The Rohrbach Bridge Antietam (Part Two)
I have returned to Antietam to complete the story I wrote on the Rohrbach Bridge. I write these notes from the bluff overlooking the bridge where Colonel Henry L. Benning positioned his headquarters. On September 17, 1862, the 20th Georgia was on my left and the 2nd Georgia on my right. Before putting pen to paper, I walked General Isaac Rodman’s route to Snavely’s Ford.
In the first part of this article, we looked at the sequence of events that led to taking the bridge. Burnside failed to follow-up on the success, not through second-guessing himself, or being over cautious, but through the incompetence of subordinate officers. Officers neglected to bring forward ammunition, and now it was too late. The bridge was congested with troops and artillery.
The Rohrbach Bridge, or Burnside’s Bridge as it’s now known, fell at a cost of 500 Union dead. Those statistics could have been greatly reduced if General Ambrose Burnside had not tried to over think the attack. He was convinced he was facing superior numbers. I don’t think Burnside was a bad commander. I think he was an inexperienced Corps Commander. Possibly promoted three ranks above his abilities. His plan to take the Rohrbach Bridge was sound, but through lack of confidence and coordination it was poorly executed, and became far more costly than needed. If General Isaac Rodman’s 3rd Division had been deployed earlier to cross Snavely’s Ford, to coincide with General Samuel D. Sturgis 2nd Division attack on the bridge, things would have been different.
In part one, I mentioned two key factors. A small element of the 51st New York had forded the stream and scaled the rocks at the west of the bridge. This suggests that there was a viable crossing point that could have been utilized by a small number of men in the confusion of the attack. Secondly, Brigadier General Robert Toombs had received reports stating that a large Union force was crossing Snavely’s Ford, outflanking his brigade. With his position exposed, I believe this was the factor that forced him to withdraw. In his report to the Assistant Adjutant-General, Colonel R. H. Chilton, dated October 10, 1862, Lieutenant General James Longstreet writes: “General Toombs held the bridge and defended it most gallantly, driving back repeated attacks, and only yielded it after the force brought against him became overwhelming and threatened his flank and rear” (“Index to the Miscellaneous Documents of the House of Representatives of the First Session of the Fiftieth Congress”, 1889).
If the three options mentioned had been coordinated correctly, the attack on the bridge could have been far less hazardous. With Rodman’s 3rd Division pushing forward into Toombs right flank, The Kanawha Division, under Colonel Eliakim P. Scammon, could have been dispatched with Rodman, with orders to hold Snavely’s Ford and protect Rodman’s rear. As Rodman cleared the ford and pushed north, Sturgis 2nd Division would start the attack on the bridge.
The 2nd Division, 1st Brigade, under Brigadier General James Nagle would secure the eastern end of the bridge with two regiments. Under Lieutenant Colonel Eugene Duryea, the 2nd Maryland would hold the northern bank, north of the abutment along the stone wall and fire across the creek into the 20th Georgia. The 6th New Hampshire, under Colonel Simon G. Griffin, would hold the southern abutment, along the fence south of the bridge, firing into the 2nd Georgia. The 9th New Hampshire and 48th Pennsylvania, under Colonel Enoch Q. Fellows, and Lieutenant Colonel Joshua K. Sigfried, respectfully, would prepare to ford the stream and scale the rocks at the south of the bridge. Once Nagle was in position, Brigadier General Edward Ferrero and his 2nd brigade could make the assault to capture the bridge.
With concentrated artillery and a three-point coordinated attack, I think Toombs would have realized his position was precarious much earlier. After all, he had 600 men facing off 13,000.
In Confederate General Edward Porter Alexander’s memoirs, he states, that an 8 a.m. start on the bridge would have coincided with Major General Joseph Hooker’s initial success (Military memoirs of a Confederate: a critical narrative, 2014). I don’t think that attack time would have made any difference. Burnside would’ve still executed his original plan with two feeble unsupported attacks while moving Rodman to Snavely’s Ford. By 8:45 a.m. Major General Joseph Hooker’s advantage at the Miller Cornfield was lost. By 9 a.m. the defeat of the 2nd Corps under Major General Edwin Sumner removed any further Union initiative in the north. McClellan would shift his focus to the Sunken Road in the center. Antietam was now a stalemate. There was one slight possibility in the afternoon when Burnside finally crossed the bridge and pushed into Lee’s right flank, but the arrival of Major General A.P. Hill put an end to that.
If Rodman had been positioned at Snavely’s Ford at the start of the battle. If Burnside’s plan, uncoordinated as it was, had been executed at 5:30 a.m., to coincide with Hooker’s advance south towards the Dunker Church, it’s fair to say the bridge could’ve been in Union hands by 8 a.m.
At 7 a.m. when General ‘Stonewall’ Jackson’s line was starting to falter in the north, the bridge would have been under heavy attack. Toombs may have even started to withdraw. This would have put Robert E. Lee in a dangerous position. With both his flanks starting to falter and his army not yet complete on the field, his only option would be a retreat.
Some historians question Robert E. Lee’s strategic decision making during the Maryland campaign. These reservations are unjust. Up to this point, Lee had smashed everything put in front of him. Lee took a critical gamble by splitting his army, a gamble that paid off to a degree when he managed to reassemble his army in the nick of time. Being outnumbered two to one, reassembling a split army while under attack, and managing to slip the Army of Northern Virginia across the Potomac to safety is nothing to refute.
Lee was lucky at Antietam, lucky to be facing George McClellan. Throughout September 17, McClellan’s biggest failure was his lack of commitment. Historians agree that McClellan was under a lot of political pressure from the Whitehouse for a much-needed win. Yet, with a clear advantage in both supremacy and intelligence, his cautious strategies cost him a great victory.
It was no secret that McClellan had political ambition. This was mentioned in numerous letters to his wife. He intended to enter the political stage as a democrat and run against Lincoln in the 1864 presidential elections. Having a firm political career in mind, I believe this affected his ability to commit on the battlefield. His prudence was politically motivated. The war was becoming unpopular in the north. Casualty rates of 20-30% were becoming common. People were starting to question the war and the motives behind it. Congress was scrutinizing battles in an effort to find fault in such losses. A battlefield General with a history of carnage was hardly a good candidate for a political career.
Ambrose Burnside was specifically ordered not to attack the bridge, or move the 9th Corps over the Antietam until told to do so. This decision was disastrous! Instead of a single coordinated attack from Hooker and Burnside on Lee’s flanks, the Army of the Potomac mounted three separate uncoordinated battles. This allowed Lee to maneuver his outnumbered forces around the battlefield to counter each offensive.
The capture of the Rohrbach Bridge was a crucial part of the battle. It removed a major obstacle, the Antietam, which split McClellan’s army. McClellan failed to act upon vital intelligence that clearly indicated he outnumbered Robert E. Lee’s forces. When McClellan arrived at Sharpsburg, he paused for two days, second-guessing Lee’s strength and allowing Stonewall Jackson time to arrive from Harpers Ferry. McClellan’s cautious leadership and lack of commitment were based upon protecting his future political career. Unfortunately, through his misguided leadership, Antietam was not the great victory the Union claimed through propaganda.
With all the opportunities available to George McClellan, the bloodiest single day in American military history ended in stalemate. And at what cost, 22,720 casualties from both sides for no strategic advantage. Some could argue that Lee was pushed back across the Potomac, therefore ending the Maryland campaign, but a great opportunity was lost. The chance to destroy the Army of Northern Virginia! This was 1862, and the war would continue for three more, bloody years. Its destruction would’ve ended the fighting sooner. The successful retreat of the Army of Northern Virginia meant it could fight again. Chancellorsville, May 1863, 24,000 casualties, Gettysburg, July 1863, 51,000, and the Wilderness, May 1864, 29,800. I mention these battles, as they were statistically greater than Antietam. But there were others with lesser losses. These three battles alone cost a total of 104,800 American lives.
Labeled the war of ‘brother against brother,’ this title clearly defining the predicament many families faced on both sides of the divide. Antietam, in particular, the attack on the Rohrbach Bridge, was no stranger to its share of family grief. Brigadier General David R. Jones, a thirty-seven-year-old graduate of West Point, was the divisional commander responsible for the Confederate right flank. Jones’ soldiers in Toombs’ Brigade killed his brother-in-law, Colonel Henry W. Kingsbury, while commanding the 11 Connecticut, who led the first union attack on the bridge.
~ Steve McConnell
Antietam National Cemetery: Bissell, Henry, Private, 16th NY, Co. G, date of death unknown, grave 429, lot D, sect. 25: © 2016 Stephen D. McConnell
United States, Congressional Series of United States Public Documents, Volume 2572.
(189). Index to the Miscellaneous Documents of the House of Representatives of the First Session of the Fiftieth Congress (Vol. 2572, p. 840). Washington, CA: Government Printing Office.
Alexander, E. P. (2014). Military memoirs of a Confederate: A critical narrative. New
York, NY: Skyhorse Publishing.
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