Herald of Freedom and Torch Light, Sept 1862 (2-7A War news: Battle of Antietam)
THE GREAT BATTLE OF ANTIETAM.
On Wednesday, September 17, the Union and rebel forces in Maryland met in the Blue Ridge and fought a battle, which, when its full extent is known, will probably dwarf all other battles yet fought in the present war. Gen. McClellan commanded the national troops in person, and had on the field the whole command of. Gen. Burnside, recently augmented by the addition of several new regiments; the army corps lately under General McDowell, now under command of Gen. Hooker; Gen. Sumner's corps; Gen. Franklin’s corps; Gen. Banks' corps, commanded by Gen. Williams, and Sykes' division of Fitz John Porter's corps. On the other side the rebels undoubtedly had present the whole force which they originally brought into Maryland. They were commanded by Gen. Lee.
The battle was fought immediately west of that portion of the Blue Ridge known as the South Mountains, and to the east and north of Sharpsburg, almost in a semicircle, the concave side of which is towards the town. Unlike most of the valleys in this Blue Ridge country this valley has not a level spot in it, but rolls into eminences of all dimensions, from that little knoll that your horse gallops easily over to the rather high hills that make him tug like a mule. Many of the depressions between the hills are dry, and afford admirable cover for infantry against artillery. Others are watered by the deep, narrow and crooked Antietam, a stream that seems to observe no decorum in respect to its course, but has to be crossed every ten minutes, ride which way you will. - Sharpsburg lies on the western side of the valley, and a little to the south from our point of view. - Right across the valley from the northeast runs the turnpike from Boonsboro to Sharpsburg. Two little villages -Porterstown and Keedysville -lie on the eastern side of the valley, at the foot of the South Mountains. Numerous fine farmhouses dot the valley in every direction- some standing out plainly and boldly on the hilltops, others half-hidden down the little slopes; and, with the large comfortable barns about them, and their orchards of fruit trees, these hitherto happy and quiet homes greatly enrich the view, at least to the eyes of old campaigners. Nearly every part of the valley is under cultivation, and the scene is thus varied into squares of the light green of nearly ripened corn, the deeper green of clover, and the dull brown of newly ploughed fields. Toward the north, where our right lay, are some dense woods. Imagine this scene spread in the hollow of an amphitheatre of hills that rise in terraces around it, and you have the field of last Wednesday's battle.
Our position had been taken - in outline as it were - on Tuesday, and was filled up to its proper strength as fast as the troops arrived, and streamed down the mountain by the road from Middletown. This they continued to do for the greater, part of Tuesday and Tuesday night. It was a magnificent sight to see the men of our country thus poured forward across the field to different points in long, shining lines, like living threads, that went to weave themselves into the glorious tapestry of our nation's history—a sight that will not easily be forgotten by those who saw it.
Burnside’s men turned short to the south, passed across the foot of the Elk Ridge Mountain, and took a position on our extreme left. Porter held a commanding eminence to the right of Burnside though Warren’s brigade, of Porter's corps, was subsequently posted in the woods on our left in support of Burnside's men. Sumner’s corps on an eminence next to the right or north from Porter, and General Hooker had the extreme right in and behind the woods of which we have spoken, and on the Antietam. Our left was on Elk Ridge Mountain, our line of battle stretched to the northwest across the Sharpsburg road. The line was between four and five miles long. The rebel left was in the woods, directly in front of General Hooker and their force was posted across the valley between us and Sharpsburg in a line very nearly parallel with our own. Though we have spoken, of our men as on eminences, it must be understood that they were carefully covered in every case just below the crest of the hills they held.
Gen. Hooker had the honor to open this great combat. He commanded the corps formerly under Gen. McDowell, composed of Rickett's division, Mead's (McCall’s formerly) and King's divisions. Many of these men came up in the night and there was perhaps a little confusion in posting them. Mead's men say they slept among the rebels. Owing to this over-near neighborhood the pickets got at it in the night, and kept up a scattering fire until the battle began. General Mead, who was thus nearest the rebels, was relieved at daylight by Gen. Ricketts' division, which also immediately advanced against the enemy, supported by the division of Gen. King, which eventually became engaged on the right of Gen. Ricketts, and also by the division of General Mead.
The line advanced through a piece of woods, a cornfield and a piece of ploughed land, and into another piece of woods, where it found the enemy in line of battle, and was received with a hot file fire, which told very severely on our men. But they steadily advanced into the fierce fire, giving back one equally destructive; while our batteries, particularly a Pennsylvania battery, under Captain Matthews, and Captain Thompson's First Maryland battery, played splendidly upon the enemy's line. Thus pressed, the rebel forces gave way, though they certainly did not "skedaddle.” Slowly, and in very fair order, they fell back, disputing every foot they gave up with the greatest obstinacy. Still our boys pushed onward with magnificent courage and determination, every man, from Hooker down, intent only on victory. Occasionally a more determined resistance at some point in the line or some difficulty in the ground would check our advance for a few moments; but, with this exception, it was almost steady from its commencement until ten o'clock in the morning, when Gen. Hooker was wounded and carried from the field.
General Ricketts at once assumed command of the corps; but our victorious movement had lost its impulse. At that time our right advanced and swept across the field so far that its front, originally almost in a line with the front of the centre and left, formed almost a right angle with them. While our advance rather faltered, the rebels greatly reinforced made a sudden and impetuous onset, and drove our gallant fellows back over a portion of the hard won field. What we had won, however, was not relinquished without a desperate struggle, and here up the hills and down, through the woods and the standing corn, over the ploughed land and the clover, the line of fire swept to and fro as one side or the other gained a temporary advantage.
Thus the battle raged till Sumner's corps came up to support the worn out heroes who had maintained the fight so long against very evident odds. How gloriously they went at it, those peninsula boys - Burns’ old brigade led by gallant young Howard, who lost an arm at Fair oaks, and Meagher’s Irish Brigade, led by the gallant Meagher himself and many other heroes tried in the fire. -As the Irish Brigade charged the enemy’s lines their cheers arose in one great surge of sound over the noise of battle, over the roar of wilderness of artillery and was heard far down the lines to the left, where Burnside's boys were just getting at it.
Thus met, the rebel advance was checked and broken and they were driven with awful slaughter. It is beyond all wonder how men such as the rebel troops are can fight as they do. That those ragged and filthy wretches, sick, hungry and in all ways miserable, should prove such heroes in fight, is past explanation. Men never fought better — There was one regiment that stood up before the fire of two or three of our long range batteries and of two regiments of infantry and though the air around them was vocal with the whistle of bullets and the scream of shells, there they stood and delivered their fire in perfect order, and there they continued to stand, until a battery of six light twelves was brought to bear on them and before that they broke. Nothing mortal can stand a battery of six light Napoleon guns if there is plenty of grape and canister In the ammunition chest.
Thus Sumner effectually stayed what at one time threatened to be a fearfully dangerous onslaught.
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But all the ground that Hooker had gained was lost and we were as we had been before the misty daylight had dawned upon us. But there is a stir and murmur around us different from the noise of battle. There are troops in motion behind and here comes Franklin’s corps.
When the battle began, at daylight, this corps was in camp eight miles away, on the mountain over which it had driven the rebels on Sunday last. There it was, in all the seemingly inextricable camp confusion and in the valley at the foot of the same mountain was Coach’s division temporarily attached to Franklin’s command. All these troops had had orders on Tuesday night to be in readiness to march at a moment's notice, and so they lay down. But the night passed, and no orders to move came and the morning hours went by, till it seemed that they could not be wanted. But at eight o’clock the orders came, and, here they are at one. It was a good march, and, unlike most troops that make these hasty marches they are not too late nor are they used up. Heralded only by the jingle of their own canteens and their regular tramp, they moved into the field. - No slogan announces them, nor any music note tells that the Campbell’s are coming. But hardy, brave and comparatively fresh, here they are.
Two fresh divisions, at such a time—what can they not achieve? Forward at once they go; for it was rightly reasoned that the enemy must be as fully as much shaken as we were. Onward went Slocum with the three brigades that carried Crampton's Gap so handsomely on Sunday, and onward went Smith with the brigade of Hancock, Brooks and Davidson—all glorious fellows, who first made the enemy's acquaintance on Warwick creek. Exhausted, no doubt, by his last desperate endeavor, the enemy gave way. Easily, and without the great loss of life that it had first cost us, the ground was won once more.
Hitherto, we have spoken only of what transpired on our right. There, after desperate struggles, we had won what, considered in itself alone, was a glorious battle, and our enemy was there fairly beaten.
When the batteries that participated in Hooker's attack at daylight first opened their fire and were severely felt, several rebel batteries fired upon them, and also on our advancing line. Some of these batteries were on points quite out of the battle that raged on the right. As they opened their fire one by one, batteries, posted on various eminences, opened on them, and in their turn were opened upon by still other rebel batteries and thus was begun a stupendous artillery fight, which soon became quite independent of the battle on the right.
From every little hill a battery thundered until the mountains around seemed to be shaken with the roar, and the tracks of shells and shot were woven across the valley like a net work. So numerous were the batteries and so constant their fire that it was impossible to “keep up with it.”
However much this or that beautiful shot might excite your admiration, you could not say who made it or what battery was entitled to the credit. It is probable that the artillerists were frequently deceived themselves, and assumed as their own shots those luckier gunners had made. You can hardly estimate the effect of artillery fire save where you see the masses of infantry that it ploughs through. When, as in this battle, batteries fire at batteries, no result is perceptible, and even if a battery ceases to fire you are not sure that it is damaged. The whole artillery fire of Wednesday looked very like a waste of ammunition though doubtless many a badly injured gun was the result.
Whether any one “blundered" on the left it is impossible for us to say; but the battle there got started late and went slowly. It was noon when the fire of musketry first announced an engagement at close quarters in that direction, then the firing was not heavy and continuous, but desultory and light in its character.
Our first advance there was made down the slope of a hill to a bridge which crosses the Antietam Creek. Beyond the river the enemy had so posted his men as to sweep the bridge with a severe musketry fire, and their onward advance was checked and Gen. Burnside seemed to hesitate. The peculiar brass peices handled by the Hawkins Zouaves - one of the many recent experiments in artillery - were tried on the rebels beyond, as the position was one in which regular artillery could not work; but the peculiar brass pieces achieved but little, and the enemy remained in position beyond, and kept up a severe and well directed fire upon our men.
Finally at about 2 o'clock P. M. after much valuable time had been lost, the bridge was carried by a brilliant charge, in which the Eleventh Ohio and the Eleventh Connecticut participated very conspicuously, and lost many men.
If the greater obstacles constitute the post of honor on the field of battle, General Burnside may justly claim to have had that post in Wednesday’s battle. Once across the river, he found the enemy before him in force and in a new position of great strength on a hill. Against this position he advanced at once, and the old valor of the divisions of Generals Cox, Wilcox and Sturgis was once more triumphant, and the hill was taken. No sooner was the summit reached than a heavy battery of artillery at once opened upon his ranks with a fire that must soon have annihilated them if permitted to continue. It was at once clear that the hill was untenable unless the battery was taken. At the same time the enemy in front began to receive heavy reinforcements and General Burnside’s position became critical. To go forward with that heavy battery mowing his flank and with an equal number of the enemy on his front, and overwhelming numbers coming up would seem like a Balaklava madness.
As Burnside’s line withdrew the word was passed along the hill for Syke’s men to " fill in," and the tough old soldiers of the regular regiments, who had been lounging on the hill, quiet spectators of the battle, hurried gladly into line, joyful at the prospect that their turn had come and there they stood, ready to check the progress of any sudden disaster.
Night prevented further operations; but let it be clearly understood that we were only entirely successful on the left- we suffered no disaster, nor could we suffer any; for it is the story General McClellan's plan of battle that, if the rebels had even routed Burnside and driven him in confusion completely off the field, our left would still have been safe—for close in hand was Porter's corps, fresh and ready for the emergency.
Early last night the enemy commenced crossing the Shepherdstown bridge and two fords above and below it. During the night McClellan advanced a battery and shelled them from the surrounding hills.
The dead and wounded found this morning evidence the ability of our signal officers in directing the fire of the guns.
On discovering the movement of the enemy, early this morning, General Pleasanton was dispatched in hot pursuit, with two batteries and two regiments of infantry, through a gap of hills, and he succeeded in cutting off a large amount of their ammunition, supplies, &c , besides a small portion of General Marcy Gregg’s South Carolina brigade.
General Pleasanton shelled the enemy with effect as they passed through the ravine.
The last seen of the enemy they were flying in the direction of Winchester, and it is supposed they would retreat precipitately on to Richmond.
Our entire army crossed Antietam creek this morning and was massed between Antietam creek and the Potomac, opposite Shepherdstown, and there was every evidence that McClellan would cross the river.
The loss of General and field officers in our army is so large, as to be unaccountable.
Rebel deserters represent the loss of the enemy's officers as equally severe. It was understood that General Burnside has crossed into Virginia via Harper's Ferry, and moving on the enemy
Deserters report that the recent movement of the rebels in escaping into Virginia was entirely conducted by Stonewall Jackson, the other chief officers, Lee, Longstreet, &c. being either wounded or too much fatigued to be efficient.
They also state that it was believed in the rebel army that a force of Union troops had passed through Thoroughfare Gap and intercepted their advance, and they supposed this movement was under the direction of Sigel of whom they stand in great dread.
Herald of Freedom and Torch Light
Maryland Historical Society
Sept 10-24, 1862
Maryland Historical Society
Published by Mittag and Sneary
Antietam, Battle of, Md., 1862; Maryland Campaign, 1862; Hagerstown (Md.)--Newspapers.
Washington County, MD. September 1862