Amember of the fabled Iron Brigade would later write of the impending Battle of Antietam that “nothing can be more solemn than a period of silent waiting for the summons to battle, known to be impending.”
The Iron Brigade, composed of the 2nd Wisconsin, 6th Wisconsin, 7th Wisconsin and 19th Indiana, was the lead brigade of Gen. Abner Doubleday’s division in I Corps under Maj. Gen. Joseph Hooker. The corps moved across Antietam Creek on the afternoon of Sept. 16, 1862. The column of men finally halted at the farm of Joseph Poffenberger near the North Woods around 9 p.m.
Between the drizzling rain and the foreboding feeling of a battle looming, the men slept little.
The ferocious battle opened before 6 a.m. the next day. The drizzle of the previous night had prevented Hooker from noticing Confederate Capt. John Pelham’s horse artillery on Nicodemus Heights, just west of the Poffenberger farm. These guns were in position to enfilade I Corps. Pelham fired his first round into the 6th Wisconsin, killing two and wounding 11. The shell tore off Capt. David Noyes’ foot and both arms of a private in his company.
Brig. Gen. John Gibbon, commander of the Iron Brigade, deployed prior to reaching the infamous Miller cornfield that morning. With the 2nd Wisconsin on the far left and the 6th Wisconsin on its right, both regiments deployed into what would be referred to with eloquent simplicity as the Cornfield. Three companies of the 6th Wisconsin set up across the Hagerstown Pike, linking the regiments to Lt. James Stewart’s two gun section of Battery B, 4th U.S. Artillery that deployed south of the Miller Barn on the west side of the Pike. On the right of Battery B, the 7th Wisconsin formed with the 19th Indiana on the far right.
As the 2nd and 6th advanced through the corn, the three companies on the Turnpike came under fire from Rebels in the West Woods behind a limestone outcrop. The initial Confederate volley struck the 6th’s Lt. Col. Edward Bragg, forcing him to relinquish command to Maj. Rufus Dawes.
Dawes wrote, “I ran to the fence in time to hear Bragg say, ‘Major, I am shot,’ before he collapsed on the ground … I felt a great sense of responsibility, when thrown thus suddenly in command of the regiment in the face of a terrible battle.”
The 19th Indiana and 7th Wisconsin pushed into the West Woods to protect the brigade’s flank and drive the Confederates from cover. The maneuver was successful and allowed the rest of the Iron Brigade to advance with flanks covered.
Dawes recalled, “As we appeared at the edge of the corn, a long line of men in butternut and gray rose up from the ground. Simultaneously, the hostile battle lines opened a tremendous fire upon each other. Men I can not say fell; they were knocked out of the ranks by the dozens.”
The Confederate force confronting the 6th and 2nd Wisconsin was Alexander Lawton’s Brigade. While fighting, the 2nd Wisconsin’s commander, Lt. Col. Thomas Allen fell among the cornstalks, leaving the regiment to Maj. Stevens.
The intense fire from the Iron Brigade and Battery B was remarked on by Gen. Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson, who later wrote of the “terrific storm of shell, canister, and musketry” raining down on his men. Finally the Confederate lines were driven back.
The 2nd and 6th Wisconsin drove into the fields south of the Cornfield. The Confederates retreated toward the West Woods, while Union forces moved on “loading and firing with demonical fury and shouting and laughing hysterically.” At this point the two halves of the Iron Brigade caught the commands of Brig. Gen. William Starke and Brig. Gen. William Tallafferro between them on the Hagerstown Pike. The advance of Starke’s Louisianans and Tallafferro’s Brigade halted the Union advance, but only at the cost of putting the Southerners between Union forces. Starke’s men did not realize that the 19th Indiana and 7th Wisconsin had come up on their flank behind the stone ledge. This crossfire forced the collapse of the Confederate counterattack.
Pvt. George Washington Partridge Jr. of Company G, 7th Wisconsin, wrote home about the effect this had on Confederate troops. “Wednesday we had the satisfaction of seeing the curses run. Part of the Brigade was fighting in a cornfield (the 2nd and 6th Wisconsin) and our regiment came up and gave them a crossfire and they run as if they were scart … and I presume they were some.”
The remnants of Starke and Tallafferro’s commands withdrew to the West Woods as Jackson’s last reserves were ordered up. These reserves, John Bell Hood’s division, made up of the Texas Brigade and Law’s Brigade, formed on the Smoketown Road directly east of the Dunker Church and marched across the rolling fields toward the Yankees.
Major Dawes spoke of the long unbroken gray lines and how their first volley was “like a scythe running through our line.” The 6th and 2nd Wisconsin quickly fell back with the call of “Now, save, who can,”
Seeing the Southern counterattack, the 19th Indiana and 7th Wisconsin poured fire from the stone outcrop directly across the pike, hitting the Confederate line in the left flank.
The 1st Texas, however, its blood boiling upon seeing the Yankees running back through the Cornfield, ignored this. Instead, they “slipped the bridle” — driving into the Cornfield, throwing the 2nd and 6th Wisconsin, to its northern edge.
Here, the Pennsylvania Reserves waited. As the 1st Texas plowed through the field, they were hit on the flank by Battery B, and in their front by the mass musketry of the Pennsylvania Reserves. The 1st Texas sustained 88 percent casualties in this charge.
Meanwhile, the 4th Texas, 18th Georgia and (Wade) Hampton’s Legion wheeled west to face the murderous flanking fire of the Indiana and Wisconsin men behind the stone ledge across the turnpike.
The Confederates now fought 7th Wisconsin and 19th Indiana regiments, and the guns of Battery B. Massed canister as well as musketry from the remnants of the 2nd and 6th Wisconsin and Battery B helped throw back the 18th Georgia’s assaults on Stewart’s guns. They got within 15 yards of the guns but never took the position. The Texas Brigade withdrew.
The 19th Indiana and 7th Wisconsin stormed forward to the top of the rise the Texans had just left, right into the face of Brig. Gen. Roswell Ripley’s Brigade, part of D.H. Hill’s command. Here, Lt. Col. Alois Bachman fell, and a 19-year-old captain, William Dudley, took command of the 19th Indiana. To stay was suicide. The order was given to retire.
Maj. Rufus Dawes returned to many of the battlefields of his youth after the war, but he would never return to Antietam. He remembered that the “piles of dead on the Sharpsburg and Hagerstown Turnpike were frightful. The ‘angle of death’ at Spottsylvania, and the Cold Harbor ‘slaughter pen,’ and the Fredericksburgh Stone Wall, where Sumner charged, were all mentally compared by me, when I saw them, with this turnpike at Antietam.
“My feeling was that the Antietam Turnpike surpassed all in manifest evidence of slaughter.”
Matt Borders has been a seasonal ranger at Antietam National Battlefield the past two summers. He lives in Battle Creek, Mich.