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.

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