Sunday, June 15, 2008

Antietam: The Final Attack Trail Part 1

On a recent visit to Antietam Battlefield I hiked the Final Attack Trail for the second time. The trail winds across the Otto Farm and the Forty Acre Cornfield, a tortured landscape of deep ravines and sharp elevations. Here, the advance of the Federal Ninth Corps unraveled under the pressure of a slashing flank attack by veterans of AP Hill’s Light Division in the final act of the bloodiest day in American history.

I set off with my backpack stuffed with books, maps, and a bottle of water. I carried along Carmen’s history of the campaign, Antietam: The Soldier’s Battle, and the War College guide. For hikes at Antietam, I always carry Trailhead Graphics’ battlefield contour map, and I also printed out two detailed views of the area extracted from the Carmen-Cope maps of the situation at 3:30pm and 4:20pm (these include unit positions). More on the Carmen-Cope maps in a later post. Many thanks to Antietam on the Web, where I first learned of this excellent resource. A narrative of the action as I understand it follows.

Harland’s Brigade of Rodman’s Division held the extreme left of the IX Corps line. The 11th Connecticut regiment of the brigade, recovering from its costly skirmish at the Rohrbach Bridge, remained behind. The 4th Rhode Island deployed on the left, the green 16th Connecticut in the center, and the 8th Connecticut on the right, linking up with Fairchild’s Brigade (see map above).

The two left regiments advanced into the ravine on the eastern end of the Forty Acre Cornfield and halted to await further orders, while the 8th Connecticut continued to advance along with Fairchild’s men. A gap opened in the center of the brigade just as Hill’s Division arrived on the scene. Gregg’s veteran South Carolina brigade seized the high ground at the southern and western edges of the cornfield (see picture map above).

One of Gregg’s regiments carried a flag that appeared to be the stars and stripes. Two officers and a color bearer from the 16th CT moved forward to investigate. Gregg’s men shot down the 16th CT’s color bearer within yards of their position and the two officers sprinted back to the regiment. Some of Gregg’s men may have been wearing coats or trousers from Federal uniforms captured at Harper’s Ferry, though whether this was apparent in the head high corn is debatable.

As Gregg’s men advanced, they unleashed a scathing volley. The Connecticut men had never loaded their rifles and had mastered only the rudiments of drill, a situation all too common in the Army of the Potomac in this campaign. Men fell, confusion reigned, orders were misunderstood. The 16th broke and ran to the rear, dragging the right wing of the 4th Rhode Island along with them in their haste to escape.

Ewing’s Brigade of the Kanawha Division was close behind in support of Rodman’s Division. As the demoralized men of the 16th CT and 4th RI streamed past, the security of the IX Corps flank, and the fate of its offensive, passed into their hands. More on that in my next post.

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