Facts about Burnside’s Bridge during the Battle Of Antietam of the American Civil War
Location: Antietam Creek near Sharpsburg, Maryland
Dates: September 17, 1862
Generals: Union: Maj. Gen. Ambrose Burnside
Burnside Bridge Summary: Burnside’s Bridge played a vital role in the Battle of Antietam as a greatly outnumbered Confederate force from Georgia held up the Union army for several hours, repealing multiple attempts to take it by force.
Articles Featuring Burnside Bridge From History Net Magazines
Unraveling the Myths of Burnside Bridge
When shrouded in a fog of contemporary sentiment, partisanship and the passage of time, history does not always reveal itself so easily. Out of this haze, historical myths can emerge, often leading to controversy about precisely what happened, why it happened, and what the impact would have been had it happened differently. The Battle of Antietam, fought on September 17, 1862 and considered by some historians as the most important conflict of the Civil War, is a prime example of this phenomenon.
Sites that embody battle-changing moments during that bloody fight dot the battlefield near Sharpsburg, Md.: The Cornfield, Dunker Church, Bloody Lane. None, however, has sparked a more enduring controversy than what we, today, know as Burnside Bridge.
Spanning Antietam Creek on the southern portion of the battlefield, the 12-foot-wide by 125-foot-long granite and limestone structure was known at the time as either the Rohrbach or Lower Bridge. It was here that 400 Georgians held the Union IX Corps at bay for several critical hours—hours that quite possibly altered the outcome of the battle. Having crossed the bridge the IX Corps, after yet another lengthy delay, finally seemed ready to turn the Army of Northern Virginia’s right flank. This effort to get behind Lee’s army and cut off the latter’s line of retreat — a potential death blow — was, however, blunted by the opportune arrival of Maj. Gen. A.P. Hill’s Division from Harper’s Ferry.
Major General Ambrose E. Burnside, in nominal command of the Army of the Potomac’s Right Wing during the battle, was charged with the overall responsibility of the operation. The controversy does not deal as much with Burnside’s lackluster performance that day as it does the time at which he is supposed to have received his orders from the army’s commanding general, Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan, “to carry the bridge, then to gain possession of the heights beyond.”1 In his report dated September 30, 1862, Burnside stated that he received the order to begin his attack at 10 a.m.2 McClellan, in his official report written the following August, was emphatic that he had sent the order to Burnside at 8 a.m.—thereby implying that Burnside should have received it much earlier.3 That critical two-hour time span has been hotly debated ever since.
Some historians maintain that by claiming an order was issued at 8 a.m., McClellan had hoped to add to the five hours it supposedly had taken Burnside to launch his offensive.4 (After finally taking the bridge at about 1 p.m., the IX Corps came to an abrupt halt on the opposite side of the creek and did not begin its attack on “the heights beyond” until 3. The five hours in question are those spanning the period 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.). The theory is that, in doing so, McClellan was attempting to transfer the blame for the failure to defeat the Rebel army that day onto Burnside’s shoulders. Some experts argue that the historical record settles the matter and that the order could not have reached Burnside any earlier than 10 a.m.5 In truth, the record overwhelmingly proves that the order which prompted Burnside to advance reached him closer to 9 a.m.—not 10 a.m., as he stated. Moreover, there is good reason to believe that McClellan’s claim of having issued an 8 a.m. order might not be as far-fetched as some have argued.
The Historical Record
All parties agree on one point at least: At about 7 a.m. on the 17th, Burnside received an order from McClellan to advance the IX Corps to a ridge overlooking Antietam Creek and hold it there in readiness to make the assault.6 Brigadier General Jacob D. Cox, in temporary command of the IX Corps, attended to the disposition of the troops. Having completed these arrangements, Cox joined Burnside on a knoll northeast of the bridge.7 At this point, the accounts begin to differ.
What is known for certain is that Cox and Burnside stood on the knoll together until “an order” to advance arrived.8 In his September 23, 1862 report, Cox writes, “About 9 o’clock the order was received to cross the stream.”9 More than 25 years later, in a Battles and Leaders article, Cox would change his mind, insisting, “Facts within my own recollection strongly sustain the view that the hour was 10 a.m.”10 To help justify this radical modification of the facts, he added: “The judgment of the hour, 9 o’clock…was merely my impression from passing events, for I hastened at once to my own duties without thinking to look at my watch, while the cumulative evidence seems to prove conclusively that the time stated by Burnside, and by McClellan himself in his original report, is correct.”11 Before examining McClellan’s October 15, 1862 preliminary report – in which he, himself, stipulates a 10 a.m. receipt – the cumulative evidence should be considered.
Excluding McClellan’s preliminary and official accounts, there are 31 battle reports in the Official Records discussing the attack on the bridge.12 Of these, however, only seven specify a time at which the IX Corps is supposed to have gone into action. As noted, Burnside wrote “at 10 o’clock” while Cox said “about 9 o’clock.”13 Other IX Corps officers concurred with Cox. Lieutenant Colonel Joseph Gerhardt, commanding the 46th New York Regiment, wrote “at 9 o’clock.”14 Brig. Gen. Edward Ferrero, commanding the 2nd Brigade of the 2nd Division, stated, “at about 9 o’clock.”15
The Confederates across the creek also noted the time. Captain Abner McC. Lewis commanded a company in the 2nd Georgia, one of the regiments from Toombs’ Brigade that defended the bridge, and said the Union attack began “at 9 o’clock.”16 His temporary brigade commander, Colonel Henry L. Benning, placed it, “at about nine o’clock.”17 Brigadier General Robert Toombs, temporarily in command of a division, said, “At between 9 and 10 o’clock.”18 Although Toombs’ reckoning may not be as definitive as the preceding six, one cannot help but notice that he does not say between 10 and 11 o’clock.
Only one of these reports—Burnside’s—points to a 10 o’clock jump-off. All the others fix it at or about 9 a.m. There are no other reports extant in the Official Records that even remotely support Burnside’s claim. If anything there are several that, with some reasoning, help to further establish a 9 a.m. advance.19
It is difficult to understand why Burnside arbitrarily specified 10 a.m. without consulting with Cox, whose report so drastically conflicted with his own. Surely, such a major discrepancy should have warranted some form of discussion between the two commanders.20
Cox eventually became convinced that Burnside “…believed he knew the time at which the order came to him upon the hilltop…[and that] his accuracy in giving the hour was greater than my own.”21 Had Cox carefully sifted through the Official Records, he would have realized that his original report was corroborated by no less than five other reports—Union and Confederate—and refuted by none except Burnside’s. This single aspect should be conclusive in proving that it could not possibly have been 10 a.m. when the IX Corps made its initial advance on the Rohrbach bridge but rather, at closer to 9 a.m.
As for the matter surrounding McClellan’s preliminary report, it was while recounting the battle that he wrote “Burnside’s corps…was entrusted with the difficult task of carrying the bridge…and assaulting the enemy’s right, the order having been communicated [delivered] to him at 10 o’clock a.m.”22 As far as Cox was concerned, “This exact agreement with General Burnside would ordinarily be conclusive in itself.”23
A key question remains, however: Where did McClellan get such a precise notion of an occurrence that had taken place two miles distant from his headquarters? Typically, a commander prepared his own report, particularly a preliminary report, based in large part on those of his subordinates. It would stand to reason that McClellan, while gleaning information from what must have been a multitude of reports, inadvertently accepted Burnside’s incorrectly stated time. How else could he have been privy to such an obscure detail as the time that Burnside received an order? McClellan either completely missed or did not see fit to correct the misinformation.
It is Jacob D. Cox who, in attempting to prove that the order was received at 10:00 a.m., unintentionally provides one of the most compelling pieces of evidence supporting a 9 a.m. movement. This he does in his Battles and Leaders article when he writes, ". . . as the morning wore on we saw lines of troops advancing from our right . . . and engaging the enemy . . . Our long-range guns were immediately turned in that direction . . . One of our shells blew up a caisson close to the Confederate line. This contest was going on . . . when one of McClellan’s staff rode up with an order to Burnside. The latter turned to me, saying we were ordered to make our attack." Cox continues, "If then we can determine whose troops we saw engaged, we shall know something of the time of day . . . The official map settles this. No lines of our troops were engaged in the direction of Bloody Lane [the Sunken Road] and the Roulette farm-house, and between the latter and our station on the hill, till French’s division made its attack . . . The incident of their advance and the explosion of the caisson was illustrated by the pencil of the artist, Forbes, on the spot, and placed by him at the time Franklin’s head of column was approaching from Rohrersville which was about 10 o’clock."24 It would seem that Forbes employed a dash of creative licence in his portrayal of these events and the Official Records bears this out.
The issue surrounding the time at which Franklin’s head of column was approaching is settled later in this article. Suffice it to say that it was in the area of 9 a.m. As for French, his division left the staging area at about 7:30 a.m.25 and formed into line of battle on the west side of the Antietam shortly after 8 a.m.26 According to Colonel Franklin Sawyer, commanding the 8th Ohio (Kimball’s brigade,) his regiment subsequently took position in the Roulette farm/Sunken Road area “where, in connection with the other regiments of your brigade and French’s division, we maintained, from 9 o’clock a.m. until 1 p.m."27
According to Sawyer’s and several other accounts, the action on this front lasted from four to four and a half hours and ended at about 1:00 p.m.28 Elementary arithmetic would therefore dictate that it must have been somewhere in the area of 9:00 a.m. when the opening shots were fired in the Roulette Farm/Bloody Lane area.
Lastly, it was 8:30 a.m. when Isaac P. Richardson’s division (Sumner’s corps) was sent to French’s aid.29 The consensus, among Richardson’s subordinates, is that the division reached French at about 10 a.m.30 By then, French had already been fighting it out for nearly one hour. Based on this and the preceding mound of evidence, it stands to reason that it must have been nearer to 9 a.m. when Cox saw French engage the enemy in the vicinity of the Roulette house. Certainly, it could not have been much past 9:00 a.m., while “this contest was going on,” when “one of McClellan’s staff rode up with an order to Burnside.” How long afterward is impossible to pinpoint but sometime between 9:00 and 9:15 a.m. would, given the evidence, be very reasonable. This time frame would also conform more closely with the oft-stated "about 9 o’clock."31 That there was no delay in commencing the attack following receipt of that order is made clear in Cox’s official report when he writes, “Immediately the Eleventh Connecticut Infantry . . . was detailed from Rodman’s division to deploy as skirmishers and drive the enemy from the head of the bridge.”32
"The story of the 8 o’clock order is an instance of the way in which an erroneous memory is based upon the desire to make the facts accord with a theory," wrote Cox.33 To what extent this may be true, remains to be seen. That Cox suffered from an erroneous memory, however, is certain and once all of "the facts" are considered, it becomes quite evident that they are in overwhelming discordwith his own theory regarding a 10 a.m. receipt.
The 9:10 a.m. Order
Some historians have characterized McClellan’s later allusion to an 8 a.m. order as a coverup or corruption of the facts, basing their charges on what at first glance appears to be a very compelling piece of evidence—a written order to Burnside. Signed by Colonel George D. Ruggles, a McClellan staff member, and dated September 17, 1862, 9:10 a.m., it reads: “General Franklin’s command is within one mile and a half of here. General McClellan desires you to open your attack. As soon as you shall have uncovered the upper [Lower] Stone bridge you will be supported, and, if necessary, on your line of attack. So far all is going well.”34
Some have argued that it is obvious from the content that this was the original order. In reality, the content contains some intriguing discrepancies. As it happens, Ruggles issued yet another order that was date-marked 9:10 a.m. on September 17, 1862. Directed to II Corps commander Edwin Sumner, it reads: “General McClellan desires you to be very careful how you advance, as he fears our right is suffering….P.S. General Mansfield is killed and Hooker wounded in the foot.”35
A comparison of the two orders reveals a striking contradiction with respect to the state of affairs at 9:10 a.m. The army’s situation does not appear to be overly encouraging in the order to Sumner, yet all seems to be going favorably in the order to Burnside. Why would two orders, both issued at the same time, give such conflicting depictions of the circumstances as they existed at the time? In truth, it is the order to Sumner that most accurately describes the situation on the Federal right at 9:10. By then, XII Corps commander Joseph Mansfield was dead and I Corps commander Joseph Hooker had been carried from the field with a debilitating wound. After 3½ hours of fierce and desperate fighting, what was left of Hooker’s command was thoroughly scattered and exhausted; on Hooker’s left, Mansfield’s corps, after suffering nearly 25 percent casualties, had run out of steam.
In his report dated October 7, 1862, Maj. Gen. William B. Franklin, commanding the VI Corps, wrote, “During the night of the 16th I received orders to move toward Keedysville in the morning…I started at 5:30 a.m. General Smith’s division led the column….”36 At the front of Maj. Gen. William F. Smith’s division was Brig. Gen. Winfield Scott Hancock’s 1st Brigade. Hancock stated that his unit “arrived on the battle-ground in front of Keedysville about 9 o’clock a.m.”37 In mentioning “the battle-ground in front of Keedysville,” Hancock was alluding to the staging area in front of McClellan’s headquarters (the Pry house) to which Ruggles, in his order to Burnside, refers to as “here.”
Why, at 9:10 a.m., would Ruggles indicate that “Franklin’s command is within one mile and a half of here” when, by all indications, its leading elements had already arrived?38 The most logical answer to this and the question regarding the conflicting assessments on the state of affairs in Burnside’s and Sumner’s orders is that Ruggles’ directive to Burnside must have been penned prior to 9:10; before the head of Franklin’s column had arrived and before the situation had deteriorated on the Union right flank.
Why, then, would it have been marked “9:10 a.m.”? There are several possible answers, one being that Ruggles erred when he indicated the time, but all including the latter amount to little more than speculation.39 The fact remains that Ruggles’ order to Burnside contains some major irregularities. These, combined with the inordinate amount of time it supposedly took to deliver the “9:10 a.m.” communication (no sound explanation has ever been offered as to why it would have taken 50 minutes) and the numerous accounts confirming an “about 9 a.m.” attack on the bridge, considerably weaken its contextual validity.40
The 8 a.m. Order
Rather than commenting on when the order was received, McClellan’s official report in August 1863 concentrated on the circumstances surrounding its issuance: “At 8 o’clock an order was sent to him [Burnside] by Lieutenant Wilson, to carry the bridge, then to gain possession of the heights beyond, and to advance along their crest upon Sharpsburg and its rear. After some time had elapsed, not hearing from him, I dispatched an aide to ascertain what had been done. The aide returned with the information that but little progress had been made. I then sent him back with an order to General Burnside to assault the bridge at once, and carry it at all hazards….”41 Historians are unanimous in surmising that it was Lieutenant John Moulder Wilson who delivered the initial order to Burnside.
What did Wilson have to say about an 8 a.m. order? Apparently, quite a bit. In Part II of his three-volume work The Story of the Civil War, John C. Ropes makes an intriguing revelation when he writes, “Some say that no order was sent until ten o’clock….The diary of the officer who carried the order, Lieutenant (now Brigadier-General) John M. Wilson, gives the hour as 8 a.m.”42 It is fairly certain that Ropes derived his information from the copy of a November 1894 letter from Wilson to General D.S. Stanley. Wilson responded to Stanley’s inquiry regarding the time at which he was supposed to have carried the initial order by stating, “In my diary now before me, written at the time, I find as follows: ‘At 8 o’clock a.m. I carried an order from Genl. McClellan to Genl. Burnside to charge and take the bridge in front of him and the heights beyond….’”43 Whether Ropes actually set eyes on Wilson’s diary is unknown. Unfortunately, this writer has, thus far, been unable to locate it.
If Wilson’s claim is valid, then a number of questions arise—particularly, why would Burnside not have complied with an 8 a.m. order? In truth, this would not have been the first time the general had failed to carry out orders. Neither would it be the last, as attested to by various officers over the course of the war. General William T. Sherman once complained about having to repeat one particular order to Burnside no less than 15 times—all to no avail.44
It is a commonly known fact that Burnside and McClellan had been at odds since the Battle of South Mountain on September 14. Even as recently as the morning of the 17th, McClellan had officially chastised his longtime friend for his repeated failure to comply with various orders.45 Their relationship became especially strained on the 16th when, out of necessity, McClellan detached Hooker’s I Corps from Burnside’s command, thereby leaving the disgruntled “wing” commander with a single corps. Could an indignant Burnside have purposely ignored an 8 a.m. order out of spite?
As it was, Burnside had shown little initiative in recent days, and would show even less on the morning of the 17th. Supposedly convinced that taking personal charge of his old IX Corps would be tantamount to accepting what he perceived as a slight from McClellan, Burnside insisted that Cox remain in temporary command of the corps. In a display of petulance, he insisted on following McClellan’s orders to the letter, doing nothing more or arbitrarily forwarding them on to Cox. Already uncomfortable in his interim role and having no command latitude, Cox could do little but execute the various orders reaching him from Burnside—or from McClellan via Burnside. Given such a convoluted command structure, it is not surprising that there would have been a lack of coordination or purpose in the attack. To make matters worse, neither Burnside nor Cox ever ordered a proper reconnaissance of the ground, resulting in such blunders as Colonel George Crook’s brigade missing the fight entirely after becoming hopelessly lost in some nearby woods.
It is certain that Burnside’s highly questionable conduct had a considerable impact on matters that morning. The fact that he was capable of such acts, combined with his having lied about the time of the advance, would also give credence to the possibility that he might have ignored an 8 a.m. order. Unlike Cox’s Battles and Leaders article, which was published nearly three years after McClellan’s death, McClellan’s official report was released to the public in 1863, when most of the participants were still alive and able to dispute its contents. Considering the seriousness of McClellan’s insinuation, it is particularly interesting to speculate about why Burnside, who died in 1881, would have stayed mute on the subject of the 8 a.m. order. Cox suggested in a footnote of his article, “He [Burnside] was content to have stated the fact as he knew it, and did not feel the need of debating it.”1
The Chain of Events
Having concluded that the IX Corps did advance at about 9 a.m. and that McClellan probably did issue an 8 a.m. order, the critical question becomes: What significance did this have on the outcome of affairs at Antietam?
Given the evidence, the actual sequence of events likely unfolded as follows: At or about 8 a.m., Lieutenant Wilson gallops off toward Burnside’s headquarters with an initial order to assail the bridge. The order (it is unknown whether it was written or verbal) is passed on to Burnside shortly after 8 a.m.47 For an undetermined reason, however, the wing commander fails to act. As for Cox, indications are that he was still attending to his troop dispositions and was not present to witness Wilson arriving.48
Sometime between 8 and 9 a.m., McClellan sends the unnamed aide out to determine what was happening on the IX Corps’ front. The aide returns with the news that “but little progress had been made.” During this time frame, Cox joins Burnside on the knoll. It is also about then that Lee pulls seven brigades from his relatively quiet right flank and rushes them to his hard-pressed left.49 It is these troops who will later participate in the West Woods debacle in which Brig. Gen. John Sedgwick’s Division of the II Corps is sent reeling.
Shortly before 9 a.m., McClellan sends the same aide—the man whom Cox identified as “one of McClellan’s staff”—with the second order.50 This, the communication that finally prompts Burnside to push the IX Corps forward, is delivered at “about 9 a.m.” It will be another four hours, at 1 p.m., before the bridge is carried, followed by another two before Burnside finally makes a concerted effort to carry the heights beyond the creek.51 In all, seven hours have passed since McClellan issued his controversial 8 a.m. order—seven hours that, in such a desperate affair as the Battle of Antietam, would have seemed like an eternity to those who were depending on the IX Corps to accomplish its mission.
Whether Burnside consumed seven (8 a.m. to 3 p.m.) or six hours (9 a.m. to 3 p.m.) before launching his assault on those strategically important heights, he subsequently sought to subtract substantially from those crucial hours by claiming the initial order was received at 10 a.m. When the time came to tally up, however, no amount of subtraction was going to change the final sum of Burnside’s actions that day. Whether McClellan’s plan called for the IX Corps’ movement to be “a diversion in favor of the main attack,” as McClellan stated in his preliminary report, or one in which the corps was to take on some supporting or tactical role is difficult to discern.52 Whatever McClellan’s plan might have been, Burnside’s machinations ensured its failure.
There are at least two consequences to Burnside’s actions, affecting both his and other Union attacks. At 3 p.m., after flittering away a good portion of those six or seven hours, Burnside finally launched his assault against Lee’s right. By 3:30, it genuinely looked as though the IX Corps was within a hairsbreadth of turning Lee’s flank. By 4:30, however, it was the IX Corps that was in full retreat thanks to Hill’s arrival from Harpers Ferry. Historians have traditionally written this sorry episode off to Burnside’s ineptness. Given a span of 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. that view might, with a generous stretch of the imagination, seem credible. On the other hand, the squandering of six or very possibly seven hours can only be viewed as gross negligence. “If this important movement had been consummated two hours earlier, a position would have been secured upon the heights from which our batteries might have enfiladed the greater part of the enemy’s line, and turned their right and rear,” McClellan wrote in his official report.53 From atop those heights and with the benefit of that two-hour lead time, the IX Corps would have also been in a much better position to repulse Hill’s advance. Clearly Burnside could—or should—have reached those heights two hours earlier. He too would have been aware of this fact–which may explain why he lied about the time of the IX Corps’ advance.
On the basis that McClellan’s and Wilson’s allegations surrounding an 8 a.m. order are factual, then it must be considered what impact a well-coordinated 8 a.m. advance by the IX Corps could have had on other Union efforts that day. With his critical right flank under imminent threat of attack, Lee may well have thought twice about shifting those seven brigades, whose added weight was so pivotal in the West Woods fiasco. Left relatively unhindered, Sedgwick’s division (possibly supported by surrounding or newly arriving elements) might thus have tipped the balance in the northern sector of the battlefield, thereby setting off a domino effect whose momentum Lee might not have been able to stem. This is speculation, to be certain, but it can’t be casually dismissed.
The 10 a.m. Myth
The notion that it was 10 a.m. when the IX Corps finally advanced on Rohrbach Bridge is derived from a myth conceived by none other than Burnside himself. If Burnside planted the seed in this great controversy, however, it is Cox who nurtured it to full blossom in his Battles and Leaders article.54 Today many are steadfastly clinging to the 10 a.m. myth, as evidenced by the popular belief that it required a grossly excessive 50 minutes to deliver Ruggles’ highly enigmatic “9:10” order to Burnside. This, of course, is an outright fallacy, one that endures for no other reason than to make the math agree with Burnside’s 10 a.m. misrepresentation.
Confederate General E. Porter Alexander was not deceived by Burnside’s falsification or by Cox’s rewriting of history. In his memoirs—considered one of the most outstanding and critical reminiscences of the war—Alexander wrote, “In his final report, dated Aug. 4, 1863, McClellan writes that he sent an order to Burnside to carry the bridge in front of him at 8 A.M., but in his preliminary report, Oct. 15, 1862, he says the order was communicated at 10 A.M. Burnside’s report, dated Sept. 30, gives the same hour. Gen. Cox, who had charge of the initial operations, in his report dated, Sept. 23, gives the hour as 9 A.M., and all the circumstantial evidence bears this out as correct.”55 Could Alexander, and so many others who were present during those events, have been wrong? The historical record clearly states…absolutely not!56
Perhaps even more fascinating than the evidence supporting a 9 a.m. advance is Wilson’s disclosure surrounding an 8 a.m. order. Not only does this revelation cast a critical light on the Battle of Antietam but so too does it present some staggering implications, foremost of which being that Burnside might be guilty of considerably more than lying about the time of the IX Corps’ advance.
Certainly George B. McClellan should be apportioned his share of the burden for the failure to destroy the Rebel army at Antietam. By the same token, it would seem that the willing and widespread acceptance of the 10 a.m. theory has unduly added to that degree of responsibility. That Burnside has not been made to shoulder an equitable portion of the burden is certain, and it is William F. Palfrey who sums it up best when he writes, “…it is one of the vexed questions of this battle whether Burnside failed McClellan and virtually lost the battle for him, or rather kept it from being a great victory.”57
In the final analysis, and even after excluding the issue surrounding an 8 a.m. order, it is clear that Burnside’s failures at Antietam cannot be written off to ineptness or petty insubordination. Uncovering precisely what his true motives may have been on the morning and early afternoon of September 17 is a study in itself–one that will require a dramatic departure from preconceived notions, as well as the posing of some difficult questions. To not seek out those answers, however, would be unfair to both the participants of that great conflict and to posterity.
1 OR, XIX/1, p. 63.
2 Ibid., p. 419.
3 Ibid., p. 63.
4 Stephen W. Sears, Landscape Turned Red:The Battle of Antietam, p. 356.
5 This issue has been so controversial as to prompt Sears to dedicate an entire appendix to it in his book, Landscape Turned Red:The Battle of Antietam, pp. 353 – 357.)
6 OR, XIX/1, pp. 419, 424.
7 Cox, Battles and Leaders, II, p. 633.
8 Burnside, OR, XIX/1, p. 419; Cox Battles and Leaders, II, p. 648.
9 OR, XIX/1, p. 424.
10 Battles and Leaders, II, pp. 647 – 648.
11 Ibid., p. 649 (footnote.)
12 UNION: Burnside, Cox, Wilcox, Christ, Welsh, Gerhardt, Cook, Coffin, Benjamin, Sturgis, Nagle, Ferrero, Fairchild, Jardine, Harland, Ward, Curtis, Scammon, Ewing, White, Comly, Hildt, Crook, Jackson (OR, XIX/1, pp. 419, 424, 429, 439, 440, 442, 434, 435, 436, 443, 446, 448, 450, 452, 454, 455, 462, 463, 465, 467, 469, 471, 473, 886, 888.) CONFEDERATE: Jones, Toombs, Benning, McC. Lewis, T.H. Jackson, McGregor, Cumming (OR, LI/1, pp. 162, 165, 166, 167, 168.)
13 OR, XIX/1, p. 419, 424.
14 Ibid., p. 442. Gerhardt’s commander, Col. Thomas Welsh, commanding the Second Brigade (Wilcox’s division,) had reported that his command “. . . left camp on the morning of the 17th of September, 1862, and marched in the direction of the bridge . . . my brigade being held in reserve to the force engaged in storming the bridge . . .. " Ibid., pp. 440, 441. Gerhardt elaborates on Welsh’s report by writing, "In obedience to order of this day . . . the regiment left camp at 9 o’clock.”
15 Ibid., p. 448.
16 OR, LI/1, p. 165.
17 Ibid., p. 162.
18 OR, XIX/1 p. 890.
19 1. Col. Benjamin C. Christ, commanding the First Brigade (Wilcox’s division:) "About 10 o’clock a.m. I was ordered to support some batteries covering our advance near the stone bridge. . .. ibid., p. 438. By the time Christ received these orders, Wilcox, having already received his own orders "from General Burnside in person,” had marched his division – including Christ – out of camp and to the hills overlooking the Antietam where it was being held in reserve. ibid., p. 429. Working these events backwards, it stands to reason that Wilcox’s division would, as already substantiated by Joseph Gerhardt, have stepped off at about nine o’clock.
2. Col. Edward Harland, commanding the Second Brigade, (Rodman’s division:) "About 7 o’clock . . . I moved the brigade into a position to the rear and to the left of the one formerly occupied . . . In this position we remained between one and two hours. Our next movement was a change of front formed on the first battalion . . . Shortly afterward I received orders from General Rodman to move the brigade . . . I then sent out two companies of skirmishers . . . to discover, if possible, a ford by which the creek could be crossed." After carefully following this sequence of events, it becomes fairly clear that the final order to move the brigade reached Harland at about nine o’clock or "shortly afterward." Ibid., p. 452. Harland is likely deriving the "between one and two hours" time-frame from Joseph B. Curtis’s (4th R.I.) and Harrison S. Fairchild’s (89th N.Y.) reports which, in themselves, also help to confirm an "about 9 a.m." advance (ibid, p. 451, 455.)
20 That no exchange took place is borne out by Cox when he writes, "It was not till his [Burnside's] report was published in the Official Records (1887) that I saw it or learned its contents . . .." Military Reminiscences of the Civil War, vol. 1, p. 337. By then, Burnside was dead.
22 OR, XIX/1, p. 31.
23 Battles and Leaders, II, p. 647 (footnote.)
24 Military Reminiscences of the Civil War, vol. 1, pp. 648 – 649.
25 OR, XIX/1, p. 323.
26 Of the eleven reports filed by French’s various brigade and regimental commanders, only four specify a time at which the division crossed the Antietam and formed line of battle:
1. Col. William Harrow, commanding the 14th Indiana (Kimball’s Brigade,) ". . . about 8 o’clock a.m. . . . " (ibid., p. 329.) 2. Col. Joseph Snider, commanding the 7th West Virginia (Kimball’s Brigade.) ". . . at 8 o’clock . . . " (ibid., p. 332.) 3. Lt. Col. V.M. Wilcox, commanding the 132nd Pennsylvania (Kimball’s Brigade,) "We were brought under fire a little before 8 o’clock . . . (ibid., p. 331.) 4. Col. Oliver H. Palmer, commanding the 108th New York (Morris’ Brigade) writes, A. . . my command left camp near Keedysville about 6 o’clock in the morning, and, after marching about two miles . . . formed into line of battle . . . The action commenced about 7:30 o’clock . . . " (ibid., p. 334.)
There is one other report which, if read in conjunction with Palmer’s, helps to confirm a near 8:00 a.m. time. Col. Sanford H. Perkins, commanding the 14th Connecticut (Morris’s Brigade), states that his regiment "broke bivouac at camp near Keedysville, Md . . . and marched about two hours . . . when we formed line of battle . . . " (ibid., p. 333.) If, by Palmer’s account, Morris’s brigade left camp at "about 6 o’clock" and by Perkins’, it formed line of battle "about two hours" later, then it would stand to reason that it must have been somewhere between 7:30 (per Palmer) and shortly past 8:00 a.m. when these events took place. Considering the rest of the evidence, the latter stated time is deemed to be closer to the mark.
27 OR, XIX/1, p. 330. As it turns out, there are two Confederate accounts that go far in substantiating Sawyer’s report: 1. Capt. A. J. Griffith, commanding the Fourteenth North Carolina Infantry (George B. Anderson’s Brigade.) “About 8 o’clock received orders to move by the left flank, passing through a corn-field into an old road . . . The enemy advanced immediately, and a heavy fire opened on both sides.” Ibid., p. 1050. 2. Maj. William W. Sillers, commanding the Thirtieth North Carolina Infantry (George B. Anderson’s Brigade) expands on Griffith’s report somewhat. “Our line was formed in a road which, by the wear of travel, had been let down to the depth of a foot or more into the earth . . . Our position was taken, I suppose, about 8.30 a.m. In the space of half or three-quarters of an hour the enemy made his appearance . . ..” Ibid., p. 1051. Sillers’s and Griffith’s are the only Confederate reports that give any indication of the time at which French’s troops made their appearance.
28 Nathan Kimball (1st Brigade): "For four hours and a half my command was under most galling fire . . .." William Harrow (14th Ind.): "The contest here continued for near four hours . . ." Franklin Sawyer (8th Ohio): ". . . from 9 o’clock a.m. until near 1 p.m. . . ." Vincent M. Wilcox (32nd Pa.:) "We stood up in front of the enemy for nearly four and a half hours . . ." (ibid. p. 327, 329, 330, 331.) These are the only Union reports in which a specific time-span is disclosed. There are a number of other reports (French, Palmer, Morris, Perkins and Zinn) that, with the use of some minor deduction, help to confirm a near four hour interval (ibid., p. 323, 334, 332, 333, 335.) There are absolutely no reports that even hint at anything less than four hours.
29 Edwin V. Sumner, commanding the Left Wing, states that Richardson was released by McClellan about one hour after French stepped off (ibid., p. 275.) Murfin places the time at 8:30 a.m (The Gleam of Bayonets, p. 227,) whereas Sears puts it at 9 a.m. (Landscape Turned Red, p. 218.)
30 Hancock, Caldwell, Brestel, McKeen. OR, XIX/1, p. 277, 284, 289, 292. John M. Priest fixes Richardson’s arrival at about 10 a.m. (Antietam: The Soldier’s Battle, p. 162.) Sears, on the other hand, infers that it was more like 10:30 when Richardson Acame swinging up from the Antietam. (Landscape Turned Red, p. 240.) Based on the supporting evidence, the author considers Priest as being closer to the mark.
31 It is unlikely that it would have been any later than 9:15 and this is somewhat substantiated by the fact none of the relative battle reports makes any reference to "about 9:30 a.m."
32 OR, XIX/1, p.424
33 Battles and Leaders, II, p. 649, footnote.
34 OR, LI/1, p. 844.
35 OR, LI/1, p. 842.
36 OR, XIX/1, p. 376.
37 Ibid., p. 406. After waiting for the rest of the division to come up, Hancock’s brigade resumed its march and eventually reached Sumner at about 10 o’clock, as confirmed by Franklin in his report (ibid., p. 376). Factoring in the time it would have taken for these events to transpire, Hancock’s statement regarding a 9 a.m. arrival at the Pry house staging area is quite credible.
38 According to Henry W. Slocum – commanding Franklin’s trailing division – the last of the Sixth Corps’s troops did not reach the field until noon (ibid, p. 381.) This would negate any possibility that Ruggles may have been alluding to the tail of Franklin’s column.
39 Interestingly, the contents of the document conform quite well with 8:10 a.m. See footnote 47 for another possible explanation.
40 Assuming Ruggles’s 9:10 directive had been delivered at 10 a.m., it follows that it must then have taken the rider a highly exorbitant fifty or so minutes to travel the two mile distance between McClellan’s headquarters and Burnside’s position. Whereas many historians tend to casually dismiss this enigma, James V. Murfin at least makes an attempt at explaining it. In his book The Gleam of Bayonets, Murfin offers the following conjecture: "Considering the time element, the ten o’clock receipt is acceptable. It would hardly have taken a man a full fifty minutes to ride from McClellan to the lower bridge [two miles as the crow flies], but since all orders were first delivered to Burnside and then relayed to Cox, then ten o’clock would be a logical time for final transmittal." What Murfin overlooked was the fact that Cox and Burnside were supposedly standing side by side on the knoll when the order arrived thus negating his theory. James V. Murfin, The Gleam of Bayonets: The Battle of Antietam and Robert E. Lee’s Maryland Campaign, September 1862, p. 270.
41 OR, XIX/1, p. 63. After what must have seemed like an eternity to him, McClellan learned that the bridge was still in enemy hands. In frustration, he now sent Colonel Delos B. Sacket to Burnside with a “positive order . . . to press forward his troops . . . and if necessary to carry the bridge at the point of the bayonet. ”If Sackett is to be believed, he was sent out at "about nine o’clock" (Sackett to McClellan, February 20, 1876. (McClellan’s Own Story, p. 609.) This is highly unlikely. In fact, it was probably closer to 10:00 a.m. when McClellan directed Sackett to deliver his "positive order." This is borne-out by McClellan when he writes, "After these three hours’ delay, the bridge was carried at 1 o’clock." It would be logical to assume that by "these three hours,” McClellan meant the interval between the time Sackett left headquarters (10 a.m.) and 1:00 p.m. when the bridge was finally taken. OR, XIX/1, p. 63.
42 Ropes, The Story of the Civil War, Part II, p. 372, footnote 1.
43 John C. Ropes Papers, Boston University Library. Some will argue that, as a member of McClellan’s loyal staff, Wilson fabricated the story for the sole purpose of rallying around his old commander. As in the case of beauty, historical interpretation is in the eye of the beholder and this writer has chosen to give the document a certain degree of credibility. By 1894, Wilson had risen to the rank of Brigadier General and was highly respected in both the army and in Washington circles. What is particularly difficult to fathom is why a man of such esteem would have risked his reputation by making such false claims, particularly in a private letter written over nine years after McClellan’s death. However much credibility may be assigned to the Wilson document, the author recognises that, without supporting or corroborating evidence such as the actual diary, there must still remain a degree of doubt.
44 Sherman, Memoirs, p. 355. Another incident involved Winfield Scott Hancock. On the evening of May 6, 1864, Ulysses S. Grant called for an attack to take place along his entire line at 4:30 a.m. the next morning. Throughout the night, his commanders made preparations for the planned attack. All except Burnside, who as it developed, “could not get up in time.” Having got his own troops into position at the designated time, Winfield Scott Hancock was soon “driving” the enemy. When informed that Burnside was still not fully deployed, Hancock’s exhilaration turned to ire, causing him to complain, “just what I expected. If he could attack now, we would smash A.P. Hill all to pieces!” Meade’s Headquarters 1863 – 1865: Letters of Colonel Theordore Lyman From the Wilderness to Appomattox, p. 93 – 94.
45 OR, XIX/2, p. 308.
46 Battles and Leaders, II, p. 647, footnote.
47 In what form this or any other order was transmitted (written or verbal) is unknown and neither Burnside, Cox nor McClellan makes any distinction between a written or verbal nature when referring to the various communications that were being transmitted or received that morning. As already surmised, Ruggles may have mistakenly written “9:10”, having possibly meant to indicate 8:10 but there are other possible explanations. Sears makes an interesting observation: “Rather than writing out orders and messages himself, in these actions McClellan seems to have communicated almost entirely through oral commands and directions to his aides.” (The Civil War Papers of George B. McClellan, p. 434.) Indeed, it would stand to reason that, in the heat of battle, McClellan would have issued his initial order to Burnside orally rather than wasting precious time waiting for a written communication to be drawn up. It is also conceivable that the Ruggles directive may actually have been a confirmation to that verbal order. “Following Napoleonic practice, the giving of orders was intended to be verbal in the first instance and then confirmed in writing.” (Paddy Griffith, Battle Tactics of the Civil War, p. 55.) Then again, having issued a verbal 8 a.m. order and subsequently learning “that but little progress had been made,” McClellan may simply have been hoping to stir Burnside into action by formalizing matters with a written communication. Having possibly drafted the order shortly after Wilson rode off, Ruggles may have held on to it and not affixed the time (9:10 a.m.) until just prior to its being handed to one of those many couriers who rode out to Burnside that morning. Although still speculative, this would help explain the variance between the time-date and the document’s contents. In truth, Ruggles’s order was found in McClellan’s papers following his death and only then was it finally published in a supplemental volume of the Official Records. Many have accused McClellan of purposely withholding the document from the public being that it supposedly contradicted his claim to an 8 a.m. order. Perhaps aware of the order’s true origins (i.e. a confirmation to a verbal order,) McClellan may not have given it a second thought. It must also be wondered why a man would retain a document he knew to be harmful to his reputation. Finally, if the Ruggles document did serve as the initial instruction then why did Burnside not produce his copy in response to McClellan’s allegation surrounding an 8 a.m. order?
48 By the time Cox completed his arrangements and returned to Burnside’s field position, Benjamin’s and Durell’s batteries were in the midst of an artillery duel with Eubank’s Confederate guns. Only one report, Henry L. Bennings’, specifically states the time at which this artillery exchange commenced. Bennings, commanding Toombs’s brigade on the opposite side of the bridge, puts it at "8 o’clock" (OR, LI/1 p. 162.) Based on this and Cox’s own admission that the bombardment was already under way when he returned, it would have to have been sometime after 8 a.m. when he rejoined Burnside, Wilson having come and gone by then. (Battles and Leaders, II, p. 633.
49 Comprised of McLaws’s and John Walker’s divisions as well as Tige Anderson’s brigade (Jones.)
50 Neither Cox nor Burnside ever specified the name of the staff officer who rode up with the order.
51 It was McClellan’s original intention to support Burnside on the right as soon as the Ninth Corps had crossed the stream. The Young Napoleon had made these plans early that morning and would have done so on the assumption that the bridge would be taken much sooner than it was. Never could he have imagined that it would be 3 p.m. before the attack on Lee’s right was finally inaugurated. By then at least three Union Corps were in shambles and the battlefield was a scene of carnage unmatched by any throughout the entire Civil War. Lee had managed to fend off every blow McClellan had thrown at him and this he did by drawing from a seemingly inexhaustible source of men. With Baltimore or Washington in the balance and the fate of the nation virtually in his hands McClellan now opted to hold on to what was left of his as-yet unengaged troops.
52 There is some confusion surrounding the precise nature of McClellan’s plan that day. In his preliminary report he states, “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 center with any reserve I might then have on hand. OR, XIX/1, p. 30. It is in his official report that McClellan clouds the issue when he writes, “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 Sharps-burg, 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 center with all the forces then disposable. (ibid., p. 55) Later he adds, “The attack on the right was to have been supported by an attack on the left.” Ibid, p. 63.
54 It was not long before Cox’s influence on history began to manifest itself as evidenced in Ezra A. Carman’s manuscript writings – an invaluable source of information for any historian preparing to write on the Battle of Antietam. It is clear that Carman, a participant during the battle and one of its foremost experts drew almost entirely, if not verbatim, from Cox’s article for his own description of the time and circumstances under which the order to attack was received by Burnside. However expert he may have been, Carman was not infallible and passed on by future chroniclers, Cox’s distortion has persisted. See chapter 21 of Carman’s manuscript for his depiction of the Battle of Antietam.
55 E.P. Alexander, Military Memoirs of a Confederate, p. 265. Others, including noted Antietam chronicler Colonel William F. Palfrey, share in Alexander’s conclusion. Palfrey writes, “There is excellent reason for believing that this order, whenever issued, did not reach Burnside till about nine. William F.Palfrey, The Antietam and Fredericksburg, p. 111.
56 It should not be surprising that the bulk of the material comprising the historical record has, in this instance, been derived from the Official Records. In the truest sense, those 127 volumes represent the collective memory of the men who fought at such places as Bull Run, Shiloh and Antietam. Embodied within the OR’s pages are the primary accounts of those events, written shortly after they took place; when recollections were fresh and not faded by time. This is not to say that the Official Records do not contain inaccuracies. In truth, they are laden with errors or misrepresentations and of these the historian must be ever watchful. But when so many of the participants agree on a single detail – such as the time at which the Ninth Corps advanced on Rohrbach Bridge – logic would dictate that this must be true. The same must be said regarding the times at which French’s, Sumner’s, Richardson’s and Franklin’s Corps are supposed to have made their respective movements. What is difficult to understand is how, considering the overwhelming amount of primary source evidence, some historians will still differ from those consistently stated times by as much as one hour when describing these events.
57 Ibid., p. 107.
Confederate soldiers under the command of Gen. Robert E. Lee camp on the outskirts of Hagerstown, Maryland, in September of 1862. Image courtesy of Weider History Group archive.
War seemed far away to the editors of a Maryland weekly newspaper–until …
Taking of Burnside Bridge
By John M. Priest
While Union commander George McClellan fumed and the Battle of Antietam hung in the balance, a handful of Rebels held off Federal troops at "Burnside Bridge."
The day–September 17, 1862–promised to be …