Tuesday, September 17, 2013

To coincide with the 151st anniversary of the Battle of Antietam I'm reposting this entry from 2008.  I hope you enjoy it.

The Bloody Lane, September 17, 1862
(for larger views, click on the images)

An eighth of a mile south of the Dunker church a country lane runs zigzag east and south from the Hagerstown road, going for a quarter of a mile under the lee of a long hill, climbing to a plateau for another quarter mile, and there making a sharp elbow as it turns south...

By years of usage and erosion this lane had been worn down several feet below the surface of the ground, and it was bordered on both sides by snake-rail fences. (Bruce Catton, Mr. Lincoln’s Army, 1951 pp. 291-292)

 The blood-soaked sunken lane that became a charnel house that late summer day had for decades been a simple rural shortcut. it wandered across the pastoral countryside, taking advantage of terrain anomalies to get from the Hagerstown Pike to the Keedysville Road while bypassing the village of Sharpsburg.

 In covering that convenient route, the wagon road formed the jagged hypotenuse of a triangle, the larger roads being its legs, Rain and usage by farm wagons had worn most of the lane down to a depth of two or three feet, in places more than that.
(Robert K. Krick, The Antietam Campaign, edited by Gary W. Gallagher, 1999 p. 224)

On the night of September 16, 1862, Anderson’s Brigade bivouacked on either side of the Boonsboro Turnpike near the end of the sunken Road. (War Department tablet No. 336, Antietam National Battlefield)

On the northern side the Rebels had taken these rails down and piled them in a low breastwork, and they were lined up strongly in the low road behind this obstruction, as securely entrenched as if they had been digging all night...

... Lying below the brow of the hill, the lane could not be reached by federal artillery. The men who defended it were almost wholly protected; the men who tried to take it would have to advance in the open, exposed to a crippling fire. It was as nasty a strong point as the army ever ran up against: the famous sunken road, known forever after as Bloody Lane.
(Bruce Catton, Mr. Lincoln’s Army, 1951 pp. 291-292)

The Alabamians and North Carolinians crouching in the hollowed-out wagon way were veteran troops, confident and extraordinarily well led. Division commander Harvey Hill fell far short of the mark as an administrator, but he clearly was one of those rare men who thrived in battle, rather than merely facing a stern duty with poise and determination. (Robert K. Krick, The Antietam Campaign, edited by Gary W. Gallagher, 1999 p. 225 )

On paper, French’s 5,700 men held a better than two to one advantage over the 2,600 Confederate defenders. Severely mitigating factors rendered these odds meaningless: first, the division had been formed but three days before and lacked cohesion; second, almost 3,000 of its strength came from green regiments just mustered into the service; third, French attacked with a single brigade at a time; fourth, he made no attempt to maneuver but came frontally against the Sunken Road; and fifth, the strong Confederate position amounted to natural rifle pits that had been strengthened by piled fence rails as breastworks. (Joseph L. Harsh, Taken At The Flood, 1999 p. 395)

With battle flags waving and bayonets shining in the morning sun, the long lines of French’s division advanced southward in almost perfect precision toward the Confederate position at the sunken road. G.B. Anderson’s North Carolina brigade and Rodes’s Alabama brigade waited in the lane, using it as a trench...

...Rodes and his men heard the incongruous sound of music played by bands beyond the crest about 100 yards to their front.  The mystery ended when the enemy battle standards rose above the ridge followed by a sea of Federal soldiers marching in perfect battle formation.  (Darrell l. Collins, Major General Robert E. Rodes of the Army of Northern Virginia, 2008, p. 166)

As the Union lines pressed steadily closer, hundreds of Confederates peered along the sights of leveled rifles, awaiting the command to open fire, The tension mounted with each passing moment – the union lines being allowed to advance until the features of individual faced could be distinguished by the Southern riflemen. (Ibid. p.202)

War of the Rebellion Official records of the union and Confederate Armies, Series I. Vol 19, Part I reports,1887.  Report of Brig. Gen. Nathan Kimball, U.S. Army, commanding First Brigade, French’s Division

…Directly on my front, in a narrow road running parallel with my line, and, being washed by water, forming a natural rifle-pit between my line and a large corn-field, I found the enemy in great force, as also in the corn-field in rear of the ditch.

Gordon: My troops held the most advanced position on this part of the field …the predicted assault came. The men in blue…formed in my front, an assaulting column four lines deep. The front line came to a “charge bayonets,” the other lines to a “right shoulder shift.” The brave union commander…placed himself in front…It was a thrilling spectacle. Their gleaming bayonets flashed like burnished silver in the sunlight. As we stood looking upon that thrilling pageant, I thought, if I did not say, “What a pity to spoil with bullets such a scene of martial beauty!” (James V. Murfin, The Gleam of Bayonets, 1965 pp.249-250)

As the blue host crested the ridge, officers halted the men to fix bayonets – an ominous indication of the expectation of closing with the Rebels before them. The men marched a little farther, halted again in perfect order about 80 yards off, raised their muskets, and fired a crashing volley into the Sunken Road position. (Darrell L. Collins, Major General Robert E. Rodes of the Army of Northern Virginia, 2008 p. 166)

War of the Rebellion Official records of the union and Confederate Armies, Series I. Vol 19, Part I reports,1887.  Report of Brig. Gen. Nathan Kimball, U.S. Army, commanding First Brigade, French’s Division

As my line advanced to the crest of the hill, a murderous fire was opened upon it from the entire force in front. My advance farther was checked, and for three hours and thirty minutes the battle raged incessantly, without either party giving way.

The Confederates had been in the road for about one hour when Weber’s men swarmed to the crest of the ridge directly opposite Gordon, who described the opening volleys in breathless prose: “With all my lung power I shouted ‘Fire!” (Robert K. Krick, The Antietam Campaign, edited by Gary W. Gallagher, 1999 p. 231)

…Rifles flamed and roared in the Federals’ faces like a blinding blaze of lightning accompanied by the quick and deadly thunderbolt. The effect was appalling. The entire front line, with few exceptions, went down in the consuming blast.” (Ibid. p. 231)

…a long sheet of flame ran from end to end of the sunken road, a wave of smoke drifted up the hillside, and the yankee charge ceased to look like a holiday parade. The first line of the assaulting wave was almost torn to pieces. The men halted, tried to re-form, and the Southerners, reloading with desperate haste, stood up and whacked in another volley. (Bruce Catton, Mr. Lincoln’s Army, 1951, p. 292)

The Confederates could hardly miss at that range, and large numbers of men fell, especially those in the First Delaware. After bravely withstanding the devastating fire for a full five minutes, the Federals fell back behind the crest...

...where they quickly rallied and, with the support of a fresh brigade, came on again. (Darrell L. Collins, Major General Robert E. Rodes of the Army of Northern Virginia, 2008 p. 167)

Gordon: Before the rear lines could recover, my exultant men were on their feet, devouring them with successive volleys.  (James V. Murfin, The Gleam of Bayonets, 1965 p.250)

Colonel Gibson decided to attack. perhaps the most remarkable aspect of Confederate defense of the Bloody lane was the series of incredibly brave – and unredeemably foolish – attacks launched out of the road toward the enemy. Throughout the defense of the position by the two brigades that held it from the beginning, fecklessly aggressive officers had sent forlorn hopes forward toward the parallel enemy high ground. (Robert K. Krick, The Antietam Campaign, edited by Gary W. Gallagher, 1999 p. 243)

Richardson came on strong. he had personally led his division as the advance unit pursuing Lee after South Mountain, and here he was in personal command again. The division made an impressive sight, the band drumming the march, the Irish Brigade in front, green flag fluttering in the breeze. (James V. Murfin, The Gleam of Bayonets, 1965 p.254)

Gen. Thomas F. Meagher’s Irish Brigade – a stout organization, albeit grotesquely magnified in twentieth-century imaginations – fought opposite the North Carolinians and was badly used up in a static firefight. (Robert K. Krick, The Antietam Campaign, edited by Gary W. Gallagher, 1999 pp. 244-245)

War of the Rebellion Official records of the union and Confederate Armies, Series I. Vol 19, Part I reports,1887.  Report of Brig. Gen. Thomas Francis Meagher, U.S. Army, commanding Second (Irish) Brigade
…My orders were, that, after the first and second volleys delivered in line of battle by the brigade, the brigade should charge with fixed bayonets on the enemy. .. I permitted them to deliver their five or six volleys, and then personally ordered them to charge upon the rebel columns…relying on the impetuosity and recklessness of Irish soldiers in a charge, felt confident that before such a charge the rebel column would give way and be dispersed.

War of the Rebellion Official records of the Union and Confederate Armies, Series I. Vol 19, Part I reports,1887.  Report of Lieut. Col. Vincent M. Wilcox, One hundred and thirty-second Pennsylvania Infantry

…When our men were nearly exhausted of strength and ammunition, you directed me to fix bayonets and charge upon the rifle-pits, but at this moment the Irish Brigade came up and joined our men in the charge. The drove the enemy from their stronghold and captured some 300 prisoners, including a number of officers.

Then it was “Forward” into the fray. Onward went Israel “Dick” Richardson’s division until it was within thirty yards of the Sunken Road. Men were falling all around. Confederate General G.B. Anderson fell mortally wounded. Robert Rodes was hit in the thigh. Gordon took three bullets, but remained on his feet...

In the midst of the smoke, death, and destruction was Richardson on foot leading his men, his face blackened with powder, sword drawn and pointing at the enemy, he was yelling at the top of his voice...

…by now one Confederate draped over the rail fence had seventeen bullets in his body.  (John W. Schildt, Drums Along the Antietam, 2004 pp. 127-128) 

In the end, Richardson nearly repeated French’s performance. Attacking over much the same ground and committing a single brigade at a time, he nearly exhausted Meagher and Caldwell without taking the road. Only with the advance of Col. John Brooke’s five regiments, the last fresh brigade of the Second Corps, did the Confederates finally retreat from the Sunken Road. Shortly after one o’clock the Federals finally held the key to the field on the Confederate left. (Joseph L. Harsh, Taken At The Flood, 1999 p. 397)

War of the Rebellion Official records of the union and Confederate Armies, Series I. Vol 19, Part I reports,1887.  Report of Capt. Julius Wehle, Sixty-sixth New York Infantry

…We pressed forward across the hill, and came in full sight of the enemy…By a successful flank movement we here assisted in resisting the enemy’s attempt to turn our right. n Then came the order to drive the enemy from their strong position on the left…Here now was the terrific part of the engagement. The men were falling thick and fast but never faltering. The battalion pressed forward an completely routed the enemy, who fled in a disorganized mass, leaving the field strewn with their dying and dead.

...rebel reinforcements emerging from the battered corn behind the sunken road mingled in confusion with men in the line or hung back under cover. At the far end of the rebel line, and order to reposition one regiment was misunderstood and two regiments pulled pack in retreat. Alert and aggressive, Colonel Francis Barlow pushed his New Yorkers into the gap, a position that enabled them to fire down the sunken road. With that, a line that had stood for two hours gave way in minutes; the Rebels turned and fled… (Mike Pride Mark Travis, My Brave Boys: To War with Colonel Cross and the Fighting Fifth, 2001, p. 135)

Caldwell steadily gained ground and pushing forward broke the line from shallow to the crest of the road bed, sweeping Wright’s and Anderson’s Brigades back to the south side of the road and on into Piper’s cornfield. Now only Rodes was left, still entrenched in the sunken part of the road. Barlow’s 61st New York swung to its left facing Rodes’s right. The Confederates were making a desperate attempt to hold, by now firing over their comrade’s bodies. The fire was a intense as it was on any part of the field that day, but the Federals were now on the crest of the ridge and on the road, firing down… now nothing could save the vulnerable Rebels.  (James V. Murfin, The Gleam of Bayonets, 1965 pp. 257-258)

The sunken road that had served the Confederates so well became a deadly trap as soon as its integrity was compromised. ( Robert K. Krick, The Antietam Campaign, edited by Gary W. Gallagher, 1999 p. 246 )

Confederates driven from the Bloody Lane by Barlow and Miles attributed much of the eventual collapse to internal misunderstandings. An officer of the 4th North Carolina described how “the men of different regiments became mixed with each other so that all distinct organization…was broken up, and all identity lost”. Colonel Bennett of the 14th wrote aptly of “confusion that seemed remediless.” (Ibid. p. 245)

Confusion and chaos coursed up and down the line. The Yankees poured into the road from which Anderson’s and Rodes’ men had fought and died for three hours in a defensive stand that would forevermore tag the position as the Bloody lane. The triumphant Federals shot down scores of Alabamians, converting their withdrawal into a rout. (Darrell L. Collins, Major General Robert E. Rodes of the Army of Northern Virginia, 2008 p. 169)

Richardson’s success was visible from army headquarters and, although not a part of his plan, was eagerly welcomed by a commanding general for whom the past few hours had brought nothing but bad news. “By George,” McClellan exclaimed as he watched Richardson seize Bloody lane, “this is a magnificent field, and if we win this fight it will cover all our errors and misfortunes forever!” (Ethan S. Rafuse, McClellan’s War, 2005,  p.320)

In sum…the Federals poured 10,565 fresh troops into the battle and suffered 3,020 casualties (28.6 percent). The Confederates added 6,723 new troops to the fray and lost 2,508 (37.3 percent) of them. (Joseph L. Harsh, Taken At The Flood, 1999, p. 397)

…But most of the fallen men received a rough burial at best. A local man wrote that the surrounding property was “as common for graves as the cornstalks are on a forty acre field”. Seven hundred men killed in or near Bloody Lane were buried on William and Margaret Roulette’s farm. (Kathleen Ernst, Too Afraid To Cry:Marylalnd Civilians in the Antietam Campaign, 1999, p.163)

The bloodstains and bones confronted many residents for years. In the years after the battle it was not uncommon for Sharpsburg or South Mountain residents to unearth human remains while plowing or pulling stones or after a hard rain. (Ibid. p.235)


Production note: I began this project in early August when I removed a tarp from my front lawn that had been there since last summer.  The delightfully bare patch that was revealed below it called out for a special project, one that included toy soldiers.  Over a period of many weeks, with breaks for inclement weather, cloudy days, and other commitments, I daily staged the various phases of the Sunken Road fight.  Using existing narrative by some really outstanding historians I had the captions ready-made,  The hard part was composing this post and keeping the neighbors' curious cats away from the battleground.

I hope you've enjoyed looking in on this post and I also hope that you've gained a little more understanding of the Sunken Road phase of the Battle of Antietam.  To see the real thing come to Antietam National Battlefield in Sharpsburg Maryland.  

I'll see you there!

As always I welcome your comments and questions (and toy soldiers).

Posting again on September 15th.