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 "Duty is the sublimest word in our language."  

 "Human virtue should be equal to human calamity."  LEE. 1876



V.   The Battle of Sharpsburg

 The battle of Sharpsburg, or Antietam, for it is known by both names, began at early dawn on the 17th of September.

General McClellan had obviously determined to direct his main assault against the Confederate left, a movement which General Lee had foreseen and provided for,[1] and at dawn commenced a rapid fire of artillery upon that portion of the Confederate line. Under cover of this fire, General Hooker then advanced his infantry and made a headlong assault upon Jackson's line, with the obvious view of crushing that wing of Lee's army, or driving it back on Sharpsburg and the river. The Federal force making this attack, or advancing promptly to support it, consisted of the corps of Generals Hooker, Mansfield, and Sumner, and numbered, according to General Sumner, forty thousand men, of whom eighteen thousand belonged to General Hooker's corps.

[Footnote 1: "In anticipation of a movement to turn the line of Antietam, Hood's two brigades had been transferred from the right to the left," etc.--_Lee_.]

Jackson's whole force was four thousand men. Of the truth of this statement of the respective forces, proof is here given:

"I have always believed," said General Sumner afterward, before the war committee, "that, instead of sending these troops into that action in driblets, had General McClellan authorized me to march _there forty thousand men_ on the left flank of the enemy," etc.

"Hooker formed his corps of _eighteen thousand_ men," etc., says Mr. Swinton, the able and candid Northern historian of the war.

Jackson's force is shown by the Confederate official reports. His corps consisted of Ewell's division and "Jackson's old division." General Jones, commanding the latter, reported: "The division at the beginning of the fight numbered not over one thousand six hundred men." Early, commanding Ewell's division,[1] reported the three brigades to number:

  Lawton's                   1,150

  Hayes's                      550

  Walker's                     700


  "Old Division," as above   1,600

  Jackson's corps            4,000

[Footnote 1: After General Lawton was disabled.]

 This was the entire force carried by General Jackson into the fight, and these four thousand men, as the reader will perceive, bore the brunt of the first great assault of General McClellan.

Just as the light broadened in the east above the crest of mountains rising in rear of the Federal lines. General Hooker made his assault. His aim was plainly to drive the force in his front across the Hagerstown road and back on the Potomac, and in this he seemed about to succeed. Jackson had placed in front Ewell's division of twenty-four hundred men. This force received General Hooker's charge, and a furious struggle followed, in which the division was nearly destroyed. A glance at the casualties will show this. They were remarkable. General Lawton, division commander, was wounded and carried from the field; Colonel Douglas, brigade commander, was killed; Colonel Walker, also commanding brigade, was disabled; Lawton's brigade lost five hundred and fifty-four killed and wounded out of eleven hundred and fifty, and five out of six regimental commanders. Hayes's brigade lost three hundred and twenty-three out of five hundred and fifty, and all the regimental commanders. Walker's brigade lost two hundred and twenty-eight out of less than seven hundred, and three out of four regimental commanders; and, of the staff-officers of the division, scarcely one remained.

In an hour after dawn, this heavy slaughter had been effected in Ewell's division, and the detailed statement which we have given will best show the stubborn resistance offered by the Southern troops. Still, they were unable to hold their ground, and fell back at last in disorder before General Hooker, who pressed forward to seize the Hagerstown road and crush the whole Confederate left. He was met, however, by Jackson's Old Division of sixteen hundred men, who had been held in reserve; and General Lee hastened to the point threatened Hood's two small brigades, one of which. General Hood states, numbered but eight hundred and sixty-four men. With this force Jackson now met the advancing column of General Hooker, delivering a heavy fire from the woods upon the Federal forces. In face of this fire they hesitated, and Hood made a vigorous charge, General Stuart opening at the same time a cross-fire on the enemy with his horse-artillery. The combined fire increased their disorganization, and it now turned into disorder. Jackson seized the moment, as always, throwing forward his whole line, and the enemy were first checked, and then driven back in confusion, the Confederates pursuing and cheering.

The first struggle had thus resulted in favor of the Confederates--with about six thousand they had repulsed eighteen thousand--and it was obvious to General McClellan that, without reinforcements, his right could not hold its ground. He accordingly, just at sunrise, sent General Mansfield's corps to the aid of General Hooker, and at nine o'clock General Sumner's corps was added, making in all forty thousand men.

The appearance of affairs at this moment was discouraging to the Federal commander. His heavy assaulting column had been forced back with great slaughter; General Hooker had been wounded and borne from the field; General Mansfield, while forming his line, had been mortally wounded; and now, at nine o'clock, when the corps of General Sumner arrived, the prospect was depressing. Of the condition of the Federal forces, General Sumner's own statement conveys a very distinct conception: "On going upon the field," said General Sumner, before the war committee, "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. I sent one of my staff-officers to find where they were, and General Ricketts, the only officer we could find, stated that he could not raise three hundred men of the corps." General Mansfield's corps also had been checked, and now "began to waver and break."

Such had been the result of the great Federal assault, and it was highly creditable to the Confederate arms. With a comparatively insignificant force, Jackson had received the attack of the entire Federal right wing, and had not only repulsed, but nearly broken to pieces, the large force in his front.

The arrival of General Sumner, however, completely changed the face of affairs, and, as his fresh troops advanced, those which had been so roughly handled by Jackson had an opportunity to reform. This was rapidly effected, and, having marshalled his troops, General Sumner, an officer of great dash and courage, made a vigorous charge. From this moment the battle began to rage with new fury. General Lee had sent to the left the brigades of Colquitt, Ripley, and McRae, and with these, the troops of Hood, and his own shattered division, Jackson presented a stubborn front, but his loss was heavy. General Starke, of the Old Division, was killed; the brigade, regimental, and company officers fell almost without an exception, and the brigades dwindled to mere handfuls.

Under the great pressure, Jackson was at length forced back. One of General Sumner's divisions drove the right of the Confederates beyond the Hagerstown road, and, at this moment the long struggle seemed ended; the great wrestle in which the adversaries had so long staggered to and fro, advancing and retreating in turn, seemed at last virtually decided in favor of the Federal arms.

This was undoubtedly the turning-point of the battle of Sharpsburg, and General Lee had witnessed the conflict upon his left with great anxiety. It was impossible, however, to send thither more troops than he had already sent. As will be seen in a moment, both his centre and right were extremely weak. A.P. Hill and General McLaws had not arrived from Harper's Ferry. Thus the left had been reenforced to the full extent of Lee's ability, and now that portion of his line seemed about to be crushed.

Fortunately, however, General McLaws, who had been delayed longer than was expected by General Lee, at last arrived, and was hurried to the left. It was ten o'clock, and in that one hour the fighting of an entire day seemed to have been concentrated. Jackson was holding his ground with difficulty when the divisions of McLaws and Walker were sent to him. As soon as they reached the field, they were thrown into action, and General Lee had the satisfaction of witnessing a new order of things. The advance--it might rather be called the onward rush--of the Federal line was checked. Jackson's weary men took fresh heart; that great commander promptly assumed the offensive, and, advancing his whole line, drove the enemy before him until he reoccupied the ground from which General Sumner had forced him to retire.

From the ground thus occupied, the Federal forces were unable to dislodge him, and the great struggle of "the left at Sharpsburg" was over. It had begun at dawn and was decided by ten or eleven o'clock, and the troops on both sides had fought as resolutely as in any other action of the war. The event had been decided by the pertinacity of the Southern troops, and by the prompt movement of reenforcements by General Lee from his right and centre. Posted near his centre, he had surveyed at one glance the whole field of action; the design of General McClellan to direct his main assault upon the Confederate left was promptly penetrated, and the rapid concentration of the Southern forces in that quarter had, by defeating this movement, decided the result of the battle.

Attacks on the Confederate centre and right followed that upon the left. In the centre a great disaster was at one time imminent. Owing to a mistake of orders, the brave General Rhodes had drawn back his brigade posted there--this was seen by the enemy--and a sudden rush was made by them with the view of piercing Lee's centre. The promptness and courage of a few officers and a small body of troops defeated this attempt. General D.H. Hill rallied a few hundred men, and opened fire with a single gun, and Colonel Cooke faced the enemy with his regiment, "standing boldly in line," says General Lee, "without a cartridge." The stand made by this small force saved the army from serious disaster; the Federal line retired, but a last assault was soon begun, this time against the Confederate right. It continued in a somewhat desultory manner until four in the evening, when, having massed a heavy column under General Burnside, opposite the bridge in front of Lee's right wing, General McClellan forced the bridge and carried the crest beyond.

The moment was critical, as the Confederate force at this point was less than three thousand men. But, fortunately, reenforcements arrived, consisting of A.P. Hill's forces from Harper's Ferry. These attacked the enemy, drove him from the hill across the Antietam again; and so threatening did the situation at that moment appear to General McClellan, that he is said to have sent General Burnside the message: "Hold your ground! If you cannot, then the bridge, to the last man. Always the bridge! If the bridge is lost, all is lost!"

The urgency of this order sufficiently indicates that the Federal commander was not without solicitude for the safety of his own left wing. Ignorant, doubtless, of the extremely small force which had thus repulsed General Burnside, in all four thousand five hundred men, he feared that General Lee would cross the bridge, assail his left, and that the hard-fought day might end in disaster to his own army. That General Lee contemplated this movement, in spite of the disproportion of numbers, is intimated in his official report. "It was nearly dark," he says, "and the Federal artillery was massed to defend the bridge, with General Porter's corps, consisting of fresh troops, behind it. Under these circumstances," he adds, "it was deemed injudicious to push our advantage further in the face of fresh troops of the enemy much exceeding our own."

The idea of an advance against the Federal left was accordingly abandoned, and a movement of Jackson's command, which Lee directed, with the view of turning the Federal right, was discontinued from the same considerations. Night had come, both sides were worn out, neither of the two great adversaries cared to risk another struggle, and the bitterly-contested battle of Sharpsburg was over.

The two armies remained facing each other throughout the following day. During the night of this day, Lee crossed with his army back into Virginia. He states his reasons for this: "As we could not look for a material increase of strength," he says, "and the enemy's force could be largely and rapidly augmented, it was not thought prudent to wait until he should be ready again to offer battle."

General McClellan does not seem to have been able to renew the struggle at that time. "The next morning," he says, referring to the day succeeding the battle, "I found that our loss had been so great, and there was so much disorganization in some of the commands, that I did not consider it proper to renew the attack that day."

This decision of General McClellan's subjected him subsequently to very harsh criticism from the Federal authorities, the theory having obtained at Washington that he had had it in his power, by renewing the battle, to cut Lee to pieces. Of the probability of such a result the reader will form his own judgment. The ground for such a conclusion seems slight. The loss and disorganization were, it would seem, even greater on the Federal than on the Confederate side, and Lee would have probably been better able to sustain an attack than General McClellan to make it. It will be seen that General Meade afterward, under circumstances more favorable still, declined to attack Lee at Williamsport. If one of the two commanders be greatly censured, the other must be also, and the world will be always apt to conclude that they knew what could be effected better than the civilians.

But General McClellan did make an attempt to "crush Lee," such as the authorities at Washington desired, and its result may possibly throw light on the point in discussion.

On the night of the 19th, Lee having crossed the Potomac on the night of the 18th, General McClellan sent a considerable force across the river near Shepherdstown, which drove off the Confederate artillery there, and at daylight formed line of battle on the south bank, protected by their cannon north of the river. Of the brief but bloody engagement which followed--an incident of the war little dwelt upon in the histories--General A.P. Hill, who was sent by Lee to repulse the enemy, gives an animated account. "The Federal artillery, to the number of seventy pieces," he says, "lined the opposite heights, and their infantry was strongly posted on the crest of the Virginia hills. When he advanced with his division, he was met by the most tremendous fire of artillery he ever saw," but the men continued to move on without wavering, and the attack resulted in the complete rout of the enemy, who were "driven pell-mell into the river," the current of which was "blue with floating bodies." General Hill chronicles this incident in terms of unwonted eloquence, and declares that, by the account of the enemy themselves, they lost "three thousand men killed and drowned from one brigade," which appears to be an exaggeration. His own loss was, in killed and wounded, two hundred and sixty-one.

This repulse was decisive, and General McClellan made no further attempt to pursue the adversary, who, standing at bay on the soil of Virginia, was still more formidable than he had been on the soil of Maryland. As we have intimated on a preceding page, the result of this attempt to pursue would seem to relieve General McClellan from the criticism of the Washington authorities. If he was repulsed with heavy slaughter in his attempt to strike at Lee on the morning of September 20th, it is not probable that an assault on his adversary on September 18th would have had different results.

No further crossing at that time was undertaken by the Federal commander. His army was moved toward Harper's Ferry, an important base for further operations, and Lee's army went into camp along the banks of the Opequan.



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