MILITARY REMINISCENCES OF THE CIVIL WAR
BY JACOB DOLSON COX, A.M., LL.D.
Formerly Major-General commanding Twenty-Third Army Corps
APRIL 1861--NOVEMBER 1863
ANTIETAM: PRELIMINARY MOVEMENTS
Lee's plan of invasion--Changed by McClellan's advance--The position at Sharpsburg--Our routes of march--At the Antietam--McClellan reconnoitring--Lee striving to concentrate--Our delays--Tuesday's quiet--Hooker's evening march--The Ninth Corps command--Changing our positions--McClellan's plan of battle--Hooker's evening skirmish--Mansfield goes to support Hooker--Confederate positions--Jackson arrives--McLaws and Walker reach the field--Their places.
Before morning on the 15th of September it became evident that Lee had used the night in withdrawing his army. An advance of the pickets at daybreak confirmed this, and Pleasonton's cavalry was pushed forward to Boonsboro, where they had a brisk skirmish with the enemy's rear-guard. At Boonsboro a turnpike to Sharpsburg leaves the National road, and the retreat of the Confederate cavalry, as well as other indications, pointed out the Sharpsburg road as the line of Lee's retreat. He had abandoned his plan of moving further northward, and had chosen a line bringing him into surer communication with Jackson. His movements before the battle of South Mountain revealed a purpose of invasion identical with that which he tried to carry out in 1863 in the Gettysburg campaign. Longstreet, with two divisions and a brigade (D. R. Jones, Hood, and Evans), had advanced to
Hagerstown, and it seems that a large part of the Confederate trains reached there also. D. H. Hill's division held Boonsboro and the passes of South Mountain at Turner's and Fox's Gaps. McLaws invested our fortifications on Maryland Heights, supported by R. H. Anderson's division. Jackson, with four divisions (A. P. Hill, Ewell, and Starke of his own corps, with Walker temporarily reporting to him), was
besieging Harper's Ferry.
On Saturday, the 13th, Lee determined to draw back Longstreet from his advanced position, in view of the fact that Jackson had not yet reduced
Harper's Ferry and that McClellan was marching to its relief. Longstreet's divisions therefore approached Boonsboro so as to support D. H. Hill, and thus it happened that they took part in the battle of South Mountain. Hill again occupied the summit where we found him on the 14th. From all this it is very plain that if McClellan had hastened his advance on the 13th, the passes of South Mountain at Turner's and Fox's gaps would not have been occupied in force by the enemy, and the condition of things would have been what he believed it was on the morning of the 14th, when a single brigade had been thought enough to support Pleasonton's reconnoissance. Twenty-four hours had changed all that.
The turnpike from Boonsboro to Sharpsburg continues southward a couple of miles, crossing the Potomac to Shepherdstown, which lies on the Virginia side of the river. A bridge which formerly carried the road over the stream had been burned; but not far below the ruined piers was a ford, which was a pretty good one in the present stage of water. Shepherdstown was the natural place of junction for Lee and Jackson; but for Lee to have marched there at once would have exposed Jackson to attack from the northern side of the Potomac. The precious stores and supplies captured at Harper's Ferry must be got to a place of safety, and this was likely to delay Jackson a day or two. Lee therefore ordered McLaws to obstruct Franklin's movement as much as he could, whilst he himself concentrated the rest of Longstreet's corps at Sharpsburg, behind the Antietam. If McClellan's force should prove overwhelming, the past experience of the Confederate general encouraged him to believe that our advance would not be so enterprising that he could not make a safe retreat into Virginia. He resolved therefore to halt at Sharpsburg, which offered an excellent field for a defensive battle, leaving himself free to resume his aggressive campaign or to retreat into Virginia according to the result.
McClellan had ordered Richardson's division of the Second Corps to support the cavalry in the advance, and Hooker's corps followed Richardson. [Footnote: Hooker's Report, Official Records, vol. xix. pt. i. p. 216.] It would seem most natural that the whole of Sumner's wing should take the advance on the 15th, though the breaking up of organizations was so much a habit with McClellan that perhaps it should not be surprising that one of Sumner's divisions was thus separated from the rest, and that Burnside's right wing was also divided. [Footnote: We must not forget the fact, however, that the order dividing the army into wings was suspended on that morning, and that this gives to the incident the air of an intentional reduction of the wing commanders to the control of a single corps. Official Records, vol. xix. pt. ii. p. 297.] The Ninth Corps was ordered to follow the old Sharpsburg road through Fox's Gap, our line of march being thus parallel to the others till we should reach the road from Boonsboro to Sharpsburg.
But we were not put in motion early in the day. We were ordered first to bury the dead, and to send the wounded and prisoners to Middletown It was nearly noon when we got orders to march, and when the head of column filed into the road, the way was blocked by Porter's corps, which was moving to the front by the same road. As soon as the way was clear, we followed, leaving a small detachment to complete the other tasks which had been assigned us. In the wooded slope of the mountain west of the gap, a good many of the Confederate dead still lay where they had fallen in the fierce combats for the possession of the crest near Wise's house. Our road led through a little hamlet called Springvale, and thence to another, Porterstown, near the left bank of the Antietam, where it runs into the Boonsboro and Sharpsburg turnpike. Sumner's two corps had taken temporary position on either side of the turnpike, behind the line of hills which there borders the stream. Porter's corps was massed in rear of Sumner, and Hooker's had been moved off to the right, around Keedysville. I was with the Kanawha division, assuming that my temporary command of the corps ended with the battle on the mountain. As we came up in rear of the troops already assembled, we received orders to turn off the road to the left, and halted our battalions closed in mass. It was now about three o'clock in the afternoon. McClellan, as it seemed, had just reached the field, and was surrounded by a group of his principal officers, most of whom I had never seen before. I rode up with General Burnside, dismounted, and was very cordially greeted by General McClellan. He and Burnside were evidently on terms of most intimate friendship and familiarity. He introduced me to the officers I had not known before, referring pleasantly to my service with him in Ohio and West Virginia, putting me upon an easy footing with them in a very agreeable and genial way.
We walked up the slope of the ridge before us, and looking westward from its crest, the whole field of the coming battle was before us. Immediately in front the Antietam wound through the hollow, the hills rising gently on both sides. In the background, on our left, was the village of Sharpsburg, with fields enclosed by stone fences in front of it. At its right was a bit of wood (since known as the West Wood), with the little Dunker Church standing out white and sharp against it. Farther to the right and left, the scene was closed in by wooded ridges with open farm lands between, the whole making as pleasing and prosperous a landscape as can easily be imagined.
We made a large group as we stood upon the hill, and it was not long before we attracted the enemy's attention. A puff of white smoke from a knoll on the right of the Sharpsburg road was followed by the screaming of a shell over our heads. McClellan directed that all but one or two should retire behind the ridge, while he continued the reconnoissance, walking slowly to the right. I think Fitz-John Porter was the only general officer who was retained as a companion in this walk. I noted with satisfaction the cool and business-like air with which McClellan made his examination under fire. The Confederate artillery was answered by a battery of ours, and a lively cannonade ensued on both sides, though without any noticeable effect. The enemy's position was revealed, and he was evidently in force on both sides of the turnpike in front of Sharpsburg, covered by the undulations of the rolling ground which hid his infantry from our sight.
The examination of the enemy's position and the discussion of it continued till near the close of the day. Orders were then given for the Ninth Corps to move to the left, keeping off the road, which was occupied by other troops. We moved through fields and farm lands, an hour's march in the dusk of evening, going into bivouac about a mile south of the Sharpsburg bridge, and in rear of the hills bordering the Antietam.
The village of Sharpsburg is in the midst of a plateau which is almost enclosed by the
Potomac River and the Antietam. The Potomac bounds it on the south and west, and the Antietam on the east. The plateau in general outline may be considered a parallelogram, four miles in length from north to south, and two and a half miles in width inside the bends of the river. The northern side of this terrain appears the narrowest, for here the river curves sharply away to the west, nearly doubling the width of the field above and below the bend. From the village the ground descends in all directions, though a continuous ridge runs northward, on which is the Hagerstown turnpike. The Boonsboro turnpike enters the village from the northeast, crossing the Antietam on a stone bridge, and continuing through Sharpsburg to the southwest, reaches Shepherdstown by the ford of the Potomac already mentioned. The Hagerstown turnpike enters the town from the north, passing the Dunker Church a mile out, and goes nearly due south, crossing the Antietam at its mouth, and continuing down the Potomac toward Harper's Ferry.
The Antietam is a deep creek, with few fords at an ordinary stage of water, and the principal roads cross it upon stone bridges. Of these there were three within the field of battle; the upper one in front of Keedysville, the middle one upon the Boonsboro turnpike, and the lower one on the Sharpsburg and Rohrersville road, since known as Burnside's bridge. McClellan's staff was better supplied with officers of engineers than the staff of most of our separate armies, and Captain Duane, his chief engineer, systematized the work of gathering topographical information. This was communicated to the general officers in connection with the orders which were given them. In this way we were instructed that the only fords of the Antietam passable at that time were one between the two upper bridges named, and another about half a mile below Burnside's bridge, in a deep bend of the stream. We found, however, during the engagement of the 17th, another practicable crossing for infantry a short distance above the bridge. This was not a ford in common use, but in the low stage of water at the time it was made available for a small force.
It was about noon of the 15th of September that Lee placed the forces which he had in hand across the turnpike in front of Sharpsburg. D. H. Hill's division was on the north of the road, and on the south of it Longstreet's own old division (now under General D. R. Jones), Hood's division, and Evans's independent brigade. Stuart's cavalry and the reserve artillery were also present. The rest of the army was with Jackson at Harper's Ferry, or co-operating with him in the neighborhood of Maryland Heights. Out of forty-four brigades, Lee could put but fourteen or fifteen in line that day to oppose McClellan. He was very strong in artillery, however, and his cannon looked grimly over the hill-crests behind which his infantry were lying. Cutts's and Jones's battalions of the reserve artillery were ordered to report to Hill for the protection of the left of the Confederate line, and gave him in all the sixty or seventy guns which he speaks of in his report, and which have puzzled several writers who have described the battle. Whenever our troops showed themselves as they marched into position, they were saluted from shotted cannon, and the numerous batteries that were developed on the long line of hills before us no doubt did much to impress McClellan with the belief that he had the great bulk of Lee's army before him.
The value of time was one of the things McClellan never understood. He should have been among the first in the saddle at every step in the campaign after he was in possession of Lee's order of the 9th, and should have infused energy into every unit in his army. Instead of making his reconnoissance at three in the afternoon of Monday, it might have been made at ten in the morning, and the battle could have been fought before night, if, indeed, Lee had not promptly retreated when support from Jackson would thus have become impossible. Or if McClellan had pushed boldly for the bridge at the mouth of the Antietam, nothing but a precipitate retreat by Lee could have prevented the interposition of the whole National army between the separated wings of the Confederates. The opportunity was still supremely favorable for McClellan, but prompt decision was not easy for him. Nothing but reconnoitring was done on Monday afternoon or on Tuesday, whilst Lee was straining every nerve to concentrate his forces and to correct what would have proven a fatal blunder in scattering them, had his opponent acted with vigor. The strongest defence the eulogists of the Confederate general have made for him is that he perfectly understood McClellan's caution and calculated with confidence upon it; that he would have been at liberty to perfect his combinations still more at leisure, but for the accident by which the copy of his plan had fallen into our hands at Frederick City.
During the 16th we confidently expected a battle, and I kept with my division. In the afternoon I saw General Burnside, and learned from him that McClellan had determined to let Hooker make a movement on our extreme right to turn Lee's position. Burnside's manner in speaking of this implied that he thought it was done at Hooker's solicitation, and through his desire, openly evinced, to be independent in command. I urged Burnside to assume the immediate command of the corps and allow me to lead my own division. He objected that as he had been announced as commander of the right wing of the army, composed of the two corps, he was unwilling to waive his precedence or to assume that Hooker was detached for anything more than a temporary purpose. I pointed out that Reno's staff had been granted leave of absence to take the body of their chief to
Washington, and that my division staff was too small for corps duty; but he met this by saying that he would use his staff for this purpose, and help me in every way he could till the crisis of the campaign should be over. Sympathizing with his very natural feeling, I ceased objecting, and accepted with as good grace as I could the unsatisfactory position of nominal commander of the corps to which I was a comparative stranger, and which, under the circumstances, naturally looked to him as its accustomed and real commander. Burnside's intentions in respect to myself were thoroughly friendly, as he afterward proved, and I had no ground for complaint on this score; but the position of second in command is always an awkward and anomalous one, and such I felt it.
The 16th passed without serious fighting, though we had desultory cannonading and picket firing. It was hard to restrain our men from showing themselves on the crest of the long ridge in front of us, and whenever they did so they drew the fire from some of the enemy's batteries, to which ours would respond. McClellan reconnoitred the line of the Antietam near us, and the country immediately on our left, down the valley. As the result of this we were ordered to change our positions at nightfall, staff officers being sent to guide each division to its new camp. The selected positions were marked by McClellan's engineers, who then took members of Burnside's staff to identify the locations, and these in turn conducted our divisions. There was far more routine of this sort in that army than I ever saw elsewhere. Corps and division commanders should have the responsibility of protecting their own flanks and in choosing ordinary camps. To depend upon the general staff for this is to take away the vigor and spontaneity of the subordinate and make him perform his duty in a mechanical way. He should be told what is known of the enemy and his movements so as to be put upon his guard, and should then have freedom of judgment as to details. The changes made were as follows: Rodman's division went half a mile further to the left, where a country road led to the Antietam ford, half a mile below the Burnside bridge.
Sturgis's division was placed on the sides of the road leading to the stone bridge just mentioned. Willcox's was put in reserve in rear of Sturgis. My own was divided, Scammon's brigade going with Rodman, and Crook's going with Sturgis. Crook was ordered to take the advance in crossing the bridge in case we should be ordered to attack. This selection was made by Burnside himself as a compliment to the division for the vigor of its assault at South Mountain. While we were moving we heard Hooker's guns far off on the right and front, and the cannonade continued an hour or more after it became dark.
What, then, was the plan of battle of which the first step was this movement of Hooker's? McClellan's dispositions on the 15th were made whilst Franklin's corps was still absent, and, under the orders he received, was likely to be so for a day at least. [Footnote: Official Records, vol. xix. pt. i. p. 29.] Sumner's two corps had been treated as the centre of the army in hand, Burnside's had been divided by putting Hooker on the extreme right and the Ninth Corps on the extreme left, and Porter's corps was in reserve. This looked as if a general attack in front with this organization of the army were intended. But the more McClellan examined the enemy's position the less inclined he was to attack the centre. He could cross the bridge there and on the right, and deploy; but the gentle slopes rising toward Sharpsburg were swept by formidable batteries and offered no cover to advancing troops. The enemy's infantry was behind stone fences and in sunken roads, whilst ours must advance over the open. Lee's right rested upon the wooded bluffs above the Burnside bridge, where it could only be approached by a small head of column charging along the narrow roadway under a concentrated fire of cannon and small arms. No point of attack on the whole field was so unpromising as this. Then, as Jackson was still at Harper's Ferry, there was the contingency of an attack in rear if anything less than the mass of our army were pushed beyond Lee's right.
On our right, in front of Hooker, it was easy to turn the Confederate line. The road from Keedysville through Smoketown to the Hagerstown turnpike crossed the Antietam in a hollow, out of the line of fire, and a march around Lee's left flank could be made almost wholly under cover. The topography of the field therefore suggested a flank attack from our right, if the National commander rejected the better strategy of interposing his army between Lee and Jackson as too daring a movement. This flank attack McClellan determined to make, and some time after noon of the 16th issued his orders accordingly. In his preliminary report of the battle, made before he was relieved from command, McClellan says:--
"The design was to make the main attack upon the enemy's left,--at least to create a diversion in favor of the main attack, with the hope of something more, by assailing the enemy's right,--and as soon as one or both of the flank movements were fully successful, to attack their centre with any reserve I might then have in hand." [Footnote: O R., vol. xix. pt. i. p. 30.]
His report covering his whole career in the war, dated August 4, 1863 (and published February, 1864, after warm controversies had arisen, and he had become a political character), modifies the above statement in some important particulars. It says:--
"My plan for the impending general engagement was to attack the enemy's left with the corps of Hooker and Mansfield supported by Sumner's and if necessary by Franklin's, and as soon as matters looked favorably there, to move the corps of Burnside against the enemy's extreme right upon the ridge running to the south and rear of Sharpsburg, and having carried their position to press along the crest toward our right, and whenever either of these flank movements should be successful, to advance our centre with all the forces then disposable." [Footnote: Official Records, vol. xix, pt. i, p. 55.]
The opinion I got from Burnside at the time, as to the part the Ninth Corps was to take, was fairly consistent with the design first quoted, namely, that when the attack by Sumner, Hooker, and Franklin should be progressing favorably, we were "to create a diversion in favor of the main attack, with the hope of something more." It is also probable that Hooker's movement was at first intended to be made by his corps alone, the attack to be taken up by Sumner's two corps as soon as Hooker began, and to be shared in by Franklin if he reached the field in time, thus making a simultaneous oblique attack from our right by the whole army except Porter's corps, which was in reserve, and the Ninth Corps, which was to create the "diversion" on our left and prevent the enemy from stripping his right to reinforce his left. It is hardly disputable that this would have been a better plan than the one actually carried out. Certainly the assumption that the Ninth Corps could cross the Antietam alone at the only place on the field where the Confederates had their line immediately upon the stream which must be crossed under fire by two narrow heads of column, and could then turn to the right along the high ground occupied by the hostile army before that army had been broken or seriously shaken elsewhere, is one which would hardly be made till time had dimmed the remembrance of the actual position of Lee's divisions upon the field. It is also noticeable that the plan as given in the final report leaves no "centre" with which to "advance" when either of the flank movements should be successful, Porter's corps in reserve being the only one not included in the movement as described.
Further evidence that the plan did not originally include the wide separation of two corps to the right to make the extended turning movement is found in Hooker's incomplete report, and in the wide interval in time between the marching of his corps and that of Mansfield. Hooker was ordered to cross the Antietam at about two o'clock in the afternoon of the 16th by the bridge in front of Keedysville and the ford below it. He says that after his troops were over and in march, he rode back to McClellan, who told him that he might call for reinforcements, and that when they came they should be under his command. Somewhat later McClellan rode forward with his staff to observe the progress making, and Hooker again urged the necessity of reinforcements. [Footnote: Official Records, vol. xix. pt. i. p. 217.] Yet Sumner did not receive orders to send Mansfield's corps to his support till evening, and it marched only half an hour before midnight, [Footnote: _Id_., p. 275.] reaching its bivouac, about a mile and a half in rear of that of Hooker, at 2 A.M. of the 17th. [Footnote: _Id_., p. 475.]
After crossing the Antietam, Hooker had shaped his course to the westward, aiming to reach the ridge on which the Hagerstown turnpike runs, and which is the dominant feature in the landscape. This ridge is about two miles distant from the Antietam, and for the first mile of the way no resistance was met. However, his progress had been observed by the enemy, and Hood's two brigades were taken from the centre and passed to the left of D. H. Hill. Here they occupied an open wood (since known as the East Wood) northeast of the Dunker Church. Hooker was now trying to approach the Confederate positions,
Meade's division of the Pennsylvania Reserves being in the advance. A sharp skirmishing combat ensued, and artillery was brought into action on both sides. I have mentioned our hearing the noise of this engagement from the other extremity of the field in the fading light of evening. On our side
Seymour's brigade had been chiefly engaged, and had felt the enemy so vigorously that Hood supposed he had repulsed a serious effort to take the wood. Hooker was, however, aiming to pass quite beyond the flank, and kept his other divisions north of the hollow beyond the wood, and upon the ridge which reaches the turnpike near the largest re-entrant bend of the Potomac, which is only half a mile distant. Here he bivouacked upon the slopes of the ridge,
Doubleday's division resting with its right upon the turnpike, Ricketts's division upon the left of Doubleday, and Meade covering the front of both with the skirmishers of Seymour's brigade. Between Meade's skirmishers and the ridge were the farmhouse and barn of J. Poffenberger, on the east side of the road, where Hooker made his own quarters for the night. Half a mile further in front was the farm of D. R. Miller, the dwelling on the east, and the barn surrounded by stacks on the west of the road. [Footnote: Hooker's unfinished report says he slept in the barn of D. R. Miller, but he places it on the east of the road, and the spot is fully identified as Poffenberger's by General Gibbon, who commanded the right brigade, and by Lieutenant-Colonel Rufus R. Dawes, Sixth Wisconsin (afterward Brevet Brigadier-General), both of whom subsequently visited the field and determined the positions.] Mansfield's corps (the Twelfth), marching as it did late in the night, kept further to the right than Hooker's, but moved on a nearly parallel course, and bivouacked on the farm of another J. Poffenberger, [Footnote: Official Records, vol. xix. pt. i. pp. 275, 475.] near the road which, branching from the Hagerstown turnpike at the Dunker Church, intersects the one running from Keedysville through Smoketown to the same turnpike about a mile north of Hooker's position. [Footnote: See map, p. 299.]
On the Confederate side, Hood's division had been so roughly handled that it was replaced by two brigades of Ewell's division (commanded by Lawton), which with Jackson's own (commanded by J. R. Jones) had been led to the field from Harper's Ferry by Jackson, reaching Sharpsburg in the afternoon of the 16th. These divisions were formed on the left of D. H. Hill, and in continuation of his line along the turnpike, but with a brigade advanced to the East Wood, which was held as a salient. Hood's division, on being relieved, was placed in reserve near the Dunker Church, and spent part of the night in cooking rations, of which its supply had been short for a day or two. [Footnote: Official Records, vol. xix. pt. i. p. 923.] The combatants on both sides slept upon their arms, well knowing that the dawn would bring bloody work.
During the evening McClellan issued orders looking toward the joining of a general engagement at daybreak. McLaws's Confederate division, which had been opposing Franklin, crossed the Potomac at Maryland Heights, and marched by way of Shepherdstown, reaching Sharpsburg on the morning of the 17th. [Footnote: _Id_., pp. 855, 856.] Walker's division, which had come from Harper's Ferry on the 16th, extended Lee's right down the Antietam, covering the ford at which Rodman, on our side, was expected to cross. [Footnote: _Id_., p. 914.] A. P. Hill's division was the only force of the enemy completing the work at Harper's Ferry, and Franklin was ordered to leave Couch's division to observe Hill's movements from our side of the Potomac, and to bring the remainder of his corps on the field early in the morning. [Footnote: _Id_., p. 376.] In the respite given him since Sunday, Lee had therefore concentrated all his army but one division, and was better ready for the battle than McClellan, for Franklin's corps could come upon the field only after a considerable march, and he did not, in fact, reach it till ten o'clock or later. Sumner was ordered to have the Second Corps ready to march an hour before day, but he had no authority to move till explicit orders to that effect should reach him. I have said that Hooker claims in his report that the promise was made him that Mansfield's corps, when it came to reinforce him, should be under his orders. If this were so, it would unite all the troops now present which had fought in Pope's Army of Virginia. I find no trace, however, in the reports of the battle, that Hooker exercised any such command. He seems to have confined his work to the independent action of his own corps until Mansfield's death, and was himself disabled almost immediately afterward. As there were commanders of wings of the army duly designated, and two corps were now separated by a long interval from the rest in an independent turning movement, it can hardly be debated that that was the place of all others where one of them should have been, unless McClellan were there in person. Had Burnside's two corps been kept together as the right wing, the right attack could have been made a unit. If Sumner had then been directed to keep in communication with Burnside, and to advance when the latter did, nobody will doubt that Sumner would have been prompt in sustaining his comrades. But both Sumner and Burnside were made to feel that they were reduced from their proper rank, and however conscientious they might be in carrying out such orders as reached them, it was not in human nature that they should volunteer suggestions or anticipate commands. McClellan had thus thrown away the advantages, if there were any, in holding only two or three men directly responsible for the co-ordination of his movements, and had assumed the full personal responsibility of watching each phase of the battle and suiting the proper orders to each conjuncture as it should arise.