The Battle of Antietam

by Michael Langmyer

Alexander Gardner photo of the Battle of Antietam

Alexander Gardner photo of the Battle of Antietam, September 1862. From the Library of Congress’ American Memory collection ( : 2016.)

On September 17 of 1862, a day of horror and bloodshed would be branded into the memory of American history. The Confederate army of Northern Virginia under General Robert E. Lee defended itself along the banks of the Antietam Creek in Sharpsburg Maryland against the Army of the Potomac under General George B. McClellan. McClellan would start this day off in the early morning mist through the farm houses to the Confederate left flank in the cornfield and the West Woods. The battle shifted from the left to the middle of the confederate line of battle at the sunken road. One last shift in the fighting put the battle on the right of the confederate line at Burnside Bridge. By the end of the day and three shifts in the battle, the two armies ended the day in roughly the same spots as they started it in. On that day over 23,000 men would be added to the ever growing casualty list of the Civil War.

At first light the union army I corps under the command of Major General Joseph Hooker marched from the wood lot and fields of Joseph Poffenberger’s farmstead towards the Confederate forces. The I corps marched with a two division front and one in reserve. The front two divisions marched north in the direction of a large cornfield parallel to the Hagerstown Turnpike. As these solders marched along both sides of the turnpike, Doubleday’s division on the left and Ricketts division on the right, they reached the top of the hill and a flash of light cracked through the mist and struck the union advance. This was the beginning of what would become the battle of Antietam.

The line of defense that struck the union advance through the corn was the troops from Georgia under the command of Col Marcellus Douglass. His brigade with the rest of the division stood up and pushed the union forces back through the corn. On the far left of the line Starke took up his division and charged towards the union advance, during his advance he received a bullet to the head and fell dead. After this push back the two sides had a boxing match over the field of corn. The third division of the I corps came up to repel the confederates defending the cornfield. Just as the small defensive line was starting to brake, another confederate division came up as reinforcements to the line.

Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson ordered up John Bell Hood and his division to go to the defense of the Confederate battle line. General Hood came up and smashed into the union line pushing them back through the corn. Another union army corps came through the East Woods to help the effort of the union advance on the confederate left. This was the XII army corps under the command of Major General Joseph Mansfield. Once Williams and Greene’s divisions march from the East Woods, it started to shift the line of battle from a north south direction to an east west direction. While the XII corps was starting its advance, General Mansfield was mortally wounded. General Hooker also received a wound in the foot during this time in the battle.

The union right was left leaderless for a short time because of this. Coming to the support of these two corps was the II army corps under the command of Major General Edwin Sumner. The only division that reached the action under his command was Sedgwick’s division. By this time in the battle the fighting had shifted to an east to west direction. Sumner marched his only division from the East Woods to the West Woods. The Confederates were again about to break when the last confederate reserves came to save the left flank. When Sumner with Sedgwick’s division started marching through the West Woods, a division under the command of Lafayette McLaws came up on the flank of Sedgwick and stopped the union advance. Sedgwick lost half of his 5,500 men in half an hour. From 5:30 a.m. to 10:00 a.m. these two forces fought over a cornfield and wood lot, and over 10,000 men would fall from lead and iron, including two Generals falling dead, Joseph Mansfield in blue and William Starke in grey.

The eastern wood lot of the battle field was a place of anxiety and confusion. By the time the second division of the II corps came up, Sedgwick had already been evacuated from the West Woods and his men were running for the North Woods. The second division was a green division freshly made of three year volunteers and was under the command of an artillery office, William French. The division veered to the south once exiting the eastern wood lot and aimed straight for the confederate center. The third division from the II corps would leave for the battle at about this same time. The troops of the second division marched through the woods and onto the farmstead of the Roulette family. The first brigade of the division marched through this farm receiving musket and artillery fire, warning them of what lay ahead. Max Weber, the brigade commander, brought his men up in brigade front, marching in almost perfect parade order. The confederates watching from a sunken farm lane knew they were coming and lay low in the lane, waiting.

The confederates in the lane were the remnants of what was a large division under the command of Danial H. Hill, Stonewalls Jacksons brother in law. Out of his five brigades, only two were fresh to fight. The other three brigades, Cobb, Ripley, and Colquitt, had expended there men and energy in the cornfield and could not muster much of a fighting force for the defense of the confederate center. The last two fresh brigades of D.H. Hills division were of the two states of Alabama and North Carolina. General Rhodes and his Alabamians would receive the brunt of the first wave of union troops to advance on their line. The first union brigade advanced over the rolling hills of Sharpsburg Maryland to charge their enemy and push them out of that road with the cold steel of their bayonets. The confederates waited until their fire would be the most accurate and deadly. The union troops came over the ridge and started to charge down the hill when the men from Alabama and North Carolina stood up and unleashed a devastating volley into the ranks of Weber’s Brigade. That union ranks turned for the hills and fought from behind the sloping ground or retreated for the rear.

The second brigade of union troops came up and tried to do the same thing that the first brigade did, and the same effect happened, the union troops ran to join the first brigade behind the hill to hold their ground there. These troops would be firing onto the confederates when the last of the second division came up. This was the only veteran brigade in the second division and it was under the command of a gallant and daring office, Nathen Kimball. This brigade would join the firing line of the rest of the division and cause a growing number of casualties within the confederate ranks in the road. Just as this last union brigade came up, the last division of the II corps started to arrive on the field. Israel Richardson brought to the field three fresh brigades to fight the confederate center. Also coming up to this part of the field was the second part of the last of the confederate reserves. Richard H. Anderson’s division was a part of McLaws troops, but was ordered to go to the center rather than follow McLaws. Richardson soon after arriving on the field would be wounded and taken off the field, leaving the division under the command of Brigadier General Richard Pryor. Pryor was not ready for such a roll and the division would sit in reserve in the fields of the Piper farm.

Richardson’s division attacked in brigade front and charged through the fields and hills to reach the fight. The first brigade was the famed Irish Brigade; at the head of this fighting force was Thomas Meagher. This was the height of the fame and glory of this brigade. They marched up and got close and intimate with the North Carolinians under the command of George B. Anderson. The Irish troops were armed with smooth bore muskets that shot buck n’ ball and when in close range, they became very deadly weapons of choice. They would retreat to the ridge behind them leaving many of their comrades out on the field, but they inflicted as much damage as they received. The confederates in the lane suffered a major loss at this time as well. Their commander, General Anderson received a wound in the foot and would be evacuated from the field. This would lead to his death later that year. The confederates still holding onto the lane would lose their grip when the Irish brigade overlapped with the brigade to their left. Caldwell’s brigade preformed a perfect military maneuver under the heat of battle and a combined regiment jumped into the lane on the flank of the confederates and started to roll up the confederates on their right.

The left of the confederate line was also starting to retreat from fighting. The leading regimental commander of the Alabamian troops, Colonel John B. Gordon, received his fifth and final wound of the day and was taken to the rear for medical aide. The next in command of this regiment, Col. Lightfoot, asked to pull his battered and beat regiment out from the lane. This regiment was the connecting regiment between the two brigades and its evacuation would lead to the destruction of the line, so he was ordered to turn his regiment to meet the new threat at hand from the flanking of the right. A confusion of the order came about and he pulled the regiment out for retreat, and brought along with him not just his regiment but the entire brigade. At this point in the fight the confederates were in full retreat and joined up with the reserves of R.H. Anderson’s division in the Piper fields. This was the break that the union forces needed to claim victory over this battle. One fresh brigade was left in Richardson’s division and the surviving men of the two divisions in total. Confederate artillery was a major point of advantage on this part of the field however. The confederates had every gun they could spare firing on the union advance on the center. The union had only two short range guns available for the advance, and they could not reach the bigger guns the confederates had firing on the union line. While the union forces were in the lane preparing for the advance on the center, a piece of artillery shrapnel hit the field commander, Israel Richardson, in the shoulder and put him out of action. The preparation for an advance came to a screeching halt with the arrival of the new field commander. General Hancock came to that part of the field with orders from McClellan to halt the advance until further orders came.

The fight at the sunken road would become known as the bloody lane. The lane after the fighting would be filled with bodies so deep that a person could walk the length of road and not see or touch the actual road. By 2 in the afternoon, over the course of three hours, the fight over the road would claim another 5,500 casualties. Some of the fatal wounds that would lead to deaths were of two more generals, one of blue and one of grey. Israel Richardson after his wound was taken to McClellan’s headquarters for the Army of the Potomac at the Pry House. Here Richardson would receive treatment and would rest and heal his wound at that place, he was dying however. He was dying of Pneumonia and would be the last general to pass from their wounds from the battle at Sharpsburg; he died on November 3 of that year. The general in grey also would die from infection rather than the wound itself. G.B. Anderson would die from infection of the wound back at his home in the south. During the heat of battle he was told that it was just a minor wound and that he would go home to recover, once it got infected it spread throughout his body and lead to his death.

The West Woods was a blaze with confusion and terror for the union troops fighting there. The other side of the battle was in the same state of mind. On the right of the confederate line, the IX army corps under the command of Ambrose Burnside was to be the right jab for the other side of the fields left hook. Burnside would not start his advance until close to 10:00 in the morning. His first goal was to capture a small bridge that span the Antietam creek, known as the lower bridge during the battle. Defending this passing was the small brigade of Georgians, about 300 in total. These Georgians had the task of defending that bridge at all costs, they were not to retreat. Along with the defense of the bridge, they had to defend a small ford a mile below the bridge. This stretched the small command out to its limit. Robert Toombs, a political appointee commander, was in charge of this small command. He was set on keeping that section of line intact and his determination spread throughout the command and gave an entire corps of union troops a hard time to get their goal of crossing the creek. Three divisions were tasked with taking the bridge while a forth one was to cross over the ford below the bridge. For 4 hours, the Georgian defenders stopped wave after wave of union advances to take the bridge. A combination of things broke the defenders from their position. At the perfect timing of everything, the union troops got a break. The Georgians were running out of ammunition and had nothing to fire at the troops in blue, so they started for the rear to get more ammunition; this put a lull in the rate of fire. The division crossing the ford below the creek came up on the flank of the defenders as the lull in fire came about. Also at the same time, the two 51 regiments from New York and Pennsylvania were behind the walls attached to the bridge. These three things all happening at the same time put the union troops over the bridge and pushed the Georgians back to the last line of defense the confederates had, a single division under the command of David R. Jones.

Burnside continued his efforts with crossing his entire IX corps across the small lower bridge to continue the advance. It was close to 3:00 in the afternoon by the time the IX corps had crossed the bridge and was ready to advance up the hill to the town of Sharpsburg. The IX corps marched toward the small confederate force guarding the Harpers Ferry road that lead into Sharpsburg and prepared to take the town. The fight of the finial attack of the day was under way when one last piece of luck was had by the confederates. A division from the siege of Harpers Ferry came up on the Harpers Ferry road and smashed into the flank of the union line of attack. On the far flank of the IX corps line of attack was a green regiment, and it was up against the rough and tough veterans of A.P. Hill’s light division. The confederates from Harpers Ferry rolled up the flank of the union advance and started to push the union advance back to the bridge, along with the rest of the confederate defenses on that part of the field. The union troops ran back to just in front of the bridge and set up a defensive position on that part of the field.

That charge of A.P. Hill was the last major action on what was America’s bloodiest single day. Two more generals would die from this battle, Lawrence O. Branch, commanding a brigade in A.P. Hill’s light division. The second general was a division commander of the IX corps. Isaac Rodman was a mortally wounded during the battle and would die from his wounds later that month. By the end of the day, over 23,000 men were dead, wounded, or missing from action including six generals, three federal and three confederate. The two forces stood at around the same location as they started with at the beginning of the day and would hold those positions until the end of September 18 when General Lee pulled his men out of Maryland and cross the Potomac at Shepherdstown Virginia under the cover of night.