previous next

Chapter 43:

  • McClellan's unaccountable inaction
  • -- activity of Lee and Jackson -- engagements at the South Mountain -- approach of the Federals to Sharpsburgh -- battle of Antietam, or Sharpsburgh, September seventeenth -- an indecisive engagement -- retreat of the Southern army into Virginia -- Jackson guards the rear, and repulse of the enemy's advance -- guard, etc.

From a general review of our operations between the time of Jackson's departure from Frederick on the eleventh and the surrender of Harper's Ferry on the fifteenth, and from an estimate of the forces and the distance of the two armies operating within so few miles of each other during that time, McClellan's tardiness of action, in the face of Jackson's small force and activity, seemed to me inexplicable. The advance posts of the Federal cavalry exchanged shots with ours on the banks of the Monocacy on the eleventh, and at that time the true state of affairs must have been known to Federal commanders, for Union sympathizers were numerous, and many escaped through our lines who could have given every information. On the twelfth, when Jackson had crossed into Virginia, and appeared before the enemy, strongly posted on the Bolivar Heights, numerous cavalry men had left Miles's command, who, doubtless, did fully inform McClellan of the contemplated investment of Harper's Ferry. Under these circumstances, his divergence from the true route to the Ferry by Petersville and Crampton's Gap, to attack Hill in the strong positions of Boonesborough and Turner's Gap, was unaccountable, unless, indeed, he was misled by fabulous rumors regarding our strength and resources at the former place.

Had McClellan acted with energy, and taken the river road to Harper's Ferry, there was nothing to prevent him from raising the siege; and by passing over into Virginia, he would have completely cut off our retreat by the several fords above. It is true that such a movement would have left Maryland [479] unprotected, and Lee might have marched on to Washington without serious resistance, and this may be the true reason for McClellan's movements. He could have had no doubt that Lee would have willingly availed himself of such a chance, and, having a shorter route to travel, he might have outmarched him, and taken Washington, perhaps, ere the Federal commander could have traversed the south bank, and arrived at the Chain, or Long Bridges, to cross over and oppose him. Nevertheless, when he heard of the investment on the twelfth, he might certainly have relieved the place from the Maryland side, at least; or, by suddenly and rapidly marching on Lee and Longstreet, have forced an engagement, and possibly defeated both those generals before Jackson, Ambrose Hill, and McLaws could have reenforced them. The truth is, McClellan was too slow and — cautious-he was not equal to the occasion; and while revolving the chances before him, Miles surrendered, and part of our force had crossed into Maryland again, and was quietly waiting in Lee's lines for the Federal advance.

When Lee was made aware of D. H. Hill's retreat from the various gaps in the South Mountain, and that McClellan's army was pouring through them, he became fully convinced that the Federal commanders were determined to provoke a general engagement before Jackson and others could come to his relief. On the evening of the fifteenth, therefore, when fully assured of the fall of Harper's Ferry, he withdrew his forces (fifty thousand strong) towards Sharpsburgh, and crossing Antietam River, arranged his line of battle on the west bank, and seemed determined to hold the position until the arrival of his whole force. On that same day, McClellan's army, some ninety-five thousand strong, with three hundred pieces of artillery, were at Reedysville, but a few miles east of the river, and was reported to be slowly approaching.

The Antietam River strikes the Potomac almost at right angles, and is spanned by three bridges; the centre one being on the direct road to Sharpsburgh, not more than three quarters of a mile beyond; the second was about two miles lower down, and commanded a road which swept towards the Potomac; and the third was at least two miles above the central one, and conducted a road which led direct to Hagerstown. [480] Beyond this upper bridge the stream is fordable in many places. The river runs through a small valley, and parallel with it the land gradually rises, but on the west bank is far more hilly and broken than on the east; while at the bridge leading direct to Sharpsburgh, and at the lower one, all approach is commanded by bluffs or hillocks, so that a defending force could be well screened behind them, and any troops attacking be exposed to great loss in attempting to force a passage. At the upper parts of our line, which was formed on or behind this series of undulations, the stream stretched away to the east, so that an enemy could easily ford the river above us, and operate on our left flank.

Our forces were so disposed as to command all approach to the bridges over the Antietam; Longstreet commanding the right, Lee the centre, and D. H. Hill the left; but our line appeared so weak, scattered as it was over more than four miles, that it seemed almost impossible it could withstand a numerous enemy energetically assailing it. On the fifteenth, our cavalry were busy annoying the enemy's advance, and conducting long trains within the lines, which were immediately sent forward into Virginia. Meanwhile the long line of dust rising over the landscape in various directions, and the appearance of white canvas-covered wagons slowly moving over the light green fields, or disappearing in, and emerging from, the woods, gave every evidence that an immense force was cautiously approaching to the attack. Our main army was in perplexed thought regarding Jackson's movements, and felt extremely anxious for his speedy junction. Strong picket-guards were thrown out; light artillery, with heavy infantry supports, were within short distance of the bridges; and active squads of cavalry were continually moving from point to point along our whole front.

On the sixteenth, when the mists of morning had risen from the landscape, the smoke of camp-fires extending east of the river told us that the enemy had placed their troops in position parallel to ours; but, from the quantity of smoke ascending, we judged that their centre and right centre were much more heavily guarded than any other portion of their lines. Severe skirmishing took place with bodies of troops along both banks of the river, and, as would appear, with some effect on our side, for the enemy seemed to desist, and never endeavored [481] to make any decided advance in their centre or left. It would appear that McClellan was as totally unaware of our position as of our strength, for he instantly opened a furious cannonade along our whole front, and on his left (commanded by Burnside) the storm of shot and shell was so fierce and incessant that numerous missiles passed harmlessly over our heads, and fell within the village or town of Sharpsburgh, causing much destruction of property. Perhaps it was the desire of McClellan to ascertain our force and true position, but in this he was grievously deceived, for, except a few field-batteries which here and there replied to his vindictive cannonade, no display of force was made on our side. We bided our time patiently, feeling assured that Lee had successfully deceived them as to our position and force, and that their main attack would be delayed until the arrival of Jackson and others should reenforce and equalize the strength of our lines.

Soon after noon, while the rival batteries were contending at the centre and lower bridges, and other parts of the line, the appearance of heavy forces approaching to and threatening our left, gave positive assurance that the enemy were about to commence operations by out-flanking and attacking us in the weakest part of our position. Hood and other stubborn leaders held this ground, and the fight soon became animated and determined. The enemy, in strong force, had appeared at the upper bridge and fords above about three o'clock P. M., and forced a passage; but, although our defence of those positions, from paucity of forces, was somewhat feeble, the Federals suffered extremely ere gaining a positive footing west of the stream. As their advance for the most part was through open fields, and over very gently-rising grounds, the sweep of our artillery, and accurate aim of the best sharpshooters in the world, (Texans,) told with disastrous effect upon their heavy columns. Confusion was frequent among their ranks, and it required the utmost efforts of the officers, aided by their personal example, to induce the troops to keep ranks and advance upon us. Field-officers rode to the front with a great show of gallantry; but it was not until fully satisfied of our weakness that they moved forward with any spirit of determination..

To us it was matter of surprise that the few troops protecting our left should have made such a determined resistance, [482] and have held so long the large forces of the enemy in check. Nor did the news of their withdrawal from the disputed position cause any annoyance, for we were well aware that the gently-rising ground extending to the dense woods beyond was still held by them, and that it commanded all approach in that direction. The enemy, indeed, seemed well contented to remain in the captured belt of timber, and did not dare to occupy the open grounds and fields of still standing corn which intervened between their own position and ours. Yet, from the multitude of fresh troops pouring upon the scene, and taking up positions to our front and left, it was immediately perceived that their real object was to turn it, and threaten our retreat to the Potomac. Their numbers were so great that many of us felt uneasy for the morrow, and their pickets in many places were uncomfortably near to ours. How long Jackson would be absent none could conjecture, and great uneasiness was manifested by many high in command.

It is possible, however, that the enemy's early discovery of our weakness on the left saved us from disaster, for they instantly began to mass most of their troops in that direction, thus forewarning Lee where to send all available reenforcements that might arrive during the night or on the morrow. No demonstration of a serious character had been made on our centre or right during the day, and it was reasonable to suppose that the heavy concentration of troops against our left was more than a feint; for, should the impending action be severely pressed on the next day, the distance was too great for these masses to be countermarched against any other parts of our line. Our outposts were unusually vigilant and active during night, and kept Headquarters fully informed of all that transpired. The enemy had gained ground in no direction save the left, and our new position there was considered preferable to the first, from which we had been driven during the afternoon, for the corn-fields were excellent shelter, the fences good concealment and protection against infantry, while to the rear of these the ground gradually rose to thick woods, in which were planted several excellent batteries.

While seated round camp-fires, and chatting during the silence of night, faint sounds of cheering in our rear, the gradually increasing noise caused by the arrival of mounted men, [483] the sounds of artillery bugles, and the perceptible tramp of heavy columns, gave pleasing indications of the approach of reenforcements. The arrival of couriers and the jingle of artillery soon dispelled any doubt that existed about the character of the new arrivals; it was the victorious Jackson advancing from Harper's Ferry, and his columns came in with such order, and made such a rustle among the deep deposit of leaves, that it seemed to doubly magnify their numbers and strength. They swiftly passed through the woods and took position on the left. which movement occasioned many changes, so that regiments and batteries were continually passing to and fro. Faint cheering was occasionally heard within the enemy's lines during the night, and the shouts of the drivers proved that their artillery was in motion. On our right and centre, all was remarkably quiet; but on our left frequent picket-firing aroused the advanced posts, for the sentinels of both armies were extremely close, and ours, concealed in fields of standing corn, occupied all our front down to the fence, where a small space of open fields intervened between our position and that of the Federal army.

As morning approached, many of our men sallied forth beyond the standing corn, to despoil the Federal dead; and this being perceived, brought out the enemy's pickets, who opened a brisk and lively fire. It must be confessed the audacity of our men in this proceeding was beyond all precedent; for, in the woods immediately beyond, the enemy were in imposing force, and certainly flushed with their success of the previous evening.

A constant picket-firing on our left gave warning that the action would soon open, our troops rose long before day, and the most provident cooked themselves breakfast, and, smoking their pipes, sat in groups, chatting sociably, not knowing at what moment all would be summoned to “fall in.” Soon simple picket-firing was succeeded by the roar of musketry; whole volleys occasionally broke upon the ear at different points of the line, which, together with the occasional roar of howitzers and rifled pieces, was more than enough to rouse the entire army. Commanders were busily engaged, and rode from place to place, with a business-like air; no hurry or confusion was [484] visible; all seemed to look upon the matter with indifference and cheerfulness. Most of our troops had smelt powder long before, and they simply said, “Another day's work is before us,” and tightly buckled their straps and belts, as if bound for a march, or a long fatiguing drill.

Fighting on our left now commenced in earnest; troops which had been prowling about fields fronting the standing corn were seen to hasten their movements, and on came the Yankee line of battle in good order. Observing our clouds of skirmishers rapidly withdrawing from their front, and disappearing in the corn-fields, they gave loud cheers, and thought that little resistance would be offered until they had arrived at the top of the hill, or had found shelter in the woods. Their mistake was a grievous one. As the Federal line of battle reached the fence, up rose our men from their concealment among the corn, and delivered successive volleys right in the faces of their foes, who, surprised and staggering with loss, retreated back over the open ground, and were cut up fearfully by our batteries, which now opened with rapidity from our rear. So accurate was the fire that whole files of Federal soldiers lay dead, parallel with the fence.

Hundreds of shell from the enemy now dropped in all directions, making our position in the standing corn very unpleasant; and although we disputed their advance stubbornly, they gradually forced us back, until they penetrated into the corn-fields, which their heavy line of battle bent and broke, as they came sweeping onward with loud cheers. Supposing us to be beaten at this point, their commander lost no time, but seemed determined to push forward rapidly and smash our left wing. As brigade after brigade rushed gallantly forward, they were subjected to a continuous and galling fire; but no token was given of our strength in the dense timber, to which our men now fell rapidly back, in skirmishing order. When the enemy had traversed the corn-fields, and reached the summit of the “rise,” the ground slightly “dipped” towards the fence and road, so that our commanders in the woods had full view of the Federal force as it advanced. Every fence and every tree was made available by our sharpshooters, who constantly poured into their heavy masses a galling fire. Still onwards [485] they came impetuously, and, from their hurried movements, were apparently breathless. Down went every fence in their path, as they rapidly crossed the road towards the woods, and lustily they cheered, as the last of our skirmishers disappeared from their front, and were lost in the dark, thick timber.

All was silence within our lines; regiments were lying flat on their faces with rifles cocked, and cautiously peered at the enemy as they came rushing into the woods in great masses, and with much noise. Suddenly, up rose Jackson's line of battle, the enemy halted, a moment of awful silence ensued, no man stirred, and then deafening, quick, accurate, and numerous volleys broke from our lines. The enemy were too thick to be missed; and, amid frightful loss and confusion, they broke and rushed forth from the woods, trembling like beings who had seen some dreadful apparition..

Soon as these fugitive masses had gained open ground, our batteries in rapid succession broke loose, belching forth grape and canister in such profusion that the infernal storm could be heard raining upon them with a hissing noise, and it literally ploughed furrows in the dark, confused masses, so that daylight could be seen through them at every discharge. Round shot bounded and bounced, and shells, after whizzing over head dropped with loud explosions in the dark groups rushing through the corn-fields and dotting the landscape. The carnage was frightful. Through these fields the enemy (exulting in their success of the previous day) had come cheering in dense lines but a few moments before; they had swept from their front every man opposed to them, and had entered the woods with deafening shouts. They had not been lost to view many minutes ere they rushed back in confused, bleeding, staggering masses of human beings, without order, without officers, pursued by our lines of battle; rapidly our brave fellows pushed over the well-fought fields, and, amid showers of shell, kept close to the fleeing foe, and incessantly poured into their shattered ranks murderous volleys, which whistled through the corn, and peopled every acre with scores of dead.

Field officers of the enemy gallantly rode to the front, and endeavored to rally their brigades. Reenforcements were seen approaching to their relief through open fields beyond; but [486] onward pressed our victorious men, and did not halt until the foe was safely screened in their original position of the morning.1

Fighting on the left had now lasted several hours-our men were thoroughly exhausted, and unable to advance farther upon the enemy. In truth, it would not have been wise to do so; for our present position for defence was preferable ground to any we could win. Cannonading now opened with great fury on both sides; and it was soon ascertained that the foe was largely reenforced, and beginning another advance.2 This they did in gallant style; but were met again by such a determined, withering fire, and their loss was so great, that no impression could be made upon our position; not only were they loth to follow us into the woods, but they were quickly beaten and demoralized in open ground. Constant volleys were now exchanged by both sides; and, as reenforcements arrived for Jackson, they were immediately thrown in front to withstand the third attack,3 then organizing along the enemy's right, which was to be composed of all the commands there present.

The new line of the enemy seemed to be of immense strength; but as they came fully into view our artillery opened upon them with such rapidity and accuracy that great confusion and disorder began to reign ere they came sufficiently close to exchange shots with our infantry. Long and constant volleys resounded along our whole wing; both combatants were stationary; sometimes we slightly gave ground, and again recovered it, until at last our fire began to tell among the enemy; and it seemed that little was now required to drive them completely from the field. While indecision seemed to reign among Federal commanders, ours were unanimous for an advance; and, when the order was received, loud cheers and yells burst forth from all our troops, and the cannonade re-opened with redoubled fury. The onset was furious, nothing seemed to withstand the impetuosity of our men; the enemy gradually withdrew from the open grounds in much confusion. Fresh divisions4 were hurried to the front to check our advance. [487] The meeting was terrible, but the shock of short duration: beaten again and again, they were at last driven beyond the position originally occupied, when Hooker's attack began the previous afternoon.

Through woods and copse, across corn-fields and ploughed fields, grassy slopes and meadows, over gullies, ditches, brooks, and fences, the combatants in this wing had contended since early morning, and their lines had advanced or retreated again and again, until it seemed that every acre of the landscape was strewn with dead. Tokens of carnage were visible on every hand; the woods were torn and shattered; the corn and grass were trodden under foot; outhouses and farmhouses were heaps of blazing ruins; while for miles, long lines of smoke ascended over the fertile valley, and numerous batteries uninterruptedly belched forth showers of shot and shell. Still the contending lines swayed and advanced, or broke and retreated, so that, to civilized beings, it seemed like some ghastly panorama of things transpiring in a nether world.

Jackson's. impetuous advance at length halted. His men had far surpassed their olden fame; but it soon became apparent that weakness was enfeebling our efforts, and that without reenforcements we could not maintain the conquered ground, should any fresh body of the enemy assail us. Indications were not wanting to prove the enemy's activity, and the signal corps soon gave warning that fresh and heavy masses were concentrating and forming, to make a final effort to dislodge us from our advanced position. Soon the enemy appeared to our front again, and advanced with a steadiness which plainly indicated they had never yet pulled trigger during the day. The meeting was fierce, vindictive, and bitter; volleys were given and returned incessantly, their artillery slowly moved up to the front, and our line began to fall back with regularity and coolness. We would again retrace our steps, and invite them into the woods, where their first attacking corps had so suddenly melted away. Slowly we fell back, and still more cautiously did the enemy pursue. For some time the fight was maintained by us in open ground, and our superior fire inflicted great loss among them. Through the corn-fields once more we enticed the enemy onward, and boldly they advanced to try there again [488] the fortune of war. Once within the timber our generals quickly prepared for. their coming, and fell back some distance.

Forward still the enemy came over the numerous dead of their own army; but, ere they entered the woods, they opened a long and fierce cannonade, throwing hundreds of shell and round shot on those spots which we were supposed to occupy. Our men, however, having re-formed much farther back than at first, these missiles fell short; not a man of our line was touched, but all lay quietly on their faces until daylight was shut out from our front by the dark massive lines of the enemy, who, slowly approaching, made the woods echo with their cheers. Cautiously they advanced, and single shots of sharpshooters resounded through the forest, as of solitary hunters in search of game. Moving forward up a gentle rise, their long lines came full in few, and instantly our artillery and infantry opened upon them with a deafening roar. Branches and leaves showered down on friend and foe alike; trees cracked, and bowed or toppled over, and fell with a crash among the enemy in low ground, and still volleys upon volleys whistled through the cover, until it seemed as if the clouds had opened and rained down showers of bullets. The smoke, confusion, dust, and noise were indescribable; and how long the fierce conflict lasted I knew not, but it seemed to me an age.

Bravely had the enemy assailed us, and gallantly were they repulsed. Jackson could not be moved, but held his ground; and, taking advantage of apparent indecision and mystification, gave the word to advance, and this, the fifth corps sent against him, was hurled bleeding, staggering, and defeated from his front, and retreated from the timber with great loss.

But Jackson was too weak to attempt another advance, and was content to hold the enemy in check until positive information could be ascertained of McClellan's operations on other parts of our lines.

It was now past noon. The conflict had raged with varying fortune on our left, but from the general line of fire visible over the landscape, it was evident we had not lost ground, and could not be dislodged from the position our leaders had selected. At the centre, heavy cannonading was going on, which in many instances was disastrous to our wounded, for the enemy's [489] missiles flying high, coursed over our line, and fell in the village of Sharpsburgh, or caused much distress to our ambulance trains. Groups of officers towards the left had been for several hours anxiously watching the development of the Federal attack, but now that the heaviest firing had ceased, and the action seemed to dwindle down into a cannonade, they returned to the centre and right, apparently well pleased with the aspect of affairs, and judged that McClellan would next attempt to feel or force our other wing. Every hillock commanding a view of the battle-field was dotted with mounted officers, who smiled as they looked to the left, and said: “Jackson bravely maintains the ground. They cannot force him from his position: he holds on to it like grim death” “Yes,” said another, sitting sideways in his saddle, and smoking a cigar, “and here are we doing nothing. By Jove, the cannonade is becoming heavy on the right! See their troops yonder moving forward! Our turn comes next. Gentlemen, every man to his post!” and the group of officers broke up as each galloped off to his command.

For miles over these beautiful fields the smoke of battle curled away in snow-white clouds. The roar of artillery was regular and slow, while the patter of distant musketry, and the sharp, ringing, crackling noise of rifle volleys kept every sense alive to the dreadful work transpiring on all sides. Patches of wood up and down the lines were filled with smoke; bright flashes from hill and hollow shot forth in all directions; lines were seen to form and advance, others to waver and break; banners rose and fell; the bright flash of bayonets and the stream of fire all too plainly told of deathly strife on every acre of the scene.

It was now near four o'clock, and all felt anxious for the end to come. The better informed felt certain that another attack was intended, but whether McClellan would hurl his hosts at our centre or right none could tell. The doubt was soon set at rest. Heavy infantry firing burst forth towards the lower bridge, upon which several of our batteries in cannonading position opened with great energy and fury. The enemy's artillery replied, and the firing became general. Gradually falling back, our infantry moved through the open fields, delivering volleys as they retreated, and enticed the enemy up [490] the rising ground, on top of which our artillery was posted. Fast as they crossed the bridge, shot and shell assailed them, until it seemed as if the passage was literally blocked up with heaps of dead. Our round shot, striking the heavy stonework of the bridge, knocked out fragments in all directions, while shells fell thick and fast, exploding among their advancing columns.

Gradually retiring, our infantry re-formed in woods to the rear of artillery and seemed desirous of enticing the enemy still onwards. Forward they came, and gallantly; their force was very great, and it suffered much from our active batteries, which limbered and retired towards the woods, but ever maintained a fierce fire upon the heads of their columns. As soon, however, as the enemy had ascended the “rise” from the bridge, and come within full view of our force drawn up near the woods, incessant volleys assailed their line of battle, and it began to melt away. The storm of shot and shell which met the Federal advance was awful. Every imaginable spot was alive and swarming with combatants. Reenforcements had arrived, and rushed into the fray with loud cheers, so that the dark woods seemed filled with men where none had been before. The Federal advance was arrested; their leading regiments had been literally blown to pieces, and although succor was momentarily arriving, it only served to fill up the fearful gaps everywhere visible in their line. For some short time the battle raged with great fury, and although hard pressed, the enemy would not yield his ground; but when our artillery had opened at shorter distance, and our infantry advanced to closer quarters, their line began to fall back, and our men followed over heaps of lifeless and mangled carcases.

But while this deafening cannonade continued on our right, and the enemy were being slowly driven back to the bridge, we could distinctly hear heavy artillery practice to our left, which informed us that the attack had been renewed in that quarter, and that Jackson was, as usual, full of business. The whole line of battle seemed to have gained new life and animation, and both sides were fighting earnestly and with vigor. The engagement could not last long, for the sun was fast sinking, and if the enemy meant to achieve something great, it was [491] time for McClellan to have commenced. Nothing of moment occurred at our centre; both wings were seriously engaged, Jackson on the left was immovable, and Longstreet on our right was gradually driving the enemy towards the bridge. The carnage here was frightful, and as our shot and shell plunged into their retreating ranks, the whole vicinity of the bridge seemed strewn with bodies, horses, wagons, and artillery.

Both attacks of the enemy upon our wings had failed, and they had been repulsed with fearful slaughter. Franklin, Sumner, Hooker, Mansfield, and other corps commanders on their right, had been fought to a stand-still. They were exhausted and powerless. Burnside, on their left, had been fearfully handled by Longstreet, and was driven in confusion upon the bridge, which he held with a few cannon, and suffered every moment from our batteries on rising ground. We did not desire the bridge, or it might have been held from the beginning, and, save a desultory cannonade, the enemy were now inactive and exhausted. When the sun sank all felt infinite relief from the fatigue and dangers of the day, and although it could not be said we had gained a battle, we certainly could boast of having defeated our enemy's plan throughout the entire day, and though inferior in force, bad frequently hurled them back upon their original position with frightful loss.

Every one imagined that the struggle would be resumed on the morrow, and our lines sank to rest upon the ground, with the dead and dying around them. Many of the men prowled about, picking up various articles from the Federal dead, while burying parties were hard at work, and ambulances engaged in removing the wounded. Sharpsburgh itself was one entire hospital, and the inhabitants assisted our wounded with much tenderness and care. Every house and every cottage had some afflicted tenant; but all our men bore up under their sufferings with that unflinching fortitude which has ever characterized them throughout the war.

The night passed wearily by. Camp-fires burned brightly, but quietness reigned throughout the lines undisturbed by any demonstration of the enemy. Friends met friends around the fires, and spoke of dangers past. This officer was reported [492] dead and that one wounded; one had lost his leg, another his arm; Colonel Smith had been blown to pieces, and General Jones desperately hurt; shells had exploded in the midst of a general's staff and disabled every man; hats and coats had been perforated, and no one could move twenty paces without seeing many with heads or arms bandaged, or, pipe in mouth, limping to the rear. In one place, a youth was lying near a camp-fire dying, the embers lighting up his pallid features as he opened his eyes and kissed a brother kneeling by his side. Now, I met half a dozen stalwart men, bearing their wounded and moaning colonel to an ambulance. Again, I passed a group of busy surgeons, cutting and probing their dumb patients; now couriers and orderlies dashed furiously by; a general and his staff slowly trotted off in one direction, regiments and batteries passed on in another. All the horrible sights of a battle-field were frequent and hear-trending, while groans reached the ear from every barn and every house, and through the whole length and breadth of the woods. Preparations were still going on for a renewal of the conflict on the morrow, should the enemy force it; but in my inmost heart I hoped and prayed that Providence might postpone it, for our own men were thoroughly exhausted with long marches and hard fighting, and lay upon the ground in battle-line as helpless and quiet as children.

The morning broke, and all was bustle and preparation, but the enemy moved not. Smoke from camp-fires slowly ascended in all directions, and their ambulances, like ours, were creeping over the scene in sad procession. Still we knew not at what moment the dark masses of the foe might again appear; it was cause for rejoicing when it was whispered that preparations were already progressing for our retreat, and that all the wagons had gone up the river towards Williamspot.

The next day passed without any thing of moment transpiring, and during the night th6 bulk of our troops began to retreat, but with great coolness and order. Jackson was intrusted with the rear-guard, and next morning (nineteenth) the last of our regiments withdrew from the scene without hindrance or molestation. Some cavalry encounters occurred, it is true, but not of such importance as to retard our movements; and save [493] a few shots occasionally exchanged with our Tear-guard, nothing indicated that the enemy were in such “hot” pursuit as their official telegrams subsequently stated. The retreat was slow, orderly, and unmolested. Jackson conducted it; and his dispositions were so skilfully made that they fairly defied any effort the enemy might make to inflict loss or make captures. It cannot be denied that large numbers of dead and wounded were left behind to the tender mercies of the foe, but all who could be removed were carefully provided for, and safely conveyed into Virginia. Save some half-dozen disabled cannon or caissons, and a few arms, little was left in the enemy's hands of which they could truthfully boast.5

Jackson managed the retreat so skilfully that the enemy were completely unaware of the destination of our forces. Save a [494] few shots enchanged on either side, nothing of moment occurred; and our whole army was established on the south bank ere the Federals had positive knowledge of the movement.6 On the twentieth, however, their army began to move Fitz-John Porter taking the advance, who judged, from the extremely quiet look of all things on the Virginia shore, that we were far inland. Barnes's brigade of Pennsylvanians, supported by one of “regulars,” under chief command of General Sykes, moved towards the river, and forded the stream at Boteler's Mills. Heavy guns were planted on the Maryland shore to cover their crossing.

Jackson had felt certain that the enemy would attempt to pursue, and he made no display of force likely to intimidate them. The passage of the river was undisputed, except by a few small field-pieces; and when they had landed in Virginia, our gunners took flight in apparent trepidation. The enemy quickly perceived this movement, and imagining that our forces were demoralized, they rushed forward with much cheering. The division of Ambrose Hill, however, was cleverly concealed from view; and when the enemy had advanced sufficiently far, several of our batteries opened upon them, and Hill's troops attacking in front and flank, unceremoniously began the work of slaughter. Their surprise, confusion, and loss were so great, and effected so quickly, that they rushed back towards the river in great haste; but such was the impatience and ardor of our men, that scarcely one of the Pennsylvania brigade escaped death or capture. The stream was literally blocked up with dead, and although the enemy maintained a heavy cannonade upon us; it could not restrain the impetuosity and rapidity of our attack.

Leaving heaps of slain behind, and unheeding the constant cannonade maintained from Maryland, our forces withdrew [495] towards the Opequan, and drew up in line of battle on the west side of it, our left extending to Williamsport and the Potomac. Although we were in battle array many days in anxious expectation, the Federals remained quiet in Maryland, and made no attempts to disturb us. A large mass of our troops had gone up the Valley towards Winchester, and halted there, and by degrees the whole army followed in the same direction, carefully carting and conveying away every-thing that could be of use; so that large part of the harvests recently gathered fell into the hands of our commissaries and quartermasters, thus leaving the whole country once again barren of supplies for any pursuing force.

The only episode which enlivened our monotonous inactivity was a cavalry engagement (October second) between a small detachment of Stuart's command and a heavy force under Pleasanton. The enemy were very desirous of ascertaining our whereabouts and strength; and for this purpose a considerable number of cavalry and twelve pieces of artillery crossed the stream near Shepherdstown, and advanced up towards our lines. They were met by Fitz-Hugh Lee, and sharp fighting ensued; but the latter, being overpowered, bravely maintained the combat, and sent for reenforcements. Stuart was immediately in the saddle, and swooping down upon Pleasanton, with a fresh force, drove that commander from the field, and pursued him to within a short distance of Shepherdstown, where a large force of the enemy were then stationed. This cavalry encounter was a smart affair, and conducted by both leaders with marked ability. Had not darkness ensued, our captures would have proved considerable, as the Federals were completely routed, and their rear-guard dispersed in much confusion long ere they reached Shepherdstown.

Northern newspapers made such boast regarding the battle of Sharpsburgh and of the “rebel rout,” that their fervid imaginings caused much amusement and ridicule among our men, who by long experience had become accustomed to the falsity of their official statements; so that when we daily read their loud bellowings and ecstatic glorifications about “thirty thousand rebels killed and wounded, thousands of prisoners, and immense spoil,” etc., we could but smile, and despise their [496] mendacity even more than ever.7 “Every rebel had been driven from Maryland and Pennsylvania,” we were informed, and “our hosts lay trembling at their feet,” whenever McClellan should give the order to march; yet while their faces were radiant with joy, and stump orators expanded their jaws in rhapsodical orations of self-laudation, the whole country was suddenly awe-struck at the audacity of Stuart.

Selecting twelve hundred from the best mounted men of his division, (October tenth,) Stuart crossed the Potomac, and without hindrance made a bold push for Pennsylvania, in McClellan's rear. In truth, he had been engaged in appropriating or destroying vast amounts of Federal property for over twenty-four hours ere the foe believed the report to be more than rumor; and then McClellan coolly informed the nation that it “need not be alarmed, his whole cavalry force was on the move in pursuit ;” that “Stuart and his command would be killed or captured within a few hours, for it was impossible to escape through the trap prepared for them.” Stuart's movements were rapid, indeed, and the amount of army stores destroyed on his route was very great. At Chambersburgh were large depots of clothing, shoes, blankets, harness, and many horses, brought by railway for McClellan's army, and of which it stood greatly in need. All needful supplies were taken by our men, and the rest destroyed.

The consternation among the inhabitants of the several towns and villages in Stuart's route was laughable indeed: all military men were paroled; all horses and mules were seized for our service, but no injury done or appropriation made of any other species of private property. Pompous mayors of towns, with goose-like processions of sleek aldermen, or bilberry-nosed politicians of snug little villages, who shortly before had astonished the ears of groundlings with spasmodic bursts of patriotic eloquence, now meekly came forth to meet Stuart's troopers, with [497] ludicrous gait and manner. It was certain, however, that McClellan and his whole army were on the alert; and as the telegraph had informed him of our route and strength, none doubted that the enemy would make strenuous exertions to watch the roads and guard every ford between Washington and Shepherdstown. When Stuart had proceeded as far Gettysburgh, some imagined he would return; but crossing the Monocacy, he rapidly pushed down its east bank, and, during night, successfully passed large detachments of troops on McClellan's left wing.

Every highway and by-path in this part of Maryland was minutely known to Stuart, who now stole through the country around Poolesville, and directed his course towards Edwards's Ferry, a few miles from Leesburgh. To screen the true number of his force, and distract the enemy's attention, his command was divided into several parties, which sought the river at various points and crossed by different fords. The Federal plans became confused from various conflicting statements brought by their scouts and spies, so that ere they had determined upon any settled plan of action, Stuart had crossed the Potomac with his booty, and without the loss of a man, at the same time bringing away more than six hundred mules and horses, laden with all manner of supplies. It might be said with truth that he had fully remounted his whole command while on the raid, besides the six hundred animals heavily burdened with clothing, arms, and except a few shots exchanged with the disappointed enemy, who arrived at the river's edge in time to witness our triumphant crossing, this, the second of Stuart's grand tours of inspection round McClellan's lints, was effected without the expenditure of powder, and left their whole army in senseless astonishment at the audacity and success of our dashing troopers. For nearly three days they had been burning and seizing without let or hindrance, and had travelled more than a hundred miles around the enemy, baffling telegrams, plans, scouts, spies, generals, and thousands of travel-stained and jaded cavalry.

1 This first attack had been opened on our left by Hooker's corps.

2 The second advance was made by Sumner's corps.

3 This was made by Mansfield's corps.

4 Sedgwick's corps.

5 Being on the defensive, our loss was much less than that of the enemy, who, in attacking, advanced over open ground, and were much exposed to our accurate fire. From the best sources of information, I learn that our killed and wounded amounted to eight thousand, exclusive of a few prisoners; one thousand of our wounded were left behind, and a convention entered into for the burial of the dead. It has been stated by Northern journals that we lost thirty thousand in all, but this is pure fiction. Among our losses in this engagement were General Stark and Brigadier-General Branch killed; Brigadier-Generals Anderson, Wright, Lawton, Armsted, Ripley, Ransom, and Jones, wounded. I learn that during the thirty hours, or more, which intervened between the engagement and our retreat, little was left upon the battle-field in cannon or arms, but every thing worth attention was carried off. Although the enemy claim to have captured thousands of arms and dozens of cannon, I need not add that this, for the most part, was all imagination.

McClellan's loss has been placed at twelve thousand killed, wounded, and missing; and I think the estimate below reality. Among his killed were Generals Mansfield, Richardson, Hartsuff, and others; and among a fearful list of generals wounded were Sumner, Hooker, Meagher, Duryea, Max Weber, Dana, Sedgwick, French, Ricketts, Rodman, and others.

It is almost unnecessary for me to say that McClellan claimed this battle as “a great victory” for the Union cause, but did not do so until fully assured of our retreat into Virginia. Why his boastful despatch to Washington was not penned before our retreat from Sharpsburgh is evidence sufficient to show that he still feared, and would not shout “until he was out of the woods.” In truth, the Northern press acknowledged that with an inferior force we had thrashed them to a stand-still; so much so, that McClellan could only muster two regiments of infantry with two guns to follow in pursuit, and was not aware of our departure until many hours after we retreated. It was called an “indecisive battle” by McClellan's warmest partisans, and many said “it required another engagement to decide Federal superiority.”

6 When McClellan heard of our backward movement on the nineteenth, he telegraphed to Washington: “I do not know if the enemy is falling back to an interior position, or re-crossing the river. We may safely claim the victory as ours.” He did not assert this until more than thirty hours had elapsed subsequent to the engagement at Sharpsburgh! Some few hours after the above telegram, he consoled the authorities at Washington by saying: “Our victory is complete The enemy is driven (?) back into Virginia. Maryland and Pennsylvania are now safe!” Again he added; “The Confederates succeeded in crossing the Potomac on Friday morning with all their transports and wounded, except some three hundred of the latter!”

7 McClellan says in his official despatch: “We lost two thousand and ten killed, nine thousand four hundred and sixteen wounded, and ten hundred and fifty-three missing. In killed, wounded, and prisoners, it may be safely estimated that the enemy lost thirty thousand of their best troops.” This, of course, is erroneous; but a general who cannot positively state whether he is victorious or defeated until his enemy has retreated some fifty hours subsequent to an engagement, may be “safely” allowed a broad margin for his fevered and excited imagination.

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License.

An XML version of this text is available for download, with the additional restriction that you offer Perseus any modifications you make. Perseus provides credit for all accepted changes, storing new additions in a versioning system.

hide People (automatically extracted)
hide Dates (automatically extracted)
Sort dates alphabetically, as they appear on the page, by frequency
Click on a date to search for it in this document.
15th (3)
12th (2)
October 10th (1)
October 2nd (1)
September 17th (1)
20th (1)
19th (1)
16th (1)
11th (1)
hide Display Preferences
Greek Display:
Arabic Display:
View by Default:
Browse Bar: