by NJ Rebel

America's Bloodiest Day:
Slaughter along a Sunken Road - The Line Crack'd

At about the same time as the Irish Brigade wearily withdrew its battered, torn and exhausted ranks from the fight along the Sunken Road, fresh troops in the brigades commanded by Brig. Gen. John Caldwell and Col. J R Brooke entered the fray. While the Irish Brigade boys were being chewed up due to the stubborn and tenacious Confedearte defence, their divisional commander "Fighting Dick" Richardson did all he could to get artillery support to help crack the line wide open for Federal exploitation. It did not help that Brig Gen John Caldwell had an attack of nerves and, rather than perform the duties expected of a brigade commander, basically abandon the field to hide behind a haymow. Richardson, upon asking where Caldwell was and learning one of his three brigade commanders had turned yellow, is alleged to have thundered, "God ______ the field staff!" and then personally oversee the deployment of the regiments in Caldwell's brigade.

The regiments in Caldwell's brigade were within easy supporting distance of the Irish Brigade as it was being whittled down in an horrendous fashion. Before his wounding and removal from the field, Meagher went to Col. Francis Barlow, commanding the Sixty-fourth New York Volunteers (as well as the Sixty-first New York Volunteers under Lt. Col. Nelson A Miles) to beseech his aid. Barlow, while being most sympathetic to Meagher's entreaties, could not move his men without positive orders to do so from Caldwell. The men in the Irish Brigade could not have understood this, and to them, it appeared that Barlow was allowing them to be sacrificed so he and his men could crack open the Confederate line. Finally, Barlow received orders from Richardson himself to take his two small regiments and to support the Irish Brigade in its fight. Maneuvering alongside the extreme left flank of the Irish Brigade, Barlow brought his men into an advantageous position where their fire power could have some effect against the Confederate defenders. At about the same time, Brooke received orders from Richardson to also advance his brigade, thereby adding to the now clearly building crisis in the Confederate defense.

The hours of deadly, desperate fighting had worn down the Confederates in the lane. Dead, dying and wounded Confederates of all ranks littered the ground both in the lane and just behind the lane in Piper's Cornfield and Orchard. Without major reinforcement, the defenders in the lane could not hold on much longer. Problem was, there were no major reinforcements to be had. By approximately noon time on that bloody Wednesday, Lee had put into combat all his available forces. Only A P Hill's famed "Light Division", which had stayed behind at Harper's Ferry to finish overseeing the surrender and paroling of the Federal garrision which surrendered there on September 14th, had not yet seen combat. And it was on the march, summoned in the early morning by an urgent message from Lee himself. Would it arrive in time to make a difference? Time alone would tell.

Barlow managed to maneuver his two small regiments onto a small knoll where they could deliver telling fire down on the defenders in that part of the Sunken Road. Brooke's attack alongside that of Barlow caused the Confederates defending the remainder of the road from the southern-bending elbow to leave the field. Barlow was able to left wheel his two units into the road, squarely across the Confederate line and enfilade the line down to the entrance of the Roulette Lane. The weary boys from George Anderson's brigade could stand it no longer, but began pulling back in small groups until it became a rout. The collapse of the right wing of the Confederate line created a disaster for the remaining Confederate defenders.

Robert Rhodes, commanding the brigade of Alabamians which held the road from roughly where the Roulette farmlane entered the Sunken Road to about the halfway point between the Roulette lane and the Mumma farm lane, had a first intimation of the imploding crisis when Lt. Col Jno. Lightfoot, who now commanded the Sixth Alabama after a fifth and final wounding took Col. J B Gordon out of the fight, came to him and asked for permission to swing back a portion of the regiment to meet this new Federal threat. Telling Lightfoot (who may himself have been wounded somewhat at this point, but it is hard to tell) he had permission to do so, Rhodes went on to explain that Lightfoot should have the regiment perform a right wheel to the rear to the new position and then continue the fight. Rhodes then turned his attention to assisting one of his aides, who had been wounded. (Rhodes would himself be slightly wounded by the impact of a piece of spent shell on his leg.) When Lightfoot returned to the regiment, he shouted, "Sixth Alabama, About Face!" The surviving members of the regiment, as one, about faced and marched out of the lane as best they could amidst incoming artillery rounds and the deadly showers of minie balls. At the same time as Lightfood shouted "About Face" to his regiment, an officer in one of the other Alabama regiments in Rhodes' brigade asked if the order applied to them as well. In the confusion and due to the desperate nature of the situation, Lightfoot said, "Yes." Rhodes was shocked to see his entire brigade About Face and retreat from the lane. Trying desperately to stop the retreat and even whacking some of the soldiers with the flat of his sword, Rhodes himself had to bow to the inevitable and he, too, headed for the rear. The Confederate defence in the road had, at long last, been broken. The victorious Federals clambered into the lane and, kneeling on the bodies of the defenders, fired after the retreating Confederates.

At this very moment, Longstreet and his staff, realizing the extreme danger to the entire army, found an abandoned artillery piece. Directing his staff to man the gun, Longstreet held the reins of their horses while they manned the artillery piece and helped other artillery crews to hold back a continued Federal advance. (This is the scene shown in Don Troiani's recent painting "Battery Longstreet".) While this was occurring, D H Hill (who had responsibility for the center of the Confederate line) personally organized some 200 survivors and led two brave but futile counterattacks. Some of the Confederates were so hungry they grabbed apples off of Henry Piper's apple trees in his orchard as they ran by and gobbled them down.

"Fighting Dick" or "Greasy Dick" Richardson was, almost simultaneously, attempting to organize artillery counter-battery fire and as support for the Federals in the lane so they could continue their advance. While helping a battery sight its guns, he received a horrible and painful wound in a shoulder, putting him out of action. (Taken to the Pry House, serving at the time as McClellan's head-quarters, Richardson lingered in terrible pain until dying there in early November.) The now looming crisis on the Federal side shortly necessitated an appearance of General McClellan on the field to discuss the situation with both General Sumner, commander of the Second Corps, and Brigadier W S Hancock, who had just been appointed commander of the division to replace the wounded Richardson. Hancock, like Richardson, wanted to keep up the pressure on the Confederates now that the Federals had the initiative. Sumner, shocked and more than a bit rattled by the disastrous results of the advance of Sedgwick's division into the West Woods, protested against any continued Federal advance. Fitz-John Porter, whose Corps constituted possibly the only major Federal reserve and which hardly saw any fighting that day, is alleged to have remarked to McClellan that his Corps was all that stood between Bobby Lee and Baltimore. McClellan listened to the advice of his most belligerent Corps commander (Sumner) and his most trusted friend in the Army of the Potomac (Porter) and told Hancock to remain where he was and prepare for any Confederate counter-attacks.

Writing in his memoirs after the War, E P Alexander remarked the moment of the break-through of elements of the Second Federal Corps into the Sunken Road and the Confederate withdrawal (with no fresh reserves and only a hastily cobbled together artillery screen) seemed to be witnessing the end of the Confederacy. The Battle of Sharpsburg was indeed already a horrific blood-letting and one which surviving veterans of both sides would be loath to discuss. That long and blood-soaked day was not even over. Another portion of the field and still more blood would be shed before the sun would go down on America's single most sanguinary day in all of her history.

© 2003
Editors Note: Mr. Mayers is a feature writer on the writers staff. He can be contacted at