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.
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