Monday, December 29, 2008

Antietam 146th Anniversary Commemoration, Part 4 - The I and XII Corps at Antietam

The quiet, pastoral setting of the Cornfield and East Woods at Antietam National Battlefield stands in stark contrast to the ferocity of the struggle waged by veterans of the Army of Northern Virginia against some of the most experienced and greenest troops in the Army of the Potomac. Here the Iron Brigade and the Pennsylvania Reserves faced the likes of Hood’s Texans and the Louisiana “Tigers.”

The Federal I Corps under Major General “Fighting” Joe Hooker and the XII Corps under Major General Joseph K. Mansfield, fresh from a desk in Washington, crossed the Antietam at the Upper Bridge and nearby fords and advanced to attack Jackson’s wing of Lee’s army.

After a short discussion of the advance of the I Corps from the area of the North Woods, Brian guided us through the East Woods and across the fields where the men of the XII Corps deployed. Brian has a real knack for finding challenging terrain to explore. Here, it mostly consisted of a few briars and tall grass soaked with the morning dew. We paused to consider Mansfield’s foolhardy and fatal attempt to stop his troops from firing into their own men, only to suffer a mortal wound after discovering the men in his front were indeed the enemy.

The XII Corps was a patchwork organization built upon the nucleus of Banks’s corps, men who had fought with varying degrees of success against Jackson’s men in the Valley. New regiments joined the corps prior to Antietam, often exceeding the existing strength of their parent brigades. To describe these new men as green understates the sad fact that many had yet to master even the rudiments of military drill. And yet several of these regiments fought tenaciously when not called upon to execute complex maneuvers.

As we tramped back through the East Woods toward the southeast corner of the Cornfield, Brian discussed the open nature of the managed woodlots framing this section of the battlefield. He also paused here to consider the experience of the 6th Georgia Infantry. This regiment sustained horrific losses resisting the advance of XII Corps through the woods and the increasing pressure of Federal infantry battling for control of the Cornfield.

The hike concluded with an overview of the fighting in the Cornfield. I will be covering the Cornfield in more detail next year once the weather warms and I am able to get in a few more hikes. We returned to our starting point in the North Woods with a greater appreciation of the efforts of the men of the Union I and XII Corps in one of the fiercest struggles of the war.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

The Christmas Stocking

Our family scaled back a bit for Christmas this year, but my stocking nevertheless contained two gems I look forward to reading in the new year. The first, Antietam, South Mountain, and Harpers Ferry: A Battlefield Guide, by Ethan S. Rafuse, will be handy as I plan to expand my study of the Antietam campaign and to cover the battlefield itself in more depth next year. I also received Cox: Personal Recollections of the Civil War-West Virginia, Kanawha Valley, Gauley Bridge, Cotton Mountain, South Mountain, Antietam, the Morgan Raid & the East Tennessee Campaign - Volume 1. I’ve had Jacob D. Cox's memoir on my Amazon wish list for some time now, so it is a welcome addition to my library. I often pass by the sites of Kanawha Valley campaign on my way to visit relatives in West Virginia. I hope to include some of these sites in my postings next year as well.

A belated Merry Christmas to all and best wishes for a happy and successful New Year. I am polishing up my final posts on the Antietam Anniversary hikes and will post them shortly.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Antietam 146th Anniversary Commemoration, Part 3

From Antietam 146th Anniversary Commemoration, Part 3 - The Middle Bridge

Many historians conveniently divide the battle of Antietam into morning, midday, and afternoon phases. This oversimplifies a complex battle and ignores the fighting around the Middle Bridge entirely. True, this was not one of the decisive contests of the battle, but understanding the action in this neglected area of the battlefield brings us one step closer to a more comprehensive picture of Antietam.

Ranger Brian Baracz led us over some of the most difficult terrain on the battlefield. West of the Middle Bridge, the typically rolling terrain condenses into a series of steep hills and deep ravines feeding into the valley of the Antietam, similar to the terrain faced by the IX Corps in their ill-fated advance later in the day. Brian has a knack for finding challenging terrain. He also finds quotes from reports, letters, and diaries that illustrate the salient points of the fighting and the experience of the men on the firing line.

We started off down the Boonsboro Pike, crossed at Rodman Avenue, and turned southeast along a recently restored stone wall bisecting the advanced position of Federal skirmishers who pressured rebel infantry and artillery cobbled together for the defense of Cemetery Hill (1). Continuing on, we crested the ridge and descended through a ravine to the banks of Antietam Creek, picking up a new trail along the creek to the Newcomer farm. The fields along the creek bottom here were filled with cavalrymen of the Army of the Potomac on September 17, 1862 (2). They waited in vain for an opportunity to sweep the rebel army from the field in a grand cavalry charge. Only a few batteries of horse artillery were engaged. This section of the trail will form a part of the Three Farms Trail, another step in the effort to create a series of linked trails covering the entire battlefield. Brian also informed us the park will soon acquire the Newcomer House, which was remodeled as a museum by its previous owner and will likely serve the same purpose in the future.

As skirmishers from the regiments of U.S. Regulars secured the area around he Newcomer Farm, Federal artillery crossed at the Middle Bridge and deployed on the heights beyond (3). Union guns positioned here dueled with rebel cannon posted on Cemetery Hill and beyond it to the south during the afternoon as the Regulars skirmished in the fields beyond, pushing Lee’s center to the breaking point. But General George Sykes, commanding the division of Regulars, chose discretion over valor and failed to push his advantage. Once again, as at other points on this bloody field, Lee’s army was saved by stubborn resistance and the unwillingness of Federal commanders to make one final push.

Despite Sykes’s caution, Federal skirmished managed to push nearly to the outskirts of Sharpsburg. A small triangular filed just west of the southern extension of Bloody Lane where it joins the Boonsboro Pike marks the position of the 4th U.S. Infantry. Skirmishers from this regiment pressed up the hill beyond before Sykes recalled them lat in the afternoon (4). The Hagerstown Pike is only a few hundred yards over the crest of the ridge beyond. Had McClellan pushed Sykes more aggressively and perhaps committed the Sixth Corps to the fray, Lee’s center must have collapsed under the strain. Perhaps not, but such are the perennial what-ifs of the battle of Antietam.

(Next Up: The I and XII Corps at Antietam with Ranger Brian Baracz)

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Antietam 146th Anniversary Commemoration, Part 2

After a short break, I joined Ranger Mike Gamble to explore the route of the Irish Brigade in its legendary assault on the Bloody Lane. Mike’s guided walks are notable because he always provides maps with major points of interest noted for his particular subject. We started off along the trace of a lane between the Mumma and Roulette farms. The Mumma Farm is almost entirely a reconstruction, as the rebels burned the original structure, but the Roulette house maintains much of its original appearance. Mike pointed out the “witness hinges” on the cellar door of the house, and the Cultural Resources staff detailed some of the recent restoration efforts on several of the outbuildings.

Continuing along the Roulette Lane, we filed off into the ravine where the Irish Brigade formed up. Here the officers ordered packs down, and the men prepared to assault the Sunken Road. As the brigade left the shelter of the ravine, fire from rebel skirmishers on the crest of the ridge north of the lane began to tell. All of the regiments of the brigade, with the exception of the 29th Massachusetts, were armed with smoothbore muskets. Brigadier General Thomas Francis Meagher, leading his men from horseback, planned to deliver three volleys once he closed the distance to the road and then pitch in with the bayonet and trust to the impetuosity of Irish soldiers in close combat.

Soon Meagher was down – fallen from his horse. Neither Mike nor other historians I have questioned believe Meagher was drunk, as some have claimed. But the Irish fought on. The 29th Massachusetts, advancing on the right center of the brigade, approached on the reverse slope of the ridge north of the lane where the elevation shielded them from rebel musketry. This, and the superior range of their rifled muskets, combined to keep their casualties lower than the other regiments of the brigade. The 63rd, 69th, and 88th New York regiments were not so lucky. With most of the regimental commanders down and ammunition running low, the Irish brigade retired, and left the seizure of the Bloody Lane to Caldwell’s Brigade.

(Next Up: The Middle Bridge hike with Ranger Brian Baracz)