The Battle of Antietam
The Afternoon Phase (Burnside's Bridge and Beyond)
The attentive reader will remember that McClellan says it was his plan to attack the enemy's left, and as soon as matters looked favorably there, to move the corps of Burnside against the enemy's extreme right, but as he states in a later paragraph of his report that the attack on the right was to have been supported by an attack on the left, and that preparatory to this attack, on the evening of the 16th, the Ninth Corps was moved forward and to the left, and took up a position nearer the bridge, he must be understood to mean rather that he intended that these attacks should be simultaneous than that they should be successive. Independent of any utterance of McClellan upon the subject, no one who credited him with a share of military ability could believe that he could have contemplated leaving a corps of four divisions idle for hours upon his left, while he attacked on the right with three corps, held the centre with a fourth corps and his cavalry and horse artillery, and had another strong corps hastening up to the rear of his line. This, however, is precisely what he did do, whatever his orders may have been, and it is one of the vexed questions of this battle whether Burnside failed McClellan and virtually lost the battle for him, or rather kept it from being a great victory, and whether McClellan was or was not satisfied with Burnside at the time. With the abundant knowledge which has long been accessible, there cannot be a shadow of a doubt that if the Ninth Corps had been thrown vigorously into action early on the 17th, Lee's army must have been shattered, if not destroyed. There is as little doubt that McClellan was dissatisfied with Burnside when he published his report, but his report is dated August 4, 1863, nine months after Burnside had taken his place as commander of the Army of the Potomac, and when McClellan was very prominent as an injured hero, and not very unlikely to be the next President of the United States. As for McClellan's feeling at the time, there is in existence the strongest and most respectable testimony to the effect that a week after the battle, McClellan and Burnside appeared to be on terms of the most intimate friendship, and that some, at least, of those best qualified to judge, believed that Burnside's part in the battle had McClellan's unqualified approval. Those who know McClellan thoroughly are the only persons who are qualified to judge whether he may have then been acting a part, and treating Burnside as he might not have treated him if he had not felt his own position to be one of delicacy and instability; but as this volume is an account of some great campaigns, and not a study of psychology, it is sufficient to state the fact that McClellan subsequently disapproved of Burnside's action, without undertaking to settle the question just when the feeling of dissatisfaction arose in his mind--still less whether he concealed it when he first felt it. Those who believe that Burnside was a faithful, intelligent, and brave soldier, will probably retain a different opinion of his conduct at the Antietam from that of those who believe that his presence was an element of weakness, or worse, wherever and whenever he held an important command.
The Ninth Corps at the battle of the Antietam contained four divisions, those of Willcox, Sturgis, and Rodman, and the Kanawha division, temporarily attached to the Army of the Potomac, under General Cox. Willcox's First Division comprised the brigades of Christ and Welsh; Sturgis's Second, those of Nagle and Ferrero; Rodman's Third, those of Fairchild and Harland; the Kanawha division comprised the brigades of Crook and Ewing As has already been stated, Cox had the personal command of the Ninth Corps this day, and Scammon took command of his division. The position of the Ninth Corps before the battle has already been stated in general terms. On the afternoon of the 16th, the whole corps, except Willcox's division, was moved forward and to the left to the rear slope of the ridges on the left bank of the Antietam, its centre being nearly opposite the stone bridge. The following positions were assigned to the divisions: the right front of the position to be occupied by Crook's brigade, supported by Sturgis's division; a commanding knoll in the centre to be occupied by Benjamin's battery (E, Second Artillery) of 20-pounder Parrott guns; Rodman's division was to occupy the left front, supported by Ewing's brigade; Willcox's division and the rest of the artillery were to be held in reserve. Durell's battery was sent forward early the next morning to the right of the general position, and took part with Benjamin's battery in a brisk artillery fight which commenced soon after daybreak. General Toombs held the ground on the opposite side, with two Georgia regiments, the Second and Twentieth, four hundred and three muskets strong. He placed these men upon the margin of the river, in rather open order, occupying a narrow wood just above the bridge, which he calls an important and commanding position. The Twentieth Georgia was posted with its left near the Sharpsburg end of the bridge, extending down the stream, and the Second Georgia on its right, prolonging the line down to a point where a neighborhood road approaches a ford about six hundred yards to the right and rear of the position. Subsequently, the Fiftieth Georgia, numbering (Toombs says he should suppose) scarcely one hundred muskets, reported to him, and was placed on the right of the Second Georgia, to guard a blind plantation road leading to another ford. He had one more company, not named, and Ewbank's battery, and also, at a distance in his rear, Richardson's battery of his own brigade. General Toombs says that the position was not strong, the ground descending gently, and the narrow strip of woods upon it affording slight cover. This language underestimates the strength of the position, but this point need not be insisted on, for Toombs's next statement shows what a bad place it was for carrying a bridge, whatever the slope of the ground and whether the woods were thin or thick. "Its chief strength lay in the fact that, from the nature of the ground on the other (i.e., Federal) side, the enemy were compelled to approach mainly by the road, which led up the river for near three hundred paces, parallel with my line of battle, and distant therefrom from fifty to one hundred and fifty feet, thus exposing his flank to a destructive fire the most of that distance."General Cox says that the position afforded the most perfect natural and artificial cover. Most of D. R. Jones's division was in Toombs's rear or to his left.
Early on the morning of the 17th, McClellan ordered Burnside to hold his men in readiness to assault the bridge, and to await further orders. The order reached Burnside at about 7 A.M., and the command promptly moved forward and took the positions directed the previous evening. Besides the advance of Durell's and Benjamin's batteries, already mentioned, the batteries of McMullin, Clark, Muhlenberg, and Cook were placed on the heights to right and left, and somewhat further forward than Benjamin's battery. A section of Simmons's 20-pounders was temporarily attached to Benjamin's battery. For some two hours after the receipt of the order, Burnside and Cox stood together on the knoll where Benjamin's battery was placed. From that point they looked down between the lines of battle on their right, as if they were looking along the sides of a street. They saw the Confederates taking advantage of walls and fences, and the Federals uncovered and in the open. They saw the Federal lines halt, open fire, and gradually melt away, or straggle to the rear. They saw that the right attack had failed before they got orders to cross.
At eight o'clock, McClellan says, an order was sent to Burnside to carry the bridge, gain possession of the heights beyond, and to advance along their crest upon Sharpsburg and its rear. There is excellent reason for believing that this order, whenever issued, did not reach Burnside till about nine. He immediately communicated it to Cox, and ordered him to carry it out. Cox immediately left him, took personal direction of the troops, and did not see him again till about 3 P.M., when he crossed the bridge to hasten the movements of Willcox's division under circumstances which will be mentioned hereafter. Crook's brigade was ordered to advance, covered by the Eleventh Connecticut deployed as skirmishers, and supported by the division of Sturgis, and attempt to carry the bridge by assault. The plan was to carry the bridge by a rush of two columns of fours, the one to move to the right and the other to the left so soon as they should get across. Rodman's division was to endeavor to cross by a ford a third of a mile below the bridge. The commands, once across, were to carry the heights above and there unite.
Crook, in some unexplained manner, missed his way to the bridge and reached the stream above it, and came under so heavy a fire, of both infantry and artillery, that he was obliged to halt and open fire. A new storming party had to be organized from Sturgis's division, which reached the bridge first. The Second Maryland and Sixth New Hampshire were told off for the work. They charged at the double-quick with fixed bayonets, but the concentrated fire on the bridge was too much for them, and after repeated brave efforts they were withdrawn. The Fifty-first New York and Fifty-first Pennsylvania were ordered up. They were followed and supported by the Thirty-fifth and Twenty-first Massachusetts, and at the same time Crook obtained a direct fire from two heavy guns upon the Confederates at the further end of the bridge. Aided by these guns, and charging brilliantly, the fresh troops carried the bridge, and the division of Sturgis and the brigade of Crook immediately followed them across. The loss before the bridge was carried exceeded five hundred men, including Colonel Kingsbury killed, and a number of very valuable officers. In the meanwhile, Ewing's brigade and Rodman's division, after losing some time in searching for a ford, under fire--guides proving worthless or worse--found the ford, crossed it, and took up the position assigned them, and thus at 1 P.M. or thereabouts, the three divisions of the corps across the Antietam occupied exactly their intended relative positions, except that Crook was behind Sturgis instead of in front of him. Unfortunately it was one o'clock, the fighting on the Federal right was practically over, and A. P. Hill was drawing very near. This was bad, but it was not the worst of it. Sturgis had expended his ammunition, and he now reported that his division was totally unfit for a forward movement. He was taken at his word, and Willcox's division was ordered to relieve him. It seems to have been assumed that there was no ford in the vicinity, and Willcox's men crossed the bridge. This proved slow work, though the command showed reasonable alacrity. The movement was completed at about three o'clock, General Burnside himself coming over to hasten it, and Sturgis's division was placed in reserve at the head of the bridge. All this time the Confederates kept up a severe and damaging artillery fire. Two rifled guns of Moody's battery, and a section of the Washington Artillery, with much aid from the batteries of Longstreet's command, were firing upon the Federals.
At about three o'clock, the whole of the Ninth Corps, except Sturgis's division, was put in motion. The general scheme of the advance was that Willcox, supported by Crook, should move on Sharpsburg, and that Rodman, supported by Scammon with Ewing's brigade, should follow the move-meat, first dislodging the enemy in their front, and then changing direction to the right, so as to bring the left wing in echelon on the left of Willcox. The artillery of the corps partly covered the advance. The right wing advanced rapidly, but the left met with more resistance. The appearance of the Confederate line, the number of their batteries and battle-flags, all indicated a force fully equal to that of the Federals. Toombs's men had been reinforced by the arrival of the Fifteenth and Seventeenth Georgia, and five companies of the Eleventh Georgia, but the Second and Twentieth Georgia were sent to the rear. With these troops and some of Kearse's regiment, and a part of the Twentieth Georgia, which had returned with a fresh supply of cartridges, Toombs formed on D. R. Jones's right.
The right wing of the Federal force was so successful as to drive in the Confederate skirmishers, capture McIntosh's battery of A. P. Hill's division (which had been sent forward by Hill), and press their advance to the southern suburbs of the town. The resistance on the other flank, however, delayed the Federal left wing, and thus there was an interval between the two wings which grew wider as the right advanced. This interval proved fatal to the enterprise on the Federal left. At half-past two, A. P. Hill's division, having made a march of seventeen miles in seven hours, arrived upon the field. McIntosh's battery had been sent forward to strengthen D. R. Jones's right, the brigades of Pender and Brockenbrough were placed on the extreme right, and Branch, Gregg, and Archer, to their left, connected and completed the line, joining hands with Toombs and D. R. Jones. Braxton's battery was placed on a commanding point on Gregg's right, and Crenshaw's and Pegram's on a hill to the left. Toombs and Archer charged, while the other troops held their ground and fired sharply. McIntosh's battery was retaken, and the Federal line repulsed. Hill lost one brigadier-general killed, and three hundred and forty-six officers and men killed and wounded. He says himself that he was not a moment too soon, and that the Federals had broken through D. R. Jones's division, and were in the full tide of success. He was himself most fortunate in the time and place of his arrival, as Sumner was on the 31st of May at Fair Oaks. He struck Rod-man in flank, killed him, and caused his division to break. The nature and character of the attack made it necessary to change Scammon's front, bring up Sturgis, and withdraw the left of Willcox. That of twenty-two hundred and twenty-two casualties in the Ninth Corps only one hundred and twenty-three were missing, may be accepted as proof that the breaking of Rodman's division was not of a discreditable character, and that the disaster was promptly repaired.
Thus the battle of the Antietam, so far as it is really interesting, came to an end. To complete the story of the fighting on the south and southeast of the town, a few details may be added. It seems that when D. R. Jones's division was broken, Kemper gave way first, then Drayton and Jenkins, and that Pickett's Virginia brigade, commanded by Garnett, and Evans's South Carolina brigade, were then ordered back. The repulse must have been very complete, for Colonel Hunton of the Eighth Virginia, of Pickett's brigade, found near the town troops scattered in squads from various parts of the army, so that it was impossible to distinguish men of the different commands. It appears that even in the Southern army human frailty was not unknown, for the colonel commanding Jenkins's brigade of D. R. Jones's division reports that the First South Carolina went in with one hundred and six rank and file, had forty killed and wounded, and only one officer and fifteen men at evening roll-call, and adds that "such officers are a disgrace to the service, and unworthy to wear a sword," while Colonel McMaster, commanding Evans's brigade, says that some of the Holcombe Legion and Seventeenth South Carolina, of his brigade, "in spite of my efforts, broke and ran."
As one reads many of the Southern reports, he finds the doubt growing upon him whether they were made primarily for the information of the superior officers who were entitled to receive them, or for publication in local newspapers and the glorification of the writers. This is especially true of the commanders of batteries and artillery battalions. They all "check the Federal advance," "drive large bodies of infantry from view," "break their ranks," "drive them to cover," cause them to "recoil," "break them and throw them into great confusion," etc., etc., etc., till one is led to wonder at the folly of the Southern leaders in exposing their infantry at all. With artillery so efficient and sufficient, and such admirable cover as the ground afforded, it would seem that they might as well have kept their infantry out of sight, and spared themselves the ten thousand casualties which thinned their ranks at Sharpsburg. Thus it is stated that the batteries of Hood's division were used mainly in resisting the attack of the Ninth Corps. It would appear that Garden's guns and a section of Squires's rifles drive back the enemy advancing from the Burnside bridge; that this force, with Brown's battery and Squires's two howitzers added, break the Federals a second time, when they have got up to within one hundred yards; that only three Confederate guns are then left fit for action, but Ramsey's battery then comes up, with Reilly's two rifles, opens fire, and soon breaks the Federals again. Going a little further to the Confederate right, we find the batteries of Longstreet's corps, notably Miller's, checking the Federal advance. A. P. Hill and his chief of artillery are less blind to the doings of the infantry. A. P. Hill says that the three brigades of his division actively engaged, with the help of his "splendid batteries," drove back Burnside's corps of 15,000 men. The wonderful sight which D. H. Hill saw, when he caused three, or probably five guns to open on an "imposing force of Yankees" at twelve hundred yards distance, and routed them by artillery fire alone, unaided by musketry, has already been mentioned. It hardly need be added that the Confederate batteries seldom, if ever, retire till they are out of ammunition.
The truth is that the Confederate batteries were extremely well taken care of by their infantry, as a rule, and that they very seldom lost a gun. At Sharpsburg they were wise very generally in abstaining from costly and useless "artillery duels," and in directing their fire upon the Federal infantry, but they did not do all the fighting that was done there by the Confederates.
There are many questions presented by the action of the Ninth Corps at Sharpsburg, some of them affecting the conduct of Burnside and Cox principally, others which rather affect McClellan, but as this volume is intended more for a narrative than for a critical discussion, they will hardly be more than stated--the questions of the former class in this place, and those of the latter a little later. The question of Burnside's loyalty is too large a one for discussion here. Thus much is plain, he could not be disloyal to McClellan without being disloyal to his country. But between the utmost putting forth of the powers of an able and energetic man, and the lukewarm use of the powers of a commonplace and sluggish man, there is a vast difference, and the small results accomplished by Burnside on McClellan's left may readily be understood without any imputation of disloyalty by those who think that they see in his whole career that he had mistaken his vocation, and that it was a misfortune for the country that he was ever promoted beyond the rank of colonel. There are those who judge him very harshly, but wars are unfortunately apt to produce sharp jealousies and enmities among soldiers, and the explanation afforded by the theory of limited capacity may well be preferred to that based on the suggestion of bad faith.
The peculiar position of Burnside and Cox was probably a drawback to the efficiency of the corps. Burnside became a mere receiver and transmitter of orders to the commander of the Ninth Corps, and on the other hand it may easily be believed that so good a soldier as Cox would have shown more activity and accomplished more, if he had felt himself really the commander of the Ninth Corps. With Burnside close to him, he probably felt as if he were the mere tactical leader of the corps, not thinking for it, but simply seeing that it executed the orders which came to him from or through Burnside. It is possible on this theory to explain the puzzling facts that so little was known of the ground which Burnside had been ordered, before 2 P.M. of the 16th, to carefully reconnoitre, that Crook actually missed his way to the very bridge which he was to carry by assault, and that nothing or next to nothing seems to have been known about the fords till they were searched for under fire. Why, when the difficulties of the ground must have been so apparent, the bridge was not turned by the lower fords, the existence of which at least was known, instead of being carried with such loss of time and men, does not appear, and it is as hard to explain why, when Willcox was sent across, his troops were not sent partly by the ford which Burnside says Cook found, and partly by the bridge, in stead of all by the bridge. Why, in brief, did it take Burnside's four divisions, with their powerful artillery, from six to seven hours to get across the stream and form line upon the heights above? Finally, how did it happen that when the three divisions with their guns had crossed and formed and begun their advance, no such tactical precautions were taken as to enable them to present a front in a moment to a flank attack on the left? Probably it was not thought of; probably all attention was concentrated on the enemy in front and on the right. The scales were inclining rapidly in favor of the North. Sharpsburg was almost occupied, Lee's line of retreat gravely compromised. A Confederate battery had been taken, a Confederate brigade and division had been driven in. It must have been because all eyes were turned in this direction that the advance of A. P. Hill was not seen. If it had been, nothing would have been easier than to form up the first brigade of the Kanawha division to meet it, and with a fresh brigade so formed, and a battery or two to aid, Hill's five brigades, weary with their rapid march of seventeen miles, would have found a good deal of serious work laid out for them before they could join in the main battle against the victorious Ninth Corps. But it was not to be, and for the second time that day a Federal division was broken for want of protection to its flank. It is hardly too much to say that for the second time that day a victory was lost for want of protection to the flank of a division.
Tactically, the battle of the Antietam was a drawn battle, with the advantage inclining slightly to the side of the Federals, who gained some ground and took more trophies than they lost. The Confederates, however, held most of the ground on which they fought, and held it not only to the close of the battle, but for more than twenty-four hours after, and then retired, unmolested and in good order. The steady tramp of their retreating columns, like the steady flowing of a river, was heard all through the still night of the 18th of September, as they streamed along the road to the Shepherdstown ford of the Potomac. But, for an invading army, a drawn battle is little less than a lost battle, and so it was in this case. Lee drew off successfully and defiantly, but the invasion of Maryland was at an end.
Of McClellan's conduct of this battle there is little to be said in the way of praise beyond the fact that he did fight it voluntarily, without having it forced upon him. After his interminable delays upon the Peninsula, his action at South Mountain and Sharpsburg shows progress. He formed a plan of battle which was respectable but rather vague, and could not have been called brilliant, even if it had been crowned with brilliant success. He fought his battle one day too late, if not two. His orders were not well adapted to the success of his plan, and he did very little in the way of compelling the execution of the orders which he did give. He passed the whole day, till toward the middle of the afternoon, when all the fighting was over, on the high ground near Fry's house, where he had some glasses strapped to the fence, so that he could look in different directions. He made absolutely no use of the magnificent enthusiasm which the army then felt for him. By the use which he made of the First Corps on the 16th, he told Lee where the blow was to fall. By his orders in regard to the Twelfth and Second Corps, he made it certain that the three corps would not act in unison the next morning. By giving the charge of his main attack to Sumner, he placed the lives of tens of thousands and the destiny of a great day of battle, with all its far-reaching issues, in the hands of an excellent elderly man who eighteen months before had had no wider experience than that of a colonel of cavalry, instead of in the hands of the man whom the President had made Commander of the Army of the Potomac. He let Burnside have his own way so completely on the left, that his divisions were not ready to advance upon the enemy till seven hours after the order was sent to him to carry the bridge and move on Sharpsburg. Finally, and what one is tempted to call worst of all, because it was the throwing away of an almost certainly winning card at the end of a game which he had so far lost by error after error, he made so little use of the Fifth and Sixth Corps that the total losses of their four divisions and of the artillery reserve was less than six hundred men. It has been seen that all his movements of troops were without connection and were successive. The First Corps finished its fighting before the Twelfth Corps became engaged. One of the best soldiers in the Twelfth Corps has recently asserted with emphasis that the Twelfth Corps received no assistance from the First, "none whatever," and his evidence must be accepted so far as the first division of the Twelfth Corps (in which he held a command), is concerned. The Second Corps went in when the Twelfth Corps had about finished; its leading division went forward entirely alone and received its punishment entirely alone. It might as well have been in another county for any direct aid it received from the rest of the Army of the Potomac. The other two divisions of the Second Corps became engaged later, and not quite simultaneously, and not with close connection. The Ninth Corps got actively to work some hours later still. The Fifth and Sixth Corps were not only not used, either of them, as a whole, but only used at all by breaking them up into pieces no one of which exceeded a division, if indeed it can with fairness be asserted that any whole division of these corps was used as a unit, or anything like it.
The time when Lee was probably in the greatest danger was when Franklin had come up in the rear of the centre. The loss of life in Jackson's two divisions and in the divisions of Hood and D. H. Hill had been awful. There was a good deal of fight left in the Second Corps, Franklin's corps was almost fresh, and all of Porter's was entirely so, while Pleasonton had a considerable force of cavalry and artillery ready to take a hand. There is a story--probably apocryphal, for it is not like Jackson--that he said, when his men finally entered the West Woods, "We will die here." There is no question that after the Federals had crossed the sunken road, the danger to Lee was extreme. D. H. Hill says that there were no troops left to hold the centre except a few hundred rallied from various brigades, that the Yankees had got within a few hundred yards of the hill which commanded Sharpsburg and the Confederate rear. "Affairs looked very critical."Franklin wished to attack, and made his preliminary dispositions for doing so, but Sumner first and then McClellan forbade the resumption of offensive operations. It is probable, almost to the point of certainty, that if a good part of the Second and Fifth Corps and all the Sixth Corps, animated by the personal presence of McClellan, had attacked vigorously in the centre, and Burnside on the Federal left, leaving part of Porter's Corps and Pleasonton's command to hold the centre and cover the trains, the result would have been the practical annihilation of Lee's army. But Sumner, brave as he was personally, was demoralized by the hard fighting, loss of life, stubborn defence, and dashing offensive action which he had witnessed, and he displayed the same want in his nature which he had displayed before at Fair Oaks. McClellan, too, made the same mistake which he had made before at Gaines's Mill, and accepted the judgment of his lieutenant instead of deciding for himself. Both McClellan and Sumner exhibited their deficiency in those qualities which appear to be Grant's most valuable endowments--absolutely clear perception of the end to be attained, absolute insensibility to cost so long as the end appears attainable, and never forgetting and always acting upon the theory that when both sides are about exhausted, then is the time to push, and that he who pushes then will find the other side give way. In criticising McClellan, however, such weight as it deserves is to be given to his extraordinary estimate of his adversary's numbers, but it is true, as has already been suggested, that if he believed his own statements, prudence of the commonest kind would have forbidden any attack at all. Only one word more remains to be said about McClellan, and that is that the instant he decided not to resume offensive operations on the right centre and right, he should have used every man and gun he could possibly spare from Porter and Franklin to co-operate in the attack of the Ninth Corps, by moving out to the south of the Keedysville pike, where Pleasonton's horse artillery and Sykes's regulars had made an opening for an energetic movement to the left front of the Federal centre.
Porter has been blamed for his inaction at the Antietam, but absolutely without reason. The commander of one of several corps acting together cannot do as he likes, or according to his individual judgment. He must take his orders from the commander-in-chief, and this is precisely what Porter did. A considerable part of Sykes's division of his corps was used by Pleasonton, under orders from McClellan, to support the horse-artillery and cavalry immediately in front of Sharpsburg, and they not only performed this duty, but drove the Confederate skirmishers back to their reserves. Miller's battery and Warren's brigade were sent to Burnside on the left, and two brigades of Morell's division were sent to Sumner on the right. These detachments were not carried into action, but their absence reduced Porter's command to 4,000 men, and so, when later in the afternoon Pleasonton asked him for a division to press a success he fancied he had won, Porter not only could not, under his orders, comply with his request, but actually had not the division to send him. His duty was, with what troops were left him, to guard the artillery and trains and the line of retreat, supply, and communication of the army, and not to risk the safety of the centre and perhaps imperil the result of the day, by complying with the request of an officer who was not even a corps commander, who was his inferior in rank, and whose request had not received the approval of the general commanding. His duty at the Antietam must have been trying and mortifying, but he did it faithfully.
In painful contrast to the passive attitude of the principal Federal army on the afternoon of the 17th is the undoubted fact that the indomitable Lee and Jackson, unaffected by the terrible losses which their troops had suffered, actually the one ordered and the other attempted to execute that afternoon a turning movement on the Federal right. Stuart had the advance in this movement, and he was reinforced by the Forty-eighth North Carolina of Walker's division, and the light batteries of French and Branch, and perhaps by Semmes's brigade, though this is not clear. The Federal artillery was found so judiciously established in their front, and so near to the Potomac, that it was thought inexpedient to hazard the attempt. It should also be stated in this connection that the plan of a general Confederate advance in the afternoon was at least considered, but the idea was abandoned because the strength of McClellan's position, the field of fire offered to his artillery, the presence of his fresh troops, and the fact that a Confederate advance would enforce concentration upon his reserves, while the Confederates had no reserves and were much exhausted, both men and ammunition, all combined to make it appear injudicious.
As the sun sank to rest on the 17th of September, the last sounds of battle along Antietam Creek died away. The cannon could at last grow cool, and unwounded men and horses could enjoy rest and food, but there were thousands already sleeping the sleep that knows no waking, and many times as many thousands who were suffering all the agonies that attend on wounds. The corn and the trees, so fresh and green in the morning, were reddened with blood and torn by bullet and shell, and the very earth was furrowed by the incessant impact of lead and iron. The blessed night came, and brought with it sleep and forgetfulness and refreshment to many; but the murmur of the night wind, breathing over fields of wheat and clover, was mingled with the groans of the countless sufferers of both armies. Who can tell, who can even imagine, the horrors of such a night, while the unconscious stars shone above, and the unconscious river went rippling by? A very gallant officer, who had played out his part well, though drooping over his horse's neck with the weakness of oncoming typhoid fever, lost his senses as the shadows deepened, and groped about the battle-field all night, so far as his failing strength would let him, turning up to the stars the faces of the dead men, to try to find his missing brother. But death is merciful, and comes to the relief of many; and man is merciful, and the wounded had not very long to wait for care.
One question calls for some discussion, and it may as well receive attention here. The question is, Did the Southern men fight better than the Northern men, and if they did, why did they? These questions are interesting, but they are also difficult, and they should be answered with diffidence. What is said here is offered rather as a contribution to the discussion of the subject, than as an absolute solution of the problem. There can be no doubt about the proposition that greater results were habitually achieved by a certain number of thousands or tens of thousands of Lee's army than by an equal number of the Army of the Potomac. The reason for this is not to be found in any difference of patriotic zeal in the two armies. The first reason probably was that the different modes of life at the South and at the North made the Southern soldiers more fond of fighting than the Northern men. Not to mention the intenser and more passionate character of the Southerner as compared with that of the Northerner, the comparatively lawless (not to speak invidiously) life at the South, where the population was scattered, and the gun came ready to the hand, made the Southern man an apter soldier than the peaceful, prosperous, steady-going recruit from the North. The Southerners showed that they felt the gaudium certaminis. With the Northerners it was different. They were ready to obey orders, they were ready to do the work to which they had set their hands, they were ready to die in their tracks if need be, but they did not go to battle as to a feast. With officers and men it was the same. They did not like fighting. Sheridan, Hancock, Humphreys, Kearny, Custer, Barlow, and such as they, were exceptions, but the rule was otherwise.
Another reason may probably be found in the needy condition which was common among the Southerners. Their stomachs were not seldom empty, their backs and feet ill-clothed and ill-shod, while the Northern soldiers were abundantly provided with everything. "I can whip any army that is followed by a flock of cattle," said Jackson, and it was a pregnant saying. A sermon might be preached upon that text. It is known that the Southerners were eager to take everything of value from the persons of the corpses which came into their possession, even to boots, shoes, and clothing, and they were far from nice in their treatment of their prisoners. A field won meant to them not only a field won, but clothing for body and feet, food, money, watches, and arms and equipments as well. To the Northerners a field won meant simply a field won. In this difference it is almost certain there existed a powerful motive to stimulate the avidity with which the Southerners went into action. The Southerners were not only gallant soldiers, but they were keen plunderers as well. This is no fanciful statement. In this very battle of the Antietam, a medical officer of Sedgwick's division was shot dead as he was tending a wounded man of his regiment close to the front line, and his body was plundered almost before the breath left it, and thus a watch which he was carrying till an opportunity should present itself for returning it to the relatives of its dead owner, a field officer of a Georgia regiment who died in our hands, went back into the Confederacy in a way which was neither expected nor desired.
Enough has already been written to show that this was a bloody battle, with terrible losses to some of the commands engaged. General McClellan reported that he lost, on the 16th and 17th, 2,010 killed, 9,416 wounded, and 1,043 missing, a total of 12,469. Sedgwick's division of the Second Corps were the principal sufferers in his army. Their total loss was 2,255, of whom 355 were killed. The Confederate loss was not known with accuracy. McClellan reported that 2,700 of their dead were counted and buried by his officers, and that a portion had been previously buried by their comrades. From the losses they report, it is probable that their total loss must have at least equalled the Federal loss. But, as Swinton says, it is needless to sound deeper in this sea of blood. McClellan captured a good many prisoners and colors and a few guns.
General McClellan decided not to renew the attack on the 18th. It is hardly worth while to state his reasons. It has been already strongly urged that he ought to have fought out the battle on the 17th, and there do not appear to have existed any better reasons for energetic action on the following day, except that two divisions then joined him after a hard march. The fault was in the man. There was force enough at his command either day, had he seen fit to use it. The most important change in the position of troops which took place on the 18th was the movement of Morell's division of the Fifth Corps. In answer to some far from plucky representations of Burnside, McClellan directed that Morell's division should be placed on the east side of the Antietam, near Burnside's Bridge. "Late in the afternoon," he says, "I found that, although he had not been attacked, General Burnside had withdrawn his own corps to this side of the Antietam, and sent over Morell's division alone to hold the opposite side." General McClellan lets this extraordinary proceeding pass without comment. Humphreys's division of new troops, marching with commendable rapidity from Frederick, arrived on the 18th, and took Morell's place. Couch, also, having nearly reached Maryland Heights, was countermarched, pressed forward, and reached the field early the same day. Orders were given by McClellan for a renewal of the attack at daylight on the 19th, but at daylight on the 19th Lee was gone.
On the 19th, the Fifth Corps was ordered to support the cavalry. It was found that the Confederates beyond the river had artillery well posted to cover the fords. Porter determined to clear the fords and to try to capture some guns. He lined the eastern bank of the Potomac with skirmishers and sharpshooters, supported them by the divisions of Morell and Sykes, and by guns so posted as to command the opposite bank. Volunteers from the Fourth Michigan, One Hundred and Eighteenth Pennsylvania, and Eighteenth and Twenty-second Massachusetts, crossed the river under the charge of General Griffin. Sykes was ordered to advance a similar party, but by some misunderstanding the orders did not reach him seasonably. The attempt was made at dark, and resulted in the capture of five guns and some of their appurtenances. Among the guns taken was one of Battery D of the Fifth Artillery, which had been lost at the first Bull Run. A reconnoissance in force was sent across the river the following morning, at seven o'clock, under Morell and Sykes. The cavalry ordered to co-operate, failed to do so, and the enterprise was unsuccessful. The troops were attacked sharply, and driven back across the river with considerable loss, the loss falling principally upon the One Hundred and Eighteenth Pennsylvania. Nine or ten Confederate brigades took part in this affair, and the Confederates seem to believe that it ended with "an appalling scene of the destruction of human life." Jackson, whose words these are, must have been imposed upon by A. P. Hill, who had charge of the operation, and whose report contains these assertions: "Then commenced the most terrible slaughter that this war has yet witnessed. The broad surface of the Potomac was blue with the floating bodies of our foe. But few escaped to tell the tale. By their own account, they lost 3,000 men killed and drowned from one brigade alone."
Or art thou drunk with wine, Sir Knight,
Or art thyself beside?
The reader with a taste for figures will observe that this tale of deaths in one brigade alone wants only ten of being a thousand more than all the men killed in the Army of the Potomac on the 16th and 17th of September.
The movements of the two armies in the seven weeks which followed the battle of the Antietam do not require minute description. Both armies needed rest. Lee gradually withdrew his troops to the vicinity of Bunker Hill and Winchester, and busied himself to some extent with the destruction of those railroads which would have been of assistance to the Federals in the occupation of the Valley. His army seems to have increased rapidly, so that it numbered on the 20th of October 67,805 officers and men of the three arms. McClellan devoted his attention to guarding the line of the Potomac, and to the equipment and reorganization of his command. There is truth in his statement that he succeeded to the command of a force a large part of which had been badly beaten, and was in all respects in a poor condition. In the respect of hard marching and hard fighting, its experiences had been less hard than those of the Confederates. He said that the means of transportation at his disposal were inadequate to furnish a single day's supply of subsistence in advance, and that he thought it improper to place the Potomac, a stream liable to rise suddenly, between himself and his base of supplies. He wanted horses, shoes, clothing, and blankets, and he wanted all the "old troops that could possibly be dispensed with around Washington and other places," and he repeated his assertion that in the recent battles the enemy was greatly superior in number. Indeed, his tone leaves much to be desired. He was far more ready to seek excuses for doing nothing than to make what he had go as far as possible. It never seems to occur to him that the wants he felt were felt by Lee in a greater degree. Why he could not supply himself, though across the Potomac, so long as he held Harper's Ferry, he does not say. He even permitted himself, on September 23d, to make the pitiful assertion "General Sumner with his corps and Williams's occupies Harper's Ferry and the surrounding heights. I think he will be able to hold his position till reinforcements arrive." If there was a doubt about the ability of the Second and Twelfth Corps, with Maryland Heights in their possession, and all the rest of the Army of the Potomac to back them, to hold their position, it was time for McClellan to place his army in a fortified camp.
By the 6th of October the President had become impatient, so much so that Halleck, the General-in-Chief, was instructed to telegraph McClellan as follows: "The President directs that you cross the Potomac and give battle to the enemy or drive him south...." This, however, did not move McClellan, and on the 10th of October Stuart crossed the Potomac, above Williamsport, with orders to "endeavor to ascertain the position and designs of the enemy.'' He penetrated as far as Chambersburg, which he occupied for a time, destroyed public property, made the entire circuit of the Federal army, and recrossed the Potomac, near the mouth of the Monocacy, without any material loss. Thus for the second time a force of Confederate cavalry rode all around McClellan's army. The latter exploit was the more noteworthy, and the more discreditable to McClellan, because the raid was made on Union territory.
There was undoubtedly great delay in the arrival of supplies, and as the story is told, it is difficult to resist the temptation to believe that the delays were unnecessary, and would not have existed had headquarters at Washington been, not to say friendly to McClellan, but loyal to the general commanding. At last, however, near the end of October, affairs were in such condition that McClellan began to put his troops in motion. He determined to select the line east of the Blue Ridge, and to guard the upper Potomac by leaving the Twelfth Corps at Harper's Ferry, with three brigades of infantry and some cavalry extending up the river to Cumberland and Hancock. The crossing commenced on the 26th of October, and was not completed till the 2d of November. Heavy rains and the distribution of supplies that arrived late, delayed the movement. The army advanced parallel to the Blue Ridge, taking Warrenton as the point of direction, and seizing the passes to the westward as it advanced, and guarding them as long as they would enable the Confederates to trouble its communications with the Potomac. It depended upon Harper's Ferry and Berlin for supplies until the Manassas Gap Railroad was reached. That reached, the passes in rear were to be abandoned, supplies were to be drawn from Washington by the Orange and Alexandria Railroad and the Manassas Gap Railroad, and the army massed for action or for movement in any direction. It is as well to give McClellan's expectations in his own words, especially as his words are both surprising and somewhat hard to understand.
It was my intention if, upon reaching Ashby's or any other pass, I found that the enemy were in force between it and the Potomac in the Valley of the Shenandoah, to move into the Valley and endeavor to gain their rear.
I hardly hoped to accomplish this, but did expect that by striking in between Culpeper Court House and Little Washington, I could either separate their army and beat them in detail, or else force them to concentrate as far back as Gordonsville, and thus place the Army of the Potomac in position either to adopt the Fredericksburg line of advance upon Richmond, or to be removed to the Peninsula, if, as I apprehended, it were found impossible to supply it by the Orange and Alexandria Railroad beyond Culpeper.
These sentences are a tempting theme, but want of space makes it inconvenient to consider them, and McClellan did not have the opportunity to show whether his expectations were well founded. Late on the night of the 7th November, he received an order relieving him from the command of the Army of the Potomac, and directing him to turn it over to General Burnside. The position in which he left the army, and the position which Lee's army then occupied, may well be stated when the story of General Burnside's career as Commander of the Army of the Potomac is taken up.
To relieve McClellan of his command so soon after he had forced Lee out of Maryland, was hard measure. He had succeeded to the command when Pope had been very badly beaten, and when the sound of the enemy's guns had been plainly audible at Washington. He had rapidly .raised the troops from a condition of much discouragement and demoralization, and made of them a compact and efficient force. Within ten days after he left Washington, he had led this army against Lee's rear guard in the South Mountain passes, and had driven it from them, and had fought a great battle against Lee's entire army, in which he had so far gotten the advantage that the Confederate invasion of Maryland had come to an immediate end. He had since those battles gradually advanced his army to a position in which it both interposed itself between Lee and the Capital, and was at least fairly well placed for offensive action. And yet it can hardly be wondered at that he lost his place. His interminable and inexcusable delays upon the Peninsula afforded just ground for dissatisfaction, and they seemed, to say no more, to be followed by similar delays upon the Potomac. He had done much to justify the charge that he was a political general. He had probably offended many influential men of the perfervid type of Charles Sumner and Governor Andrew. His correspondence with Washington had been often uncomfortable, sometimes acrimonious, and once at least unwarrantable. The mildest of Secretaries of War was not likely to forget the sentence, "You have done your best to sacrifice this army," which closed his despatch of June 28 to Secretary Stanton, and Secretary Stanton was far from being the mildest of Secretaries of War. The evil habit then prevailed among civilians in high places of encouraging communications from the Adullamites of the army, and detraction was probably unceasing among the maurvaises langues of the time. Hooker was open in his denunciations of McClellan as "a baby," and such things as Hooker said openly others probably said with more prudence. So the "young Napoleon," the popular idol of 1861, was removed from the command of the army for which he had done so much, and while it seems that hard measure was meted to him, there is more ground for sympathy than there is for wonder.
These pages contain many outspoken criticisms of his military career. They are the expression of conclusions arrived at with deliberation by one who began as a passionate enthusiast for him, who has made his campaigns the subject of much study and thought, and who has sought only to compare the facts of those campaigns with the established principles of the military art. There is no occasion to repeat those criticisms here, but it may be well to add to them what the writer has said in another place in print, that there was in McClellan a sort of incapacity of doing anything till an ideal completeness of preparation was reached, and that the prevalence of the commander-in-chief idea was always pernicious to him, so that, from first to last, he never made his personal presence felt on a battle-field. With the further remark that he seems to have been totally devoid of ability to form a just estimate of the numerical strength of his opponent, our adverse criticisms come to an end, and it is a relief to keep silence no longer from good words.
It is little to say that his character was reputable, but it is true. He was a courteous gentleman. Not a word was ever said against his way of life nor his personal integrity. No orgies disgraced headquarters while he was in command. His capacity and energy as an organizer are universally recognized. He was an excellent strategist and in many respects an excellent soldier. He did not use his own troops with sufficient promptness, thoroughness and vigor, to achieve great and decisive results, but he was oftener successful than unsuccessful with them, and he so conducted affairs that they never suffered heavily without inflicting heavy loss upon their adversaries. It may appear a strange statement to follow the other matter which this volume contains, out it is none the less true, that there are strong grounds for believing that he was the best commander the Army of the Potomac ever had. No one would think for a moment of comparing Pope or Burnside or Hooker with him. The great service which Meade rendered his country at Gettysburg, and the elevated character of the man, are adverse to too close a scrutiny of his military ability. As for Grant, with his grim tenacity, his hard sense, and his absolute insensibility to wounds and death, it may well be admitted that he was a good general for a rich and populous country in a contest with a poor and thinly peopled land, but let any educated soldier ask himself what the result would have been if Grant had had only Southern resources and Southern numbers to rely on and use, and what will the answer be? While the Confederacy was young and fresh and rich, and its armies were numerous, McClellan fought a good, wary, damaging, respectable fight against it. He was not so quick in learning to attack as Joe Johnston and Lee and Jackson were, but South Mountain and the Antietam showed that he had learned the lesson, and with longer possession of command, greater things might fairly have been expected of him. Not to mention such lamentable failures as Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville, it is easy to believe that with him in command, the Army of the Potomac would never have seen such dark days as those of the Wilderness and Cold Harbor. At the same time it must be admitted that, in such a war as the War of Secession, it would probably have been impossible to retain in command of the Army of the Potomac a man who was not only a Democrat, but the probable Democratic candidate for the Presidency at the next election, and that his removal was therefore only a question of time. A growing familiarity with his history as a soldier increases the disposition to regard him with respect and gratitude, and to believe, while recognizing the limitations of his nature, that his failure to accomplish more was partly his misfortune and not altogether his fault.
This page last updated 12/17/03
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