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 long and hot, and the regimental commanders in Brigadier General Samuel Sturgis’ division of the Union Army of the Potomac, now tramping along the Porterstown Road southeast of Sharpsburg, Maryland, ordered their men out of line by squads to fill their canteens from nearby wells.
Hundreds of thirsty, dry-mouthed men broke ranks and streamed like blue-jacketed cockroaches toward the wells. The rapid exodus quickly attracted the malign attention of Confederate batteries several hundred yards away, on the western bank of Antietam Creek. The Rebel gunners’ aim, though largely inaccurate due to the extreme range, put the division’s ambulance train to flight, but did not discourage the parched infantrymen from their much-needed water details.
Two privates from the 9th New Hampshire Regiment almost “bought the farm” in a small orchard near the ambulance park when an incoming shell burst directly in front of them. The projectile hurtled over their heads with a horrendous scream and splintered surrounding apple trees. Hard green apples pelted the men like hail, forcing them to dive for cover. Crawling from beneath their blanket of apples, the two men limped after their water, filled their canteens and returned, bruised but successful, to their admiring regiment.
Across Porterstown Road, directly opposite the 9th New Hampshire, the untried soldiers in the 35th Massachusetts Regiment almost joined the dash for water too late. Their runners, loaded down with canteens, finally returned to the regiment slightly before 10 a.m. The sweating men received the warm, muddy water as if it were priceless. They were lucky to have it–the ravening hordes of their fellow soldiers had nearly emptied the wells.
The men in Sturgis’ division were luckier by far than many of the roughly 100,000 Union and Confederate soldiers already scattered about the sunken roads, orchards and cornfields that ringed the Maryland-Virginia border town of Sharpsburg. The entire IX Corps, of which Sturgis’ division was a part, had been lurching about since daylight on the eastern side of Antietam Creek, but had taken few casualties from the Confederate batteries in the vicinity of Boonsboro Pike–most of the Rebel projectiles had turned out to be duds. Indeed, the monotonous whizzing of the shells had lulled some of the men to sleep.
A little over a mile to the north, above Sharpsburg, it was a far different story. Major General George B. McClellan’s Union army had been attacking General Robert E. Lee’s outnumbered Confederates for four hours, slashing through woods and cornfields toward the Rebel position on the high ground near a small German Baptist meetinghouse, the Dunker church. Fighting had been horrific–whole rows of opposing soldiers scythed down like new-mown wheat–but nothing had been settled. The fate of Lee’s ambitious invasion of Maryland, and perhaps of the Union itself, remained very much in the balance.
Lee had invaded western Maryland two weeks earlier, intent on relieving the Union pressure on Virginia, particularly during the crucial harvest season. He envisioned thousands of fresh Confederate recruits rushing to his banner from “occupied” Maryland, which, though officially neutral, had widespread Southern sympathies. A dramatic battlefield victory on Northern soil might also force European recognition of the Confederacy.
Audaciously, Lee divided his army, sending Maj. Gen. Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson southeast to converge on Harpers Ferry, while Maj. Gen. James Longstreet moved north toward Hagerstown. The chance discovery of a copy of Lee’s orders gave McClellan the opportunity to destroy the Rebel army while it was dangerously divided, but the overly cautious “Little Mac” delayed long enough for the Confederates to make a stand at South Mountain on September 14, salvaging their supply trains and giving Lee time to plan his next move.
Lee gathered his two wings together on the outskirts of Sharpsburg, along Antietam Creek. There he determined to fight it out, depending on McClellan’s inherent timidity to compensate for the nearly 2-to-1 advantage the Union commander had in troops. The Battle of Antietam had opened at dawn on the 17th.
At 10 a.m., Maj. Gen. Ambrose Burnside, commanding McClellan’s left wing, received the order to assault Lee’s right. The movement would necessitate taking the 125-foot-long Rohrbach Bridge, a triple-arched stone span crossing Antietam Creek between two steep banks. Within an hour, 350 Georgians, under the command of Colonel Henry L. “Old Rock” Benning, repelled two assaults by Brig. Gen. James Nagle’s brigade to storm the bridge.
While Nagle made his second futile charge against the entrenched Confederates on the west bank of the creek, Sturgis placed Brig. Gen. Edward Ferrero’s brigade along the creek bank south of the bridge. Three times, Sturgis ordered the former New York City dance instructor to take the bridge along Nagle’s line of approach.
Ferrero formed his brigade in a cornfield near a bend in the creek, immediately west of the Lower Bridge Road. The 51st Pennsylvania was in front, followed by the 51st New York, 21st Massachusetts and the untried 35th Massachusetts. “It is General Burnside’s special request that the two Fifty-firsts take the bridge,” Ferrerro shouted. “Will you do it?”
Corporal Lewis Patterson of Company 1, 51st Pennsylvania, a known teetotaler, shattered the ensuing silence with, “Will you give us our whiskey, Colonel, if we take it?” (The Pennsylvanians had had their liquor ration cut for misconduct on the march.)
“Yes, by God!” cried Ferrero. “You shall have as much as you want, if you take the bridge.” He added that he would see to it if he had to send back to New York to get the whiskey and pay for it out of his own pocket.
Tension rippled through the line as the brigade moved out. The 51st Pennsylvania, following the diagonal approach used by Nagle’s men earlier, passed northeast behind the 9th New Hampshire toward the right rear of the twin knolls overlooking the creek and bridge. The 51st New York stayed in place while the smaller 21st Massachusetts filed right into the plowed field the New Hampshire men had formerly occupied.
The Massachusetts regiment behaved poorly while moving out. Singly and in small groups, rattled soldiers rose up sporadically from their line and shot wildly through the brush toward the opposite creek bank. Lieutenant John W. Hudson, one of Ferrero’s aides, later observed wryly that the men were firing “by guess,” and that some had gotten back “a good rifle ball to pay for their wisdom.”
Ferrero posted the 51st New York at right angles to the 21st Massachusetts in the field facing the bridge, then he and his staff moved behind the first knoll to direct the assault of the 51st Pennsylvania. Only the 35th Massachusetts remained undeployed, standing in the middle of the road at the creek bend.
Ferrero ordered Hudson to send for the regiment. While the green troops of the 35th Massachusetts double-quicked obliquely to the northeast, the 51st Pennsylvania made its move toward Rohrbach Bridge.
Hudson, who had been watching the 21st Massachusetts waste a good quantity of ammunition on the brush-covered western bank, turned his head to the right as a half-hearted cheer reverberated from the crest of the knolls. The already exhausted Pennsylvanians walked and staggered by platoons toward the creek. Tired or not, however, the hard-drinking bunch dove for cover behind the bridge abutments and the stone wall that paralleled the creek north of the bridge.
Simultaneously, the 48th Pennsylvania made for the bridge with a small part of the 6th New Hampshire, both units from Nagle’s brigade. All four regiments started to pour a terrific fire into the opposite bank. They could see the Rebels, in pairs and threes, dodging about through the smoke to escape their bullets.
Captain James Wren of the 48th Pennsylvania ordered his men to lie prone alongside the 51st New York, and they cut loose at will into the leafy foliage and Rebel barricades across the stream. Wren was coolly directing their fire when an enlisted man from the 6th New Hampshire wandered over to complain that the Rebels had shot off the trigger finger of his right hand. The wounded man shouted that he still had 40 rounds in his cartridge box and did not want to go to the rear. Wren, succumbing to the thrill of the moment, turned to the man and blurted, “Now you bite the ends off these cartridges and I will fire them cartridges of yours.” Putting down his sword, Wren took the man’s musket and carelessly stood up to shoot.
Three balls in rapid succession zinged close by the captain’s ears. His men shouted to him to get down–the Rebs had his range. At the same moment, Wren saw a Confederate leisurely step from behind a large tree next to the bridge, take careful aim and squeeze the trigger. The bullet whistled just above Wren’s head. Wisely, he ducked for cover.
Steadying the musket on a fence rail, Wren sighted on the tree. As the Confederate exposed himself for another shot, the captain jerked the trigger and missed. Hastily reloading, he sighted again, determined to draw blood. The next time the graycoat stepped out to shoot, Wren fired. When the smoke cleared, he thought he saw his target double over and drop. Wren promised himself to check his kill if he lived to cross the creek.
The noise at the bridge reached a nerve-shattering crescendo as rifle fire, shrieks and curses mingled with the exploding shells and rattling canister from Simmonds’ Kentucky (Union) Battery, which was firing over the Federals’ heads into the Confederate positions.
Colonel John Hartranft’s men in the 51st Pennsylvania scrambled over the fence bordering both sides of the road south of the bridge, and took cover behind the lower wing of the abutment. The colonel, who was with his colors, used the upper abutment for shelter; he ordered his men to tear out the fence rails directly across the mouth of the bridge.
From behind the knolls, Ferrero, who had caught up with the 35th Massachusetts, could not understand why the 51st Pennsylvania had not crossed the stream as ordered. The dapper dancing master snapped at the ever-present Hudson to go down and find out why Hartranft had not done as commanded. Before trotting out into the corn-stubbled valley, Hudson pointedly asked the New Englanders not to shoot him in the back.
Taking off at a steady trot, Hudson dashed into line just south of the bridge. The men pointed him in the direction of the northern parapet, where he found Hartranft and his color guard huddled below the bridge wall. Hudson screamed for the colonel to cross the bridge.
“Does he desire it?” an incredulous Hartranft shouted back. “Yes, sir,” Hudson replied.
The two officers headed south together. Hartranft and his color guard worked their way into the crowd on the bridge, while Hudson sought out Colonel Robert B. Potter of the 51st New York and told him to follow the Pennsylvanians across. Potter shouted at his men to move and bolted onto the parapet, where he stood shouting and swearing like a madman.
Hudson, for his part, hurriedly raced back to the safety of the knolls. As he explained later, “Having on straps & sword & pistol, I was willing to keep moving,” lest he prove to be a prize target for some Confederate sharpshooter.
Confederate Colonel Benning, commanding the Georgians at the bridgehead, found his position, which his soldiers had held so valiantly for so long, now becoming untenable. The morning attacks had left his men physically exhausted. Their fire dwindled perceptibly as the Yankees down at the bridge began to stir. He passed word along the crest for the men to fall back.
At the bridge, Captain William Allebaugh, Sergeant William Thomas, three color-bearers and a member of the color guard bolted across the span and planted the regimental standard in the road at the mouth of the bridge. Simultaneously, Hartranft, hat in hand, rushed to join them, screaming at the top of his lungs. His men followed his excited example, clogging the 12-foot-wide roadway as individuals halted to shoot at Rebel snipers in the opposite treetops.
The incoming rifle fire ceased suddenly as the Pennsylvanians reached the middle of the bridge. A short distance to the left, some men of the 51st New York–who had forded the stream and scaled the quarry at the crest of the hill–had outflanked the re-forming 2nd Georgia, which had pulled back from the crest. Union fire cut down Lt. Col. William R. Holmes, Jr., of the Georgia regiment, who died, sword in hand, while attempting to fulfill his vow to hold the bridgehead or “die in a ditch” trying.
Hudson, in the meantime, had reported to Ferrero, who directed him back to the bridge with orders for each regimental commander to form in the road along the western bank of the creek, then occupy the crest above the bridge.
By the time Hudson responded, the scene at the crossing had become thoroughly muddled. The 51st Pennsylvania halted in the road at the entrance of the bridge to volley at an enemy that was no longer there. Hartranft leaned against the upper abutment, weakly fanning his hat to speed his men forward. “Come on, boys,’ he panted, “for I can’t halloo any more.”
The 51st New York jammed the entire length of the bridge. Men shouted and screamed at one another as they pushed and shoved like so many runners on a giant treadmill. Individual soldiers halted to load and fire into the treetops. There was a great deal of motion, but no headway. To the left rear, the 48th Pennsylvania and 21st Massachusetts, along with a company of the 35th Massachusetts, continued to volley into the far bank.
Hudson got hopelessly stuck in the middle of the mob. As he elbowed his way through the frantic herd, he repeatedly bellowed, “Make way for an aide!” The struggle so exhausted him that when he came within hailing distance of the acting lieutenant colonel of the New York regiment, he blurted the commands to him along with the request, “Will you pass it to your colonel along the line?” The officer, a new acquaintance of Hudson’s, politely but with a hint of exasperation in his voice replied, “That is part of your duty, sir.”
Hudson continued to worm his way through the human roadblock, eventually finding the commanders of both lead regiments, then made his weary way back to Ferrero, who was still at the knolls. Ferrero appeared rather piqued. When Hudson returned from the creek, the tail end of the 51st New York still clogged the bridge, while the rest of the regiment, along with the 51st Pennsylvania, blocked the road on the western bank.
Dense, sulfurous clouds engulfed the entire creek bank as the frustrated Federals repeatedly fired at random at any individual Rebel who happened to pop from cover. Corpses, wounded men and piled-up fence rails marked the former presence of the opposing force. Occasional potshots still came from the trees, but there was no genuine Confederate opposition left at the bridge.
The 78th Ohio, unknown to the men of Ferrero’s brigade, had forded the creek above the bend in the Lower Bridge Road in an effort to flank the retreating Georgians from the north. At the same time, a large number of impatient Union troops forded the stream at the big bend and scaled the quarry south of the 2nd Georgia.
Meanwhile, the 51st New York and the 51st Pennsylvania retired below the creek bank to the water’s edge to avoid enfilading fire from the heights above Boonsboro Pike. Hartranft, who was about 300 feet up the road, sent Lt. Col. Thomas Bell south to fetch reinforcements.
Ferrero fumed as he watched his lead regiment, the 51st Pennsylvania, move upstream and lie down under the shelter of the creek bank instead of ascending the heights. Coffee fires with their telltale smoke were being kindled.
“Hudson,” cried Ferrero, “tell your colonel to cross the bridge immediately, move along the road to the right, form in line and advance up the hill.”
The exhausted lieutenant delivered the order to Lt. Col. Sumner Carruth, who immediately got the 35th Massachusetts to its feet. The regiment double-quicked in column through the saddle between the two knolls, down to the creek. The 6th New Hampshire–and what could be found of the 2nd Maryland–joined the advance, which almost was trampled to death when Carruth, in a moment of indecision, tried to front his regiment to fire across the creek. He changed his mind in midcommand and unexpectedly moved his herd by right flank onto the bridge.
The tumult at the bridge disturbed a large sow and her litter. Bounding over corpses, the pig made straight for the 9th New Hampshire, charged through a gap in the rails and tried to negotiate the opening between the legs of one of the advancing New Englanders. She was too wide and he was too low–the sow plucked the startled soldier off his feet and carried him, screaming for his life, toward the rear.
The 35th and 21st Massachusetts hurried onto Lower Bridge Road and formed along the western bank. During the ensuing crossing, a couple of men dropped snipers out of the trees near the bridge. One sharpshooter, in particular, left an indelible impression on them. As he fell from his perch, one arm snagged a branch and he dangled piteously before plummeting into the creek.
Second Lieutenant Farquhar McCrimmon of the 20th Georgia, with 16 survivors from his own regiment and the 2nd Georgia, realized that he could not withstand the onslaught of the two Federal brigades. As the 35th Massachusetts came up the hill, the Confederate remnant raised their hands, waving filthy white rags and pieces of newspaper from their ramrods. They were herded toward the bridge, where Lt. Col. Bell had to calm his angry men, who had surrounded the bested Rebels.
After struggling over the fence along the road, the men of the 35th Massachusetts wheezed and crawled part way up the hill toward the crest. Climbing over a split-rail fence on the hilltop east of Otto’s Farm, the regiment continued to advance to the right, in full view of Sharpsburg.
A shellburst from a Confederate battery in the field beyond plowed into the regiment, killing two. The regiment halted momentarily, then started to withdraw. At the same time, a Rebel battery on the heights along Boonsboro Pike also fired. Hudson, once again on an errand for Ferrero, sauntered across the bridge with an order for Hartranft when a shell exploded and sent fragments whizzing along the steep hill in front of him. Two more shells burst nearby.
The barrage caught Bell about 50 yards from the bridge. He had just slapped Private Hugh Brown on the shoulder as he passed, exclaiming, “We did it this time, my boy!” Barely two steps away, a ball from the second case shot glanced off his left temple. The impact whirled Bell around in a circle and slammed him on his side. Men rushed to his aid as he rolled down the creek bank into the regiment’s stacked muskets. Concerned, they asked if he was badly hurt.
Bell, the left side of his face quickly reddening with blood, put his hand to his temple and calmly replied, “I don’t think it is dangerous.” He paused. “Boys, never say die,” he added.
Hudson found the left wing of the 51st Pennsylvania sprawled along the creek bottom. He asked, “Where is your lieutenant colonel?”
“There he is, sir, wounded.”
Hudson’s gaze fell on a stretcher being borne toward the bridge. The officer being carried stared fixedly in Hudson’s direction as he was carried south. His dimming glance hurt Hudson badly. An ugly blue bruise was on Bell’s left temple. Bell, a newly made friend, was dying.
Hudson abruptly turned to meet Hartranft, who was coming down the road. Hudson asked why he had not advanced to support the 35th Massachusetts. “I’ve no ammunition,” Hartranft snapped.
The two frustrated officers stood there in the road, at a loss for words. They both had to answer to the moody Ferrero. Eventually, Hudson ventured, “Shall I tell the colonel so?”
“If you please,” said Hartranft.
Hudson jogged toward the bridge. He saw three men from his old company struggling with a very heavy man on a blanket. A quick glance at the hat and the way the men tried to tenderly treat the officer told him that the fellow was Lieutenant James Baldwin.
“You must excuse me,” Hudson called out. “I’ve got something to do across the bridge.” With that, he hurried to deliver his latest message to Ferrero.
Lieutenant Colonel Joshua K. Sigfried of the 48th Pennsylvania, upon crossing the bridge, immediately detached Captain Wren and his B Company as skirmishers, with orders to cover the quarry and the ridge to the right. The plucky captain and a couple of his people detoured slightly to check on the Confederate that Wren had shot. They found a dead man lying beside the same tree. “Captain,” one of the men chimed in, “that is your man.”
Wren’s men fanned out and began to scramble up the hill. As the ground widened, the captain sent back for more skirmishers. Brigadier General Sturgis personally sent more men to assist.
The skirmishers scrounged the far hillside for souvenirs as they proceeded. They discovered the remains of the 2nd Georgia in a slight entrenchment near the top of the hill. Over 40 Rebels had fallen as a unit in near-perfect formation. Lieutenant Colonel Holmes lay five paces behind his color guard, riddled with bullets.
Union soldiers set upon the colonel’s beautiful dress uniform; one stole Holme’s expensive gold watch, others cut the gilt buttons off his tunic. Captain Joseph A. Gilmour claimed a shoulder knot. Two men pulled the polished boots off his feet, then callously flipped a coin to see who would have the matched pair.
Corporal Dye Davis of Company B happened upon a dead Confederate whose haversack bulged with johnny cakes. Dye coldly jerked the haversack free from the dead man and poured its contents into his own sack. He started to munch a chunk of the captured cornbread as the company moved out. A friend reprimanded him, commenting that he could not eat anything that came from a corpse.
“Damn ’em, man,” Dye retorted through a mouthful of bread. “The Johnny is dead, but the johnny cakes is no dead.” He kept eating away.
The Federal regiments down by the creek, on the other hand, acted like vanquished troops. The stubborn Georgians, besides holding the entire corps at bay, inflicting severe casualties and causing the frustrated Yankees to needlessly expend an inordinate amount of ammunition upon inferior numbers, had scored an emotional victory. General Burnside had won his bridge–ever after to bear his name–but the crossing had been so delayed as to render his victory meaningless.
John M. Priest teaches at South Hagerstown High School and resides in Boonsboro, Md. He is the author of the recently published Antietam: The Soldier’s Battle by White Mane Publishing Company, from which the article was adapted. As supplemental reading, try Landscape Turned Red, by Stephen W. Sears or The Gleam of Bayonets by James V. Murfin.
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