Two of the 11th Connecticut’s officers died in gallant rush on Burnside Bridge
On the surface, the attack by the 11th Connecticut Infantry upon the Lower Bridge (Burnside Bridge today) during the September 17, 1862, Battle of Antietam was a straightforward affair. In the standard account, the 11th advanced in the first assault upon the bridge, hoping to draw enemy fire and allow Colonel George Crook’s 2nd Brigade, 9th Corps, to storm across Antietam Creek. But suffering heavy casualties as it neared the bridge, the regiment had no choice but to retreat. The general framework of this is true, but when we probe further, we discover a story more complex and interesting than a simple regimental advance and retreat.
The 11th’s commander that day was West Point–trained Colonel Henry W. Kingsbury. When Kingsbury took command of the regiment earlier that summer, he found the officers “coarse and ill-informed,” and the enlisted men “miserably disciplined.” One member of the regiment recalled that Kingsbury “descended upon this casual band like a bolt of blue lightening [sic],” and over a period of weeks weeded out incompetent leaders and molded the unit into a well-trained and disciplined fighting force.
There were still problems, like those even the best of regiments face when combat looms. The 11th had four men desert the night before the battle, and when Kingsbury gave the regiment its orders for the attack the following morning, Sergeant David Kittler, bearer of the national colors, refused to advance, declaring the color guard was understrength and could not protect him. A physical confrontation ensued in which an unnamed officer slashed Kittler’s arm with a sword. At some point during or after that disconcerting event, a corporal stepped forward and agreed to take the flag from Kittler.
To reach the bridge, the regiment needed to pass through a cornfield, and then cross a plowed field and meadow. As the open ground extended for nearly 300 yards, Kingsbury recognized that getting his men across would be a formidable challenge. He understood that a regimental charge over this ground—which is the way the 11th’s attack is usually depicted—was a recipe for slaughter, so he ordered Companies A and B, both armed with Sharps rifles, to advance to the bridge as skirmishers. He divided the remaining eight companies into two wings for greater tactical flexibility, with Lt. Col. Griffin A. Stedman Jr. commanding the right wing and Kingsbury the left. Stedman’s mission was to advance to a partly wooded hill about 250 yards east of the bridge and provide covering fire, while Kingsbury’s wing supported the skirmishers.
Those skirmishers did not sprint toward the bridge, as we might imagine. Instead, they advanced warily, scanning the opposite bank for the unseen enemy. Not a shot was fired at them as they neared the bridge. A number of the Confederates were armed with smoothbore muskets and their officers likely wanted the Yankees to get within effective range before firing. Company A’s skirmishers were closest to the bridge. When their captain, John Griswold, saw his men hesitate, he scaled a fence, shouting, “Come on, boys.” Several of his men followed, just as the Confederates opened fire. Having jumped into the creek, Griswold was midway across when he was mortally wounded. He managed to stagger to the west bank before falling.
A resulting rescue effort produced conflicting accounts after the battle. Nathan Mayer, the regiment’s assistant surgeon, claimed that when he learned Griswold had been shot, he fetched a stretcher, grabbed four men, and sprinted into the middle of the fight, personally crossing the creek to retrieve Griswold without losing a man. But years later, Company A Private Philo Pearce wrote that he and a few comrades were the ones to cross the creek and secure Griswold. Conflicting accounts like these from reliable eyewitnesses unfortunately bedevil historians attempting to reconstruct a battle’s action.
It is shocking that Companies A and B were not cut to pieces by the close-range fire. Griswold was the only soldier killed, with 14 wounded in both units. How to account for this is uncertain. The sources from the 11th offer no explanation. Perhaps it was because they were in skirmish order. But it is also possible that after pinning the skirmishers down, the Confederates shifted most of their fire to Kingsbury’s approaching left wing.
As the left wing crossed the plowed ground and entered the meadow before the bridge, the Confederates opened what one New Englander described as a “murderous” fire. This expression is often a cliché in Civil War-era writing, but the 11th’s survivors gave it validity. “All but myself of the first eight of our company fell at their first fire,” wrote a Company K soldier. Companies E, D and H lost 20 men killed total, more than half the killed in the entire regiment. Alonzo Maynard, a Company I private, was shot five times and crippled for life. Arriving near the bridge, Kingsbury shouted for his men to take cover, but there was little other than the fence along the road and a handful of trees near the creek’s bank. It is revealing of the respect Kingsbury’s men had for him that they kept pace in the face of the fire. Wrote one soldier: “We followed him, but I doubt if we would have followed any other officer.”
Inevitably, the Confederates targeted the colonel. He was hit in the heel. When he hobbled over to tell one of his captains he was wounded, another bullet struck him in the shoulder and knocked him down. The captain and two men tried to carry him to the rear, but the Confederates kept firing at the party and Kingsbury was hit again in the right foot before taking a final, mortal, wound through the body. The merciless nature of Kingsbury’s death makes Mayer’s story of safely retrieving Griswold sound even more fantastic, but it does not mean it didn’t happen. Death can sometimes lurk in one yard of ground and not in another.
The damage done to the regiment was uneven, but all felt the mental trauma that accompanies bloody fighting. In trying to articulate for those at home what he had experienced, George Bronson, a hospital steward with the 11th, wrote, “I do not know the name of the creek, but I have named it the creek of death. Such slaughter I hope never to witness again.”
Scott Hartwig writes from the crossroads of Gettysburg.
This story appeared in the March 2020 issue of America’s Civil War.