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 well-aimed fire was more than the Connecticut soldiers could stand. The regiment broke for the rear, carrying the 4th Rhode Island along with it. The tragedy was compounded for the Federals when a Confederate sharpshooter fired a round that struck Rodman flush in the chest and left him mortally wounded. Gregg was also struck by a bullet in the hip that knocked him from his horse. When he realized that the bullet had only grazed him, the feisty brigadier returned to his command.

The brigades of Branch and Archer moved to support Gregg. Branch bolstered Gregg’s thrust into the Otto cornfield, while Archer’s troops moved at the double quick along Gregg’s left flank to support Jones’s line, which was fast unraveling as a result of a coordinated Federal assault.

The Loss of a Brigadier

Although Gregg had managed to check Harland’s brigade, three more Federal brigades were closing in on Sharpsburg. By 4 pm, Colonel Harrison Fairchild, commanding Rodman’s other brigade on Harland’s right, smashed the brigades of Brig. Gens. James Kemper and Thomas Drayton and reached the very gates of Sharpsburg.

Just north of Fairchild, the two brigades of Wilcox’s division under Colonels Thomas Welsh and Benjamin Christ were locked in desperate combat with Jenkins’ brigade, commanded by Colonel Joseph Walker. Unlike Kemper and Drayton, Walker was holding his ground by taking advantage of cover afforded by the Sherrick farm buildings and the terrain. His brigade was the last unit left between the Federals and Sharpsburg. With Gregg preoccupied with Harland, Hill ordered Archer’s brigade to charge the enemy.

Strengthened by elements of Jones’s division, Archer’s men overwhelmed the 8th Connecticut and recaptured McIntosh’s guns. The hapless Union regiment lost fully two-thirds of its men before retreating. Next, Archer formed his men into line of battle along the Harpers Ferry Road and advanced east toward Antietam Creek, driving Fairchild before him.

At one point the three Confederate brigadiers—Archer, Branch, and Gregg—were conferring about how best to press the attack on the Federal left flank when a sharpshooter put them in his sites. When his attention was directed to enemy soldiers closing on his flank, Branch raised his glass to have a closer look. At that moment, a bullet tore into his right cheek and exited from the back of his head. The shot killed him instantly. The North Carolinian collapsed near his fellow generals.

The Union Withdrawal

The rout of Harland’s brigade by Gregg’s South Carolinians threw the entire IX Corps offensive into jeopardy. In an immediate sense, it exposed Fairchild’s flank to attack by Hill’s division. For this reason, Cox ordered the withdrawal not only of Fairchild’s brigade, but also Wilcox’s division. Although they were furious at having to give up the ground they had captured, Cox’s subordinates complied with his order. By 4:30 pm, the Federals were in full retreat.

Colonel Hugh Ewing’s brigade of the Kanawha Division fruitlessly tried to plug the gap created by Harland’s troops, who were streaming to the rear. His three Ohio regiments advanced toward Gregg’s position on the Otto Farm. Like the 4th Rhode Island regiment before them, the Buckeyes mistook soldiers wearing blue for fellow Federals. While they held their fire, Gregg’s men blasted their ranks mercilessly, dropping large numbers of Federals. The Ohio troops made a valiant try to wrest a stone wall from Gregg’s veterans, but were forced to fall back with their retreating comrades.

The last major action of the battle occurred when Cox committed a portion of his reserves to stabilize his ranks. He sent forward troops from Sturgis’s command to form a new line he was constructing along the bluffs overlooking the creek. By that point, the Confederates had clearly gained the upper hand. More than 40 Southern guns posted along the high ground around Sharpsburg swept the landscape across which the Federals were retreating. Most of the Union guns on the far bank had run out of ammunition by this point in the battle, and the batteries that had advanced with the infantry found themselves outgunned. The action gradually died out, and both sides were content with their new positions.

The Battle of Antietam: A.P. Hill’s Greatest Action

Because of the Light Division’s late entrance to the battle, it came away with just 63 killed and 283 wounded from the 1,900 soldiers who participated in the battle.

Hill’s performance at Antietam was nearly flawless. The battle highlighted his best attributes as a commander, most notably his ability to move his troops promptly and motivate them on the battlefield. At Antietam, Hill exhibited a willingness to fight a pitched battle against his foe without second-guessinghimself, unlike many of the Federal commanders he faced that day. At the same time, the battle masked his shortcomings as a commander—his repeated failure to reconnoiter ground before attacking and his bad habit of leaving a gap in his lines for the enemy to exploit when he was on the defensive.

Hill’s performance was not overlooked by Lee or his principal lieutenants at the battle, Jackson and Longstreet. Although Hill had had a falling out of sorts with Longstreet after he left his command earlier that year, Old Pete found it in his heart to mention Hill’s “exemplary” performance in his battle report. He noted that Hill’s Light Division had helped check the advance against his corps in the vicinity of Sharpsburg. “The display of this force was of great value, and assisted us in holding our position,” wrote Longstreet.

Following Antietam, Hill led the Light Division in the famous battles at Fredricksburg and Chancellorsville. After Jackson’s tragic death at the latter battle, Hill was promoted to lieutenant general on May 23, 1863, and placed in charge of the III Corps of Lee’s newly reorganized Army of Northern Virginia. During the army’s second invasion of the North one year later, Hill attacked Federal forces he stumbled upon at Gettysburg, thus helping to ignite that epic battle. Little Powell participated in the Battle of the Wilderness in May 1864, but because of illness was absent from the Battle of Spotsylvania later that month.

Still dogged by chronic illness, Hill participated off and on in the series of battles between Lt. Gen. Ulysses Grant and Lee that culminated in the siege of Petersburg. On April 2, 1865, Hill was convalescing at his temporary residence in Petersburg when news reached him that the Confederate line had snapped. He immediately rode to his troops and was in the process of trying to rally them when he was killed by enemy fire.

With the exception of the fight at Spotsylvania Court House, when he was too ill to lead his troops, Hill fought in every major battle of the Army of Northern Virginia waged by Lee. But his performance at the Battle of Antietam stands as his greatest achievement as a general. To say that Hill single-handedly saved the Army of Northern Virginia that day is an overstatement, but he certainly played a major role in the repulse of McClellan’s much larger Union army. There can be little doubt that Antietam was the Culpeper Cavalier’s finest hour. 

This article originally appeared on the Warfare History Network.

Image: Reuters