- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 14, 2002

The last two hours of the Battle of Antietam, Sept. 17, 1862, decided the fate of that conflict more than all the previous hours. Confederate Gen. A.P. Hill's attack on the Union left shattered the hopes of the near-victorious Northern troops.
Looking desperately for a knockout blow, the Army of the Potomac under Gen. George B. McClellan slammed its weight of 75,000 troops against Gen. Robert E. Lee's lean Army of Northern Virginia, numbering fewer than 40,000. The Union brigades rolled, crested and crashed into Confederate defenses holding like rocks on an ocean shore.
The cornfield of D.R. Miller became the stage for the first act of the drama, as troops collided in ripe corn that towered over their heads. The battle increased in intensity in the West Woods, around the Dunkard Church and along the Sunken Road, and slaughter etched itself into the hearts and minds of those who were lucky enough to survive.
Before the battle opened, Lee had ordered Hill to Sharpsburg from Harpers Ferry, a 17-mile forced march. Few rest stops were permitted. The commander, dressed in his bright red shirt, prodded and threatened men who began falling out. The heat and fast march proved too much for many, and the roadside became littered with weary soldiers.
Like a long serpent, the procession wound its way along the narrow lanes, moving steadily toward Sharpsburg. J. Caldwell wrote later, "Pressing forward at a rapid gait, and but two or three times halting to draw breath, we reached the Potomac about 2 p.m. at Boteler's Ford." A lieutenant who had lost courage as they approached the battlefield tried to hide behind a tree. Hill discovered him and, seething with anger, demanded the officer's sword and then broke it over his back.
The thunder of battle rumbled down the line to the once peaceful stream of Antietam Creek and the Lower Bridge. Union Brig. Gen. Edward Ferrero's brigade of Gen. Samuel Sturgis' division was given the task of forcing a crossing over the Lower Bridge. For most of the morning and early afternoon, elements of the 9th Corps tried to gain the bridge, but a comparatively small number of Confederates from Gen. Robert Toombs' brigade held them at bay.
Ferrero formed his brigade in a field near the creek, immediately west of the Lower Bridge Road. The 51st Pennsylvania was in front, followed by the 51st New York.
"It is General [Ambrose] Burnside's special request that the two Fifty-firsts take the bridge. Will you do it?" he shouted. A soldier of the 51st Pennsylvania shouted, "Will you give us our whiskey if we take it?" Ferrero replied, "Yes, by God! You shall have as much as you want, if you take the bridge." They did.
What then should have been a short break to catch their breath and resupply ammunition turned into more than a 1-hour delay for the Federal troops.Ammunition wagons were a considerable distance away, and the whole business was disorganized. Working as a quartermaster to bring up supplies was a future president, William McKinley, who was commended for bravery.
The delay, of course, helped Confederates buy precious time. By 3:30 p.m., Burnside moved more than 10,000 men of his 9th Corps against the fewer than 2,000 Rebel survivors of Lee's weak right flank. If Burnside moved quickly, he would succeed in cutting the only practical line of retreat for the Confederates. A Rhode Island soldier remembered, "The regiment moved forward by the right flank in fine order, although subjected to the fire of rebel batteries, of which it was in full view."
Now was the time to complete the victory. The Confederate artillery crews withdrew quickly with their loading implements as elements of the 8th Connecticut captured the guns. Within moments of this bright episode for the Union, Hill's men began arriving. In the words of a member of that group, Hill's division "was carried over one of the many steep hills that characterize that country."
Hill's brigade commanders, Maxey Gregg, James Archer and Lawrence Branch, extended to the left as their advancing troops appeared on the field and succeeded in connecting with Gen. D.R. Jones' division.
As recorded by Lt. B.G. Blakeslee of the 16th Connecticut, orders had just been received to advance "when a terrible volley was fired into us from behind a stone wall about five rods in front of us. In a moment we were riddled with shot."
Lt. John Burnham, also of the 16th, said, "I did not see [the Confederates] flag to notice particularly myself, but I can find 50 men and some officers in our regt. and in the 8th Conn. and 4th RI who would willingly take their oath that they carried our flag and shouted out to us not to fire on our own men. We were in a field of thick heavy corn when we could not see 12 feet ahead and things were somewhat mixed up at times."
He continues, "One thing, however, I did see, and that was the bodies of several rebels dressed in our blue uniforms, which they had taken in the recent fights near Manassas."
There is much debate as to whether the Confederates were actually flying U.S. colors and wearing Union uniforms, but one thing is certain: Gregg's brigade struck the 4th Rhode Island and 16th Connecticut like a thunderbolt. The terrain favored the attack large, hollow slopes in the middle of the field, surrounded by typical Maryland-style stone fences on the sides, channeled Gregg's movement right into the Federal flank.
Still in possession of three inoperative cannons, the 8th Connecticut suffered a storm of bullets. Hill described the action: "With a yell of defiance, Archer charged them, retook McIntosh's guns, and drove them back. Branch and Gregg, with their old veterans, sternly held their ground, and, pouring in destructive volleys, the tide of the enemy surged back, and, breaking in confusion, passed out of sight."
The New Englanders had returned fire, although ammunition was very low. They tried to hold their ground but received an overwhelming salvo from their front and left flank. As the 8th Connecticut moved to the right, volleys began to pour in on that quarter also. A retrograde motion began, with order dissolving, and the withdrawal turned quickly into a retreat. Approximately 50 percent of the regiment were casualties.
The 30th Ohio moved forward at the double-quick into the 10-acre cornfield in its front, the objective being one of the many stone walls that trim the countryside. They were slowed and then stopped by an advancing line of Archer's, Toombs' and Kemper's brigades that "came down with a crushing force, into their front and left flank."
The odds and momentum were against them. Between Southern cannon and rifle fire, they gained little ground. Firing was intense on both sides, and the 30th Ohio had its flag "torn in 14 places by shot and shell." The regiment lost 80 men in less than an hour.
By this time, most Federal units on this part of the field were compelled to retreat in one fashion or another. Some gave ground slowly, grudgingly. Others had little choice but to run for their lives.
Men in blue left the field where many had fought, suffered and died.The Rohrbach Bridge soon came into view in the rear, and welcome shelter was found on the reverse side of the brow of the hill above the stream. Union batteries were able to cover their front and keep the enemy from edging too near.
Shadows became longer as the sun dropped beyond the bloody landscape. Both armies sat where they were on the field, exhausted and spent. Around the survivors were approximately 23,000 dead and wounded.
Henry Kyd Douglas, a member of Stonewall Jackson's staff, said of Hill, "At the critical moment, A.P. Hill was always at his strongest. [He] struck with the right hand of Mars." Like a perfectly timed script, Hill's arrival proved to be the extra ounce that tipped the scales for the Confederates that day.
Because of the timely attack of A.P. Hill's division upon the Union lines, the Confederacy would live and fight for another 2 years.

Michael Stuckey is a former National Park Service ranger at Antietam National Battlefield. He lives in Arizona.

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