Very Bloody: How the Horrific Civil War Battle of Antietam Unfolded

U.S. Civil War History
April 14, 2021 Topic: U.S. Civil War History Region: Americas Blog Brand: The Reboot Tags: U.S. Civil WarAmericaConfederacyUnionWar

Very Bloody: How the Horrific Civil War Battle of Antietam Unfolded

The fight only lasted one day, but it was the battle that took the highest toll during the entire war.

Hill called his new command the Light Division, a name that stuck with it throughout the war. The division, which comprised six brigades, was actually the largest in the Confederate Army, and Hill gave no explanation for the name he had chosen. In the absence of such an explanation, the nickname came to be associated with his troops’ ability to march fast and take little more than their rifles, cartridge boxes, and haversacks into battle. Division Private Wayland F. Dunaway recalled later that “the name was applicable, for we often marched without coats, blankets, knapsacks, or any other burdens except our arms and haversacks, which were never heavy and sometimes empty.”

Defensive Clash at the Battle of Second Manassas

Hill solidified his growing reputation as an aggressive general during the Seven Days’ Battles that followed. When Johnston was wounded at Seven Pines, Robert E. Lee assumed command of the Confederate army around Richmond. Shedding Johnston’s defensive mindset, Lee at once sought to take the offensive and drive the Federals away from the city. In his first battle as a division commander, Hill launched a costly frontal attack on June 26 without support against Federals entrenched behind Beaver Dam Creek. Maj. Gen. Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson was partly to blame for the debacle by failing to carry out an expected flank attack. Perhaps because Hill had shown initiative, which was notably lacking in some of his fellow generals, Lee did not rebuke him for his rashness.

The pattern of piecemeal attacks continued throughout the Seven Days. Whether from fatigue or a lack of familiarity with the countryside, Jackson repeatedly failed to strike at the time and place instructed by Lee. At Gaines’ Mill on June 27, Hill’s men were badly mauled when they attacked entrenched Federals on a rise behind Boatswain’s Swamp. Hill lost more than 2,600 men in the battle. Despite these defeats, Hill showed a knack for carrying out orders and an ability to pin down large bodies of Federal troops and make it difficult for them to disengage. His star continued to rise.

The Light Division’s marching skills were put to the test in the next phase of the campaign when Hill’s troops made a forced march to attack McClellan’s army on its retreat to the James River. At Frayser’s Farm on June 30, Longstreet advanced first. When the Federals threatened to outflank Longstreet, Hill’s division joined the battle. The Light Division drove the enemy back and captured 18 guns.

Although officially part of Magruder’s command, Hill’s division had been attached to Longstreet for the last part of the Seven Days’ Battles. Following the campaign, Lee transferred Hill to Jackson’s command for a new campaign unfolding in central Virginia against Maj. Gen. John Pope.

Because Jackson had failed to support him throughout the Peninsula campaign, it was with some reservation that Hill joined him at Gordonsville.

A twist of fate put Hill’s division in the rear on the march to Culpeper, which led to the Battle of Cedar Mountain. When Jackson’s left flank collapsed on the afternoon of August 9, Hill immediately stabilized the main Confederate line with his troops. Once it was stabilized, the Light Division advanced and swept the field. Although Jackson was too proud to admit it, Hill had saved his skin at Cedar Mountain.

That same month, Hill anchored Jackson’s left flank behind the unfinished railroad bed on the old Bull Run battlefield. The Battle of Second Manassas was Hill’s first defensive fight. With three brigades forward and the other three held in reserve, Hill repulsed six separate attacks on August 29. When the Federals pierced his line, he skillfully shifted his forces to close the breach. He showed a remarkable ability to coordinate movements among his units in the heat of the two-day battle. He received rare praise from the prickly Jackson for repulsing superior enemy numbers.

The Confederate Maryland Campaign

An ongoing dispute between Hill and Jackson over marching procedures, which could be traced back to Cedar Mountain, reached crisis proportions at the outset of the Maryland campaign, Lee’s ambitious late-summer invasion of the North. Jackson required that the troops begin marching before sunrise and rest 10 minutes every hour. When one of Hill’s brigades was not ready to march from Dranesville, Va., to the Potomac River on September 4, the first day of the campaign, Jackson’s mood turned sour. To make up for lost time, Hill decided to forego Jackson’s mandatory rest period each hour. When Jackson halted one of Hill’s brigades without consulting him, Hill offered his sword to Jackson in disgust. Jackson immediately placed him under arrest, turned command over to Hill’s senior brigadier, and ordered Hill to march at the rear of his division.

After two days in Frederick, Md., Lee divided his command into three parts. Jackson would command the part of the army entrusted with the capture of the Union garrison at Harpers Ferry, which lay across the Confederate line of retreat. Sensing that battle was imminent, Hill requested through a member of Jackson’s staff to be temporarily reinstated to his command for the fighting that lay ahead. Without hesitating, Jackson agreed.

Jackson and his forces drove a contingent of Federals from Martinsburg on September 13. The retreating Federals took refuge with the larger force based in Harpers Ferry. Next, Jackson divided his command into three separate forces to invest Harpers Ferry. Lee’s schedule for the campaign allowed no time for a protracted siege, so Jackson moved quickly to attack. While other units occupied the heights across the Potomac and Shenandoah rivers from the town, Jackson’s corps bottled up the town on September 14 by occupying the neck of land behind Harpers Ferry.

The Light Division, which held the Confederate right flank along the Shenandoah River, drove the Federals back and captured the high ground, where Hill, the old artillery officer, carefully placed the division’s guns.

At first light the following day, southern guns began shelling the town from three sides. After an hour-long bombardment, the Federals replied with desultory fire. At that point, Jackson ordered the Light Division forward again. At 9 am, the Federals waved the white flag and surrendered to Jackson. The Confederates captured 11,000 prisoners, 12,000 rifles, 70 guns, and countless supplies.

Because the Light Division had borne the brunt of the fight, it was given the honor of paroling the Union prisoners. During their two days inside the town, many of Hill’s soldiers exchanged their ragged clothes for parts of new Federal uniforms in storage. Since Lee needed all available Southern troops at his new position at Sharpsburg, plans were made to parole the prisoners and permit them to march home, provided they not rejoin the Union Army until they were properly exchanged. Jackson’s other two divisions departed for Sharpsburg the night of September 16. The next morning, Hill received Lee’s dispatch instructing him to join the army immediately for a major battle.

“Speed the March, Close Up, Close Up!”

After receiving Lee’s dispatch at daybreak, Hill donned his familiar red battle shirt, buckled on his dress sword, and began issuing orders to his brigadiers for a forced march. Telling Colonel Edward Thomas to remain with his brigade at Harpers Ferry to complete the surrender, Hill ordered Brig. Gen. Maxcy Gregg to get his troops on the road immediately. Gregg’s South Carolinians were on the road within the hour. Rather than sending his division by the shortest route to Sharpsburg, on the north bank of the Potomac, Hill chose instead to send his troops on a route that was slightly longer on the south bank to avoid running into any stray Federal units that might delay him or bar him from reaching Lee.

Spirits were high in the ranks as the division marched north along a narrow dirt road that led toward Shepherdstown, where it would ford the river. The men in the column were well fed and wearing new clothing taken from the vast stores at Harpers Ferry. As they marched, the men could hear the boom of cannon ahead in the distance. The troops in the front were told to set a brisk pace. The shout frequently heard up and down the line was, “Speed the march, close up, close up!” Hill rode back and forth along the column prodding stragglers with the point of his sword.

The column stopped only two or three times for just a few minutes to allow the men to catch their breath before resuming the march. Such stops were not enough to keep dozens of men from dropping out of the ranks from exhaustion. Hill and his officers were able to produce a near superhuman effort from the men by telling them that their beloved commander Lee was counting on them.

When Hill’s troops reached the river, they began crossing immediately. Holding their muskets and cartridge boxes high above their heads, they plunged into the water, doing their best to maintain their balance while walking over jagged ledges on the river bottom that ran perpendicular to the swift current.