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)

1 comment:

Brian Downey said...

Another great walk - thanks Steve! What a fine series about the battle these have become. More fuel for an active 2009 season, too.

I posted (scroll down) about an interesting post-War discussion of the "what-if" from some of the participants. Tim Reese wrote an analytical piece for AotW a few years back too. I would argue that it wasn't Sykes, particularly, who quashed the idea of an assault from the Middle Bridge.