The Battle of Antietam: Midday at the Sunken Road

This entry is part 9 of 12 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.

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