the Confederates, a feat which Li'l Mac was quick to take credit for.
have long wondered if McClellan's reputation for popularity with the
army was only in his own imagination and that of his entourage of press
sycophants. The Civil War was seventy-five years before George Gallup
invented the first public opinion poll. So back then the best political
assessment of the mood of the electorate was taken by the mood of the press,
of which each paper was extremely partisan (Not like today.). Lincoln knew this, and was
skeptical of the Democratic press's claims of McClellan's reported
popularity. But Lincoln himself was not so prescient as to flaunt
McClellan's appeal to the troops reported in those papers, or among the
Northern Democrats still in Congress. Lincoln was a consummate
politician, so for the most part went by his gut instead of polls or newspaper opinions.
But the president was galled to have to turn back to McClellan, who had shown Lincoln and his whole cabinet unconcealed disdain for months, and had displayed himself as a self-preening clown. When he had been ordered to go to the reinforcement of General Pope fighting the Second Battle of Bull Run, he blatantly held his Army of the Potomac back until Pope was defeated. Talk about traitors!
But things changed with Lee's crossing the Potomac, putting the capital itself in peril. Lincoln felt he didn't yet have anyone else he could turn to. The president had been warned by his staff that McClellan (a rabid, anti-abolitionist Democrat) had political ambitions himself and there had been rumors of his plotting to turn on Washington and install himself as a military dictator. But, in extremis, Lincoln felt he had to work with the tools he had in his box. And McClellan was certainly a tool. Lincoln later wrote to another AOTP commander, General Hooker, when he subsequently turned to him to command, even after rumors of Hooker's off-record remarks about himself installing a military dictatorship, "What I now ask of you is military success, and I will risk the dictatorship." I'm sure he was thinking of that in having to turn to McClellan in September 1862.
"We'll be welcomed as liberators!"
days after Second Bull Run (2 Sept), Lee decided to act. After
replenishing the ANV from the captured Union depot stocks at Manassas
Junction, he began to move his army of 50,000 up to White's Ford on the
Potomac, just 23 miles up river from D.C. Freed of the threat to
Richmond by the withdrawal of nearly all the Federal troops back to
Washington, and of the perceived diplomatic need to goad the European
powers into recognizing the Confederacy's viability, Lee and Davis both
recognized that now was the time to take the war north to prove that the
South was winning their independence.
Unfortunately, as the ANV started
moving, it was subsequently reduced by desertion of an
men who, tired of fighting barefoot and starving, reasoned that they
had done their part by
driving back the Yankees from their home states.The Southern enthusiasm for their war of independence was not universal, and, in many
cases extended no farther than the gates of their own farms. The saying among the Confederate rank-and-file was, "Rich man's war, poor man's fight." As few as 10% of soldiers owned slaves themselves, and as few as 25% came from families who did. It was the principle of the thing to them. And they were also inflamed by the Southern press, politicians, and their own preachers that the freeing of slaves would unleash rapine and murder upon their families (a familiar argument by anti-immigration politicians throughout American history, up until and including today).
Also many soldiers in Lee's army felt that they had been lied to when they had originally signed up for a twelve month enlistment, only to have their government rescind that agreement that April and unilaterally extended it to three years, or "the duration of the war" (a vague loop hole). The Confederate Congress thereby enacted the first universal conscription act in American history, drafting all men from 18-35. So much for fighting for freedom! These admittedly war-time laws flew in the face what these patriots had volunteered for; liberty. So thousands of those one-year Confederate consignees were deserting in droves, believing they had been betrayed, and, at the very least, had done their duty by defending their home state (not the Confederacy at large).
After all these desertions, by the time Lee had crossed into Maryland his
army was down to about 35,000. But, it must be said, those remaining
were the most dedicated—and lethal.
The first units started crossing on 4 September. Fortunately the water level on the Potomac at this time of year was low, so the men took off their pants (and what shoes they had) and, balancing these and packs and muskets on their heads, were able to wade across the 360 yard (320 m) wide river relatively easily at White's and Cheek's Fords. By the 7th nearly all of the remaining men of the ANV had crossed into Maryland.
Pants off, everybody! White's Ford looking from the Virginia side of the Potomac. (You'll have to pardon my crude mosaicing of the panoramic image. I made it from a sequence of shots I took in 2001 with my old, manual Nikon F.) ©Jeffery P.Berry Trust 2023 protected by Digimarc digital watermark.
Like the current invasion of Ukraine by Russia we are witnessing in our own time (or should I say, "Special Military Operation"?), Lee and Davis had grossly misjudged the reception they expected in Maryland. As I mentioned above, they had anticipated that Maryland, a slave state itself, would, when "liberated", rise up and join The Cause. This miscalculation stemmed from poor local intelligence and an over-reliance on the pro-Democrat Baltimore press, suggesting that all of Maryland was ready to join the Rebellion. Eastern Marylanders did tend to sympathize with the South. But not Western Marylanders, through whose towns and farms the ANV now marched. Many people defiantly displayed Stars-n-Stripes flags from their windows, including the immortalized 95 year-old Barbara Fritchie in Frederick, who was misquoted in Whittier's jingoistic poem, "'Shoot if you must, this old grey head/But spare your country's flag,' she said". There has been considerable controversy if this incident was Barbara herself, or other women in other towns the Secesh army marched through. There were several anecdotes of women waving American flags from their houses, and some reports of women wrapping themselves in that flag and daring the Rebs to shoot them. Mostly people watched the marching Johnnies out of sullen curiosity, but decidedly, not cheering. So in spite of the optimism of thousands of pro-secession Marylanders joining their ranks, fewer than 200 did, hardly enough to replace the 15,000 deserters "who had done enough."
The ANV now fanned out into several enterprises. Though it is commonly thought to be a cardinal sin in war, Lee, though usually on the numerically inferior side, frequently split his force to confuse the enemy. It was one of his signature moves. To him, that enemy was a single man, McClellan, and from his experience with the Young Napoleon in the Peninsula, he felt he knew his boy. Lee could split up his army and spread it all over western Maryland and knew that McClellan would take no chances, move slow, (the Northern pro-Republican press had nicknamed him "Tardy George"), and not be a problem.
Black Americans being driven to Virginia from Maryland as "contraband" by Lee's cavalry.
I'm sure these people welcomed their Liberators. Harper's Illustration, Nov 1862
Also, during this and Lee's subsequent invasion of Pennsylvania the next year, Confederate cavalry took it upon themselves, in their confiscation of private property as a necessity of war, to include the confiscation (or, let's call it what it was, kidnapping) of Black Americans as "contraband", driving them back into Virginia to be sold as slaves. Many were legally free citizens of Maryland. It didn't matter. Though there doesn't seem to be direct evidence that Lee himself officially ordered this slave raid on Americans, he certainly turned a blind eye on it.
Lee had written a secret order, the infamous Order 191, to four of his generals (Longstreet, Jackson, D.H.Hill, and McLaws) to take their respective commands in four directions. Longstreet was to take 10,000 men and move northwest to Hagerstown, near the Pennsylvania border. D.H.Hill was to follow with his 5,000 and block the northern passes over the long South Mountain into western Maryland. Jackson was to take his corps , about 13,000, up to seize Martinsburg on the upper Potomac and then back down the Virginia side to seize the main Federal depot at Harper's Ferry at the confluence of the Potomac and Shenandoah Rivers. John Walker was to take his 3,400 up onto Loudon Heights on the Virginia side of Harper's Ferry to shell if from that dominating position. And finally Lafayette McClaws was to take 7,000 men (including Dick Anderson's division) and occupy the southern part of Elk Mountain, overlooking Harper's Ferry from the Potomac's Maryland shore. It was a bold and complex operation. (See map below.)
Movement of forces from the 3rd to the 13th of September. Remember,
light source on the mountains is coming from the bottom right...you
know...where the sun rises. People have objected t the way I portray
shadows in these maps as confusing, thinking that, conventionally, one
should portray shadows coming from a light source to the upper
left...oh, never mind. ©Jeffery P.Berry Trust 2023 protected by Digimarc digital watermark.
|Copy of Special Order 191|
discovered lying in a meadow and hand delivered to
General McClellan, potentially changing the war.
When McClellan received this unlikely intelligence windfall the morning of Saturday, the 13th,
one of his staff officers, who had worked with Jackson's chief-of-staff
before the war, verified the signature and handwriting, and therefore
the authenticity. McClellan immediately realized this gift of fate and,
jumping up, exclaimed, "Now I know what to do! Here is a paper with
which, if I cannot whip Bobby Lee, I will be willing to go home."
Anyway, that's what he wrote his wife Ellen that he said. Oh, had she
but been there to applaud his dramatic soliloquy! Her hero! (Or, "Yes,
dear, that's nice.")
Guess what: He did nothing. Good ol' Li'l Mac never disappointed. For six hours after receiving this decisive intelligence—all day long, in fact—no orders were issued. The Army of the Potomac just settled in around Frederick. Then after sunset, McClellan finally got around to writing orders for his commanders for the following morning—as if Lee's army were just settling in too.
the incredible intelligence that Lee had split up his army ironically
reinforced another of McClellan's fears. It validated his belief in the
overwhelming force under Lee. No responsible commander would dissipate
his force unless that force was vastly superior to the enemy. So George
reasoned, and it was seconded by his incompetent intelligence chief,
Allan Pinkerton, that Lee must have 200,000—no, make that
half-a-million men! Lee, himself reading all of the same Northern
newspapers that McClellan read, knew about McClellan's delusions, and
probably chuckled to himself, knowing that it would inhibit Tardy
George's reaction. Some historians have speculated that the leak of
Lee's plans was deliberate, with the goal of reinforcing McClellan's
belief in the size of the ANV. But it would seem to be an inefficient
way to plant a psych in a package of cigars in a random field, hoping
some random soldiers would just happen upon it.
So, before the decisive battle is even joined, both sides commit colossal blunders: 1) Lee spreads his army out and, through criminally lax security, blows his plan to his enemy. And 2) McClellan gets this God-given look into his adversary's plans and vulnerabilities, and fails to act.
But wait... it gets better...South Mountain and Harper's Ferry
It wasn't until Sunday the 14th that the Army of the Potomac started to move towards its objectives, the two gaps through South Mountain (Turner's and Crampton's), with the target being Longstreet's Corps, cutting it off from Jackson and McLaws off to the south, besieging Harper's Ferry (See map above). Of course, during the night, Lee's own spy on McClellan's staff had plenty of time to get word to him that the Yankees had his plans and were getting ready to act. Lee ordered Longstreet to pull back to Boonesboro from his foray up to Hagerstown, and for D.H.Hill to move his 5,000 men back to Turner's Gap (the northernmost pass) to fortify it and block the Yankees. He also alerted McLaws and J.E.B. Stuart to send over some troops from their expedition to Harper's Ferry back east to block Crampton's Gap, about 9 miles south of Turner's Gap. Their mission was to delay the advance of McClellan long enough for Lee to pull in his army and find a defensive position...let's see...ohhhh...here...at this little town called Sharpsburg (imagine a cinematic zoom-in shot of a map with Lee's finger pointing to the spot.)
Action at Turner's Gap on Sunday, the 14th. Library of Congress
The actions around the three gaps over South Mountain got lugubriously going as the first Union troops under Burnside and Franklin started making their way up three paths through the woods, eventually encountering D.H.Hill's Confederates and some of McLaws' troops waiting behind some stone walls. This battle unfolded slowly as more and more of the Union First, Sixth, and Ninth Corps brigades came up over the long day. At first Hill had only a handful of men and guns to hold back the Yankees, but gradually Longstreet fed him more and more. Eventually, by the end of the day there were something like 28,000 Federals and 18,000 Confederates engaged, with a total of about 5,000 casualties between them. The Yankees didn't break through on that day, owing to the slowness of McClellan again, and Lee's men withdrew after the sun went down, having felt they had done their job of holding off the Blue Wave long enough for Jackson to take Harper's Ferry and Lee to prepare his defense at Sharpsburg. So let's give South Mountain to the Confederates— at least strategically.
Jesse Reno (after whom Reno, Nevada was named—but you probably already knew that), commander of Ninth Corps, was the only decisive general under McClellan that day, and had led his men first up the hill at Turner's Gap that morning. He was, unfortunately, shot dead early in the fight. The other commanders—Burnside, Franklin, Hooker, and finally, McClellan himself— just didn't feel the urgency. Some, like "Baldy" Smith (2nd Div, Sixth Corps) and Darius Couch (1st Div, Fourth Corps), were AWOL the whole damn day. Smith said he got a late start. And nobody seemed to know where the hell Couch was; he showed up late that night, explaining he got lost. Yeah, right. McClellan, as usual, was no help at all. Unlike Lee, who kept close touch with all of his commanders, McClellan just didn't seem to care. He was busy posing for the press and writing love letters to his wife about how he was about to go into battle. He was a commander that loved the idea of being in charge but just didn't like to do the actual charging.
Meanwhile, down south at Harper's Ferry, the Union garrison commander, Col. Dixon Miles, was busy doing nothing as well. By the 13th he had let himself be completely surrounded by Jackson, Walker, and McLaws. He had originally about 11,500 men under his command, and this was added to by another 2,500 when Gen. Julius White retreating down from Martinsburg in front of Jackson's wide sweeping movement (see campaign map above). Gen. White, though senior to Miles, deferred to the colonel out of respect for that officer's long veteranship (38 years in the Army), while Miles was merely a businessman who had obtained his commission from political favors at the start of the war. Before the 13th Miles had more than enough men to eject McLaws' and Walker's troops from the Maryland Heights to the north and the Loudon Heights to the east across the Shenandoah River. But aside from a contingent he dispatched up to Maryland Heights, he chose to sit tight, explaining to his complaining officers, "I am ordered to hold this place and God damn my soul to Hell if I don't.." When Jackson showed up at the Bolivar Heights overlooking the town from the west that morning, the Confederates had a superiority of two-to-one and three dominating positions, with more than 50 guns. Miles stayed put. Though his men had been fighting off the Rebs, and even managed to push them back from Bolivar Heights on the 13th, he ordered them back down the hill into the town. A squad of Union cavalry under Capt. Charles Russell crept out of town late that night and made its way up to find McClellan in Frederick. McClellan did write orders for Franklin to break through Crampton's Gap and relieve Harper's Ferry, and sent three couriers to Miles with orders to hold on at all costs; that help was on the way. But those messengers never managed to reach Miles.
By the morning of the 15th, after a day of relentless bombardment, Miles told his officers he had done all he could and had decided to surrender. His officers and men were furious. They told him they could break out, across the pontoon bridge to Maryland and fight their way up to join McClellan. But Miles sighed and said no, it was all over. Unfortunately (or fortunately), a cannonball hit him in the leg at that moment and he died the next day, ingloriously and in agony (and, based on his oath from the previous day," damned in Hell"). His successor, Gen. White, chose to obey Miles' last order and surrender the town, all its magazine and stores, and 12,600 men without further resistance.
|B.F. "Grimes" Davis|
Union cavalry officer who used
his southern drawl to fool
Confederate troops in the dark.
One has to wonder about those remaining twelve thousand-plus Union troops who were meekly surrendered by their commander. Had they followed Davis across the pontoon bridge, would they have been been put to good use two days later at Antietam? Judging by the way we'll see how McClellan would use the overwhelming force he already had, probably not.
Anyway, Miles' surrender of Harper's Ferry came just in time for Lee and at the worst time for McClellan. For now the 26,000 Confederates that were used in its siege were free to head northwest to consolidate the whole ANV at Sharpsburg. While the Union victories at Crampton's and Turner's Gaps over South Mountain on the 14th had forced Lee to frantically withdraw his thinned out troops to Sharpsburg, McClellan, true to form and still far behind the lines, decided to rest his army once more and wait for supplies to come up. Li'l Mac was far more comfortable micromanaging logistics than leading combat operations. So he gave Lee an extra day to draw in his scattered army and set up his positions the high ground west of Antietam Creek.
Late on Monday the 15th, McClellan finally ordered his army to tentatively begin reconnoitering the Confederate positions around Sharpsburg, but would not authorize any aggressive moves. By the morning of the 16th he had a three-to-one superiority in place against Lee. But he yawned, put his feet up on his camp desk in front of Pry's farmhouse, and said there was time the next day to begin his assault. Lincoln had been sending him urgent messages after his report of the minor victories at the South Mountain gaps on the 14th, urging him to press on and destroy the disunited Rebel army. But the Young Napoleon apparently had no intention of doing so. As he wrote his wife, he felt his primary job was to persuade Lee to go back to Virginia, which, to him seemed to be happening, and to do so without any unpleasantness. So to him it was time to celebrate his great strategic victory. You just want to slap this incompetent, self-important little dip. Though he was reportedly popular among some of this troops, he was the worst possible commander at the nation's most critical time.
Lee, pretty nervous himself, was tensely awaiting the arrival of Jackson, McLaws, Walker and the rest of the commands who had just captured Harper's Ferry. Gradually those forces began to come up on the 15th and 16th. A.P. Hill's 3,600 men were still managing the captured 12,600 Federals and shipping off the captured stores (including Black people) south and wouldn't arrive until late on the 17th. But for the two days of McClellan's leisure, the Confederates grew stronger around Sharpsburg. By sunset on the 16th, though, they still numbered only around 30,000 to McClellan's 74,000.
And McClellan continued to do nothing. Based on his "gut", and on the horrible assessments provided by Pinkerton, his incompetent intelligence chief, and his refusal to use his own cavalry to feel out the enemy, he assumed that it was Lee who outnumbered him, by 100,000 men or more.
Lee, though probably biting his fingernails, knew his enemy. He knew that McClellan had never personally led in a battle himself, and that he was a coward, preferring to hang back, observing through "heavy lenses", to risk nothing, and retreat at the first check. The Confederate was counting on this posturing phony to act as he had in the Peninsula earlier that year.
What Lee didn't count on was the ferocity of the Union rank and file. After the Rebel victories in the first part of 1862, there was a confidence among the Southern troops that one of them could whip ten Yankees. But, as we'll see, this was to prove fatal overconfidence. The Bluecoats were itching for payback.
Not until the 17th, almost two days after Lee had built up his army and dug in, did McClellan issue orders to attack. His overall plan was for a double envelopment. Joe Hooker's First Corps (recently inherited from Burnside) and Mansfield's Twelfth Corps were supposed to cross the Antietam Creek via the Upper Bridge at Pry's Mill (see deployment map at the top of this post) and hit Lee's left from the north with their combined 17,000 men. Meanwhile, further south on the Antietam, Burnside,with his reinforced command of Ninth Corps (about 13,000) was supposed to rush over the Lower Bridge (then called the Rohrersville Bridge and later dubbed Burnside's Bridge) and roll up the Rebels from the opposite flank; a double envelopment. The rest of the army (Second, Fifth, Sixth Corps, the Cavalry, and most of the artillery— 42,000) was supposed to stay on the east side of the Antietam in reserve, awaiting events. Characteristically, though, McClellan only spoke of this strategy in the broadest, most abstract terms to his lieutenants, issuing no direct orders. He felt that his generals would know what to do and when.
He gave Hooker permission to take his First Corps over the river in the late afternoon of the 16th and set up for the next day's "surprise" enveloping attack. Hooker did this and exchanged a few skirmishing blows with John Bell Hood's Rebel division, then settled down for the night. All this did was alert Lee and Jackson to the "surprise" attack, giving them all night to swing forces into position on the threatened north flank and dig in for it. Honestly, I don't know what McClellan was thinking. Later that night Hooker's First Corps was followed by Mansfield's Twelfth Corps, almost as an afterthought. Compounding his ineptitude McClellan gave orders that no fires were to be lit as the troops bedded down, you know, so as not to give away his "surprise" (really?). As it started to rain, the troops spent a pretty miserable night.
The other bonehead thing McClellan did in preparation for his battle was to keep all his cavalry (under Pleasonton) bunched together on the east side of the Antietam, "in reserve". Evidently, the Young Napoleon thought this is what the Old Napoleon would've done (like at Waterloo, Borodino, or Eylau), regarding his cavalry as some kind of killer punch to be used at the climax of the battle—or something. By the middle of the 19th century cavalry, which had become vulnerable to long range artillery and rifle fire, had not been used this way for decades (except suicidally— see the Charge of the Light Brigade at Balaclava, or my post about the end of the Battle of Cedar Mountain) and had evolved into primarily a reconnoitering, screening, and raiding arm. Neither McClellan nor Pleasonton used it this way, though. In fact, McClellan himself, seven years earlier, had actually personally witnessed the debacle of the Crimean War as a military attaché, including the misuse of cavalry, and even went on to write a cavalry manual—out of date before publication. So in holding his cavalry back, he prevented it from screening his own maneuvers and blinded himself to what his enemy was doing. Brilliant!
(Are you getting the impression that I don't like this guy?)
Evidently, in delaying his attack all during the 16th, McClellan hoped that Bobby Lee would take the opportunity to retreat. Instead Bobby used that opportunity to build up his forces as they marched up from Harper's Ferry. McClellan also evidently believed he was still outnumbered by Lee; that the Confederates had at least 100,000 men, three times what they in fact had.
The front lawn of this Pry Mansion was quite a convivial spot for a picnic and for McClellan to look across the stream and countryside. It was also quite out of range of any enemy artillery or cavalry raids. ©Jeffery P.Berry Trust 2023 protected by Digimarc digital watermark.
Panorama toward the battlefield from the hill behind the Pry House. This was on a clear day, without smoke or morning haze, so you can see very little out to the actual front from here.
©Jeffery P.Berry Trust 2023 protected by Digimarc digital watermark.
Well...we might as well start the battle.
At 5:30 on the 17th Hooker, on his own initiative, still having no direct orders from McClellan to attack, started his offensive at dawn. Mansfield's Twelfth Corps was still in bivouac a mile to the rear of
Hooker's, having been up almost all night crossing the Antietam, so were just starting to brew coffee
when the battle started. On the Confederate side, during the wee hours, Jackson had reinforced Lee's northern wing partially behind hastily thrown-up breastworks from the dismantled fence rails along the Hagerstown Pike. And he sent out hundreds of skirmishers into the West and East Woods to harass the bivouacking Yankees.
Hooker had about 9,200 men and 43 guns in his First Corps, backed up by Mansfield's Corps with some 8,000 men with 38 guns. Not an overwhelming force against Lee's left flank, imagined by McClellan's gut to be as many as a million men, (actually a little over 15,000 with 74 guns). Moreover, Lee held interior lines while the Army of the Potomac was stretched out around a six mile arc, bisected by the Antietam Creek, further squandering McClellan's numerical advantage. The Young Napoleon's tactical plan couldn't have been worse.
Reprise of the map at the top of this post, so you won't have to scroll up. Isn't that considerate of me? This is the situation about half-an-hour after the beginning of Hooker's advance.
©Jeffery P.Berry Trust 2023 protected by Digimarc digital watermark.
Hooker's primary objective at this time was a small, stone church (officially The German Baptist Church of the Brethren, but snarkily nicknamed by the less evangelical locals "the Dunkers" after their rite of full immersion baptism). The path of Hooker's first wave of attack was across a cornfield between the West Woods and the East Woods, hereafter called by it's generic "The Cornfield". None of these features had these names at the start of the battle; they were probably originally named for the lands' owners (Miller, Poffenberger, Morrison). But they all became the sites of such carnage that they were capitalized by historians and the National Park Service since.
|Dunker Church in 2001. Doesn't really look like a |
church, does it? Those German Baptists were real
fundamentalists.©Jeffery P.Berry Trust 2023 Digimarc protected
Hooker's divisions under Ricketts and Doubleday launched their charge toward the Dunker Church through the Cornfield, Miller's meadow, and the West Woods in waves, only to be cut down by the Confederates waiting behind the makeshift barricades as they emerged from the rows of corn into the open. Rather than immediately retreating, though, they stood and returned fire. Both sides took terrible casualties, some of the highest rates in the war, until they ran out of ammunition and reluctantly withdrew, only to be replaced by supporting brigades. The Rebels' and Lee's cockiness that one Johnny Reb was worth ten Billy Yanks was quickly dispelled. These Yankees were tough sons-o-bitches and eager to give back on the humiliating losses of the Peninsula, Second Bull Run, Cedar Mountain, and the other defeats they had endured prior to Antietam (mostly due to the incompetence of their commanders, not to the cowardice of the soldiers).
One of the many waves of Union attacks toward the Dunker Church that morning
Salon painting by Thurle de Thulstrup, 1887
As if illustrating this rank-and-file resolve vs incompetent leadership, one brigade commander, Col. William H. Christian, lost his nerve and seemed to become deranged as he had his troops perform a series of parade-ground evolutions while under fire from Confederate artillery. Many were killed during this pointless ritual, and yet, under their company officers, the men closed ranks and did not break. But their commander did. Mumbling something about being unused to such carnage (though he was a long veteran of combat), he suddenly just started walking to the rear. He sadly ended up resigning his commission two days later. But I'm not judging. Considering all the years of combat he had endured, he probably just broke from PTSD. But his men didn't. They went forward and fought hard, killing as many as they were killed.
For about an hour Hooker's corps engaged in this mutual massacre. Hooker himself, unlike Christian (and especially unlike McClellan), rode back and forth along the thickest of the fighting, losing many staff officers, exposing himself to the slaughter, and ordering gaps plugged by reserves. However, because of McClellan's withholding of his cavalry behind the Antietam instead of deploying it as a screen, Hooker didn't have any knowledge of the enemy force on his own right (held by some of J.E.B. Stuart's cavalry and guns) and kept Meade's division in reserve and facing that way. So he was fighting against terrible odds with one hand tied behind his back. He sent urgent requests back to McClellan that he was "driving Lee" but needed Mansfield's Twelfth Corps (8,000 men) to come to his support. He got no replies. Since it was so early, it may have been that Li'l Mac, two miles away at the Pry House, was presumably still enjoying his croissants and latte ("Mmmm, you should try these, Pinky, they're delicious!"), but there is no record of him having ordered Mansfield to move up to support Hooker, or even of his ordering Burnside to move down to the South Bridge and begin his attack on Lee's right flank, nor of his ordering any of his reserve of 56,000 lounging around on the east side of the Antietam to get up. There were plenty of memoirs by his staff and reporters of easy-chairs being brought out to the front lawn of the Pry House for them all to enjoy the view. In spite of Hooker's flag signals and dispatch riders pleading for help, McClellan was heard to blithely say, "All goes well. Hooker is driving them."
On the Confederate side, Jackson was doing everything he could to keep the ANV's flank from caving. He pushed brigade after brigade to plug gaps and try to hold Hooker's attack in check. He barely did. The Rebs were taking as many casualties as they gave. These Yankees were not the pushovers that Lee and everybody had assumed. Both sides fought until their regiments were decimated and only withdrew when their ammunition ran out and they were relieved. It was a battle of attrition. The only tactical question was which would run out of men and bullets first.
Alexander Gardner's post-battle photography was considered almost obscene in its day; the true cost of war. The bloated bodies of Confederates— human beings, sons, brothers, fathers, husbands, friends— lying along the west fence of the Hagerstown Pike (to the right in this photo, not the farm trail to the left of them). Antietam was to become the bloodiest single day of American history (yes, including 9/11).
And this was just the beginning of that day.
About the climax of Hooker's drive at 6:30, reinforcements for Lee started arriving from Harper's Ferry. McLaws' and Richard Anderson's divisions, (about 7,200 and 34 guns together).After having marched all night, the column head showed up on the road west of Sharpsburg. They were most welcome. Also, since there didn't seem to be any Federal movement at all on the east bank of the Antietam, which would've threatened his right flank, Lee felt safe enough to request that Longstreet move one of his brigades (George T. Anderson's, not to be confused with George B. Anderson's—I know, too many Andersons in this army) over to the left to reinforce Jackson.
Jackson was indeed running out of resources. He started throwing in his last reserves. About 07:00 he ordered Hood's already depleted division resting in the West Woods to charge across the field east of the Dunker Church. Though Hooker's divisions had apparently captured this ground, these "fresh" Confederates (mostly Texans) threw them back across the Cornfield and East Woods until they themselves were stopped by Hooker's artillery and his own reserves from Meade's division. Then, in turn, Ripley's Georgians and North Carolinians attacked, throwing Meade's men back. And back and forth.
View from Hagerstown Pike across the Cornfield. Site of the back-and-forth carnage in the morning. Taken in 2001. Corn in Sept 1862 would've been higher.
©Jeffery P.Berry Trust 2023 protected by Digimarc digital watermark.
At around 07:20, Mansfield's Twelfth Corp began to show up and join the
fight, relieving Hooker's exhausted troops. Most of the soldiers of this
corps were green Pennsylvanians, less than a month in service, but
eager to fight. Mansfield himself, though a 40-year veteran had never
held a field command, or even had any combat experience since the Mexican-American War sixteen years earlier . This corps was his first —awarded just two days
before. McClellan had given him no direct orders to support Hooker, but he
took it upon himself (with Hooker's persuasion), to join the battle. No
sooner, though, had he begun to put his troops into line than he himself
was taken out by a shell fragment and evacuated to the rear (where he
died the next morning). Mansfield was replaced by the senior division
commander of the corps, Alpheus Williams, who had been acting corps
commander prior to Mansfield's promotion two days before.
Though rookies, and stiffened by the more veteran (but smaller regiments) of the corps, the Pennsylvanians pitched into the Confederates still hanging on in the Cornfield, the East Woods, and the fields between the Miller place and the Dunker Church. They paid dearly, but also slaughtered their foe in kind. Hood's, Ripley's, all of the survivors' of Jackson's resistance, were driven back beyond the Dunker Church.
Finally, Jackson, depleted of all reserves except for one brigade (Early's, now under William Smith positioned to the west to guard Stuart's batteries), had no resources left. Lee promised him McLaws' newly arrived division (but exhausted after having marched all night in the rain from Harper's Ferry). It didn't look good.
The hour-and-a-half battle for the Dunker Church had been so vicious that
both sides had suffered casualties not yet seen in this war, or any war
in the history of the United States. Some regiments on both sides were
completely wiped out. One regiment, the 6th Georgia, suffered 90%
casualties. Most engaged had 50% at least. And nearly everyone on both
sides had no more ammunition. It was apocalyptic.
But Hooker had by 7:30 finally achieved his initial object, the area around the Church at the junction of the Hagerstown Pike and the Smoketown Road. The next object was to drive in Lee's northern flank completely, cut off his retreat to Harper's Ferry, and force him to collapse and surrender, But Hooker's own forces were so exhausted and diminished that he needed reinforcements from McClellan's vast reserves to accomplish that. And he needed them before Lee could rally and regroup.
I'll leave you to guess what the Young Napoleon's response to this was.
Go on...take your time. He certainly did.
"Well...okay, I guess you can go. But leave one division here."
From their comfy perch back in their easy chairs on Pry's hill, McClellan and his staff couldn't make out clearly what was going on over at the Dunker's Church. The woods, the smoke from the burning buildings at Mumma's farm, and all the smoke from the battle were obscuring their telescopes. He had been heartened by Hooker's last message that he was "driving Lee". But, frankly, he couldn't very well make out the urgent flag signals that Hooker and Mansfield needed help (he didn't know that both had been wounded, Mansfield mortally).
|Edwin "Bull" Sumner, posing to look impetuous.|
Yes, he looks a little like Lee, to me, too.
Apparently there was much speculation on McClellan's staff that by "driving Lee" Hooker had meant that he had driven him back across the Potomac, which would've suited McClellan beautifully. He had no wish for the unpleasantness of a battle of annihilation. The idea of even taking Lee at a moment of disadvantage was not what gentlemen indulged in. Let him go. And good riddance.
But finally, a little after 8:30, McClellan sent word to Sumner down by the Antietam that his corps had permission to cross and help Hooker. The Bull didn't need confirmation of this order and started at once. But as he was pushing his divisions across the stream, another messenger galloped down to tell him to leave one division of his three (Richardson's 1st ) back on the east side—in reserve—just in case. What if Lee's so-called retreat was merely a trap, luring the Union army into the jaws of the hidden hundreds of thousands of Rebels hiding behind the woods? Better to be prepared.
A better prepared general (says this armchair one) would've have used his abundant cavalry to reconnoiter and screen the enemy ahead of time, instead of holding them all back in a bandbox. A better prepared general would've used real time intelligence instead of just his gut. But then I used to be an intelligence officer so I'm just a little biased.
Pry's Ford, where Sumner's II Corps crossed the Antietam about 08:30.
©Jeffery P.Berry Trust 2023 protected by Digimarc digital watermark.
The Second Attempt
It took Sumner about an hour to wade his two divisions across the creek and lead Sedgwick's division the two miles (3.22 km) to the vicinity of the East Woods. On the way he ran into Hooker, who was being taken back to the field hospital, bleeding from a mangled foot and drifting in and out of consciousness; so he didn't get much information out of him. He finally reached the East Woods, where he met Alpheus Williams, the successor commander of Twelfth Corps (remember, Mansfield was mortally wounded), who tried to brief him on the stalemated situation. But "Bull" Sumner wasn't named that for nothing. He dismissed Williams as cowardly and incompetent, and wouldn't listen to his advice. Instead Sumner had the three of Sedgwick's brigades line up one behind another, thirty yards apart, stacked in one gigantic grand column (reminiscent of Ney's Grand Column at Waterloo). Then they moved majestically across the open ground of the Miller farm, into the West Woods. Sumner refused any advice from the officers and men who had been already fighting there all morning. He didn't seem interested in what enemy lay to the west or south, or what their dispositions were. Instead, he personally led Sedgwick's 3,600 men due west, right into a trap. Maybe McClellan's caution had been prescient after all.
During the hour's lull that had followed the first fighting in this sector, both sides had fallen back and taken a breather. Jackson, though having essentially lost the first round, didn't consider the game over. He rallied his broken regiments and fed fresh forces into the West Woods (well, as fresh as McClaws's could be after having marched all night in the rain and mud and without a rest stop.). He also had J.E.B. Stuart move all Pelham's artillery up on the ridge due west of the West Woods to rain down shot and shell on the approaching Grand Column of Sedgwick's division. Meanwhile, S.D.Lee's massed Confederate batteries south of the Dunker Church were perfectly positioned to enfilade the approaching Yankees from the south from 700 yards (640 m).
Sedgwick's troops, lined up so close, one brigade behind another, that they couldn't maneuver. They were also sitting ducks for artillery. They started taking horrendous casualties even before Sumner got them to the West Woods. And once inside those woods, they were attacked from the front and left flank by Confederate regiments lying in ambush. Because they were so tightly packed, they couldn't easily change front. Some regiments lost half their men without being able to fire a shot. Sedgwick himself was wounded five times.
It didn't take long for the Bull to realize his mistake. He frantically rode back to try and stop the next brigade of troops in the column, and to make them retreat. They thought he was rallying them (they couldn't hear him through the deafening explosions and fusillade of musketry), but he was actually trying to get them to fall back. When he got to the rear he sent messengers to Williams (whom he had disdained before) and to McClellan to send him reinforcements. In personally leading Sedgwick's division into the blind attack into the West Woods, he had left his following division under French far in the rear, still crossing the Pry Ford. So he lost touch with his own immediate supports.
After giving as much as they took, Sedgwick's division fell back with horrendous losses to the North Woods. Elements of Gorman's brigade (1st MN, 82nd NY, and 19th MA) held on at the north end of the West Woods but most of those woods were still in the possession of the Confederates by 9:30.
At the south end of Miller's field, around the Dunker Church, the fighting continued back and forth until the early afternoon, with counterattacks back and forth by Greene's Union division and waves of Confederates. In the end, both sides had endured horrendous casualties and the open ground and the Cornfield were carpeted with dead and wounded Americans. By late morning Southern forces held the West Woods and the Northerners the East Woods, and nobody held the middle. It was a bloody standoff.
"Bees!? Now bees?! Are you kidding me?!"
Shortly after Sedgwick's disastrous attack and retreat, Sumner's Third Division under William French (called "Old Blinky" by his men for a facial tick he had when he spoke) arrived somewhat southwest of all this action around the Cornfield. Having no communication with his division commander, Bull Sumner, who had galloped ahead to take part personally in the first, blind attack, French veered southward over the ridgeline north of the Mumma Farm. Here he spotted a target of opportunity along a line formed by a sunken road between the Hagerstown Pike and the Boonesboro Pike. This sunken road would be later called "Bloody Lane" by the participants (and the National Park Service). A pretty literal epithet. But it was, during that day, just referred to as "The Sunken Road".
During the lull between the first Union attacks on the Dunker Church and this second wave, Longstreet and Lee, who had been nervous of an enveloping assault from the south across the Rohrbach Bridge, observed that there seemed to be no movement down there. Burnside's/Cox's Ninth Federal Corps all seemed to be just enjoying their morning coffee and making no moves to cross. In fact, McClellan had sent no orders so far that morning for Burnside to cross the bridge. Likewise, there didn't seem to be any movement by the Yankees across the Middle Bridge from the Boonesboro Pike. Lee knew his enemy, and having fought McClellan so many times before, knew that he was timid and could only focus on one thing at a time. So he and Longstreet concurred that it was safe to temporarily move the forces they had on the southern flank up to the center to absorb the Union attacks on that front. So Longstreet started doing that about 07:00.
Panorama of the view from the observation tower at the east end of Bloody Lane at the Antietam National Battlefield Park. ©Jeffery P.Berry Trust 2023 protected by Digimarc digital watermark.
Longstreet lined up D.H.Hill's division in the natural trench of that sunken road. They enhanced the position by dismantling the snake fence on both sides and piled up the planks into a breastwork. About 09:00 By the time they saw the first flags of the Union regiments pop up on the ridgeline above them, they were ready. Their officers passed the word to wait for it...wait for it....wa-a-a-a-it for it.
The first of those Yankees (1st DE, 5th MD, 4th NY, all new recruits of Weber's brigade) got within 80 yards of the sunken road, the sword came down. The Rebels, having propped their muzzles on their breastworks to take careful aim, let 'er rip. Fire and smoke rippled down the whole line. It seemed like the whole first rank of bluecoats went down. These were also pounded from H.P. Jones' batteries about 600 yards on the hill at Piper's farm to the south. The advancing line of Weber's brigade stopped and tried to return fire. But they were standing upright in the open and the Confederates were below them, behind cover. It was not a fair fight. Within five minutes Weber's brigade, which had begun the battle with 1,670 men, had lost 450 (over a quarter of their strength--so you don't have to do the math). They retired back over the cover of the hill where they came from. To the credit of these inexperienced Yankees, though, they didn't flee the field but knelt or lay down just behind the ridgeline to continue the firefight. They may have been raw recruits but they were brave. And tough. And every one was worth at least one Johnny Reb. So there.
Three-sixty degree panorama POV of what French's troops could see as they approached the Sunken Road from the north. ©Jeffery P.Berry Trust 2023 protected by Digimarc digital watermark.
Right behind this first wave French's second brigade, another 1,800 raw recruits under Dwight Morris, marched up and over the firing line of Weber's men and down toward the sunken road. Eyewitnesses from the Confederate side remembered seeing just the tips of the regimental flags first rising above the ridgeline, and were able to judge by how new and pristine they were that the regiments following them were also raw. This detail was passed up and down the line and seemed to reassure the greycoats that this was just another gang of shop clerks and city boys; nothing to worry about. It'll be fine.
As soon as Morris's brigade came into view at the top of the ridge, they came under the same fire from the entrenched Rebs and started falling like flies, or nine-pins, or wheat from a scythe, or weeds from a weed-wacker, or dominoes, or some other clichéd simile...in other words; a lot. As they stomped down the slope, they were also getting hit from behind by friendly fire from Weber's men, who were firing blindly (literally...many were so inexperienced and stressed they were closing their eyes and turning their heads while they pulled the trigger). Morris's men tried to move forward, stopping to fire, but soon started backing up the hill to join Weber's crouching line. Some had had enough and bolted right over their own firing line and into the Mumma's cornfield behind the hill.
Longstreet, observing this from his position at the Piper farm, a few hundred yards to the south, sent orders to Hill to counter-charge the Yankees up the hill, which Anderson's brigade at least tried. But as they started up out of their trench, they were met with withering fire from the top of the hill and enfiladed by Federal batteries about 450 yards to the northwest. So they lost even more men needlessly and the survivors scrambled back.
Now the third wave if Yanks showed up, Kimball's brigade with the 14th IN, 8th OH, 132nd PA, and 7th WV. Except for the Pennsylvania regiment, Kimball's was French's only set of veteran troops. In fact, these had actually whipped Stonewall Jackson in the Shenandoah Valley campaign seven months before. This time the Confederates noticed the more tattered flags poking up over the hill and recognized them as experienced killers. Hill's men were getting a little tired, and their rifles a little hot and fouled. But they kept firing. They had an efficient system in which the first rank would aim and fire and the second would reload and pass the musket forward in a cycle of teamwork. This increased the rate and accuracy of fire and preserved everyone's strength.
Kimball's brigade met the same fate as the first two and had to retire behind the ridgeline. During this third charge, though, a funny thing happened (well funny but for all the blood and guts and death). A stray cannon shot knocked over a row of beehives next to the orchard by the Clipp farm and angry bees swarmed the Federals, chasing them back a few hundred yards. After some time, though, the bees gradually calmed down and the men slowly rallied at the ridgeline to resume their firefight. They didn't sign up for bees! I'm sure the bees were thinking the same thing about humans.
During these three charges, though the Confederates held their own, they were also taking horrific casualties, not just from the rifle fire from front (in spite of their cover) but from both flanks. From the west, Tompkins' and Monroe's ten Federal guns were able to send shot and shell right down the length of the sunken road from close range (450-650 yards—okay, 411.18-594.36 metres, for my international readers), wreaking horrible carnage. And from the east, less than a mile (1.6 km) across the Antietam (but still within range of Civil War era artillery), as many as 20 rifled guns were able to shoot right up the Sunken Road, turning the ditch into a giant food processor. Hence the later nickname, Bloody Lane. And hence one of the nicknames veterans gave for the Battle of Antietam, "Artillery Hell".
So while Hill's men held, it was only a question of time how long before they were all minced. (Sorry...I meant "passed away". Is that a more sensitive phrase?)
Capt. James Hope's painting of The Aftermath of Bloody Lane, and all the passed away, c. 1870-ish
Another reason this battle has been nicknamed "Artillery Hell".
Unlike McClellan, Lee had been very active in moving all over the battlefield, ordering up reserves, redeploying artillery, rallying retreating regiments, and plugging holes. He had ordered up Dick Anderson's newly arrived division to rush through Sharpsburg over to reinforce Hill's hard-pressed men in the Bloody Lane. Unfortunately, before he could get to the front, Anderson himself was shot off his horse by a random canister bullet and severely wounded in leading this advance through Piper's cornfield, leaving his senior brigadier, Roger Pryor, in command of the whole division. Pryor himself was getting lost in the confusion and had not been made aware of Anderson's wounding and that he was in charge. Consequently, the succeeding brigades of the division got all tangled with each other in advancing. The only one that made it to the sunken road at first was Wright's 459 men.
Situation map for 0930, the crisis point for the Confederate center
©Jeffery P.Berry Trust 2023 protected by Digimarc digital watermark.
A little after 09:00, as McClellan got Sumner's urgent message for
help, and as more elements of Porter's Fifth Corps began arriving from
Frederick, he thought he was safe enough to release Sumner's last division he'd been holding back (Richardson's First Division, Second Corps)
to cross the Pry Ford and go to his aid. By 09:30 Richardson's first
brigade (Meagher's, "Irish Brigade", 834 veterans) arrived on the left
flank of French's pinned down division above the Sunken Road and, lowering bayonets, immediately started to charge
down the slope to G.B.Anderson's North Carolinians at the eastern edge of that defile. The
same fate met Meagher's Irishmen, taking out nearly half of them in the
first volley, and driving the rest to ground. Then came Richardson's
second brigade, Caldwell's (1,100 men), who, seeing the fate of the
Irish Brigade in their head-on assault, maneuvered east around the exposed
right flank of the Confederates in the Sunken Road and started enfilading
Around the same time, the rest of Dick Anderson's (that's Richard, as opposed to George B.... C'mon! Keep up!) "relieving" brigades began to make their way out of Henry Piper's cornfield and pile into the Sunken Road to join D.H.Hill's men, already packed like sardines in the confined gully. This overcrowding didn't help. The men were so crowded and intermixed with "relieving" regiments they were having trouble maintaining their previously efficient method of reloading and firing in pairs. And nobody knew who was in charge.
In twos and threes and eventually in whole companies, the jammed mob of out-flanked Confederates started climbing back out of the trench to run back through the cornfield toward Piper's farm.
Seeing this trickle and then the sequential retrograde movement as a sign the enemy was on the verge of collapse, Col. Joseph Barnes, the enterprising CO of the 29th Massachusetts (the only non-Irish regiment in Meagher's Brigade), jumped up and shouted for his men to follow him in a charge down the hill. Always irritated by the obnoxious, high-pitched squeal of the "Rebel Yell" they had been subjected to in so many battles, Barnes exhorted his men to yell in their own way to scare "the bloody bastards" (an Irish term of endearment). This noisy charge from a foe they had assumed defeated triggered general panic among the confused and outflanked Confederates packed in the Sunken Road, ("Hey! We're the ones who do the shrill yelling!"). Soon, one by one, other frustrated and pinned down Union regiments jumped up to join the 29th's charge and rush down the hill. Joining the yip-yip-yip.
Just before Barnes' attack, Confederate Gen. Rodes, noticing that Caldwell's Yankees were outflanking his line from the east, rode up and ordered the CO of the 6th Alabama have a few companies redeploy right and return fire at the Yankees. Apparently, Lt.Col. Lightfoot, the regiment's commander, misunderstood the order in all the confusion and instead, ordered the whole battalion to about-face and retreat to the rear (huh?). His neighboring regimental CO asked him if retreat were a general order for the whole brigade, and Lightfoot said, yeah. So the previous trickle of ones and twos inadvertently became a general rout as one after another Confederate regiments clambered out of the Sunken Road and ran across the cornfield back to the Piper farm.
|Alexander Gardner's photo of "Bloody Lane"|
the day after the battle.
Back at the Confederate massed batteries of H.P.Jones around Piper's farm behind the Sunken Road, they were now frustrated by the crowd of fleeing friendlies heading toward them and didn't dare fire at the pursuing Yankees behind and among them, Whether by design or luck, the Federals used the Confederate panic to their own advantage. And the Sunken Road, this bastion of Lee's center, collapsed.
But the Yankees who had been equally fighting and dying all morning were also spent by this time (about noon), most regiments having lost close to half their strength. Rather than chasing the routed Confederates all the way to the Potomac, Richardson and French halted the pursuit. They weren't sure if there weren't more Rebs lurking over the ridge between them and Sharpsburg, and, to be fair, there were several forlorn hope counter-attacks by small crowds of Rebels for the next couple of hours. So what was left of Richardson's and French's divisions fell back to regroup in the Sunken Road.
To the northwest, after Hood's attack across the Cornfield earlier had petered out, George Greene of the Federal Twelfth Corps, took two brigades of his division and charged out of the East Woods, driving all the Confederates still in the field, past the Dunker Church and into the West Woods. Greene then settled into defensive positions in the West Woods around the church for the rest of the morning. It was the farthest penetration of Lee's line so far. And Hooker's original objective, the little church, was finally achieved.
As the afternoon began, there was a lull in the fighting. It seemed as if both sides were taking a deep breath.
You might've thought this already horrific morning would have spelled the end for Lee's Army of Northern Virginia, or even for the Confederacy. After all, Lee's center and left had given way and were seeming to fall back toward the Potomac. You might've thought McClellan would've taken the opportunity to order a general attack along the whole front with his vastly superior force, three fresh corps (Fifth,Sixth, Ninth, and all the cavalry) 41,000 troops waiting for orders on the other side of the Antietam.
You might've thought. But, of course, McClellan wasn't close to the front or in touch enough to know what was going on in the center, or how close Lee's army was to collapse. The Pry House, McClellan's headquarters, was too far from the action and, besides, though he was high on a hill, his view was obscured by trees and smoke. Unlike Lee, he didn't think it necessary to go to where the fighting was to find out what was happening himself, or to rally his troops. That would've been too dangerous. Besides, listening to the opinion of his incompetent intelligence officer, Pinkerton, and not using his cavalry for reconnaissance, he was still believing that Lee was concealing his main strength in waiting (like maybe a few million more angry bees?). It would've been just what his sly Virginian nemesis would've wanted Li'l Mac to do: attack across the whole length of the Antietam, right into a trap.
"Hah! Nice try, Bobby! I'm not falling for that!"
So, the fighting on the north side of the battlefield just went on, back and forth, neither side gaining any ground but just grinding each other up senselessly. By 10:00 over 8,000 Americans had killed or wounded each other. And the slaughter was just beginning. Even taking account of the fact that the United States in 1862 had one-tenth the population it has today, that number is staggering; the proportional demographic equivalent of 80,000 casualties in 2023. In four hours! And the Confederates didn't even have machine guns, or drones, or modern artillery or hijacked planes to crash into skyscrapers.
Except for a few limp feints, from about 12:00 on the fighting on the northern and middle sectors of the battlefield had settled down to sporadic skirmish fire and artillery barrages. Both sides were exhausted. McClellan had yet to visit the front to see for himself. When he sent an order for Sumner to renew his attack, Sumner yelled at the messenger, "Go back, young man, and tell General McClellan I have no command!"
At this point the Young Napoleon finally bestirred himself to ride over and assess the situation personally. At last he saw that there was essential stalemate along the right and center, and sent back orders that Gen. Franklin, with his newly arrived Sixth Corps (12,000 men and 42 guns), should cross the Antietam at Pry's Ford and merely support the depleted three corps hanging on. He also okayed the cavalry division under Pleasanton to cross the Middle Bridge, where there was no opposition, and hold that bridgehead—another brilliant use of cavalry (wait...where's that sarcasm emoji?). Evidently, he thought, like the Old Napoleon, he'd hold his cavalry concentrated in the center, ready to deliver a coup de grâce in the Old School Style. He countermanded his attack orders to Sumner and issued orders for all four corps in the northern sector to just "hold their positions." Yeah, thanks for that. He was still paranoid about Lee's "hidden reinforcements" and didn't want to risk losing. He was just hoping that Bobby Lee would consider himself chastened and retreat meekly back into Virginia, like an honorable gentleman.
Capt. Cope's panorama of the midpoint
of the battle, when McClellan (the tiny group of horses in the center
distance) finally decides to visit the front mid-afternoon. In this scene looking
north, Cope has depicted the burning Mumma farm, the edge of the East
Woods on the left, and French's and Richardson's divisions attacking
the Sunken Road on the right.
But both Lee and Jackson weren't meek about anything. Or chastened. Jackson had been organizing ad hoc assault teams from the survivors of the morning's battle and was intending to renew the assault on what he thought were the spent Federals on the northern flank. He had a volunteer soldier climb a tree and start counting enemy regimental flags over to the east. When the man got to 39, Jackson had him come down; there were still too many intact Yankee formations. And their artillery didn't seem to be running low on ammunition either. So he thought the prudent thing, since the enemy seemed to be exhausted too, was to just hold tight. So out of character for Stonewall.
Lee was counting on his assessment of the meekness of his enemy counterpart, betting that he wouldn't dare start up the battle in the northern or center sectors again. And he was also counting on the arrival of A.P. Hill's 3,500-man Light Division from Harper's Ferry to shore up his southern flank. His object was to fight McClellan to a standstill and then, next day, see what Mac would do. Probably nothing. As events would prove, he knew his enemy.
As if in afterthought, after his little mid-afternoon field trip over to visit the northern flank, McClellan wondered what the hell was happening with Burnside's mission to cross at the lower bridge and create a diversionary attack on Lee's southern flank. When, the day before, he had taken First Corps from Burnside, given it to Hooker, and then handed him command of the left wing of the Army of the Potomac (which was essentially just the Ninth Corps under Jacob Cox), the Little Napoleon had vaguely spoken in broad terms about Burnside's role in a strategic double envelopment.
Burnside, not being particularly independent or aggressive, assumed he would be given direct orders when to begin this hypothetical operation McClellan had spoken of the night before. Since his ephemeral title was "wing commander" not corps commander, Burnside also never formally relieved Cox of his command of Ninth Corps (13,000 men and 55 guns in four divisions, whom he had inherited from Jesse Reno when he had been accidentally killed by a picket in his own command at Fox's Gap three days before). Cox and Burnside sat at Ninth Corps' field headquarters on a hill a thousand yards northeast of the lower bridge, letting skirmishers exchange potshots at each other across the creek. Cox himself wondered when Burnside was going to give him the order to cross the Antietam, just as Burnside was waiting for the formal order from McClellan.
So, for most of the morning the two of them watched the battle unfold to the northwest and did pretty much nothing in the way of crossing the creek.
View across "Burnside" Bridge that the 51st New York and 51st Pennsylvania Regiments would've had as they charged, looking up at the Georgia snipers shooting at them from the wooded heights. Yours truly standing on it 135 years later. Jeffery P.Berry Trust 2023 protected by Digimarc digital watermark.
The Confederate force guarding the right bank of the Antietam in this sector didn't seem particularly strong. Spread out on the ridge above the bridge, hiding behind the rocks of an old, abandoned quarry, was a single, tiny half-brigade of about 350 Georgians under Robert A.Toombs (2nd and 20th Georgia) and further downstream a single regiment (50th Georgia) of 100, plus some cats-n-dogs detachments from other regiments. These handful of people were spending the whole morning and early afternoon popping away at the Yankees below, who were shooting back up at them from behind the fences and walls on the opposite bank.
When McClellan was reconnoitering this sector the day before, his staff engineers had also apparently found a ford below the bridge. Burnside did order Cox to have one of his division commanders, Rodman, send some of his own engineers down to that reported ford and they only found that it was unusable. The stream was indeed shallow there (as it was pretty much all up and down the creek) but the banks on both sides at the ford that McClellan's experts had found were essentially 100 foot cliffs, so it was impractical as a crossing point for massed troops, much less artillery. It seems even Little Mac's engineers were incompetent. What they didn't find, though, were two actual, practical fords (locally called Snavely's Ford and Myer's Ford after two local farmers) about a mile-and-a-half below the bridge. These wouldn't be discovered until later on the 17th.
And, yes, that is where the word
Looking for other crossing places was evidently not high on Burnside's to-do list. With the rest of the army using the other fords up and down the waist-deep Antietam all day, you'd have thought it would've occurred to Burnside to just wade his massive force across anywhere, everywhere all at once (I loved that movie, by the way), up and down the creek, to brush aside the handful of Toombs' pickets. But noooooooo. Apparently, he thought he was supposed to rush his men across this narrow bridge, under the fire of snipers on the hill above. That's what real men would've done.
Gen. Cox, standing beside Burnside, his "supervisor", claimed that they had an excellent view of the whole battlefield from their headquarters on top of the hill back from the bridge, actually better than from McClellan's headquarters up at the Pry House. From there they could see the battle unfolding to the northwest, and how Lee was drawing more and more troops from this southern sector up to there. By 09:00 Longstreet had only about 2,000 men left guarding this southern flank, most of them set back on high ground in front of Sharpsburg; against Ninth Corps' 13,000. Still, Burnside thought he should await direct orders from McClellan to begin his crossing and attack. He didn't want to upset the intricate timing of the Master Plan.
But McClellan had completely forgotten about this, his intricate master plan...at least until his afternoon promenade when he suddenly remembered and wondered where Burnside was.
Well, Burnside had been, for the past several hours, trying one half-hearted attempt after another to seize the bridge. His first, about 09:00 was to see if two companies totaling just 90 men from the 11th Ohio could rush the bridge. This feeble charge was decimated by the Georgians among the rocks and driven back. His second try, about an hour or so later, was to direct a single regiment, the 11th Connecticut (about 440 men), to try and rush the bridge. These poor men, supported by artillery but otherwise alone, failed with 33% casualties and fell back. Then an hour after that, he ordered two regiments ( 2nd Maryland and 6th New Hampshire, 634 men) to try and rush the bridge; and these were also cut down and pushed back. Then he had a whole brigade, Crook's 1,500 from Scammon's Kanawa division, make the attempt. These only got lost in some woods and ended up in fruitless skirmish fire from across the creek well to the north of the bridge.
View from the Confederate side of the lower bridge, looking down from the ridge where Toombs' snipers were shooting from. Jeffery P.Berry Trust 2023 protected by Digimarc digital watermark.
View across the Burnside Bridge from the west bank of the Antietam. Jeffery P.Berry Trust 2023 protected by Digimarc digital watermark.
Finally, after hours of these inadequate attempts, Burnside got a stern note from his old friend, McClellan, demanding that he take the bridge at once and move his corps across the creek or be relieved. As he received this latest harsh warning from his commander-in-chief, he informed the messenger testily that he was, as luck would have it, in the midst of launching that very project even as they spoke. So there.
He had issued orders for another of his brigades, Ferrero's, to rush the bridge in a column of fours, and for another division under Rodman to march downstream to the unguarded Snavely Ford (one of the fords his own engineers had discovered hours before) and cross there, outflanking the pesky Confederates. And, as luck would have it, Crook's brigade, who had been pinned down for hours, found another ford about 300 yards upstream of the bridge and waded across. All of these operations were pulled off smartly. One wonders if they would've been pulled off equally smartly four hours before when they might've made a difference in the battle up north.
Around 13:00, as soon as the 51st New York and 51st Pennsylvania of Ferrero's brigade had finally stormed across the bridge, its defender, Gen. Toombs, whose Georgian skirmishers were running out of ammunition after half-a-day's continuous pot-shotting, ordered his 300 survivors to retreat back to the main Confederate line in front of Sharpsburg. He had, in fact, some satisfaction that in holding back the timid Burnside for the entire morning and into the afternoon, he had bought valuable time for Lee to reinforce his right with A.P. Hill's incoming reinforcements, and had inflicted something like 500 casualties on the Yankees to his loss of around 160. Pretty heroic considering he was outnumbered nearly thirty to one.
A sidenote about Robert Augustus Toombs
His original object in joining the Confederate Army was to rise in political office, which he thought would help his career. In spite of this heroic stand holding off Burnside's entire corps for four hours, he was never promoted beyond brigade commander, which irritated the hell out of him. After the war his pride and stubbornness prevented him from asking for a pardon for insurrection, so, because of Section 3 of the 14th Amendment he couldn't again vote or run for office (a section that has recently come up again regarding certain former presidents who shall remain nameless). So his political ambitions were quashed, in spite of his heroism...for the losing side.
Capt. Cope's rendering of the final charge by the 51st NY & PA across the lower bridge about 13:00.
By 13:00 Burnside had finally crossed the bridge and driven off the sparse defenders. Now he waited. No one seems to know why. But it took another two-and-a-half hours to get his whole corps across the creek and lined up to make their attack on the Confederate right. Part of this delay was because so many of his troops were in reserve, over a mile back from the bridgehead and it took time for them to get to their feet and march across the bridge.Why it didn't occur to him or to Cox to move them up in close support of his 13:00 attack is anybody's guess. This this lack of foresight and slowness on Burnside's part was part of the reason the battle of Fredericksburg three months later, where he was in overall command, was such a fiasco.
By 15:00 Burnside had finally got his whole Ninth Corps up on the bluff west of the creek and ready to attack David Jones's thinly stretched division. Apparently, Burnside was waiting for confirmation that his right would be supported by Pleasanton's cavalry and Porter's Fifth Corps before he started his attack. But he got a negative on that. Pleasanton's orders were to just hold the Middle Bridge, and when McClellan got the request from Burnside for the Fifth Corps to cross and protect his flank, Porter just shook his head and told his commander not to risk it, cautioning that the Fifth Corps was his last line of reserves (well, yeah, those 15,000 and Franklin's Sixth Corps' 12,000, and Pleasanton's 4,000 cavalry, and Couch's 6,000, all 37,000 more or less completely fresh and by themselves outnumbering what was left of Lee's entire ANV,),
An Aside on Fitz John Porter
Porter was suspected by many in Washington and in the AOTP for being a Confederate sympathizer (if not downright fifth columnist--pun intended). At Second Bull Run the previous month, he had deliberately held back his corps when Pope ordered him to come to his aid, causing that Union defeat. And both he and McClellan were outspoken anti-abolitionists and anti-war Democrats. After Antietam, an investigation by the Joint Congressional Committee on the Conduct of the War recommended that Porter be court-martialed. He was convicted and dishonorably dismissed from the Army, tough he was never imprisoned. In my mind both he and McClellan were outright traitors.
Finally, about 15:30 Burnside's attack got underway. At first, the 13,000 men were able to fairly easily drive in David Jones' puny Rebel regiments scattered thinly along the walls, fences, cornfields, and ravines to the south of Sharpsburg. On the left, Rodman's Third Division, Ninth Corps, found and successfully crossed the Antietam at Snavely's Ford (see map) and started rolling up Jones' right flank. On Burnside's right advance skirmishers of Maxwell's division got as far as the downtown metropolitan part of Sharpsburg. Burnside's' goal was to take the town and cut off the rest of Lee's army from the only road leading to Boteler's Ford, the primary crossing of the Potomac back into Virginia. And by 16:30 he was about to achieve that. Confederates were falling back into the town, their batteries limbering up and retreating, and all looked lost to Longstreet. The battle was McClellan's.
Panorama of Garnett's position at the center of the Confederate line. Jeffery P.Berry Trust 2023 protected by Digimarc digital watermark.
View from Jones' defensive line on the Confederate right looking toward the Burnside Bridge. Just look at that happy rainbow off to the south. Again, I apologize for the crude mosaicing of this pano, which I did manually years ago, using scanned images I took at the end of the day, when the light was rapidly changing as I panned my Nikon on its tripod. Jeffery P.Berry Trust 2023 protected by Digimarc digital watermark.
But just then...
As if in a dumb war movie where everything seems to be lost (or Lord of the Rings or Game of Thrones, not that those are dumb movies, so don't get offended) both sides noticed a large column of troops marching up from the southwest. Lee saw these newcomers and asked his aide to identify them with his telescope. He was told they were carrying Virginia state flags and Confederate Stars-n-Bars. "Those'll be A.P.Hill's men arriving from Harper's Ferry." Lee said flatly (but you know he was heaving a huge sigh of relief inside). Shortly after than A.P.Hill himself, tricked out in his flaming red battle shirt, road up and greeted his white-haired commander. There were probably hugs and back slaps all around.
The left flank of Burnside's line, Rodman's division (now under Harland as its original commander was hit by a sniper while crossing the Antietam) was taken by surprise by the lead units of A.P.Hill's attack. At first there was confusion and hesitation. The left-hand Union regiment, the 16th Connecticut, was so new that they hadn't been properly drilled yet and most had not even loaded or fired their muskets before. As the mystery troops approached they were confused even more because these newcomers seemed to be wearing blue Federal uniforms. Which they were. In their looting of the Harper's Ferry Federal depots, Hill's men had discarded their old, tattered butternut coats for brand new blue uniforms. They were also, at first, brandishing captured Stars-in-Stripes from the surrendered Union garrison (the sneaky bastards!). The color bearer of the 16th Connecticut went closer with a companion to check these guys out. When they got to within 20 yards (18.29 meters to my international readers), a volley cut the two down, which was hardly sporting. So now the Confederate flags went up and the blue-clad Rebs fanned out and started firing en-masse.
The inexperienced Connecticut boys attempted to turn and respond, but they were falling like flies (and other toppling metaphors). Gamely they managed to get off some shots, but they had lost about a quarter of their men within a couple of minutes and broke for the rear. The 4th Rhode Island attempted to come to their aid, but they too were cut down. Within minutes the whole left flank of Burnside's line had collapsed. They only retreated to the ridge and rocks above the bridge, but no further, and rallied there. So even while these were untested, untrained young men, they behaved like warriors.
Hill had dispatched two-thirds of his division farther to the north to hit the center of Burnside's line. These Yankees were also confused about the hordes of blue uniforms popping up on their front and hesitated to fire, until they suffered the same nasty surprise as the men of Harland's division. The drive on Sharpsburg ground to a halt and the Union brigades began to fall slowly back toward the bridge.
Panorama from A.P.Hill's POV. Jeffery P.Berry Trust 2023 protected by Digimarc digital watermark.
By 17:00 Burnside and Cox managed to rally their brigades around the bridgehead, while Federal batteries pounded Hill's newly arrived Confederates, driving them back. After nearly eleven hours of mutual slaughter, the Battle of Antietam sputtered out. For the next hour or so, and into the twilight, there was sporadic shooting all along the front. But neither side moved again. Everyone settled in for the night. And the night was filled with the hideous cacophony of thousands of groaning, maimed, dying men.
Both McClellan and Lee sighed in huge relief. Both thought they had managed to avoid annihilation. But on only Lee's side was that real. McClellan had not realized he had actually won the battle. If he had pressed the next morning with his 37,000 fresh troops (he had close to 70,000 total at hand by then), he could have completely obliterated the Army of Northern Virginia and greatly shortened the war, if not ended the rebellion completely.
Situation map for 1730, when the battle seemed to just come to an end, as if by mutual agreement.
©Jeffery P.Berry Trust 2023 protected by Digimarc digital watermark.
A Lost Victory
But in McCellan's mind, and that of his "intelligence" officer Pinkerton, and of Fitz John Porter, his Fifth Corps commander, they felt lucky they had survived. They dared not move. As far as they knew, Lee may have another 100,000 men lurking behind the West Woods. Just look at the trap Lee had sprung with A.P.Hill's counterattack at the end of the day. And McClellan was certainly not going to risk his cavalry to find out if there were more troops lurking or coming across the Potomac.
The fact that Lee was still in place the next morning was proof to Little Mac that his enemy was still confident of victory. Lee. for his part, knew his adversary. He knew McClellan wouldn't renew the attack. Lee's own army had fought so ferociously that they had given McClellan the impression that they were backed by strong forces in hiding, not that they were fighting with their backs into a corner, for their very lives. Lee knew this was how McClellan reasoned or, at least, rationalized his cowardice to himself.
So neither army moved on the 18th. There was a truce declared so both sides could collect their dead and wounded. Combined, 3,675 Americans had died outright on the 17th, more than any other single day of all of America's wars, including World War II, and more than died on September 11, 2001 (2,977). There were some 19,000 wounded and missing, of which some 3,991 died of their wounds or were confirmed dead among the missing in the days following the battle, bringing the total immediate mortality up to 7,666. Given the relative population of the United States in 1862, that would have been the equivalent of 76,000 Americans dying on one day today.
It was a terrible price to pay. But though the Young Napoleon wouldn't acknowledge he had won, Lincoln saw that it was just the victory that the nation needed, that he needed to issue the long delayed Emancipation Proclamation, which he did on 22 September, to make it effective on 1 January 1863. A terrible price to pay, but considering this awful battle was the turning point of the war, and changed the Civil War from a struggle to preserve the Union to a revolution in human rights, it was a needed price.
The Union victory at Antietam also put to rest the anxiety over a possible intervention by the U.K. or France or any other European power (I'm lookin' at you, Russia!) to mediate. Palmerston's Liberal government in Britain wasn't about to recognize the Confederacy now, regardless of the pressure the Union blockade of Southern cotton was having on the British economy (they'd just have to get their cotton somewhere else--I'm lookin' at you, India!) . And Napoleon III had his hands full with his adventurism in Mexico and saw that he couldn't rely on Confederate help in helping him conquer that country. So Antietam pretty much nipped foreign intervention off at the bud.
Yet, in spite of the widespread realization that Antietam was a Union victory, Lincoln was becoming increasingly frustrated with McClellan's post-battle inactivity. Frustration was probably an understatement. To the president, it was just more of the same wet-noodle-pushing that the Young Napoleon had exhibited in his Peninsula campaign, and throughout this latest one. In spite of Lincoln's daily urges to follow up the victory and finish off Lee's army, McClellan continued to do nothing.
|Ellen McClellan & Husband|
in this carte de visite.
They look so cute together,
He also wrote and made tirades to anyone in earshot about how all those "radicals" in the administration (like Stanton, Sumner, Chase, Halleck, and Welles) should be fired. He loudly and frequently referred to his commander-in-chief as "that Gorilla" and how he'd a mind to march on Washington and take charge of the government himself. Many of his cronies urged him to do it. I'm amazed by Lincoln's forbearance in not sacking the self-aggrandizing nincompoop earlier.
Lincoln did hear of an intemperate conversation between one of McClellan's confidantes, a Maj. John Key (the brother of a staff officer of McClellan), and an officer of the War Department's Judge Advocate General's office in which Key revealed that McClellan's and Porter's true aim in not pursuing and destroying Lee's army was "...not the game. The object is that neither army shall get much advantage of the other; that both shall be kept in the field until they are exhausted, when we will make a compromise and save slavery." (italics mine). The JAG officer dutifully reported this treason to Secretary Stanton and he, Halleck, and the president immediately called Key to the Oval Office to confront him if that was what he had said. The major confessed he had said that and the president had him immediately cashiered. Why he wasn't arrested and tried for treason is another testament to Lincoln's temperance. Also, with all the witness-testified evidence against McClellan, why Lincoln didn't have him arrested and tried for treason is beyond me...at least until I put it into political context (see below). Porter, the Fifth Corps commander who was also an anti-abolitionist and one of McClellan's co-conspirators, was court-martialed in January and cashiered (though though the charge in the court martial was for his disobedience of Pope at Second Bull Run and was later overturned).
|On 3 October Lincoln tries to persuade McClellan|
of the importance of destroying Lee's army.
But the Young Napoleon knew better than
"The Original Gorilla".
Alexander Gardner photographer.
But on 1 October, two weeks after the battle, Lincoln showed up at McClellan's headquarters in a surprise, four-day visit. General Porter confessed to a friendly pro-Democrat reporter that these impromptu visits never bode well for the host. As he had done when he visited McClellan just before firing him in the Peninsula earlier that year, Lincoln sat alone with McClellan in his tent and gently but firmly tried to persuade him of the strategic necessity of moving the army against Lee, who was already regrouping near Winchester down the Shenandoah Valley, and of taking the short route to Richmond, "on the inside of the chord" as the president invoked a geometry lesson in his talk with his general. He reassured the Young Napoleon that this argument was not an order from his commander-in-chief, whom he respected, but hoped he would see the reason of it. You've probably already guessed that McClellan was not in a reasoning mood. In letters to his wife he continued to describe Lincoln as "the Original Gorilla" and "a well-meaning Baboon", too stupid to grasp complex military subtleties. I think that McClellan was an historical example of what psychologists today would diagnose as exhibiting the Dunning-Kruger Effect, people of limited cognitive abilities over-estimating their own intelligence.
Not only was McClellan truly arrogant and stupid, he was also underhanded, constantly stabbing the president and his cabinet in the back in the press. Though ordered by the president to spread copies of the Emancipation Proclamation to the troops so they knew what they were fighting for, McClellan was strongly opposed to emancipation and intending to run against Lincoln in the '64 election with that as his primary platform plank. So I guess the debate can be whether he was incompetent or just an asshole. Probably both.
Lincoln returned to Washington on 4 October but continued to send harangues to McClellan to get moving. On 25 October, McClellan replied condescendingly that he couldn't move because his cavalry horses were fatigued, to which Lincoln caustically smacked back, "Will you pardon me for asking what the horses of your army have done since the battle of Antietam that fatigues anything?" (Also, I might've added, during the battle?). In all fairness, there had been a recent outbreak of hoof-and-mouth disease among some of the cavalry mounts; but still...
Finally, the next day, 26 October, McClellan proudly announced to great fanfare and to his press entourage that his army was starting its gradual move across the Potomac, just six weeks after his victory at Antietam. It took a week for the 100,000 men of the Army of the Potomac to cross what had taken Lee's army a single night. It also struck me as somewhat of a security lapse to broadcast his intended movement to the press. But let's just put that up with all the other sins on George's shelf.
Let's wait until after the election.
I have long wondered why Lincoln didn't just fire McClellan five weeks earlier, when he refused to budge after his victory at Antietam. Or when he had growing evidence of the would-be Napoleon's conspiracy to undermine and even overthrow the elected government. What was stopping him from just canning the bastard?
Well, in a word, politics. As I pointed out at the beginning of this article, politics was behind the context of this necessary victory in the first place. Having made official the Emancipation Proclamation on 22 September, Lincoln was worried about its backlash in the ongoing Congressional mid-term elections of 1862-63 (each state back then had its own date for Congressional elections, which stretched from June 1862 to late 1863). Because of the reported popularity of McClellan in the pro-Democrat, anti-war press, Lincoln fretted that the backlash would cause the Republicans to lose their majority in the House, and so lose him the support he needed to enforce emancipation and continue prosecuting the war. Lincoln wanted to wait to see the results of the bulk of the House and Senate elections on 4 November (mostly the swing states). After this, he had given himself and his cabinet the tripwire of McClellan's performance after he had begun his final move south. If McClellan would beat Lee to Richmond and force a battle there, he would let him continue. But by 5 November (the coincidental day after so many state elections) McClellan had allowed Lee to interpose Longstreet's Corps between him and Richmond at Culpeper Courthouse and Jackson's Corps to threaten his communications to the rear.
That was it. He fired his ass. And turned the command of the ATOP to Burnside. Fortunately, the elections, while giving the "peace" and "anti-abolition" Democrats a few seats, had allowed the Republicans, the "war" Democrats, and Unionist Party to retain control of the Congress by a workable margin. So the political consequences of firing the "hero" of Antietam were minimized. And, with the victory at Antietam, the threat of European recognition of the Confederacy or even intervention rapidly evaporated.
McClellan had also dramatically overestimated his popularity among the rank and file in the army. He had predicted that if he were fired by the president, his men would rise up and carry him on their shoulders to Washington. This fantasy was fanned by many of the sycophants on his staff and the anti-emancipation Democrat press. But certain of his close friends (like Burnside and Cox) tried to disabuse him of that notion, telling him the truth over dinner that he wasn't as popular among the men as he imagined. I don't know how seriously McClellan took these friends' advice. I have friends myself who, when convinced they know what they know, cannot be dissuaded by facts.
As it turned out, when announcement of the passing of command from McClellan to Burnside was made to the AOTP, much to the general's disappointment, they didn't rise up. It was their army, not McClellan's. And though he got some cheers as he rode off, they went back to making their coffee and settled in for the long haul.
And Burnside went on to lead them to another murderous fiasco at Fredericksburg in December.
|Li'l Mac says goodbye to his adoring troops on 10 October 1862.|
Illustration from Harper's Weekly
Obviously this battle has been wargamed until the cows came home. And the tactical and strategic issues I have highlighted around it have been repeatedly tested. But there are some scenarios that occurred to me that might be experimented with.
1. Somebody put a stray bullet in McClellan's head.
Write a sad letter of condolence to Ellen.
2. Open Burnside's ssault across the Lower Bridge early
It seems rather obvious that if Burnside/Cox had made an earnest assault with sufficient strength simultaneously with Hooker's and Mansfield's attacks in the north at the beginning of the day, Lee's entire position might have collapsed by mid-morning. So try this.
You also might see what happened if McClellan had let Sumner move his Second Corps (all of his Second Corps) across Pry's Ford earlier.
3. Use the Union Cavalry as it should've been: for reconnaisance.
An interesting version might be to model the game engine on the classic Battleship game format (or that venerable Avalon Hill game, Midway™). Since McClellan essentially blinded himself by his refusal to use his cavalry as his eyes, one could hide all of both sides' actual forces from the other and use their cavalry to discover their strength and position. You could do this by having two battle maps on two separated tables (or erect a screen between them on a long dining room table; you figure it out).When I was going to the Navy Intelligence School at Lowry AFB years ago, we did this by dividing our teams into three rooms, Red and Blue teams and the referee room, where our instructors (or designated refs) could keep track of all units and movement. These were naval warfare games, but the format could easily be applied to land warfare where reconnaissance and hidden units are in play.
While it is certainly more dramatic to have A.P.Hill's division arrive just at the last minute on the 17th, saving Lee's bacon, it might also be interesting to see if the battle would've played out differently had Lee had all of his forces. In other words, assume McClellan, following his prediliction to sabotage the war effort, delayed another day. His excuse might've been he wanted to wait until the rest of his Fifth and Sixth Corps, and even Couch's had time to come up. In that case. you would give each side full power.
Orders of Battle
Strength: The following OOBs are comprised of data from several sources (see References section below). While unit lists are, for the most part, agreed upon from a variety of trusted sources, strengths are not as verified. Estimated strength numbers in this list are noted with a tilde (~). More reliable strength numbers from reputable sources (like Priest, Sears, or Brian Downey's excellent site) are listed without a ~ caveat. Nevertheless, since so many narratives are vague in this area, I would not cite the strength numbers in this OOB in any academic context, in case you are working on your doctoral thesis. They are probably good enough for wargaming purposes, though.
Total strength levels are only for those commands actually at the battle.
Coat Color: The first column in this OOB (as with my other battles on this site) are colored in the principle uniform color of the regiment. Of course, Confederate forces did not exactly have uniform coats. But A.P. Hill's division had just decked themselves out in brand new blue coats, relieved from the Union stocks at Harper's Ferry. This definitely caused some confusion on the south side of the battle.
Bailey, Ronald, H., The Bloodiest Day: The Battle of Antietam, 1984, Time-Life Books, ISBN 0-8094-4740-1
Commager, Henry Steele, The Blue and the Gray, 1982, The Fairfax Press, ISBN 0-517-383799
Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Vol 1, Fort Sumter to Perryville, 1986, Vintage Books, ISBN: 0-394-74623-6
Chiles, Paul, Artillery Hell! The Guns of Antietam, 1998, Blue & Gray Magazine, Vol. XVI, #2
Johnson, Curt & Anderson, Richard, Artillery Hell: the Employment of Artillery at Antietam 1995, Texas A7M University Press, ISBN 0-89096-623-0
Luvaas, Jan & Nelson, Harold, Guide to the Battle of Antietam, 1987, University Press of Kansas, ISBN 0-7006-0784-6
McPherson, James, Battle Cry of Freedom, 1988, Ballantine Books, ISBN: 0-345-35942-9
McPherson, James, Crossroads of Freedom: Antietam: The Battle That Changed the Course of the Civil War, 2002, Oxford University Press, ISBN 0-19-513521-0
McWhiney & Jamieson, Attack and Die: Civil War Military Tactics and the Southern Heritage, 1984, University of Alabama Press, ISBN: 978-0817302290
Naisawald, L. Van Loan, Grape and Canister:The Story of the Field Artillery of the Army of the Potomac 1861-1865, 1960, Oxford University Press
Priest, John Michael, Antietam: The Soldier's Battle, 1989. Oxford University Press, ISBN:0-19-508466-7
Sears, Stephen W., Landscape Turned Red, The Battle of Antietam, 1983, Ticknor & Fields, ISBN: 0-89919-172-X
Sears, Stephen W., George B. McClellan: The Young Napoleon, 1999, Da Capo Press, ISBN: 9780306809132
Burns, Ken, The Civil War: Forever Free (1862), Episode 3, Originally aired,1990. Stream it on PBS
Downy, Brian, Antietam on the Web, an outstanding, meticulously compiled resource for details on orders of battle, personalities, and maps.
Atlas of the Battlefield of Antietam, Library of Congress site for 1908 maps supervised by the War Department by Carman and Cope; excellent cartography in an age a century before satellite imagery. Covers not only the OOB but almost a dozen maps of each phase of the day-long battle.
Woods, Michael E, Before Opinion Polling: Tracking Public Sentiment in Civil War Era Politics, 2019, www.journalofthecivilwar.org
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