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Longstreet: From Manassas to Appomattox
Chapter 18a - Battle of Sharpsburg, or Antietam
Bloodiest Single Day of the War—Comparison of Casualties—Hooker opens the Fight against Jackson's Centre—Many Officers among the Fallen early in the Day—McLaws and Walker in time to meet Sumner's Advance under Sedgwick—Around Dunker Chapel—Richardson's splendid Advance against the Confederate Centre the Signal of the bursting of another Storm—Longstreet's and D. H. Hill's Troops stood before it—Fall of General G. B. Anderson—General Richardson mortally wounded—Aggressive Spirit of his Command broken—Wonderful Cannon-shot—General D. H. Hill's Third Horse killed under him.


THE field that I have described—the field lying along the Antietam and including in its scope the little town of Sharpsburg—was destined to pass into history as the scene of the bloodiest single day of fighting of the war, and that 17th of September was to become memorable as the day of greatest carnage in the campaigns between the North and South.

Gettysburg was the greatest battle of the war, but it was for three days, and its total of casualties on either side, terrible as it was, should be one-third larger to make the average per diem equal to the losses at Sharpsburg. Viewed by the measure of losses, Antietam was the fourth battle of the war, Spottsylvania and the Wilderness, as well as Gettysburg, exceeding it in number of killed and wounded, but each of these dragged its tragedy through several days.

Taking Confederate losses in killed and wounded as the criterion of magnitude in battles, the Seven Days' Battle (following McClellan's retreat), Gettysburg, and Chickamauga exceeded Sharpsburg, but each of these occupied several days, and on no single day in any one of them was there such carnage as in this fierce struggle.

The Confederates lost in killed and wounded in the Seven Days, Battle 19,739,—more, it will be observed, than at Gettysburg (15,298), though the total loss, including 5150 captured or missing, at the latter, brought the figures up to those of the former (20,448), in which the captured or missing were only 875. Our killed and wounded at Chickamauga were 16,986, but that was in two days, battle, while at Chancellorsville in three days the killed and wounded were 10,746. It is impossible to make the comparison with absolute exactness for the Confederate side, for the reason that our losses are given for the entire campaign in Maryland, instead of separately for the single great battle and several minor engagements. Thus computed they were 12,187. But nearly all of these are known to have been losses at Sharpsburg, and, making proper deductions for the casualties in other actions of the campaign, the Confederate loss in this single day's fighting was still in excess of that at the three days, fight at Chancellorsville (10,746), and for the single day far larger proportionally than in the two days at Chickamauga, three days at Gettysburg, or seven days on the bloody Chickahominy.

But the sanguinary character of this battle is most strikingly exhibited by a comparison of the accurate figures of the Federal losses, returned specifically for the day. These show a total killed and wounded of 11,657 (or, including the captured and missing, 12,410), as contrasted with 20,567 killed and wounded in three days at Gettysburg, 16,141 in eight days at Spottsylvania, and 14,283 in the three days at the Wilderness, while the three and two days, fighting respectively at Chancellorsville and Chickamauga were actually productive of less loss than this battle of one day. The exceeding losses of this battle are further shown by the fact that of the 11,657 Federals stricken on the field, the great number of 2108 were actually slain,—more than two-thirds of the number killed in three days at Gettysburg (3070). And this tremendous tumult of carnage was entirely compassed in the brief hours from dawn to four o'clock in the afternoon.

At three o'clock in the morning of the 17th firing along the picket lines of the confronting and expectant armies became quite frequent, and before daylight the batteries began to plough the fields in front of them, feeling, as it were, for the ranks of men whose destruction was better suited to their ugly purpose.

As the dawn came, the fire spread along both lines from left to right, across the Antietam and back again, and the thunder of the big guns became continuous and increased to mighty volume. To this was presently added the sharper rattling of musketry, and the surge of mingling sound sweeping up and down the field was multiplied and confused by the reverberations from the rocks and hills. And in this great tumult of sound, which shook the air and seemed to shatter the cliffs and ledges above the Antietam, bodies of the facing foes were pushed forward to closer work, and soon added the clash of steel to the thunderous crash of cannon-shots.

The first impact came from Hooker's right division under Doubleday, led by the choice brigade under Gibbon. It was deployed across the turnpike and struck the centre of Jackson's division, when close engagement was strengthened by the brigades of Patrick, Phelps, and part of Hofmann's, Ricketts's division, engaged in close connection along Lawton's front. Hooker supported his battle by his division under Meade, which called into action three of D. H. Hill's brigades,—Ripley's, Colquitt's, and McRae's. Hartsuff, the leading spirit of Ricketts's division, was the first general officer to fall severely hurt, and later fell the commander of the corps, wounded also. General Starke, commanding Jackson's division, was killed. At six o'clock the Twelfth Corps came in, when General Lawton called for Hood's brigades, " and all the help he could bring." Hood's and G. T. Anderson's brigades were put in, and the brigades from my right, under J. G. Walker, marched promptly in response to this call.

The weight of Mansfield's fight forced Jackson back into the middle wood at the Dunker chapel, and D. H. Hill's brigades to closer lines. Hood was in season to brace them, and hold the line as he found it. In this fight the corps commander, General Mansfield, fell, mortally wounded, which took from that corps some of its aggressive power.

Jackson, worn down and exhausted of ammunition, withdrew his divisions at seven A.M., except Early's brigade, that was with the cavalry. This he called back to vacant ground on Hood's left. Two detachments, one under Colonel Grigsby, of Virginia, the other under Colonel Stafford, of Louisiana, remained on the wooded ground off from the left of Jackson's position. One of the regiments of Early's brigade was left with the cavalry. Stuart retired to position corresponding to the line of Jackson's broken front. The brigade under G. T. Anderson joined on Hood's right, and the brigades under J. G. Walker coming up took place on Hood's left, Walker leaving two regiments to fill a vacant place between Anderson's brigade and Hood's right. Walker, Hood, and D. H. Hill attacked against the Twelfth Corps; worn by its fight against Jackson, it was driven back as far as the post-and-rail fence in the east open, where they were decked. They were outside of the line, their left in the air and exposed to the fire of a thirty-gun battery posted at long range on the Hagerstown road by General Doubleday. Their left was withdrawn, and the line rectified, when Greene's brigade of the Twelfth resumed position in the northeast angle of the wood, which it held until Sedgwick's division came in hold march.

In these fights offensive and defensive the artillery battalions under Lieutenant-Colonel S. D. Lee and Major Frobel were in active combat, the former from the first shot made before daylight. They had been severely worked, and were nearly exhausted of ammunition. The Washington Artillery was called on for a battery to assist them, and some of the guns of the battalions were sent for ammunition. Miller's battery of four Napoleon guns came.

As Jackson withdrew, General Hooker's corps retired to a point on the Hagerstown road about three-quarters of a mile north of the battle-ground, where General Doubleday established his thirty-gun battery. Jackson's and Hooker's men had fought to exhaustion, and the battle of the Twelfth Corps, taken up and continued by Mansfield, had taken defensive relations, its chief mortally wounded.

Generals Lawton, Ripley, and J. R. Jones were severely wounded, and Colonel Douglas, commanding Lawton's brigade, killed. A third of the men of Lawton's, Hays's, and Trimble's brigades were reported killed or wounded. Four of the field officers of Colquitt's brigade were killed, five were wounded, the tenth and last contused by a shell. All of Jackson's and D. H. Hill's troops engaged suffered proportionally. Hood's, Walker's, and G. T. Anderson's, though longer engaged, did not lose so severely.

General Hooker's aggregate of loss was 2590; General Mansfield's, 1746.

The Federal batteries, of position, on the east side were more or less busy during the engagement, having occasional opportunities for a raking fire on the troops along Jackson's line and my left. The horse artillery under Stuart was strengthening to the Confederate left, and had occasional opportunities for destructive fire across the Union right when coming into action.

Although the battle along the line of contention had become defensive, there were threatening movements on the Boonsborough pike by Sykes's division and the horse artillery under Pleasonton, and Burnside was busy at his bridge, working to find his way across.

At the close of the Walker-Hood-Hill affair, Hood found his line making a large angle with the line of the latter, which was rectified, drawing in the angle. Early's regiments were in the wood between Walker and the cavalry, and the detachments under Colonels Grigsby and Stafford in the wood some distance in advance of Early's left.

The line thus organized was thin and worn by severe attrition. The men were losing strength and the ammunition getting low. Some gathered cartridges from their fallen comrades and distributed them as far as they would go, others went for fresh supplies.

McLaws's column came up at nine o'clock. He reported at General Lee's head-quarters, where he was ordered at rest, and afterwards reported to me, with General Lee's orders for his own division, and asked the disposition to be made of R. H. Anderson's. He was ordered to send the latter to report to General D. H. Hill.

Coincident with these arrivals, heavy columns of Federal infantry and artillery were seen crossing the Antietam. Morell's division of the Fifth Corps was up and relieved Richardson's of the Second, which had been in our front since its arrival on the 15th. Richardson's following the march of the troops by the upper crossing advised us that the next engagement would be by the Second Corps, under General Sumner; Sedgwick's division was in the lead as they marched. Our left centre was almost exhausted of men and ammunition. The divisions of French and Richardson followed in left echelon to Sedgwick. Hood's brigades had retired for fresh supply of ammunition, leaving the guard to Walker's two brigades, G. T. Anderson's brigade on Walker's right, part of Early's brigade on Walker's left, and the regiments under Colonels Grigsby and Stafford off the left front. McLaws's division was called for, and on the march under conduct of Major Taylor of general head-quarters staff.

At sight of Sumner's march, General Early rode from the field in search, as he reported, of reinforcements. His regiments naturally waited on the directions of the leader.

General Sumner rode with his leading division under General Sedgwick, to find the battle. Sedgwick marched in column of brigades, Gorman, Dana, and Howard. There was no officer on the Union side in charge of the field, the other corps commanders having been killed or wounded. General Sumner testified,—

" On going upon the field I found that general Hooker's corps had been dispersed and routed. I passed him some distance in the rear, where he had been carried wounded, but I saw nothing of his corps at all, as I was advancing with my command on the field. There were some troops lying down on the left which I took to belong to Mansfield's command. In the mean time general Mansfield had been killed, and a portion of his corps (formerly Banks's) had also been thrown into confusion."

He passed Greene's brigade of the Twelfth, and marched through the wood, leaving the Dunker chapel on his left.

As McLaws approached, General Hood was sent to give him careful instructions of the posture, of the grounds, and the impending crisis. He marched with his brigades, —Cobb's, Kershaw's, Semmes's, and Barksdale's. The leading brigade filed to the right, before the approaching march. Kershaw's leading regiment filed into line as Sedgwick's column approached the south side of the Dunker chapel wood,—the latter on a diagonal march,— while Kershaw's brigade was in fair front against it. The regiment opened prompt fire, and the other regiments came into line in double time, opening fire by company as they came to the front. The other brigades came into line by companies, and forward into line by regiments. Armistead's brigade had been drawn from R. H. Anderson's column to reinforce McLaws.

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