- 16 Sep 2020 14:28
September 17, Wednesday, part 3
The Southern Flank
As the fighting subsides around the Sunken Road, the focus of the battle shifts south to a graceful stone bridge on the Federal left flank. This 125-foot structure, supported by arches, is the southernmost of three bridges that span the Antietam. Because it is so near Sharpsburg, it is the only crossing that Lee chooses to dispute. According to McClellan’s original battle plan, Burnside’s IX Corps was supposed to cross the bridge as a diversion while Hooker launched the main attack on the northern flank. Last evening, McClellan directed Burnside “to form his troops and hold them in readiness to assault the bridge in his front.” By early this morning, Burnside had moved his four divisions, numbering 11,000 infantrymen and fifty cannon, to the hills overlooking the eastern approaches to the bridge. Then he obeyed the remainder of McClellan’s directive, settling down at his headquarters on a knoll a half mile east of the creek to await further orders.
Burnside is in no mood to exercise initiative. Normally a jovial man, he is troubled over his relationship with McClellan. Ever since West Point, they have been intimates. In prewar days, after Burnside resigned from the Army and went broke trying to manufacture a breech-loading rifle of his own invention, McClellan bailed him out by giving him a job with the Illinois Central Railroad. But in the past two days their friendship has soured. Twice McClellan has rebuked his old friend for moving too slowly. Worse, McClellan has abolished the temporary system of wing commands under which Burnside had charge of both Hooker’s I Corps and his own IX Corps. Burnside has taken the loss of Hooker’s corps as a personal affront. He professes to consider the change only temporary, and has refused to take direct command of IX Corps, preferring merely to relay McClellan’s orders to Brigadier General Jacob Cox. Such sulkiness is uncharacteristic of a general modest enough to have twice turned down President Lincoln’s offers to command the Army of the Potomac. Thus, in effect, IX Corps has two commanders.
Both Cox and Burnside know that marching IX Corps across the 12-foot-wide bridge in the face of an enemy entrenched on the far bank will be a daunting task. Yet neither general makes any attempt to reconnoiter the approaches to the bridge. Though the creek is scarcely fifty feet wide and only waist-deep in places, they make no effort to check out a ford located the previous day by McClellan’s engineers. While their troops wait, Cox and Burnside watch the battles in progress elsewhere on the field. From their hilltop headquarters, they have a good view of the successive Federal advances on the northern flank. A little after 9 am, the two general s glance across the creek to their front and see long lines of enemy soldiers marching northward. These Confederates, Walker’s division, will soon collide with Sumner’s troops in the West Woods. Lee is stripping his right flank to reinforce Jackson on the left.
The massive Confederate shift north leaves only a skeletal force on the southern flank. To defend this front, which extends for more than a mile from Sharpsburg to below the bridge, Lee now has only five thin brigades numbering no more than 2,000 men—less than one fifth the strength of IX Corps. Four of the brigades occupy the highest of the ridges just east and south of Sharpsburg. The other brigade guards the west bank of Antietam Creek at the bridge, the line stretching downstream for 600 yards or so to cover places where the Federals might attempt to ford the creek. Though the three Georgia regiments making up this last brigade are few in number—550 men facing 11,000 Federals—they possess an enormous advantage. Rising just west of the bridge is a steep, wooded bluff nearly 100 feet high. On this slope boulders from an old quarry and a stone wall running parallel with the creek provide excellent cover. In addition, a little farther downstream the Georgians command the Federals’ most likely approach to the bridge, the road from Rohrersville. This little road, lined by rail fences on both sides, runs parallel with the creek for a quarter mile only a few yards from the water—within easy musket range of the Georgians on the west bank. There are also twelve artillery pieces on the heights behind them, and other Confederate batteries can bear on the bridge from the high ground just east of Sharpsburg.
These batteries are blazing away a few minutes before 10 am when an aide from General McClellan gallops up to Burnside with the long-awaited orders to attack. The orders were drafted fifty minutes ago—after the repulse of Hooker’s I Corps and Manfield’s XII Corps on the northern flank, and while Sumner is leading a division to disaster in the West Woods. Before authorizing the orders, the cautious McClellan has waited until he received word that General Franklin’s VI Corps is approaching the field from Pleasant Valley, thus providing reserves against the big Confederate counterattack McClellan expects at any moment. The order promises support for Burnside once the bridge is captured. Neither McClellan nor Burnside fully realize the extent to which Lee has stripped his southern flank. Burnside is still under the impression that his role is diversionary, that he is to attempt something less than a full-scale advance. He passes the orders on to Cox, who hurries off to execute the plan he and Burnside agreed to earlier.
Their idea is to hit the defenders by sending a brigade under General Rodman downstream to look for the ford McClellan’s engineers selected yesterday, while having a brigade of three Ohio regiments commanded by Brigadier General George Crook assault the bridge. The stickiest job falls to the 11th Connecticut, assigned as skirmishers leading the bridge assault—these men have to gain a foothold on that narrow span so the rest can cross over. The regiment comes under fire as soon as their lines emerge from the trees on the crest of a hill about 200 yards from the bridge. The Connecticut right is quickly pinned down, but two companies on the left reach the road alongside the creek and inch toward the bridge. On his own initiative Captain John D. Griswold leads his men down into the creek. But the water is four feet deep, and the current swift and roiled by enemy bullets. Most of the men hold back, but Griswold, hit at midstream, struggles on to the far bank then slumps over, mortally wounded. Other members of the regiment charge for the bridge. But the Confederate fire is too heavy, and slowly the Connecticut men fall back. In less than fifteen minutes, the regiment has lost a third of its strength. Among the casualties is the regimental commander, Colonel Kingsbury, shot four times—the last a mortal wound in his stomach.
The main assault by Crook’s brigade goes awry from the start. Crook has failed to examine the terrain that his brigade has occupied for nearly two days. Consequently, Crook blunders into a strip of woods. When his men finally reach the creek, they are a quarter mile upstream from the bridge. There, they lie on the east bank and exchange volleys with the Confederate skirmishers across the Antietam. Downstream, General Rodman’s force is also having problems. The ford McClellan’s engineers selected yesterday has such steep banks that it turns out to be unusable. Rodman sends a couple of companies downstream in search of a crossing known as Snavely’s Ford, which some local farmers have mentioned. While waiting to hear news of Rodman’s progress, Burnside and Cox prepare a second attack on the bridge. This time there will be less danger of the men getting lost, for the lead two regiments—from Maryland and New Hampshire—are lined up in column of fours and pointed down the road that runs along the creek to the bridge. Here, however, they present easy targets for sharpshooters on the other side. Before the Federal column can even get near the bridge, the attack falls apart.
It is now noon, and McClellan is growing exasperated. From his headquarters two miles away, he sends a succession of couriers to light a fire under Burnside. McClellan orders one aide, “Tell him if it costs 10,000 men he must go now.”
For the third attempt to take the bridge, Burnside calls on a brigade commanded by Colonel Edward Ferrero, a dapper former dancing master at West Point that finessed his way to high rank through his connections at Tammany Hall (a powerful New York City political and social club). Ferrero lacks most of the attributes of good military leadership, but he has among his four regiments a pair of especially good ones from New York and Pennsylvania, both with good commanders. He also has two batteries that have moved closer to the creek at a point upstream where they can enfilade the enemy defenders and are pumping double charges of canister across the creek. With the backing of this strong artillery support and, on the part of the Pennsylvania regiment, inspired by a promise of all the whiskey they want (Ferrero has recently denied them their daily shot of whiskey), at about 12:30 the two regiments mount the crest with bayonets fixed and start down the slope at the double-quick. Enemy fire rises to such intensity that the neat Federal columns are quickly broken up; the troops race to seek cover near the bridge, the New Yorkers to the left just downstream of the bridge where they suffer heavy losses trying to take shelter behind a rail fence, the Pennsylvanians to the north of the bridge where some of them tear down and pile up a section of fence for cover and others duck behind a stone wall that runs along the creek. The Federals are now scarcely 25 yards from the enemy, and firing from behind wall and fence. A few minutes after 1 pm, as the Confederate fire slackens, a captain of the Pennsylvania regiment dashes onto the bridge, followed by his first sergeant, two color-bearers, and the color guard. Then, in a sudden rush, men from both regiments jam onto the narrow span. When the regimental colors are halfway across the bridge, the Confederates seem to break, deserting their works and scampering over the hills.
In reality, the Confederate withdrawal from the west bank is carried out with remarkable order. Even before the Federals get onto the bridge, Brigadier General Robert Toombs, commanding the defenders, knows the game is up. His men have only a few cartridges remaining, and reports from downstream indicate that the large Federal force under General Rodman has found Snavely’s Ford and in a matter of minutes could sweep down on Toombs’s right flank and rear. Toombs waits until the Federals in his front start across the field, then instructs his Georgians to pull back to a previously designated position about a half mile to the rear. The Georgians’ perseverance has cost the Federals more than 500 casualties while their own losses number less than 160. The Pennsylvanians have definitely earned their keg of whiskey.
As soon as the Pennsylvania and New York regiments have secured the crest overlooking the bridge, the rest of the brigade files across. They link up on the left with Rodman’s force coming north from Snavely’s Ford and on the right with Crook’s brigade, which has found a crossing 250 yards above the bridge. It is now a little after 1 pm. At last the way is open for a full-scale assault on Lee’s thin line south of Sharpsburg. Indeed, such an advance appears to be McClellan’s last chance for victory. McClellan has abandoned hope of breaking the Confederate northern flank, and the Federal drive in the center, around the Sunken Road, is bogging down. The advance on the south now has to be much more than a mere diversion, and McClellan sends yet another messenger to spur Burnside on. But a new hitch develops. In the haste to carry the bridge, no one bothered to arrange for a resupply of ammunition. Now the cartridge boxes are almost empty and the men too worn out to continue the advance. A new division, held in reserve all morning, is ordered forward. But it is three quarters of a mile behind the Antietam, and will take at least an hour to march across the hilly terrain to the creek. Then the troops will have to funnel across the bridge, a bottleneck that is already clogged with artillery caissons and ammunition wagons and under fire from enemy cannon. No one thinks to use the ford discovered by Crook.
The lull that ensues on the southern flank coincides with the end of the fighting in the center. Lee has long since put in his last reserves, but he does take advantage of the early-afternoon respite to try to mount a counterstroke. The idea is to relieve the Federal pressure in the center and prevent an all-out attack in the south by creating a diversion on the northern flank. Far from the massive counterattack envisioned by McClellan, this will involve merely a column of cavalry led by Jeb Stuart and whatever guns and infantry Stonewall Jackson can spare from his depleted divisions. The force will try to swing wide to the northeast and outflank the Federal right. Jackson finds himself facing twenty fresh Federal regiments but, undaunted, vows to “drive McClellan into the Potomac.” But as Stuart’s column of cavalry starts off toward the north it comes up against a wall of Federal artillery. Reluctantly, Jackson calls off the attack.
Lee, meanwhile, alerted to Burnside’s build-up along the Antietam, orders up every available cannon. In bolstering his right, Lee makes no effort to strengthen General D.R. Jones’s badly outnumbered division. To stop Burnside, Lee is counting on the arrival of a powerful column of reinforcements from Harpers Ferry: A.P. Hill’s Light Division, so called for its mobility on the march and in battle. Lee’s summons to hasten to Sharpsburg reached Hill at Harpers Ferry at 6:30 in the morning. Hill put on the red flannel shirt he always wears into battle and, an hour later, hurries out of town with five brigades, leaving one behind to gather up the captured booty. Hill drives his men almost without a break in the heat and dust, his soldiers—after two days of harvesting the fruits of the big Federal commissary at Harpers Ferry—better fed than anyone else in the Army of Northern Virginia. Many are also better dressed, having replaced their gray rags with brand-new blue uniforms. At 2 pm, the head of Hill’s column reaches Boteler’s Ford and starts across the Potomac. In six and a half hours, the troops have covered fifteen miles with two miles yet to go. Hill gallops on ahead to report to Lee. Lee is so relieved to see him that he drops his customary reserve and embraces his impetuous subordinate. It is now 2:30 pm.
Down at the bridge, Burnside is finally ready to advance. To make sure that he does, McClellan sends a high-ranking courier with orders to relieve Burnside of his command if he fails to push ahead at once. McClellan cannot bear to deliver such a rebuke to his old friend in person. As it turns out the orders are not invoked as Burnside is clearly doing what he can, personally directing traffic on the blood-slickened bridge. By about 3 pm—two hours after the capture of the bridge—the entire IX Corps is across the Antietam and ready for the advance. The plan is to converge on Sharpsburg, then block Lee’s line of retreat west of the village. The men who carried the bridge are to be held in reserve on the west bank. But even without them, the Federals have more than 8,000 troops, most of them fresh, and 22 cannon for close support.
On the Federal right, two brigades start off astride the road that leads from the bridge up toward Sharpsburg. The terrain they are covering is fairly steep and relatively open farmland ascending in a series of crests and hollows to the high ground around Sharpsburg. The attackers soon discover that almost every haystack and fence conceals enemy skirmishers and that the heights above, and to the right, bristle with Confederate artillery. They encounter strong resistance from skirmishers behind the stone walls of Joseph Sherrick’s farm. They flush the skirmishers but as they push on to higher ground 200 yards beyond they run into their first substantial body of enemy infantry from Cemetery Hill, South Carolinians in an apple orchard. Massachusetts artillery helps blast them out, the Federal infantry following with the bayonet. The South Carolinians pull back behind a stone wall at the southeastern edge of Sharpsburg. Now the Confederate guns on Cemetery Hill are in jeopardy and, along with the little brigade of Virginians supporting them, leave the hill and retreat back into town. At this juncture, with skirmishers less than 200 yards from Sharpsburg, the Federals halt. Ammunition is running low, and they wait for the supply wagons to catch up.
Meanwhile, in the rolling hills farther south, Rodman’s division launches its westward advance toward the Harpers Ferry Road. From the start they face a fury of shellfire from a dozen enemy guns mounted on a ridge a half mile or so ahead. When the lead elements reach the last slope leading up to the gun-infested ridge, the two Confederate batteries limber up and withdraw to avoid being captured. But two small brigades of infantry remain behind. The waiting Confederates wait until the Federal bayonets flash above the crest fifty feet away before opening fire. The Federal lines stagger, recover, and return volley after volley before surging forward to break through the thin Confederate defensive line. With the Federals in pursuit, the surviving Confederates run down the hill into Sharpsburg.
Sharpsburg now seethes with a sense of impending disaster. Confederate stragglers choke the streets as ambulances clatter past, leaking blood through the floorboards. Civilians huddle in their cellars while Federal shells smash brick and glass, and in the smoke-shrouded sky flocks of frightened pigeons fly in circles. A few impatient Federal skirmishers even prowl the streets on the outskirts of town. Lee’s right is in shreds. Of the five brigades in D.R. Jones’s division, only Toombs’s unit is still intact. His brigade is now backed up against the Harpers Ferry Road a half mile south of Sharpsburg, facing the Federal far left. With roughly 700 men, he doesn’t have a prayer of stemming the Federal tide. And Longstreet, commanding the Confederate center and right, can shift no reinforcements from the battered center. The only hope is A.P. Hill’s Light Division. From his headquarters just west of Sharpsburg, Lee keeps looking to his right for some sign. The only troops he can see there are the long blue lines of Burnside’s advancing Federals. Then, about 3:30 pm, he sees approaching troops flying the Virginia and Confederate flags—Hill has arrived.
Hill has 3,000 men, hundreds more having fallen by the wayside from exhaustion on the furious march that has brought the division seventeen miles in eight hours. Now the column turns onto the road just south of Toombs’s position. Hill divides his troops, sending two brigades off to the southeast to protect his right flank while the other 2,000 men file in on the right of Toombs’s regiments and prepare to attack. Hill cannot have chosen a better spot. Here, on their extreme left, the Federals are most vulnerable. The southernmost brigade in Rodman’s division has failed to keep pace with the regiments to the north. Only one of that brigade’s regiments, from Connecticut, has heard their brigade commander give the order to advance. While they are pushing pest against Toombs’s infantry, the rest of the brigade—another Connecticut regiment along with one from Rhode Island—lag behind. The resulting gap is a perfect opening for Hill’s attack. Just a few minutes before Hill strikes, Rodman sees the Confederates coming and sends an aide ahead to warn the Rhode Island and Connecticut regiments, just now moving west into farmer John Otto’s cornfield. Then Rodman gallops forward to warn his next brigade in line. Crossing a meadow he is mortally wounded in the chest by a Confederate sharpshooter. Rodman is the ninth Union general to fall today.
At 3:40 pm, Hill’s troops strike the Otto cornfield. The Connecticut boys have never been under fire before. In service only three weeks, they don’t know the first thing about maneuvering on a battlefield. Until yesterday evening, many of them had never even loaded their muskets. Now from front and left flank, they are hammered by volley after volley. They gamely return fire, but they are outmatched. Within a few minutes 185 of them go down and their line disintegrates. A Rhode Island regiment comes up on the right, but by now the battle lines are so close—thirty to forty yards apart—that the Rhode Islanders hardly know where to fire. In the high corn it is hard to distinguish between friend and foe. The fact that some of the Confederates are wearing Federal uniforms picked up at Harpers Ferry only adds to the confusion. The Rhode Islanders quickly follow their Connecticut compatriots. This leaves the first Connecticut regiment far out in advance and isolated. Attacked on its front and flank by another of Hill’s brigades and some of Toombs’s men, they are driven down the hills toward Antietam Creek. General Cox, trying to mend this major break in his left, sends up some Ohio regiments. They get as far as a stone wall near Otto’s cornfield before they collide with all three of Hill’s attacking brigades and, outflanked, quickly fall back.
There is a pause in the action, and Hill summons his brigade commanders to a conference. The four generals and their staffs soon attract the fire of enemy sharpshooters, and as Hill’s senior brigadier is lifting his binoculars to his eyes he is shot through the head. General Lawrence O’Bryan Branch is the ninth Confederate general to fall.
Hill’s attack has broken the Federal far left. Cox, fearing that Hill might now turn on the exposed flank of his forward brigades, orders their withdrawal. About 5 pm the orders reach the Federal troops waiting for ammunition on the outskirts of Sharpsburg, and they reluctantly fall back. Burnside’s IX Corps has suffered casualties of about 20 percent, but he still fields more than 8,500 men—twice the number of enemy troops facing him. Yet Burnside and Cox pull the corps all they way back to the west bank of the Antietam, to the heights overlooking the bridge. Then, beset by doubts that he can hold even the bridge, Burnside dispatches a message to McClellan asking for more men and guns. McClellan, who has reneged on his morning vow to support his old friend’s advance, promises him just one battery. “I can do nothing more,” McClellan says. “I have no infantry.” In fact, McClellan nearly has the battle won—but he doesn’t realize it. He still has V Corps and VI Corps in reserve, and if he but dares fling them against Lee’s exhausted, thin line, victory would be his. But he is so stunned by his staggering losses and worried about the possibility of a massive counterattack that he refuses to commit them.
So there it rests. Burnside holds onto his bridge. A.P. Hill, outnumbered, is in no position to press the issue—he has saved Lee’s army, but can do no more. By 5:30 pm, the hard fighting has ended on the heights overlooking the Burnside Bridge. After twelve hours the battle of Antietam is over, although random firing continues for another hour or so while men pray for darkness to put an end to the slaughter. Night does come, and with it a mournful chorus of agony rising from the lantern-lit barns and houses where surgeons saw at mangled limbs, and from the pitch-black hollows, woods, and fields where wounded men lie beyond reach of help.
Never before have so many Americans fallen in combat in a single day. By the best available counts, casualties number 22,726. Federal losses account for somewhat more than half: 2,108 killed, 9,549 wounded, and 753 missing, for a total of 12,410. The Confederates have lost 1,546 killed, 7,752 wounded, and 1,018 missing, for a total of 10,316. Appalling as these statistics are, they underestimate the actual cost, for vast numbers of the wounded will later die of their injuries, and many of the missing are dead.
At Munfordville, Kentucky, Colonel Wilder finally agrees to march his 4,000-man garrison to surrender to General Bragg’s Confederates at 6 am. Bragg’s move to Louisville has been delayed by two full days, yet he feels no sense of urgency. Assuming that Buell’s army will remain in Bowling Green and apparently quite unconcerned about word that a strong Federal force is digging in at Louisville, Bragg gives his army a day off to celebrate its first victory of the campaign.
Also in Kentucky there is skirmishing near Falmouth and on Bowling Green Road and at Merry Oaks. There is an engagement at St. John’s Bluff, Florida, and operations around Shiloh, North Carolina.
Major General Ormsby M. Mitchel, US Army, assumes command of the Department of the South stationed along the southeast coast.
Pro-Unionists in the Tennessee mountains suffer a setback when Brigadier General George W. Morgan is forced to evacuate Cumberland Gap due to the Confederate invasion of Kentucky.
The expert is more aristocratic than the aristocrat, because the aristocrat is only the man who lives well, while the expert is the man who knows better.
—G. K. Chesterton