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SM-09-2014-10953September 17, 1862, the Battle of Antietam, which took place at Sharpsburg Maryland, was the conclusion of General Robert E. Lee’s first invasion of the North. There are many statistics claiming other engagements as the bloodiest battles of the Civil War, and for the most part, that’s purely a matter of perspective, based on the writers’ creativity in presenting those facts. However, the majority of historic academics agree that Antietam was without a doubt the bloodiest single day in American military history.

When General Robert E. Lee took command of the Army of Northern Virginia in June 1862, he recognized the South could not withstand a prolonged war with the North. He understood that it was only a matter of time before industrialization, manpower, and resources, overwhelmed the Confederacy. Lee’s recommendation of an invasion plan put to President Jefferson Davis was based upon the shock that reverberated throughout the corridors of power in the North, after the first Battle of Bull Run (or Manassas, as the south referred to it,) on July 21, 1861. The plan to force the North into peace talks sounded so promising that the concept was executed twice, in the Maryland Campaign of 1862, and later in the Gettysburg Campaign of 1863.

This is not an article on the Maryland campaign, or a detailed synopsis of the final battle, Antietam. There is way too much detail for such a short piece. I don’t intend to confuse readers’ with statistics, numbers, or strategies. But I do want to talk about one crucial phase of Antietam, the Rohrbach Bridge, and how that three-arched, 125-foot long, by 12-foot wide, stone bridge, played such an important part in changing the tide of battle.

In the conclusion of Antietam, so ended Lee’s first invasion of the North. With it, all the possibilities it promised, the ability to sue for peace, bringing an end to the war and establishing a new country. But through Union incompetence the Army of Northern Virginia escaped intact. If only the Union had identified certain initiatives when presented, and captured the Rohrbach Bridge earlier in the day, it could have been a totally different outcome.

By late morning, the Battle of Antietam was playing out as a stalemate. Major General George McClellan had failed to utilize a number of advantages presented to him on his right, and center positions. The plan to alleviate the pressure on the Dunker Church to his right, and the Sunken Road to the front; was to push Major General Ambrose Burnside, and his 9th Corps on his left, 13,000 men, horses, and artillery, across Antietam creek to swing right into Lee’s right flank.

There is a great deal of controversy over the times that orders were issued, received, and acted upon. In Burnside’s original report dated September 30th, 1862, he states, he received the order to advance on the Rohrbach Bridge at 10 a.m. (“BGen Ambrose Burnside’s Official Report”, 1862). In his second preliminary report dated October 15, 1862, McClellan also agreed with the 10 a.m. start. (George B. McClellan, “Second Preliminary Report”, 1862, Page 1). When Major General Jacob D. Cox, who accompanied Burnside at the bridge, submitted his account of the battle for the Century magazine column, ‘Battles and Leaders of the Civil War,’ the 10 a.m. start became fact. (Cox, Johnson, “Century Magazine, Battles and Leaders of the Civil War”, Published 1853).

Confederate General Edward Porter Alexander tells a different story. In researching his memoirs, which are considered by many to be an outstanding account of the war, he claims, that in McClellan’s original summary of the battle, released prior to the Burnside report of September 30th, McClellan ordered Burnside to carry the bridge at 8 a.m. (Military memoirs of a Confederate: a critical narrative, 2014).

In accordance with Alexander’s account, an 8 a.m. attack would’ve coincided with Major General Joseph Hooker’s initial success at the Miller cornfield. With the absence of General A.P. Hill, who was still on-route from Harpers Ferry, this would have had a profound impact on the outcome of the battle. Lee’s right flank was questionably his most precarious. It was the closest to his escape route back to Virginia. And yet, prior to the arrival of A.P. Hill, he only had 3,000 men defending it. An attack at that time would have placed Lee under tremendous pressure by squeezing his force in a strong pincer movement. Attacking at the later time of 10 a.m. equates to Hookers loss of initiative to Lieutenant General ‘Stonewall’ Jackson. Hooker was wounded and removed from the field, and Jackson seized the opportunity. This allowed Lee to bolster his right flank with much-needed artillery.

I think, after careful consideration, McClellan must have realized the opportunities that slipped through his fingers. The chance to smash the Army of Northern Virginia, on northern soil, and give Lincoln and the Union that much-needed win. Before we can actually analyze the possibilities of Alexander’s 8 a.m. attack, and therefore discuss McClellan and Burnside’s joint misgivings; we must first look briefly at what actually happened!

It’s fair to say at some point during the morning McClellan started sending a number of written dispatches to Burnside, requesting that he press the attack into Lee’s flank. By 12 p.m., Burnside had made two unsuccessful attacks on the bridge.

In fact, facing him across the Antietam was an infantry brigade, commanded by Brigadier General Robert Toombs. Toombs had twelve cannon split into three batteries of artillery, and four infantry regiments comprising of the 20th Georgia Volunteer Infantry, commanded by Lieutenant Colonel John B. Cumming, the 2nd Georgia Volunteer Infantry, commanded by Lieutenant Colonel William R. Homes. These were sited overlooking the bridge under the command of Colonel Henry L. Benning. In reserve, and covering the flank towards Snavely’s Ford, was the 15th, and 17th Georgia, commanded by Lieutenant Colonel William T Millican and Captain John A, McGregor, respectively. Toombs had roughly 400 men overlooking the bridge. Despite being outnumbered by Burnside’s 13,000 men of the 9th Corps, these well-seasoned Georgian troops had excellent positions covering the approaches to, and over the Rohrbach Bridge.

During the morning phase, Burnside gave the bridge to the 2nd Division, under Brigadier General Samuel D. Sturgis. Sturgis in turn, delegated the bridge to his 1st Brigade, under Brigadier General James Nagle. While Nagle made his second futile charge against the entrenched Confederates on the west bank, Sturgis ordered Brigadier General Edward Ferrero’s brigade to push the attack over the bridge.

One thing academically accepted is at approximately 12 p.m. Ferrero formed his brigade in the cornfield near a bend in the creek, immediately west of the Lower Bridge Road. At this point, he called forward the 51st Pennsylvania, commanded by Lieutenant Colonel John Hartranft, and the 51st New York, commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Robert B. Potter. Left in reserve were the 21st Massachusetts, and the inexperienced 35th Massachusetts, commanded by Colonel William S. Clark, and Lieutenant Colonel Sumner Carruth, respectively. The order was given to the Pennsylvania and New York regiments.

“It is General Burnside’s special request that the two Fifty-firsts take the bridge, will you do it?”

There was silence! Ferrero had previously disciplined the 51st Pennsylvania for transgressions while on the march by removing their whiskey ration. Corporal Lewis Patterson, of Company I, 51st Pennsylvania, a known teetotaler, shouted… “Will you give us our whiskey Colonel, if we take it?”

“Yes, by God!” cried Ferrero!

As Sturgis was beaten back from the bridge for the second time, the remnants of his two forward regiments were taking cover along the west bank, in particular, south of the bridge along a prominent six-rail wooden fence. Heavily engaged by the 2nd and 20th Georgia, and under heavy artillery from the Virginia battery, under Captain James S. Brown, the 2nd Brigade moved into position for its attempt at the bridge.

Leading the 2nd brigade was the 21st Massachusetts, followed by the 51st Pennsylvania, the 51st New York, and the 35th Massachusetts. They followed the approach used by Nagle’s men. Nagle’s 9th New Hampshire, under Colonel Enoch Q. Fellows, were placed on high ground, overlooking the creek and bridge as the 2nd brigade filed behind. The 21st Massachusetts swung right to occupy a plowed field that the New Hampshire regiment had previously occupied, supported by artillery from the Pennsylvania Light, Battery D, under Captain George W. Durell. Ferrero positioned the 51st Pennsylvania to the left of the 21st Massachusetts in cover, facing the bridge, and then maneuvered the 51st New York to their left. He situated his headquarters behind the Pennsylvania and New York regiments, and brought in the 35th Massachusetts, in reserve.

At 12:30 p.m., with artillery support from the Pennsylvania Light, Battery D, and the 4th United States, Battery E, under Captain Joseph C. Clark, and the Simmonds’ Battery, Kentucky (Union) Light Artillery, under Captain Seth J. Simmonds, the 51st Pennsylvania made its move toward Rohrbach Bridge. With this fresh push, the remains of the 48th Pennsylvania, under Lieutenant Colonel Joshua K. Sigfried, and a small element of the 6th New Hampshire, made for the bridge; both units from Nagle’s brigade. All four regiments started to pour heavy fire into the opposite bank.

The noise at the bridge was staggering with both Union and Confederate independent rifle fire, combined with high-pitched whistles, exploding shells, and rattling canister from Simmonds’ Battery, which was firing over the Federals’ heads into the Confederate lines.

The 51st Pennsylvania advanced to the eastern end of the bridge, smashed down the fence bordering both sides of the road south of the bridge. Then took cover behind the lower wing of the abutment. Colonel Hartranft, who was with his colors, used the upper abutment for shelter and ordered his men to push for the bridge. Volley after volley ripped through the Union ranks. Bullets thumped into human flesh while others ricocheted off the stone. Shrapnel splintered the wooden handrails, sending dust and fragments of wood into the air. Double charge canister tore through the ranks decapitating bodies, sending large chunks of flesh tumbling on a spray of blood. Rank upon rank fell while men stepped over the dead and dying in an effort to maintain momentum.

By the center of the bridge, the 51st Pennsylvania was receiving heavy volleys of musketry, grape, and shell. Slowly they continued through screams of pain and clouds of white sulfur smoke. The momentum was starting to falter. Colonel Hartranft and his color guard worked their way to the eastern crest of the bridge while Colonel Potter and the 51st New York followed the Pennsylvanians. Potter shouted at his men to move and bolted onto the parapet, where he stood shouting like a madman.

Confederate Colonel Benning, commanding the Georgians at the bridgehead, found his position now becoming precarious. The Yankees were making fresh ground, advancing further than before. Simmonds’s six guns firing double charge canister into the tree line was having an effect. His casualties were mounting and his fire was dwindling, due to the 2nd Georgia pulling back from the bridgehead to reform.

A short distance to the left, some men of the 51st New York, who had forded the stream and scaled the rocks at the west of the bridge, had outflanked the re-forming 2nd Georgia and hit them from behind. Union fire cut down Lieutenant Colonel William R. Holmes, of the Georgia regiment, who died, sword in hand, while attempting to fulfill his vow to hold the bridgehead or “die in a ditch” trying.

Just below the eastern crest of the bridge, having noticed a lapse in the fire after a six-canon canister impact on the Confederate lines; Captain William Allebaugh, of the 51st Pennsylvania, shouted: “with me.” He, Sergeant William Thomas, three color-bearers, and a member of the color guard bolted across the span and planted the regimental standard on the road at the mouth of the bridge. They knelt around the colors and fired at Rebel snipers in the opposite treetops. Colonel Hartranft, seeing his colors positioned, took saber and pistol in hand, and rushed to join them. His men followed clogging the 12-foot-wide roadway as individuals halted to shoot.

The 51st New York were working their way through the carnage up the left side of the bridge, when suddenly, the congestion released. As the Pennsylvania boys reached their colors, they wheeled right, charging forward up the road while forming line of battle, simultaneously smashing into the 20th Georgia with a loud moan and a clash of steel. At the same instant, the New Yorkers’ wheeled left, uphill, crashing into the 2nd Georgia. It was impossible to see anything. Volley after volley of Springfield .58-caliber left thick white clouds of sulfur smoke in the still air. As Federals pushed deeper into the Confederate lines the air was filled with the sounds of crushing undergrowth, tin cups clinking from knapsacks; trees and shrubs splintering, bloodcurdling screams, and steel on steel. Men desperately pushing forward to clear the high ground, with sporadic shouts of “reform the line!”

Toombs started receiving reports that Burnside had, in fact, split his force, sending one Division, the 3rd Division, under Brigadier General Isaac Rodman, three-quarters of a mile south to cross at Snavely’s Ford. Realizing the indefensible situation, tired, and running low on ammunition, he ordered the withdrawal. The bridge fell to the Union attack at 1 p.m.

On the morning of September 18, 1863, Major General Edward Ferrero reported his losses for the official record. In the 30-minutes it had taken the 2nd Brigade to capture the Rohrbach Bridge, they suffered 95 dead, 271 wounded, and 6 missing. That morning two other important events took place. An improvised truce was established in which both sides were able to recover and exchange their wounded, and the 51st Pennsylvania had their whiskey ration reinstated. As evening fell, General Robert E. Lee slipped back across the Potomac at Shepherdstown, West Virginia.

I plan to return to Antietam on April 23, in order to walk the battlefield, and write a conclusion to this post. I want to investigate the possibilities of the 8 a.m. attack and walk through a number of scenarios. In all fairness, it’s easy to criticize with hindsight. McClellan and Burnside were both renowned for their cautious leadership, especially when clearly holding the advantage. But my question is: was this in fact a case of being overcautious, or pure incompetence under pressure?

~ Steve McConnell

References:

Burnside, A. E. (n.d.). BGen Ambrose Burnside’s Official Report. Retrieved April 24, 2016, from http://antietam.aotw.org/exhibit.php?exhibit_id=33

McClellan, G. (n.d.). MGen McClellan’s Official Reports. Retrieved April 24, 2016, from http://antietam.aotw.org/exhibit.php?exhibit_id=19

Cox, J. D. (1853). Battles and Leaders of the Civil War (R. U. Johnson, Ed.). Century Magazine.

Alexander, E. P. (2014). Military memoirs of a Confederate: A critical narrative. New York, NY: Skyhorse Publishing.

I have been asked to contribute a bi-monthly article to the SEC-2-SEC security website in the form of a blog. The idea was put to me from the perspective of writing a number of short articles on a wide variety of topics covering my passion for history, vintage firearms, the American Civil War, and anything remotely connected to those topics that would make an interesting read. I thought I would start with a short bio in order to present myself to the readers, and therefore, give an understanding of my qualifications to write on such matters.IMG_3313

What credentials do I have to write on these subjects? None! That is, nothing other than a strong passion for history! History; in particular, military history, has been a boyhood fascination. Combine that desire with a love of research, and then stick in some rudimentary photography skills, and you have the makings of a self-proclaimed expert, an armchair critic!

I am descended from a long line of service personnel. I joined the British armies Parachute Regiment, in 1975. I completed 7 tours of duty in Northern Ireland and deployed with 3 Para to the Falklands Islands in 1982, during the war with Argentina. In addition to a 24-year military career, I worked 10-years as a licensed Private Investigator in Florida and served 5-years as a security contractor in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Why the American Civil War? I don’t know, perhaps due to the fact that it was the first industrial war, and its innovations were set to change the way all future wars were fought. That simple fact alone has continued to stir my interest. New groundbreaking weaponry was developed and the conflict became the testing ground for a range of technologies and weapons that transformed the very nature of warfare. These days I frequently travel Civil War battlefields in an effort to combine the study of history and the art of photography.

As a photographer, I’ve worked 40 years in all aspects of image creation. During that time, I’ve photographed the Falklands War, the troubles in Northern Ireland, and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. My work has been published in the London Times, The Independent, as well as numerous newspapers and periodicals. I provide photography through The Military Picture Library International, for books covering military topics. My work is on permanent display at the Falklands War Memorial at Pangbourne Naval College, Berkshire England; and I have images with the Imperial War Museums in London, and Duxford Cambridgeshire.

I would like to point out that any topics of discussion are based on my own viewpoint. You may agree or disagree! I welcome feedback, positive, or negative. But I do not intend to get involved in lengthy debates over facts, historical viewpoints, or my take on things published in these writings. We all have an opinion, those opinions may differ – these are mine!

~ Steve McConnell

Website: www.stephenmcconnellphotography.com

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