by NJ Rebel

America's Bloodiest Day:
Hooker's Assault into the Miller Farmstead

The Battle of Antietam, or Sharpsburg as it is known in the South, was not only the bloodiest single day in American history. It actually is three separate battles occurring in the course of a day's time. Indeed, students of the battle oft break the day down into three main phases; each phase then has sub-phases within it.

In this article I shall try to examine the initial phase of Phase One of the blood-soaked day of September 17, 1862, more accurately known as Hooker's Assault into the D. R. Miller Farmstead. The fight actually began in the late afternoon of Tuesday, September 16, when Maj. General Joseph J. Hooker advanced his First Corps into the area of the East Woods, setting off a nasty little fight between some of the units under his command and the Confederates of Lawton's and Hood's brigades. The fight, actually a super-skirmish, accomplished one major goal of Robert E. Lee: to determine where the Federal assault would come in the morning. Both sides knew a major battle was in the offing; neither side got much sleep that night. The two picket lines were so close no fires were allowed on the Union side by direct order of the Army of Potomac commander George B. McClellan.

The fighting began almost at first light. By 5.30 am, both sides were liberally exchanging fire from artillery positions. Although the Union attackers could not be seen due to early morning fog (it rained the night before), Confederate artillery was able to lob shells in the area of the D. R. Miller farmstead with deadly accuracy. Union artillery across The Antietam Creek enfiladed Confederate artillery positions on the plateau near the Dunkard church and on Nicodemus Heights. The Dunkard Church, nestled as it was into a pocket in the West Woods near the Hagerstown Turnpike, made a perfect objective for Joe Hooker to align his divisions on and assault the left flank of the Army of Northern Virginia. Commanding Confederate forces in this entire area was Thomas J. "Stonewall" Jackson. "Old Jack" would literally have his hands full in keeping Union attacks from breaking his line. But Jackson skillfully, assisted by the efforts of his commander in chief, was successful in having the right amount of troops to parry the repeated Union attacks, which were piecemeal and at no greater than division or brigade strength at any one time.

So much blood-letting and suffering occurred between the hours of five-thirty and nine a.m. on September 17, 1862 that the terrain between the Poffenberger Farm in the North Woods, the East Woods, the D. R. Miller Farmstead (including his corn field, now forever known as The Cornfield), the West Woods and the little white-washed Dunkard Church is today among some of the most hallowed ground on American soil. (A discussion, by this writer, of the impact of the division led by Gen. John Bell Hood during Phase One can be found in The Writer's Corner section of this website.)

It is not possible to totally cover the battle action which occurred in Phase One of the Battle of Antietam in this short overview. Interested readers are invited to search the Web using Antietam as a keyword for some excellent resources for further reading. But, as an aid to gauging the intensity of the fighting which raged across the farm fields and wood lots in the scarcely square mile area just north and east of the Dunkard Church, this writer quotes from the memoir of Rufus R. Dawes, Major of the Sixth Wisconsin Volunteer Infantry, part of the famed Midwestern Iron Brigade:

"The regiment continued moving forward into a strip of woods, where the column was deployed into line of battle. … Solid shot and shell whistled through the trees above us, cutting off limbs which fell about us. In front of the woods was an open field; beyond this was a house, surrounded by peach and apple trees, a garden, and out-houses…. The right of the regiment was now on the Sharpsburg and Hagerstown Turnpike. The left wing was obstructed in its advance by the picket fence around the garden before mentioned. As the right wing passed on, I ordered the men in the left wing to take hold all together and pull down the fence. They were unable to do so. I had, therefore, to pass the left wing by the flank through a gate with the utmost haste, and form again in the garden. Here Captain Edwin A. Brown, of company 'E', was instantly killed…. I urged the left wing forward with all possible speed. (Dawes spends a few paragraphs describing the advance of the regiment into the area of Miller's Cornfield and some of the casualties which ensued.) -Our lines on the left now came sweeping forward through the corn and the open fields beyond. I ordered my men to join in the advance, and commanded: 'Forward-guide left-march!' We swung away from the turnpike, and I sent the sergeant-major to Captain Kellogg, commanding the companies on the turnpike: 'If it is practicable, move forward the right companies, aligning with the left wing.' Captain Kellogg said: 'Please give Major Dawes my compliments, and say it is impracticable; the fire is murderous.'

"As we were getting separated, I directed Sergeant Huntington to tell Captain Kellogg that he could get cover in the corn, and to join us, if possible. Huntington was struck by a bullet, but delivered the order. Kellogg ordered his men up, but so many were shot that he ordered them down again at once. While this took place on the turnpike, our companies were marching forward through the thick corn, on the right of a long line of battle. Closely following was a second line. At the front edge of the cornfield was a low Virginia rail fence. Before the corn were open fields, beyond which was a strip of woods surrounding a little church, the Dunkard church. As we appeared at the ecge of the corn, a long line of men in butternut and gray rose up from the ground. Simultaneously, the hostile battle lines opened a tremendous fire upon each other. Men, I can not say fell; they were knocked out of the ranks by the dozens. But we jumped over the fence and pushed on, loading, firing and shoting as we advanced. There was, on the part of the men, great hysterical excitement, eagerness to go forward, and a reckless disregard of life, of every thing but victory. Captain Kellogg brought his companies up abreast of us on the turnpike.

"Now is the Pinch" by Mark Maritato - Image Courtesy of HISTORICAL IMPRESSIONS

"The Fourteenth Brooklyn Regiment, red-legged Zouaves, came into our line, closing the awful gaps. Now is the pinch. Men and officers of New York and Wisconsin are fused into a common mass, in the frantic struggle to shoot fast. Every body tears cartridges, loads, passes guns, or shoots. Men are falling in their places or running back into the corn. The soldier who is shooting is furious in his energy. The soldier who is shot looks around for help with an imploring agony of death on his face. After a few rods of advance, the line stopped and, by common impulse, fell back to the edge of the corn and lay down on the ground behind the low rail fence. Another line of our men came up through the corn. We all joined together, jumped over the fence, and again pushed out into the open field. There is a rattling fusillade and loud cheers. 'Forward' is the word. The men are loading and firing with demoniacal fury and shouting and laughing hysterically, and the whole field before us is covered with rebels fleeing for life, into the woods. Great numbers of them are shot while climbing over the high post and rail fences along the turnpike."

(From Service with the Sixth Wisconsin Volunteers; Dawes, R. R.; Combat: The Civil War-The Curtain Rises, Dell:New York, 1968; pp. 396, 397-399)





© 2002
Editors Note: Mr. Mayers is a feature writer on the US-Civilwar.com writers staff. He can be contacted at njrebel@us-civilwar.net