Camp-Fires of General Lee, by Edward S. Ellis, Chapter 15

Camp-Fires of General Lee

ANTIETAM (Concluded).

McLaws, finding his soldiers exposed to a most destructive fire, assailed the right flank of the first division that had been sent to the help of Sedgwick. He failed, however, to break it, while farther along the Federal left General Meagher’s Irish brigade held their own against the most determined Confederate assaults. Meagher himself was wounded, but the lads from the Emerald Isle rallied under Colonel Burke and fought with a bravery worthy of all praise.

The Confederates, as was their favorite custom during the war, repeatedly massed their soldiers and made impetuous assaults upon what appeared to be the weakest portion of the Federal line; but for a time little was accomplished by this course. The Roulette farm was taken and the hills near by were reoccupied, but the Confederates made such a determined stand at the sunken road near by that for a time they could not be dislodged. Finally they were flanked by a couple of regiments, driven out, and after another furious conflict the Federals gained possession of the Piper house.

It was now high noon, and matters looked bad for the Confederates. Dunker Church had been turned, and a little farther advance would yield to Sedgwick not only the clearing, but the woods through which the tide of battle had swept so often during the forenoon. Pleasanton covered the movement with three batteries of horse-artillery and protected his flank; he drove out the detachments left by Lee to guard the bridge of the Keedysville road. Thus the way was opened for Porter to cross the Antietam with his two divisions. But insurmountable obstacles interposed. The Federal division which had turned Dunker Church could not advance unassisted. Hooker and Mansfield’s men were mixed up with Sedgwick’s, and the Confederate batteries near Dunker Church enfiladed the Federals every time they attempted to advance. Porter continued in reserve, and still General Burnside slept.

During the last hour, however, the Federals had received the powerful reinforcement of Franklin with the two divisions of the Sixth Corps. Between twelve and one o’clock they swung into line to the support of the right, but the loss on each side had been so fearful, and the exhaustion so great, that neither could assume the offensive. Lee had not a man in reserve, while only about half of the Federal army had been engaged. The Confederate leader contracted his lines by withdrawing his left wing from Dunker Church, which was immediately taken possession of by the Federals, who also sent a brigade to rescue a battery in imminent danger of capture on the Hagerstown pike, while another brigade had been sent to the relief of French, who was short of ammunition. McLaws’s soldiers were encountered in the woods, near Dunker Church, and they repulsed the Federal attack; but Franklin massed all of Slocum’s division behind the church and prepared to assault the Confederate left wing. The divisions of French and Richardson, which had been doing a large share of the fighting on the Union side, opened a lively fire upon the Confederates, during which General Richardson was mortally wounded. Under the protection of Pleasanton’s cavalry Porter had secured possession of the Keedysville road, and hurried six battalions of infantry across to the support of the mounted batteries of the cavalry division.

It was one o’clock, and Burnside still slept. Determined to wake him up at all hazards, McClellan sent a superior officer with instructions to see that his orders were executed. This awoke Burnside, and he prepared to make a resolute effort to carry the passes of the Antietam. The fire of Longstreet’s artillery converged upon this bridge with such deadly effect that the partial attempts, as they may be called, were easily repulsed, and the stern necessities of the case caused Lee to withdraw most of his men to defend the tremendous assaults on his left. As a consequence, when Burnside threw forward the four regiments of General Ferrero, supported by a powerful force, Toombs and his weak brigade were unable to stem the rush. The Federals lost nearly three hundred men, but they carried the bridge. Simultaneously, Rodman’s division availed themselves of a newly-discovered ford lower down-stream and rushed across the Antietam to the western side, while Burnside with the Ninth Corps occupied the hills between Sharpsburg and the stream adjoining the Rohrersville road.

It looked now as if a general advance by the Federals would carry every position of the Confederates. With more than double their number, McClellan ought to have forced his mighty but exhausted adversary into Sharpsburg; but it was not attempted, and therefore was not done. Burnside spent a couple of hours in reforming his line and waiting for the rest of his corps to join him; Sumner, on reaching Dunker Church, was so impressed by the disorganization of Sedgwick’s corps that he assumed the responsibility of forbidding the general attack which Franklin was about to begin; McClellan, in the centre, held Porter’s corps in reserve, to be prepared for any demonstration on the part of the Confederates. Thus more than twenty thousand men stood idle, when Lee had had every one of his engaged for hours.

When the afternoon was half gone, Burnside was forcing Toombs’s attenuated and exhausted brigades before him, and had almost secured the Confederate artillery, when A. P. Hill, arriving from Harper’s Ferry with his powerful division, assailed Burnside’s left flank with a furious impetuosity which carried everything before it. The Federals were checked, and then compelled to fly. They fought desperately, and several diversions were made in their favor; but there was no stopping the Confederates, and finally Burnside was driven to the shelter of the bluff overlooking the Antietam. This ended the fighting on the Federal left, and, as that on the right had ceased some time before, hostilities for the day were over. The battle of Antietam, the fiercest and bloodiest of the war thus far, was ended. The Federal loss was one thousand and forty-three prisoners, nine thousand four hundred and sixteen wounded, and two thousand and ten killed. This appalling loss included three division commanders, two corps commanders and eight generals. Lee had more than fifteen hundred killed, including Generals Starke and French, while his wounded and prisoners swelled the total to fully eight , thousand. No such bloody battle had been fought since the opening of the war, and it carried sorrow and grief to thousands of homes through the North and the South. The scene on the Antietam battleground on the evening of September 17, 1862, was one of the most awful that imagination can conceive, and yet Death was to garner more terrible harvests before the strife should cease. After consulting with his lieutenants on the morning of the 18th, McClellan decided to defer assailing Lee until the next day, the attack at that time being based on the expected arrival of promised reinforcements from Washington; but on the night of the 18th, Lee withdrew across the Potomac, and on the morning of the 19th he and his army stood on the soil of Virginia.

The Federals claimed Antietam as a great victory, and the Confederates did the same. The former vaunted themselves much on the fact that Lee was forced to turn back from his contemplated invasion of the North and to withdraw once more to his old fighting-ground, but the Confederates claimed that the withdrawal of Lee was not in consequence of the battle of Antietam—or Sharpsburg, as they call it—but had been decided upon before the conflict took place. Lee was disappointed in obtaining recruits in Maryland and he was far removed from his base of supplies, while he knew that immense reinforcements were on their way to McClellan. Common prudence, therefore, dictated that he should fall back nearer his base, where he could easily sustain himself, as he proved more than once. There can be no question that Lee handled his troops with far more ability than did McClellan. The very fact that with half as many soldiers, poorly supplied, he was able to repel assault after assault and to inflict such frightful losses upon his assailants, leaves no ground for argument on this point. General Lee was one of the greatest generals of modern times.

General Longstreet was the first to withdraw on the night of the 18th, recrossing the river near Shepherdstown. The rest of the army followed, the cavalry bringing up the rear, and the next morning the troops were in position to receive any attack which the Federals might choose to make. Finding his wily adversary had gone, McClellan began to think about pursuit. Porter was pushed forward and crossed the river at a safe distance from the main body, but, falling upon Pendleton and his six hundred infantry, drove him off and captured four of his guns. A considerable force was established on the south shore when General Lee, who was some distance away, learned what had taken place; he sent A. P. Hill back with orders to force Porter over the river. The scene which followed was frightful. The Federals were attacked with such fury that they were driven headlong into the Potomac. Hundreds were taken prisoners, and hundreds more were drowned or shot.

When General Lee was in the neighborhood of Winchester, he issued the following general order to his gallant army, which had endured so many hardships:

October 2, 1862.

General Order No. 116.

In reviewing the achievements of the army during the present campaign, the commanding general cannot withhold the expression of his admiration of the indomitable courage it has displayed in battle and its cheerful endurance of privation and hardship on the march.

Since your great victories around Richmond you have defeated the enemy at Cedar Mountain, expelled him from the Rappahannock, and after a conflict of three days utterly repulsed him on the plains of Manassas and forced him to take shelter within the fortifications around his capital.

Without halting for repose you crossed the Potomac, stormed the heights of Harper’s Ferry, made prisoners of more than eleven thousand men, and captured upward of seventy pieces of artillery, all their small arms and other munitions of war.

While one corps of the army was thus engaged, the other ensured its success by arresting, at Boonsboro’, the combined armies of the enemy advancing under their favorite general to the relief of their beleaguered comrades.

On the field of Sharpsburg, with less than one-third his numbers, you resisted from daylight until dark the whole army of the enemy, and repulsed every attack along his entire front, of more than four miles in extent.

The whole of the following day you stood prepared to resume the conflict on the same ground, and retired next morning, without molestation, across the Potomac.

Two attempts subsequently made by the enemy to follow you across the river have resulted in his complete discomfiture, each being driven back with loss.

Achievements such as these demanded much valor and patriotism. History records few examples of greater fortitude and endurance than this army has exhibited, and I am commissioned by the President to thank you in the name of the Confederate States for the undying fame you have won for their arms.

Much as you have done, much more remains to be accomplished. The enemy again threatens us with invasion, and to your tried valor and the country looks with confidence for deliverance and safety. Your past exploits give assurance that this confidence is not misplaced.

R. E. LEE,
Commanding General

The battle of Antietam ended McClellan’s military career. The North had manifested great impatience with his long delay the previous year in marching against Richmond: his popularity, however, was very great, especially with his soldiers and subordinates; and the impatience became exasperation when he shrank from vigorously pursuing Lee after the battle of Antietam, but he was engaged in organizing just such a pursuit when he received an order relieving him from the command of the Army of the Potomac, which was turned over to General Burnside.

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