“Lost Order” Caused Bloodiest Battle
"Lost Order" Caused Bloodiest Battle
Antietam Ready For Anniversary of Crisis Battle In Civil War
Recalls Period When Lancaster Hid Its Valuables From Impending Invasion of Southern Troops
20,000 Guardsmen to Reenact Battle
Friday, September 17, will climax the two-weeks' commemoration of the Battle of Antietam when 20,000 Maryland National Guardsmen will re-enact the conflict at Sharpsburg, Md.
The commemoration covers two hundred years of history, including the establishment of the first white settlement on Conococheague creek and the founding of "Elizabeth Hager's Town" in 1762.
FEAR-STRICKEN farm families, driving their cattle before them and carrying whatever of their household goods they could manage were filtering up through Lancaster county. Fear gripped Washington, and spread through Philadelphia, Lancaster and Harrisburg. The great bridge at Columbia was burned by Federal soldiers to stop the enemy.
Fear of invasion lay heavier upon the North that mid-September day seventy-five years ago on the eve of one of the fiercest and most important battles of the Civil War, a battle which will be reenacted this week on the soil of Maryland where troops from Lancaster county helped turn back the greatest threat General Lee ever made, and gave Lincoln the spirit to write the Emancipation Proclamation.
Lee's 'Lost Orders'
THE finding by McClellan of the "Lost Order" brought about the Battle of Antietam, recorded as the bloodiest and devastating ever fought on the continent of the Americas. It was the high tide of the Confederacy—ranked by many as one of the decisive battles of the world, for had Lee gained a decisive victory at Antietam, within days he would have been in Washington to dictate terms of peace, placing the Confederate States of America among the independent nations of the world.
In a single hour just after noon, September 17, 1862, the course of history was changed . . . and it was the 51st Pennsylvania Volunteers, under Col. Robert B. Potter, 9th Corps, of McClellan's Army which played a leading role in those 60 minutes. It was the 1st Pennsylvania, with the 51st New York, which took the noted "Burnside Bridge," at one o'clock.
The casualties were over 20,000 in killed and wounded. At "Bloody Lane" the middle phase of the battle, a Federal enfilade met such stubborn Confederate resistance that nearly 5,000 were killed in less than 30 minutes.
Lancaster county soldiers, led by General Thomas Welsh, Columbia, were in the thick of it. They had prepared the way for the bigger engagement by their victory at South Mountain.
THE Southern star was high when Lee decided to invade the north. Victories at the second Manassas and discontent in Maryland encouraged the move and Lee began his march from Loudoun County, Va., and on Sept. 5 1862, reached the Potomac River. But on the whole, their reception had a lean and toothy look. It was just as split as was the sentiment of Maryland and just as emphatic, on either side. Sometimes women would bring them food (some of the soldiers may have recalled how Jeb Stuart's gold spurs were donated by Maryland women) and sometimes the women held their noses and waved United States flags. The first major gesture was made by Gen. Lee. Barbara Fritchie was said to be one of them. Lee made a speech but the response was dismal.
The men began straggling. It is said that many of these objected to fighting outside Virginia or some other Southern theater. When the army moved into Maryland it was 53,000 strong; there were 40,000 in the ranks when the officers finally tightened down. Lee was exasperated.
But his gray army was almost flush against the Mason-Dixon line. Off to his left, the Union Army held Harpers Ferry, a name that bobs up in the war narratives and dark-starred by John Brown. Large stores of war goods were there, defended by a. fair force of men but threatened always by the surrounding heights The consideration of lines of supply was compelling; ammunition and food had to come from or through Virginia, and Harpers Ferry, like a rock, was in the path. Earlier the matter of taking Harpers Ferry came up; Longstreet then counseled against any division of force for that end, but by this time the necessity downed any risk.
The mischief of the three cigars began to work.
Lee Wrote Order
Gen. Lee wrote several sets of orders as a prelude to the movement on Harpers Ferry. They were issued on September 9. It was planned to move Jackson, A. P. Hill, McLaws, R. H. Anderson and others on the cupped-in village, take it and seize its supplies.
The orders were duplicated in the hands of D. H Hill. One of the copies seemed unnecessary. A staff officer, whose identity has never been known, wrapped three cigars in what seemed the superfluous order. It was lost, and thousands of men died by reason of it.
Two days later the main army was in Hagerstown. The reception brightened a little. No word had come from Harpers Ferry and if Lee were anxious it was with a growing anxiety when Stuart rode up with news that a Union Army was moving that way, and fast, in the direction of Frederick.
Lee knew that McClellan was in command and the fact that the blue army was moving with great expedition and with such apparent sureness of object was greatly surprising. McClellan was respected by Lee (both during and after the war), but he never attributed to him an over amount of dash, rather a cautiousness, the cautiousness that characterized his every move in the Virginia Peninsula. (McClellan had come upon the three cigars and the orders and was pouncing with 75,000 men on a divided force.)
In the meantime, there had come trouble at South Mountain. Stuart reported that he had been driven from a nearby gap. Lee sent D. H Hill to South Mountain to hold the pass—otherwise the way of McLaws was blocked. From this point there ensued a seemingly endless wait for news from the detached forces at Harpers Ferry, and Lee sent word to take the place with all speed. It is doubted that any of them realized that the fighting at South Mountain and the stealthy swoop on Harpers Ferry were the opening and detached scenes preceding a tremendous display that was to result in the loss of more blood than on any ore single day of the four-year war. The armies were at that moment coming closer to the arena of fire.
An understandable dread was on the North—particularly on the people of Philadelphia, Lancaster, Baltimore and Washington—when news spread of Lee's crossing of the Potomac. Historians point out that the memory of Second Manassas was clear, and the situation, otherwise, was not reassuring. Gen. Bragg was leading well-filled ranks through the north of Kentucky, with Louisville and Cincinnati as possible goals. The name of McClellan was to them one of hope.
The North was ready to forget his failure to capture Richmond in the early summer and to contrast his partial successes on the Peninsula with the drastic defeat of his successor at the Second Bull Run."
Unrestrained enthusiasm greeted his march through Maryland. At Frederick (he says himself) he was "nearly overwhelmed and pulled to pieces." He recalled the confidence among the people and their hospitable invitations.
The situation at South Mountain began to take shape. Gen. Franklin had been sent to relieve Harper’s Ferry, had encountered a Confederate force at Cramptons Gap and worsted it. There was fighting at Turners Gap, engaged in by the main Union Army, led by Reno and Burnside. The Union troops won the field. Reno died there. But the Federals failed to save Harpers Ferry.
This lifted the outlook measurably, and Lee directed that word of it be spread among the men. With the detached forces soon to return to the main body the Confederate general was more assured. A concentration was ordered at Sharpsburg (Antietam). McClellan was reported to be advancing on that point.
THE people began moving from their hitherto serene farmlands. Many of them probably turned, for a last look. They could not then see the earth filled with men who seemed to be sleeping. That was for watchers of a day later.
Lee swung his line into a stout position "on the west bank of Antietam Creek a few miles from where it flows into the Potomac." He directed that a display of force be made, stalling, while Jackson marched from Harper's Ferry. Jackson, himself, already was there. His men were some distance behind. Many troops under A. P. Hill and McLaws were still out.
The day was one of arrangements for McClellan. He rode his line, with great danger to himself. The Confederate batteries frequently unloosed on him. Lee's butternut fighters began coming up—he was hopelessly outnumbered, but he never minded that. There were shiftings, like checkers, for advantage. And on the afternoon of the sixteenth the arena was cleared.
McClellan says in his official report to the War Department: "About 2 p. m. Gen. Hooker, with his corps was ordered to cross the Antietam at a ford and at bridge No. 1 a short distance above, to attack, and if possible turn the enemy's left. ... On reaching the vicinity of the enemy's left, a sharp contest commenced with the Pennsylvania Reserves, the advance of Gen. Hooker's corps, near the house of Dr. Miller. The enemy was driven from the strip of woods, where he was first met, the firing lasted until after dark, when Gen. Hooker's corps rested on their arms on ground won from the enemy."
On 3-Mile Front
At daylight of the seventeenth, the two armies were stretched out like sputtering live wires for 3 miles. The pickets could hear each other's soft speech, certainly at one point. The weather was clear. The sun shone on the Confederate line—Jones, Early, Winder, Lawton, Hays, Talliaferro, Ripley, S. D. Lee, Colquitt, Hood, Anderson, Garnett, Evans, Kemper, the rest of them, stretched along the Antietam from the Miller house, by the outskirts of Sharpsburg and farther toward the Potomac. Robert Toombs, once of Jefferson Davis' cabinet, now a general commanding the Second and Twentieth Georgia Regiments, was posted by a bridge, spanning the Antietam.
This bridge is known as Burnside's bridge, because Burnside assailed it and finally passed over. But for a dramatic and murderous time Toombs held it against odds for what historians says was the greatest act of his life. And maybe he felt compensated withal. Benet glimpses him in Davis’ cabinet, as the “tall laughing restless Georgian, as fine to look as a yearling bull, as hard to manage.” His best picture, today, shows a face as hard as a gun butt: the mouth inclines downward, a little, and heavy hair drifts over his ears.
The Union Army faced them in the early sunlight, the light running along the bayonet lines. At dawn Hooker attacked.
Sum up the battle in thumbnail and it appears like this:
The fighting was in three separate localities: the Dunker Church at the Union right, in the center (the sunken road . . . Bloody Lane) and late in the day it flared and finally died out on the Sharpsburg road.
George W. Smalley, a. correspondent at the battle scene for the New York Tribune, flashed to his paper
"Fierce and desperate battle between 200,000 (this is an overstatement) men has raged since daylight, yet night closes on an uncertain field. . . . Gen. Hooker formed his lines with precision and without hesitation. Rickett's Division went into the woods on the left in force. Meade with the Pennsylvania Reserves, formed in the center. Doubleday was sent out on the right. . . . Morning found both armies just as they had slept, almost close enough to look into each other's eyes. The left of Meade's reserves and the right of Rickett's line became engaged at nearly the same moment. ... A battery was almost immediately pushed forward beyond the central woods, over a plowed field, near the top of the slope where the cornfield began. On this open field, in the corn beyond, and in the woods which stretched forward into the broad fields, like a promontory into the ocean, were the hardest and deadliest struggles of the day. . . . The half hour passed, the Rebels began to give way a little, only a little, but at the first indication of a receding fire, Forward, was the word, and on went the line with a cheer and a rush . . .But out of those gloomy woods came suddenly and heavily terrible volleys—volleys which smote, and bent, and broke in a moment that eager front, and hurled them swiftly back for half the distance they had won. . . . The sun is already down; not half-an-hour of daylight is left . . . None suspected how near was the peril of defeat, of sudden attack on exhausted forces—how vital to the safety of the Army and the Nation.
At Bloody Lane
At this juncture, two phases of the engagement should be viewed. The Bloody Lane and the fighting at Burnside’s Bridge
The Union generals, French and Richardson, crossed the Antietam to make a fierce assault. Three of D. H. Hill's five Confederate brigades could not be brought into the action; there remained only Rode’s and Anderson's brigades, down in a sunken road, to meet the attack. For four hours both sides fought desperately. The heights remained impregnable to French's attacks, although he gained some ground and several hundred prisoners.
Richardson was mortally wounded. When Bloody Lane was captured it was filled with dead. It was one o’clock and the Union infantry ceased firing for the day.
A. P Hill was wanted desperately. He was known to be marching fast from Harper's Ferry.
Bridge Was Key
At the bridge, Toombs fought hard with his two regiments and several fragments of companies on his flanks. The bridge was a key to the Confederate rear — once over it, the Union forces might hamper a retreat in the way of Shepherdstown. In all, four attacks were launched against the rambly structure after 10 a. m. of the 17th. If forced, Toombs hoped to retreat to the upper ground overlooking the fords and dig in his heels until A. P. Hill arrived.
Burnside carried the bridge late in the afternoon. McClelland reported to the War Department :
"After these three hours' delay, the bridge was carried at 1 o'clock by a brilliant charge of the Fifty-first Pennsylvania Volunteers. Other troops were then thrown over and the opposite bank occupied the enemy retreating to the heights beyond.
"A halt was then made by Gen Burnside's advance until 3 p. m., upon hearing which I directed one of my aides—Col. Key-—to inform Gen Burnside that I desired him to push forward his troops with the utmost vigor and carry the enemy's position on the heights; that the movement was vital to our success; that this was a time when we must not stop for loss of life if a great object could be thereby accomplished. That if, in his judgment, his attack would fail, to inform me so at once, that his troops might be withdrawn and used elsewhere on the field. He replied he would soon advance, and would go up the hill as far as a battery of the enemy on the left would permit. Upon this report I again immediately sent Col. Key to Gen. Burnside, with orders to advance at once, if possible, to flank the battery or storm it and carry the heights, repeating that if he considered the movement impracticable to inform me so, that his troops might be recalled. The advance was then gallantly resumed, the enemy driven from their guns, the heights handsomely carried, and a portion of the troops even reached the outskirts of Sharpsburg. By this time it was nearly dark, and strong reinforcements just then reaching the enemy from Harper's Ferry, attacked Gen. Burnside's troops on their left flank, and forced them to retire to a lower line of hills nearer the bridge."
The "strong reinforcements" were those of the awaited A. P. Hill. A. P. Hill was a spare man who wore a red beard and a red battle shirt. He was a hard-hitting, nervous fighter. He had marched the shoe leather off his men, coming up from Harper's Ferry. He probably had only a smattering of knowledge of the events that day. And he entered the arena with his men in a strange and misleading costume, blue uniforms they had seized at Harper's Ferry.
He saw the situation and his line unslung like a gray cord under a flowering of flags. They were hurled at Burnside, advancing from his victory at the bridge and stopped him on his heels. The blue troops went back and dug their shoes into positions nearer the creek they started from.
Nothing occurred the next day—the eighteenth. The wounded were cared for and the dead were left like men asleep. The fields and woodlands were quiet as the farmers knew them. The country-side relaxed again; only the lines were tense. The officers began counting the toll. There were 25,000 casualties.
A Confederate council of war was held that night and there was agreement that a withdrawal across the river was compelling. They had all crossed when the sun rose. The awakening Union Army found them gone and made a slight effort to follow. But there was little gunfire—only singing of bugles from the Army, heading home.
Captions for photographs:
Bloody Lane is a peaceful, grass-grown country road today, but seventy-five years ago it was the scene of one of the greatest slaughters in the Civil War. A Federal enfilade was caught in terrific Rebel fire here during the Antietam struggle, and it is said that 5,000 Union soldiers died within a space of thirty minutes of fighting.
This rare photograph shows the meeting between President Lincoln and General McClellan after the Battle of Antietam—McClellan’s last battle. For, although he had turned back the Rebel advance, the Union leader had failed to follow up his success by pursuing Lee back into Virginia.
The grave of Gen. Thomas Welsh, one of the heroes of Antietam, in Columbia.
Lancaster PA News
Lancaster Newspapers, Inc.
Used with permission from Lancaster Newspapers, Inc.
The Washington Post ran a similar story with a by-line of Scott Hart.
Western Maryland Room, Washington County Free Library.
Antietam, Battle of, Md., 1862: Centennial celebrations, etc
Washington County (Md.), 1937.