The Battle of Antietam
Part IV
The Mid Day Action (The Sunken Road)

        General French commanded the Third Division of the Second Corps, composed of the brigades of Kimball, Morris, and Weber. Morris's troops were new men, and under fire for the first time. The division followed Sedgwick's division across the ford, immediately in its rear. It marched about a mile from the ford, then faced to the left, and moved in three lines toward the enemy, Weber's brigade in front, next Morris's, and then Kimball's. It advanced steadily under a fire of artillery, drove in the Confederate skirmishers, and encountered their infantry in some force at the group of houses on Rullet's farm. From their position about these houses, Weber's brigade gallantly drove the enemy. Rullet's house is about half a mile from the Dunker Church, and a glance at the map will show that troops which marched toward that house from the ford would take quite a different route from that followed by troops which marched from the same ford through the East Woods to the West Woods. Why French so separated himself from Sedgwick does not appear. Whether it was by accident or under orders, it proved a most unfortunate divergence.
        D. H. Hill's five Confederate brigades formed the left centre of the Confederate line, between (and in front of) Sharpsburg on the south and the Dunker Church on the north. They had not been mere spectators of the morning fighting, as so many of the Southern reports would lead one to suppose. On the contrary, Ripley's brigade, the left brigade of D. H. Hill's command, was ordered at about 8 A.M. to close in to its left and advance. It became engaged almost as far north as the southern edge of the East Woods, between that line and the burning buildings. Colquitt's brigade went into the same fight on the right of Ripley. He says this was at about 7 A.M., and that Ripley was engaged when his brigade entered the fight. He probably puts the hour too early. Garland's brigade, under McRae, formed on the right of Colquitt, but its severe losses at South Mountain, where its commander was killed, had demoralized it, and one of its captains in the midst of the fighting cried out, "They are flanking us," and thereupon a general panic ensued and the troops left the field in confusion. At about 9 A.M., Redes was ordered to move to the left and front, to assist Ripley, Colquitt, and McRae. He says that he had hardly begun the movement before he saw that Colquitt and McRae had met with a reverse, and that the best thing he could do, for them and for all parties, would be to form a line in rear of them and endeavor to rally them before attacking or being attacked. General Hill entertained the same view, and a line was formed in the hollow of an old and narrow road, just beyond an orchard, and east of the Hagerstown road. Some of Colquitt's men formed on Rodes's left, bringing the line to the road,(1) and G. B. Anderson's brigade formed on his right. The men busily improved their position by piling rails along their front. While they were so employed, the Federals deployed in their front "in three beautiful lines," Rodes says, "all vastly outstretching ours, and commenced to advance steadily," "with all the precision of a parade day," Hill says.

(1) Rodes says that "a small portion" of Colquitt's brigade occupied about one hundred and fifty yards. Every military man knows that this would require upward of four hundred men in the usual two rank formation. If "a small portion" of a brigade exceeded four hundred after a severe repulse, the whole brigade before the repulse wan probably more than one-fifth of three thousand.

        Both Rodes and Hill lament their almost total want of artillery, but it does not seem to occur to Hill to explain where the eighty-six guns had gone which he says he had on the morning of the 17th.
        These troops, this small force in the sunken road, were some of the troops which resisted the advance of French, when he moved forward in the three beautiful lines which Rodes and Hill saw. It is probable that they were not alone there; indeed D. H. Hill himself speaks of a certain Walker's brigade as uniting with Ripley's, and forming near the old road and to his left of it. It is not easy to identify the brigade spoken of as Walker's. It certainly was not one of Hill's, and may possibly have been the brigade of Walker's division formerly commanded by himself, and this day first by Manning and then by Hall. The too common practice of Confederate generals of declaring that the fighting done by many was done by few, makes much patient study necessary to determine what troops they used at a particular time and place.
        While Weber, of French's division (the Third) of the Second Corps, was hotly engaged with the enemy near Rullet's house, French received an order from Sumner to push on with vigor to make a diversion in favor of the attack on the right. A part of the troops which had turned Sedgwick's left moved forward, and brought a strong pressure to bear on Weber. Under the orders received by French from Sumner, Kimball's brigade hastened to the front, leaving Morris's new troops to act as a reserve, and formed up on the left of Weber. There is no doubt that French's division did some very severe fighting, and met and repulsed successive attacks on its left, front, and right, but it did not succeed in driving the Confederates out of the old road. The smartest push made by the Confederates was on Kimball's left, and Kimball's losses were very heavy, amounting to about seven hundred out of about fourteen hundred in three of his regiments, the Eighth Ohio, One Hundred and Thirty-second Pennsylvania, and the Fourteenth Indiana. The three new regiments of Morris' brigade lost 529. The whole division had 1,614 men killed and wounded, besides 203 missing. Their gallant fighting did not accomplish much, as Federal and Confederate accounts agree that they finally took position behind the crest of a hill which looked down upon the old road. The Confederates had great advantages of position, as the old road and the rails piled before it placed them, as it were, in a fort, and they got some guns into a place from which they were able to partially enfilade the Federal line.
        It has already been said that when Smith's division (the Second) of the Sixth Corps came on the ground, the Third Brigade, under Irwin, was sent to the left of Hancock's brigade of the same corps. This was at about 10 A.M. Brooks, commanding the Second Brigade of the same division, was sent to the left of Irwin and to the right of French's division. Brooks found the enemy before him checked, and seems to have had little to do, but Irwin was instantly ordered into action by his division commander. Irwin had some success at first, but presently two of his regiments, the Thirty-third and Seventy-seventh New York, got into serious trouble, and were obliged to face by the rear rank, and suffered heavily before they got out. The advance of this brigade carried them forward so far that they came abreast of the Dunker Church. It is quite possible that, if Irwin's advance had been supported, a decisive advantage might have been gained. That it was not, appears to have been owing to the fact that its division commander, Smith, as soon as Irwin's brigade was established in its position, found, on sending back for Brooks's brigade to act as a support, that it had been, "without his knowledge or consent, ordered away." General Smith complains bitterly and with great force of this proceeding, saying: "It is not the first or the second time during a battle that my command has been dispersed by orders from an officer superior in rank to the general commanding this corps, and I must assert that I have never known any good to arise from such a method of fighting a battle, and think the contrary rule should be adopted, of keeping commands intact." It is probable that it was at about the time at which French's men and some of Smith's were withdrawn from the points of their extreme advance, and formed in the rear of crests, that the remnants of Rickett's division of the First Corps and of Greene's division of the Twelfth Corps gave up their hold of the woods about the Dunker Church, if, indeed, they were there so long. Ricketts almost certainly retired earlier, but Greene's positive assertion that he did not retire till he was driven away, at about 1.30 P.M., is entitled to respect, though it is a hard saying.
        The usual difficulty of determining with what troops the Confederates met a given attack is rather greater than usual in the matter of French's attack. There is very little definite information accessible. Something has already been said on this point. D. H. Hill writes as if there were only a few men in and near the old road when French advanced, but he says, and seems to say that it was before his fight ended, that R. H. Anderson reported to him "with some three or four thousand men as reinforcements to his command." As language is commonly used, this would imply that his own command was considerably in excess of three or four thousand, and yet he declares that in the morning he had but three thousand infantry, and that in the early fighting three of his five brigades were broken and much demoralized. However this may be, Anderson's men were directed to form behind Hill's, and must have been under fire, whether engaged or not, for Anderson himself was presently wounded, and the command devolved on Pryor, one of his brigade commanders.
        One of the most puzzling questions which the battle of the Antietam presents to the student is the question just where the divisions of French and Richardson fought. General McClellan and those who have followed him write so as to produce the impression that the "sunken road" where French found the enemy posted, and the cornfield in rear of it, where, he says, were also strong bodies of the enemy, were the same sunken road and cornfield where Richardson's division found the enemy posted. This is not the case, though it has a basis of truth, Richardson confessedly went in on the left of French, and it was French's left brigade which encountered the enemy in the sunken road. Richardson's men first met the enemy to the (Federal) left of Rullet's house, and it is stated that there was soon a space, near Rullet's house, between French's left and Richardson's right. Richardson's advance got possession of Piper's house, which is two-thirds of a mile south and west from Rullet's, and two-thirds of a mile south and east of the Dunker Church, and very near the Hagerstown road. It is in the angle between that road and an old sunken road which runs northwesterly to the former from the Keedysville pike, entering the latter about half way between Sharpsburg and the river, and McClellan says that the sunken road where French fought runs in a northwesterly direction. The map shows that the ground between the East Woods on the north, the Hagerstown pike on the west, and the Keedysville pike on the south, measuring about a mile and a third from north to south, is intersected by numerous roads, the lines of which are somewhat broken, and it is probable that the assertions of the various reports could not be accurately fitted to the ground without the actual presence there of an assemblage of officers from both sides, such as Mr. Batchelder succeeding in collecting at Gettysburg.
        It must be admitted that the report of the Confederate General Rodes, which is quite full, seems to be distinctly in favor of the theory of the identity of the two roads, but the general current of the testimony, and especially McClellan's assertion that Richardson's right brigade advanced nearly to the crest of the hill overlooking Piper's house, are so strongly the other way, that the topography of this part of the field requires particular examination. About half way between Rullet's house and Piper's house a road runs across from the Hagerstown pike to the Keedysville pike in a broken line of six parts--first a little north of east, then southeast, then southwest, then southeast again, then nearly south, and again southeast. The longest straight portion of this road, perhaps a third of a mile long, would appear to an observer in McClellan's position to run in a northwesterly direction. Troops passing Rullet's house and marching southwest would reach the portion of this road nearest the Hagerstown pike. Troops marching in the same direction, but from a point somewhat farther east, would come upon its sharpest zigzags, and then would reach the ridge overlooking Piper's house. Moreover, Piper's house is, as nearly as can be measured on the map, a little less than six hundred yards south of the part of the road next the Hagerstown pike. This agrees very well with McClellan's statement that Piper's house was several hundred yards in advance of the sunken road. It may therefore be accepted as established that the troops of the First and Third Divisions of the Second Corps, French's and Richardson's, fought for and on and across the same road, but that this road was one possessing the singular angularities which have been mentioned. It will, of course, be constantly borne in mind that Richardson's men advanced on the left of French's, that is to say, a little to the east and a good deal to the south.
        Richardson's (First) division of the Second Corps comprised the brigades of Meagher, Caldwell, and Brooke. It crossed the Antietam at 9.30 on the morning of the 17th, at the same ford where the other divisions of the corps had crossed it. It moved southward on a line nearly parallel to the stream. In a ravine behind the high ground overlooking Rullet's house, the command was formed, with Meagher's brigade on the right and Caldwell's on the left, and Brooke's in support, Meagher's brigade advanced nearly to the crest of the hill overlooking Piper's house, and found the enemy in strong force in the sunken road in its front. After some sharp fighting, with considerable loss on both sides, Caldwell's brigade was marched up behind it and took its place, the two brigades breaking by company, the one to the front the other to the rear. Meagher's brigade went to the rear to replenish its cartridge-boxes, and Brooke's brigade remained as a support to Caldwell. When the smart push on Kimball's left, before referred to, was made by the Confederates, Brooke hurried into action three of his regiments, the Fifty-second New York, Second Delaware, and Fifty-third Pennsylvania, and they, with some troops from the left of French's division, the Seventh Virginia and One Hundred and Thirty-second Pennsylvania, dislodged the enemy from the cornfield on their right rear, and restored the line. At about this time Caldwell's left was threatened by a movement toward its left and rear, which the Confederates were found to be making under cover of a ridge. Colonel Cross promptly changed front to the left and rear with his regiment, the Fifth New Hampshire, and thus brought his line to be parallel with the line of the flanking force. There was a spirited race between the Federals and Confederates, the goal being some high ground on the left rear of the Federal position. Cross not only won the race and gained the coveted position, but, aided by the Eighty-first Pennsylvania, inflicted severe punishment upon his competitor. Brooke moved forward, to fill the space which Cross's detachment had vacated on the left of Caldwell, the two regiments left to him after detaching to the right, viz.: the Fifty-seventh and Sixty-sixth New York. Caldwell and Brooke, thus united, pressed forward gallantly, and gained possession of Piper's house. Colonel Barlow particularly distinguished himself in these operations of Richardson's division. He had under his charge the two right regiments of Caldwell's brigade, the Sixty-first and Sixty-fourth New York. As Caldwell's line was forcing its way forward, he saw a chance and improved it. Changing front forward, he captured some three hundred prisoners in the sunken road to his right, with two colors. He gained this advantage by obtaining an enfilading fire on the Confederates in the road, and it seems to have been owing entirely to his own quickness of perception and promptness of action, and not to the orders of any superior officer. He was also favorably mentioned for his action in helping to repel another attempt of the enemy to flank Caldwell on his right, and also for contributing largely to the success of the advance which finally gave the Federals possession of Piper's house. This was the end of the serious fighting on this part of the line. Musketry fire ceased at about 1 P.M. Richardson, still holding Piper's house, withdrew his line to the crest of a hill, and at about the same time received a mortal wound. Why he withdrew his line, and whether his wound was the cause of the cessation of operations at this part of the ground, does not appear. Hancock was placed in command of his division. A sharp artillery contest followed the withdrawal of Richardson's line, in which a section of Robertson's horse battery of the Second Artillery, and Graham's battery of brass guns of the First Artillery were engaged on the Federal side. Meagher's brigade, now under Burke, returned to the front, with cartridge-boxes refilled, and took position in the centre of the line. French sent something less than two regiments to the support of Richardson's division, and they were placed between Caldwell's and Burke's (Meagher's) brigade.
        It so happened that at this time Hancock's application for artillery for the division of which he had assumed command, could not be, or was not, complied with. The length of the line which he was obliged to hold prevented him from forming more than one line of troops, and, from his advanced position, that line was partially enfiladed by batteries on the Confederate left, which were hidden from the Federal batteries by the West Woods. He therefore felt himself too weak to attack. He aided in frustrating an attack toward or beyond his left, by obtaining from Franklin Hexamer's battery, and when Hexamer had expended his ammunition, the very gallant and accomplished Lieutenant Woodruff relieved him with Battery I of the First Artillery.
        There is little more to be said of the operations on the Federal right. The serious fighting there ended at about 1 o'clock. In the afternoon, between 4 and 5, the Seventh Maine performed a very brilliant exploit. It belonged to Irwin's brigade of the Second Division of the Sixth Corps, which was in the centre of Smith's division, which was to the right of French's division. It was ordered out to drive away some skirmishers, and performed the task not only gallantly but brilliantly, encountering Texas, Georgia, Mississippi, and Louisiana troops of Hood's division, and losing half the men it moved out with.
        The Federal account of the operations of Richardson's division is only slightly illuminated by the Confederate accounts. General Lee says in substance that the attack on the centre was met by part of Walker's division, G. B. Anderson's brigade, Rodes's brigade, and artillery, with R. H. Anderson formed in support; that, Redes being erroneously withdrawn, the Federals pressed in, broke G. B. Anderson's brigade, mortally wounded him, and wounded General R. H. Anderson and General Wright, but did not follow up their advantage, and, after an hour and a half, retired; that another attack, made further to his right, was repulsed by artillery, i.e., Miller's guns, supported by a part of R. H. Anderson's troops. It is rather a matter of ingenuity than of importance to make the Confederate and Federal accounts of the later morning fighting dovetail. The right attack spent its force when Sedgwick was repulsed. Up to that time there had been close connection of place and some connection of time between the movements of the First, Twelfth, and Second Corps, but after that the attacks were successive both in time and place; and good as were some of the troops engaged, and gallant as was some of the fighting, the movements of French's and Richardson's divisions excite but a languid interest, for such use as was made of these troops was not of a kind to drive Hill and Hood and Jackson and Longstreet and Lee from a strong position from which six divisions of the Federal army had already recoiled, and recoiled in a condition which left them for the moment almost incapable of further service.
        As is usual in Confederate reports, Barlow's success is accounted for on the ground that it was owing to a singular error on the part of an individual, and not to good generalship or good soldiership on the Federal side. It was not till Hotchkiss and Allan began to write that there was much Southern recognition of the fact that Federal merit and Confederate demerit might have something to do with a Federal success. After French's advance had lost its momentum, and after a charge attempted by Rodes and Colquitt had failed so entirely that Rodes barely prevented his men from falling back to the rear of the sunken road, Rodes noticed troops going in to the support of Anderson (G. B.), or to his right. He says that he saw that some of them, instead of passing on to the front, stopped in the hollow immediately in his rear, and that he went to them and found that they belonged to General Pryor's brigade. General Pryor was one of R. H. Anderson's brigadiers. The fire on both sides was now desultory and slack, that is to say, as above stated, French's attack had spent its force, and his men had retired behind high ground. General Rodes found General Pryor in a few moments, and told him how his men were behaving, and General Pryor immediately ordered them forward. General Rodes returned to his command in the sunken road, and met the Lieutenant-Colonel of the Sixth Alabama, looking for him. That officer reported to him that the right of his regiment was subjected to a terrible enfilading fire, which the enemy were enabled to deliver by reason of their gaining somewhat on G. B. Anderson. This undoubtedly means that the pressure of Richardson's advance was beginning to be felt. Rodes ordered his Lieutenant-Colonel to hasten back, and to throw his right wing back out of the old road. "Instead of executing the order, he moved briskly to the rear of the regiment, and gave the command, 'Sixth Alabama, about-face, forward, march.' Major Hobson, of the Fifth, asked him if the order was intended for the whole brigade. He replied, 'Yes,' and thereupon the Fifth, and immediately the other troops on their left, retreated." Rodes says that a duty to a wounded comrade kept him from seeing this retrograde movement till it was too late to rally his men, and that his attention to his command was further delayed by a wound which he at first thought was serious, but presently found to be slight. When he again turned to his brigade, he discovered it "retreating in confusion," and hastened to intercept it at the Hagerstown road, and there found that, with the exception of about forty men, the brigade had completely disappeared. G. B. Anderson was killed at this time, and as the Fifth and Sixth Alabama belonged to Rodes's brigade, there can be little doubt that this disaster was the Federal success gained by Caldwell's brigade, and especially by Barlow's two regiments.
        There is no doubt that the brigades of Featherston and Pryor, of R. H. Anderson's division, shared in the fighting at the sunken road. When Pryor went forward at about 10 A.M., Featherston followed him. He passed a barn (which was probably one of the outbuildings of the Piper house), and proceeded several hundred yards, and there found in a road beyond the first cornfield after passing the barn, the brigade of Pryor and a brigade of North Carolina troops. As the old road is from four hundred and fifty to six hundred yards from Piper's house, and as G. B. Anderson's brigade was all from North Carolina, while Rodes and Colquitt to the left had no North Carolina regiments, it is clear that Featherston came up in rear of the right of the line in the road. He claims that his men passed over Pryor's and the North Carolinians, and encountered the enemy three hundred yards further to the front. He was presently ordered to fall back, and found great confusion in the road, from the mingling of different brigades, and continued to fall back till he reached the barn. There the command was rallied, and thence it advanced into the cornfield in front of the barn, where the enemy was met. That is to say, the Federals had nearly reached Piper's house. A desperate fight ensued, and was ended by his being ordered to fall back to his original position, on account of a terrific cross fire of artillery. This, being interpreted, probably means simply that the Federals were stronger or fought better than the Confederates at this time and place, and it may well have been at this time that Cross and the Fifth New Hampshire captured the colors of the Fourth North Carolina of G. B. Anderson's brigade. It would be tedious to follow the operations of the centre into much more detail, and it would not be worth the while. It may be said briefly that Willcox, as well as Featherston and Pryor, of R. H. Anderson's division, undoubtedly took part in the fighting in the centre, and that the stories, of which the Confederate reports are so full, of Federal advances made late in the day and heroically repulsed, are only highly colored accounts of the coming up of the brigades of Slocum's division of Franklin's Corps to the places assigned them, and of the gentle pressure which Pleasonton was able to exert with the guns of his horse artillery and their infantry supports from the regular brigade.
        Slocum, with the First Division of the Sixth Corps, reached the field by or before noon. The brigades of Newton and Torbert were immediately formed in column of attack, to carry the woods about the Dunker Church. The brigade of Bartlett was to form the reserve for this column, but Franklin found that Sumner had ordered it to keep near his right, and he waited for it to return; but first Sumner and then McClellan interfered, and the attack was not made. Wisely or unwisely, Sumner paralyzed the action of Franklin's Corps, first detaching from Smith and then from Slocum. Slocum's fine division was so little used that its total loss was only sixty-five.
        Pleasonton, in the morning of this day, after fighting had begun on his right, advanced his skirmishers on the Keedysville pike, cleared his front, and caused the batteries of Tidball, Gibson, Robertson, and Hains to open fire, having a direct fire in front, and obtaining an enfilade fire along the front of Sumner, a mile away, and giving some aid to the Ninth Corps, which was at a greater distance on his left. At a later hour, he used the batteries of Randol and Kuserow, and supported them with five small battalions of regulars under Captain Hiram Dryer. In the afternoon, between three and four, he saw a Confederate line, "fully a mile long," bearing down on Richardson, and directed the fire of eighteen guns upon it, and in twenty minutes saw the "immense line first halt, deliver a desultory fire, and then break and run to the rear in the greatest confusion and disorder." A line a mile long is not an immense line, as it would only consist of about five thousand men, but it is not easy to identify the Confederate advance to which Pleasonton refers. At 4 P.M. he asked Porter for infantry to support his guns in an advance, but the request was not granted, as Porter had no troops to spare.

This page last updated 12/17/03