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In 1951 Bruce Catton indicated in his book Mr. Lincoln’s Army that Major General Ambrose Burnside deserved much of the blame for the incomplete Union victory at the Battle of Antietam. Throughout the 1862 Maryland campaign Burnside had commanded a wing composed of two corps — his own IX Corps and Major General Joseph Hooker’s I Corps — in Major General George McClellan’s Army of the Potomac. At Antietam, however, McClellan took Hooker’s corps away from Burnside, posting the two halves of Burnside’s wing at either end of the army. Catton observed that Burnside, ‘getting a bit stuffy for once in his career, refused to yield his position as wing commander, forwarding McClellan’s orders for the IX Corps to the nominal commander of that corps instead of implementing them directly. That led to delays and confusion, Catton concluded, causing the IX Corps to take much longer than expected to cross Antietam Creek and attack the right wing of Robert E. Lee’s army.

Jacob Dolson Cox, a Canadian-born brigadier general, served as the official commander of the IX Corps on that Wednesday morning of September 17, 1862. A couple of decades later Cox pointed out that he and Burnside were standing together on the same knoll, watching the conflict unfold on McClellan’s right, when the first attack order arrived. The delay that ensued as a result of Burnside passing the order on to Cox could not have exceeded 15 or 20 seconds, because Cox said that Burnside read the brief message and immediately handed it to him. What took time was the tough job of getting troops across the creek.

In Burnside’s sector Antietam Creek could be conveniently crossed in two places: on the Rohrbach Bridge or at Snavely’s Ford, almost a mile downstream. General McClellan had been monitoring Burnside’s performance somewhat critically for the previous couple of days, and on the eve of the battle McClellan sent his own chief engineer, Captain James Duane, to personally position Burnside’s divisions before the bridge and the ford. Duane performed that duty vicariously, through junior officers, and they mistakenly placed Isaac P. Rodman’s division in front of a reputed cattle ford, about midway between the bridge and Snavely’s Ford.

Once Burnside received the order to attack, he sent a brigade against the bridge, which turned out to be such a strong position that the Confederates held it for nearly three hours with a portion of one brigade. Rodman, meanwhile, moved forward to cross at the designated ford, only to find it too deep for infantry.

Earlier that year Captain Duane — the same man who had been directed to position those brigades — had published a manual for engineer troops that began with advice on river crossings. A river with a moderate current may be forded by infantry when its depth does not exceed three feet, read the third sentence of the manual, but that applied to a routine crossing, uncomplicated by the immediate presence of enemy resistance. Duane’s engineers could not approach close enough to learn that Antietam Creek ran too deep for infantry there, that the banks dropped too abruptly or that the bottom shifted treacherously. They ought, however, to have been able to see that the opposite shore consisted of a steep bluff that infantry would have had to scale in the face of point-blank musketry. Rodman perceived those deadly deficiencies as soon as he advanced, so he veered downstream to locate the rumored pedestrian ford near Farmer Snavely’s house.
Burnside Bridge was built during the late 1830s to help the farmers of the prosperous agricultural region connect with the nearby C&O Canal and National Road. (Libary of Congress)

Those who later denigrated Burnside’s performance at Antietam based their arguments on two specific misrepresentations: minimization of the difficulty that the stream posed, and exaggeration of the time it took him to put his troops across the creek. Catton described the creek as insignificant and so shallow that a man could wade it in most places without wetting his belt buckle. Although Catton was a marvelous literary stylist, he may never have even laid eyes on Antietam Creek. He was simply echoing the words of Henry Kyd Douglas, who served on the staff of Confederate General Stonewall Jackson. In 1899 Douglas put together his memoirs — not published until 1940 as I Rode with Stonewall — in which he wondered if it was sarcasm that had prompted people to rename the Rohrbach Bridge after Burnside. He challenged his readers to examine Antietam Creek.

Go and look at it, he urged, and tell me if you don’t think Burnside and his corps might have executed a hop, skip, and jump and landed on the other side. One thing is certain, they might have waded it that day without wetting their waist belts in any place. To buttress his opinion, Douglas recalled that a U.S. Army officer once remarked to him that he was puzzled how Burnside prevented his troops from dashing impulsively across the creek.

Since Douglas took part in the battle and grew up only a few miles from the creek, scholars took him at his word without accepting his implied challenge to test the depth of the stream. The National Park Service even mounted a plaque on the eastern end of Burnside’s Bridge with Douglas’ snide comment etched upon it that is still there. Yet except for the U.S. Army officer whom Douglas left conspicuously unidentified, that criticism did not seem to take root until the publication of I Rode With Stonewall.

Lately more careful historians such as Dennis Frye have demonstrated that Douglas had a penchant for hyperbole and invention, and his observations about the depth of the creek help to illustrate those flaws. Douglas’ route to and from Sharpsburg and his duties during the battle took him nowhere near the creek that day, or on any other day in 1862. For that matter, during Douglas’ entire life there was little to bring him in close contact with the Antietam in that vicinity; he may have known it better when he lived near its shallower upstream reaches, at Hagerstown.

Antietam Creek drains four counties in Pennsylvania and Maryland, and the crossings Burnside faced lay three miles short of the mouth, where it empties into the Potomac as a sizable stream. During high water periods it can become a perfect torrent just downstream from Burnside’s Bridge, and only the most experienced whitewater raftsmen would dare test it then. Even with the sedimentary accumulation behind a shallow concrete dam just downstream from the bridge, the creek lies too deep and muddy today, and its banks are too steep, to meet the criteria of Captain Duane’s good ford for infantry.


Were it not for the crossing of the Antietam and his unhappy stint as commander of the Army of the Potomac, students of the Civil War would likely view Maj. Gen. Ambrose E. Burnside in a more positive light. Burnside recalled that his losses at the bridge were “fearful, the enemy being posted in rifle-pits and behind barricades….” (Libary of Congress)

On Sunday, June 5, 1994, I took Major Douglas up on his dare to examine Antietam Creek. I ate breakfast that morning in a Hagerstown diner. There, I met an old man who had lived his whole life in the area, and he assured me that the depth of the creek had not increased noticeably since he was a boy, despite the paving of permeable ground that accompanies widespread development.

My visit came in the middle of a weeks-long drought, and the water under Burnside’s Bridge flowed at about the same level as it had in the photographs taken four days after the battle. I followed the creek bank on the nature trail to Snavely’s Ford and crossed, which soaked me to the top of my inseam. The banks there sloped easily, and the bottom felt stable even though the current ran quite strong. At a height of 5 feet 10 inches, I am about 2 inches taller than the average Civil War soldier, but an infantryman of even minimum height might have surged across there with relative ease.

Then I moved upstream to the first bend above Snavely’s Ford. The banks there, vertical and slick with mud, stood 4 feet or more out of the water. I let myself down into chest-deep water and started across, but less than one-third of the way across my feet became tangled in the branches of a submerged tree, and I turned back.

From there to the next big bend upstream, the bluffs on the far shore — the side the Confederates held — reached a height of 60 feet or more at an angle of 50 or 60 degrees, and the banks yawned head-high out of the water, still vertical or even concave. It would have been impossible to cross there, so I made no further attempt until I reached the outside curve of the large bend, a few hundred yards below the bridge. There, I found most of the creek bed only 3 feet deep, but in the main channel I suddenly dropped in, to my chin.

I made one last crossing just below the bridge itself, upstream from the postwar dam. The bed of the stream has filled in behind the dam, so the water came only to my waist, but stones made the bottom precarious footing. Twice I stumbled enough to fall into the water, which bothered me not at all because the temperature was already near 90 degrees — and no one was shooting at me. Passage here during the battle would have proved far more difficult, though, because this was the location that the Confederates kept under the most murderous fire during the battle.

If Antietam Creek were so insignificant a watercourse, one might wonder why local farmers had established any fords in the vicinity in the first place. After all, cattle hardly need as shallow a crossing as infantry. Major Douglas’ sarcastic comments notwithstanding, except for the bridge and Snavely’s Ford, the creek would have provided a perfectly effective military obstacle on June 5, 1994, and a great deal of evidence confirms that it served just as effectively on September 17, 1862.

A quarter of a century after the battle, a New York Zouave who navigated Snavely’s Ford remembered that it was at least waist deep. In 1903 a Rhode Island lieutenant recalled that he had found even that crossing breast deep. The historian of General Joseph Kershaw’s Confederate division acknowledged that the creek was not fordable for some distance above the Potomac, and he concluded that it could be waded without difficulty only at the upstream end of Lee’s defensive line, well above Burnside’s front.
Brigadier General Jacob D. Cox commanded the IX Corps during the fight on September 17, 1862. While some argue that confusion between Cox and Burnside helped impede the Union attacks on the bridge, Cox dismissed that argument. (Libary of Congress)

All three of those sources suffer from a distance in time from the event, as does Douglas’, and the last of the three may reflect more hearsay than recollection. They all predate the appearance of Douglas’ memoirs by decades, though, and none of them seems to have borne any partisan intent to refute any innuendo about the fordability of the creek, for no such accusation had been made prior to the 1940 publication of Douglas’ book. Even more convincing is the contemporary report of Colonel George Crook, whose brigade formed the upstream extremity of Burnside’s line. Though the creek should theoretically have been even more shallow there than at the bridge, and although no Confederates opposed the crossing there, Crook thrashed about for more than two hours before he found one spot where a few men could wade the creek at a time.

Bruce Catton’s repetition of Douglas’ assertion encouraged two more historians to assail Burnside. In a 1956 monograph for Civil War History, Martin Schenck accused the general of sulking over his demotion from wing command, reasoning that nothing but petulance could have caused him to spend so much time crossing his troops. To support his hypothesis, Schenck cited only three secondary works, selected reports from the Official Records and a single Confederate memoir — namely Douglas’ claptrap.

Schenck charged Burnside with wasting five hours, insisting that Burnside’s attack order came at 8 a.m. Schenck skipped over McClellan’s initial report to quote instead from the general’s revised report, dated nearly a year later. In his first report, written just four weeks after the battle, McClellan admitted that Burnside received no order to attack until about 10 a.m. Only in 1863, as McClellan prepared a more defensive report with an eye to presidential ambitions, did he claim that he sent Burnside his instructions two hours earlier. Burnside’s report, which Schenck did not consult, likewise timed the arrival at 10. Jacob Cox initially estimated that it reached them about 9 o’clock, but — judging by events that he witnessed elsewhere on the battlefield at the same time — Cox later acknowledged that the order probably arrived nearer to 10 a.m.

Generals’ reports are the less reliable half of the Official Records, for they often represent the efforts of an officer to account for his shortcomings in the wake of a failure. Battlefield correspondence more frequently yields the truth, as it does in this instance: McClellan’s actual order is published in a supplemental volume that Schenck also overlooked, and it is headed 9:10 a.m.

Allowing a couple of minutes for transcription, a few more minutes to assign the envelope to the courier and to explain the location of Burnside’s headquarters, and 15 minutes for that rider to gallop overland with it, Burnside would not have had it in his hands before 9:30. Any of the likely variations from that basic scenario, such as a wrong turn or a halt for directions, would have brought the delivery closer to 10. Certainly it must have been that time before the first troops moved against the bridge and the bogus ford.

In his adulatory 1957 biography George B. McClellan, Shield of the Union, Warren Hassler fell for both the 8 a.m. attack order and Douglas’ jibe about the depth of the creek. Relying on McClellan’s self-serving autobiography as well, Hassler described the commanding general dispatching a second staff officer to Burnside at 9 a.m. with orders to carry the bridge at the bayonet. He also cited the highly suspect 1894 reminiscence of one William Biddle, who insisted that McClellan sent Colonel Thomas Key to IX Corps headquarters at noontime with a third — and imperative — order to take the bridge at all costs.

Burnside’s troops had made their way over both creek crossings by 1 p.m., but the spearhead division that took the bridge had exhausted its ammunition, so Burnside moved fresh brigades in to replace it. Before continuing his assault into the village of Sharpsburg, he also brought his artillery and ordnance over the same bridge the rest of his infantry used, and realigned Rodman’s isolated division with the troops who had crossed at the bridge. By then McClellan had allowed the fighting on the right to fizzle out, so Lee managed to attend to Burnside a little more effectively. McClellan himself had infected his subordinates with the absurd notion that Lee fielded 100,000 men that day, so with his own back to the creek Burnside proceeded somewhat cautiously with his 13,000.

Hassler tried to revise the estimate of McClellan’s available troops downward, and Lee’s upward, from a Union strength of more than 80,000 and a Confederate force of about 40,000 to some 69,000 for McClellan and more than 57,000 for Lee. That would have reduced McClellan’s advantage in numbers from 100 percent to about 20 percent. When it came to assessing Burnside’s performance, however, Hassler reverted to the traditional tale of overwhelming Union forces — at least on Burnside’s front.

Characterizing Burnside’s realignment of troops as sitting down on the job, Hassler supposed that this additional delay prompted McClellan to send Captain Biddle with the imaginary fourth directive to move forward. To bolster this final message, Biddle ostensibly carried a signed order to relieve Burnside and replace him with another officer. That alleged order was supposed to be handed over if Burnside dawdled any further.

Here, Hassler misunderstood his own source, for in Biddle’s doubtful tale it was Colonel Key who carried both the third and fourth orders, while Biddle himself delivered none. That error is merely incidental to the overall historiography, though, for the entire story of those last orders exudes an aroma of fiction.

No one else mentioned any order for Burnside’s removal during the 32 years that intervened between the battle and Biddle’s revelation — including McClellan, who supposedly wrote the order and who later tried his best to discredit Burnside’s performance. It seems fairly obvious that Biddle’s account simply represented another of those inventive recollections that pollute the stream of history, and Civil War history in particular. Like other authors of such imaginative recollections, Biddle had to leave his fable unpublished until after the deaths of all the principal actors who might have contradicted it.

McClellan and his contemporary apologists spent the remainder of the 19th century building the case against Burnside with half-truths, sarcasm and outright lies. Similar prejudice among subordinate generals also played a subtle part in Burnside’s defeats at Fredericksburg, only three months after Antietam, and the debacle at the Petersburg Crater in 1864. Those disasters seemed to corroborate the image of Burnside as a bumbling incompetent who could do nothing right.

That relentlessly negative image carried into a second century with slipshod research, jaundiced interpretation and ill-considered conclusions. For two decades after the Civil War centennial, most popular histories reflected the pejorative portrait of Ambrose Burnside that had prevailed among McClellan’s partisans during and after the war. Only in the 1980s, when historians like Stephen Sears and A. Wilson Greene began producing more carefully researched and objectively analyzed studies of the Maryland campaign and the role of the IX Corps, did the tide begin to turn toward a more equitable assessment of Burnside’s services along Antietam Creek.


This article was written by William Marvel and originally appeared in the January 2006 issue of America’s Civil War magazine.

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