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Chapter 18: battle of Sharpsburg, or Antietam.

The field that I have described — the field lying along the Antietam and including in its scope the little town of Sharpsburg — was destined to pass into history as the scene of the bloodiest single day of fighting of the war, and that 17th of September was to become memorable as the day of greatest carnage in the campaigns between the North and South.

Gettysburg was the greatest battle of the war, but it was for three days, and its total of casualties on either side, terrible as it was, should be one-third larger to make the average per diem equal to the losses at Sharpsburg. Viewed by the measure of losses, Antietam was the fourth battle of the war, Spottsylvania and the Wilderness, as well as Gettysburg, exceeding it in number of killed and wounded, but each of these dragged its tragedy through several days.

Taking Confederate losses in killed and wounded as the criterion of magnitude in battles, the Seven Days Battle (following McClellan's retreat), Gettysburg, and Chickamauga exceeded Sharpsburg, but each of these occupied several days, and on no single day in any one of them was there such carnage as in this fierce struggle. [240]

The Confederates lost in killed and wounded in the Seven Days Battle 19,739,--more, it will be observed, than at Gettysburg (15,298), though the total loss, including 5150 captured or missing, at the latter, brought the figures up to those of the former (20,614), in which the captured or missing were only 875. Our killed and wounded at Chickamauga were 16,986, but that was in two days battle, while at Chancellorsville in three days the killed and wounded were 10,746. It is impossible to make the comparison with absolute exactness for the Confederate side, for the reason that our losses are given for the entire campaign in Maryland, instead of separately for the single great battle and several minor engagements. Thus computed they were 12,187.1 But nearly all of these are known to have been losses at Sharpsburg, and, making proper deductions for the casualties in other actions of the campaign, the Confederate loss in this single day's fighting was still in excess of that at the three days fight at Chancellorsville (10,746), and for the single day far larger proportionally than in the two days at Chickamauga, three days at Gettysburg, or seven days on the bloody Chickahominy.

But the sanguinary character of this battle is most strikingly exhibited by a comparison of the accurate figures of the Federal losses, returned specifically for the day. These show a total killed and wounded of 11,657 (or, including the captured and missing, 12,410), as contrasted with 17,567 killed and wounded in three days at Gettysburg, 16,141 in eight days at Spottsylvania, and 14,283 in the three days at the Wilderness, while the three and two days' fighting respectively at Chancellorsville and Chickamauga were actually productive of less loss than this battle of one day. The exceeding losses [241] of this battle are further shown by the fact that of the 11,657 Federals stricken on the field, the great number of 2108 were actually slain,--more than two-thirds of the number killed in three days at Gettysburg (3070). And this tremendous tumult of carnage was entirely compassed in the brief hours from dawn to four o'clock in the afternoon.

At three o'clock in the morning of the 17th firing along the picket lines of the confronting and expectant armies became quite frequent, and before daylight the batteries began to plough the fields in front of them, feeling, as it were, for the ranks of men whose destruction was better suited to their ugly purpose.

As the dawn came, the fire spread along both lines from left to right, across the Antietam and back again, and the thunder of the big guns became continuous and increased to mighty volume. To this was presently added the sharper rattling of musketry, and the surge of mingling sound sweeping up and down the field was multiplied and confused by the reverberations from the rocks and hills. And in this great tumult of sound, which shook the air and seemed to shatter the cliffs and ledges above the Antietam, bodies of the facing foes were pushed forward to closer work, and soon added the clash of steel to the thunderous crash of cannon-shots.

The first impact came from Hooker's right division under Doubleday, led by the choice brigade under Gibbon. It was deployed across the turnpike and struck the centre of Jackson's division, when close engagement was strengthened by the brigades of Patrick, Phelps, and part of Hofmann's, Ricketts's division, engaged in close connection along Lawton's front. Hooker supported his battle by his division under Meade, which called into action three of D. H. Hill's brigades,--Ripley's, Colquitt's, and McRae's. Hartsuff, the leading spirit of Ricketts's division, was the first general officer to fall severely hurt, [242] and later fell the commander of the corps, wounded also. General Starke, commanding Jackson's division, was killed. At six o'clock the Twelfth Corps came in, when General Lawton called for Hood's brigades, “and all the help he could bring.” Hood's and G. T. Anderson's brigades were put in, and the brigades from my right, under J. G. Walker, marched promptly in response to this call.

The weight of Mansfield's fight forced Jackson back into the middle wood at the Dunker chapel, and D. H. Hill's brigades to closer lines. Hood was in season to brace them, and hold the line as he found it. In this fight the corps commander, General Mansfield, fell, mortally wounded, which took from that corps some of its aggressive power.

Jackson, worn down and exhausted of ammunition, withdrew his divisions at seven A. M., except Early's brigade, that was with the cavalry. This he called back to vacant ground on Hood's left. Two detachments, one under Colonel Grigsby, of Virginia, the other under Colonel Stafford, of Louisiana, remained on the wooded ground off from the left of Jackson's position. One of the regiments of Early's brigade was left with the cavalry. Stuart retired to position corresponding to the line of Jackson's broken front. The brigade under G. T. Anderson joined on Hood's right, and the brigades under J. G. Walker coming up took place on Hood's left, Walker leaving two regiments to fill a vacant place between Anderson's brigade and Hood's right. Walker, Hood, and D. H. Hill attacked against the Twelfth Corps; worn by its fight against Jackson, it was driven back as far as the post-and-rail fence in the east open, where they were checked. They were outside of the line, their left in the air and exposed to the fire of a thirty-gun battery posted at long range on the Hagerstown road by General Doubleday. Their left was withdrawn, and the. [243] line rectified, when Greene's brigade of the Twelfth resumed position in the northeast angle of the wood, which it held until Sedgwick's division came in bold march.

In these fights offensive and defensive the artillery battalions under Lieutenant-Colonel S. D. Lee and Major Frobel were in active combat, the former from the first shot made before daylight. They had been severely worked, and were nearly exhausted of ammunition. The Washington Artillery was called on for a battery to assist them, and some of the guns of that battalion were sent for ammunition. Miller's battery of four Napoleon guns came.

As Jackson withdrew, General Hooker's corps retired to a point on the Hagerstown road about three-quarters of a mile north of the battle-ground, where General Doubleday established his thirty-gun battery. Jackson's and Hooker's men had fought to exhaustion, and the battle of the Twelfth Corps, taken up and continued by Mansfield, had taken defensive relations, its chief mortally wounded.

Generals Lawton, Ripley, and J. R. Jones were severely wounded, and Colonel Douglas, commanding Lawton's brigade, killed. A third of the men of Lawton's, Hays's, and Trimble's brigades were reported killed or wounded. Four of the field officers of Colquitt's brigade were killed, five were wounded, the tenth and last contused by a shell. All of Jackson's and D. H. Hill's troops engaged suffered proportionally. Hood's, Walker's, and G. T. Anderson's, though longer engaged, did not lose so severely.

General Hooker's aggregate of loss was 2590; General Mansfield's, 1746.

The Federal batteries, of position, on the east side were more or less busy during the engagement, having occasional opportunities for a raking fire on the troops along Jackson's line and my left. The horse artillery under [244] Stuart was strengthening to the Confederate left, and had occasional opportunities for destructive fire across the Union right when coming into action.

Although the battle along the line of contention had become defensive, there were threatening movements on the Boonsborough pike by Sykes's division and the horse artillery under Pleasonton, and Burnside was busy at his bridge, working to find his way across.

At the close of the Walker-Hood-Hill affair, Hood found his line making a large angle with the line of the latter, which was rectified, drawing in the angle. Early's regiments were in the wood between Walker and the cavalry, and the detachments under Colonels Grigsby and Stafford in the wood some distance in advance of Early's left.

The line thus organized was thin and worn by severe attrition. Tie men were losing strength and the ammunition getting low. Some gathered cartridges from their fallen comrades and distributed them as far as they would go, others went for fresh supplies.

McLaws's column came up at nine o'clock. He reported at General Lee's Headquarters, where he was ordered at rest, and afterwards reported to me, with General Lee's orders for his own division, and asked the disposition to be made of R. H. Anderson's. He was ordered to send the latter to report to General D. H. Hill.

Coincident with these arrivals, heavy columns of Federal infantry and artillery were seen crossing the Antietam. Morell's division of the Fifth Corps was up and relieved Richardson's of the Second, which had been in our front since its arrival on the 15th. Richardson's following the march of the troops by the upper crossing advised us that the next engagement would be by the Second Corps, under General Sumner; Sedgwick's division was in the lead as they marched. Our left centre was almost exhausted of men and ammunition. The divisions of French and [245] Richardson followed in left echelon to Sedgwick. Hood's brigades had retired for fresh supply of ammunition, leaving the guard to Walker's two brigades, G. T. Anderson's brigade on Walker's right, part of Early's brigade on Walker's left, and the regiments under Colonels Grigsby and Stafford off the left front. McLaws's division was called for, and on the march under conduct of Major Taylor of general Headquarters staff.

At sight of Sumner's march, General Early rode from the field in search, as he reported, of reinforcements. His regiments naturally waited on the directions of the leader.

General Sumner rode with his leading division under General Sedgwick, to find the battle. Sedgwick marched in column of brigades, Gorman, Dana, and Howard. There was no officer on the Union side in charge of the field, the other corps commanders having been killed or wounded. General Sumner testified,--

On going upon the field I found that General Hooker's corps had been dispersed and routed. I passed him some distance in the rear, where he had been carried wounded, but I saw nothing of his corps at all, as I was advancing with my command on the field. There were some troops lying down on the left which I took to belong to Mansfield's command. In the mean time General Mansfield had been killed, and a portion of his corps (formerly Banks's) had also been thrown into confusion.2

He passed Greene's brigade of the Twelfth, and marched through the wood, leaving the Dunker chapel on his left.

As McLaws approached, General Hood was sent to give him careful instructions of the posture, of the grounds, and the impending crisis. He marched with his brigades, --Cobb's, Kershaw's, Semmes's, and Barksdale's. The leading brigade filed to the right, before the approaching [246] march. Kershaw's leading regiment filed into line as Sedgwick's column approached the south side of the Dunker chapel wood,--the latter on a diagonal march,while Kershaw's regiment was in fair front against it.

Relative positions of McLaws and other Confederates and Sedgwick at their opening.

The regiment opened prompt fire, and the other regiments came into line in double time, opening fire by company as they came to the front. The other brigades came into line by companies, and forward into line by regiments. Armistead's brigade had been drawn from R. H. Anderson's column to reinforce McLaws.

Sedgwick's diagonal march exposed his left to a scattering fire from Walker's left brigade under M. Ransom, but he kept his steady march while Walker increased his fire. McLaws increasing his fire staggered the march of Sedgwick, and presently arrested it. The regiments under Colonels Stafford and Grigsby, coming from their lurking-places, opened fire on Sedgwick's right rear. At McLaws's opening Sedgwick essayed to form line of battle; the increasing fire on his right and left [247] rear, with the terrible fire in front, was confusing, but the troops were eager to return the fire they found pouring into their lines from three-quarters of a circle. To counter the rear fire of Walker, General Sumner ordered the rear brigade to face about. The troops, taking this to mean a rearward march, proceeded to execute it without awaiting further orders, which was soon followed by the other brigades.

McLaws and Walker, pushing their success, were joined by G. T. Anderson's, the brigades of D. H. Hill's left, and those of R. H. Anderson's division, making strong battle through the woodland and open to the post-and-rail fence and to the Roulette House, where they encountered Sumner's division under French, and parts of the Twelfth Corps rallied on that part of the field. This contention was firm and wasting on both sides, but held with persevering courage until Richardson's reserve, under Brooke, was put against Hill's right and broke the Confederate line back to the woodlands south of the chapel, where Early's regiments had formed a rallying line.

When Hill's right was struck and pressed so severely, Rodes's brigade, the reserve of his division, was ordered out to support his right. The brigade advanced in good strong battle, but General Rodes reported that he could not move his Sixth Alabama Regiment in time, notwithstanding his personal efforts; that with the support of that regiment the battle line of the Confederates could have waited other supports.

General Sumner was eager in riding with his leading division. He was always anxious to get in in time to use all of his power, and thought others like himself. Had he formed the corps into lines of divisions, in close echelon, and moved as a corps, he would have marched through and opened the way for Porter's command at bridge No. 2, and Pleasonton's cavalry, and for Burnside at the third bridge, and forced the battle back to the river bank. [248]

He was criticised for his opposition to Franklin's proposed attack, but the chances are even that he was right. The stir among Franklin's troops was observed from a dead angle of our lines, and preparations were made to meet it. General Jackson was marching back to us, and it is possible that the attack might have resulted in mingling our troops with Franklin's down on the banks of the Antietam.

After this fight the artillery battalions of S. D. Lee and Frobel, quite out of ammunition, retired to replenish. The battery of Napoleons was reduced to one section, that short of ammunition and working hands.

General Hill rallied the greater part of G. B. Anderson's and Rodes's brigades in the sunken road. Some of Ripley's men came together near Miller's guns at the Hagerstown pike. General R. H. Anderson and his next in rank, General Wright, were wounded. The next officer, General Pryor, not advised of his new authority, the brigades assembled at points most suited to their convenience, in rear of D. H. Hill's brigades.

But time was up. Confederate affairs were not encouraging. Our men were all leg-weary and heavy to handle, while McClellan, with his tens of thousands, whom he had marched in healthful exercise the past two weeks, was finding and pounding us from left to right under converging fire of his batteries east and west of the Antietam.

The signal of the approaching storm was the bursting of Richardson's command, augmented by parts of French's division, through the field of corn, hardly ruffled by the affair at the Roulette House, spreading its grand march against our centre. They came in brave style, in full appreciation of the work in hand, marched better than on drill, unfolded banners making gay their gallant step.

The Fifth Corps and Pleasonton's cavalry were in active preparation to cross at the second bridge and join [249] on Richardson's left, and Burnside at the third bridge was pressing his claim for a passage against our right.

I had posted G. T. Anderson's brigade behind a stone fence near the Hagerstown pike, about the safest spot to be found on the field of Sharpsburg,--a dead angle, so to speak. The batteries on the field north and the long-range thirty-gun battery of General Doubleday were playing their fire down the pike, taking their aim by the direction of the road, where they stood. This brought their fire into the field about one hundred yards in rear of Anderson's line. As the fire came from an enfilade direction, the troops assumed that they were under enfilade fire, and General Anderson changed position without reporting. General D. H. Hill got hold of him and moved him to the Boonsborough pike to defend against Sykes's and Pleasonton's forces, advancing in that quarter. Thus, when Richardson's march approached its objective, the Confederates had Boyce's battery, well out in the corn-field, facing the march; Miller's section of Napoleons in the centre, and a single battery at McLaws's rear, with fragments of scattered brigades along the pike, and the Twenty-seventh North Carolina Regiment to hold the left centre, besides the brigades in the sunken road, and the brigades of R. H. Anderson's division awaiting the bloody struggle. They received the severe attack in firm holding for a long half-hour, the enemy pressing closer at intervals, until an order of General Rodes's was misconstrued and part of his brigade under Lieutenant- Colonel Lightfoot, of the Sixth Alabama Regiment, was forced to the rear, and marched off, informing others that that was the order.

General G. B. Anderson fell mortally wounded. The enemy pressed in on his outer flank and called for surrender of the forces cut off and outflanked. Meagher's brigade was retired to replenish ammunition, and Barlow swung to his right and came against our fragments about [250] Miller's guns, standing near his flank. Miller had two guns, the others off for a supply of ammunition. Cooke's Twenty-seventh North Carolina Regiment was well organized, but short of ammunition; fragments of Ripley's brigade and some others were on the turnpike; Miller was short of hands and ammunition, even for two guns; McLaws's division and the other part of Walker's were in front of threatenings of parts of French's division and of troops rallying on their front, and the Sixth Corps was up and coming against them, so that it seemed hazardous to call them off and leave an open way. Our line was throbbing at every point, so that I dared not call on General Lee for help. Sergeant Ellis thought that he could bring up ammunition if he was authorized to order it. He was authorized, and rode for and brought it. I held the horses of some of my staff who helped to man the guns as cannoneers.

As the attacking forces drew nearer, Colonel Cooke reported his ammunition exhausted. He was ordered to hold on with the bayonet, and sent in return that he would “hold till ice forms in regions where it was never known,” or words to that effect. As Richardson advanced through the corn he cut off the battery under Boyce, so that it was obliged to retire to save itself, and as Barlow came upon our centre, the battery on our left was for a time thrown out of fire lest they might injure friend as much as foe. Barlow marched in steady good ranks, and the remnants before him rose to the emergency. They seemed to forget that they had known fatigue; the guns were played with life, and the brave spirits manning them claimed that they were there to hold or to go down with the guns.

As our shots rattled against the armored ranks, Colonel Fairfax clapped his hands and ran for other charges. The mood of the gunners to a man was one of quiet but unflinching resolve to stand to the last gun. Captain [251] Miller charged and double-charged with spherical case and canister until his guns at the discharge leaped in the air from ten to twelve inches.

When the crest was reached, the rush that was expected to sweep us away paused,--the Confederates became hopeful. Soon the advancing ranks lay behind the crest, and presently drew nearer Richardson's part of the line, then mounting the crest over the Piper House. This latter point, once established, must cut and break the Confederate position as effectually as our centre just saved. He occupied the Piper House with two regiments under Colonel Brooke in advance of his line along the crest, and called up some of his batteries.

The Confederates meanwhile were collecting other batteries and infantry in defence, when a shot from one of our batteries brought Richardson down, mortally wounded. His taking-off broke the aggressive spirit of the division and reduced its fight to the defensive. The regiments at the Piper House found their position thus advanced too much exposed, and withdrew to the stronger line of the crest. General Meagher's brigade came up with ammunition replenished. General Hancock was despatched to take command of the division. In the midst of the tragedy, as Richardson approached the east crest, there was a moment of amusement when General Hill, with about fifty men and a battle-flag, ran to gain a vantage-point for flank fire against Richardson's left. Colonel Ross, observing the move and appreciating the opportunity, charged with two regiments for the same and secured it. General Hill claimed (and rightly) that it had effect in giving the impression that there were other forces coming to support him.

Another regiment came to the relief of the Twenty-seventh, under Cooke. The movement of troops in that quarter was construed by the enemy as a threatened flank move against Richardson, which caused some little delay [252] in his march. Though the Confederates had but fragments here and there, the enemy were kept busy and watchful lest they should come upon another surprise move.

The Confederates were surprised but much relieved when they found this affair reduced to the defensive, and assumed that every missile they sent must have found one or more victims. But accounts of the other side make clear that the result was due to accidental artillery shots that cut down Colonel Barlow, the aggressive spirit of Richardson's right column, and General Richardson himself at his culminating moment. Barlow fell from a case or canister-shot, as did Richardson. All the Union accounts refer to a battery on their right throwing shell, and the “two brass guns in front throwing case and canister,” and this latter was the only artillery at work against them at the time of Barlow's fall. When Barlow's command drew nearer the division the brass guns were turned upon Richardson, but at the moment of his taking-off another battery was in action on his left. General D. H. Hill thought that Carter's battery was in time to divide the honor of the last shot with the section of Napoleons under Miller.

Orders were given General Pleasonton, at the second bridge, to be ready to enter the battle as soon as the attack by Richardson should open the way. To meet these orders skirmishers were advanced, and Tidball's battery, by piece, using canister, to drive back the Confederate sharp-shooters. The Fifth Corps (General Porter's) was ordered to be ready for like service.

When Richardson swung his line up along the crest at the Piper House, Pleasonton advanced troopers and batteries, crossed the bridge at a gallop by the Fifth Regular Cavalry, Farnsworth's brigade, Rush's brigade, two regiments of the Fifth Brigade under B. F. Davis, and the batteries of Tidball, Robertson, Hains, and Gibson. The [253] batteries were put into action under the line of skirmishers, that were reinforced by Sykes's division of the Fifth and Tenth Infantry under Lieutenant Poland.

General Hill seized a musket and by example speedily collected a number of men, who joined him in reinforcing the line threatened by this heavy display. The parts of brigades under General Pryor, Colonels Cummings, Posey, and G. T. Anderson afterwards got up to help the brigade of Evans already there. By these, with the batteries of Squires, Gardner, and Richardson, this threatening demonstration was checked. Then it was reinforced by the batteries of Randol, Kusserow, and Van Reed, and the Fourth United States Infantry, Captain Dryer; the first battalion of the Twelfth, Captain Blount; second battalion of the Twelfth, Captain Anderson; first battalion of the Fourteenth, Captain Brown, and second battalion of the Fourteenth, Captain McKibbin, of Sykes's division; the batteries posted to command the field, right and left, to cover Sumner's and Burnside's fronts, as soon as they could rise to the plateau. S. D. Lee's batteries were back on the crest, replenished of ammunition, while the Union batteries were on low ground, near the river. A very clever well-organized advance was made, but their advantages of position and the tenacious hold of the Confederates, even after the attack reached the crest, enabled them to drive back the assaulting forces. The horse batteries went back to positions on the west side after replenishing with ammunition, except Gibson's, which was put in defensive attitude on the east. Pleasonton, with a comprehensive view of the opportunity, called for additional force, but two of Morell's brigades had been ordered by the upper crossing to Sumner's relief, and a detachment had been sent to assist Burnside, which reduced the Fifth Corps to the minimum of force necessary to the service to which it was assigned; not equal to the aggressive fight to which it was invited. But for the breaking up of [254] Richardson's aggression, this last advance could have gained the field.

The Third Brigade of the Second Division, Sixth Corps, made an erratic march across part of the field, the Seventh Maine Regiment leading, and retired like a meteor that loses its own fire.

A little after one o'clock this and other parts of the line, except at the Burnside Bridge, settled down to defensive. Burnside was still hard at work in search of a practical line of advance, Toombs standing manfully against him.

During the lull, after the rencounter of Walker's, Hill's, and Hood's divisions against Mansfield's last fight, General Lee and myself, riding together under the crest of General D. H. Hill's part of the line, were joined by the latter. We were presently called to the crest to observe movements going on in the Union lines. The two former dismounted and walked to the crest; General Hill, a little out of strength and thinking a single horseman not likely to draw the enemy's fire, rode. As we reached the crest I asked him to ride a little apart, as he would likely draw fire upon the group. While viewing the field a puff of white smoke was seen to burst from a cannon's mouth about a mile off. I remarked, “There is a shot for General Hill,” and, looking towards him, saw his horse drop on his knees. Both forelegs were cut off just below the knees. The dropping forward of the poor animal so elevated his croup that it was not an easy matter for one not an expert horseman to dismount à la militaire. To add to the dilemma, there was a rubber coat with other wraps strapped to the cantle of the saddle. Failing in his attempt to dismount, I suggested that he throw his leg forward over the pommel. This gave him easy and graceful dismount. This was the third horse shot under him during the day, and the shot was one of the best I ever witnessed. An equally good one was made by a Confederate at Yorktown. An officer of the [255] Topographical Engineers walked into the open, in front of our lines, fixed his plane table and seated himself to make a map of the Confederate works. A non-commissioned officer, without orders, adjusted his gun, carefully aimed it, and fired. At the report of the gun all eyes were turned to see the occasion of it, and then to observe the object, when the shell was seen to explode as if in the hands of the officer. It had been dropped squarely upon the drawing-table, and Lieutenant Wagner was mortally wounded.3 Of the first shot, Major Alfred A. Woodhull, under date of June 8, 1886, wrote,--

On the 17th of September, 1862, I was standing in Weed's battery, whose position is correctly given in the map, when a man on, I think, a gray horse, appeared about a mile in front of us, and footmen were recognized near. Captain Weed, who was a remarkable artillerist, himself sighted and fired the gun at the horse, which was struck.

1 Some authorities say (including a small number of “captured or missing” ) 12,601.

2 Report of Committee, part i. p. 368.

3 Of this shot, Captain A. B. More, of Richmond, Virginia, wrote, under date of June 16, 1886,--

“ The Howitzers have always been proud of that shot, and, thinking it would interest you, I write to say that it was fired by Corporal Holzburton, of the Second Company, Richmond Howitzers, from a ten-pound Parrott.”

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