A couple of years ago I made a 54mm model of Burnside Bridge (the beer, by the way, is non-alcoholic). It was three weeks of delightful labor. You can see the entire process by going here:
Using the model and several hundred toy soldiers, let me illustrate the events of the morning of September 17th, 1862 in the area of Lower (Burnside) Bridge.
The crossing of the Antietam Creek south of Sharpsburg became, with the blunting of Federal efforts on the northern end of the field, the greatest hope of victory for McClellan. To force the creek would be to get to Sharpsburg, to get to Sharpsburg would be to cut Lee’s army in half and cut Lee’s army off from its escape route. It would be up to Maj. Gen. Ambrose Burnside's IX Corps to achieve this goal and attain the sought-after victory.
Defending the bridge were approximately 400 Confederates commanded by General Robert Toombs comprised of the 2nd and 20th Georgia regiments. The Georgians arrived on the western side of the creek on September 15th and had the luxury of time in which to prepare their positions. Digging rifle pits, bolstering fences, and piling rocks the men worked with a will.
Although their numbers were few they determined to exploit to the fullest the terrain of their position. They removed brush from both sides of the creek and felled selected trees to establish clear fields of fire. The natural strongpoint of an abandoned rock quarry was fortified as a citadel against attack. The quarry remains today, one hundred feet above the bridge, about five feet in depth and large enough to accommodate a company of men.
And now the action begins.
Shortly after 9:00 a.m. two companies, A and B, of the 11th Connecticut opened the attack. Their orders were to brush the Confederate pickets from the eastern side of the bridge, clearing the way for a comprehensive assault. The two companies formed behind twin knolls on the Federal side of the creek opposite the bridge. An orderly charge began with the men from Connecticut charging down the steep western slopes of the knolls and deploying on the floodplain below.
Then the Confederates opened fire. Upon open ground and without cover of any sort the two Connecticut companies were overwhelmed in a thunderclap of Confederate fire. The avenue of approach from the two knolls had funneled the men of Connecticut directly into the line of fire from the Confederates. Because of the alignment of the bridge within a crescent of high ground on the Confederate side the Federals were subjected to a killing fire from left, right, and center.
Utterly shattered, the Federals were forced to retire leaving the ground littered with their dead and wounded. A dismal pattern had been established for the efforts of the IX Corps on that deadly morning.
Kingsbury formed his lines of battle behind the protection of the twin knolls and began his advance to the floodplain below. Predictably, as the Federal lines gained the flat, open ground the Confederates opened fire with devastating results.
Federal losses in the initial volley were great and the attack began to stall. Kingsbury, in an effort to restore the forward momentum plunged into the creek at the head of a small band of stalwarts.
The diversionary attack by the 11th Connecticut was no more successful that the abortive attack that had preceded it, one hundred thirty nine men, one-third, of the 11 Connecticut, were killed or wounded. The regiment was shattered; meanwhile Crook and Rodman had yet to be heard from.
Kingsbury expected the bulk of the 11th Connecticut to follow him, but by that time they had gone to ground desperately seeking cover behind a stone wall and the meager protection of a post and rail fence.
Burnside devised the next plan that would entail a closely coordinated effort between the Divisions of Crook and Brig. Gen. Isaac Rodman. Crook was to advance from the northwest to the bridge...
while Rodman crossed the creek below the bridge to assault the flank of Toombs’ Confederates. The plan, so clear in the mind, proved complex upon the terrain.
The plan called for Crook’s brigade of 1,800 men to march to their jumping off point to the north east of the bridge and, covered by the diversion of the 11th Connecticut, to storm the bridge in a concerted effort. Crook’s regiments were operating in unfamiliar territory and became disoriented in the scrubby woodland behind the twin knolls through which they proceeded. They were lost and moving 500 yards north of the bridge and far beyond their planned assembly point. Emerging from the brush Crook realized he was out of position but improvised a new plan based upon the emerging situation. By assaulting the bridge from the northeast he may have been able to take the Confederates unawares coming from such an unexpected angle as he was. Ironically, had Crook had better information and had the area been better reconnoitered, he would have found a suitable ford only a short distance further north. Had he found and exploited this crossing he would have emerged in a position on the flank of Toombs and squarely between Toombs and the only lightly defended heights outside of Sharpsburg - Lee’s weakest position. In ignorance of the opportunity Crook attacked from the northeast.
As Crook launched his attack Rodman, to the south, had found his designated crossing point. As the engineers had reported, the creek was shallow and easily fordable, however what the engineers failed to appreciate was the steepness of the bluff the Federals would face upon crossing. Upon that bluff were dug-in Confederates who opened a blistering fire on the Federals of Rodman’s division who attempted a crossing. Seeing the fruitlessness of the attempt Rodman, at the head of his column, proceeded further downstream into the great unknown looking for a more suitable crossing point.
The forth attempt to storm the bridge was the effort of General Samuel Sturgis’ division.
Burnside ordered Sturgis to lead his division, in columns of fours as though on the march, to proceed at the double quick up the Rohersville road toward the bridge and to take it at the point of the bayonet. The time was about 10:30. Sturgis personally supervised the attack, which proved as doomed as the earlier attempts. By advancing up the Rohersville road Sturgis’ division was exposed to a flanking fire for the entire 300 yard length of the road that ran parallel to the Confederate positions on the ground above. Sturgis’ men were quite like targets in a shooting gallery
Under a withering enfilade fire the Federals ran the gauntlet, there was still 200 yards to the bridge and the Unions assault was melting away like candle wax. Federals, returning fire, found the Confederates nearly invisible in their concealed positions and masked by battle smoke.
But the Confederates too, were taking losses.
Union artillery had found the range of the Rebel positions and the Georgians were suffering mounting casualties as their ammunition continued to dwindle. As Sturgis ordered the withdrawal of his battered regiments the struggle entered its fourth hour with no gains made. Sturgis, however, was not finished.
Previously Sturgis advanced only half of his division in that ill-fated advance up the Rohersville Road toward the bridge. He was now ready to commit the remainder of his force based upon lessons learned. Burnside issued an unequivocal order to Sturgis to “carry the bridge at all hazards.” Sturgis selected two regiments – the 51st New York and the 51st Pennsylvania to make the assault.
Unlike the obvious and deadly approach taken by the regiments of his earlier attack Sturgis determined to use the terrain to his advantage. He formed up the two fifty-firsts on the far side of the twin knolls on the Federal side of the creek. Sturgis formed his line of battle with the 51st Pennsylvania on the right and the New Yorkers on the left. At about 12:30 p.m. the order to charge rang out and the men of New York and Pennsylvania emerged from the tree line at the crest of the knolls and began a pell-mell charge forward with bayonets fixed. Developing momentum as they raced downhill they crossed the two-hundred yard flood plain quickly.
In what was essentially a spontaneous movement the two Federal regiments formed up in rough columns and rushed the bridge, the flags of both regiments crossing side-by-side. The Confederates, after firing off desperate final rounds saw the handwriting upon the wall. The men from New York and Pennsylvania, now across the bridge, were racing up the road from the bridge toward the Confederates. The 28th Ohio had crossed upstream and the lead regiments of Rodman’s division were closing in on the Confederate right.
As the Federals rushed the bridge, Rodman who had found a ford downstream now threatened Toombs' flank.
The rebel position became untenable and Toombs’s men, after a gallant four-hour defense were forced back into a fighting withdrawal. “The stars and stripes” reported Sturgis “were planted on the opposite bank at 1:00 p.m.” The struggle was over and the Lower Bridge had earned its new name as Burnside Bridge. The losses, compared to other areas of the field that day were light. Casualties among the Federals were about 500 killed or wounded, the Georgians suffered about 120 to the same fates. The number of casualties certainly did not match the effort and drama expended that midmorning, though for the Confederates those were irreplaceable losses. For as much time, blood, and ammunition was spent forcing the bridge, for Burnside and the men of the IX Corps, the really hard part was about to begin.
Its hard to believe today that such an epic and bloody struggle to place in such a tranquil setting.
Until next time...