The Battle of Antietam Chapter III -- The Antietam, from Campaigns Of The Civil War--V. The Antietam And Fredericksburg By Francis Winthrop Palfrey. This chapter in the book is about 46 pages long, too large for an Internet page to handle comfortably. For ease of reading on Internet I have divided it up into five parts. Links and explanations as to what each part contains are located at the end of this page. The story picks up after the battle of South Mountain, September 14, 1862.
Setting the Stage
Lee and his generals were not slow to act in presence of the danger which still impended. General McLaws made haste, during the night of the 14th, to form his command in line of battle across Pleasant Valley, about a mile and a half below Crampton's, leaving one regiment to support the artillery on Maryland Heights, and two brigades on each of the roads from Harper's Ferry, i.e., the road which ran from there over the Brownsville Pass, and that by the Weverton Pass. The object of this was to prevent the escape of the garrison of Harper's Ferry by either road, as well as to protect his own right flank. The commands of Longstreet and D. H. Hill reached Sharpsburg on the morning of the 15th, and were placed in position along the range of hills between the town and the Antietam, nearly parallel to the course of the stream, Longstreet on the right of the road to Boonsboro', and Hill on the left.
Lee moved to Sharpsburg, because he would there be upon the flank and rear of any force moving against McLaws, and because the army could unite there to advantage. Longstreet says that this position was a strong defensive one, besides possessing the advantage just mentioned. As no other Confederate troops came up to this position till the following day, it is convenient to return to the Federal headquarters, and tell what McClellan and his troops did after the fighting at South Mountain ended.
It has already been said that Franklin's advance moved into Pleasant Valley on the night of the 14th. An hour after midnight of that day, McClellan sent Franklin orders to occupy the road from Rohrersville to Harper's Ferry, placing a sufficient force at Rohrersville to hold the position against an attack from the Boonsboro' direction, that is to say, from the forces of Longstreet and Hill. He also directed him to attack and destroy such of the enemy as he might find in Pleasant Valley, and, if possible, to withdraw Miles's command. The letter ends: "You will then proceed to Boonsboro', which place the Commanding General intends to attack to-morrow, and join the main body of the army at that place. Should you find, however, that the enemy have retreated from Boonsboro' towards Sharpsburg, you will endeavor to fall upon him and cut off his retreat." These orders made Franklin's duty perfectly clear, and it is not easy to see why he did not obey them, except that he seems to have had a fatal tendency to see lions in his path. Couch joined him at 10 P.M. of the night of the 14th, thus raising his forces to a nominal aggregate of upward of eighteen thousand men present for duty, which must have much more than equalled the strength of the twelve brigades which McLaws had to oppose to him. He was fully informed of McClellan's plans and wishes before these orders reached him, and he knew from the tenor of McClellan's letter, if he did not know it directly and in terms, that he had forced the passage of Turner's Gap. Under these circumstances the duty was pressing to put forth, as McClellan had begged him to, "the utmost activity that a general can exercise." Unfortunately for the success of the Union arms, Franklin was not the man for the place. At ten minutes before 9 A.M,. of the 15th, he was two miles from the line of the enemy, which was drawn between him and the place he was ordered to relieve, and waiting (which McClellan had not told him to do) to be sure that Rohrersville was occupied before moving forward to attack the enemy, and reporting that this might require two hours' further delay. He also reported that the cessation of firing at Harper's Ferry made him fear that it had fallen, and his opinion that, if that proved to be true, he would need to be strongly reinforced. By eleven o'clock he had satisfied himself that the enemy in his front outnumbered him two to one.
Harper's Ferry was surrendered at 8 A.M. of this day. It was lost because Miles did not make his main defence on Maryland Heights, because McClellan's orders were not equal to the emergency, and because Franklin's action was not equal to the orders he received. After what has been said, it is hardly necessary to say that Franklin did not make himself disagreeable in any way to McLaws. McClellan seems to have thought that the "gigantic rebel army" before him was so gigantic that, with Longstreet and D. H. Hill and Walker and Jackson's entire command away, McLaws could still outnumber three Federal divisions two to one, for he ordered General Franklin to remain where he was "to watch the large force in front of him," and protect his left and rear till the night of the 16th, when he was to send Couch's division to Maryland Heights, and himself join the main army at Keedysville. How he could have expected to beat the whole of Lee's army, when he attributed such strength to a fraction of it, is a riddle which it passes human powers to solve.
General Franklin watched the large force in front of him to so much and so little purpose, that they sent their trains back across the river, and gradually withdrew themselves, marched through Harper's Ferry, camped at Halltown, and joined the main army at Sharpsburg on the morning of September 17th. The scheme of interposing the Federal army between the wings of Lee's army was rapidly coming to naught.
On the night of the 14th September, the centre, under General Sumner, came up in rear of the right wing, shortly after dark. Richardson's division of the Second Corps was placed at Mount Tabor Church on the "Old Hagerstown Road," about a mile north of Bolivar, and the rest of the Second Corps, and all the Twelfth Corps around Bolivar. Sykes's division and the artillery reserve halted for the night at Middletown. Orders were given to the Federal commanders to press forward the pickets at early dawn. Their advance revealed the fact that the Confederates had retreated during the night. An immediate pursuit was ordered. Pleasonton's cavalry, the First Corps under Hooker, the Second under Sumner, and the Twelfth, now under Mansfield, were to follow the turnpike to and through Boonsboro', while Burnside and Porter, with the Ninth Corps and Sykes's division, were to take the" Old Sharpsburg Road" on the left. Burnside and Porter were to be governed by circumstances on reaching the road from Boonsboro' to Rohrersville, whether to reinforce Franklin or to move on Sharpsburg. The Federal advance made its appearance on the west side of the Boonsboro' Pass at 8 A.M. of the 15th. This was the hour at which Harper's Ferry was surrendered. The fact of the surrender, and the hour at which it took place, were speedily made known to McClellan. It was reasonably certain that the troops assigned by Lee's special order No. 191 to the duty of capturing the garrison at Harper's Ferry, were then around that place, and most of them far from Lee, and all of them separated from him either by distance and the Potomac, or by Union troops, or both. Whatever his estimate may have been of the amount of the force so employed, he knew that it comprised all or part of Jackson's command, and the divisions of McLaws, R. H. Anderson, and Walker. If he looked for no aggressive action on the part of Franklin and Couch, he could at least look to them to hold in check and neutralize the forces of McLaws and R. H. Anderson, and this left him free to use his First, Second, Ninth, and Twelfth Corps, with all of the Fifth Corps that was with him, and Pleasonton's cavalry command, against Longstreet and D. H. Hill. In other words, in fine country and in fine weather, he had thirty-five brigades of infantry to use against Longstreet's nine brigades, and D. H. Hill's five brigades. Pleasonton's cavalry and the reserve artillery were probably as numerous as Stuart's and Rosser's cavalry and their artillery. We assume this, in the absence of figures. At any rate, McClellan claims that his cavalry on the 15th overtook the enemy's cavalry, made a daring charge, and captured 250 prisoners and two guns. Here again was a great opportunity. With a long day before him, a force that outnumbered his opponent as five to two, and probably as six to two,(1) and the
(1) It will be observed that here and elsewhere numbers are treated in accordance with the facts, and not in accordance with McClellan's statements of his estimate of them. It is true that a commander must shape his action with reference to his estimate of his own and his opponent's force, but it must be said without reservation that it is impossible to believe that McClellan believed that on the Peninsula or in Maryland the Confederates had the forces he attributed to them. If he did believe it, he ought, with his knowledge of their fighting qualities, to have abandoned offensive operations and thrown his army behind fortifications constructed to protect Washington, Baltimore, and Philadelphia, and waited for more troops.
knowledge that the large detachments his opponent had made could not join him for twenty-four hours, and might not join him for forty-eight or more, it was a time for rapid action. It would seem that he ought to have pressed his troops forward unrestingly till they reached cannon-shot distance from the enemy, and made his reconnoissances as his columns were advancing. He would speedily have learned the length of the enemy's line, and as the distance from the summit of Turner's Gap to Sharpsburg is only seven or eight miles, it is not easy to see why he might not have attacked in force early in the afternoon. He had every reason for believing that delay would strengthen the enemy much more proportionately than it would strengthen him, and he might be sure that delay would be at least as serviceable to the enemy as to him in acquiring knowledge of the ground, and much more so in putting that knowledge to account. But it was not to be. With all his amiable and estimable and admirable qualities, there was something wanting in McClellan. If he had used the priceless hours of the 15th September, and the still precious, though less precious hours of the 16th as he might have, his name would have stood high in the roll of great commanders; but he let those hours go by, and, as will presently be told in detail, it took him forty-eight hours to get ready to deliver his main attack, and then he had to deal not only with Lee and Longstreet and Hood and D. H. Hill, but with all of them, with Stonewall Jackson added, with two of his divisions, and McLaws and Walker. It has already been suggested that Halleck's error in insisting on retaining Miles at Harper's Ferry came near being very damaging to Lee. In the sequel it proved damaging only to the extent of the weakening of his force by straggling upon the march, and the somewhat enfeebled condition of some of his troops at Sharps-burg; but if the most had been made of the opportunity by the Federal commander, Halleck's error would have proved more useful than the wisest piece of strategy has often been.
Richardson's division of the Second Corps moved rapidly through Boonsboro' and Keedysville, and found the Confederates occupying the position they had chosen beyond the Antietam. In obedience to orders, it halted and deployed on the east of the stream, on the right of the Sharpsburg road. Sykes's division came up and deployed on the left of Richardson, and on the left of the Sharpsburg road. The Confederate artillery opened on the Federal columns as they came in sight, from positions on the high ground on the west side of the stream.
Between Mercersville on the north and the confluence of the Antietam with the Potomac on the south, a distance of about six miles in a straight line, the Potomac follows a series of remarkable curves, but its general course is such that a line of battle something less than six miles long may be drawn, from a point a little below Mercersville to a point a little above the mouth of the Antietam, so as to rest both its flanks upon the Potomac, to cover the Shepherdstown Ford and the town of Sharpsburg, and to have its front covered by Antietam Creek. The Antietam is crossed by four bridges, of which that nearest its confluence with the Potomac was not used during the battle, except by the troops of A. P. Hill, coming from Harper's Ferry to reinforce Lee. The next, known as the "Burnside Bridge," is that by which the road from Sharpsburg to Rohrersville crosses the stream. The next above is the bridge of the Sharpsburg, Keedysville, and Boonsboro' turnpike, and another, two miles and a half higher up, is the bridge of the road from Keedysville to Williamsport. The stream is sluggish and winding, and though it possesses several fords, they are difficult. In the rear of Sharpsburg a good road leads to the Shepherds-town Ford of the Potomac. Besides the roads already mentioned, an important turnpike leads northward from Sharpsburg to Hagerstown. On the western side of the Antietam, the ground rises in a slope of woods and fields to a somewhat bold crest, and then falls away to the Potomac.
In this "strong defensive position," Lee proceeded to form his men for the action which events had so forced upon him that he could not avoid it without loss of prestige. His front was covered by the Antietam, his line of retreat was convenient and open, and the way was clear for all his detachments to join him. He was in a position from which he could not hope to escape without serious fighting and serious loss, but he had not to fear destruction unless his opponent struck at once and struck hard. His position was very different from what he appears to have expected, and it must have been with a strong sense of disappointment as well as of anxiety that he formed his thin lines in front of Sharpsburg. The dream of raiding northward to the Susquehanna, and of drawing McClellan so far away as to permit him to make a point on Washington, had to be abandoned, and instead of that he had to prepare for a tough struggle to be made with a small army at best, and with only half of that if his opponent was prompt.
The National Cemetery at Sharpsburg is situated upon the crest of a hill to the eastward of the town, and just outside the houses. It fronts upon the main road from the town to Keedysville, and lies on the southerly side of that road. It commands a view of remarkable beauty and extent. Within its enclosure is a small mass of limestone upon which it is said Lee stood to direct the battle. If one enters the cemetery and takes his position at the base of the flag-staff, which stands on the highest ground, he will be within the concave of the Confederate line as it stood at the commencement of the battle. On his left, as he looks northward, is the town of Sharpsburg, lying in a hollow between the ridge which rises to the west of the Antietam, and the Potomac, which is not in sight. The Hagerstown pike may be partially seen, extending northerly from the town, and with a slightly oblique direction to the right. At the distance of about a mile, upon the western edge, and in plain view, stands the famous Dunker Church, in the border of a patch of woods. To the right of it, and to the east of the turnpike, is open ground, and this is bordered on the right by another patch of woods. These two patches of timber, with the fields between, were the scene of the most sanguinary fighting of the 17th of September. Looking further to the right, to the northeast of the position of the observer, and at a distance of something less than two miles, a large brick building may be seen. This is Fry's house, round which the tents of McClellan's headquarters were pitched before and during the battle. The Antietam cannot be seen, because of the depth of the ravine which forms its bed, but its course may easily be traced by the abundant growth of the trees which fringe its banks. Yet further to the right, and at a distance of about a mile, one sees the upper part of a basin formed by some hills. At the base of these hills the "Burnside Bridge" crosses the stream. In the further distance to the right, the spurs of Maryland Heights and the stately South Mountain range frame the picture, which is as full of beauty as it is of interest. Practically the whole of the battle-field may be seen from this single point. To complete the description of it, it is to be added that the woods in which the Dunker Church stands, fringe the western side of the Hagerstown pike for about a quarter of a mile. Then they turn to the westward for about one hundred and fifty yards, and, turning again at right angles, the edge of the woods is parallel to the turnpike for another quarter of a mile. Further to the north, the ground is open immediately to the west of the pike, and there are two sizable woods, detached from each other, further to the west.(1) For convenience of description, the woods to the west, north and northwest of the Dunker Church will be called the West Woods, and the woods opposite and to the east of the pike, and separated from it by open ground, will be called the East Woods. At the Dunker Church two roads meet the turnpike, almost forming a right angle with each other. The course of the easterly of these two roads is southwesterly to the pike, while the other, which is little more than a wood road, runs a little north of west from the church. The West Woods are full of outcropping ledges of limestone, which afford excellent cover for troops. To the west of the northern portion of the West Woods is a height, far enough to the west to enable the force holding it to take not
(1) Some of the reports speak of a stone house, with straw stacks near it. It is probable, but not certain, that the stone house was Nicodemus's, west of the Hagerstown pike, and in the angle between it and the road to Williamsport. The "burning buildings" were, almost certainly, one Mume's, east of the Hagerstown Pike, and not very far from D. R. Miller's house. They are not shown on the plan. I saw them in flames, on the right of Sedgwick's division, as I went into action, and when I next visited the ground, some few years after, I was assured that they were Mume's. The Dutch or German settlers of the neighborhood seem to have been family connections. I found three separate families of Poffenbergers, for instance.--F. W. P.
only in flank but in reverse the whole of the Confederate position.
Part II This part explains some of the numbers of troops involved on both sides during the battle Part III This part deals with the morning part of the battle. Part IV This part addresses the mid day phase of the battle, or the Sunken Road as some call it. Part V This part presents the Burnside Bridge action and a wrap-up of the battle.
This page last updated 12/17/03
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