Battle of Antietam History : Maryland and the Civil War

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Battle of Antietam
Maryland and the Civil War

Battle of Antietam (Sharpsburg)

Antietam Civil War Battlefield Map
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Battle of Antietam Map : Maryland Civil War Map

Antietam, Md., Sept. 16-17. 1862. Army of the Potomac. In his
report of the battle of South Mountain, which was fought on the 14th,
Gen. Meade says: "The command rested on their arms during the night.
The ammunition train was brought up and the men's cartridge-boxes
were filled, and every preparation made to renew the contest at daylight
the next morning should the enemy be in force. Unfortunately, the
morning opened with a heavy mist, which prevented any view being ob-
tained, so that it was not until 7 a. m. that it was ascertained that the
enemy had retired from the mountain." As soon as this discovery
was made the whole Union army began pouring through the passes of
South Mountain in pursuit. At Boonsboro Pleasonton's cavalry came
up with the Confederate rear guard. The 8th Illinois, which was in the
advance, immediately charged and then pursued the retreating enemy
for a distance of 2 miles. There the Illinois regiment was joined
by a section of Tidball's battery, which threw a few shells into the
Confederate lines, completely routing the enemy from the field. The
Union loss in this skirmish was 1 killed and 15 wounded, while the
Confederates left 30 killed and 50 wounded on the field, and a number
of prisoners were taken. About the time this engagement commenced
another was taking place on the Sharpsburg road, between the Con-
federate rear and the 5th N. H. infantry. This skirmish lasted until 9
p. m., when the New Hampshire troops were relieved, after losing 4
men in killed and wounded. The enemy's loss here was 12 killed and
wounded and 60 prisoners. The 2nd Del. and 52nd N. Y. also skirmished
with the rear guard at other points, and in the afternoon the Confederates
opened a heavy artillery fire on the Federal advance near Antietam
creek, keeping it up until after dark. This was replied to by Tidball's
horse artillery and Battery B, 1st N. Y. light artillery, from the heights
east of the creek.

McClellan's hope was to bring on an engagement before the Con-
federate forces could be united. Lee, on the other hand, was bending
every effort to concentrate his army in time to resist the general at-
tack which he now realized was imminent. Stonewall Jackson, with his
own division and those of Ewell and A. P. Hill, was at Harper's Ferry.
McLaws, after his defeat at Crampton's pass on the 14th, formed his
forces across the lower end of Pleasant Valley, while the Union forces
under Gen. Franklin confronted him at the upper end of the valley,
about 2 miles distant. Here the two lay all day on the 15th, each sup-
posing the other to be superior in strength and neither daring to attack.
The morning of the 16th found Longstreet and D. H. Hill occupying a
position on the west side of the Antietam, between that stream and the
little town of Sharpsburg. Here Lee personally directed the movements
of his army, selecting the strongest possible ground to withstand an
attack until the detachments under Jackson and McLaws could be united
with the main body. Soon after crossing the Antietam Lee learned
that the Federal garrison at Harper's Ferry had surrendered, and sent
orders for the whole force near the ferry to move at once to Sharps-
burg. The Army of the Potomac at this time was organized as follows :
The 1st army corps, commanded by Maj.-Gen. Joseph Hooker, consisted
of the divisions of Doubleday, Ricketts and Meade; the 2nd corps, Maj.-
Gen. Edwin V. Sumner, included Richardson's, Sedgwick's and French's
divisions; Couch's division of the 4th corps; the 5th corps, Maj.-Gen.
Fitz John Porter, was composed of the divisions of Morell, Sykes and
Humphreys; the 6th corps, Maj.-Gen. William B. Franklin, embraced
the divisions of Slocum and W. F. Smith; the 9th corps, Maj.-Gen.
Ambrose E. Burnside consisted of the divisions of Willcox, Sturgis and
Rodman, and the Kanawha division, commanded by Brig.-Gen. Jacob D.
Cox; the 12th corps, Maj.-Gen. Joseph K. F. Mansfield, included the
divisions of Williams and Greene; the cavalry division numbering five
brigades and commanded by Brig.-Gen. Alfred Pleasonton, and over
50 batteries of artillery. In his report of the campaign McClellan gives
the number of his forces at 87,164. Lee, in his official report on the
battle of Antietam, says: "This great battle was fought by less than
40,000 men on our side."

The Confederate line of battle on the 16th extended from the Poto-
mac, at a point a little below Mercersville, to the Antietam about a
mile below Sharpsburg. It was nearly four miles long and occupied a
broken country, the low hills being separated by narrow valleys, while
almost everywhere the limestone cropped out above the surface, afford-
ing a natural shelter for the troops. In front the line was protected
by the Antietam, which was crossed by three bridges and several fords,
though the latter were all too difficult to attempt a crossing with
artillery. Near the south end of Lee's line was the bridge afterward
known as the "Burnside bridge;" on the Sharpsburg and Boonsboro
road, near the center of the line, was the second bridge, while the third
was the stone bridge on the Williamsport road still further north. Near
the mouth of the stream was a fourth bridge, but it was not used
during the operations, except by A. P. Hill in bringing up his division
from Harper's Ferry. On the Hagerstown pike, about a mile from
Sharpsburg, stood the Dunker church in the edge of a patch of timber,
since known as the "West woods." At the church the Smoketown
road leaves the pike, and about half a mile north on this road were
some more timber patches called the "East woods." In forming his
line Lee posted Longstreet on the right, so as to cover the Burnside
bridge, and D. H. Hill on the left, covering the bridge on the Boons-
boro road. On the opposite side of the Antietam lay the Union army
with the 1st corps op the extreme right and the 9th on the left. Mc-
Clellan established his headquarters at the Pry house, a short distance
northwest of the Boonsboro road and near the center of his line. Lee's
headquarters were at the west side of Sharpsburg on the road leading
to Shepherdstown.

Shortly after 1 p. m. on the 16th, Hooker received orders to cross
the Antietam and attack the Confederate left. Meade's and Ricketts'
divisions crossed at the stone bridge and Doubleday's at the ford just
below. Once across the stream he turned to the right in order to gain
the watershed between the Antietam and Potomac, intending to follow
the ridge until he gained the enemy's left flank. Some skirmishing oc-
curred along the line of march, and information of Hooker's movements
was at once carried to Lee. At the time the messenger arrived Lee
was in council with Longstreet and Jackson, who had arrived from
Harper's Ferry that morning. Lee immediately ordered Jackson to the
command of the left wing and Hood's command was moved from the
center to a position near the Dunker church. A little while before sun-
set Hooker pushed forward a battery and opened fire on Jackson's left.
The fire was promptly returned and the artillery duel was continued
until after dark, when the corps went into bivouac a short distance north
of the East woods, where the men rested on their arms during the night,
ready to begin the attack the next morning. All that night there was
desultory firing between the pickets, who were so close to each other that
at times their footsteps could be heard. During the night Mansfield's
corps w^as sent over to the assistance of Hooker and about 2 a. m.
on the 17th took up a position on the Poffenberger farm, about a mile
in Hooker's rear. As soon as it was light enough to distinguish objects
on the morning of the 17th the Federal skirmishers began their work in
the East woods. Soon afterward the entire corps was thrown into line
with Doubleday on the right, Ricketts on the left, and Meade in re-
serve in the center, with instructions to reinforce either of the other di-
visions as circumstances might require. Thus formed the whole line
moved forward and the real battle of Antietam was began. In the
triangular space between the Hagerstown and Smoketown roads, and
directly in front of Hooker, was a 30-acre field of corn in which the
enemy had stationed a large force of infantry during the night. Before
this force fired a shot its presence was discovered by the sun's rays
on the bayonets, and in his report Hooker says: "Instructions were
immediately given for the assemblage of all my spare batteries, near
at hand, of which I think there were five or six, to spring into battery,
on the right of this field, and to open with canister at once. In the
time I am writing every stalk of corn in the northern and greater
part of the field was cut as closely as could have been done with a
knife, and the slain lay in rows precisely as they had stood in their ranks
a few moments before, it was never my fortune to witness a more
bloody, dismal battle-field." The survivors beat a rapid retreat toward
the church and there sought shelter behind rocks, trees and stone fences.
The Union men pressed forward in close pursuit for some distance,
but the Confederates were rallied and reinforced, when the Federals
were in turn forced to fall back.

Antietam Campaign Map of Battles
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Civil War Antietam Campaign Battlefield Map

At this juncture Mansfield arrived, but while deploying his men
he fell mortally wounded and the command of the corps fell on Gen.
Williams, who had barely time to receive a few general instructions
from Hooker before he was forced to go into the fight. Not knowing
the exact position of the 1st corps there was some lack of unity in the
movements of the various division commanders, but after nearly two
hours of hard fighting the enemy was driven back to the West woods.
Greene's division succeeded in turning Jackson's right and in gaining a
position in the edge of the woods near the Dunker church, where he
hung on tenaciously, repulsing several attempts to dislodge him. In this
part of the engagement the Confederates suffered severely. J. .R Jones,
who was in command of Jackson's division, was wounded. Starke, who
succeeded him, was soon afterward killed. Lawton then took command
of the division and was wounded and borne from the field. Nearly
one-half the entire force on the Confederate left were killed or wounded,
and it is probable that if Sumner had arrived at this time the entire
Confederate army could have been crushed. It was nearly lo o'clock,
however, before Sumner's corps, some 18,000 strong, reached the field,
coming on in three columns. Sedgwick on the right occupied the
position from which Hooker had been driven earlier in the action. Next
came the divisions of French and Richardson, the Union line now being
extended well down toward the Boonsboro road. Sedgwick's division went
into battle in three lines. The first had hardly become engaged when the
Confederates made a desperate rush, broke through the Union line
and turned Sedgwick's left. The third line was quickly faced about to
repel an attack from the rear, but the Confederate fire on the left was
so effective that the entire division was forced to retire. Here Sedg-
wick was wounded, but he remained in the saddle until his command
was rallied and placed in a strong position, where, under the command
of Gen. Howard, it remained throughout the rest of the battle.
The battle was gradually moving southward and after ten o'clock
there was no more serious fighting north of the church. About half a
mile south of the church a road leaves the pike and, following a zigzag
course, strikes the Boonsboro road about half-way between Sharps-
burg and the Antietam. For some distance after leaving the pike this
road was lower than the ground on either side, forming a natural
breastwork, and was known as the sunken road. It was toward this
road that French and Richardson directed their movements. When
Lee saw that his left was defeated and his center in danger of being
broken, he brought up every available man from his right. In quick
succession the divisions of Walker, Anderson and McLaws were hurled
against Sumner's veterans. Sumner was reinforced by part of Mans-
field's corps and the Confederates were slowly forced back, every foot
of the ground being stubbornly contested, until their final stand was
made at the sunken road. In this part of the engagement the heavy
guns of the Union batteries east of the Antietam rendered important
service by preventing the enemy from using his artillery. D. H. Hill,
who commanded this part of the Confederate line, says: "Our artillery
could not cope with the superior weight, caliber, range and number of
the Yankee guns. They were smashed up or withdrawn before they
could be turned against the massive columns of attack." At last Col.
Barlow, commanding the 1st brigade of Richardson's division, made a
successful flank movement on the road and captured about 300 men who
still clung to it, more as a place of shelter than in the hope of checking
the Federal advance. The road was filled with Confederate dead and is
referred to in all descriptions of the battle as the "Bloody Lane."

In his report of the battle of Antietam McClellan says: "My plan
for the impending general engagement was to attack the enemy's left
with the corps of Hooker and Mansfield, supported by Sumner's, and
if necessary by Franklin's and as soon as matters looked favorably there to
move the corps of Burnside against the enemy's extreme right upon the
ridge running to the south and rear of Sharpsburg, and having carried
their position, to press along the crest toward our right, and whenever
either of these flank movements should be successful, to advance our
center with all the forces then disposable." In pursuance of this plan
the 9th corps was stationed on the Federal left, with instructions to
assault and carry the Burnside bridge whenever an order to that effect
should be issued from headquarters. McClellan says that this order was
sent to Burnside at 8 a. m. on the 17th, while the latter says he received it
"about ten o'clock." The bridge was guarded by Toombs' brigade,
which occupied a strong position among the rocks and trees on the
bluff commanding the west end of the bridge, while the bridge, the ford
below, and in fact, the entire valley, were all effectually covered by the
Confederate batteries. The first attempt to carry the bridge was made by
Crook's brigade of the Kanawha division, with the nth Conn, deployed
as skirmishers to cover the advance. The plan was to move the brigade
across the bridge in two columns of fours, which were to turn to the
right and left as soon as they reached the opposite bank, Rodman's
division meanwhile to try to cross at a ford about a third of a mile
farther down the creek. This plan failed because Crook missed his
way and reached the stream some distance above the bridge, where he
became engaged with the enemy on the west bank. A second effort, made
by the 2nd Md. and 6th N. H. infantry, likewise proved a failure.
The two regiments charged across the bridge with fixed bayonets, but
were met by a withering fire of artillery and musketry and forced to
fall back. Gen. Cox, to whom Burnside had entrusted the work of
carrying the bridge, then directed Gen. Sturgis to select two regiments
from Ferrero's brigade and push them across the bridge in accordance
with the first plan. Sturgis selected the 51st N. Y. and the 51st Penn.
A howitzer from Simmonds' battery was brought forward and placed
where it covered the west end of the bridge. When everything was in
readiness the strong skirmish line opened fire, the howitzer was operated
rapidly, throwing double charges of canister into the ranks of Toombs'
men, and under this protection the two regiments advanced at the double-
quick with fixed bayonets and dashed across the bridge, the Confederates
hastily retreating before the impetuous charge. The remainder of
Sturgis' division and Crook's brigade were hurried over to the sup-
port of the two gallant regiments, and these were soon further strength-
ened by Rodman's division and Scammon's brigade, which had succeeded
in crossing at the ford. Here another delay ensued. Sturgis' and
Crook's men had almost exhausted their ammunition and a halt was
made necessary until their cartridge-boxes were replenished. During
the pause Willcox's division and several light batteries were brought
over, the remaining batteries being planted on the hills east of the
creek, and at 3 p. m. the left wing began its advance on Sharpsburg.
The Confederates under D. R. Jones were soon encountered, drawn up
diagonally across the ridge, screened by stone fences, etc., and well sup-
ported by artillery. Welsh's and Christ's brigades, which were in ad-
vance, drove them back after some sharp fighting, until near the edge
of the village, where Jones made his final stand in an old orchard.
From this position he was routed by the batteries with Willcox's
division and the orchard was occupied by the infantry. In the advance
Rodman's division formed the extreme left, and as the movement was
made in the form of a right wheel he became separated from Willcox,
causing a break in the line and throwing Rodman's brigades en echelon.
To the south was a field of tall corn, through which A. P. Hill's division,
just up from Harper's Ferry, was advancing in line of battle to strike
the left flank. They wore the blue uniforms captured at the ferry
and it was thought they were part of the Union forces until they
opened fire. Scammon quickly faced his brigade to the left and held
Hill in check until the line could be reformed. In order to do this it was
necessary for Willcox and Crook to retire somewhat from their ad-
vanced position, while Sturgis came up with his command to fill the
break in the line. This gave Jones an opportunity to retire beyond
Sharpsburg and take a position on the high ground where the national
cemetery is now located, but it no doubt saved Rodman's division from
being cut to pieces. This virtually ended the battle of Antietam, and at
the close the two armies held the same relative positions they occupied
at the commencement of the fight.

The Union loss was 2,108 killed, 9,549 wounded and 753 captured or
missing. According to Confederate reports Lee's army lost 1,512 killed,
7,816 wounded and 1,844 captured or missing, a much greater loss in
proportion to the number of troops engaged than that inflicted on the
Federal forces. Both sides claimed a victory and the engagement might
well be designated as a drawn battle. The 18th was spent by both armies,
in resting the tired troops and in caring for the dead and wounded.
McClellan's intention was to renew the fight on the 19th, but when the
sun rose that morning it was discovered that the enemy had evacuated
his position during the night, crossed the Potomac at a ford some dis-
tance below the Shepherdstown road, and retired into Virginia. Lee's
invasion of Maryland was ended.

Source: The Union Army, vol. 5


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