Antietam: 152 Years Later

The Battle of AntietamThis is a post that I wrote two years ago on the occasion of the 150th Anniversary of the Battle of Antietam. It bears repeating to inform people about the horrific price that America paid during the American Civil War. Let us all fervently pray that we will never be asked to pay that steep a price again. But if we are asked to defend our rights let us hope that we can show the same type of courage and bravery that our forebears did.

Today marks the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Antietam, also known as Sharpsburg. Whatever you call it, this battle marked the first great turning point in the American Civil War in the East.

Historians argue endlessly about turning points in the Civil War but about Antietam there is very little argument. Everything after the battle was changed by its impact on Union policy. Let’s start with the smaller changes that came from the battle and move up to the one great change that turned the fortunes of war in favor of the North.

Antietam marked the last battle of Maj. Gen. George McClellan as commander of the Army of the Potomac. His inability to pursue the shattered Confederate Army of Northern Virginia and allow it to return to the safety of Virginia was simply too much for Abraham Lincoln to bear.

General-in-Chief Henry W. Halleck wrote in his official report, “The long inactivity of so large an army in the face of a defeated foe, and during the most favorable season for rapid movements and a vigorous campaign, was a matter of great disappointment and regret.” Lincoln relieved McClellan of his command of the Army of the Potomac on November 7, effectively ending the general’s military career.

Following McClellan at the helm of the Army of the Potomac was Maj. Gen. Ambrose Burnside who had turned the President down before McClellan’s reinstatement. He claimed that he was not qualified to command the army. At Fredericksburg in December, Burnside proved that his own opinion of himself was correct.

He was followed by Maj. Gen. Joseph “Fighting Joe” Hooker was thoroughly whipped by Robert E. Lee at Chancellorsville and was relieved of command three days before the momentous Battle of Gettysburg. He in turn was replaced by Maj. Gen. George Gordon Meade who retained command for the rest of the war.

Antietam was to begin the process that eventually brought General Ulysses S. Grant to the position of general-in-chief of all the Union armies. His military genius was to change the face of war and bring victory to the forces of the Union.

Antietam was the battle that brought that face of war to the general public of the North. Mathew Brady, the well-known New York photographer, Alexander Gardner at Antietamhad dispatched Alexander Gardner to the battle field to take photographs of the aftermath of the battle.

In October 1862, the results of Gardner’s battlefield images were exhibited in Brady’s New York gallery titled “The Dead of Antietam.” Many images in this presentation were graphic photographs of corpses, a presentation new to America. This was the first time that many Americans saw the realities of war in photographs as distinct from previous “artists’ impressions”.

The images of the wholesale slaughter on the battlefield of Antietam brought the war home to northern civilians in a way that casualty lists and battlefield sketches could not. The images of piles of dead soldiers in the Cornfield and the Sunken Road were so graphic that many people were shocked into understanding the death and destruction that this war was causing.

Both armies was severely wounded after the battle. With over 23,000 casualties inflicted, both armies took several months to recover. Some historians say that the Confederate army never recovered from the wholesale bloodletting at Antietam. But recover they did and defeated the Union Army of the Potomac at Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville due to the superior generalship of their commander, Robert E. Lee.

The most important result of the Battle of Antietam was Lincoln’s issuing of the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation. On September 22nd, the President issued the proclamation that would change the Union war aims and his country forever.

Earlier that summer Lincoln had said, “If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the Dead Confederates at the Sunken Roadslaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that. What I do about slavery, and the colored race, I do because I believe it helps to save the Union; and what I forbear, I forbear because I do not believe it would help to save the Union.” 

The Emancipation Proclamation when it came into effect on January 1, 1863 would forever change the war from one that only sought to preserve the Union but one that would set men free. Lincoln’s ringing phrase, “…thenceforward, and forever free” would change the United States of America for all time.

As a direct result of the proclamation 180,000 African-Americans would enlist in the Union army and assist in the ultimate victory over the Confederate states. Their value to the Union cause cannot be understated.

So, today is not only a turning point in the American Civil War but also a turning point in the history of the United States.

I have the honor of being the great-great grandson of Michael Patrick Murphy, Sergeant, Company D, 61st New York Volunteer Infantry, Caldwell’s Brigade, Richardson’s Division. On September 17th, 1862 he fought at the Sunken Road, forever known afterward as ‘Bloody Lane’. Everytime that I look in a mirror his blue eyes are looking back at me, just like my grandmother told me they would when I was a child. We, his descendants, have a fierce pride that one of our ancestors helped to save the Union.


McClellan at Antietam

This entry is part 5 of 6 in the series Command Decisions

Battle of AntietamMaj. Gen. George McClellan’s final battle as commander of the Army of the Potomac was Antietam or as Southerners call it, Sharpsburg. The bloodiest single day battle in American history, Antietam is considered a tactical draw, even though the Union Army held the field while Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia retreated back across the Potomac into the safety of Virginia.

After the debacle of the Seven Days Battles, McClellan had withdrawn his huge army south to the James River where it was under the guns of the Union Navy. In August the bulk of McClellan’s command was transferred to the Army of Virginia, commanded by Maj. Gen. John Pope. Almost immediately Pope was engaged by Lee in a series of battles culminating in his defeat at Second Manassas or Bull Run.

After Pope’s defeat, Lincoln reluctantly returned McClellan to Washington where he combined both his force on the Peninsula and Pope’s shattered army into a strengthened Army of the Potomac. Lincoln told his aid John Hay, “We must use what tools we have. There is no man in the Army who can man these fortifications and lick these troops of ours into shape half as well as he. If he can’t fight himself, he excels in making others ready to fight.”

Meanwhile, Robert E. Lee shorn of any adversaries (or so he thought) crossed the Potomac and invaded Maryland on September 2nd. So began the great chase North. The two forces met at Harpers Ferry which Stonewall Jackson masterfully captured on September 15th. Another wing of Lee’s army fought pitched battles were fought on September 14 for possession of the South Mountain passes: Crampton’s, Turner’s, and Fox’s Gaps.

When Lee realized that he was overmatched he ordered his army to withdraw west to Sharpsburg. Meanwhile, an Indiana soldier discovered Robert E. Lee’s orders to his army wrapped around several cigars. McClellan confided to a subordinate, “Here is a paper with which, if I cannot whip Bobby Lee, I will be willing to go home.”

Unfortunately, many historians believe that McClellan failed to fully exploit the strategic advantage of the intelligence because he was concerned about a possible trap (posited by Maj. Gen. Henry W. Halleck) or gross overestimation of the strength of Lee’s army.

Many historians say that even though McClellan brought a larger army that the Confederates to Antietam, he brought one soldier too many: himself. At Antietam, McClellan fought a piece-meal battle. Rather than ordering a general attack in the morning, the battle unfolded from north to south in a piece-meal fashion. These tactics allowed Lee’s outnumbered forces to move defensive forces to the points of the Union attacks.

McClellan also confined his movements across Antietam Creek the the various bridges that spanned the waterway. He believed that the creek was unfordable, yet units of Richardson’s Division forded it at the center of the battlefield opposite. My own second great grandfather recorded this in a latter affidavit.

In addition, McClellan has been heavily criticized for holding back his reserve force under the command of Maj. Gen. Fitz John Porter. When Col. Francis C. Barlow and 350 men of the 61st and 64th New York saw a weak point in the line and seized a knoll commanding the sunken road. This allowed them to get enfilade fire into the Confederate line, turning it into a deadly trap.

The Confederate line broke and created a massive hole in their defenses but there was no force to follow up and rout the enemy. Porter is said to have told McClellan, “Remember, General, I command the last reserve of the last Army of the Republic.” McClellan took his implied advice and failed to commit his reserves into a battle that might have been won if he had used his forces aggressively.

McClellan failed to make the correct command decisions at Antietam and it cost the Union Army a clear victory and an opportunity to destroy Lee’s army. The destruction of the Army of Northern Virginia would have left Richmond virtually defenseless and with their capital city captured the South would have likely lost the war in 1862.




The Battle of Antietam: Afternoon

This entry is part 10 of 11 in the series The Maryland Campaign

The Battle of Antietam:


The final chapter in the bloody Battle of Antietam took place on the afternoon of September 17, 1862 at the southern end of the battlefield. Maj. Gen. Ambrose Burnside‘s IX Corps had been assigned a diversionary role in Union commander Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan’s battle plan.

While Maj. Gen. Joseph Hooker’s I Corps was to make the main attack at the northern end of the Confederate defensive positions, Burnside’s troops were to attack across the Lower Bridge in order to draw Confederate troop strength south.

Burnside was ordered to wait until he received explicit orders to attack. The battle raged for 4 1/.2 hours before he received those orders at 10:00 AM. Burnside was simmering because of the role that his men had been assigned and the fact that he no longer was a “wing” commander, overseeing both the I and IX Corps.

Map of the Battle of Antietam, Burnside's assaultsBurnside had four divisions that included 12,500 men and 50 guns. His divisions were led by Brig. Gens. Orlando B. WillcoxSamuel D. Sturgis,  Isaac P. Rodman and the Kanawha Division, under Col. Eliakim P. Scammon.

Click Map to enlarge.

By 10:00 AM, the Confederate force that opposed his formidable force consisted of only one division, the 3,000 men and 12 guns of Brig. Gen. David R. Jones. Lee had moved Brig. Gen. John G. Walker‘s Division to the northern end of the battlefield as McClellan had hoped that he would.

Jones had positioned four under-strength brigades along the ridges south of Sharpsburg, primarily on a low plateau known as cemetary hill. He had the 400 men of the 2nd and 20th Georgia regiments, under the command of Brig. Gen. Robert Toombs, with two artillery batteries defending Rohrbach’s Bridge (The actual name of the Lower Bridge).

Rohrbach’s Bridge, which would later become known as Burnside’s Bridge, is perhaps the one iconic symbol that people will remember about the Battle of Antietam. It is a 125 foot long, three-span, stone structure that became the centerpiece of the Burnside’s struggle to cross Antietam Creek.

It was a particularly difficult crossing for the Union troops. The road leading to the bridge ran parallel to the creek so that the Union troops were exposed to Confederate fire as they prepared to move across the bridge. The Confederate troops were positioned on a 100-foot bluff on the western side of the creek with excellent cover for their sharpshooters because of the woods and rocks.

Burnside has been roundly criticized for not fording the creek out of sight of the Confederate troops. At this point it was no more than 50 feet wide and at most waist deep. It would have been comparatively easy to move troops across the creek and flank the Confederate defensive positions.

Instead, Burnside ordered a straight-forward assault across the bridge combined with fording the creek about a half mile downstream. When his troops arrived at the ford, they found that the banks were to steep to negotiate. This option was abandoned early on and the assault became his only means of crossing.

Burnside did send additional troops on a futile march 2 miles further south to Snavely’s Ford but their mission was unsuccessful and only served toGeneral Ambrose Burnside  remove them from the greater part of the battle.

Col. George Crook‘s Ohio brigade made the initial assault across the bridge, led by skirmishers from the 11th Connecticut. Their assignment was to clear the bridge area of Confederate sharpshooters. After a furious 15-minute battle, they withdrew after losing 139 men, one-third of their strength, including their commander who was fatally wounded. Crook’s men were able to get across and drifted to the north, where they exchanged fire with the Confederates for the next several hours.

The second assault from Sturgis’ division fell apart under enemy fire from sharpshooters and artillery. Meanwhile, McClellan was sending a series of dispatches to Burnside urging him to press on. “Tell him if it costs 10,000 men he must go now,” he ordered one aide. He increased the pressure by sending his inspector general, Col. Delos B. Sackett, to confront Burnside, who reacted indignantly: “McClellan appears to think I am not trying my best to carry this bridge; you are the third or fourth one who has been to me this morning with similar orders.”

At about 12:30 PM, Burnside’s third attempt began. Brig. Gen. Edward Ferrero‘s brigade spearheaded the assault with the 51st New York and the 51st Pennsylvania leading the attack. They used a captured light howitzer and fired double canister down the bridge and got within 25 yards of the enemy. The successfully crossed the bridge and Toombs was forced to order a withdrawal when he received word that Union troops had crossed at Snavely’s Ford.

The Confederate defense had successfully stalled the Union attack for about three hours at the cost of less than 160 casualties while inflicting about more than 500 on Burnside’s troops. They also bought time for Confederate reinforcements under Maj. Gen. A.P. Hill to arrive from Harpers Ferry.

Burnside's BridgeBurnside was now across the creek but his offense stalled due to a lack of ammunition. His logistics officers had not brought sufficient small arms and artillery ammunition. The narrow bridge was itself a bottleneck for the troops, artillery and supply wagons. It took about two hours to clear this up and resupply the Union troops.

Meanwhile, A.P. Hill‘s Light Division began to arrive after an exhausting 17-mile forced march from Harpers Ferry. They had been assigned to supervise the paroles of the captured Union garrison and secure the captured supplies. At 2:30 PM Hill met with Lee who ordered him to position his division to Jones’ right. Hill’s Light Division would add an additional 3,000 men to the Confederate defensive line.

Burnside was unaware of their pending arrival and had formulated a plan to move around the Confederate right in the exact spot that Hill’s men now were situated. At about 3:00 PM Burnside left Sturgis’ Division in reserve and moved west with 8,000 men and 22 guns.

Burnside’s assault met with initial success that caused panic to run through the Confederates in Sharpsburg, who began retreating through the town. With the exception of Toombs’ Brigade the balance of Jones’ Division had lost all unit cohesion under the Union assault. Toombs only had 700 men with which to hold of the Union attack.

Then, like the proverbial cavalry, Hill’s five brigades arrived at about 3:30 PM. He assigned two of them to the southeast to guard his flank. The other three, about 2,000 men, moved to the right of Toombs’s brigade and prepared for a counterattack. Brig. Gen. Maxcy Gregg‘s brigade of South Carolinians attacked the oncoming Union flank, cutting through three regiments. This blunted the Union advance and unnerved Burnside.

Having lost 20% of his strength, Burnside ordered his corps all of the way back to the west bank of Antietam Creek. He urgently requested more Dead Confederate Soldiers at Antietammen and guns to renew his attack but McClellan responded, “I can do nothing more. I have no infantry.”

In fact, McClellan had two infantry corps in reserve, Porter’s V Corps and Franklin’s VI Corps. McClellan once again lost a chance to crush the Confederate army because of his caution and fear of Lee’s supposed strength. Burnside’s men remained to guard the bridge that had cost them so much to capture. By 5:30 PM all fighting had ceased as both armies were exhausted.

The Battle of Antietam was the bloodiest single-day battle in American history and remains today the bloodiest day in American history. The Union had 12,401 casualties with 2,108 dead. Confederate casualties were 10,318 with 1,546 dead. This represented 25% of the Federal force and 31% of the Confederate.

Several generals died as a result of the battle, including Maj. Gens. Joseph K. Mansfield and Israel B. Richardson and Brig. Gen. Isaac P. Rodman on the Union side (all mortally wounded), and Brig. Gens. Lawrence O. Branch and William E. Starke on the Confederate side (killed). Numerous other division, brigade and regimental commanders were killed or wounded.

On September 18th, Lee prepared his army for an attack that never came. Instead, their was a truce for both sides to recover their wounded. By the end of the day, the Confederates began their return to the Potomac and back into Virginia.

Citing shortages in men and equipment, McClellan refused to move into Virginia, despite repeated entreaties from the War Department and the president himself. The Union army remained in Maryland until October 26th. Lincoln relieved McClellan of his command of the Army of the Potomac on November 7, effectively ending the general’s military career.




The Battle of Antietam: Midday at the Sunken Road

This entry is part 9 of 11 in the series The Maryland Campaign

The Battle of Antietam:

Midday at the Sunken Road

By mid-morning the Battle of Antietam had shifted south to the center of the line. The midday phase of the battle is considered to begin at 9:30 AM and last until 1:00 PM. The battle in this part of the line was defined by a single terrain feature, the Sunken Road.

The Sunken Road was a cow path that through constant use was lower than the surrounding land. Both sides of the road had rail fences along their length, principally to keep cows from wandering into the surrounding fields.

The road meandered from Hagerstown Turnpike to Boonsboro Turnpike, generally west to east until it turned south about halfway along its length. The Confederates were able to use it as a trench without having to expend any energy digging it. In front of the Confederates, the land sloped off to Antietam Creek, giving them the high ground.

Map of the Battle of Antietam, late morningMaj. Gen. D.H. Hill placed his 2,500-man division in the sunken. Three of his five brigades had suffered considerable casualties during the morning’s fighting.  Despite being outnumbered 2-to-1 by Brig. Gen. William H. French‘s Division, Hill’s men had the defensive advantages of the Sunken Road and the high ground.

Click Map to enlarge.

French’s Division was one of the two that Maj. Gen. Edwin Sumner had ordered to attack the Confederate flank in the East Woods. Somehow in the maneuvering his and Sedgwick’s Division became separated and they veered to the south. Sumner, realizing that French had gone to far, ordered him to attack the Confederate lines in the center.

Starting at about 9:30 AM, French ordered a series of brigade-sized attacks against the makeshift Confederate breastworks. Over the course of three assaults by three different units, French lost approximately 1,750 men of his 5,700 men in under an hour.

By 10:30 AM, reinforcements were arriving for both sides. General Robert E. Lee sent his last reserve unit, Maj. Gen. Richard H. Anderson‘s 3,400-man division, forward to both reinforce Hill’s line and extend it to the right to prevent the Federals from flanking it on the Confederate right.  His objective was to set up an attack that would take French’s Division on the Union left.

Lee’s plan was thwarted when Maj. Gen. Israel B. Richardson‘s Division arrived on French’s left and blocked any possibility of a Confederate attack. This was the last of Sumner’s three division and Richardson’s men struck the first blow.

The fourth attack of the day was led by the Irish Brigade of Brig. Gen. Thomas F. Meagher. With their green flags waving in the breeze, they advanced while their chaplain, Father William Corby, rode back and forth across the front of the formation shouting words of conditional absolution for the most Irish Roman Catholics. They were repulsed with 540 casualties by heavy volleys of Confederate fire.

Col. John B. Gordon later said that their formation was the most beautiful that he saw in four years of war. That is, until the Confederate volleys The Irish Brigade at Antietamripped it apart.

General Richardson sent in Brig. Gen. John C. Caldwell‘s Brigade, even though Caldwell was said to be hiding behind a haystack in the rear. This was never proved as Caldwell was later promoted to division command.

The Confederate command in the Sunken Road area was in disarray. Gen. Richard Anderson was wounded early in the fighting. Other key leaders were lost as well, including Brig. Gen. George B. Anderson (no relation) was wounded. Anderson’s successor, Col. Charles C. Tew of the 2nd North Carolina, was killed minutes after assuming command and Col. John B. Gordon of the 6th Alabama was severely wounded.  Brig. Gen.  Robert E. Rodes was wounded in the thigh but was still on the field. These losses contributed directly to the confusion of the following events.

Caldwell’s brigade advanced around the right flank of the Confederate line and Col. Francis C. Barlow and 350 men of the 61st and 64th New York saw a weak point in the line and seized a knoll commanding the sunken road. (Author’s note: I have the honor of being the second great grandson of Sgt. Michael Patrick Murphy of Company D, 61st New York Volunteers.)

Barlow, a 32-year old New York lawyer led his combined regiments into a position where they could get enfilade fire into the Confederate line, turning it into a deadly trap. One sergeant from the 61st later said, “We were shooting them like sheep in a pen. If a bullet missed the mark at first Francis Barlowit was liable to strike the further bank, angle back, and take them secondarily.” My ancestor simply said in his later affidavit for a disability pension, “We had it hot for some time.”


Rodes ordered his Confederates to wheel around to meet this threat but Lt. Col. James N. Lightfoot, Gordon’s successor misunderstood the order and commanded his men to retreat. All five regiments thought that the order applied to them as well. The entire brigade retreated, leaving a gaping hole in the Confederate line.

However, as soon as Richardson’s men began to pursue the retreating Confederates, Maj. Gen. James Longstreet who commanded this wing of the army, ordered his massed artillery to drive them back. A counterattacking force personally led by General Hill was able to stem the collapse of the Confederate center. Richardson ordered his men to withdraw. It was during this withdrawal that Barlow was severely wounded and Richardson was mortally wounded.

The fighting in the Sunken Road lasted for 3 1/2 hours. In that time 5,600 men were either killed or wounded, 3,000 Union troops and 2,600 Confederates. This carnage was along an 800-yard road. Bodies filled the Sunken Road. Later pictures attest to the fierce fighting.

Yet, this had been the opportunity that the Union army had been waiting for. There was a reserve of 3,500 cavalry and the 10,300 infantrymen of Gen. Porter’s V Corps, waiting near the middle bridge, a mile away.

The VI Corps had just arrived with 12,000 men. Maj. Gen. William B. Franklin of the VI Corps was ready to exploit this breakthrough, but Sumner,The Sunken Road after the battle the senior corps commander, ordered him not to advance. Franklin appealed to McClellan, who left his headquarters in the rear to hear both arguments but backed Sumner’s decision, ordering Franklin and Hancock to hold their positions.

For a brief instant, McClellan had the opportunity to save the Union but his caution and indecision was to end his career in failure. The battle in the Sunken Road would give this cow path a new name that we remember 150 years later, Bloody Lane.


The Battle of Antietam: Morning

This entry is part 8 of 11 in the series The Maryland Campaign

The Battle of Antietam:


The Battle of Antietam was the bloodiest single day in the history of American warfare. Fought over a 12-hour span, it produced more casualties in a single day than any event in American history. It took place in the rolling hills and valleys of the western Maryland countryside.

The two armies had each positioned themselves in a north-south orientation with the Union Army of the Potomac as the attacker and the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia as the defender.

The Battle of Antietam is the story of three uncoordinated battles that due to Maj. Gen. George McClellan’s unwillingness to layout his entire battle plan were fought in near isolation.

The fight in the north took place in the morning. The one in the center was fought in the middle of the day and the final engagement in the south was fought in the afternoon. At some points, it seemed that General Robert E. Lee’s army was about to break in two but it never did.

Map of the Battle of Antietam, initial attacksWe’ll examine each part of the overall battle starting with the desperate fight on the northern flank of the Confederate Army. The Union attack began at 5:30 AM when Maj. Gen. Joseph Hooker ordered his I Corps to attack the Confederate left flank straight down Hagerstown Turnpike. Hooker’s objective was a small plateau on which sat a small, whitewashed church owned by the Dunkers, to a local sect of German Baptists.

Click Map to enlarge.

Hooker attacked Maj. Gen. Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson’s position with approximately 8,600 men. Jackson had about 7,700 men but his defensive position more than made up for the slight disparity of forces. Brig. Gen. Abner Doubleday‘s division moved on the right, Brig. Gen. James Ricketts’s division moved on the left into the East Woods, and Brig. Gen. George G. Meade‘s Pennsylvania Reserves division deployed in the center and slightly to the rear.

Jackson’s defensive line was anchored by the divisions of Brig. Gen. Alexander R. Lawton and Brig. Gen. John R. Jones. They were posted in a line from the West Woods, across the turnpike and to the edge of the Miller Cornfield in the east. Four brigades were in reserve out of sight in the West Woods.

The Union advance set off an artillery duel that Confederate Col. Stephen D. Lee described as “artillery hell.” The Confederate artillery consisted of horse artillery batteries under Maj. Gen. J.E.B. Stuart to the west and four batteries under Lee on the high ground across the pike from the Dunker Church to the south.  Union return fire was from nine batteries on the ridge behind the North Woods and twenty 20-pounder Parrott rifles, 2 miles east of Antietam Creek. The casualties caused by the duel were heavy on both sides.

Hooker spotted the fixed bayonets of the Confederate brigades in the Cornfield and halted the infantry attack. He ordered four batteries up and had them fire into the woods with shell and canister. The Confederates in the Cornfield charged into the Union infantry and a savage fight ensued. Union attempts to advance were repulsed in the East Woods. Ricketts’ Division was torn up in an attempt to cross the Cornfield.

Union brigades under Brig. Gen. George L. Hartsuff and Col. William A. Christian met the same heavy artillery fire. Hartsuff was wounded by a shell and Christian fled to the rear. They were reorganized and moved forward once again, only to meet heavy artillery and rifle fire. An attack by the Louisiana “Tiger” Brigade under Brig. Gen. Harry T. Hays, met with initial success but were eventually pushed back when the Federals brought up aBodies from Starke's Brigade near the Dunker Church battery of 3-inch ordnance rifles and rolled them directly into the Cornfield. They lost 323 of their 500 men.

To the west, Brig. Gen. John Gibbon‘s Iron Brigade advanced until they met Brig. Gen. William E. Starke‘s Second Louisiana Brigade. After a ferocious fight at 30 yards, the Louisiana unit withdrew with heavy casualties. General Starke was hit three times and died shortly thereafter. The Iron Brigade continued their advance and cut a large gap in Jackson’s defensive line. It appeared that Hooker’s Corps was making steady progress.

Just after 7:00 AM Confederate reinforcements arrived on the field, fresh from a night march from Harpers Ferry. Brig. Gen. John Bell Hood‘s 2,300-man Division pushed through the West Woods and into the Cornfield, repulsing the Union troops to their front. They were assisted by four other Confederate brigades but Hood’s Division suffered a staggering 60% casualties. When he was asked where his division was, he later said, “Dead on the field.”

After two hours of ferocious combat, Hooker’s Corps was back at its starting point, having suffered 2,500 casualties. The cornfield, an area 250 yards by 400 yards, had been estimated to have changed hands 15 times in the course of the morning. Hooker called for support from Maj. Gen. Joseph K. Mansfield‘s 7,200-man XII Corps.

Half of Mansfield’s troops were raw recruits and its commander was just as inexperienced. Despite 40 years of military service, Mansfield had never commanded large numbers of troops in combat. Concerned about their reaction to enemy fire, Mansfield ordered them to march into the East Woods in close formation. They presented an excellent target for Confederate artillery fire. Mansfield was mortally wounded and died the next day. Brig. Gen. Alpheus S. Williams assumed temporary command of the XII Corps.

The Second Division of the XII Corps were able to make progress through the East Woods when a Confederate brigade fled believing that they were being flanked. Hood was forced to pull back his division to the West Woods to regroup. The Union division, commanded by Brig. Gen. George S. Greene, was able to reach the Dunker Church and drive off the Confederate artillery batteries that were devastating the Union attackers.

Map of the Battle of Antietam, mid-morningAt this point the fortunes of war came into play. Hooker was shot in the foot by a Confederate sharpshooter and was taken from the field. Brig. Gen. George G. Meade assumed command of the Corps because Brig. Gen. James B. Ricketts, Hooker’s second-in-command had also been wounded. However, there was no general left with the authority to rally the men of the I and XII Corps. Greene’s men came under heavy fire from the West Woods and withdrew from the Dunker Church.

Click Map to enlarge.

At about 7:20 AM, Maj. Gen. Edwin V. Sumner II Corps was ordered to send two divisions to relieve the pressure on the Union right. Maj. Gen. John Sedgwick‘s 5,400-man division advanced across Antietam Creek and into the East Woods. They intended to turn left and push the Confederates south. The plan went awry from the start. Sedgwick’s division became separated from Brig. Gen. William H. French‘s division.

At about 9:00 AM, Sumner ordered an unusual formation with Sedgwick’s three brigades in three long lines separated by 60 to 70 yards. They were a perfect target for the Confederates. They were first attacked by artillery and then on three sides by infantry fire. In less than half an hour, Sedgwick’s Division was forced to retreat after suffering 2,200 casualties, including their commander.

The final attack of the morning took place at 10:00 AM when two regiments of the XII Corps advanced and were engaged by newly arrived Confederates from Brig. Gen. John G. Walker‘s Division. They fought in the area between the Cornfield and the West Woods. Walker’s men were forced back and troops from Green’s Division seized some ground in the West Woods.

The morning phase of the Battle of Antietam was over. There had been an estimate 13,000 casualties sustained by both sides. Two Union corps commanders had been wounded, one was to die the next day. A number of division and brigade commanders had been killed or wounded. The names of the battle locations, the Cornfield, the West Woods and the East Woods, would become by their very names as the epitome of bloody combat.


The Battle of Antietam: Background

This entry is part 7 of 11 in the series The Maryland Campaign

The Battle of Antietam

After the various actions at the gaps along South Mountain, General Robert E. Lee withdrew his army to the west side of Antietam Creek around the town of Sharpsburg. This position was to be the location of the Battle of Antietam that took place on September 17, 1862.

The dividing barrier between the two armies was Antietam Creek, a tributary of the Potomac River that ran generally north and south from Pennsylvania and through Maryland. In the Sharpsburg area, the creek was traversed by three bridges, appropriately named the Upper Bridge, the Middle Bridge and the Lower Bridge. The latter was to become famous as Burnside’s Bridge after the battle.

General Lee had organized his Army of Northern Virginia into two large infantry corps. The First Corps was commanded by Maj. Gen. James Longstreet, considered to be Lee’s second-in-command. The 42-year old South Carolinian commanded five divisions and an independent brigade. His division commanders were Maj. Gen. Lafayette McLaws, Maj. Gen. Richard H. Anderson, Brig. Gen. David R. Jones, Brig. Gen. John G. Walker and Brig. Gen. John Bell Hood. The independent brigade was commanded by Brig. Gen. Nathan G. “Shanks” Evans.

The Battle of Antietam overviewLee’s Second Corps was commanded by Maj. Gen. Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson. The 38-year old Virginia commanded four divisions that were led by Brig. Gen. Alexander R. Lawton, Maj. Gen. A.P. Hill, Brig. Gen. John R. Jones and Maj. Gen. D.H. Hill. During the fight at Harpers Ferry, McLaws’ and Walker’s divisions had been attached to Jackson’s force.

Click Map to enlarge.

All of the cavalry units were grouped in the Cavalry Corps under the command of Maj. Gen. J.E.B. Stuart. The reserve artillery was under the command of Brig. Gen. William N. Pendleton. The Second Corps was organized with component artillery attached to each division while the First Corps had placed all of its artillery assets at the corps level.

The Army of the Potomac, commanded by Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan, included six infantry corps. They were commanded by Maj. Gens. Joseph HookerEdwin V. SumnerFitz John PorterWilliam B. FranklinAmbrose E. Burnside and Joseph K. Mansfield. There were a total of 18 divisions among the six corps. The cavalry division of Brig. Gen. Alfred Pleasonton consisted of the brigades of Maj. Charles J. Whiting and Cols. John F. Farnsworth, Richard H. Rush, Andrew T. McReynolds, and Benjamin F. Davis. All of the Union artillery assets were incorporated with the divisions.

There are various accounts of the overall strength of both armies. The number of Confederates who were engaged ranges from 38,000 at the low end to 51,800, including A.P. Hill’s Light Division which arrived during the afternoon. Likewise, the number of Union soldiers engaged ranges from 71,500 up to 87,164. The operative word is engaged. At least 30,000 Union soldiers were held in reserve by McClellan because he had overestimated Lee’s strength.

Beginning on September 15, 1862, Lee deployed his men on a low ridge west of the creek. He did not order the building of fortifications. Instead his troops were ordered to used the available terrain features for defense. The terrain consisted of rail and stone fences, outcroppings of limestone, General Robert E. Lee, 1862and little hollows and swales.

The creek did not present much of a barrier for a determined army yo advance over.ranging from 60 to 100 feet in width, and was fordable in places and crossed by the three stone bridges each a mile apart. The Confederates had there backs to the Potomac River with only a single crossing point, Boteler’s Ford at Shepherdstown, nearby should retreat be necessary.

On September 15, the force under Lee’s immediate command consisted of no more than 18,000 men, only a third the size of the Federal army. Jackson’s force was still at Harpers Ferry, accepting the surrender of the Union garrison that morning.

Two Union divisions had arrived on the afternoon of the 15th while the rest of the army arrived during the evening hours. McClellan trademark caution delayed the Union attack through September 16th. This allowed Lee to concentrate the bulk of his forces at Sharpsburg. Longstreet’s corps arrived from Hagerstown and Jackson’s corps, minus A.P. Hill’s division, arrived from Harpers Ferry on the 16th.

Lee placed Jackson in command of his northern flank, anchored on a bend of the Potomac River. Longstreet was in command of the southern flank, anchored on Antietam Creek. The Confederate line was about four miles long.

McClellan positioned Hooker’s I Corps on his right at the northern end of his line. Mansfield’s XII Corps was to his left and Franklin’s VI Corps in their rear as a reserve. Moving south, Sumner’s II Corps was in the center and Burnside’s IX Corps was at the southern end of the Union line. Porter’s V Corps was on the east side of the creek around McClellan’s headquarters as the Union reserve.

General George McClellanDue to the nature of the opposing terrain, McClellan planned a powerful assault on the Confederate left with his objective being to turn the Confederates. He intended to commit half of his army to this attack with a two-corps assault at the start and a third corps in support. If necessary, McClellan intended to use his reserves to bolster the attack.

McClellan intended to use his forces in the south as a diversionary attack to draw Confederate forces from the north, weakening it  for the main assault. The troops in the center would be available to exploit any successes on either flank.

At the onset, McClellan made several key mistakes. He ordered Hooker to probe the Confederate defenses in the north on the evening of September 16th with infantry supported by artillery. This alerted Lee to McClellan’s intentions and he immediately strengthened that part of his line.

McClellan only issued orders to each corps commander that pertained to their corps. He did not lay out his entire battle plan as other commanders would do. This did not allow the corps commanders to understand the entire plan, only their part in his plan. This made the Battle of Antietam a series of uncoordinated battles rather than a coordinated whole.






The Battle of Antietam

The Battle of Antietam

The Battle of Antietam (called Sharpsburg by the Southerners) was the bloodiest day in American history. In about 12 hours some 23,000 casualties were sustained by both armies. Here are three books that examine the Battle of Antietam and the campaign that led up to September 17, 1862.

The Antietam Campaign by John Cannan (Combined Books, 1990, 1994) is a volume in the Great Campaigns Series. It covers the events of August and September of 1862 following both armies in the run-up to the great battle. This book is very concise, filled with pictures and has an excellent order of battle for both armies. It also has a number of biographies for the leading commanders. This is not an anecdotal work but more along the lines of a retelling of events as the happened, where they happened and how they happened. It can be viewed here.

The Army War College Guide to the Battle of Antietam, edited by Jay Luvaas and Harold W. Nelson (South Mountain Press, Inc. 1987) according to one of the authors helps “to explain how the battle was fought” and “why leaders on both sides acted as they did”. This book examines the battle in detail using extensive area descriptions, may and first-hand “after action reports”. It takes us through the entire Maryland Campaign of which Antietam was the final bloody act. This volume is for the true battlefield scholar who is interested in all of the detail that was involved in the two armies. It can be viewed here.

The third volume that I recommend on this subject is Landscape Turned Red: The Battle of Antietam by Stephen W. Sears (First Mariner Books, 1983). This book also covers the entire Maryland Campaign of August and September of 1862. It examines the campaign through the eyes of the participants and immerses the reader in the impact that the campaign had on the soldiers involved. This book can be viewed here.

Taken as a group these three books gives the reader a balanced comprehensive view of one of the turning points of the American Civil War.