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.

The high expectations that Hill had for himself and his men were readily apparent in an episode that occurred after the division had forded the river. When he spied a second lieutenant crouching in fear behind a tree, Hill rode over to the officer, demanded his sword, and broke it across the man’s shoulder. Without speaking a word, Hill returned to the column. When he reported to Lee, he would have in hand a force of some 1,900 soldiers to put into battle.

Fighting at Burnside’s Bridge

Meanwhile, Hill’s old roommate, George McClellan, had sent orders to their mutual friend Ambrose Burnside, instructing him to take the lower bridge, known as Rohrbach Bridge, over Antietam Creek. In his battle plan, McClellan envisioned that Burnside would cross the bridge in the morning and be in position on the west bank of the Antietam by noon to exploit the costly advantages won by earlier Federal attacks on the Confederate left and center.

But Burnside was not in a cooperative mood. Having been stripped of Hooker’s corps following the Battle of South Mountain, where he served as commander of the army’s right wing, Burnside was having a hard time adjusting to the role of a mere corps commander. In fact, he still fancied himself a wing commander, and therefore had placed Brig. Gen. Jacob Cox in direct command of the IX Corps. Even after receiving multiple orders from McClellan ordering him to advance, Burnside made only a half-hearted attempt to get his men across the creek. After several repulses, two regiments of Brig. Gen. Edward Ferrero’s brigade of Brig. Gen. Samuel Sturgis’s division finally carried the bridge at 1 pm.

Although IX Corps would make its attack alone, unsupported by any other elements of the Union Army, it had enough manpower to wreck the Confederate right flank if handled properly. At his disposal, Burnside had four divisions numbering about 8,500 men. If he could get his men into battle quickly, the pressure he applied to Lee’s right flank might be enough to make the entire Confederate position implode. But once across the creek, Burnside squandered the opportunity for surprise by taking two hours to replenish his troops’ ammunition and shake them into a new line of battle before advancing.

Once under way, the Federals found the going tough. The terrain south of Sharpsburg rose gradually from Antietam Creek to the Harpers Ferry Road. Between the creek and the north-south road, the ground was wildly uneven and characterized by steep ravines that afforded a marked advantaged to whomever occupied the higher portion of a given slope. Hard by the road, which ran from the lower bridge to Sharpsburg, were two farms. At the time of the battle, the farms on the north and south sides belonged to Joseph Sherrick and John Otto, respectively. The crux of the battle between Hill and Burnside would mainly occur on the farm belonging to the latter, notably in his 40-acre cornfield. The fields were divided by stone and rail fences that would provide a distinct advantage to whichever side reached them first.

IX Corps advanced in three lines at 3 pm. On the left was Brig. Gen. Isaac Rodman’s division, which had crossed two miles downstream at Snavely’s Ford; on the right was Brig. Gen. Orlando Wilcox’s division. Directly behind them was Cox’s Kanawha Division under the command of Colonel Eliakim Scammon. Sturgis’s division, which bore the brunt of the attack on the bridge, thereafter to be known as Burnside’s Bridge, formed the reserve. The Federal infantry not only had the support of the long-range guns on the east bank of the Antietam, but also close artillery support from four batteries comprising 22 guns that followed the infantry over the bridge.

The Confederates’ Battered Ranks

Facing them were the badly depleted ranks of Confederate Brig. Gen. David Jones’s division. Down to less than half its original number, the division was all that stood between Burnside and Sharpsburg. Jones had five of his six brigades on hand for the late afternoon fight, having relinquished Colonel George “Tige” Anderson’s brigade to support the Confederate center. By mid-afternoon, each brigade in the division was down to the size of a single regiment.

Despite his paper-thin ranks, Jones enjoyed ample artillery support, thanks to the foresight of Lee and Longstreet. The Confederate high command had assembled 28 guns to support Jones in what would be the last major clash of the day.

More guns would be added to the Confederate defense. Captain David McIntosh, who commanded the first of Hill’s units to arrive on the field, quickly unlimbered three guns from his battery along the Harpers Ferry Road. They soon joined the other Confederate guns in shelling the Federal batteries opposite them.

The Federals, for their part, advanced steadily over uneven ground. The Confederate gunners switched their fire from the enemy batteries to the sea of blue infantry as it drew ever closer. Still, the Union tide surged forth. The Federals drove Jones’s division back into Sharpsburg. Some of his troops shifted to the north side of town, while others entered city streets where enemy shells had set homes and buildings ablaze.

At that moment, Hill’s infantry arrived.

Rebel Yell From the Light Division

Without taking time to reconnoiter the battlefield, Hill threw his troops into the fight at 3:30 pm Gregg’s South Carolinians were first up. Following a quick discussion with Jones, Hill ordered Gregg to relieve Brig. Gen. Robert Toombs’s hard-pressed brigade. His fellow division commander “gave me such information as my ignorance of the ground made necessary,” wrote Hill in his battle report. Armed with the scanty information, Hill committed the first of his five brigades to the battle. With a shout, Gregg’s five South Carolina regiments advanced onto the Otto farm. Hearing Gregg’s men give the Rebel yell as they advanced on the enemy, Jones’s weary soldiers found renewed strength. They weren’t the only ones affected—Lee’s demeanor changed noticeably from fear of defeat to confidence in his army’s ability to withstand the latest Federal assault.

“My troops were rapidly thrown into position, [Dorsey] Pender and [John] Brockenbrough on the extreme right, looking to a road which crossed the Antietam near its mouth, [and Lawrence] Branch, Gregg, and [James] Archer extending to the left and connecting with D.R. Jones’ Division,” Hill wrote afterward.

In addition, Hill oversaw the deployment of his division’s remaining batteries. He ordered Captain Carter Braxton’s battery to a rise on Gregg’s right and the batteries of Captains William Crenshaw and Willie Pegram to high ground on the left, where they would have a wide field of fire.

Clash in the Otto Cornfield

When the Light Division arrived on the field, Colonel Edward Harland’s brigade of Rodman’s division was pushing its way through the large cornfield south of the Otto farmhouse. Harland’s four New England regiments—the 8th Connecticut, 11th Connecticut, 16th Connecticut, and 4th Rhode Island—would face the full fury of the Confederate counterattack spearheaded by Gregg’s veterans. The two brigades collided head-on in the tall corn.

The 8th Connecticut was the farthest forward of Harland’s regiments. Due to a mix-up in orders, it was directed to advance before the other regiments in the brigade. The regiment’s objective was McIntosh’s guns. As the 8th Connecticut bore down on its objective, McIntosh switched to canister. Realizing that if he tried to withdraw his guns in the face of the enemy he would lose his gunners in the process, the cool-headed artillery captain instructed his gun crews to abandon their pieces and retire to the rear. They did so just as the bluecoats swarmed over the three pieces.

Hill assessed the situation from a point along the Harpers Ferry Road. “My troops were not in a moment too soon,” he wrote. “The enemy had already advanced in three lines, broken through Jones’ division, captured McIntosh’s guns, and drove them back pell mell.” Both Hill and his brigadiers felt the weight of the moment and rose to the occasion. “Branch and Gregg, with their old veterans, sternly held their ground, and, pouring in destructive volleys, the tide of the enemy surged back, and, breaking in confusion, passed out of sight,” Hill reported.

At several key moments during IX Corps’ attack, Federal regiments would hold their fire when they saw troops wearing blue uniforms nearby. These units would invariably turn out to be troops belonging to Hill’s division who had appropriated parts of new Federal uniforms to replace the torn and tattered clothing they had been wearing when they captured Harpers Ferry. One such unit was the 4th Rhode Island. Fearing that it might shoot into friendly troops, the regiment momentarily withheld its fire and received a deadly volley from Gregg’s men before realizing its mistake.

Meanwhile, from a strong position behind a stone wall on the Otto Farm, Gregg’s troops unhesitatingly blasted the 4th Rhode Island and 16th Connecticut. The Connecticut unit, a green regiment that had only been in the army for three weeks, had the unfortunate luck to face crack Confederate troops in its first fight.