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Chapter 13: Sharpsburg or Antietam

  • McLaws and Jackson recalled.
  • -- the ordnance train. -- the question of giving battle. -- Confederate straggling. -- Ropes's comments. -- McClellan's pursuit. -- Lee's line of battle. -- battle of Hooker's corps. -- Hood's counter-stroke. -- on Jackson's left. -- battle of Mansfield's corps. -- battle of Sumner's corps. -- Sedgwick Ambuscaded. -- the artillery fighting. -- fourth attack prepared. -- French's advance. -- Swinton's account. -- the bloody Lane. -- Franklin is halted. -- both sides exhausted. -- Pleasanton and Porter. -- Burnside advances. -- Toombs's good defence. -- the Bridge carried. -- the advance upon Sharpsburg. -- A. P. Hill's counter-stroke. -- Lee in council. -- Sept. 18. -- faulty position of Federal cavalry. -- the pursuit. -- the counter-stroke. -- captured ordnance stores. -- casualties.

The surrender of Harper's Ferry had come in the very nick of time for the Confederates. Fortunately for them, Franklin at Crampton's Gap, as already told, interpreted the cessation of firing as an indication that there was now no use in his attacking the enemy in his front. For orders were on the way from Lee summoning McLaws to —
‘withdraw immediately from your position on Maryland Heights and join us here. If you cannot get off any other way, you must cross the mountain. The utmost despatch is required.’

Jackson, too, had been urgently summoned. As soon as the terms of capitulation were agreed upon, he ordered Hill to superintend the paroling of the Federals, cooked two days rations, and set out, with his own and Walker's divisions, at 1 A. M., for Sharpsburg, distant 17 miles. By a rapid night march he arrived early on the 16th, having forded the Potomac at daylight, at Boteler's Ford near Shepherdstown. McLaws extricated himself from Pleasant Valley by coming into Harper's Ferry. Here he was much delayed in crossing the pontoon bridge with his trains and getting through the crowded streets. It was after [242] dark on the 16th when his tired and hungry troops bivouacked within two miles of Shepherdstown.

At midnight, summoned by Lee, he marched again, and, crossing the ford before daylight, the head of his column reported to Lee about sunrise on the 17th. A. P. Hill's division was detained in Harper's Ferry until the morning of the 17th. He marched at 7.30 A. M. with five brigades, leaving Thomas's to look after the captured property, to remove which Jackson had requested Lee to send his chief quartermaster and ordnance officer.

Thus it happened that, when I arrived at Shepherdstown, about noon on the 16th, with my ordnance train, and rode across the river and reported to Lee, I was ordered to collect all empty wagons and go to Harper's Ferry and take charge of the surrendered ammunition; bringing back to Sharpsburg all suiting our calibres, and sending to Winchester whatever we could not use in the field. The prospect of this addition to our supply was grateful, for the expenditures had been something, at Boonsboro, Crampton's Gap, and Harper's Ferry; and the loss of the 45 loads, burned by the cavalry, had been a severe blow at such a distance from our base at Culpeper. I was soon on my way back, and encamped that night with many wagons not far from Harper's Ferry.

It had been easily within Lee's power, all day on the 15th, to cross the river into Virginia, without loss, and to reunite his scattered divisions and collect his multitude of stragglers behind the Potomac. The more that one studies the situation, the more amazed he must be at the audacity which deliberately sought a pitched battle in the open field, without a yard of earthworks, against a better-equipped army of double his force, and with a river close behind him, to be crossed by a single ford, peculiarly bad and exposed, in case he had to retreat. A defeat would certainly involve the utter destruction of his army. At Manassas, at Ox Hill, and even at Boonsboro and Crampton's Gap, he had had recent evidence that there was in the Federal army, and, especially in the Army of the Potomac, no lack of veteran troops, well organized, well led, and capable of strong offence and stubborn defence. Let us analyze the conditions, and balance roughly the pros and the cons. [243]

The actual number which McClellan brought upon the field of Sharpsburg during the battle, he states at 87,164. Besides these, Couch's and Humphrey's divisions, 14,000 men, were within a day's march and arrived, on the 18th, in time for use either in defeat or victory.

Field of Sharpsburg

Lee's force should have been about 55,000 men; but we have already referred to the enormous amount of straggling, caused by poor discipline, lack of shoes, and hard marches, on the insufficient diet of green corn and apples. That the effects were [244] not unknown to Lee is shown by the following extracts from his letters to President Davis.

On Sept. 13, from Hagerstown, he wrote:1

‘Our great embarrassment is the reduction of our ranks by straggling, which it seems impossible to prevent with our present regimental officers. Our ranks are very much diminished,—I fear from a third to one-half of our original numbers,— though I have reason to hope our casualties in battle will not exceed 5000 men.’2

After the battle of Sharpsburg, on Sept. 21, he wrote more fully, as follows: —

A great many men belonging to the army never entered Maryland at all; many returned after getting there, while others who crossed the river kept aloof. The stream has not lessened since crossing the Potomac, though the cavalry has been constantly employed in endeavoring to arrest it. . . . Some immediate legislation, in my opinion, is required, and the most summary punishment should be authorized. It ought to be construed into desertion in face of the enemy, and thus brought under the Rules and Articles of War.

‘To give you an idea of its extent, in some brigades, I will mention that on the morning after the battle of the 17th, Gen. Evans reported to me on the field, where he was holding the front position, that he had but 120 of his brigade present, and that the next brigade to his, that of Gen. Garnett, consisted of but 100 men. Gen. Pendleton reported that the brigades of Gens. Lawton and Armistead, left to guard the ford at Shepherdstown, together contained but 600 men. This is a woful condition of affairs.’

Lawton's brigade had been the largest in the army, and it had carried into action at Gaines Mill, on June 27, 3500 men. It has seemed incredible to many writers that the small forces mentioned in many of the official reports, as engaged at Sharpsburg, could be correctly stated; but I am satisfied from my own observations at the time that the following estimate by Col. Walter H. Taylor, Gen. Lee's adjutant, is essentially correct.

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