GENERAL SUMNER’S ARRIVAL AT THE NORTHERN FRONT GUARANTEED that the assault there would be renewed. Sumner’s one virtue was his willingness to fight. Here, in the absence of other abilities, it would lead to tragedy.
He rode up the road from the Upper Bridge at the head of his lead division, commanded by Brigadier General John Sedgwick, with Brigadier General William H. French’s division twenty minutes behind. On the way he met the ambulance carrying the wounded Hooker. The latter had passed out and therefore could give Sumner no guidance, but the sight of him told Sumner he was now in charge on this front. He also had a brief meeting with General Ricketts, who was the only one of Hooker’s division commanders in this part of the field, and whose account of the corps’ condition convinced Sumner that Hooker’s command was “dispersed and routed.” Accepting this at face value, Sumner made no attempt to contact those units of I Corps that were reorganizing around the North Woods, or the two brigades, commanded by Patrick and Gibbon, that were still skirmishing with the enemy in front of the West Woods. Sumner also assumed that XII Corps was used up—which was far from the case.1
Sumner led Sedgwick’s troops into the meadows behind the East Woods and rode ahead to confer with Brigadier General Alpheus Williams, the senior officer at the front. Williams tried to explain the situation to him, outlining the picture he had formed of Confederate strength and the position of their units, indicating the readiness of his own two divisions to continue the assault. Sumner either did not attend or could not comprehend what Williams was telling him. From where he stood he could see Confederates around the Dunker Church exchanging fire with Williams’s skirmishers to the east, and gunsmoke rising from the northeast corner of the West Woods where the 125th Pennsylvania was skirmishing with the Rebel’s last reserve brigade, headed by General Jubal Early. It appeared to him that the Rebel line ran from that corner of the woods down to the road junction by the church. For some reason, Sumner also decided that the northern flank of that line was “in the air,” and that he could turn it by marching Sedgwick’s three brigades around the end of the Rebel line and swooping down on them from the north.2
Sumner’s idea was to march Sedgwick’s Division past what he thought was the end of the Rebel flank, execute a ponderous left wheel to face south, then advance and sweep the Confederate line from north to south. But the Rebel flank was not unprotected. Survivors of the Stonewall Brigade and other commands that had fought in the West Woods were still there, led by Colonel Grigsby, and so was Early’s relatively fresh brigade. Early was not being strongly pressured by the 125th Pennsylvania and could easily shift troops to reinforce Grigsby along the northern rim of the woods. As Sumner’s troops marched past, these troops could fire into their flank. Federal troops rounding the northern end of the West Woods would also be marching straight into the fire of Stuart’s horse artillery on Nicodemus Heights. Moreover, the Confederates were about to receive heavy reinforcement. As Sedgwick’s men began their advance, the lead elements of Tige Anderson’s Brigade were approaching the Dunker Church, with McLaws’s Division close behind.
Not only was Sumner’s understanding of the tactical situation entirely erroneous, but the tactics by which he planned to exploit it were badly conceived. Sumner formed the division’s three brigades in three long double lines, a formation suitable for a frontal attack but one which made the brigades virtually defenseless against an attack from the flank. Sumner’s chosen line of march would take Sedgwick’s Division across the northern face of the West Woods. When they crossed it, Confederate riflemen firing from the shelter of the woods would be able to rake those lines from end to end.3 To cap these blunders, Sumner decided to march at the head of Sedgwick’s Division, to lead the assault like the gallant soldier he was. For the commander of a corps or, as he now was, of a three-corps wing of the army, Sumner’s proper place was in the rear, where he could coordinate the movements of supporting troops in response to battlefield events. One can imagine a skilled corps commander in his position developing a combined attack against the West Woods and Dunker Church by his own two divisions and XII Corps. But once Sumner had chosen his course he plunged down it with tunnel vision. He not only neglected to make use of XII Corps, he lost contact with French’s Division of his own corps.
Stonewall Jackson, on the other hand, had a far more accurate understanding of the tactical position than Sumner, and an intelligent plan for exploiting it.
THE WEST WOOD, 9:00–10:00 AM
The original Confederate line had run from West Woods to East Woods across the southern edge of the cornfield and the meadows facing north from the church. The brigades that had held that line, and the reserves that had come to their aid, had not only been wrecked in the charges and countercharges, but their defense had been radically reshaped. The survivors of Grigsby’s Stonewall Brigade, and other remnants of Jones’s Division, still held on in the northern part of the West Woods, opposing Patrick’s Brigade to the north, the last of I Corps’ units still in action. Early’s Brigade was deeper in the trees, skirmishing with the 125th Pennsylvania in the northeastern quadrant of the woods. But Confederate troops outside the West Woods had retreated to the south, where a new north-facing line was being established about five hundred yards south of the church and the road junction, at the point where the Sunken Road met the Hagerstown Pike. This new line was held by the rallied remnants of Colquitt’s and Garland’s Brigades, who tied in on the right with D. H. Hill’s two remaining brigades in the Sunken Road—a naturally strong position that could anchor the right end of Jackson’s line. But between Colquitt’s position and Early’s there was an eight-hundred-yard gap in the line defended only by S. D. Lee’s batteries, with a light infantry screen. If the next Federal attack struck simultaneously against the West Woods and this gap, the army’s northern flank might be compromised.4
Jackson’s military doctrine rated a bold offense as the best defense. It was vital to retain control of the West Woods. It provided the best position for defending the army’s north-facing flank; and from its eastern edge, which ran for nearly half a mile alongside the Hagerstown Pike, Confederate riflemen could put flanking fire on Federal troops attacking out of the East Woods area toward the Dunker Church. Those defensive advantages could also be turned into offensive potential. The West Woods position projected nearly a mile north of that new line below the Dunker Church. When the Federals moved against that line, a large force massed in the West Woods might be able to strike their flank, perhaps with decisive results. Such a move would have been perfectly consonant with Lee’s strategic objective, which was not simply to hold his ground but to force McClellan to retreat and make it possible to extend the invasion of Maryland.
Jackson therefore sent the first-arriving reinforcements to secure the West Woods, reserving only the last of McLaws’s units to fill the gap between Early and Colquitt’s flank. The brigade of Tige Anderson was directed into the West Woods, to join Early’s Brigade for an assault on the 125th Pennsylvania. On Anderson’s heels came the first of McLaws’s Brigades, dog-tired after a grueling day and night march that had only got them to Sharpsburg at 4:00 AM. They had had barely four hours to boil coffee or catch a rest when Lee’s summons sent them trotting north. Jackson sent Barksdale’s Mississippians and Kershaw’s South Carolina Regiments deep into the woods, then had them peel off to their right to strike the 125th Pennsylvania’s line from the flank and secure the whole of West Woods extending north of the church. The Union’s rookie regiment was nearly as large as a Confederate brigade, and its line cut across a large quadrant of the woods. Its men were willing enough to stand, but officers and men lacked the kind of experience that would have enabled them to fight effectively in wooded terrain where they could not see much of the enemy or of their comrades. The attack of Early and Tige Anderson shook them, and the flank attack by Barksdale and Kershaw broke them and sent them streaming back toward the East Woods with Kershaw’s men in pursuit. Sedgwick’s Division was just then passing to the north, and two of his regiments (their commanders acting on their own) with an artillery battery peeled off to come to the Pennsylvanians’ aid. Their fire checked Kershaw and allowed the rookies to reorganize as they pulled back.
In the meantime, Jackson was also taking measures to bolster his defenses. To solidify the right side of his position, he sent Cobb’s Legion, the smallest of McLaws’s brigades, to fill the gap between the Dunker Church and the flank of Colquitt’s Brigade. To thwart Sumner’s flanking maneuver against his left, he ordered Semmes’s Brigade (McLaws’s Division) to pass around the western side of the woods and form a line to block any attempt to turn the West Woods position. He also ordered Barksdale and Early to break off their fight with the 125th and move toward the northern end of the forest, where they could oppose Sumner’s column.
Barksdale, Early, and the other Confederate commanders on this line had no tactical plan but were expected to respond to Federal movements as they occurred. They considered the most likely line of attack a frontal assault from the north. What they received instead was an unimaginable opportunity, the gift of Sumner’s mismanagement. The brigades of Barksdale and Early were barely in position when Sumner’s three-line column appeared, marching as if on parade across the open ground north of the West Woods and into a smaller and more open woodlot that projected northward from the main woods. Incredibly, the Federals ignored the Confederate battle line among the trees to their left and continued to march across the face of the Confederate position, offering their unprotected flanks to the ambush.
The disaster to Sedgwick’s Division unfolded in full view of the Federals of Patrick’s and Gibbon’s Brigades, who were watching helplessly from their positions north of the West Woods. Confederate riflemen concealed in the woods fired volley after volley, sweeping each of the three double lines from end to end. Sedgwick’s Division contained some of the best veteran regiments in the army, but they were helpless to defend themselves. In their present alignment, six men—the file closers of each brigade’s double line of battle—faced the woods from which some 1,400 Confederate infantrymen were firing, and as the rest of McLaws’s troops came up, the number rose to over 4,000.5 There was no time for the regiments closest to the woods to change formation and facing—to wheel ninety degrees to the left while being raked by close-range infantry fire. The regiments further away could not maneuver because their ranks were disordered and their line of fire masked by troops from the broken units fleeing directly away from the Confederate line. Only the regiments farthest from the point of contact were able to wheel around, hold their ranks, and offer some opposition to the Confederates—who advanced firing out of the woods to complete the rout. Division commander Sedgwick was wounded and more than a third of his 5,500 veteran infantrymen were killed, wounded, or captured. Old Sumner, his white hair flying, rode through the shambles trying to rally his men, then let himself be carried away by the rout. Rebel infantry surged out of the woods to follow up their success but were stopped by those I Corps infantry and artillery units that had remained on the line.
Sumner was shaken by disaster of a kind and scale he had never experienced. His semaphore stations relayed to McClellan his belief that his entire wing was dissolving—“Our troops are giving way”—and that heavy reinforcement was needed. The disaster, however, was limited to Sedgwick’s division. There were still plenty of Federal units on the scene, ready and able to resume the offensive—units whose presence Sumner had ignored in his rigid focus on the attack by Sedgwick’s division, and continued to ignore in his obsession with Sedgwick’s disaster. Sumner now asked Alpheus Williams to send XII Corps into action, to check Confederate exploitation of the rout, and sent riders in search of French’s division, out of contact with Sumner’s headquarters since they had crossed the Antietam. It would turn out that French had already gone into action, without reference to Sumner, and was engaging D. H. Hill’s infantry in the Sunken Road.
MCCLELLAN’S HEADQUARTERS, 9:30–10:00 AM
McClellan now had a critical decision to make. Franklin’s VI Corps was finally at hand, and together with V Corps and Pleasonton’s cavalry McClellan had a force of some 38,000 troops massed in his center. The army reserve, which he had diminished by sending II Corps to Hooker’s aid, was now largely reconstituted. His tactical plan had envisioned the possibility of using that central reserve for a “main attack” on the center of Lee’s line—if Hooker’s attack on the northern flank had succeeded in drawing off the Confederate reserves. On the other hand, his plan also allowed for the use of that reserve to support Hooker, either to exploit a breakthrough or support him if his attack failed and he needed reinforcement to repel a Rebel counterblow. McClellan now had to choose between those alternatives.
The signals sent by Sumner indicated that there was indeed a crisis across the Antietam, and that Sumner thought reinforcements were needed to avert a complete debacle. As far as McClellan knew, Sumner’s “Our troops are giving way” applied to all the units that had been sent to the right wing: I Corps, XII Corps, and both Sedgwick’s and French’s divisions of II Corps. Richardson’s division had already been dispatched to Sumner’s aid, though it would not arrive until 10:30 AM. McClellan could only provide additional reinforcement by sending all or part of V or VI Corps, and to do so would make a “main attack” against Lee’s center impossible.
In fact, the conditions McClellan had set for a main attack against Lee’s center now actually existed, though McClellan could not see them. Lee had weakened the center and right of his line and committed most of his reserves to reinforce Jackson. Parts of two divisions (D. H. Hill’s and D. R. Jones’s) now held the rim of the Sharpsburg plateau north and south of the Boonsboro Road—the road that led from the Middle Bridge straight through the town. R. H. Anderson’s Division of about four thousand men was concentrated to the north of the town, ready to send reinforcements to either Jackson or D. H. Hill, or to check a Federal advance across the Middle Bridge. Most of David R. Jones’s Division was in a defensive line along the high ground in front and to the south of Sharpsburg. In this position it could either defend the Middle Bridge approach or provide a last line of defense against a Federal attack across the Lower Bridge. That last was now a potentially dangerous possibility, because the departure of Walker’s Division had left a single Georgia Brigade, commanded by the political magnifico Robert Toombs, to defend the bridge and the fords below it. Once the Federals pushed Toombs aside, there was nothing to stop them in the three-quarters of a mile that lay between the Lower Bridge and D. R. Jones’s line. Jones’s four-thousand-man division would be in serious trouble if McClellan were to strike simultaneously and in force across both the Middle and Lower bridges—especially so if the continuing assault against Jackson and Hill forced Lee to commit R. H. Anderson’s men to the north.
The opportunity for such a three-pronged assault was real. Unbeknownst to McClellan, elements of the XII and II Corps were preparing to mount a new offensive against the northern end of the Rebel line. At 10:00 AM McClellan had 25,000 infantry (V and VI Corps) and 4,800 cavalry massing east of the Middle Bridge, 38,000 troops against the 9,000 in the divisions of R. H. Anderson and D. R. Jones.6 Even if he rated the force opposite at twice its actual strength, McClellan still had enough local superiority to strike a potentially decisive blow. He had just sent a courier to Burnside with orders to get his attack moving—a move that might at least draw more Confederate strength from the center, and at best allow Burnside to add his 13,000 troops to an assault on the Sharpsburg plateau. Had McClellan attempted an attack across the Middle Bridge he might have cracked Lee’s defense in front of Sharpsburg. A breakthrough there would have given McClellan control of the road junctions linking all of Jackson’s force to the north to the Shepherdstown Road—the army’s primary escape route. Half of the Army of Northern Virginia would have been threatened with entrapment against the unfordable Potomac River. Even if the rest of the army managed, by last-ditch fighting, to keep the route open, Jackson’s command would have to make a demoralizing and potentially disastrous daylight retreat.
True to his character and his sense of priorities, McClellan chose the defensive course. He ordered Franklin to march his two divisions around by Pry’s Ford to come to Sumner’s aid. While it was on the march, VI Corps would be unavailable to exploit the opportunities created by Lee’s depletion of his reserve, and by the strenuous offensive which was now being mounted against the Dunker Church and Sunken Road. McClellan also sent a couple of testy dispatches to Burnside, demanding that he hurry his assault on the Lower Bridge. But that operation was not to be part of a concerted attack on Lee’s center and right—it is hard to know what McClellan expected of it, beyond the application of pressure to the far end of Lee’s line. Although the situation was not yet irreversible, the departure of VI Corps probably signaled McClellan’s decision not to commit the army to an all-out offensive, but to limit his objectives to the gaining of useful terrain and the maintenance of an unbroken line. His once-ample reserve was now reduced to the two divisions of V Corps and Pleasonton’s cavalry.
THE SUNKEN ROAD, 9:30–10:30 AM
While McClellan was depleting his reserve to fend off what he supposed was a debacle on his right flank, the troops under Sumner’s nominal command were mounting a new offensive. Sumner himself had nothing to do with it. It was the result of individual initiative by the division commanders on the scene, responding instinctively and (in some cases) intelligently to the tactical situation in front of them. All Sumner did was call on Williams, the acting commander of XII Corps, to come to his aid, which Williams answered by advancing his own division to threaten a move against the Confederates defending the open ground between the West and East Woods. South of Williams’s position, in the East Woods, General George S. Greene’s Division fronted the Dunker Church, with the eastern rim of the West Woods behind it, defended by the brigades of Tige Anderson and Kershaw. The Confederates here had driven the 125th Pennsylvania out of the woods, and they tried to exploit their victory by charging across the open ground north of the church to drive Greene’s Division back. While the Union troops beat off the first assault and held their position, they could not counter because they were short of ammunition.
While that was going on, Brigadier General William French’s Division of II Corps suddenly appeared on Greene’s left flank. French was forty-seven, a veteran of twenty-five years’ service in the Regular Army, and he owed his command of the division to his solid performance in combat as a brigade commander on the Peninsula. As French came up in the rear of XII Corps he heard the sound of firing to the south, where Greene’s Division was fighting. He had lost contact with Sumner and was too far behind to see Sedgwick’s Brigade turn off to march due west toward impending disaster. On his own responsibility and initiative, and without notification to either Sumner or Williams, he decided to go to Greene’s support and turned his division south. His line of march would bring him in on the left, or eastern, flank of Greene’s position. His three brigades, each in double line of battle and deployed one behind the other, tramped forward for two miles, over open fields that rolled south in a series of shallow dips and low rises. When the lead brigade topped the last rise it came suddenly face-to-face with D. H. Hill’s infantry in the Sunken Road.
The Rebels were ready for them, ordered to hold fire until they could clearly see the cartridge-boxes on the Yankees’ belts. French’s lead brigade was about sixty yards away when they cut loose a volley that “brought down the enemy as grain falls before the reaper.” For the Federals, “The effect was appalling. The entire front line, with few exceptions, went down in the consuming blast.” In five minutes the brigade lost 450 men out of the 1,400 it took into action. The lead brigade fell back, most of the men still in ranks though there were plenty who bolted back over the roll of ground, seeking shelter beyond it. The fugitives disrupted the advance of the next brigade, especially that of the rookie Fourteenth Connecticut; but the brigade and the regiment rallied, formed firing lines, and began volleying back at the Rebels down in the Sunken Road, some firing “with precision and deliberation” while others—unwilling or afraid to run but not equal to the test of combat—“shut their eyes, and fired up in the air.”7
There were about 2,500 Confederates sheltered by the road embankment, as if in a natural entrenchment. French had about 5,500 troops, but as soon as they topped that roll of ground they were exposed to heavy rifle fire from Rebel infantry sheltered by the embankment and artillery fire from Confederate batteries on the plateau above them. French was unable to bring his own divisional artillery into action—gunners and horses would have been shot down as soon as they topped the rise—and McClellan’s heavy guns could not hit the Sunken Road with any consistency. Confederate fire power prevented the Federals from storming the position with the bayonet. The lead brigade of Union infantry marched into killing range, only eighty yards from the Rebels, and stood its ground out in the open in a prolonged firefight; then fell back to the ridge crest behind them, lay down, and resumed firing. When Rodes tried to follow up their retreat with a counterattack, Federal infantry fire decimated them and drove them back. The firefight became permanent. French would send one brigade forward at a time, and when it was used up pulled the survivors back and sent the next brigade forward. They kept it up for nearly an hour and a half, “a savage continual thunder”—an incredible duration for so intense a firefight, under conditions so unfavorable to the attackers.8
Meanwhile on the Dunker Church/cornfield front, Kershaw’s Confederates made one more try at driving Greene’s Division from its position. The old general with the spectacular whiskers had prepared his division for both strong defense and an aggressive counterattack. Greene brought his artillery right up to the firing line and kept his infantry level with “the axle-trees of the guns.” He had them hold fire till the Confederates were within seventy yards—within the absolute killing ground—then cut loose with volleys of rifle fire and blasts of canister. Kershaw’s men suffered heavy losses, broke, and ran back toward the church. Greene immediately ordered his men to fix bayonets and follow. Kershaw’s retreating troops masked the head-on fire of the defending infantry and artillery, and fire from the flanks was too weak to check the Federal charge. Greene’s line of battle, four regiments abreast, crossed the open ground and swept around the Dunker Church and on into the adjacent section of the West Woods. The Federals had finally captured, and for the moment held, the high ground that had been the morning’s first objective.
Greene’s position was precarious. Both his flanks were exposed. His right flank was separated from Alpheus Williams’s Division by the length of the cornfield; while east of Greene’s left flank, and separated from it by some hundreds of yards, French’s Division fought on, taking terrible casualties without breaking. Now Confederate John Walker’s Division was arriving on the scene after its long march from the southern flank and was forming up against Greene’s center and left. If Jackson could somehow disengage some of McLaws’s units from the northern front of the woods, he might throw them against Greene’s right and break it.
On the other hand, if Williams’s Division could advance to Greene’s support, aided by rallied elements of I Corps; and if some part of French’s Division could connect with Greene’s left, then Greene’s lodgment might become a wedge driven into the Confederate line and Federal artillery on the Dunker Church rise could sweep the Confederate rear. It would soon be possible for French to shift closer to Greene’s position, because Richardson’s division was coming up on French’s left to augment the attack on the Sunken Road. But Sumner lacked the intelligence to organize and Williams the authority to order a tactical maneuver involving four divisions from two different corps. Instead the division commanders fought on without guidance, doing the best they could with their limited knowledge of the larger tactical situation. French’s advance against the Sunken Road was made without reference to Greene’s movements, and when Richardson’s division came up it went into action on French’s left. At 10:30 AM three Union divisions were pressing the attack along a discontinuous line that ran from the Dunker Church to the eastern end of the Sunken Road, with no one exercising overall command of their movements.
AT ABOUT THE SAME TIME, at the far southern end of the Federal position, Burnside and Cox were finally beginning their attack on the Lower Bridge, defended by the Confederate infantry of Toombs’s Brigade. Burnside had got the order from McClellan at 10:00AMand passed it to Cox, who then ordered two of his four divisions forward. The Kanawha Division, now under the command of Colonel Scammon, was ordered to move directly against the bridge, while Rodman’s division was to march south and cross by the ford they would find downstream. However, the engineers from McClellan’s staff who had informed Burnside of the ford’s existence had not told him exactly where it was. No one on the staff of IX Corps had thought to seek it out the night before or in the early hours of the morning. The staff in question was Burnside’s, but because he was pretending to be a wing commander, most of his staff had been loaned to Cox, and it was absorbed by the tasks of helping him form a new corps headquarters. So instead of crossing the Antietam and sweeping north to hit Toombs’s defensive line in the flank, Rodman’s division spent more than two hours marching up and down, while the division staff tried to find a local farmer who could tell them where to find the ford.
While that was going on, Scammon was making a dismal failure of the attack on the bridge. In fairness it should be noted that Scammon was a colonel, with some experience in brigade command, forced to assume division command when Cox took over the corps. He was also attacking an extremely strong position. The Confederate defenders of Toombs’s Brigade were on a high, steep, and wooded hill that overlooked the bridge, with skirmishers spread out in sheltered positions along the creek banks. Toombs was fantastically outnumbered. He had seven or eight hundred infantry in line against IX Corps’ thirteen thousand. However, until the Federals found that missing ford, they could not bring more than a fraction of that force to bear on Toombs’s position. The only way to attack Toombs directly was by having an infantry column charge across the stone bridge, which was only twelve feet wide—a column of men three abreast and dozens of ranks deep charging into the teeth of Confederate rifle fire, which could sweep the column from front to rear.
Neither Scammon himself nor his assault commander (Colonel George Crook) had taken care to scout the approach to the bridge. So Crook’s command got lost in the woods and wandered north, finally reaching the creek some 350 yards north of the bridge. Instead of regrouping and trying again, Crook’s Brigade formed a firing line in the willows and shrubbery and started a firefight with the Rebels on the other side. This might have provided useful supporting fire if another column had tried for the bridge, but Scammon could not manage to assemble such a force. After a few abortive attempts to wade the creek, the rest of his men also settled down for a firefight. Over the next hour they would exhaust their ammunition and, according to their officers, their physical energy, without achieving anything at all. Behind them the men of Burnside’s other two divisions, led by Generals Sturgis and Willcox, waited complacently for some change in the situation.
LEE’S HEADQUARTERS, 10:00 AM
Command and control were more efficient on the Confederate side. Lee registered the strength of the Federal pressure between the Dunker Church and the Sunken Road. Walker’s Division was already arriving to support the Dunker Church position, but the Sunken Road seemed vulnerable. The embattled section of the Sunken Road was shaped like a very shallow and inverted letter V, its left leg running west-east, its right leg slanting slightly to the south and west. The left end of the line was held by the remnants of both Colquitt’s and Garland’s Brigades, as well as the Cobb Legion from McLaws’s Division, but most of the left leg of the V was held by Robert Rodes’s five Alabama regiments. On their right was G. B. Anderson’s North Carolina Brigade, shortly to be reinforced by Wright’s Brigade (Georgia) of R. H. Anderson’s Division. The road embankment offered some protection to infantry in it, but it was not high enough to offer full-body cover, especially since the Federal infantry were on slightly higher ground. At the point of theV where the defending brigades touched flanks, the embankment was nearly level with the road. Losses to French’s fire mounted steadily. The dead and wounded accumulated at the feet of the men who stood in the lane, shooting or waiting to shoot. Generals and field officers were killed or wounded as they walked upright behind the firing line to encourage their men. Brigadier General George Anderson of the North Carolina Brigade was wounded and his successor instantly killed by a shot in the head at the moment of assuming command.
At some time after 10:00 and before 10:30 AM, Lee ordered the last of his infantry reserves, R. H. Anderson’s Division, perhaps four thousand troops, to support the Sunken Road line from positions behind and above it on the rising ground that led to the Sharpsburg plateau. Lee also ordered up reserve batteries to support this movement. From this line Anderson’s infantry and the gunners could shoot over the heads of the troops in the Sunken Road, doubling the effective firepower of the Sunken Lane line. Unfortunately for Anderson, the position also left them exposed to shell fire from the long-range guns on the other side of the Antietam; and French’s men, frustrated at their seeming inability to hurt the infantry in the Sunken Road, raised their sights to shoot at Anderson’s men. The Twenty-second Georgia of Wright’s Brigade had formed its firing line in an apple orchard, where the Yankee bullets thumped into tree trunks as well as bodies, and for Private Judkins and his starving comrades the bounty of apples “shot off the trees” nearly canceled the effects of danger, wounds, and death.
The company that was there was in the thick of the fight there in the apple orchard and cornfield. The ground was covered with apples where we fought, shot off the trees. . . . I was slightly wounded there by a Belgium ball or shell hitting a rock in the road and bursting, a piece of it went into my arm. I was in a great deal of danger, carrying off wounded. We got quite a lot of apple butter and preserves out of a house at Sharpsburg, it was nice with our hardtack and tough beef.9
But the combined fire of French’s infantry and the Federal artillery was heavy and began to take its toll in the enlisted ranks and among the officers. Division commander R. H. Anderson himself went down with a bullet in his ankle, and command passed to his senior brigadier, General Roger Pryor, another ultrasecessionist politician-turned-soldier. Pryor ordered Brigadier General Ambrose “Rans” Wright to lead his Georgia Brigade down to the Sunken Road, across the cornfield owned by a farmer named Piper. At the head of his brigade, Wright rode his horse into the corn. The horse was shot, Wright stepped away from the animal as it collapsed and was leading his line on foot when another Yankee bullet brought him down, wounded and out of action. But Wright’s Georgians dashed forward into the Sunken Road to join the defense on the right end of the lane as the rest of Hill’s infantry closed up to the left.
The intervention of R. H. Anderson’s Division shifted the balance of forces in and around the Sunken Road. French had initially brought 5,500 Federals against 2,500 Confederates. Anderson’s 4,000 gave the Confederates a numerical as well as a positional advantage, and their presence might have turned the tide if not for the arrival (at about 10:30 AM) of Brigadier General Israel Richardson’s division of the II Corps.
SUNKEN ROAD II: RICHARDSON’S FIGHT
Richardson might have been the best combat commander among the army’s current cadre of division leaders. He had graduated from West Point in 1841, served against the Seminoles, and distinguished himself in the war with Mexico where he won two brevet promotions for gallantry. He earned two nicknames: “Fighting Dick,” for his battlefield prowess, and “Greasy Dick,” for his roughneck manner and style of dress, modeled on his hero Zachary Taylor, “Old Rough-and-Ready,” the crusty old Indian fighter who had commanded the American army in northern Mexico during the Mexican American War. As a division commander on the Peninsula, Richardson had fought with determination and skill at Seven Pines and through the Seven Days. The three brigades that made up his division were among the best in the army, four thousand infantrymen in veteran units that had fought all through the Peninsula Campaign.
First on the field was the Irish Brigade, commanded by Brigadier General Thomas Meagher. Richardson was not well pleased with Meagher’s battlefield performance—he had a tendency to be absent or in hospital when battle was in the offing—but the brigade Meagher had created was a redoubtable fighting force. Thomas Meagher was an authentic Irish rebel who had escaped from the British penal colony in Tasmania and became a leader of the Irish American community. In the northern states the Irish were widely regarded as an inferior and unwanted “race,” only slightly preferable to Blacks, and subject to comparable discrimination in employment and housing. The critical difference was that the Irish could vote, and because they were also White the Irish, like poor Whites in the South, could pride themselves on the difference of color, and aspire to eventual civil and social equality. The Irish in general, and the New York Irish in particular, were staunch Democrats, because the party welcomed them as voters and gave them a share of the patronage. They were also violently antipathetic to the Republican Party, which they saw as essentially “Yankee,” anti-immigrant, anti-Catholic, and antislavery. Democratic leaders played up fears that emancipation would bring cheap Negro labor north, to drive the Irish from their foothold at the bottom of the economic ladder and deprive them of their racial distinction.
It was a remarkable achievement, then, that Meagher was able to recruit and organize three Union regiments among the New York City Irish—the Sixty-third, Eighty-eighth, and Sixty-ninth, the latter known to glory as the “Fighting Sixty-ninth.” To reward him, and ensure his services in further recruitment, Lincoln made him a brigadier general and banded his three regiments in the Irish Brigade. Its ethnic character was so firmly established that it survived the addition of the Twenty-ninth Massachusetts, a thoroughly Yankee outfit, to bring it up to authorized strength. On the Peninsula, the Irish Brigade earned a reputation for dash and gallantry. As representatives of an oppressed nation marked by a long history of defiant rebellion, they had a character to live up to. As members of a despised race, they had something to prove. This was a motivation for heroism they would share with African American soldiers, when these eventually joined the Federal army—a likeness the Irish would dismiss with hatred and contempt.
Behind the Irish came the brigade of Brigadier General John Caldwell, an adequate brigade commander blessed with some extraordinary subordinates. His command was made up of veteran regiments, including the Eighty-first Pennsylvania, the Seventh New York, the Fifth New Hampshire and the combined Sixty-first/Sixty-fourth New York. The Seventh New York was known as a kid-glove militia regiment, because in peacetime its officers were drawn from the top of New York society; but it had been one of the first to reach Washington in April 1861 and had fought well in every major engagement since First Bull Run. The Fifth New Hampshire was led by red-bearded Colonel Edward Cross, who had been by turns a newspaper editor, an Arizona pioneer, an army scout on the frontier, and a volunteer in the army of Benito Juárez, the Mexican revolutionary and reform president. Cross was a fierce disciplinarian and fighter and instilled those virtues in his regiment. He wore a red bandanna over his balding head instead of a hat, the better to be seen by his men, ignoring the fact that it also made a fine target for Rebel sharpshooters.
The Sixty-first/Sixty-fourth New York combined the remnants of two regiments reduced by battle losses on the Peninsula. The Sixty-first was from the City and the Sixty-fourth from upstate, a partnership of urban mechanics, clerks, and roughs, with “apple-knockers” from the orchard country around Elmira. They were commanded by Colonel Francis C. Barlow (city) and Lieutenant Colonel Nelson Miles (upstate), two of the best combat officers in the army. Both were civilians who learned their new trade quickly and well, and both would end the war commanding infantry divisions. Barlow was twenty-eight, a slender and boyish-looking aristocrat, Brooklyn-born but Harvard-educated. Miles was twenty-three, a farmer’s son whose education was earned in night school and included deep reading in military science and history. After the war, Barlow would return to civilian life as a lawyer, but Miles would join the Regulars, make his name in the Plains Indian wars, and retire in 1903 with three stars as general in chief of the armies.
Last in the column was Colonel John R. Brooke’s Brigade, made up of regiments from Delaware, New York, and Pennsylvania. Brooke was also a gifted military amateur. He had entered the service as captain in a three-months regiment, would rise to brigadier general, and after the war win a commission in the Regular Army. Of his units, all but the Delaware regiment were veterans of the Peninsula campaign and had been heavily engaged at Seven Pines and through most of the battles of the Seven Days. They would form the division reserve in the fight for the Sunken Road.
Richardson’s intention was to join French’s attack on the Sunken Road by bringing his division in on French’s left. The onset of Richardson’s troops could not be instantaneous. Each brigade in turn had to change formation from marching column to line of battle, move into place, then advance. Meagher’s Irish Brigade could march right up alongside French’s men, but Caldwell’s Brigade would have to slant off to its left, then turn and march forward to come up on Meagher’s left.
Meagher’s Brigade was the first to make the transition from column to battle line. The brigade’s distinctive colors, a golden Irish harp on a field of green, were displayed alongside the national colors. On Meagher’s order they fixed bayonets and marched up over the rise of ground and into an immediate storm of rifle-musket fire from the Sunken Road, canister and case-shot from the batteries on the rising ground behind it. French’s battle line, shrinking under the steady rain of musketry, shifted to let them come up on their left. The firefight, which was already at an almost intolerable pitch of noise, redoubled. The men in the firing line were drowned in the acrid gunsmoke that piled up around them in the hot, windless air, nearly deafened by the ear-splitting, unending crash of rifle fire from their own comrades, the background roar of the enemy’s musketry punctuated by explosions of case-shot, and over and over the dull thump and bone-crack of bullets hitting the men left and right where they stood in ranks almost shoulder to shoulder. Meagher ordered the Sixty-third and Sixty-ninth to charge and carry the road at the point of the bayonet, and the double lines surged forward—then stopped and began firing again, now at murderously close range.
The intensity of the action distorted the time sense of those engaged. Some experienced an extreme compression, as if the events of an hour passed in a flash, while for others fifteen minutes of action seemed like hours. Meagher rode back to find Richardson and beg for Caldwell to come up on his left and join the attack. Right after rejoining his men, however, he had to leave the field when his horse was killed and he was injured in the fall.
It took Caldwell perhaps half an hour to move past Meagher’s rear, form up, and advance on his left. Colonel Barlow, commanding Caldwell’s lead regiment, found the Irish Brigade already hotly engaged when he brought his own men into position. Barlow’s Sixty-first/Sixty-fourth New York found itself on a spur of rising ground that overlooked the right leg of the Sunken Road position, from which G. B. Anderson’s North Carolinians and Wright’s Georgians were shooting it out with Meagher’s Irishmen. Now was the time for Caldwell to bring the rest of the brigade into line, hit the Rebels with enfilading fire, followed by an oblique attack that would take their line in flank and sweep it end to end.
But no such order was given. Caldwell’s approach to command was passive. Having put his men more or less in position, he set up his headquarters behind a haystack and awaited further orders from Richardson. It is not clear just how long the Irish Brigade were left to fight alone. Colonel Barlow, whose regiment was closest to the action, spent what he thought was about fifteen minutes as a frustrated spectator of the fighting. Colonel Kelly of the Eighty-eighth New York, who took command of the Irish Brigade when Meagher was disabled, said he did not know “exactly how long we were in action, but we were long enough there to lose, in killed and wounded, one-third of our men.”10
By now it was probably close to noon. The fighting had been raging for hours along a relatively static battle line, from Greene’s foothold around the Dunker Church across the northern face of the Sunken Road. The firing position of Federal units were marked by rows of dead men, shot down in line of battle. The intensity of rifle and artillery fire was nearly intolerable; troops on both sides had their nerves strained to the breaking point.
It was Richardson who made the crisis break in favor of the Union. He had been preoccupied with the process of bringing Brooke’s Brigade into position and the quest for artillery support. His own divisional artillery had been diverted to the support of Greene’s division at the far right of the fighting line. McClellan’s long-range guns were not precision weapons under the best of circumstances, and here their line of sight was marred by clouds of gunsmoke rising from the firefight, by dust and heat haze. While they raked the Confederate batteries supporting the Sunken Road line, with such ferocity that one Confederate officer thought he had gone to “artillery hell,” they were still unable to completely suppress the Rebel gunnery and did only limited damaged to the troops of R. H. Anderson’s Division in the cornfield behind the road. Richardson managed to locate an unengaged Rhode Island battery and bring it forward, but its guns had no effect on the infantry in the Sunken Road. He also scrounged up an uncommitted Regular battery, but it was quickly put out of action by Confederate counter-battery fire.
When Richardson learned that Caldwell’s men were not yet in action he rode over to the position, dismounted, and went stalking down the brigade line on foot looking for Caldwell. Told that the brigadier was somewhere in the rear, Richardson cried, “Damn the field officers!” He then ran along the line, sword in hand, down past the Fifth New Hampshire, Eighty-first Pennsylvania, and Seventh New York till he got to Barlow and the Sixty-first/Sixty-fourth New York, ordering everyone up for an advance.
While Caldwell’s Brigade was gathering itself, the Irish Brigade was preparing to withdraw. The brigade had suffered 60 percent casualties, mostly in the two front-line regiments (Sixty-third and Sixty-ninth New York), and it was out of ammunition. But as Irishmen they still had something to prove. In an act of stunning bravado they ceased fire, and as if on parade ordered arms, reformed their battle lines into columns of fours, about-faced, and marched to the rear at a steady pace, flags flying—all of this while still under fire by Rebel infantry and artillery. However, as Colonel Barlow gratefully noted, their firefight had significantly reduced the numbers of Rebel infantry in the right leg of the Sunken Road line.
Richardson now ordered Barlow to lead Caldwell’s Regiments forward against the exposed flank of Wright’s Georgia Brigade below them in the lane. He himself ran back along the rear of the fighting line to summon Brooke’s and Meagher’s men to join in a frontal attack.
Meanwhile, down in the Sunken Road, Brigadier General Robert Rodes had recognized the weakening of his line and the intensifying threat from the Federal infantry on his front and right flank. Rodes was thirty-three, an 1848 graduate of the Virginia Military Institute whose only prewar service was as a professor at VMI and a civil engineer. However, he had shown an aptitude for combat command at First Bull Run and Seven Pines and had been appointed to command of his Alabama infantry brigade after Pope’s defeat at Second Bull Run. Rodes needed reinforcements to deal with the impending threat to his line, so he dashed back across the Piper cornfield to where Brigadier General Roger Pryor, commanding in place of the wounded R. H. Anderson, had positioned the three still uncommitted brigades of Anderson’s Division. These brigades had been so worn down by battle loss and straggling that the entire force probably amounted to fewer than 2,100 infantry.
Pryor ordered the brigades forward, directing them toward the imperiled right half of Rodes’s position. But Pryor was an amateur, not a West Pointer like R. H. Anderson, and he lost control of the movement. The Virginians of Pryor’s Brigade bulled into the rear of G. B. Anderson’s North Carolinians, disrupting both units. Featherston’s Mississippi Brigade, commanded by Colonel Carnot Posey, charged straight across the Sunken Road to try to come to grips with the Federal firing line. It ran into a storm of bullets so intense that, as several observers reported, the brigade seemed simply to vanish. Pryor’s third brigade never made it to the road.11
While these Confederate troops were in motion, Caldwell’s brigade made its charge against the right flank of the Sunken Road, and Richardson sent Brooke’s brigade forward in a frontal attack against the same section of the line. The flank attack was led by Colonel Barlow and the Sixty-first/Sixty-fourth New York. A remnant of the Irish Brigade had been delayed in its retreat and was still on the field. Barlow linked his right flank with the Irishmen as he swept forward, while the other regiments of Caldwell’s brigade dashed forward and attached themselves to Barlow’s left, extending his line till it crossed the T at the end of the Confederate line. Struck from the front, flank, and rear, the infantry of Wright’s and G. B. Anderson’s Brigades tried to retreat back along the Sunken Road, and as they jammed their way down the lane they disrupted the troops who were still facing front and shooting it out with French’s Federals. As this was happening, French’s Division made its move against the left leg of the Sunken Road line. Rodes was on the spot, trying to reorient his men to repel Richardson’s flank attack while still holding off French. In the confusion generated by the intrusion of Pryor’s reinforcements, Rodes’s order to change facing was misunderstood as an order to retreat. The Confederate line crumpled from end to end, with many units dropping their guns in surrender while others broke and fled west and south across the cornfield toward the high ground around Sharpsburg.
The Sunken Road, which had been a bulwark, now became a death trap for the Southern infantry. Troops fleeing from Barlow’s flank attack crowded back down the road, jamming into the ranks of their comrades who were still firing toward their front. “The slaughter was terrible!” a soldier in Wright’s Georgia Brigade remembered. “When ordered to retreat I could scarcely extricate myself from the dead and wounded around me.” The only choice was “to run or surrender,” and once started many officers and men kept running till they had left the field entirely. An officer in the Fifth New Hampshire saw so many dead Rebels lying in the road “that they formed a line which one might have walked upon as far as I could see . . . they lay just as they had been killed apparently, amid the blood which was soaking the earth.”12
The stubborn valor of French’s and Richardson’s men and the disciplined energy of Richardson’s offensive had achieved a remarkable feat of arms. Against a Confederate infantry force not much weaker in numbers, fighting from a strong defensive position and backed by artillery, they had maintained an intense firefight for more than two hours. They had had only marginal support from their own artillery. McClellan’s long-range guns had little impact on the fight, and all of the II Corps artillery had been diverted to the support of XII Corps in the Dunker Church/East Woods sector. Despite those disadvantages, the two II Corps divisions had stormed the Sunken Road line and driven the defenders off in disorder.13
Richardson was up on the front line, coordinating the advancing elements of French’s division as well as his own troops. With Caldwell somewhere in the rear, Colonel Barlow was effectively in command of the brigade. He managed the difficult task of reorienting its advance from its sidewise sweep of the Sunken Road to reform its line facing the fleeing Rebels and their defensive line on the Sharpsburg plateau. Two of French’s regiments were on his right, and Richardson ordered Brooke’s Brigade forward to support a new attack, exploiting the apparent rout of the Sunken Road defenders. Although both of the II Corps divisions had been fighting for hours and had taken heavy casualties, they were elated by their success and the sight of enemies in flight. With Richardson in command they were swiftly forming up for an attempt to storm the high ground and break Lee’s main line of defense north of Sharpsburg.
That line of defense was extremely thin. The defeated elements of D. H. Hill’s and R. H. Anderson’s Divisions were rallying, but at the moment the Confederate defense consisted mainly of artillery. Most of the guns belonged to the divisions that had been fighting here, but Lee and Longstreet were also rushing batteries from elsewhere, to offset with firepower the Federals’ advantage in infantry strength. Many of these additional batteries had already been in action on Jackson’s front. Some had returned to the reserve area to replenish ammunition and were then redirected to the new line. Others were pulled directly from Jackson’s supporting lines. Events were showing that Lee’s infantry could make only limited use of the internal lines of communication around Sharpsburg. Once committed to action, infantry was either too exhausted or disorganized by combat, or too entangled with enemy forces, to be freely and speedily shifted to a new sector. However, artillery remained mobile as long as there were horses to pull the guns and limbers. Lee’s army was not much inferior to McClellan’s in the number of guns it had dedicated to killing infantry. Moreover, Lee’s guns were deployed closer to the fighting line than McClellan’s, and pushed forward with far more daring and aggression. Now their fire checked the Federal advance in the Piper cornfield while Jackson was mounting a counterattack against Greene’s XII Corps division at the Dunker Church.14
AT THE DUNKER CHURCH, 1:00–2:00 PM
For the past hour and more, while the fighting at the Sunken Road had been static, Greene had been holding on in his isolated position around the church, without guidance or material support from his superiors, Sumner and Williams. His left flank was vulnerable because there was a gap between it and French’s Division, covered by a few unsupported artillery batteries positioned back near the East Woods. Because Greene had not been informed about the rout of Sedgwick’s Division, now more than two hours past, Greene still supposed Sedgwick was protecting his right by engaging Confederate forces in the West Woods. When an aide from Sumner’s staff finally brought the news of Sedgwick’s disaster, it was too late for Greene to respond effectively. Rebel troops from Walker’s Division had moved through the West Woods to strike his front and right flank, hitting from the very direction from which Greene expected Sedgwick’s troops to arrive. Greene tried to make an orderly retreat, but the pullback across the open ground east and north of the church was hasty and disordered, and Walker’s Rebels came on in pursuit, hoping to regain the East Woods. The Rebels were defeated by the same kind of force that had checked Richardson: a line of batteries brought forward from reserve positions. As Walker recoiled, the lead elements of Franklin’s VI Corps began arriving to solidify the Union defense—and create the potential for yet another counterstrike.
While most of Walker’s Division was attacking Greene’s right flank a small composite brigade of regiments from McLaws’s and Walker’s Divisions, under the command of a Colonel Cooke, had attacked into the gap between Greene and French, assailed and captured the batteries defending it. Longstreet, who had come forward to oversee this maneuver, alertly recognized that Cooke’s advance had created an opportunity to reverse the defeat at the Sunken Road. He sent an aide to Cooke, ordering him to pull his four regiments out of the fight with Greene, reorient them ninety degrees, and lead them in an attack against the exposed right flank of French’s division. This maneuver, like Barlow’s after the taking of the Sunken Road, was extremely difficult for a unit already closely engaged. Cooke’s strike was beaten back when French matched the Rebel maneuver, wheeling two regiments around to face Cooke. But the threat posed by Cooke’s flank attack, announced by the roar of musketry and the keen of the Rebel yell as Cooke’s men charged, when added to the frontal fire from Lee’s artillery line, brought Richardson’s attack up short.15
Now it was the Confederates’ turn to try to exploit a wavering among the attackers. But with no fresh infantry reserves left in Lee’s army, the counter was made by rallied regiments from D. H. Hill’s and R. H. Anderson’s Divisions, backed by those infantry-killing batteries that hit the Federals in the cornfield with charges of canister. Again the turn of battle depended on regimental and company officers. Colonel Barlow held the Union front line together. Colonel Cross of the Fifth New Hampshire, spotted a Rebel column circling to hit the brigade from the left flank. The former Indian fighter wheeled his regiment to face it, calling for his men to “Put on the war paint!” Cross and his men blacked their faces with gunpowder soot, the colonel conspicuous and piratical-looking with his red beard and his head bound in its red bandanna, and they beat back the flank attack.
Confederate dead in Sunken Road (NATIONAL PARK SERVICE)
As General Richardson saw it, the chief thing preventing him from storming the Confederate line was his lack of artillery. He sent a request to McClellan for one section of rifled cannons with the range and weight of metal to hurt the Confederate guns and distract them from their killing of infantry. McClellan refused. Richardson was still determined to attack, convinced that the chance for a decisive breakthrough existed on his front. But he would have to attack with his infantry alone, holding back his one battery of short-range cannon until the fight was at closer quarters. He went to the battery to give Captain Graham his orders and help him get his guns into a position more protected from Confederate shell fire. While he was doing that, a case-shot exploded nearby, and a big lead ball from the shell struck him in the leg. The wound was serious. Richardson was carried off, eliminating the only general in that part of the field with the skill, energy, and drive to organize an offensive. At about the same time, his brigade-level counterpart, Colonel Barlow, fell victim to the heavy fire sweeping the Piper cornfield. Barlow would survive his wound, but Richardson would die of infection six weeks later. With these two out of action the Federal drive hung fire.
The situation on the field was once again in a state of chaotic equilibrium, the battle lines still in place but troop morale and tactical position made fluid by intense combat and rapidly changing events. It would require the effective intervention of new reserves to tip the balance one way or the other.