In an earlier article, we gave a brief overview of some of the fighting which occurred at the beginning of the Battle of Sharpsburg/Antietam. This writer's contribution to The Writer's Corner in another section of the website detailed the actions of Hood's Division, especially the Texas Brigade, during the Maryland Campaign and also during the famed counter-attack into The Cornfield.
In this brief overview, we will try to cover one of the more puzzling and disastrous attacks made by any sizable Union force on that day, that being the advance of the Second Corps under command of Maj. General Edwin Voss Sumner. Sumner, known from the Old Army as "Old Bull" or "Bull" (supposedly because a musket ball once bounced of his head without appreciable injury or because he could be stubborn as an old bull), was tasked by McClellan to cooperate with Hooker's First Corps and Mansfield's Twelfth Corps in the fighting. That was the general plan. The reality was much different. By the time Sumner brought two of his three divisions on to the field, i.e. those of Sedgwick and French, Hooker and his First Corps were basically hors de combat; Mansfield was mortally wounded and with his wounding his Corps, largely composed of green regiments, had ceased to be am effective force.
Crossing The Antietam Creek somewhere near the S. Pry Mill, Sumner was clearly in a hurry. With Sedgwick's division in the lead and French's following, Sumner was convinced the momentum of the morning's fight on the Confederate left lay with the Federal forces. Without bothering to advance part of his force to perform a reconnaissance once Sedgwick reached the East Woods, Sumner ordered Sedgwick, known affectionately to his men as "Uncle John", to advance his three brigade division in column of brigades once the East Woods had been cleared. This meant the three brigades formed battle lines and advanced toward the West Woods with about a space of 75 yards from each other. Theoretically this formation means a compact force capable of delivering a strong and massive attack, in practice it is an invitation to disaster. The brigades practically were piled atop each other with extremely limited room for maneuver if any of the brigades ran into heavy Confederate opposition. The time was approximately nine a.m.
As Sedgwick's division advanced out of the East Woods in column of brigades making a left flank turn to align parallel to the Hagerstown Turnpike and Jackson's front, the Confederates began rounding up any and all units still able to fight. Jackson sent Col. Stephen D. Lee to Gen. Robert E. Lee with an urgent request for reinforcements. The commanding general of the Army of Northern Virginia, having seen the emergency, pulled John Walker's division from the Confederate right and sent it at the double quick through Sharpsburg toward the West Woods. The division of Lafayette McLaws, resting near Lee's Headquarters on the Shepherdstown Pike on the western side of the town after their all night march from Maryland Heights, already was on the move as well. Jubal Early, now in command of Lawton's Division of Jackson's wing of the army, was called in from the extreme Confederate left. Other Confederate units in the nearby area also were mobilized and moved at the double quick toward the West Woods to meet and blunt the threatened Federal attack which, if successful, would succeed in breaking the Confederate left and driving it from the field. Success of such an attack would also mean a precipitate Confederate retreat back into Virginia. Time was short; the state of affairs was extremely urgent; there was no opportunity to create a plan of attack. Confederate units would have to attack as soon as they reached any point near the Federal force. As pointed out by James Murfin in his The Gleam of Bayonets and by Joseph Harsh in Taken at the Flood, the attack on Sedgwick in the West Woods was in reality not an ambush, even though it has so been described.
Second Corps commander Sumner, personally leading Sedgwick's division, had his hat off and his white hair flowing. As he led Sedgwick's veterans toward the West Wood, the firing had stopped. An eerie silence now fell on the area of so much blood-letting barely hours before. Surviving Confederates recalled later seeing how much like a parade formation Sedgwick's three brigades advanced. Gorman's brigade was in the van, followed by the brigade of Dana and the rear was brought up by the famed Philadelphia Brigade under command of one-armed Oliver O. Howard. (The visitor to the West Woods today makes a stop on the Auto Tour in the area of the furthest advance of the Philadelphia Brigade. The brigades of Gorman and Dana were actually much closer to the present-day Maryland SR 65 bypass.)
In battle-line of brigades barely 75 yards from each other, Sedgwick's division with Sumner entered the West Woods. Gorman's brigade pushed out to almost the tenant cabin of Alfred Poffenberger with Dana's brigade not far behind. When confusing orders were deciphered and all commands placed where they needed to be, there was only a thirty yard space between each of them. As the extreme left of Gorman's brigade reached the area behind the Dunkard Church, it came up on the right flank of one of the regiments of Gen. George "Pop" Green's division of the Twelfth Corps, the 125th Pennsylvania Volunteers. The fact that the extreme right regiment of his brigade had separated itself and positioned itself on the right flank of the Pennsylvanians did not appear to bother Gorman. All it seemed necessary for him to do was to execute a left wheel of his brigade and sweep down behind the Confederate left and on into Sharpsburg. It seemed so easy.
At that precise moment the West Woods came alive with artillery and small arms fire incoming from the Confederate counterattack. The Pennsylvanians behind the Dunkard Church, then the Thirty-fourth New York, felt the hammer blows first. Federal soldiers in the three ranks soon quickly felt incoming fire from three directions: front, left flank and, perhaps most demoralizing of all, their rear. For about twenty minutes, the most terrible holocaust of the entire day and perhaps the entire war itself, engulfed Sedgwick and his men. Sedgwick himself was wounded three times. Men in blue tried valiantly and vainly to counter the incoming Confederate fire. The blue ranks were so closely packed that many Federal soldiers took aim to fire back, only to find they were aiming at their own. In The Gleam of Bayonets Murfin describes the scene, "Men scrambled for cover and found none. In a matter of minutes, lines began to break. The third line, Howard's brigade, was the first to go. They were all Pennsylvanians and all from Philadelphia;… They had hardly a chance to raise their rifles when the shock wave hit them…. It was no easy fight for Sedgwick. His right was being bombarded by Stuart's artillery, his center was facing Grigsby and Semmes, and his left was being turned by Early, Barksdale and Ransom, and the remnants of Kershaw's and Manning's brigades…. Men hardly knew which way to turn; it seemed better at times to merely race for cover."
Seeing what was happening, Sumner tried valiantly and vainly to stem the disaster but was himself borne along in the retreat back to the East and North Woods. Men literally threw down their arms and accoutrements and ran for their lives to escape the Confederate envelopment.
In approximately twenty minutes Sedgwick's fine veteran division, sustaining nearly 50% losses (approx. 2,225menin killed, wounded or missing) was wrecked. Simultaneous with Sedgwick's devastation, the Second Corps division commanded by Gen. William H. French advanced onto the field. Ironically that day French's opposite number was Thomas Jonathan Jackson. In the "Old Army" Jackson had been subordinate to French but that had not stopped the irascible Stonewall from reporting his commanding officer on suspicion of moral turpitude and drunkenness.
French's orders were to come in on "Uncle John's" right. Unfortunately "Old Blinky", a sobriquet French had acquired due to his habit of excessively blinking his eyes, mistook Pop Greene's small division positioned across the Hagerstown Pike on a plateau near the Dunkard Chuch as being Sedgwick's right flank. Believing he was in the place he had been ordered to he turned his command so that it pointed directly toward the linchpin between the left and right wings of the Army of Northern Virginia. In truth his position was the area near the farms of Wm. Roulette and Henry Piper and a small eroded local road which, at day's end, would earn a new and lasting name in American history: Bloody Lane.
(Correction: In our last column, the author erred in using the title "gallant" for Willie Pegram, Captain of the Purcell Artillery, A. P. Hill's "Light Division". He confused Willie Pegram, brother of John Pegram, for John Pelham, who earned the title "Gallant Pelham" during his masterful delaying tactics with two pieces of Horse Artillery during the Battle of Fredericksburg.)