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America's Civil War: Savage Skirmish Near Sharpsburg

Originally published by America's Civil War magazine. Published Online: June 12, 2006 
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After the Battle of South Mountain, Maryland, on September 14, 1862, the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia retired to the hills overlooking Antietam Creek. There, with his back to the Potomac River, Robert E. Lee planned to gather his widely scattered divisions and strike back at Major General George B. McClellan's Army of the Potomac. Lee had originally planned to push his invasion farther into Northern territory, but the inexplicable loss of his battle plan, contained in Order 191, had forced him to cut short his campaign. Yet Lee still remained optimistic. He had full confidence in his men and officers. He wanted one more chance to bring his combined army together and make another stand on Maryland soil, convinced that such a blow would inspire the South, demoralize the North and bring vacillating Europeans into the Confederate camp. Lee waited for McClellan to make the next move.

McClellan, in his usual methodical manner, pursued his nemesis at a respectful distance. He felt leery about pushing Lee too hard and constantly demanded more reinforcements from Washington. Through faulty intelligence and his own misjudgment, McClellan believed that Lee's army outnumbered his own, when in actuality McClellan outnumbered Lee almost 2-to-1. Only when McClellan felt he had a proper reserve force would he consider bringing on another general engagement with the ever dangerous Lee.

It was not until two days after the Battle of South Mountain that McClellan again felt confident enough to take on Lee. He blamed the long delay on the fog and his own uncertainty concerning the enemy's strength. After extensive personal reconnaissance of Lee's 4-mile-long defensive line west of Antietam Creek during the morning and early afternoon of the 16th, McClellan finally decided to throw the weight of his army across the creek to the north of Lee's position and strike the Confederate left flank.

At roughly 2 p.m. on September 16, McClellan ordered Maj. Gen. Joseph 'Fighting Joe' Hooker to cross the creek with his I Corps 'to attack and, if possible, turn the enemy's left flank.' Their objective was to gain the divide between the Potomac River and Antietam Creek. Once there, they were to incline to the left, following the high ground, and anchor themselves on the left flank of the Rebel army.

I Corps had been encamped between the forks of Big and Little Antietam creeks since the night of the 15th, and the veteran troops had been marching and fighting since the start of the Peninsula campaign five months earlier. On the morning of the 16th, they received their daily ration of sugar, coffee and a few pieces of hardtack and spent the day lounging in the vicinity of the Corse house and Pry mill. For hundreds of soldiers in the I Corps, those would be the last rations they would receive.

At approximately 4 p.m., Hooker finally began to move his corps across the Hitt Bridge, known to the soldiers as the Upper Bridge, over Antietam Creek. The divisions of Brig. Gen. George G. Meade and James B. Ricketts crossed over the stone bridge while Brig. Gen. Abner Doubleday's division crossed downstream at the nearby Pry mill ford.

As soon as the I Corps got underway, Hooker rode back to the Pry house, where McClellan had established his headquarters, to obtain further orders. The prominent house provided a tremendous view overlooking the creek and the distant fields beyond the opposite bank. While there, Hooker was informed by McClellan that he was at liberty to call upon reinforcements if he should need them, and that upon their arrival they would be placed under Hooker's direct command. With this promise in mind, Hooker returned to his marching troops.

At the bridge the Federal vanguard, consisting of Meade's division, had crossed to the west bank and proceeded for roughly a mile down the Williamsport Road. There, the troops turned off the road and moved cross-country through fields and wood lots to their left; the direction of the march was perpendicular to the creek. Their objective was to find the Hagerstown Pike and the Confederate left flank. Soon after filing off the road, the 3rd Pennsylvania Cavalry, a headquarters detachment screening in advance, reported having been fired upon by Rebel pickets.

The 3rd Pennsylvania, with Hooker at the head, had crossed earlier at the ford in advance of the infantry column. Upon reaching the opposite bank, a squadron consisting of Companies C and I was ordered directly west to determine the enemy's position. Guided by a local farmer, the squadron, under the command of Captain Edward S. Jones, began moving down the M. Miller farm lane in columns of two. Since the afternoon had already passed and the sun was quickly setting, Hooker called out after Jones: 'Double up those dragoons! There's a damned sight to do, and damned little time to do it in!'

Jones' squadron had not gone far before it saw Confederate videttes rapidly withdrawing to the rear. As soon as Jones saw the Rebels disappear into the East Woods, he halted his advance. He fully appreciated the need for coordination and wanted the column on his right to get into position before bringing on an engagement. Jones' troopers, standing mounted in the open, soon became conspicuous targets for enemy sharpshooters hiding in the East Woods. An annoyed Sergeant Thompson Miller ordered Private John McCoubrie, a noted regimental marksman, to dismount and try to pick off the troublesome sharpshooters. Four other men also dismounted, and when a particularly pesky Confederate stepped out from behind a tree for another shot, the Federals unleashed a volley and cut him down.

Hooker, accompanied by his staff, soon approached the halted squadron and after a few minutes gave the order to resume the advance. The troopers spurred their horses and charged at a gallop, driving the Rebel pickets deeper into the East Woods. The Federals dashed after the fleeing Rebels until they suddenly came face to face with an enemy battery that cut loose a load of canister at a range of only 30 feet. Miraculously, not a single man was hurt, and only one horse was wounded. Finding the woods full of Confederates and the recently acquired position unsuitable for cavalry, the troopers rapidly fell back to safety.

The Confederates had not remained idle while the Federals began their flanking movement. Major General J.E.B. Stuart's cavalry had been stationed on the army's far left to watch for Federal activity. Confederate videttes posted near the Hitt Bridge had instantly spotted the crossing and reported it to General Lee. Lee had immediately responded by ordering Maj. Gen. John Bell Hood to move his division to the left and meet the newly perceived threat.

Hood's division, consisting of two bri-gades, had been resting in the fields near Dunker church when the order was given to fall in. They immediately advanced to their left and formed a line. The division's left rested on the Hagerstown Pike and extended east along the south edge of D.R. Miller's cornfield for a few hundred yards into a wood lot, which later became known as the East Woods. Hood wrote of his men, 'They were in high spirits and defiant, even after great fatigue and hunger.' Like Hooker's I Corps, the troops had been almost constantly on the move since June. The division was sorely in need of shoes, clothing and food; they had been issued no meat for several days and little or no bread. Instead, these battle-hardened veterans had been forced to subsist on green corn and green apples since nearly the beginning of the campaign.

While Hood's division was advancing to its new position, the men suddenly found themselves exposed to Federal artillery. The 20-pounder Parrott guns began firing across the creek from a ridge next to the Pry house. The heavy, long-range fire was only slightly effective, but it was terrifying. Lieutenant Colonel P.A. Work of the 1st Texas remembered: 'The enemies' shells passed over and above us from 20 to 50 feet. The lighted fuses as plainly visible as the glow worm's light.' A private and a lieutenant in the 4th Texas were severely wounded by the fire. Colonel W.T. Wofford, commanding the famed Texas Brigade, wrote: 'We formed a line of battle and moved up to a corn-field in our front and awaited the advance of the enemy. Who had by this time opened on us a brisk fire of shot and shell from some pieces of artillery which…wounded one officer and some dozen men.'

One 1st Texas sergeant recalled an incident that occurred while his regiment was going into line: 'Jeff Bowman stole away from the company and secreted himself in the upper story of a building near where the Yanks were crossing the creek and at about one hundred and fifty yards from them. From a window in the house he could see them distinctly and could not resist the temptation to shoot. He fired about sixty shots at them before they located him and dislodged him. They trained a piece of artillery on the house and when the first shot passed through it Jeff'skeddadled' back to camp. It is highly probable that Jeff did effective work in that little battle staged all by himself.'

Around the time the Federals were in transit across the creek, the 4th Texas Infantry, commanded by Captain W.H. Martin, was ordered forward as skirmishers for the brigade. The Texans advanced nearly a half mile to the front of the Confederate line. There they took up an excellent position along the fence line on the northeastern face of the East Woods. To their front was a clear field of fire. From there they would await the menacing enemy advance.

The remainder of the 3rd Pennsylvania Cavalry, minus Jones' squadron, had remained in front of the infantry column marching up the Williamsport Road. Upon reaching the Smoketown Road, the cavalry turned off, heading to the south. As soon as the Federals had turned off the Williamsport Road, Hooker personally directed the 13th Pennsylvania Reserve Infantry to advance as skirmishers to a section of woods that lay to the left of the division front.

The regiment was led by Colonel Hugh W. McNeil, a capable volunteer officer with three fights under his belt. McNeil, who was dismounted, walked over to Lieutenant William E. Miller, commanding Company H of the 3rd Pennsylvania Cavalry, and asked him where he was going. Miller replied that he had been ordered to find the enemy. McNeil asked if he would like some company.

The 13th Pennsylvania was not chosen simply by chance. Most of the regiment's members had been lumberjacks when the war started. They were nearly all over 6 feet tall and, being backwoodsmen, were considered better than average marksmen. The regiment was also distinctive for two other reasons. First, it was the original 'Bucktail Regiment' of the 1st Pennsylvania Rifles. They were also nicknamed the 'Wildcats' for their tenacity in battle. Second, the regiment was armed with Sharps breechloading rifles. Hooker had complete confidence in their reputation and fighting ability, and for this reason he gave them the honor of leading his corps in battle.

The skirmish line was a familiar position for the Bucktails, who had performed this perilous duty on several previous battlefields. They deployed behind the cover of a thin woods in the steadily increasing darkness. If a fight was to take place, it would have to be soon. The 13th would begin its advance with 237 men.

Eight companies of the 3rd Pennsylvania Reserve Infantry were also deployed as skirmishers and sent toward the stand of woods (the North Woods) on the division right. The main column remained massed in battalions in the division front, ready to resist the Confederate cavalry that was still visible on the flank and in front of the command.

During the Federal deployment, Rebel artillery had begun firing. Augustus T. Cross, an officer serving on the staff of Brig. Gen. Truman Seymour in Meade's division, was killed by the fire. Federal artillery was ordered over the open ground in front of the massed division and positioned on a high ridge. The Union gunners immediately began to reply to the enemy artillery and attempted to suppress its unrelenting fire.

After their initial deployment, the four Bucktail companies began advancing to the southwest. Two companies were sent out on each side of the Smoketown Road while a cavalry screen remained in advance of the infantry skirmishers. The other six Bucktail companies remained in reserve and followed within supporting distance.

The skirmishers proceeded steadily but cautiously for roughly three-quarters of a mile before they met the Confederate skirmish line. Everything had remained relatively quiet until the Federals reached the Line farm lane. From there they could see the Confederates far to their front, positioned behind a fence in front of the East Woods. In front of the Rebels was a plowed field with only shallow furrows to provide cover. The main body of Confederates had remained in the cornfield and were presently masked from Union view by the trees. Around 6 p.m., the Federals made their first contact with the Confederate pickets.

As soon as the Federals came into the Confederates' range, the Southerners opened a raking fire, which the Bucktails promptly returned. The reserve companies were immediately called up to add their weight to the attack, and an extended line of battle was formed. The cavalry screen immediately fell back under the intense fire and allowed the infantry to take up the fight. Two Confederate batteries entered the rapidly growing fray. One, posted on the left of the Bucktails, began firing shot and shell. The other, stationed on their right, fired canister. For those caught in the skirmish, there was nothing gradual about the clash. The Bucktails' regimental historian wrote, 'Its momentum was more sudden and vicious than anything they had seen before.'

The Bucktails, stuck in an exposed position, instantly began catching the withering fire coming out of the woods. They stood resolutely under the hail of destruction for nearly 15 minutes, the fire never slackening. Then Colonel McNeil gave the ominous order to charge and drive the enemy from the woods. McNeil gallantly placed himself at the front and center of the regiment and led them across the plowed field. With no cover to protect them, the men advanced in full view of both forces, Confederate fire creating gaps at every step.

The gallant Bucktails advanced to within 75 yards of their goal before throwing themselves to the ground. The Rebel fire had become so murderous that the regiment could no longer advance in textbook fashion. Had the regiment been armed with conventional muzzleloaders, all hope would have been lost. Instead, the men were fortunate enough to have the option of lying flat on their stomachs to fire and reload their breechloaders. They would only have to rise off the ground to return fire. In this manner, the Bucktails managed to reply with a steady rate of fire that assured their survival.

In spurts, the Pennsylvanians began to rise and advance a few furrows at a time, only to drop back down to the earth. Soon the Bucktails were only a few rods from the Confederate-held fence line. A few paces from the woods, Colonel McNeil sprang up, crying, 'Forward, Bucktails, forward!' As he spoke, he was hit by a Minié bullet in the chest and instantly fell dead. A mad fury seemed to grip the Bucktails at the sight of their fallen colonel, and they rose up en masse, although greatly outnumbered, and drove the Rebels from the fence line. From tree to tree in the smoky woods, the men battled like furies, driving before them the traitors who had killed their beloved colonel. Along with the loss of McNeil, the regiment lost 29 killed and 65 wounded during the charge.

The men in the 4th Texas stationed behind the fence recalled the scene much differently. They remembered that after becoming hotly engaged with the Bucktails, they had firmly held their ground without giving an inch. It was not until they had expended all their cartridges that they reluctantly fell back 900 yards into the cornfield. Either way, the woods were now at least temporarily under Federal control.

Just as the 4th Texas was leaving the woods, the 5th Texas, commanded by Captain Ike Turner, which had originally been stationed on the right of the brigade, was ordered to advance to the 4th's relief. The 4th, as it fell back, passed to the right of the 5th and formed on its flank. Quickly the troops charged into the woods and ran right into the advancing Bucktails. Turner gave the order to commence firing, and a volley poured forth from the Confederate muskets. The Southerners managed to stop the Federal advance and force it back to the eastern edge of the trees. The Texans lost only one man in the process. Again the Confederates had gained a temporary hold on the woods, as more Federals moved up to support the Bucktails. Not until 8 p.m. was the Texas Brigade forced to retire, having expended most of its cartridges.

The 18th Georgia, commanded by Lt. Col. S.Z. Ruff, had advanced to the left of the 5th Texas. Through the cornfield and into the East Woods the soldiers steadily tromped, their advance helping to drive Seymour's Federals through the trees. In the process, they captured some members of the 1st and 3rd Pennsylvania reserves. Among the prisoners were some unfortunate drummer boys whose drums were happily confiscated by Rebel musicians, who had lost their own drums at Manassas.

As darkness descended upon the field, Colonel Evander M. Law's brigade, which consisted of the 4th Alabama, 2nd Mississippi, 11th Mississippi and 6th North Carolina, had also advanced from the fields in front of Dunker church to positions south of the East Woods on either side of the Smoketown Road. From there they supported the skirmish line of Wofford's brigade. During this advance, Colonel Phillip F. Liddell of the 11th Mississippi infantry was mortally wounded. Lieutenant General James Longstreet would later describe Liddell as 'an officer of great merit, modesty, and promise.' Near Law's brigade, Confederate artillery added their weight by shelling the Federal positions north and east of the East Woods.

In the Federal rear, Seymour, seeing that his skirmishers had seized the fence line and disappeared into the woods beyond, ordered forward the rest of his brigade. The men in the 1st, 2nd, 5th and 6th Pennsylvania reserves 'moved promptly and with great spirit.' They passed the Bucktails' chaplain, W.H.D. Hatton, who had stayed behind with Colonel McNeil's body and covered it with a blanket. The chaplain had also been left to watch over three captured Confederate soldiers. He would remain there, performing his solemn duty, until the next morning.

Seymour's troops were soon closely engaged with the Texas Brigade and with the Rebel artillery positioned in the cornfield beyond the woods. Their timely arrival, however, assured a lasting Federal foothold in the woods.

To the right of Seymour, Meade's two other brigades, commanded by Colonel Albert Magilton and Lt. Col. Robert Anderson, formed into battle line. Meade then ordered them forward into the woods to support the embattled Seymour. Captain Dunbar Ransom's 5th U.S. Artillery Battery was moved to the front of the infantry at the western edge of the woods.

From there the gunners opened a destructive enfilading fire on the Confederate batteries and infantry that had remained in the cornfield. This fire quickly forced the Southern batteries to switch positions to meet the new and unexpected threat. From their new positions, the Confederate gunners commenced to shell the woods and the ridge the Yankee artillery occupied behind it.

Captain William Poague's Rockbridge Artillery battery was one of the recipients of the unwelcome Federal fire. It had been positioned earlier in the day by Maj. Gen. Thomas J. 'Stonewall' Jackson himself and was now located on the extreme left of the Confederate line, west of the Hagerstown Pike on a knoll in front of Brig. Gen. David Jones' division. Poague's artillerymen had barely unlimbered their three guns, two 10-pounder Parrotts and one bronze Napoleon, when they were ordered to silence an enemy battery that was firing at them from roughly 600 yards to the north. They began exchanging shots with Federal artillery in positions south and southwest of Miller's farm. Poague recalled: 'He could not get our range somehow, and overshot us. His shells were easily traced by the burning fuses from the time they left the mouth of the guns.' He claimed to have silenced the Federal battery after 20 minutes of spirited firing.

Wofford, commanding the Texas Brigade, did not feel as sanguine about his artillery support. 'I feel it due to truth to state that the enemy were informed of our position by the firing of a half dozen shots from a little battery of ours on the left of the brigade, which hastily beat a retreat as soon as their guns opened upon us,' he later reported.

During the cannonade, Poague's battery received a couple of unexpected visitors. The first, a newly commissioned young lieutenant, spurred his horse around among the guns, calling out, 'Let 'em have it!' A few minutes later another visitor to the battery brought a few chuckles. 'A man of unusual large size, with sword dangling at his side, came bounding from our right at a full run,' Poague noted. 'A large log a few steps in our rear was his goal as a place of safety, and over it he leaped and was instantly concealed behind it. He had scant time to adjust himself before the log was struck a crashing blow by a single solid shot. He reappeared as part of the upheaval; but, regaining his feet, broke for the woods with the speed of a quarterhorse, and with a greater confidence in distance than in logs.'

To the south, near Dunker church, Confederate artillery commander Colonel J.B. Walton ordered Captain John Reilly's battery to participate in the shelling of the woods. Reilly fired until his rifled ammunition was exhausted. Since he could only fire into and over the East Woods, his shots had no perceptible results. As a result of the fire, Reilly's men drew heavy Federal fire upon themselves. For the Confederate gunners in Captain W.R. Bachman's battery nearby, it was an extremely frustrating situation because they had orders not to return fire. The Federal artillery was also busy shelling the artillery south of the East Woods and soon forced those Rebel batteries to retire to a safer locale.

During the firing, Hooker could be seen everywhere along the front lines and was busy posting artillery and supervising the movements of his infantry. His habit of being close to the firing line would cost him the next day.

The I Corps itself had not advanced very far before McClellan and his staff, hearing the crescendo of battle, joined Hooker west of Antietam Creek. McClellan wanted to see firsthand how the advance was progressing. Hooker told McClellan his corps was small, only 12,000 men, and if McClellan intended to have him attack the whole Rebel army, he would need immediate reinforcements. Hooker concluded by stating that if such reinforcements were not forwarded promptly, or if another attack was not made on the enemy's right, the Rebels would eat him up.

Luckily for all those involved, the sun had already set and darkness had covered the battlefield. At 9 p.m. a light rain began to drizzle down, soaking the exhausted men on both sides. The firing, which had risen so quickly, just as quickly withered away. Hooker would have to wait for morning to renew the fighting–the pitch-black night gave him no other choice. The general was heard to mutter, 'If they had let us start earlier, we might have finished tonight.'

The stillness was broken only by desultory small-arms fire and an occasional artillery round. The two forces were ordered to sleep on their arms, within a few yards of each other. Seymour informed Hooker that his men 'were sleeping feet to feet with the Rebels.' Sporadic firing continued in the darkness, but the main fighting for the day was over.

Not until midnight did Hooker get the reinforcements he had been promised earlier in the day. Major General Joseph Mansfield, commanding the Federal XII Corps, arrived over the same ford and bridge that Hooker had crossed eight hours earlier. Mansfield bivouacked a mile to the rear of Hooker's command on the farm of Joseph Poffenberger. There was no doubt that the fighting would resume as soon as it became light enough to distinguish friend from foe.

Most of the men realized they would not be issued any food that night and would be lucky if they could grab a few hours of rest. Only darkness separated them from another day of fierce fighting. Throughout the night, nervous pickets maintained an unusually sharp fight in the tension-filled darkness, as both sides realized the magnitude of what the morrow held in store. The picket fire on Seymour's front became so intense that Hooker himself rode out from his headquarters in the Miller barn to check the reason for the clatter. Only the dead were allowed any rest that night.

The casualties inflicted during the brief skirmish were never reported by either side. So many field officers in Hood's division were wiped out by the fighting on the 17th that few reports were ever made. Most officers who survived both days' engagements lumped the battle casualties together. The count was close to 100 on each side.

But casualties alone do not make a battle significant. Longstreet wrote, 'The sharp skirmish that ensued was one of the marked preliminaries of the great battle, but the Federals gained nothing by it except an advanced position which was of little benefit and disclosed their purpose.' There is the key–McClellan had tipped his hand as to his intentions and thrown away any chance of surprise. Because of that premature disclosure, Lee felt confident enough to shift the majority of Jackson's command and some of Longstreet's to the north end of his line. When Hooker attacked more aggressively on the morning of the 17th, he met not an exposed Confederate flank but a glistening array of bayonets and stacked artillery. Instead of driving Lee into the Potomac as McClellan had planned, the day would end in a bloody stalemate. The skirmish deemed too unimportant to mention in official reports had, ironically, assured that the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia would survive to fight another day.



This article was written by Scott Hosier and published in the September 1998 issue of America's Civil War magazine.

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