by Robin Smith
At Antietarn and Sharpsburg on Wednesday l7th September 1862 the Union Army of the Potomac suffered 12 400 casualties, 25 per cent of those who went into action. Confederate casualties in the Army of Northern Virginia were 10 300, 31 per cent of those on the firing lines. The combined casualties for those twelve hours of combat came to 22 719 - no single day of this or any other American war would surpass that fearful record. Nor do these figures reflect a true count of the dead and wounded. Civilians returning to their farms in the following days told of numerous corpses under haystacks or in cellars or hidden in thickets. In addition, a substantial number of those tallied as missing or wounded would die weeks or months later of their injuries.
Commander of the Army of the Potomac was Major-General George Brinton McClellan, the son of a prosperous and socially prominent Philadelphia physician. He had an outstanding record at West Point military academy. In 1855 he toured military establishments in Europe including two weeks' observation of the siege of Sebastopol during the Crimean war. At the outbreak of the civil war in 1861 he was head of the Ohio and Mississippi railroad and within a month he was a major general in charge of the Department of the Ohio. He conducted one of the war's first campaigns, producing several small but tidy victories. By July 1861 he was in Washington to take command of the dispirited Army of the Potomac, defeated by Joseph E. Johnston's Confederates at the first battle of the Bull Run at Manassas. By November, not yet 35 years of age, he was general-in-chief of all the Union armies.
He laboured with great energy to forge the Army of the Potomac into a fighting machine. The troops were organized and equipped and drilled and given pride in themselves as part of McClellan's army. He made sure that his young volunteers were able to see, admire and trust their commander who would lead them into battle. Great reviews were held with massed hands, everything was spit and polish, the climax of the day's pageantry' as the Young Napoleon galloped past the ranks on his great black horse, Dan Webster, trailed by his glittering staff. It was Little Mac's grand army and he was received with loud shouts and an eager uproar that followed his progress through the ranks.
McClellan was less successful in sustaining the admiration of official Washington. At first his youthful zeal in organizing the army made him a power in the land. However, as the weeks and months passed and the army did not advance beyond its drill fields and training grounds McClellan faced increasingly sharp questioning. Why were the Rebels still allowed to hold the field they had won at Bull Run? Why was the fine autumn campaigning weather going unused? Although serving a Republican administration, he made no secret of the fact that his sympathies were with the Democrat opposition. Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton became exasperated with McClellan's reluctance to use the army that he had created and declared that he would "force this man McClellan to fight."
In late October 1861 McClellan reported that he was facing a Confederate force "not less than 150 000 strong, well drilled and equipped, ably commanded and strongly entrenched." This estimate was the work of Allan Pinkerton, the well-known Chicago detective, and it was monumentally wrong. A distinguished foreign visitor, France's Prince Napoleon, inspected both armies and reported that the rebels numbered about 60 000 and were "ragged, dirty and half-starved." Reports from his own officers in the field, based on the interrogation of deserters and slave informers assessed Johnston's army at 50 000. Neither Major-General Daniel E. Sickles and Brigadier-General James S. Wadsworth were regular army and so their reports were ignored.
A gulf of mistrust and suspicion appeared between the administration and its principal general. For nearly nine months the Union and Confederate armies, separated by only 25 miles, made no attempt to join battle. President Lincoln summoned two of McClellan's divisional commanders Irvin McDowell and William B Franklin to the White House. He asked them for ideas saying "If General McClellan does not want to use the army, I would like to borrow it." McDowell and Franklin could offer nothing helpful. On the other side, Confederate President Jefferson Davis was also experiencing difficulty with his commanders. In early March 1862, Johnston abandoned the Confederate entrenchments around Manassas and moved back to the Rapahannock River, about 30 miles further south. The move was kept secret even from Davis until three days after it had taken place.
Finally, after nearly nine months of delay and prevarication, McClellan led his army in a campaign to capture the Confederate capital of Richmond via an advance up the peninsula between the James and York rivers. Greatly overestimating the forces opposed to him he was driven back to Harrison's Landing on the James River by Robert E. Lee who had replaced Johnston, severely wounded at the climax of the campaign. McClellan was ordered to return to Washington early in August 1962.
Although a fine organiser, McClellan proved to be almost paralysed with caution on the battlefield. His deep concern for his men and a fixation with avoiding casualties may have revealed an admirable sensitivity of nature but the general in command has hard choices to make. An attack may save more lives in the long run than will be lost that day. For George McClellan all too often the risk looked too great.
Back in Washington, McClellan was a general without an army until he was offered command of the defenses of Washington after Major-General John Pope had been thrashed by Robert E. Lee at the Second Bull Run, fought over the same ground as the first a year earlier.
His victory over Pope did not reward Lee with the luxury of mature reflection on his next move. This part of northern Virginia had been picked clean and there was neither food for the men nor forage for the horses. The railroad southwards was a shambles and could not make up the difference. An attack on the strongly-fortified Federal capital of Washington was out of the question and retreat southwards would surrender the hard-won initiative. He could pull back westwards into the Shenandoah Valley but that would be only an emergency measure. To the north, Lee concluded, lay manifold opportunities.
Lee's army was organised into two "commands" under Thomas J. "Stonewall" Jackson and James Longstreet. Jackson was the former professor of the Virginia Military lnstitute, looking not unlike people's mental image of the Old Testament prophet. He marched his troops 25 miles in a day and his eccentricities were marked. He had a passion for secrecy and this, his wrath at straggling and his unsparing demands on the hungry and footsore were at first resented until it became clear that he had the habit of victory. James Longstreet was stolid and untiring, his calm self-assurance the balance to the opportunism of Jackson.
Lee's other generals included Jackson's brother-in-law, Daniel Harvey Hill, outspoken and in frequent pain from a spinal ailment, Virginian Ambrose Powell Hill had driving energy and an explosive temper. Another relentless attacker was the tall, bearded John Bell Hoed commander of the Texan brigade. The flamboyant cavalryman James Ewell Brown "Jeb" Stuart had already proved himself to be the premier intelligence officer as well as performing brilliantly in action.
On 4th September 1862 advance elements of the Army of Northern Virginia crossed the Potomac at White's Ford, near Leesburg, Virginia. The march to Leesburg from Manassas was only some thirty miles but that was too much for thousands of shoeless men and others suffering from diarrhea resulting from a steady diet of green corn and apples. Lee's fractious officer corps saw two of its generals under arrest - Powell Hill had disagreed with Jackson and Hood with Longstreet so both stumped along in high dudgeon at the rear of the column. As if these were not annoyances enough, Lee himself had injured both hands in a freak accident, Jackson had had a fall from a new horse and Longstreet, with a badly blistered heel, was wearing an old carpet slipper on one foot which caused his men some amusement.
Lee's assessment that the Union army was demoralised and disorganised after its resounding defeats in the James peninsula under McClellan and at Bull Run under Pope proved to he an overstatement. Even McClellan's harshest critics admitted his talents as an organiser and he was working "like a beaver" in Lincoln's approving phrase. Even the lowliest private was witness to the command confusion of General Pope and the relief at having McClellan back in command was all but universal. McClellan spent long hours in the saddle, visiting the camps, letting himself be seen, acknowledging the enthusiastic cheers and giving the unmistakable impression that now he was in command again all was right with the world. On Sunday 7th September the Union army moved into Maryland but only very slowly and spread out so as to cover both Washington and Baltimore.
The Army of the Potomac now organised into a left wing under William B. Franklin, centre under Edwin V. Sumner and the right under Ambrose E. Burnside. He had 85 000 men under his command and a further 72 500 manned the defences of Washington. McClellan had only the sketchiest information on Confederate strength and dispositions and no information at all about their intentions. He relied heavily on his cavalry under Brigadier-General Alfred Pleasonton who met Jeb Stuart's troopers on every road. Pleasonton's men interrogated prisoners and deserters who naturally enough did their best to string along their Yankee captors. Pleasonton seems to have been remarkably gullible and reported that the enemy was "believed to be over 100 000 strong."
Lee occupied Frederick, Maryland on 6th September appearing to be poised for a thrust at either Washington or Baltimore. Maryland was a state supposedly sympathetic to the Confederacy but in Frederick "all of the people looked as if they had lost a dear friend" said one Confederate officer and Lee had to admit to President Davis, "do not anticipate any general rising of the people in our behalf". The total of new recruits probably did not exceed 200. One Union lady, writing to a friend "felt humiliated that this horde of ragamuffins could set our grand army of the Union at defiance." It was noted however that this motley army was cheerful and that rifles were clean and cartridge boxes full. By the 7th September Jackson had recovered sufficiently to attend church where the Reverend Daniel Zacharias held steadfast to his Union principles and offered a prayer for President Lincoln. To the amusement of the general's staff however, this act of moral courage fell on deaf ears. Old Jack fell asleep during the sermon and was awakened only at the end of the service by the resounding tones of the organ.
Lee needed to make major decisions about the objectives of his army. An operational plan was drawn up, dated 9th September and designated Special Order No.191. Jackson was to fall swiftly on Harper's Ferry from the south while Walker and McLaws would occupy the other commanding heights. Jackson had the longest march, westwards to Boonsboro so as to cross the Potomac at Williamsport, the schedule calling for the trap to be sprung on 12th September. He released A.P. Hill from arrest which would make an important addition to his fighting strength. The remainder of the army would cross South Mountain to a holding position at Boonsboro to reunite once Harper's Ferry had fallen. Jackson approved the plan but Longstreet was dismayed. Dividing the army in the present situation did not strike him as sound military practice.
McClellan moved with extreme caution and on 11th September reported to Washington that he was confronting a "gigantic rebel army". Outlining the daunting prospect before him he said that it was imperative that he be reinforced immediately by at least one of the reserve army corps in Washington. George McClellan's vision of an opposing army triple its actual strength was fixed immutably in his thinking. Lincoln and General in Chief Henry W Halleck decided to send Fitz John Porter's corps into the field. The Union army entered Frederick in the morning of l3th September to be jubilantly welcomed by its inhabitants. General McClellan was all but overwhelmed by well-wishers. It was like a 4th of July celebration and the Army of the Potomac had its spirits up.
One of the units arriving that morning was the 27th Indiana who were assigned a bivouac site in a meadow on the outskirts of town where a Confederate division had encamped a few days before. Making camp where other troops had stayed any length of time was usually unpleasant from the point of view of sanitation but the Indiana boys found an unspoiled section and settled down to boil their coffee and relax. Sergeant John M Bloss and Corporal Barton W Mitchell noticed a bulky envelope in the grass nearby. Inside was a sheet of paper wrapped around three fragrant Virginia cigars. Cigars were a cut above the usual camp debris but Mitchell and Bloss scanned the official-looking document which was headed "Headquarters, Army of Northern Virginia, Special Orders No 191" and dated 9th September. Scattered through the text were names the Yankee soldiers knew only too well - Jackson, Longstreet, Stuart. It was addressed to Major General D.H. Hill and signed "R.H. Chilton, Assist. Adj.-Gen." Sergeant Bloss and Corporal Mitchell suspected that the piece of paper might be even more important than the cigars and took it to their company commander who took it straight to corps commander Maj-Gen Alpheus S. Williams. If it was authentic the implications were stunning - here spelled out in complete detail was the current operational plan of the entire Rebel army. Colonel Pittman of Williams's staff had served with Chilton before the war and knew his handwriting. By late morning it was in McClellan's hands and he sent a message to Lincoln saying "I have all the plans of the rebels and will catch them in their own trap. Will send you trophies."
Suddenly it was clear that Jackson was not trying to escape back into Virginia, he was descending on Harper's Ferry. Those rebels reported beyond South Mountain were Longstreet's. The Army of the Potomac was ideally placed to divide and conquer. McClellan's good fortune was even greater than he imagined for Lee's optimistic timetable for the capture of Harper's Ferry was falling badly behind. Longstreet was now in Hagerstown, a river crossing and more than 25 miles away from Jackson. McClellan had 87 000 men in the vicinity of Frederick - almost double Lee's strength now divided into at least five parts. "No time shall be lost" he promised in his noon wire to Lincoln but it was 18 hours before the first Yankee soldiers marched towards South Mountain in response to the discovery of Special Orders No. 191. The senior Union commanders were not alerted to the secrets of Special Orders No. 191 and no effort was made to preserve the element of surprise. Major-General Reno's Ninth Corps only moved off during the morning of 14th September. Franklin was given the task of relieving Harper's Ferry but his orders were only sent to him after sunset on 13th September.
The Union garrisons at Harper's Ferry and Martinsburg were now outflanked and isolated and across Lee's supply line were he to advance further north into Pennsylvania. The Harper's Ferry garrison was little more than a railroad guard and was decidedly short of combat experience. Harper's Ferry, site of a government musket factory and arsenal, is tucked into a narrow angle where the Shenandoah meets the Potomac and is dominated by high ground on every side, Lee wanted to capture the garrison intact together with all its ordnance and supplies. Jackson had intended to cross the Potomac at Shepherdstown but decided to make a wide march to Williamsport so as to cut off the escape of the Union garrison at Martinsburg. This meant an extra 60 miles of marching.
Walker had arrived on the Loudon Heights and McLaws on Maryland Heights on Saturday 13th September. "Stonewall" Jackson spent Sunday 14th September carefully placing his artillery and late in the afternoon the bombardment opened. The effect was terrifying and demoralized the inexperienced garrison, many of whom had never been in action before. At 8 a.m. on Monday l5th September a white flag appeared and Union Brigadier-General White completed the formalities of surrender wearing his best uniform and mounted on a handsome black horse. Kyd Douglas, Jackson's aide wrote that White was "somewhat astonished to find in General Jackson the worst dressed, worst mounted, most faded and dingy-looking general he had ever seen anyone surrender to."
The 1 300 cavalrymen penned up in Harper's Ferry had been restive as they were unable to contribute to the defence and Colonel Grimes Davis of the 8th New York Cavalry decided to escape. He was a Mississippian and a veteran of frontier Indian fighting. In the darkness they set off over the pontoon bridge over the Potomac and then north along an obscure winding road. They picked up the pace and near dawn encountered a Rebel wagon train coming south from Hagerstown. Davis called up in his rich Mississippi accent and ordered the driver to take the next turning because there was enemy cavalry up ahead. The turn was made smoothly and by the time it was light the sleepy teamsters found they had an escort of Yankee cavalrymen riding alongside with pistols cocked.
Lee had decided to move 13 miles north to Hagerstown, Maryland to counter a reported Union force, leaving D.H. Hill's single division with perhaps 5 000 men to cover the passes over South Mountain. The last message from Jackson indicated that he was running about a day behind schedule. A Confederate sympathizer had made his way through the lines and reported to Stuart that the Federal army was embarking on some sort of offensive operation. Stuart's report to Lee reached him at about 10 p.m. and, puzzled by this unexpected aggression from McClellan, he told Longstreet to march for Boonsboro to support D.H. Hill. Hill had been given the task of defending Turner's Gap through South Mountain "at all hazards." He had only some cavalry and two infantry brigades and from the top of the mountain he could see advancing across the plain the vast army of McClellan "spread out before me. It was a grand and glorious spectacle, and it was impossible to look at it without admiration."
Longstreet arrived to find Hill hard pressed and about to be overwhelmed. One brigade had been broken when its commander, Brigadier-General Samuel Garland was killed. Others were reduced to fighting Indian-style scattered among the rocks and trees. Longstreet managed to stabilize the situation until darkness ended the battle. Two generals were killed in the fight - Garland and Union Major-General Jesse L. Reno was killed near where Garland had died and their monoments stand on the road through Turner's Gap to this day. Of the Union officers, Colonel Rutherford B. Hayes of the 23rd Ohio was wounded and Sergeant William McKinley, another future president from that same regiment was not involved that day.
Lee, in spite of his injured hands, was mounted on Traveller again as the remainder of the Confederate army marched south from Hagerstown. As the Texan Brigade marched past they began to yell "Give us Hood!" Lee agreed with the sentiment, suspended his arrest while there was fighting to do and Hood took his place at the head of the division. Lee, Longstreet and Hill met near Boonshoro and agreed that Turner's Gap would have to be abandoned by morning.
Franklin, under McClellan's orders to relieve Harper's Ferry had been engaged by McLaws's Confederates at Crampton's Gap and driven them away to the west but then halted for the night. The next morning there was cheering from McLaws's men in their battle line and a Rebel yelled that "Harper's Ferry is gone up, God damn you!" With more than four times as many men as McLaws, Franklin reported to McClellan that "they outnumber me two to one. It will of course not answer to pursue the enemy under these circumstances."
While Harper's Ferry was being bombarded and the bemused General Franklin was idling away his time, Federal pickets discovered that the enemy had slipped away in the darkness. General McClellan remained at his headquarters east of the mountain, since it appeared that the enemy was now in full flight, heading for safety across the Potomac. Orders for a pursuit were given and the army marched down to Boonshoro. McClellan telegraphed to Washington "I am hurrying everything forward to press their retreat to the utmost." McClellan cantered through Boonshoro on Dan Webster to the cheers of his troops and the Unionists lining the streets. Two miles beyond the town he caught up with the advance. Joseph Hooker's First Corps was drawn up along the road awaiting instructions.
Five miles southwest of Boonsboro was a line of hills overlooking a shallow valley through which a small creek meandered south from its source in Pennsylvania - Antietam Creek it was called. Beyond it, somewhat lower than the ridge on which McClellan stood with his staff rose another ridge that masked the town of Sharpsburg and the Potomac which followed a tortuous course, another mile or so away. Beyond the creek was the Rebel army, no longer retreating but instead arrayed in line of battle.
The Union commander and his staff could see the spires and gables of the town and the road that led northwards to Hagerstown. Facing the road was a squat, whitewashed building set at the forward edge of a grove of trees. It was the church of the German Baptist Brethren a gentle and pacifist sect who believed steeples were a vanity and therefore had no steeple. Their baptism by total immersion led people to call them Dunkers On the near side of the road, forther to the right was another grove of trees on the crown of the ridge and between the two was a forty-acre field of tall dark-green corn. Lee had chosen his ground with care, disposing it along the high ground so that its flanks were anchored at opposite ends of a four-mile bend of the Potomac. Boteler's Drift was his only exit over the river if his line should he broken which McClellan thought might be his weakness. With 87000 men available versus the 18 000 that Lee had available that day, McClellan nevertheless decided that the day was already too far gone for an attack. He would decide on a plan for tomorrow, Tuesday l6th September but when tomorrow came only the long-range artillery were in action. Noon came and on both sides men lay drowsing in the heat with the artillery disrupting an occasional card game.
McClellan's plan was based essentially on the presence of three stone bridges that spanned the creek. The bridge on the left was closest to Sharpsburg and overlooked by the enemy line. The centre bridge also was overlooked by the enemy on the ridge. The upper bridge was out of range of the enemy batteries and a crossing here would allow an unopposed march to a position astride the Hagerstown road, well north of Lee's left flank. Hooker's First Corps was to lead the attack from the north along the Hagerstown road, supported by the Twelfth Corps. Sumner too would come from that direction bringing three corps to bear on Lee's left flank. Franklin could be thrown in too when he arrived tomorrow morning. Burnside was given the job of forcing the lower bridge, leading to a direct assault on Sharpsburg and the seizure of Boteler's ford.
The battle would open at daylight tomorrow, Wednesday 17th September and Hooker's corps began its crossing late on Tuesday afternoon followed by the Twelfth Corps under J.F.K. Mansfield and Sumner's Second. On Tuesday morning Lee had barely 18 000 men along the Sharpsburg ridge until Jackson arrived at noon from Harper's Ferry with three divisions. Longstreet took the right, D.H. Hill the centre, posting his men along a sunken lane formed by the intersection of the Boonsboro and Hagerstown roads, while Jackson took charge of the left beyond the Dunker church. In all Lee now had 26 000 men to oppose the blue host whose artillery had already begun pounding his positions. The divisions of McLaws and Anderson were still awaited and a courier went to A.P. Hill, seventeen miles away at Harper's Ferry, to march with all possible speed.
In the early morning mist Hooker's three divisions bore down with the Dunker church as his immediate objective. He halted at the cornfield and his batteries opened fire on the standing grain with canister shot but when his men started forward through the woods on each side of the cornfield the enemy fire was still heavy. "Men were knocked out of the ranks by the dozen" wrote a survivor but the Confederates staggered backwards and the Dunker church lay dead ahead of the bluecoats. A line of rebels appeared who delivered a volley which one receiver said "was like a scythe running through our line" and then moved forward the sunlight glinting on their bayonets.. It was Hood and his Texans. Jackson had called for them while they cooked their first hot meal in days and perhaps that had something to do with the violence of their assault. They drove Hooker's men back to the northern end of the cornfield. By now, in Hooker's words "every stalk in the field was cut as closely as could have been done with a knife."
Mansfield came up in support. He had graduated from West Point forty years ago but he was "full of military ardour" noted one of his men approvingly. His advance was short-lived. His horse was shot and as the dismounted veteran general tried to climb over a fence a bullet struck him in the stomach. A Massachusetts colonel waved a captured Texan flag as Hood's survivors were knocked back. Alpheus S. Williams took over command.
"Bull" Sumner rode at the head of his Second Corps who arrived by a different route and moved southwest in close fonnation straight at the Dunker church. As they crossed the open ground they were struck two thirds of the way down the column and squarely in the flank. Too tightly packed to maneuvre more than two thousand of them were shot down within fifteen minutes.
McLaws had arrived and been sent by Lee to reinforce Jackson. Just as he came over the ridge he saw Sumner's lead division emerge from the East Woods. He wrecked it and pursued the remnants with four brigades which pushed Williams into retreat as well. Hooker was one of the 7 000 casualties the Federals suffered at this end of the field. He rode northwards, dripping blood from a wounded foot. His men reformed behind the line of guns from where they had taken off at dawn.
Jackson's losses were probably in excess of 5 000, a larger percentage of casualties than he had inflicted. He was strangely elated. Looking out over the shambles of the cornfield which was thickly carpeted with dead and wounded his pale blue eyes had a fervent light to them. "God has been vey kind to us this day," he said. Sitting on his horse he ate a peach while his medical director submitted a casualty report. When the surgeon expressed fear that the survivors were too badly shaken to resist another assault, he shook his head. Pointing to the bluecoats on the edge of the East woods he said, "Dr. McGuire, they have done their worst."
General McClellan had established his headquarters on the lawns of miller Philip Pry's large brick house on the high ground east of the Antietam. Easy chairs from Pry's parlour were set out for the comfort of the high command and stakes had been driven into the ground as telescope rests. McClellan sat smoking a cigar and was heard to remark "All goes well. Hooker is driving them" when a flag signal from the First Corps was relayed to headquarters. No orders had been issued to Burnside nor to Sumner until after 7 a.m. by which time Hooker was reeling under rebel counter attacks.
At 7.30 a.m. A.P. Hill's division set off from Harper's Ferry for Sharpsburg. The pace was fast and Hill rode back and forth along the line exhorting his men. They noticed that he was wearing the distinctive red shirt that he favoured when going into battle.
Jackson was right as far as the left flank was concerned but Antietam (or Sharpsburg to the Confederates) was three battles piled one en top of one another. The second was about to start and the action was moving inexorably towards the Sunken Road. Robert E. Lee rode along the line accompanied by D.H. Hill and Robert E. Rodes. When they came to Colonel John B Gordon's position, the Colonel stepped forward and said so all could hear: "These men are going to stay here, General, until the sun goes down or victory is won!"
Sumner went back to look for the rest of his corps. He led them towards D.H. Hill's North Carolina and Alabama regiments holding the sunken lane which afforded them a considerable measure of protection. What was more, the crest of the ridge was just over a hundred yards forward and uphill. The bluecoats could not see what they had to face until they were practically on it and outlined against the eastern sky. Sumner had 12 000 while Hill had less than 7 000. The first assaults were easily beaten off but then George B Anderson was wounded and his brigade ceased to function as a unit.
Advancing into the furious action was the Irish Brigade of Thomas F. Meagher, 63rd, 69th and 88th New York who went into battle under emerald green battle flags bearing gold shamrocks and harps. Also in action was Colonel Francis C. Barlow with more New Yorkers. In the confusion these men managed to capture the apex of the line and lay down an enfilading fire on the defenders. What had been a sheltered position became a trap. Dead men filled whole stretches of the road to overflowing. Horrified survivors broke for the rear and the Yankees occupied the position.
Hill sent an urgent call for guns and reinforcements but there were none to give him Longstreet had seen the trouble and was already sending every gun he could lay his hands on. He had not wanted to fight this battle with so much to lose and so little to gain but now he gave it everything he had. Limping around in his carpet slippers and gesturing with an unlighted cigar he ordered the gun crews to put their pieces into action along the ridge where Hill was forming his thin line. The powerful Union batteries across the Antietam had the range and exploded caissons and mangled gunners. Old Pete dismounted his staff and improvised two high-ranking gun crews while he held their horses.
Hill had only two hundred men for a counter attack which he led in person. It was easily beaten off but now McClellan came to their rescue, crossing the creek and ordering Sumner to hold the ground that he had and refusing to allow Franklin's fresh troops into action. It was now 2 p.m., the second battle was over and the third was about to begin.
Despite McClellan's repeated orders, the first at 9 a.m., not a man of the 14 000 enrolled in Burnside's four divisions had reached the west bank of the Antietam by the time afternoon came. Burnside sat on his horse on a hilltop looking down at the narrow, triple-arched stone span below.
The Antietam was not much of all obstacle but it was impossible to wade across it under the hostile fire of the highly-skilled Georgian marksmen hidden in the trees on the opposite bank. The road to the bridge came up from the southeast running alongside the creek to turn west over the bridge and then north again to curve around the heights on the opposite side. The range was short and Burnside kept sending men along the road with predictable results. Lee had been stripping this end of his line in order to strengthen his hard-pressed left.
Finally, after noon, Burnside ordered Brigadier-General Edward Ferrero to make the advance. Ferrero had once run a dancing school in New York and he chose what he considered the toughest of his troops to lead the charge - the 51st New York and the 51st Pennsylvania. For some or other misconduct Ferrero had cut off their whisky ration and one of them asked of they would get it back if they took the bridge. "Yes, by God!" he assured them and he pointed out the attacking positions. They made it across 300 yards of open ground and ducked behind a stone wall running upstream along the creek bank.
The Georgians were running out of ammunition and Colonel Robert B. Potter of the 51st New York acted quickly - with the colour-bearer he rushed his men onto the bridge. The Pennsylvanians joined in and side by side they poured across. A few days later the 51st New York had its reward, a full keg of it.
Pressure on Lee's centre had ceased but now he had no reserve to send to Burnside's Bridge as it has been called henceforward. By now it was l p.m. and Burnside pushed his men over the bridge and over Snaveley's Ford, a mile downstream. Brigadier-General Robert Toombs who had held the heights above the bridge with three Georgia regiments against four Federal divisions, reported the loss of the bridge and received permission to avoid capture by withdrawing to the outskirts of Sharpsburg.
Then came something of a lull as the Federals replaced their ammunition. Two divisions came up the slope towards Sharpsburg and Lee could hear the uproar drawing nearer. The streets of Sharpsburg were crowded with fugitives, shells were bursting against the walls and roofs of houses and startling flocks of pigeons. Blue flags began to appear at various points along the ridge, the Yankees had advanced more than a mile from the bridge and another mile would put them astride the road to Boteler's Drift, the only crossing of the Potomac.
Observing a column approaching from the southwest, Lee called to an artillery lieutenant on the way to the front with a section of guns, "Whose troops are those?" The lieutenant peered intently through his telescope and announced, "They are flying the Virginia and Confederate flags." Lee suppressed his elation, "It is A.P. Hill from Harper's Ferry" he said calmly.
Receiving Lee's summons at 6.30 a.m. that morning, Little Powell put five brigades on the road within the hour. The sound of gunfire seventeen miles away spurred him on Jacket off because of the heat, he rode in his bright red battle shirt alongside the panting troops. He had no dealings with stragglers but left them winded by the roadside. He began the march with 5 000 and ended it with barely 3 000 but with these, as was his custom, he struck hard.
In his path was the 16th Connecticut, 900 strong. They were green, barely three weeks in the service, ignorant of the drill required for maneuvre as a unit and barely able to load their muskets. To add to the confusion some of the South Carolinians bearing down on them were wearing blue uniforms captured at Harper's Ferry. The youngsters turned and ran. The 4th Rhode Island were equally confused as were two Ohio regiments until they managed to make a fight of it for possession of a stone wall. Inevitably the Union left gave way and the New Yorkers on the outskirts of Sharpsburg were outflanked and had to pull back to the heights above the Burnside Bridge.
It was sunset and all along the long line the conflict ended, this time for good. Lee's line was intact and McClellan had failed to break it. He had failed in all three cases, left centre and right by not supplying the extra push that would break it and keep it broken. The greater part of four divisions, no less than 22 000 men, stood idle while the battle raged through climax after climax, each of which offered McClellan the chance to wreck his adversary.
Lee, in his headquarters west of Sharpsburg, greeted his generals as they rode up. Jackson, D.H. Hill and A.P. Hill, Hood, D.R. Jones and Early who all had heavy losses to report. Longstreet, still limping in his carpet slippers, had been helping some ladies whose house was on fire. His report was as gloomy as the others and all agreed that another day like today would drive the army headlong into the Potomac. All except Lee. He told them to return to their men, make such adjustments as would strengthen the defences and see that rations were cooked and distributed along the line of battle. If McClellan wanted another fight he would give him one tomorrow.
McClellan it seemed wanted no such thing Mansfield was dead, Hooker wounded, Sumner despondent and Burnside doubtful whether his troops could hold the little they had gained. McClellan decided to wait for reinforcements, two divisions on their way from Frederick. As a result the two armies lay face to face all day and between them on the Sharpsburg ridge and in the Antietam valley the dead began to fester in the heat and the cries of the wounded gradually faded. There were a great many of both, after this day of fearfol violence. Nearly 11 000 Confederates and 12 000 Federals had fallen on that ridge and in that valley including about 5 000 dead on both sides. Someone asked Flood at the close of the battle "Where is your division?" and he replied "Dead on the field." After entering the fight with 854 men the Texas brigade came out of it with less then 300 and these figures were approximated in other veteran units, particularly Jackson's command.
This [image] is Charles E King from West Chester, Pennsylvania. He was able to play the drums and when war broke out begged his parents for permission to enlist in the Union army as a drummer boy. His father would hear nothing of it but Charles would hang around the recruiting station of the 49th Pennsylvania and he impressed the recruiting officer, Capt Benjamin H Sweeney, with his drumming skills and eagerness to enlist. Captain Sweeney agreed to intercede with his father and explained that drummer boys did not go into combat but remained behind the lines to help with the wounded. Sweeney said he would take personal charge of the boy who would he guarded against danger. Reluctantly his parents gave permission and Charles King enlisted with the 49th Pennsylvania in 1861 at the age of 12. He participated in McClellan's Peninsular Campaign and by the summer of 1862 could justifiably call himself a veteran. At Antietam the 49th Pennsylvania arrived when the fighting on the northern portion of the battlefield had practically ended. However, Southern gunners wanted to show Union forces that they were ready to meet any renewed attacks against the Confederate left flank. During one of these salvoes a shell exploded within the ranks of the regiment, wounding several soldiers including 13-year old Charles King. With great care and affection, the bleeding boy was carried back to the field hospital where he died three days later, the youngest casualty of direct combat on either side during the Civil war.
Thomas Taylor was 20 years old when he enlisted in the 8th Louisiana Infantry in 1861. He was single, a farmer and 5 feet 9 inches tall. He lived in Assumption parish near New Orleans. His father was a lawyer in New Orleans and later a congressman in Washington Taylor was quickly promoted sergeant and at sunrise on 17th September 1862 was in the ranks of the 8th Louisiana who defended the Miller cornfield. Taylor was bleeding from an ugly wound in the knee and left on the field when the regiment fell back. Help only arrived next day when he was picked up by Union stretcher bearers and taken as a prisoner to hospital in Frederick, Maryland. He was exchanged and transported to a Confederate hospital in Petersburg, Virginia. He was crippled and on crutches, unable to return home as New Orleans was under Union occupation. Nothing more is known of him except that some of his effects were donated years later to the Museum of the Confederacy in Richmond, Virginia where the jacket that he wore at Antietam is preserved.
Orders to retreat were issued that afternoon and under cover of darkness, with fires kindled all along the ridge, Lee's army retired across the Potomac. Longstreet went first and by sunup on Friday 19th September Walker's division, the last to cross, was back in Virginia. As Walker followed the tail of his column into the waist-deep water in the ford he saw Lee sitting his grey horse Traveller in mid-stream - apparently he had been there all night. When Walker reported all the troops safely across the river, Lee showed for the first time the strain he had been under "Thank God," he said.
Viewed solely in military terms, Antietam was notable for its missed opportunities and hideous memories. Robert E. Lee had taken his army into Maryland to wage the decisive campaign for Southern independence and he had failed. George McClellan had been granted the certain opportunily to destroy the Southern army and he had failed too. On 22nd September Lincoln announced to his cabinet that he had made a vow "that if God gave us victory in the approaching battle, he would consider it an indication of Divine Will" to proceed with emancipation. The fight at Antietam had not produced as complete a victory as he would have liked but it was enough that the Confederate raiders had been turned back. The proclamation issued the next day proclaimed that "unless the states in rebellion return to the Union within the next hundred days, all persons held in bondage in those states shall be then, henceforward and forever free". Beyond whatever other purpose, the dead of Antietam had died to make men free.
The proclamation was released to the newspapers on 23rd September and 15 000 copies were printed and sent to the various army commands. It was a matter of no small concern how the emancipation decree would be received in the Army of the Potomac. Fitz John Porter wrote to the opposition New York World newspaper and said that the army was being undermined by "the absurd proclamation of a political coward who holds in his hands the lives of thousands and trifles with them."
General McClellan was deciding what public position he should take on the question of emancipation. He sought the opinions of politicians and three of his generals, Burnside, Cox and Cochrane, who told him that "any utterance by him in his official character criticizing the civil policy of the administration would be properly regarded as usurpation." His friend Burnside told him also that he was badly misinformed about the army's state of mind and none but a corporal's guard would follow him if he sought to place the military above the civil authority.
McClellan adopted his familiar position that Lee's army was "undoubtedly greatly superior" to his own and demanded supplies, shoes and clothing, horses, hospital tents that were absolutely essential before the army could take a step forward. Harper's Ferry had been reoccupied but the army remained camped around Sharpsburg. On 1st October President Lincoln arrived unexpectedly to see for himself the army and its commanding general and remained four days. He reviewed troops and visited the hospitals but no third party recorded his conversation with McClellan. Lincoln later recalled that "I went up to the field to try to get him to move and came back thinking he would move at once. But when I got home he began to argue why he ought not to move."
Early one morning during his visit Lincoln and an acquaintance from Illinois, Ozias M.
Hatch, walked up to some high ground that overlooked the encampment of the army. As
they looked out over this vast sea of tents spread out below, Lincoln suddenly asked, "Do
you know what this is?"
"It is the Army of the Potomac," Hatch replied in some puzzlement.
"So it is called," Lincoln said, "but that is a mistake: it is only General McClellan's bodyguard."
Left undisturbed in their pleasant camps in the Shenandoah the Army of Northern Virginia rapidly recovered strength and spirit. Jeb Stuart and 1 800 troopers raided into Pennsylvania, recovered the ammunition that Grimes Davis had captured when he broke out of Harper's Ferry, evaded capture by the frantic but uncoordinated Federal cavalry and crossed back into Virginia with 1 200 horses liberated from outraged Pennsylvania farmers. McClellan looked very foolish.
On 13th October Lincoln composed a long letter to General McClellan, having waited a week to see if his order to advance would be obeyed. The reply came only on 17th promising to advance "the moment my men are shod and my cavalry are sufficiently renovated". On 25th he reported that his cavalry mounts were "absolutely broken down from fatigue" to which the president wired back a stinging reply: "Will you pardon me for asking what the horses of your army have done since the battle of Antietam that fatigues anything?" On 26th October the Army of the Potomac finally started to cross the Potomac into Virginia. It took them eight days to cross the river and advance 20 miles into Virginia which Lee had done in a day. McClellan assured the president that he "would push forward as rapidly as possible to endeavour to meet the enemy."
On 5th November Lincoln sent a message to General Halleck: "By direction of the President, it is ordered that Major-General McClellan be relieved from the command of the Army of the Potomac and that Major-General Burnside take command." McClellan's notable achievement in organising and training the army would be his monument but Antietam was proof that the task was completed. His crippling caution, his distorting self deceptions and his lack of moral courage in the heat of battle meant it was no longer possible for the president to indulge him. It was no longer a question of his military competence as he had become a magnet for opposition to the administration and its policies. He left the army, entered politics and stood against Lincoln in the election of 1864 where he was soundly beaten. He never got around to writing his memoirs but his selective memory of people and events is evident in his writings right up to his sudden death in 1885.
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