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Chapter 17: preliminaries of the great battle.

  • Confederates retreat from South Mountain
  • -- Federals follow and harass them -- Franklin and Cobb at Crampton's Pass -- a spirited action -- fighting around Harper's Ferry -- its capitulation -- the Confederates take eleven thousand prisoners -- Jackson rejoins Lee -- Description of the field of Antietam -- McClellan posts his Corps -- Lee's lines advantageously placed -- Hooker's advance on the eve of battle should have been resisted.

At first sight of the situation, as I rode up the mountain-side, it became evident that we were not in time nor in sufficient force to secure our holding at Turner's Gap, and a note was sent General Lee to prepare his mind for disappointment, and give time for arrangements for retreat.

After nightfall General Hill and I rode down to headquarters to make report. General Lee inquired of the prospects for continuing the fight. I called upon General Hill to demonstrate the situation, positions and forces. He explained that the enemy was in great force with commanding positions on both flanks, which would give a cross-fire for his batteries, in good range on our front, making the cramped position of the Confederates at the Mountain House untenable. His explanation was too forcible to admit of further deliberation. General Lee ordered withdrawal of the commands to Keedysville, and on the march changed the order, making Sharpsburg the point of assembly. General Hill's troops were first withdrawn, and when under way, the other brigades followed and were relieved by General Fitzhugh Lee's cavalry on the mountain at three o'clock in the morning, Hood's two brigades, with G. T. Anderson's, as rearguard. [228]

General Fitzhugh Lee's cavalry was ordered to cover our march, but Pleasonton pushed upon him so severely with part of the Eighth Illinois Cavalry and Tidball's battery that he was forced off from our line through Boonsborough and found his way to the Potomac off the rear of General Lee's left, leaving his killed and wounded and losing two pieces of artillery. Otherwise our march was not disturbed. In addition to his regular complement of artillery, General D. H. Hill had the battalion under Lieutenant-Colonel A. S. Cutts. The batteries were assigned positions near the ridge under the crest, where they could best cover the fields on the farther side of the stream. A few minutes after our lines were manned, information came of the capitulation of Harper's Ferry, and of the withdrawal of the troops to the Virginia side of the Potomac.

General Toombs's brigade joined us early on the 15th, and was posted over the Burnside Bridge. He was subsequently ordered to detach two regiments, as guard for trains near Williamsport.

As long as the armies were linked to Harper's Ferry, the heights in front of Sharpsburg offered a formidable defensive line, and in view of possible operations from Harper's Ferry, through the river pass, east of South Mountain, formed a beautiful point of strategic diversion. But when it transpired that Harper's Ferry was surrendered and the position was not to be utilized, that the troops there were to join us by a march on the south side, its charms were changed to perplexities. The threatening attitude towards the enemy's rear vanished, his line of communication was open and free of further care, and his army, relieved of entanglements, was at liberty to cross the Antietam by the upper fords and bridges, and approach from vantage-ground General Lee's left. At the same time the Federal left was reasonably secured from aggression by cramped and rugged ground along the [229] Confederate right. Thus the altered circumstances changed all of the features of the position in favor of the Federals.

Approaching Crampton's Gap on the morning of the 14th, Hampton's cavalry encountered the enemy's and made a dashing charge, which opened his way to Munford's, both parties losing valuable officers and men. When General Stuart rode up, he saw nothing seriously threatening, and ordered Hampton south to the river pass; thinking that there might be something more important at that point, he rode himself to Maryland Heights to see General McLaws, and to witness the operations at Harper's Ferry, posting Colonel Munford with two regiments of cavalry, two regiments of Mahone's brigade under Colonel Parham, part of the Tenth Georgia Infantry, Chew's battery of four guns, and a section of navy howitzers, to guard the pass. The infantry regiments were posted behind stone walls at the base of the mountain, the cavalry dismounted on the flanks acting as sharp-shooters.

At noon General Franklin marched through Burkittsville with his leading division under General Slocum, holding the division under General W. F. Smith in reserve. His orders were to wait until Couch's division joined him, but he judged that the wait might be more favorable to the other side. Slocum deployed his brigades, Bartlett's, Newton's, and Torbert's, from right to left, posted Wolcott's battery of six guns on his left and rear, and followed the advance of his skirmish line, the right brigade leading. When the Confederate position was well developed, the skirmishers were retired, and the order to assault followed,--the right regiments of Newton's brigade supporting Bartlett's assault, the regiments on the left supporting Torbert's. The Confederates made a bold effort to hold, but the attack was too well organized and too cleverly pushed to leave the matter long in doubt. Their flanks, being severely crowded upon, soon began to drop off, when a sweeping charge of Slocum's line gained [230] the position. The brigades of General Brooks and Colonel Irwin of General Smith's division were advanced to Slocum's left and joined in pursuit, which was so rapid that the Confederates were not able to rally a good line; the entire mountain was abandoned to the Federals, and the pursuit ended. Some four hundred prisoners, seven hundred stand of arms, and one gun were their trophies in this affair. General Franklin's total loss was five hundred and thirty-three.1 General McLaws had ordered General Cobb's brigade and the other regiments of Mahone's to reinforce the troops at the gap, but they only came up as the Federals were making their sweeping charge, and were driven back with their discomfited comrades. General Semmes's brigade at the Brownsville Pass, a mile south, with five or six guns, attempted to relieve their comrades, but the range was too great for effective work. That McLaws was not prepared for the sudden onslaught is evident from the assurances made him by the cavalry commander. His orders for Cobb were severe enough, but Franklin was too prompt to allow Cobb to get to work. Upon hearing the noise of battle, he followed his orders, riding with General Stuart, but the game was played before he could take part in it. Night came and gave him time to organize his forces for the next day. Had the defenders been posted at the crest of the mountain it is probable they could have delayed the assaulting forces until reinforced. But cavalry commanders do not always post artillery and infantry to greatest advantage.

General Cobb made worthy effort to arrest the retreat and reorganize the forces, but was not able to fix a rallying-point till after the pass was lost and the troops were well out of fire of the pursuers. General Semmes came to his aid, with his staff, but could accomplish nothing [231] until he drew two of his regiments from Brownsville Pass and established them with a battery as a rallying-point. General McLaws reformed his line about a mile and a half south of the lost gap, and drew all of his force not necessary to the bombardment at Harper's Ferry to that line during the night.

Under cover of the night, Lieutenant-Colonel H. Davis, at the head of the Union cavalry, left Harper's Ferry, crossed the Potomac, marched up the left bank, through Sharpsburg, and made good his escape, capturing some forty or fifty Confederate wagons as they were moving south from Hagerstown.

We left McLaws in possession of Maryland Heights, on the 14th, with his best guns planted against the garrison at Harper's Ferry. The Potomac River was between his and Jackson's and Walker's forces, and the Shenandoah divided Jackson's and Walker's commands. Walker posted his division to defend against the escape from Harper's Ferry, and planted three Parrott guns of Captain French's battery and two rifle pieces of Captain Branch's on Loudoun Heights, having effective fire along Bolivar Heights. General Jackson sent word to McLaws and Walker that the batteries were not to open till all were ready, but the latter, hearing the engagement along South Mountain drawing nearer, and becoming impatient lest delay should prove fatal, ordered his guns to open against the batteries along Bolivar Heights, and silenced those under range.

General Jackson ordered A. P. Hill's division along the left bank of the Shenandoah to turn the enemy's left, the division under Lawton down the turnpike in support of Hill, and his own division to threaten against the enemy's right. Hill's division did its work in good style, securing eligible positions on the enemy's left and left rear of Bolivar Heights, and planted a number of batteries upon them during the night; and Jackson had some of [232] his best guns passed over the Shenandoah to commanding points near the base of Loudoun Heights. At daylight Lawton's command moved up close to the enemy. At the same time the batteries of Hill's division opened fire, and a little later all the batteries, including those of McLaws and Walker. The signal ordered for the storming columns was to be the cessation of artillery fire. In about one hour the enemy's fire ceased, when Jackson commanded silence upon his side. Pender's brigade started, when the enemy opened again with his artillery. The batteries of Pegram and Crenshaw dashed forward and renewed rapid fire, when the signal of distress was raised.

Colonel D. H. Miles, the Federal commander at Harper's Ferry, was mortally wounded, and the actual surrender was made by General White, who gave up eleven thousand prisoners, thirteen thousand small-arms, seventy-two cannon, quantities of quartermaster's stores and of subsistence.2 General Franklin had posted his division under General Couch at Rohrersville on the morning of the 15th, and proceeded to examine McLaws's line established the night before across Pleasant Valley. He found the Confederates strongly posted covering the valley, their flanks against the mountain-side. Before he could organize for attack the firing at Harper's Ferry ceased, indicating surrender of that garrison and leaving the troops operating there free to march against him. He prepared, therefore, for that eventuality.

The “lost order” directed the commands of Generals Jackson, McLaws, and Walker, after accomplishing the objects for which they had been detached, to join the main body of the army at Boonsborough or Hagerstown. Under the order and the changed condition of affairs, they were expected, in case of early capitulation at Harper's Ferry, [233] to march up the Rohrersville-Boonsborough road against McClellan's left. There were in those columns twenty-six of General Lee's forty brigades, equipped with a fair apportionment of artillery and cavalry. So it seemed to be possible that Jackson would order McLaws and Walker up the Rohrersville road, and move with his own corps through the river pass east of South Mountain, against McClellan's rear, as the speedier means of relief to General Lee's forces. But prudence would have gone with the bolder move of his entire command east of the mountain against McClellan's rear, with a fair field for strategy and tactics. This move would have disturbed McClellan's plans on the afternoon of the 15th, while there seemed little hope that McClellan would delay his attack until Jackson could join us, marching by the south side.

The field, and extreme of conditions, were more encouraging of results than was Napoleon's work at Arcola.

General Jackson judged it better to join us by the south side, marched promptly with two of his divisions (leaving A. P. Hill with six brigades to receive the surrender and captured property), then ordered Walker's and McLaws's troops to follow his march. With his report of surrender of the garrison he sent advice of his march by the south side to join us.

At daylight on the 15th the head of General Lee's column reached the Antietam. General D. H. Hill, in advance, crossed and filed into position to the left of the Boonsborough turnpike, G. B. Anderson on his right, Garland's brigade under Colonel McRae, Ripley, and Colquitt, Rodes in rear near Sharpsburg, my command on his right. The two brigades under Hood were on my right, Kemper, Drayton, Jenkins (under Colonel Walker), Washington Artillery, on the ridge near the turnpike, and S. D. Lee's artillery. Pickett's brigade (under Garnett) was in a second line, G. T. Anderson's brigade in rear of the battalions, Evans's brigade on the north side of the [234] turnpike; Toombs's brigade joined and was posted at bridge No. 3 (Burnside Bridge). As the battalions of artillery attached to the divisions were all that could find places, General Lee sent the reserve artillery under General Pendleton across the Potomac.

As soon as advised of the surrender and Jackson's march by the south side, my brigades under Hood were moved to the extreme left of the line, taking the division of General D. H. Hill within my limits, while three of S. D. Lee's batteries were sent in support of Hood's brigades. The pursuit ordered by General McClellan was the First, Second, and Twelfth Corps by the Boonsborough turnpike, the Ninth Corps and Sykes's division of the Fifth by the old Sharpsburg road; 3 the Ninth and Fifth to reinforce Franklin by the Rohrersville road, or move to Sharpsburg.

About two o'clock in the afternoon the advance of the Union army came in sight. General Porter had passed the Ninth Corps with his division under Sykes and joined Richardson's division of the Second. These divisions deployed on the right and left of the turnpike and posted their batteries, which drew on a desultory fire of artillery, continuing until night. The morning of the 16th opened as the evening of the previous day closed, except for the arrival of the remainder of the Union troops. The Ninth Corps took post at the lower bridge opposite the Confederate right, the First, the other divisions of the Second, and the Twelfth Corps resting nearer Keedysville. The display of their finely appointed batteries was imposing, as seen from Sharpsburg Heights.

Before maturing his plans, General McClellan had to make a careful reconnoissance, and to know of the disposition to be made of the Confederate forces from Harper's Ferry. [235]

Of the latter point he was informed, if not assured, before he posted the Ninth Corps. Four batteries of twenty-pound Parrotts were planted on the height overlooking the Antietam on their right; on the crest near the Burnside Bridge, Weed's three-inch guns and Benjamin's twenty-pound Parrotts. At intervals between those were posted some ten or more batteries, and the practice became more lively as the day wore on, till, observing the unequal combat, I ordered the Confederates to hold their ammunition, and the batteries of the other side, seeming to approve the order, slackened their fire.

The Antietam, hardly worthy the name river, is a sluggish stream coming down from Pennsylvania heights in a flow a little west of south till it nears the Potomac, when it bends westward to its confluence. It is spanned by four stone bridges,--at the Williamsport turnpike, the Boonsborough-Sharpsburg turnpike, the Rohrersville turnpike, and another near its mouth. The third was afterwards known as the Burnside Bridge. From the north suburbs of Sharpsburg the Hagerstown turnpike leads north a little west two miles, when it turns east of north to the vanishing point of operations. A mile and a half from Sharpsburg on the west of this road is the Dunker chapel, near the southern border of a woodland, which spreads northward half a mile, then a quarter or more westward. East of the pike were open fields of corn and fruit, with occasional woodlands of ten or twenty acres, as far as the stream, where some heavier forests cumbered the river banks. General Lee's line stood on the Sharpsburg Heights, his right a mile southeast of the village, the line extending parallel with the Hagerstown turnpike, three miles from his right, the left curved backward towards the rear, and towards the great eastern bend of the Potomac, near which were the cavalry and horse artillery. Along the broken line were occasional ridges of limestone cropping out in such shape as to give partial cover to [236] infantry lying under them. Single batteries were posted along the line, or under the crest of the heights, and the battalions of the Washington Artillery, Cutts's, and S. D. Lee's.

In forming his forces for the battle, General McClellan divided his right wing, posted the Ninth Corps on his left, at the Burnside Bridge, under General Cox, and assigned the First Corps, under General Hooker, for his right flank. General Burnside was retained on his left. The plan was to make the main attack against the Confederate left, or to make that a diversion in favor of the main attack, and to follow success by his reserve.

At two P. M. of the 16th, Hooker's First Corps crossed the Antietam at the bridge near Keedysville and a nearby ford, and marched against my left brigades, Generals Meade, Ricketts, and Doubleday commanding the divisions, battalions, and batteries of field artillery. The sharp skirmish that ensued was one of the marked preliminaries of the great battle; but the Federals gained nothing by it except an advanced position, which was of little benefit and disclosed their purpose.

General Jackson was up from Harper's Ferry with Ewell's division and his own, under Generals Lawton and Jones. They were ordered out to General Lee's left, and took post west of the Hagerstown turnpike, the right of his line resting on my left, under Hood, Winder's and Jones's brigades on the front, Starke's and Taliaferro's on the second line, Early's brigade of Ewell's division on the left of Jackson's division, with Hays's brigade for a second; Lawton's and Trimble's brigades were left at rest near the chapel; Poague's battery on Jackson's front; five other batteries prepared for action. Following Jackson's march to the left, General J. G. Walker came up with his two brigades, and was posted on my extreme right in the position left vacant by the change of Hood's brigades. [237]

General Hooker was joined, as he marched that afternoon, by his chief, who rode with him some little distance conversing of pending affairs. It subsequently transpired that Hooker thought the afternoon's work ordered for his corps (thirteen thousand) so far from support extremely venturesome, and he was right. Jackson was up and in position with two divisions well on the flank of the attack to be made by Hooker. Hood with S. D. Lee's batteries received Hooker's attack, and arrested its progress for the day. If Jackson could have been put into this fight, and also the brigades under J. G. Walker, Hooker's command could have been fought out, if not crushed, before the afternoon went out. He was beyond support for the day, and the posting along the Antietam was such-we will soon see — as to prevent effective diversion in his favor. Events that followed authorize the claim for this combination, that it would have so disturbed the plans of General McClellan as to give us one or two days more for concentration, and under that preparation we could have given him more serious trouble.

Hood's skirmish line was out to be driven, or drawn in, but throughout the severe engagement his line of battle was not seriously disturbed. After night General Jackson sent the brigades of Trimble and Lawton, under General Lawton, to replace Hood's men, who were ordered to replenish ammunition, and, after getting food, to resume their places on my right. Preparing for battle, General Jackson sent the brigade under General Early to support Stuart's cavalry and horse artillery, and Lawton drew his brigade, under General Hays, to support his others on the right of Jackson's division.

General Mansfield crossed during the night with the Twelfth Corps and took position supporting General Hooker's command, with the divisions of Generals A. S. Williams and George S. Greene, and field batteries.

A light rain began to fall at nine o'clock. The troops [238] along either line were near enough to hear voices from the other side, and several spats occurred during the night between the pickets, increasing in one instance to exchange of many shots; but for the most part there was silence or only the soft, smothered sound of the summer rain over all that field on which was to break in the morning the storm of lead and iron.

1 Rebellion Record, vol. XIX. part i. p. 183.

2 Rebellion Record, vol. XIX. part i. p. 961.

3 Rebellion Record, vol. XIX. part i. p. 47.

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