by NJ Rebel

America's Bloodiest Day:
Slaughter along a Sunken Road (Part One)

By the time Sedgwick's division, Second Corps. Army of the Potomac, was repulsed from its assault on the West Woods, events slowly started to move toward the centre of the Confederate line. Major General Daniel Harvey Hill, a brother-in-law by marriage to "Stonewall" Jackson, held overall command of this vital sector, which served as a linch-pin between the two wings of the Army of Northern Virginia. Stonewall commanded the Left Wing of the army; "Old Pete" Longstreet commanded the Right Wing of the army. Hill's position was soon to become not only one of crisis but also of some of the most horrific slaughter experienced in this already blood-stained day. It was not yet noon; already about 10,000 Americans had fallen in three hours of mortal combat in an area of less than a square mile.

At about 8.00 am Hill sent three of his five brigades into the cauldron near The Cornfield and the West Woods to help his brother=in=law repell the ferocious Yankee attacks. The three brigades soon returned to the general area where Hill and the rest of his division waited and resumed their place in line. By now, though, their strength was such they could be considered nothing more than a third brigade.

At dawn on September 17th, the brigades of Robert Rhodes and George B. Anderson held positions along the crestline of the Sharpsburg Ridge facing The Antietam Creek. Their positions were much as they had taken on arriving near Sharpsburg on the afternoon of Monday, September 15th. Rhodes brigade held the lower shank of a sunken farm road down toward the Boonesboro Turnpike; Anderson's brigade actually straddled the Turnpike in its deployment about a half mile from the center of the little village of Sharpsburg. As fighting began and swelled to a crescendo in the area of the Dunkard Church, The Cornfield and the West Woods, Hill had his two brigades take new positions in the sunken farm road itself.

The farm road (originally begun before the beginning of the nineteenth century as a shortcut for farmers north of Sharpsburg to get their grain to a grist mill on the bank of The Antietam Creek halfway between Sharpsburg and Boonesboro and known locally as Hog Trough Road) had, due to wagon traffice over the years, worn down below ground level to where it was a few feet deep in spots and a shallow depression in others. It met the Hagerstown Turnpike just north of the lane to the Henry Piper farm and ran relatively straight until just before meeting up with the lane leading to the William Roulette farm. (About half-way between the road's start at the Hagerstown Turnpike and the Roulette farmlane, it intersected with the Mumma farm lane.) Immediately before the Roulette farm lane, the road bent and angled slightly south-easterly, then bending again a few hundred yards past the Roulette lane and zig-zagging down to its junction with the Boonesboro Turnpike. The portion of the road, now also known as the Sunken Road, between the Mumma farm lane and the sharp elbow where it began its zig-zags to the Boonesboro Turnpike is where Hill's two brigades took position and awaited developments.

The Confederates in the lane did not have to wait long.

At about the same time as Sedgwick's assault commenced and the Confederates successfully counter-attacked, Robert E Lee is reported to have visited the defenders in the lane along with D H Hill. Lee, on Traveler with his right arm still in a sling due to a fall taken after the conclusion of Second Manassas, apparently wanted to see for himself the defensive arrangements being made at the center of his line to resist any Federal assaults. John Brown Gordon, then a Colonel of the Sixth Alabama Regiment, reputedly said, when asked by Lee if his men would hold and fight, "These men will remain here, General, until the sun goes down or until victory is won!" (A few hours later Gordon would wonder if the sun ever would go down.)

Following the repulse of Sedgwick's attack an eerie silence fell upon the blood-soaked and blasted fields of the early morning. Into that silence the sound of fife and drum could be heard. It was the largely green division of Samuel G. French of Sumner's Corps beginnings its advance against the Confederate in the lane. French, ordered by Sumner to take position "on the left of Sedgwick", arrived on the field shortly after Sedgwick's repulse. Not seeing Sedgwick and mistaking some Federal units in an advanced position on the plateau across from the Dunkard Church as belonging to Sedgwick, turned his division in a south-westerly direction and squarely against the waiting Confederates.

In his post-War memoirs, Gordon described the advance of the lead brigade of French's division as truly awe-inspiring, as watching a dress parade. Some regiments of French's division were so new their uniforms still had the parade ground appearance and many of the men in them scarcely knew how to load their rifle muskets. Gordon's regiment held the extreme right of Rhodes' brigade; the extreme left position of Anderson's North Carolina brigade fell to the Second North Carolina commanded by Col. Charles Courtney Tew, an honor graduate of the Citadel and the commandant of a military academy in Hillsboro, North Carolina, before the war. (D H Hill had been the superintendent of the same academy.) Together, Gordon and Tew watched the slow, measured, parade-like advance of the Federal host. The tension was terrible. All the Confederates had loaded their rifles and were awaiting the command to fire. Gordon informed his men not to fire until they could clearly see the eagle on the breastplates of the Federal soldiers advancing upon them. Repeatedly his men asked him if it was time for them to fire. Then, finally, Gordon had his men rise up, position their muskets, and, shouted out the order "Fire!" The effect of that single volley all along the Confederate line was akin to a sudden eruption of a volcano. When the smoke cleared, every man in the front rank of the brigade commanded by Brig. Gen. Max Weber was either killed, dying or wounded. Weber was himself wounded and put out of action.

That same volley decimated the color guard of the First Delaware as well as causing casualties to fully a third of the nine hundred soldiers of the regiment before the positions of the men of Rodes' Alabamians. At the same time, Anderson's North Carolinians added their fire-power to that of the Alabamians. The scene was one of total chaos: dead, dying and wounded men screaming in the pastures before the Sunken Road; horses screaming in their death agonies; soldiers yelling hysterically as they loaded and re-loaded in their efforts to smash the Union assaults on their position.

The brigade of Col. Dwight Morris, also of French's division, soon came to the front, and mingling with the survivors of Weber's brigade, responded to the small arms fire it received by returning fire. To protect themselves as much as possible, Morris' men crawled to the reverse slope of the hillock overlooking the Sunken Road, reloaded, and then popped up to shoot. Then they would drop down, crawl back and repeat the process. The Confederate defenders in the lane, although taking casualties, grimly held on and stymied all attempts of the Federals to advance.

The situation was still critical for the Confederates. At the time of the advance of Weber's brigade, George B. Anderson sent word to D. H. Hill of the need for reinforcements as promptly as possible if the lane was to hold. Would the thin, grey line hold? One thing was certain: There would be more Federal attacks against the Confederate position and, if the Federals succeeded in breaking into the lane at either end, the position would become a death-trap for the boys in grey. Time would tell.

 



© 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