Camp-Fires of General Lee, by Edward S. Ellis, Chapter 14

Camp-Fires of General Lee


BY two o’clock in the afternoon McClellan had fixed upon his plan of battle. His several corps had deployed along the hills on the east of Antietam Creek, and opened with artillery on the Confederates. Burnside, with the Ninth Corps, was posted among the hills south of the Rohrersville road, in front of the Confederate right, from which he was separated by the stone bridge that spanned the creek. On the hills over which ran the Keedysville road were posted the first line of Sykes’s division on the left of the road, and Richardson on the right. They thus held the positions taken the day before. The remaining two divisions of Sumner’s corps were posted in the rear of Richardson. Toward the right Hooker was stationed, on the heights whence the road slopes toward Antietam Creek. Directly behind him was Mansfield’s scant corps, while Pleasanton with his cavalry occupied the fords and the upper bridge of the creek. This force of McClellan numbered over sixty thousand men, fifty thousand of whom were prepared for battle. Many of them, however, were new recruits who had never been under fire before, while the Confederates had been baptized in the flame of battle.

But Lee, as we have shown, had less than one-half as many men with which to oppose this powerful army. He arranged his line of battle, however, and made his dispositions as calmly and with as much confidence as though he was assured of capturing the entire Federal army. Longstreet was on his right, D. H. Hill in the centre, both holding the hills which overlook the Keedysville and Rohrersville roads, while most of the artillery was concentrated in front, so as to guard the passes of the little stream. Far over to the extreme left, by Dunker Church, Hood was stationed with two brigades, while Jackson with his decimated divisions strove to cover the extensive opening between Hood’s right and Hill’s left, on the Antietam, with a view of linking them together, so far as such a thing was possible.

The fog slowly lifted now and then; and when the armies could catch sight of each other, they saluted with their murderous artillery. This continued until two o’clock, when Hooker began the advance, with the view of crossing the Antietam at the upper bridge and fords, held by the Federal cavalry, and of attacking the Confederate left. McClellan proposed by this means to turn the position of Lee, for it promised to be far less difficult than a direct attack in front. Burnside was to maintain his original position, on the Rohrersville road, while the rest of the Federals were ordered to hold themselves in readiness to follow Hooker across the creek and to support him in his attack. Hooker obeyed with his usual promptness, and came at once in collision with Jackson’s outposts, which were supported by Hood, who hastened forward from Dunker Church. The battle, therefore, opened in the extensive clearing already referred to, which extended to the north and east of this church. What promised to be a most sanguinary struggle was terminated by darkness, and both armies slept on their arms.

During the night Mansfield’s corps crossed the Antietam and took position behind Hooker, while Sumner was instructed to follow at daybreak with the Second Corps. Franklin, with the divisions of Slocum and Smith, was to advance from Pleasant Valley, so as to reach the scene of battle by ten o’clock; Porter, with his second division, was to arrive near the same time. Thus, with the single exception of Couch’s division, the whole Army of the Potomac would be concentrated for the purpose of crushing the Confederate army, which had not been able as yet to consolidate its different wings, though they were hurrying toward the one central point. Lee was quick to detect the plan of McClellan, and he strengthened his left wing by sending Jackson to Hood’s brigades, in the woods, which they had held with such bravery the evening before, and where they had suffered severely. D. H. Hill, in the centre, was to support Jackson whenever it became necessary.

Hooker was not the man to hesitate after receiving his orders, and he renewed the attack at daylight on the 17th with his accustomed spirit and dash. It was the purpose of McClellan to compel Lee to send most of his forces to the neighborhood of Dunker Church, and thus open the way for an onslaught by Burnside at the lower bridge. This would fall upon Longstreet, on the Confederate centre and right; and if successful, the Federals, who were threatening Sharpsburg and the Williamsport ford, would compel Lee to retreat. McClellan was warranted in believing that his preponderating numbers would enable him to carry out this plan, though it will be seen that it could succeed only by the prompt and unfaltering co-operation of his lieutenants.

The morning of the 17th, unlike that of the previous day, was clear. Hooker advanced his three divisions, Doubleday on the right, Meade in the centre and Ricketts on the left. Meade quickly found his men the targets for Starke’s division, which had relieved Hood, and, sheltered behind rocks, stumps, trees and all kinds of débris, poured a deadly fire upon the advancing Federals. The struggle for the possession of the wood was of the most desperate and bloody nature. The losses were numerous; men dropped rapidly, and the deaths among the officers were frightful. Veterans who had fought in the war from the opening battle found the fight in the wood the most sanguinary that had yet taken place. How the Confederates held their ground so long against such overwhelming odds and after such appalling losses is amazing, and was another proof that the world has never produced better fighters.

All three of Hooker’s divisions were speedily engaged, and were supported by the fire of the Federal batteries on the left bank of the Antietam, which raked the scant soldiers of Jackson, though it inflicted less loss than the incessant discharge of musketry; still, the Confederates remained firm for more than an hour, when they began falling slowly back, until the large clearing already described was reached. Across this they ran into the woods on the east, beyond the Hagerstown turnpike, in search of shelter. Hooker pressed close behind them, evidently believing that he had the Confederates on the run and could keep them running; but he committed a costly error. Stuart’s horse-artillery had occupied the hills fringing the woods to the west of Dunker Church, and which commanded the patch of forest where the Confederates had taken refuge. This artillery held Doubleday in check, while Ricketts, on the left, was hotly engaged with three brigades under D. H. Hill, that had been drawn from the Confederate centre for the support of Jackson. Meade was in bad shape on account of his great losses, and he received a murderous volley of musketry while approaching the Hagerstown pike. Lawton, who was held in reserve with his division near Dunker church; was now sent forward by Jackson to the support of Starke. They supported him with such vigor, and from the edge of the woods rained such a destructive fire upon the Federals, that they broke and skurried for cover. Quick to perceive his opportunity, Lawton ordered a charge. He was supported by some of Starke’s men, and they were sweeping everything before them, when at this most critical moment the Federal general Mansfield, who had been summoned by Hooker in great haste, arrived, and but for this timely aid Hooker would have been destroyed.

Exasperated by his bloody repulse, Hooker would not admit that his opportunity was gone. He reformed his broken line with the best brigade in the centre, and returned to the assault. He succeeded in reaching the edge of the woods, but there he was again hurled back, with the same dreadful losses as before.

The veteran Mansfield now hurried his men into the battle. His two divisions were deployed in the shape of a crescent in the clearing, while in the woods to the east Greene, with one of the divisions, attacked Hill, who was fighting Ricketts. The Federal Williams, on the right, rushed across the Hagerstown pike with men, and tried desperately to drive out the Confederates from the woods and hills to the west, so as to flank those who were defending the position near Dunker Church. General Starke was killed, and Lawton, who succeeded him, was wounded, while officers as well as privates were literally mowed down. Jackson’s troops fell back before this concentrated attack, which threatened to be irresistible.

But on the Federal side the losses were more terrible. Mansfield was dead, and so were hundreds of his men. Indeed, the ground in both the woods and the clearing was strewn with lifeless bodies. Those who kept their feet and were able to fight had to leap over the prostrate forms, and sometimes they were so close that they lay on top of one another. The living trampled the dead and dying, whose cries of anguish, joining the crash of musketry, the thunder of cannon and the shouts of the combatants, made a din whose overpowering horror was beyond imagination.

Lee saw that the fate of his army was at stake, and he sent all the reinforcements he could spare to the support of his left. In fact, he called his entire centre to the help of the sorely-pressed Jackson, while Hood, who was held in reserve, joined him. Hooker was still fighting as best he could, but he could not withstand this impetuous charge, which swept him and his men from the open ground to the shelter of the wood from which a short time before they had dislodged Starke’s division. In this furious struggle Hooker himself was severely wounded, and carried off the battlefield, while Hartsuff and Crawford had also been stricken down. Finding themselves deprived of leaders, the soldiers fought with blind ferocity. Crouching behind trees, and, indeed, anything that promised the slightest protection, they fired in the direction of the Confederates as fast as they could load and discharge their hot, smoking pieces. The artillery lent them great assistance, or they could not have been able to make any stand at all. Greene, however, still maintained his grip in the woods, which reached over to Dunker Church. It was evident that the battle itself was to be fought on and around the clearing to which we have already several times referred.

But Federals and Confederates were so exhausted that they could only pant and glare at each other while waiting for reinforcements. Indeed, the latter were already rushing thitherward from both sides. Sumner had crossed the river, and was marching rapidly in the direction of Hooker’s cannon. Lee found himself with only two divisions of Longstreet with which to protect the entire line of the Antietam, but McLaws outran Franklin in the race from Harper’s Ferry, and, crossing the Potomac twice, joined his chief just in time to hasten to the defence of Dunker Church. But, prompt as he was, Sumner was ahead of him with his Second Corps, and the outlook was most serious for the Confederates. It was yet early in the forenoon, and most important, results were to be attained before the sun went down in the West.

With Lee’s attention almost entirely occupied with his left, McClellan saw that the time had come to assault the Confederate right. McClellan from a commanding position was intently watching the battle, and fully an hour previous he had sent an order to Burnside (who, it will be remembered, was stationed on the right bank of the Antietam, confronting with thirteen thousand men the right of Lee’s army, with the stone bridge between them) to capture the bridge and attack Longstreet. Instead of making a general assault, Burnside sent Crook’s weak brigade against those who were defending the bridge, supporting the assailants by two regiments only from the division of Sturgis. The Confederates waited until the Federals were within a few rods, when they drove them back with great loss; a brigade which attempted to cross the stream some distance below was repulsed in the same rattling fashion. Two more regiments were sent to renew the charge at the bridge, but they met with no better success than before, and at the end of two hours not the least impression had been made on Lee’s right.

McClellan could not comprehend the inactivity of Burnside, and sent order after order to him to make a general attack. With such a powerful force at hand, Burnside continued to send driblets—as they may be called—to the assault, with the result that the Confederates defeated them every time with little difficulty, inflicting great loss upon the assailants.

Sumner and his Second Corps were again fighting on the right, Sedgwick in the advance, with French close behind him. Forming his division in column by deployed brigades, Sedgwick debouched into the clearing, on the east side, and, charging diagonally across it, drove back Hood’s two brigades, who were making such a gallant fight. Sedgwick pressed steadily forward until he reached the Hagerstown pike, across which he passed until be entered the woods, from which Hooker and Mansfield had been repeatedly driven. Dunker Church was occupied, and the Confederates were driven across the open fields beyond. Thus the Federals had secured the key to the battlefield, and it looked as if the struggle was decided irretrievably against the Southerners; but the bravery and impetuosity of Sedgwick proved his weakness.* He had been carried by the momentum of his own assault too far, and his flanks were exposed. True, General Doubleday and the woods afforded some protection to his right, but the left invited attack by the Confederates, and two of his divisions were beyond supporting distance. Now was the time when he needed reinforcements.

The Confederates were equally in need, and were fortunate enough to receive them first. McLaws, with five thousand men, arrived from Sharpsburg by the Hagerstown pike, and without a moment’s delay hurled them against Sedgwick’s left. Sedgwick faced his third brigade about, but it was too late. The charge of the Confederates bore down everything before them. The brave General Sedgwick, who had been wounded three times and refused to relinquish his post, exerted himself to the utmost to rally his troops. He shouted and besought them to stand firm, dashing hither and thither and swinging his sword over the heads of the terrified soldiers; but all in vain. The panic was complete, and the Federals were driven pellmell out of the woods they had so recently secured at such a terrible cost. A charge was made by Williams’s second brigade, under Gordon, but the most it could do was to withdraw again with enough haste to prevent its capture. McLaws was on its heels, and would have inflicted sad havoc had he not been checked by the Federal artillery-fire.

Previous to this, Sumner, with a view of saving Sedgwick, had ordered his two other divisions to attack, but the divisions were widely separated. The three columns of the first, on reaching the cross-road leading to Dunker Church, were wheeled in line of battle, and marched around the end of the wood to attack the right of McLaws; but an enfilading fire threw the second line into confusion. The rest of the two divisions held their ground more firmly, and speedily came into collision with Hill’s soldiers near the Roulette farm, which lies to the north-east of Dunker Church. This was at the very moment that Sedgwick was hotly repelling the attack of McLaws at Dunker Church. The whole right, therefore, were fighting furiously. It was the golden opportunity for Burnside, but he stirred not. Sumner and Sedgwick listened, so far as they could amid the crash and swirl of battle, for the sounds of his attack, which would divert the unbearable pressure upon them; but a tomblike silence prevailed in that direction. Messengers were continually galloping from McClellan to Burnside with positive orders for him to attack at once and with all his force, but a wooden man might as well have occupied his place; he continued immovable.*

Lee was not the leader to allow such an opportunity to pass unimproved. He detached another division from Longstreet’s corps and sent R. H. Anderson to check the Federals, who were beginning to make progress on the Confederate left. Thus it was that Longstreet was charged with the defence of the whole line of the Antietam, when his force amounted only to about four thousand men.

And still Burnside, with three times as large a force, gave no sign of moving.


* One of the remarkable facts connected with this battle was that a considerable time elapsed before either the Federal or the Confederate leaders perceived the immense value of this position.

* It is hard to understand this inactivity of Burnside. Porter disliked Pope, but the commander of the Ninth Corps and McClellan were warm personal friends, and Burnside could not have failed to see the urgent need of such an advance, which he had been repeatedly ordered to make.

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