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The bloodiest day in American history
Advancing into Maryland, Robert E. Lee had a question - how would he maintain his supply line in enemy territory? With the short-lived Army of Virginia reeling from its loss at Second Manassas, Lee had crossed the Potomac and headed to Frederick, but he would have to take Harpers Ferry to maintain a line of supply. He issued Special Orders No. 191 detailing the troop movements he wanted to accomplish the task, and after a three-day battle accomplished his goal. The only problem was a copy of this order fell into enemy hands.
George McClellan, who lost his Army of the Potomac after losing the Seven Days Retreat, was reassigned defensive duty in Washington D. C. Many of McClellan's units were given to John Pope's Army of Virginia as they came north from Fortress Monroe. Pope's defeat at Second Manassas (Second Bull Run) left Abraham Lincoln and Edwin Stanton with one man to lead the Union forces when Lee moved into Maryland and threatened Washington - George McClellan.
In Washington, the entire Union command structure was worried. With credible reports of up to 120,000 Rebels with Lee, the Confederates could simply overwhelm the available Union forces, about 85,000 men. In fact, Lee started into Maryland with significantly less, and many men refused to cross out of Virginia, leaving Lee with about 55,000 effectives.
On September 13, 1862 Corporal Barton Mitchell found a copy of Lee's orders wrapped around 3 cigars and showed it to Sergeant John Bloss. Both men had seen orders before and understood the significance of their find. After a journey up the ranks the orders were placed in McClellan's hands. Typical of Little Mac's communication with the President, a late evening telegram left a lot to Lincoln's imagination. It wasn't long after Lincoln received McClellan's communique that Lee knew McClellan had the orders - a Confederate spy had been in the command post when they arrived and made a risky move to inform Lee.
McClellan's first desire was to try and save the garrison at Harper's Ferry, but this would prove futile. With South Mountain in front of his army, McClellan would have to attack where he could, in the mountain passes, and hope for the best. With orders to relieve the garrison at Harper's Ferry, Major General William B. Franklin drew Crampton's Gap, furthest south of the three major gaps. North of him Major General Jesse Reno would attack Fox's Gap and beyond that, Major General Joseph Hooker concentrated on Turner's Gap, where the National Road crossed South Mountain.
At each of the three gaps federal forces outnumbered opposing Confederate forces. Daniel Harvey Hill and James Longstreet defended Turner's Gap, perhaps the most strategic of the gaps. At Fox's Gap a combined command under Hill had John Bell Hood and Samuel Garland leading the forces. Further south, LaFayette McLaws, backed by Jeb Stuart's cavalry held Crampton's Gap. At the end of the day the Yankees controlled all three gaps, but had lost Major General Reno. The South lost Brigadier General Samuel Garland.
George McClellan did something different - he aggressively attacked Lee's position and that caught Lee by surprise. At the end of the day, Robert E. Lee was still searching for a position to protect Jackson until the fall of Harpers Ferry. Antietam Creek, east of Sharpsburg, Maryland would offer that position, although the choice was tenuous at best. A few miles west the Potomac River would offer a challenge if a general retreat were called.
Rebels began arriving on September 15, setting up along and west of the creek in the available natural defenses. The old Hagerstown Road ran along a low ridge, which would give Lee's artillery its most effective position. He did not choose to concentrate his forces near the river because it is shallow, except at the southern bridge, Rohrbach. Here a rise could protect his men from the Yankees at the crossing. The other two bridges, normally known as the "middle bridge" and "northern bridge," would be conceded to McClellan without a fight.
George McClellan and the Army of the Potomac's 87,000 men probed west from South Mountain, crossing a ridge that dropped to Antietam Creek starting at noon. The ridge provided a good view of the battlefield but the rolling hills and forests gave the Rebels cover. Lee was counting on McClellan's careful advance to give him time to advance Stonewall Jackson's 22,000 men to the battlefield. Without them, Union forces would vastly outnumber Lee's men.
McClellan did not attack immediately, perhaps the biggest mistake made at the battle of Antietam. He waited for the afternoon of the 15th and all of September 16th as he worked on his plan of battle. With a corps in reserve demonstrating against the Army of Northern Virginia, he would send three corps against the left flank and a fourth corps against its right flank. With the Potomac behind Lee if McClellan could rout the army he could destroy it.
As a large portion of the 1st Corps went by, Jackson pushed his reserve division, under the command of John Bell Hood into the battle from the West Woods. The ferocity of this attack was heightened by the fact that Hood's men had been interrupted from eating their first hot meal in days. Cutting a path through Hooker's men, a regiment of Hood's men actually made it back to the north end of the Cornfield. Unsupported, they were nearly wiped out by Yankees waiting behind a stone wall.
With Hood's men threatening Hooker's corps, General Joseph K. F. Mansfield ordered his men to advance in support of Hooker. Mansfield's men had been moving parallel to Hooker's on the left down Smoketown Road. They crossed through the East Woods and reclaimed the Cornfield. During this advance Mansfield thought his men were accidentally firing on Hooker's men and rode in front of his men ordering them to cease fire. In fact, Hood's Rebels were in the Cornfield and killed Mansfield and his horse.
With little advance warning Edwin Vose Sumner was ordered into the fray just as Robert E. Lee was moving support in for Hood. 5,400 men under General John Sedgwick pushed Hood back into the West Woods and extended Sumner's line south. But his left flank, under the command of Oliver Otis Howard was hanging (unprotected) and the Rebels sent to reinforce Hood turned it. Sumner realized he was in a bad position and ordered a withdrawal. By 9:30 am more than 12,000 Yankees and Rebels lay dead or wounded at the northern end of the battlefield.
With Mansfield mortally wounded and Hooker down with a painful foot wound Sumner was in command of remnants of the 1st, 2nd and 12 Corps that he tried to reform into fighting units on the north end of the battlefield.Sumner wired William French telling him to "engage the enemy as vigorously as possible" so his troops could withdraw. Suddenly, the battle shifted south, towards a position held by Daniel Harvey Hill. Called the Sunken Road it early dispatches the men quickly renamed it Bloody Lane. Lee moved men in support of Hill's position and Major General Israel Richardson [US] relieved French's men. In the bitter fighting that occurred here, General Longstreet manned an artillery piece and Colonel John Gordon was hit five times defending this position, the final bullet hitting his jugular vein. Union General Richardson was mortally wounded. With the Rebel line disintegrating, a brigadier general mistakenly relayed a retreat command and the line withdrew.
Moving into the Rebel position on Bloody Lane about noon were the 61st and 64th New York under Francis Barlow, capturing 300 prisoners. Driving the Rebels back beyond the Hagerstown Pike didn't really help the overall Union position because there was no support for Yankees in the center of the battle. McClellan refused to commit any of his reserve (he had held back a more than a corps from the battle).
Once again the battle shifted south to Rohrbach Bridge. Known as the lower bridge in dispatches, Rohrbach Bridge would come away from the battle as the most famous structure - but its name had changed to Burnside Bridge. It was here that the battle of Antietam would reach its terrible climax. According to McClellan's original plan, Burnside should have carried the bridge early in the day. As he made his first crossing at 9:00 am, Burnside ran headlong into the 2nd Georgia, part of the Robert Toombs Brigade, on a hill opposite the bridge. Four more times before 1:00 pm Union forces tried - and failed - to cross the bridge.
At 1:00 pm the situation began to change at Burnside Bridge. General Issac Rodman forded Antietam Creek downstream and returned towards Toombs Georgians. Other Yankees crossed the creek upstream. The Georgians began to run out of ammunition and with Yankees behind them and under tremendous pressure, they withdrew. By the time Burnside figured out what his problem was crossing the bridge and rushed two regiments across (the 51st New York and the 51st Pennsylvania), the Georgians were gone.
Burnside decided to regroup after crossing the bridge as the Army of Northern Virginia teetered on the brink of disaster. In the largest battle in the history of mankind to that date Lee's army looked like it was going to lose simply because the Army of the Potomac had more men. Then Ambrose Powell Hill arrived from Harper's Ferry. Left to attend to the surrender of 12,000 Union soldiers Hill got an urgent wire from Lee - advance to Sharpsburg. Covering 17 miles in 9 hours Hill arrived in his red battleshirt, ready to do business.
Hill's soldiers, many of them clad in blue confused Burnside's men, who though they were Yankees. In fact, they were wearing captured Union uniforms in place of their own tattered clothes. Attacking Burnside's unprotected left flank Hill forced the entire corps back to its starting point, the lower bridge. Lee held these lines throughout September 18, waiting for an attack that never came as his engineers prepared to cross the Potomac back to the relative safety of Virginia.
Antietam on the Web
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"Fighting Joe" Hooker
Antietam was last changed on - December 16, 2007
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