Recognizing the fact that Washington was too strongly defended to be taken by an attack in front, General Robert E. Lee decided upon an invasion of Maryland, in the hope of bringing that State over to the support of the Confederacy and of obtaining large accessions to his ranks. Suddenly breaking camp, he made a hasty march to the Potomac, which he crossed on September 5 at Point of Rocks. Marching quickly to Frederick, he issued from that city an appeal to Maryland, calling upon it to throw off the Northern yoke and join its sisters of the South. The appeal feel flat, and the volunteers he had hoped for failed to make their appearance in his ranks. His accessions did not equal the desertions from his army. So far, the enterprise was evidently a failure. It remained to obtain from it whatever advantage might be gained.
The gaps of South Mountain were occupied, and Jackson was sent to assail Harper's Ferry, whose garrison, through an error of judgment, had not been withdrawn. Taking possession of the heights which surrounded the town, a bombardment was commenced which forced an almost immediate surrender, the place being indefensible. On the morning of the 15th there were surrendered eleven thousand five hundred and eighty-three men, seventy-three guns, thirteen thousand small-arms, two hundred wagons, and a large store of supplies.
Meanwhile, the Union army under McClellan was hurrying after the invading force. Franklin was sent to the relief of Harper's Ferry, and succeeded in forcing Crampton's Gap, near that place. But he was too late. The surrender had taken place, and the Confederates were withdrawn. In the succeeding events he was destined to receive the first check to his remarkably victorious career.
Boonsborough Gap, north of Carmpton's was strongly held by the Confederates, and was assaulted by the army under McClellan on Spetember 14. Longstreet, who had advanced to Hagerstown, probably with the intention of invading Pennsylvania, was hastily recalled, and sent to reinforce Hill, who was being severely pushed at the Gap. After a desperately-contested conflict, the Union army succeeded in forcing its way through the mountains and reaching the opposite slope.
The defence of this pass had been necessary to Lee. His army was widely scattered, and the approach of McClellan rendered concentration indispensable. Jackson was marching in all haste from Harper's Ferry to Sharpsburg, having left A.P. Hill to receive the surrender of the garrison. The trains from Hagerstown were hurrying towards the same point. After their repulse at Boonsborough, Longstreet and D.. Hill fell back, so that by the morning of the 16th the whole army, with the exception of the force left at Harper's Ferry, was concentrated at Sharpsburg, behind Antietam Creek, a stream which there flows into the Potomac. McClellan's army reached the opposite side of the stream on the same day
On the morning of the 16th both armies were actively preparing for battle. The bulk of the Confederate forces, under Longstreet and D. H. Hill, stood along the range of heights between Sharpsburg and the Antietam, which flowed between the belligerents. Longstreet was on the right of the road between Sharpsburg and Boonsborough, and Hill on the left. Hood's division was posted between Hill and the Hagerstown road, north of Miller's farm, so as to oppose an expected flank movement in that direction; and near that point, in the rear, Jackson's exhausted troops were posted in reserve, his line stretching from the Hagerstown road towards the Potomac, and protected by Stuart with cavalry and artillery. Walker was posted on Longstreet's right with two brigades a little south of Sharpsburg, near Shaveley's farm. General Lee had his quarters in a tent, as usual, on the hill close by Sharpburg, where the National Cemetery now is, and from that point he overlooked much of the country that was made a battle-field the next day.
Along the line of the Confederate army, the Antietam, a sluggish stream with few fords was spanned by four stone bridges of like architecture, three of which were strongly guarded. McClellan made his head-quarters at the fine brick mansion of Philip Pry, about two miles northeast of Sharpsburg, east of the Antietam, and on each side of him in front his army was posted. On the right, near Keeduysville, and on both sides of the Sharpsburg pike, stood the corps of Sumner and Hooker. In advance, on the right of the turnpike and near the Antieteam, General Richardson's division of Sumner's corps was posted. In line with this, on the left of that road, was Sykes's regular division of Porter's corps, protecting bridge No. 2. Farther down the stream, on the left, and not far from No. 3, Burnside's corps was posted. Upon a ridge of the first line of hills east of Antietam, between the turnpike and Pry's house, and in front of Sumner and Hooker, batteries of twenty-four-pounder Parrott guns, commanded by Captains Taft, Langner, and Von Kleizer, and Lieutenant Weaver, were planted. On the crest of the hill, above bridge no. 3, were batteries under Captain Weed and Lieutenant Benjamin. Franklin's corps and Couch's division were farther seen in Pleasant Valley, near Brownsville, and Morrell's division of Porter's corps was approaching from Boonsborough, and Humphreys's from Frederick. A detachment of the Signal Corps, under Major Myer, had a station on Red Ridge, a spur of South Mountain, which overlooked the entire field of operations, and from that point it performed very important service. Such was the general position of the contending armies on the 16th of September.
The confederates opened an artillery fire on the Nationals at dawn, but it was afternoon before McClellan was ready to put his troops in position for attack, the morning having been spent in reconnoitering, finding fords, and other preparations required by prudence. There was found to be a lack of ammunition and rations, and these had to be supplied from readily approaching supply-trains. Finally he was in readiness, and at two o'clock in the afternoon Hooker was ordered to cross the Antietam at and near bridge No. 1, with the divisions of Ricketts, Meade, and Doubleday, and attack and turn the Confederate left. Sumner was directed to throw over the stream during the night General Mansfield's corps (Twelfth), and to hold his own (Second) ready to cross early the next morning. Hooker's movement was successful. Advancing through the woods, he struck Hood, and, after a sharp contest, commenced with Meade's Pennsylvania Reserves, near the house of D. Miller, and which lasted until dark, the Confederates were driven back. Hooker's men rested that night on their arms upon the ground they had won from their foe. Mansfield's corps (divisions of Williams and Greene) crossed the Antietam during the evening in Hooker's track, and bivouacked on Poffenberger's farm a mile in his rear
The night of the 16th was passed by both armies with the expectation of a heavy battle in the morning. Few officers found relief from anxiety, for it was believed by many that it might be a turning-point in the war. Only the commander-in-chief of the national army seems to have had a lofty faith that all would be well. He retired to his room at a little past ten o'clock, and did not leave it until eight o'clock the next morning, when the surrounding hills had been echoing the sounds of battle which had been raging within a mile of head-quarters for three hours. Then, with some of his aides, he walked to a beautiful grove on the brow of a declivity near Pry's overlooking the Antietam, and watched the battle on the right for about two hours, when he mounted his horse and rode away to Porter's positions, on the right, where he was greeted, as usual, by the hearty cheers of his admiring soldiers.
The contest was opened at dawn by Hooker, with about eighteen thousand men. He made a vigorous attack on the Confederate left, commanded by Jackson. Doubleday was on his right, Meade on his left, and Ricketts in the centre. His first object was to push the Confederates back through a line of woods, and seize the Hagerstown road and the woods beyond it in the vicinity of the Dunker church, where Jackson's line lay. The contest was obstinate and severe. The national batteries on the east side of the Antietam poured an enfilading fire on Jackson that galled him very much, and it was not long before the Confederates were driven with heavy loss beyond the first line of woods, and across an open field, which was covered thickly in the morning with standing corn.
Hooker now advanced his centre under Meade to seize the Hagerstown road and the woods beyond. They were met by thunderous fire from Jackson, who had just been reinforced by Hood's refreshed troops and had brought up his reserves. These issued in great numbers from the woods, and fell heavily upon Meade in the cornfield. Hooker called upon Doubleday for aid, and a brigade under the gallant General Hartsuff was instantly forwarded at the double-quick, and passed across the corn-field in the face of a terrible storm of shot and shell. It fought desperately for half an hour unsupported, when its leader fell severely wounded.
In the mean time Mansfield's corps had been ordered up to the support of Hooker, and while the divisions of Williams and Greene, of that corps, were deploying, the veteran commander was mortally wounded. The charge of his corps then developed on General Williams, who left his division to the care of General Crawford. The latter, with his own and Gordon's brigade, pushed across the open field and seized a part of the woods on the Hagerstown road. At the same time Greene's division took position to the left of the Dunker church.
Hooker had lost heavily by battle and straggling, yet he was contending manfully for victory. Doubleday's guns had silenced a Confederate battery on the extreme right, and Ricketts was struggling against a foe extreme right, and Ricketts was struggling against a foe constantly increasing, but was bravely holding his ground without power to advance. The fight was very severe, and at length the national line began to waver and give way. Hooker, while in the van, was so severely wounded in the foot that he was taken from the field at nine o'clock, and to McClellan's head-quarters at Pry's, leaving his command to Summer, who had just arrived on the field with his own corps. Up to this time the battle had been fought much in detail, both lines advancing and falling back as each received reinforcements.
Summer at once sent General Sedgwick to the support of Crawford and Gordon, and Richardson and French bore down upon the foe more to the left, when the cornfield, already won and lost by both parties, was regained by the Nationals, who held the ground around the Dunker church. Victory seemed certain for the latter, for Jackson and Hood had commenced retiring, when fresh troops under McLaws and Walker came to Jackson's support, seconded by Early on their left. These pressed desperately forward, penetrated the national line at a gap between Sumner's right and centre, and the Unionists were driven back to the first line of woods east of the Hagerstown road, when the victors, heavily smitten by the national artillery, and menaced by unflinching Doubleday, withdrew to their original position near the church. Sedgwick, twice wounded, was carried from the field, when the command of his division developed on General O. O. Howard. Generals Crawford and Dana were also wounded.
It was now about noon, and fighting had been going on since dawn. The wearied right needed immediate support. It came at a timely moment. Franklin had come up from below, and McClellan, who remained on the east side of the Antietam, sent him over to assist the hard-pressed right. He formed on Howard's left, and at once sent Slocum with his division towards the centre. At the same time General Smith was ordered to retake the ground over which there had been so much contention and bloodshed. Within fifteen minutes after the order was given it was executed. The Confederates were driven from the open field and beyond the Hagerstown road by gallant charges, accompanied by loud cheers, first by Franklin's Third Brigade, under Colonel Irwin, and then by Seventh Maine. Inspired by this success, Franklin desired to push forward and seize a rough wooded position of importance; but Summer thought the movement would be too hazardous, and he was restrained.
Meanwhile, the divisions of French and Richardson had been busy. The former, with the brigades of Weber, Kimball, and Morris (the latter raw troops), pushed on towards the centre, Weber leading; and, while he was fighting hotly, French received orders from Summer to press on vigorously and make a diversion in favor of the right. After a severe contest with the brigades of Hill (Colquitt's, Ripley's, and McRae's) not engaged with Jackson, the Confederates were pressed back to a sunken road in much disorder. In the mean time, the division of Richardson, composed of the brigades of Meagher, Caldwell, and Brooks, which crossed the Antietam between nine and ten o'clock, moved forward to the attack on French's left. Right gallantly did Meagher fight his way up to the crest of a hill overlooking the Confederates at the sunken road, suffering dreadfully from a tempest of bullets; and when his ammunition was almost exhausted, Caldwell, aided by a part of Brooks's brigade, as gallantly came to his support and relief.
Hill was now reinforced by about four thousand men, under R. H. Anderson, and the struggle was fierce for a while, the Confederates trying to seize a ridge on the national left for the purpose of turning that flank. This was frustrated by a quick and skilful movement by Colonel Cross with his "Fighting Fifth" New Hampshire. He and the Confederates had a race for the ridge along parallel lines, fighting as they ran. Cross won it, and, being reinforced by the Eighty-First Pennsylvania, the Confederates were driven back with a heavy loss in men, and the colors of the Fourth North Carolina. An effort to flank the right at the same time was checked by French, Brooks, and a part of Caldwell's force, and a charge of the Confederates directly on Richardson's front was quickly repulsed. The national line was steadily advanced until the foe was pushed back to Dr. Piper's house, near the Sharpsburg road, which formed a sort of citadel for them, and there they made an obstinate stand. Richardson's artillery was now brought up, and while that brave leader was directing the fire of Captain Graham's battery, he was felled by a ball that proved fatal. General W. S. Hancock succeeded him in command, when a charge was made that drove the Confederates from Piper's in the utmost confusion, and only the skilful show of strength by a few of his fresh troops prevented a fatal severance of Lee's line. The Nationals were deceived, and deceived, and did not profit by the advantage gained. Night soon closed the action on the right and centre, the Unionists holding the ground they had acquired. In the struggle near the centre, the gallant General Meagher was wounded and carried from the field, and his command developed on Colonel Burke, of the New York Sixty-Third.
During the severe conflicts of the day, until late in the afternoon, Porter's corps, with artillery, and Pleasonton's cavalry, had remained on the east side of the Antietam as a reserve, and in holding the road from Sharpsburg to Middletown and Boonsborough. Then McClellan sent two brigades to support the wearied right, and six battalions of Sykes's regulars were thrown across bridge No. 2, on the Sharpsburg road, to drive away the Confederate sharp-shooters, who were seriously interfering with Pleasonton's horse-batteries there. Warren's brigade was sent more to the left, on the right and rear of Burnside, who held the extreme left of the national line. This brings us to a notice of the operations of the day under the directions of Burnside.
The left was resting on the slopes opposite bridge No. 3, at Rohrback's farm, a little below Sharpsburg, which was held on the morning of the 17th by the brigade of Toombs (Second and Twentieth Georgia), supported by sharpshooters and batteries on Longstreet's right wing, commanded by D. R. Jones. Burnside was directed, at eight o'clock in the morning, to cross that bridge, attack the foe, carry the heights on the opposite bank of the Antietam, and advance along their crest upon Sharpsburg. It was a task of the greatest difficulty, for the approaches to the bridge were in the nature of a defile, exposed to a raking fire from the Confederate batteries and an enfilading one from their sharp-shooters. In several attempts to cross the bridge Burnside was repulsed. Finally, at about one o'clock in the afternoon, the Fifty-First New York and Fifty-First Pennsylvania charged across and drove the defenders to the heights. Gathering strength at the bridge by the crossing of the divisions of Sturgis, Wilcox, and Rodman, and Scammon's brigade, with the batteries of Durell, Clark, Cook, and Simmons, Burnside charged up the hill, and drove the Confederates almost to Sharpsburg, the Ninth New York capturing one of their batteries. Just then A. P. Hill's division, which had been hastening up from Harper's Ferry, came upon the ground, and under a heavy fire of artillery charged upon Burnside's extreme left, and after severe fighting, in which General Rodman was mortally wounded, drove him back almost to the bridge. In that charge General L. O'B. Branch, of North Carolina, was killed. The pursuit was checked by the national artillery on the eastern side of the stream, under whose fire the reserves led by Sturgis advanced, and the Confederates did not attempt to retake the bridge. Darkness closed the conflict here, as it did all along the line.
Hill came up just in time, apparently, to save Lee's army from capture or destruction. Experts say that if Burnside had accomplished the passage of the bridge and the advance movement an hour earlier, or had Porter been sent a few hours sooner to the support of the hard-struggling right, that result would doubtless have ensued. It is easy to conjecture what might have been. We have to do only with what occurred. Looking upon the event from that stand-point, we see darkness ending one of the most memorable days of the war because of its great and apparently useless carnage, for the result was only hurtful in the extreme to both parties. With the gloom of that night also ended the conflict known as the Battle of Antietam, in which McClellan said (erroneously as to the number of troops) "nearly two hundred thousand men and five hundred pieces of artillery were for fourteen hours engaged. Our soldiers slept that night," he said, "conquerors on a field won by their valor and covered by the dead and wounded of the enemy."
When the morning of the 18th dawned, both parties seemed willing not to renew the strife. Lee was really in a sad plight, for he could not easily call to his aid any reinforcements; his supplies were nearly exhausted, and his army was terribly shattered and disorganized. A careful estimate has made his losses at that time, since he commenced the invasion of Maryland, a fortnight before, nearly thirty thousand men. McClellan's army was also greatly shattered; but on the morning after the battle he was joined by fourteen thousand fresh troops under Couch and Humphreys. It is certain now that with these, and the effective remains of his army, he might easily have captured or ruined Lee's army that day. But there were grave considerations to be heeded. McClellan afterwards said, "Virginia was lost, Washington menaced, Maryland invaded: the national cause could afford no risk of defeat." He therefore hesitated, and finally, in opposition to the advice of Franklin and others, he deferred a renewal of the battle until the next morning. When that morning dawned, and he sent his cavalry to reconnoitre, the national army had no foe to fight, for Lee, with his shattered legions, had recrossed the Potomac under cover of darkness, and was on the soil of his native Virginia, with eight batteries under Pendleton on the river-bluffs, menacing pursuers.
On the 20th a portion of the Union army crossed the river in pursuit, and was repulsed with heavy loss. Lee retreated down the Shenandoah Valley, while McClellan, after considerable delay in reorganizing and refitting his forces, marched his army to Warrenton. His slowness gave such dissatisfaction to the authorities at Washington that on November 7 he was relieved from duty, and replaced by General Burnside in command of the Army of the Potomac.
Return to The Great Republic by the Master Historians (Vol 3)