The Maryland Campaign Against McClellan
Resting at Chantilly, with every reason to be well content with what he had accomplished during the three months that he had personally commanded the army of Northern Virginia, and anxious to keep the Federal invaders from the soil of Virginia, Lee, on the 3d of September, suggested to President Davis that now was "the most propitious time since the commencement of the war for the Confederate army to enter Maryland;" but he would not conceal the condition of that army after the fierce contests it had just passed through, so he continued:
"The army is not properly equipped for an invasion of an enemy's country. It lacks much of the material of war, is feeble in transportation, the animals being much reduced; the men are poorly provided with clothes, and in thousands of instances are destitute of shoes. Still we cannot afford to be idle, and though weaker than our opponents in men and military equipments, must endeavor to harass if we cannot destroy them. I am aware that the movement is attended with much risk, yet I do not consider success impossible, and shall endeavor to guard it from loss. As long as the army of the enemy is employed on this frontier, I have no fears for the safety of Richmond. yet I earnestly recommend that advantage be taken of this period of comparative safety to place its defenses, both by land and water, in the most perfect condition."
Without waiting to hear from President Davis, after having been joined by the divisions of D. H. Hill and McLaws, Hampton's cavalry and several batteries, which he had ordered forward from Richmond, Lee issued orders September 2d, for his army to march to the vicinity of Leesburg, but by way of Dranesville, as if threatening Washington, in order to bring his men into the more inviting Piedmont country of the county of Loudoun, abounding in grain and cattle, and to place it where he could easily cross the Potomac, if his Maryland campaign were not forbidden by the Confederate government. In writing to President Davis again, on the 4th, he expressed no fears as to the fighting ability of his army, but was only uneasy about his "supplies of ammunition and subsistence."
Jackson led the advance, Lee still marching left in front, giving the strictest of orders in reference to the marching and resting of his men, that they might be kept closed up, ready for meeting any attack from toward Washington, in passing, and wearied as little as possible by the dusty roads and the intense heat that had followed the preceding storms. He put a major-general, in command of a division, under arrest, while on the march, for failing to halt his command at the minute ordered, to show his officers that his orders must be promptly and thoroughly obeyed.
At Leesburg, the army was stripped of all superfluous transportation, broken down horses, and wagons and batteries not supplied with good horses, were left behind, and everything was put in the best possible condition circumstances would permit, for the campaign, under new conditions of the field of action, that was about to begin.
The glorious autumn days of the Southland had come, when, on the 5th day of September, to the martial strains of "Maryland, My Maryland" from every band in the army, and with his men cheering and shouting with delight, Jackson forded the Potomac at Edwards' ferry, where the river was broad but shallow, near the scene of Evans' victory over the Federals in the previous October, and where Wayne had crossed his Pennsylvania brigade in marching to the field of Yorktown in 178I. By the 7th of the month, Lee had concentrated the most of his army in the vicinity of Frederick City, in a land teeming with abundance. He had issued the most stringent orders, forbidding depredations on private property and requiring his quartermasters to purchase and pay for supplies for his army. On the 8th he issued a stirring proclamation, calling upon the men of Maryland to join the men of his command, gathered within their borders from their sister Southern States; appealing to their manhood to avail themselves of this opportunity to reassert their sovereign rights and join in securing the independence of the South, assuring them that his army had only come to aid them in throwing off a foreign yoke and to enable them "again to enjoy the inalienable rights of freemen and restore independence and sovereignty to their State." In closing he said:
"This, citizens of Maryland, is our mission, so far as you are concerned. No constraint upon your free will is intended; no intimidation will be allowed within the limits of this army at least. Marylanders shall once more enjoy. their ancient freedom of thought and speech. We know no enemies among you, and will protect all, of every opinion. It is for you to decide your destiny freely and without constraint. This army will respect your choice, whatever it may be; and while the Southern people will rejoice to welcome you to your natural position among them, they will only welcome you when you come of your own free will."
This magnanimous declaration fell upon cold ears, for the Piedmont region, in which Frederick is situated, contained few sympathizers with the Confederate cause. The majority of its people were contented and well-to-do owners of small farms, most of them of German descent, whose affiliations were more with Pennsylvania to the north than with Virginia to the south of them. It would have been quite different had Lee arrived among the men of Midland or Tidewater Maryland; but he had no time to wait on political action, for McClellan had gathered up full 90,000 men, veterans and new recruits, and, without orders from the authorities at Washington, was marching to again attack Lee. This made it important for him to at once turn his attention to military affairs. The alarm that followed the retreat of Pope to Washington had somewhat subsided, but there was no telling what Lee, Jackson and Stuart might attempt to do, and so Banks was held within the fortifications of the Federal city, with 75,000 men, to guard against an emergency. McClellan, resting his right on the Baltimore & Ohio and his left on the Potomac, advanced his lines, slowly and cautiously, toward the banks of the Monocacy, along which he had been informed Lee's army was encamped.
Lee desired to draw McClellan further from his base of supplies than the valley of the Monocacy; preferred to contend with him beyond the Blue ridge (here called the South mountain), in the vicinity of Hagerstown, if he could draw him that far away, where, at the same time, he could threaten an invasion of Pennsylvania, which was one of the cherished designs of Stonewall Jackson. The one obstacle to delay this movement was the Federal garrison, of some 12,000 men, holding Harper's Ferry, with outposts at Martinsburg and other points on the Baltimore & Ohio. Lee had ordered Loring, in the Kanawha valley, to move his force to Winchester, which place he had selected as the rendezvous for his stragglers and men from hospitals, and for a depot of supplies. This made it necessary for him to first clear out the Federal garrison at Harper's Ferry and establish connection with Winchester before he could engage in a contest with McClellan west of the Blue ridge or make an offensive movement into Pennsylvania. After a conference with Jackson, at Frederick City, he issued a general order on the 9th of September, for the movements of his troops, for the twofold purpose of capturing the Federal stronghold at Harper's Perry and for the concentration of his army in the vicinity of Hagerstown.
Jackson was perfectly familiar with the topographical conditions at Harper's Ferry, and knew, from his late experience in threatening but not capturing that place, the strategic and tactic movements that would be necessary to successfully invest and secure possession of it. Therefore, with good reason, Lee had taken Jackson into his councils and provided to put in his hands the execution of the plan of campaign decided on.
Harper's Ferry, located in the fork at the junction of the Shenandoah and the Potomac, just above where the united rivers break through the Blue ridge, cannot be held and defended unless Loudoun heights on the south, across the Shenandoah, the northeastern end of the double Blue ridge, and Maryland heights, across the Potomac, the southwestern end of the Blue ridge in Maryland, are both occupied and defended at the same time; for each of these positions overlooks and thoroughly commands the fronts and flanks of the defenses of Harper's Ferry proper. The Federals had not occupied Loudoun heights, but they had Maryland heights, with formidable batteries placed to command the approaches to Harper's Ferry from Virginia, and with defensive works to protect in the rear from Maryland.
The instructions of Lee's order were, that' Jackson should march westward in the early morning of September 10th, along the great National road leading from Frederick across the Blue ridge (South mountain) to Boonsboro, with his fourteen brigades, then take the macadam road leading to Williamsport, on the Potomac, and there, having turned the flank of the Federal outpost at Martinsburg, to cross the Potomac, break the Federal line of communication from the west by the Baltimore & Ohio railroad, then move upon the garrison at Martinsburg, and either capture or drive it in toward Harper's Ferry, following in pursuit and investing that place with his left resting on the Potomac and his right on the Shenandoah. Walker's division, which had been advanced from Frederick along the line of the Baltimore & Ohio toward Harper's Ferry, was to cross the Potomac at Cheek's ford, and occupy Loudoun heights, connecting with Jackson's right and thus extending the investment from the Shenandoah to the Potomac below Harper's Ferry. Longstreet's command was to follow Jackson across the Blue ridge and halt at Boonsboro, in the Great valley, at the western foot of the mountain. McLaws, with his own and Anderson's division, was to follow Longstreet as far as Middletown, in the Catoctin valley, and there turn to the southwest, by roads leading toward Harper's Ferry, and from the rear secure possession of Maryland heights, resting his left on the Potomac below Harper's Ferry, opposite Walker's right, and his right on the same river above Harper's Ferry, opposite Jackson's left, thus completing the circle of investment. D.H. Hill was to bring up the rear on the National road, preceded by the ordnance and supply trains and reserve artillery, at the same time guarding the rear of both McLaws and Longstreet. Stuart, after fu/rnishing squadrons of cavalry to Jackson, Longstreet and McLaws, was to cover the entire rear of the army with the main body of his cavalry.
The conception of this plan of offensive operations and providing for defensive ones, was every way worthy of the famous commander of the army of Northern Virginia, and he felt confident of success because he had intrusted its execution to able hands. The prompt Jackson, always eager for the fray, and now burning with desire to capture the stronghold that had barred his way to Washington the last of the preceding May, marched at 3 in the morning of the 10th; bivouacked on the line of the Baltimore & Ohio, across the Potomac, at Williamsport, on the evening of the 11th; captured Martinsburg on the morning of the 12th; by noon of the 13th was in front of Harper's Ferry, and on that day completed his portion of its investment. Walker crossed the Potomac at Point of Rocks, after finding Cheek's ford covered by the enemy's artillery from the high bluffs east of the Monocacy, on the 10th, but did not reach the foot of the Blue ridge until the 13th, or complete his portion of the investment until Sunday, the 14th, on the morning of which he put five guns in position on Loudoun heights, supported by two regiments of infantry, after placing the larger part of his force so as to command the road from Harper's Ferry down the Virginia side of the Potomac, to prevent a Federal retreat in that direction. McLaws, with ten infantry brigades in his command, crossed the South mountain, by the Brownsville gap, into the Pleasant valley, on the 11th, and by the evening of the 13th, after a spirited contest with the force defending Maryland heights, secured possession of that formidable position and completed the investment of Harper's Ferry. These dispositions not only closed all avenues of escape, but sealed the fate of the beleaguered town whenever Jackson, the commander of the gathered forces, should order his circle of fire to pour down upon it. To further guard his right on the Shenandoah, he had sent a portion of his own immediate command across that river and placed it, with artillery, on a bluffy shoulder of Loudoun heights, below the point held by Walker's guns; so that all things were now ready for assaulting and capturing Harper's Ferry on the I4th, except that McLaws was delayed by the necessity for constructing a road by which to bring his artillery from the Pleasant valley to the top of Maryland heights.
It is now important to return to the commands of Longstreet and D. H. Hill and recount what had happened to General Lee while the investment of Harper's Ferry was being completed. Marching with Longstreet on the loth, Lee crossed the South mountain to Boonsboro, where, learning that a Federal force was threatening Hagerstown from the direction of Harrisburg, he proceeded to that point, and there placed Longstreet in bivouac on the evening of the llth, on which day D. H. Hill crossed the South mountain, but still holding its crest with his rear, and encamped at Boonsboro; Stuart still held back McClellan's advance in the Piedmont country, although the latter was pressing him with unusual and unaccountable vigor.
Writing to President Davis, on the 12th, Lee urged the necessity for food and clothing for his army. On the 13th he anxiously awaited news from Walker and McLaws, as they were not yet closed in on Jackson in the investment of Harper's Ferry. To this anxiety was added another when he reflected on the depleted condition of his army, and as he wrote to the President, he said: "Our ranks are very much diminished--I fear from a third to one-half of the original numbers." Still more disturbing was the news that reached him on the evening of that day. This was of the rapid approach of McClellan in force on the National road toward Hill's position on the South mountain, and toward that of McLaws on the Potomac north of Harper's Ferry and Maryland heights. He knew McClellan's military characteristics, not only from his personal knowledge of him before the existing war, but especially from his doings in leading the great army of the Potomac, in the "on to Richmond" and in the "back to Washington," and therefore could not account for his unusual diligence in pursuing him westward from the Monocacy, to reach which from Washington he had been marching with great caution. McClellan's report, published by the Federal government the following winter, furnished the explanation. On the morning of this same Saturday, the 13th of September, after McClellan had occupied Frederick on the 12th, there was handed him an official copy of Lee's order No. 191, which revealed, in detail, the entire plan of the pending campaign, and showed him, at a glance, how Lee's knights and castles on the military chessboard were disposed, and that a rare opportunity was offered for falling upon his greatly weakened left rear and crushing that before he could gather his scattered forces to his aid, as McClellan had the great advantage of the far shorter line of approach over one of the best roads. More than this; it showed that the dreaded Jackson was too far away to participate in an early combat. Ardent to retrieve his military reputation, and, above all things, anxious to do something that would warrant his unauthorized assumption of command, McClellan at once hastened his main body in pursuit of Lee, and urged Franklin forward with his corps, to harass the rear of McLaws and hold him away from the battle he proposed to make with Lee.
It is now known that two copies of Lee's order were sent to D. H. Hill, who had been made subject to Jackson's command previous to the encampment at Frederick. Jackson, always cautious and himself never giving written orders that would furnish information as to his movements, had, on the receipt of Lee's order, made, with his own hand, a copy of that and sent it by safe hands to General Hill, supposing he would in no other way receive this order. But it so happened that a copy was also sent to Hill from Lee's headquarters, and this latter, carelessly left on the ground in Hill's camp, was discovered by a Federal soldier, wrapped about some Confederate cigars, and he, recognizing its importance, promptly sent it to McClellan, who at once vigorously set about availing himself of the opportunities that the knowledge contained in that lost order put in his way. It was not the first time that events of great magnitude in the tide of history have been controlled by the demands of that miserable weed.
The close of this eventful Saturday found Lee confronted with serious conditions. D.H. Hill was ordered to retrace his march, recross the South mountain, and hold its eastern slope against the great host that could be seen rapidly approaching from the direction of Frederick. McLaws was urged to finish his work on Maryland heights and move to Boonsboro, by way of Sharpsburg, and Longstreet was ordered to return from Hagerstown, to Hill's aid, on the morning of the 14th.
As Lee rode forward to the South Mountain battlefield on Sunday morning, September 14th, followed by Longstreet's command, he could both see and hear that the mighty conflict for the possession of the passes of that mountain, now looming up before him, had already begun. The roar of cannon and musketry from Hill's 5,000 men rang in his ears, and the smoke of battle showed, by its length along the mountain top, how thin must be Hill's stretched-out line and how large must be the force pressing against it. Hill held the "old road," passing through Fox's gap, against Pleasanton's cavalry and Reno's corps, in one of the most desperate of all recorded contests, until the middle of the afternoon, when Hooker's corps, in furious onset, fell on his left near Turner's gap, where the Boonsboro and Frederick road crosses, and added to the fury of the contention. Lee then sent in 4,000 of Longstreet's men, in eight brigades, to sustain the brave Hill and his unyielding North Carolinians, and so the fight went on, at and between each of the road crossings, until night put an end to the conflict, with the 9,000 Confederates still holding the crest of the mountain against the 28,000 Federals who had been contending for its possession.
At Crampton's gap of the South mountain, six miles to the southward from Turner's gap and Hill's field of action, another battle raged on that same Sunday afternoon. McLaws had left 1,200 men to hold that pass, in guarding his rear, while he occupied Maryland heights. Against these Franklin threw 8,000 from his advance. The resistance lasted until dark, when the Confederates gave way and Franklin took possession of the gap, and thus interposed the head of a strong Federal column between Lee at Boonsboro and McLaws in Pleasant valley and on Maryland heights.
Lee might have said to himself, in the words of Longstreet at Groveton, as he reflected on the positions of his army at the close of the 14th, that the prospect "was not inviting." The two divisions in his immediate presence were not compacted; Longstreet was advising that something else than fighting be done. The other three of his divisions were a dozen miles away, separated from each other by great rivers, and could only reach him by circuitous marches and after the fall of Harper's Ferry, an event which had not yet taken place. His stout heart was doubtless throbbing with intense emotion, which none but a heroic and God-trusting spirit could control, when, at 8 of the evening, nearly two hours after sunset, he wrote to McLaws: "The day has gone against us, and the army will go by Sharpsburg and cross the river. It is necessary for you to abandon your position to-night; . . your troops you must have in hand to unite with this command, which will retire by Sharpsburg."
The outlook to McLaws was a brighter one. The investment of Harper's Ferry was completed, and neither officer nor soldier doubted but that, with Jackson in command, the early morning of the 15th would find him in possession of that town, of the 11,000 Federals there beleaguered and of the large munitions of war there gathered. So McLaws promptly added to his line in Pleasant valley, to which his men had fallen back from Cramp-ton's gap, and prepared to hold his rear against Franklin's advance until Harper's Ferry was captured and the way opened for him to cross the Potomac on the Federal pontoon, and in that way, through Virginia, reach Lee at Sharpsburg, as he was ordered to do. Lee's vigorous defense of the South mountain passes near Boonsboro had won a day from McClellan and given Jackson time to complete the investment of Harper's Ferry.
During the night of the 14th, Lee withdrew the divisions of Longstreet and D. H. Hill from the vicinity of Boonsboro, and fell back across Antietam river in the direction of Sharpsburg, and formed his line of battle on the commanding ridge between that town and that river. Fitz Lee, with his cavalry, bravely kept back McClellan's advance, and General Lee's change of position was not only skillfully made but without any serious loss. McClellan was again placed at a disadvantage by Lee's prompt and bold strategic movement.
The position occupied by Lee and destined to become famous as the battlefield of Sharpsburg, or Antietam, was such that he could calmly await an attack by many times his own numbers, should McClellan venture to make one. He was ready for the dawn of the 15th, and only awaited the gathering together of his army to try the issue by combat, notwithstanding the disparity of his numbers when compared with those of McClellan. While watching the gathering of the mighty Federal army in the valleys and on the ridges across the Antietam, and defiantly replying to its artillery as that came into position, he received, at midday, a note from Jackson, written during the forenoon, saying: "Through God's blessing Harper's Ferry and its garrison are to be surrendered." This stimulating news, which not only meant that Harper's Ferry was captured, but that Stonewall Jackson, without further orders, would soon be with him, with his "foot cavalry," and that McLaws would not be far behind, fired Lee's courage, and he determined that he would not recross the Potomac until after trial of battle with McClellan on the field that he had chosen, and that he could hold until his reinforcements came up.
Fitzhugh Lee so well held back the Federal cavalry advance that it did not reach the front of the Antietam until 2 in the afternoon of the 15th, and it was not until late in the day that the Federal infantry and artillery appeared upon the field of coming combat; so Lee had ample time, with the aid of his capable lieutenants, Longstreet and D. H. Hill, to place the 12,000 men he had in hand, in front of Sharpsburg and extending northward toward Hagerstown, so as to cover the roads by which McClellan must advance; and then, with sublime courage and unfaltering trust in Providence, await what the morrow had in store for him and his army. By nightfall, McClellan had concentrated some 60,000 of his men in front of Lee; and, from the vicinity of Boonsboro, was telegraphing to Washington about his "flying foe," and the "routed rebels" he had driven, in a "perfect panic," from South mountain; while his corps commanders were slowly and cautiously finding their way along the excellent stone roads that converged toward Sharpsburg.
The investment of Harper's Ferry was completed during the night of the 14th, and batteries were in position on Maryland and Loudoun heights, and in front of Bolivar heights, ready to enforce Jackson's demand for a surrender on the morning of the 15th. The assaulting column, under A. P. Hill, that brave and fearless leader, was ready to spring forward at the word of command to join in enforcing, if need be, the demand for a surrender. A few shots convinced the Federal commander that his position was untenable, and after a brief parley he gave up the place with its 11,000 men, their arms and equipments, 73 pieces of artillery, and numerous stores. The Federal cavalry at Harper's Ferry escaped during the night of the 14th, by crossing the pontoon and finding their way along the tow path of the canal, up the river and across to McClellan, meeting and damaging Longstreet's train on the way.
Leaving A. P. Hill in charge of the details of the surrender, and with orders to parole the captured Federals and send them adrift toward Frederick City, to tangle and impede the advance of any of McClellan's forces from that direction, Jackson hastened, without delay, to join Lee, marching his men to the fords of the Potomac near Shepherdstown, and not far from Sharpsburg, before he allowed them to go into bivouac, but leaving many of his best men along the way, overcome by sheer exhaustion.
J. G. Walker's 3,200 came across the Shenandoah from Loudoun heights and followed close behind Jackson. Near the dawn of the morning of the 16th, Jackson saluted Lee, in the road opposite where the Federal cemetery now is, in front of Sharpsburg, and reported that his men were just behind, crossing the Potomac, and would soon arrive ready to be placed in position. After congratulating Jackson and Walker upon the success of their operations at Harper's Ferry, Lee expressed his confidence that he could now hold his ground until the arrival of A. P. Hill, R. H. Anderson and McLaws. Later in the day, in a letter to President Davis, he wrote: "This victory of the indomitable Jackson and his troops gives us renewed occasion for gratitude to Almighty God for His guidance and protection."
The great military engineer who commanded the Confederate forces now gathering at Sharpsburg, had had ample time to examine the position he had chosen and to reach conclusions, from its topographic conditions and those in front of it, as to the direction from which his adversary would probably make his attack; and he was doubtless well satisfied that these conditions would bring the attack upon his left, which, by military rule, would be held by the "indomitable Jackson." He at once gave orders for that victory-compelling leader to move toward Hagerstown and take position guarding the left of his army. With his usual caution, Jackson had brought his troops to the vicinity of Sharpsburg by a concealed way, and he now, in like manner, marched them into position, at and beyond the Dunker church, and gave his men opportunity to rest and prepare for the coming conflict.
McClellan, in person, came to the front on the morning of the 16th, and when the fog lifted from the valley of the Antietam, he carefully examined, from the hill-crowning Try house, the long and bold stretch of commanding ridge which Lee occupied, and hastened to report to Washington that he was confronted not only by a "strong position," but by a "strong force." He spent the day putting.his formidable army in position and extending both its flanks beyond those of the opposing one.' As Lee had anticipated, late in the afternoon of this day, McClellan sent Hooker's corps, followed by Mansfield's, across the Antietam, by way of the stone bridge at Try's mill, some distance beyond Lee's left, where they went into bivouac. The ever-watchful Stuart quickly informed Lee of this movement, and confirmed his views as to the direction from which he would be attacked.
There were three bridges across the Antietam by which an attack could be made. The one on Lee's fight, now known as the "Burnside bridge," was about a mile to the southeast of Sharpsburg. About a mile below that the fiver was fordable. On the road leading north of east from Sharpsburg to Boons-boro was another bridge, opposite the center of McClellan's army, and about three miles to the east of north from Sharpsburg was the stone bridge, on the Williamsport road, by which Hooker crossed his two advanced corps.
Lee, before the coming of Jackson, posted his men with Longstreet on the right and D. H. Hill on the left, in order to cover the approaches from the Burnside and the Boonsboro bridges, having excellent positions for his artillery to cover these. Hood's two brigades were transferred to the woods near the Dunker church, to defend the approaches from Hagerstown, while D. H. Hill's five brigades extended Hood's right to the vicinity of the Boonsboro turnpike, and Longstreet's men prolonged the line to the right to the front of the Burnside bridge. On Jackson's arrival his command was posted to extend Hood's line farther to the left, to the vicinity of the old toll-gate, while Stuart occupied the commanding Nicodemus ridge, north of Nicodemus run, from which his artillery swept the roads by which Hooker and Mansfield must advance.
Lee, Longstreet and Jackson were in conference, with a map spread before them, in a house in Sharpsburg, when Stuart reported McClellan's advance, by the Williamsport road, late in the afternoon of the 16th. Jackson was promptly sent to take charge of the left wing and meet the threatened engagement. The turnpike road from Sharpsburg to Hagerstown runs nearly north and south, and, for at least a mile, between somewhat parallel and rather bold limestone ridges. At the Dunker church, a little more than a mile north of Sharpsburg, the Smoketown road enters this turnpike at an acute angle. By this latter road the Federal army advanced, having turned to the left, soon after crossing the Antietam. About half a mile above the junction of these roads there were patches and fringes of rocky woods on each side of the Smoketown road. These are known as the "East woods ;" and to the northern edge of these, the Federal skirmishers came late in the evening of the 16th, while the Confederate skirmishers held the southern edges of the same. Quite a body of open oak forest surrounded the Dunker church and extended northward for some little distance along the west side of the Hagerstown turnpike; thence a narrow field extended, for a half mile or more, between that road and the skirt of forest in the vicinity of the Miller house, making what is known as the "West woods," The triangular space between the converging Hagerstown and Smoketown roads was first occupied by grass fields and then by a 30-acre field of standing corn that for yards reached across from one road to the other, but skirted on the east by the narrow East woods, while farther on, patches of forest bounded the cornfield and extended beyond to the Poffenberger land, thus concealing the commanding position beyond that land taken by the Federal troops.
By 5 o'clock of the afternoon of September 16th, Jackson had faced his men northward, some 700 yards beyond the Dunker church, and across the' northern edge of the big cornfield, covering both the Hagerstown and the Smoketown roads. Hood and Law held the right, the latter advanced into the East woods, the two having 1,700 men in line. The "Stonewall" division, under J. R. Jones, with 1,600 men, extended this line across the Hagerstown road and into the northern end of the West woods, toward the commanding ridge occupied by Stuart with his artillery and covering the road leading to a ford of the Potomac on his left. Lawton and Trimble were resting in the woods at the Dunker church.
Just at sunset of this lovely September day, the golden autumn of the famous Appalachian valley, Hooker advanced southward, along the watershed ridge between the Antietam and the Potomac, and pushing forward a battery, opened on Jackson's left. Poague silenced this in about twenty minutes and it retired. About the same time his skirmishers advanced on Law, in the East woods, but were soon driven back to its northern edge. Then the two armies lay on their arms, within speaking distance of each other, through the long autumn night, during which Lawton and Trimble took the place of Hood and Law, whose men had had no cooked rations, except a half ration of beef, for three days, subsisting in the meantime on green corn gathered from the fields.
McClellan proposed to join issue with Lee by striking the latter's left with the 40,000 men in the three corps of Hooker, Mansfield and Sumner, which were already in position for attack on the morning of September 17th. If these should be successful, he intended that Burnside should cross at the bridge now known by his name, and with his 13,000 men fall on Lee's right, under the command of Longstreet, and then follow up the delivery of these right-handed and left-handed blows with an attack on the center of Lee's lines, on the Boonsboro road, by the 25,000 veterans under Porter and Franklin, that were massed in his front and ready to attack when ordered. Numerous batteries of artillery lined the bluffs all along the eastern bank of the Antietam, many of them with long range guns that could fire into and even beyond the Confederate lines. McClellan had revealed his plans to Lee by placing his troops in the positions indicated, or very near them, in the afternoon of the 16th.
It may be well to repeat the disposition of Lee's forces to meet these three threatened attacks. Stuart, with his cavalry, held the extreme left, where the great bend of the Potomac to the eastward approaches to within a mile of the Hagerstown turnpike. On Stuart's right was Jackson's command, with its left pivoted amid the giant oaks and the great outcroppings of limestone strata, vertically disposed, where he had placed Early; thence his lines stretched eastwardly, covering the roads converging at the Dunker church. Nearly at right angles to Jackson's line were the troops of D. H. Hill and Longstreet, prolonged to the southward to opposite the Burnside bridge. Toombs' brigade, of 600 Georgians, advanced to the front, held the rocky, wooded bluff that overlooked and commanded the Burnside bridge. On the ridge behind Toombs, at early dawn of the 17th, Lee placed J. G. Walker's 3,200 men, with batteries on his right and on the higher hill in his rear: while still farther to the right, covering a ford below the Burnside bridge, was placed another battery and a portion of cavalry. Lee's entire force, of all arms, at the close of the 16th, was about 25,000 men, with which to oppose McClellan's 87,000. Orders of urgency called McLaws and A. P. Hill to promptly bring forward from Harper's Ferry their 10,000 fighting men.
As early as 3 o'clock on the morning of the 17th, two hours and a half before the rising of the sun, Hooker sent forward his skirmishers in the East woods, and as the sun looked over the lovely Cumberland valley from the crest of the South mountain, he boldly and impetuously urged forward his lines of 12,500 muskets against Jackson's front of but 3,500. Six Confederate batteries, well disposed in front of Jackson's line, wrought havoc with this advancing host, but its lines closed up and swept forward, their right extending across the Hagerstown turnpike, their thirty guns answering those of the Confederates, from the high Poffenberger ridge, while twenty long range guns roared in enfilade from across the Antietam. Stuart's cannon made reply from the Nicodemus ridge, as did Jackson's from the center and S. D. Lee's twenty-six from the swell in the open fields in front of the Dunker church. Lawton's ever-brave Georgians fiercely contended with and held back Hooker's left, in the East woods and in the 30-acre cornfield, but the advantages of position enabled the Federals to force back Jackson's division into the woods, but still hanging to and pivoting on Early's. There, rallying behind the trees and projecting rocks and facing eastward, it repulsed the attack led by Doubleday. Hays, with his 550 Louisianians, moved to the support of Lawton, in the cornfield, and one of the most stubborn and hotly contested of recorded engagements there took place. The Confederates were forced back, by weight of numbers, but contesting every inch of ground and leaving the big cornfield fairly covered with their dead and wounded and those of the enemy. Hood's courageous Texans, at the moment of peril, rushed forward from the Dunker church, with a wild yell, leaving their breakfast beside their camp-fires, to sustain Lawton and Hays in the unequal contest, while three of D. H. Hill's brigades were hastened by Lee from his center to extend Hood's right and fall upon the flank of Hooker's oncoming left. These well-put, right-handed blows forced Hooker's battle-broken ranks from the field of combat with great slaughter; nearly one-fourth of his men having fallen under the withering fire of the impetuous Confederates. His routed men found refuge behind their guns and Mansfield's corps, which was advancing, in echelon, on his left. Nearly half of Jackson's men had fallen in their line of battle, in the open and across the cornfield, while hundreds of them, stiff in death, still stood in silent skirmish line along the rail fence on the north front of the big cornfield; but the other half of his war-worn but unconquerable veterans closed up and grimly awaited the second Federal attack, which they saw approaching.
Banks' old corps, that Jackson's men had so often met, now under Mansfield, had bivouacked, late in the night of the 16th, about a mile in Hooker's rear; and now, at about half-past seven of the morning of the 17th, it became the turn of that corps to take up the battle, from which, after a three hours' contest, Hooker had recoiled in complete defeat. Forming his line near where Hooker had first formed his, with his right resting on the Hagerstown road and his left extending eastward through the East woods, Mansfield advanced his two divisions, and the bloody conflict again raged across the cornfield and in the East and West woods; 3,600 Confederates, under Hood, Ripley, Colquitt and Garland, faced the 7,000 fresh Federals that advanced to the fight, aided by a mere handful of 300 of Hooker's corps who had so. eagerly begun the battle in the early morning. Mansfield fell, on the north side of the East woods, at the beginning of his advance, and Williams took command. Thinking to avoid again joining issue with Jackson, Williams ordered Greene's division farther to the left, and, under cover of the low swell in front of the Dunker church and his Smoketown road, this division rushed forward, turned the Confederate right, crossed the Hagerstown road, and entered the eastern edge of the West woods; but there its progress was stayed by Jackson's men, in their natural fortress of forest and rocks, and Greene was soon forced to retire and join his retreating comrades that Stuart and Jackson's left, especially Early's unflinching one thousand, had driven from the field. Thus far Jackson, with his 7,600 veterans, had met and repulsed the 19,500 in the corps of Hooker and Mansfield and driven them from the field.
Although Lee was, by a previous accident, disabled in both his hands, and could only ride with his horse led by a courier, he had intently watched, from a rock, south of the Boonsboro road, on the summit of the hill east of Sharpsburg, the fierce contests on his left and at the same time had observed the movements of Burnside on his right. His eighty guns, in well chosen and commanding positions, had promptly responded to the still larger number of McClellan beyond the Antietam; his batteries in front of Sharpsburg commanded the road leading toward Boonsboro and held in check any Federal advance on his center. Seeing that the weight of attack was being concentrated on his left, and knowing that Sumner's veteran corps was following the defeated ones of Hooker and Mansfield, he determined to meet Sumner's advance with a bold counterstroke. McLaws and Anderson, by a night march from Maryland heights, had joined him in the early morning of the 17th and were resting near Sharpsburg. He proposed to join with these the forces of Walker and lead them to the assistance of Jackson.
At half-past 8 of the morning the advance of Sumner's 18,000 veterans, the third of McClellan's successive assaulting columns entered the East woods, followed by Sedgwick's division. The sight was not a reassuring one as Sumner's men crossed the field of recent carnage strewn with the dead and wounded of Hooker and Mansfield. Greene's Federal division still held on near the eastern edge of the West woods, but did not move against Jackson's naturally fortified line. In a deploy of 6,000 men, in the East woods, Sumner faced the big cornfield, strewn with its fresh-mown harvest of the dead, then, in three lines, moved westward across that field and the Hagerstown turnpike to the front of the long line of the West woods. Stuart's guns raked his advance with an enfilade, while Jackson's, from the commanding ridge behind the West woods, raked it at short range. Sumner's right soon struck the brave three hundred that alone remained of the famous fighting Stonewall brigade; but these courageous Virginians flinched not, and from behind the upstanding ledges of rocks and the great oaks of the northern part of the West woods, they stayed the progress of the Federal advance, helped by the depleted command of the unyielding Early on their left, while Lee and Jackson were moving to set the battle in order to fall on Sumner's left flank. Hood had fought his men to a mere wreck, at the Dunker church, and had sent Col. S. D. Lee to tell the commanding general that unless immediately reinforced the day was lost. He met the great leader, on his led horse, about a half mile from the church. He reassured the chief of artillery, who had excitedly delivered Hood's message, by quietly saying: "Don't be excited about it, Colonel. Go and tell General Hood to hold his ground. Reinforcements are now rapidly approaching and are between Sharpsburg and the ford. Tell him that I am now coming to his support." Just then he turned and saw McLaws' division approaching at a double-quick from Sharpsburg.
Jackson had already driven the most of Greene's command from the wood at the church, by bringing Early around from his left and making an attack from the south on Sumner's exposed left flank. To Grigsby, now commanding the Stonewall division, and to Early, were now joined the 6,500 fresh troops under McLaws, G. T. Anderson and Walker, and a sheeted and unerring fire from these tried veterans, from behind the rocks and oaks of the West woods, poured upon Sumner's front, left and rear. Nearly one-third of his 6,500 steady and brave men fell where they stood. His efforts to face his third line to the front were ineffectual. It moved to his right and rear, instead of to his left, and, carrying with it portions of his first and second lines, sought safety behind the Federal batteries, and soon the whole division melted away before the hot reception of the Confederates. Just then, at a little past 9 o'clock, the nearly 6,000 of French's division of Sumner's corps, moving still further to the Federal left, under shelter of the low ridge above Mumma's house, advanced to assault D. H. Hill, on the left of Lee's center, and a fierce combat took place along "the bloody lane," that turns to the eastward, about halfway between Hagerstown and the Dunker church, and ascends to the summit of the ridge between the Hagerstown road and the Antietam. D. H. Hill had sent three of his brigades against the left flank of Hooker and Mansfield. When he withdrew these, from Sumner's advance, he posted two of them, those of Rodes and Colquitt, in this lane, with G. B. Anderson on the right of Rodes. He had but 1,500 muskets and a park of artillery; but on his left, extending to the West woods, were about the same number from the commands of McLaws and Walker. Hill's left was along the Hagerstown turnpike and his right along "the bloody lane," so the two wings of his command were placed at right angles to each other. Into these open arms of as brave and steady veterans as ever shouldered a musket, advanced the front brigade of French. From Hill's left a terrific fire sent French's men, with heavy loss, to the rear. He then advanced a second line to meet Anderson in the lane, but the musketry from Hill's right soon drove these back, behind the shelter of the hill, where the remaining two-thirds of French's brigade sought safety, having left one-third of their number between the arms of Hill's lines. The 6,000 veterans of Richardson's division, of Sumner's corps, now approached Hill's left, along the crest of the ridge above it. At this same hour of 11, Lee, who was eagerly watching his center, hurried R. H. Anderson's 3,500 to Hill's aid. These he hastened to reinforce his right, but at right angles to it and extending from the bloody lane southward toward the Piper house. From his position, across this partly sunken road, Richardson secured an enfilade fire on Hill's men in that road and played havoc with his line. Taking advantage of the confusion he had wrought, Richardson pressed forward, put the Confederates to flight and forced them back to the defensive fences along the Hagerstown road and to the shelter of the numerous buildings of the Piper farm. Hill soon rallied his men, brought up his batteries, and drove Richardson back to the cover of the bloody lane. At this juncture Franklin's corps moved into the position that had first been taken by Hooker and afterward by Mansfield, and sought to try a third issue with Jackson on the left. An artillery battle first took place, then Irwin's brigade rushed in a charge against the West woods, at the Dunker church, but Jackson's volleys promptly sent this attack in confusion to the rear.
Intent upon the battle from his overlooking position in the center, Lee, when he saw the partial success of Richardson's movement against Hill in his left center, promptly ordered Jackson to make counterstroke against the Federal right, in which Walker was to join by charging across from the front of the Dunker church. Jackson was hastening to obey, and Stuart's guns were moved out to see what impression could be made upon the great park of artillery in the Poffenberger field; Stuart intending to lead Jackson's movement with his cavalry by moving up the east bank of the Potomac. It was soon found that the Federal position was too strong to be attacked with any certainty of success; but Lee's left and center, just after the turn of the day, stood defiant in its chosen line of defense and ready to meet any forward movement McClellan might again order; but he was content, from the lessons of the forenoon, to merely hold the positions of his right without further advances.
Through all the long forenoon Toombs, with his 600 men, dominated the Burnside bridge and prevented Burnside's big army. corps from crossing, although he was constantly urged by McClellan so to do and help to carry out his original plan for crushing Lee. With unsurpassed bravery and gallantry, Sturgis advanced upon the bridge, aided by a heavy cannonade from the bluffs above, that, at short range, hurled shot and shell against Toombs' Georgians, who, during four hours of fierce contention, drove back four distinct storming parties and held to their position amid the rocks and trees of the bluff overlooking the bridge. Finding he could not carry this by direct assault, Burnside sent Rodman's division, by a wide detour to his left, to cross a lower ford of the Antietam and fall upon Toombs' flank. This forced the Georgians to retire, and at 1 o'clock Burnside began crossing the bridge, after relieving the brave division that had been exhausted in the attempt to carry it by storm.
It took Burnside an hour to cross and array his men on the ridges above the bridge. This disposition of a fresh corps, for assault upon his right, was in full view of Lee from his rock in front of Sharpsburg. Undisturbed by this, he had directed Jackson to assail the Federal right, knowing, by messages from A. P. Hill, that his command was just about crossing the Potomac, coming from Harper's Ferry, and would soon become an important factor on the field in dealing with Burnside. The latter advanced boldly, captured a Confederate battery, and drove back, to near Sharpsburg, the division of D. R. Jones, and by 3 o'clock his 12,000 were ready to fall upon the 2,000 of Longstreet that were tenaciously holding the immediate front of Sharpsburg and the road leading thence southward toward the Potomac. That same hour brought A. P. Hill up from Boteler's ford, and across to the commanding plateau along which runs the road from Sharpsburg to the mouth of the Antietam. His men were wearied by a march of 17 miles, including the fording of the Potomac, in seven hours, but the fiery Hill, who was always ready and impatient to begin a fight, promptly formed his lines, poured a storm of shot and shell from his well-placed artillery, and then rushed forward his men, with a wild yell, upon the masses of Burnside's troops and forced them to seek safety, in flight, under cover of their guns, beyond the Antietam, after leaving one-third of their number upon the field of carnage. This put an end to the famous battle, the result of which, to McClellan, was defeat and disaster, but to Lee the crown of victory, against a great disparity of numbers, in a series of stubborn combats that had lasted from before daylight until dark.
The battles and marches of the preceding months had greatly depleted Lee's army, and his wounded, footsore, and straggling men were strung all along through Virginia from Richmond to the Potomac, so that he could bring but 35,000 wearied, half-clad and half-starved men into the battle of Sharpsburg; against these, McClellan had hurled 60,000 well-equipped, well-fed and well-cared-for men, while 27,000 more were held in full view and could have been thrown into the contest. Four of his corps were not only routed, but scattered; and he could not collect them to renew the battle.
Sharpsburg was a stand-up, hand-to-hand fight, as brave and furious as any the world ever saw, and the Confederate soldiers had in it proved themselves more than a match, in a fair and open conflict, for their Federal foes. The losses on both sides indicate the nature of the struggle. Of the Southern men, 8,000, one-fourth of Lee's army, lay dead or wounded upon the field; regiments, and even brigades had fought almost to annihilation. McClellan's losses were some 12,500. The living of both armies, as the sounds of battle died away, sunk to profound slumber, such as only follows a day of battle, in the very lines where they had fought and amid the horrors of the carnage of the bloody battlefield.
At nightfall Lee held the line of the Hagerstown turnpike and of the road leading south from Sharpsburg, and the line on his left which Jackson had chosen, before the battle, as the one he would hold; and his unconquerable veterans were ready to renew the combat at his word of command. The Federals had really gained and held no advantages of position.
Col. Stephen D. Lee, the Confederate chief of artillery, stated, to the writer, that an hour after dark, on the 17th, Lee summoned his division commanders to meet him at his headquarters in the wood in the rear of Sharpsburg, and as each came up, he quietly asked him: "How is it on your part of the line?" Longstreet replied, "As bad as can be;" Hill, "My division is cut to pieces;" Hood declared with great emotion, that he had "no division left." Colonel Lee asserted that all of these officers advised that the army should cross the Potomac before daylight, and that Lee, after a profound pause, said: "Gentlemen, we will not cross the Potomac to-night. You will go to your respective commands, strengthen your lines, send two officers from each brigade toward the ford to collect your stragglers and bring them up. Many others have come up. I have had the proper steps taken to collect all the men who are in the rear. If McClellan wants to fight in the morning, I will give him battle again."
Some 5,000 Confederate stragglers joined their commands during the night of the 17th, and the morning of the 18th dawned upon the lines of contending forces, drawn up face to face, at short range, and ready for an anticipated renewal of the mighty struggle; but both stood on the defensive, and not a gun was fired during the livelong day. Lee was not only willing, but eager to renew the battle, in which he was earnestly seconded by Jackson, who suggested that if fifty heavy guns were sent to the Nicodemus ridge, beyond his left, they could silence the Federal batteries on the Poffenberger ridge and open the way for falling on the Federal right. Col. S. D. Lee accompanied Jackson, at General Lee's suggestion, to reconnoiter the chances for success in such an attempt. The chief of artillery pronounced the undertaking not only impracticable, but extremely hazardous, and, to the great disappointment of both Lee and Jackson, the movement was abandoned.
Learning, during the afternoon of the 18th, that large reinforcements were advancing to McClellan, from both the north and the east, Lee determined to cross into Virginia; and that night, in good order, and leaving nothing behind him but his dead and the wounded who could not be moved, he crossed his army through the Potomac. At the same time Stuart crossed his cavalry through the river, at a ford on Lee's left, went up it to Williamsport and recrossed, and threatened McClellan's right and rear, thus engaging his attention while Lee took his long trains and his army back into Virginia. On the morning of the 19th, when it was discovered that Lee had safely escaped him, McClellan sent three brigades across the Potomac in pursuit, and these captured four Confederate guns, placed on the bluffs above the ford, which were not sufficiently guarded; but Jackson with A. P. Hill, speedily punished this temerity and drove the Federals back, across the Potomac.
With the great river between them, the army of the Potomac and the army of Northern Virginia now rested and recuperated during the bracing autumn days that characterize the great Appalachian valley. McClellan called for reinforcements, declaring that his ranks were being weakened by straggling and desertion, while Lee called upon his government for shoes and clothes for his well-nigh half-clad army. In a letter to his wife, General Lee wrote:
"My hands are improving slowly; with my right hand I am able to dress and undress myself, which is a great comfort. My left is becoming of some assistance, too, though it is still swollen and sometimes painful. The bandages have been removed. I am now able to sign my name. It has been six weeks to-day since I was injured, and I have at last discarded the sling. "
From his headquarters in the vicinity of Winchester, on the 2d of October, Lee issued an address to his soldiers, in which he said:
"In reviewing the achievements of the army during the present campaign, the commanding general cannot withhold the expression of his admiration of the indomitable courage displayed in battle and its cheerful endurance of privation and hardship on the march. Since your great victories around Richmond, you have defeated the enemy at Cedar Mountain, expelled him from the Rappahannock, and after a conflict of three days, utterly repulsed him on the plains of Manassas, and forced him to take shelter within the fortifications around his capital. Without halting for repose, you crossed the Potomac, stormed the heights of Harper's Ferry, made prisoners of more than 11,000 men, and captured upward of seventy-five pieces of artillery, all their small-arms and other munitions of war. While one corps of the army was thus engaged, the other insured its success by arresting at Boonsboro the combined armies of the enemy, advancing under their favorite general to the relief of their beleaguered comrades. On the field of Sharpsburg, with less than one-third his numbers, you resisted from daylight until dark the whole army of the enemy, and repulsed every attack along his entire front of more than four miles in extent. The whole of the following day you stood prepared to renew the conflict on the same ground, and retired next morning without molestation across the Potomac. Two attempts subsequently made by the enemy to follow you across the river have resulted in his complete discomfiture and being driven back with loss.
Achievements such as these demanded much valor and patriotism. History records few examples of greater fortitude and endurance than this army has exhibited, and I am commissioned by the President to thank you in the name of the Confederate States for the undying fame you have won for their arms.
Much as you have done, much more remains to be accomplished. The enemy again threatens with invasion, and to your tried valor and patriotism the country looks with confidence for deliverance and safety. Your past exploits give assurance that this confidence is not misplaced."
Source: "Confederate Military History"
This page last updated 12/17/03
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