Sunday, April 19, 2009

Nicodemus Heights (Spring Hike at Antietam National Battlefield)

Federal soldiers move forward through the dense stalks of corn, heavy with the dampness of the morning fog that lingers along the banks of the Antietam. They march with the grim determination of veterans. From another cornfield crowning the ridge to their right, the hollow boom of artillery shatters the silence and soon the shot knocks men and stalks about indiscriminately. First one gun, then another, until it seems the distant hilltop is alive with fire and smoke.

Atop Nicodemus Heights, Confederate gunners of Stuart’s Horse Artillery under Major John Pelham cannot believe their luck. One thousand yards to the front, the men of Hooker’s I Corps of the Army of the Potomac drive south into the Cornfield. Their guns are positioned squarely on the flank of Hooker’s assault. Seldom does artillery find itself with such a target of opportunity, and Pelham is not one to neglect it. For nearly ninety minutes, his batteries rain shot and shell on the hapless Federals.

Finally, as Hooker continues to advance toward the Dunker Church, the West Woods screens his right, and Pelham’s gunners withdraw south to Hauser’s Ridge. Soon Sedgwick’s division of the Second Corps of the Army of the Potomac will drive to the edge of the woods, right beneath the muzzles of Pelham’s guns. Caught in a merciless rain of shell and canister from their front and the scything volleys of rebel infantry attacking their left, Sedgwick’s division disintegrates and will not fight again this day.

A number of Federal officers called attention to the commanding artillery position on their right, but no troops could be spared from the main effort. And as the tide of battle shifted south and the rebel guns shifted their position accordingly, the matter was perhaps forgotten.

Today, Nicodemus Heights lies entirely on private property. Though the crest of the hill is still visible beyond the Hagerstown Pike to the west of the Miller Cornfield, trees have obscured much of the field of fire enjoyed by Pelham’s gunners on the day of the battle. Early Spring provides the best opportunity to understand the significance of this ground in the morning phase of the battle of Antietam. Ranger Brian Baracz recently conducted a tour of Nicodemus Heights and Hauser’s Ridge, and I had the opportunity to explore this area of the battlefield that is normally inaccessible to the public.

We started off from the North Woods and crossed the Hagerstown Pike to the Nicodemus farm. The elevation dropped sharply as we moved across the Pike. A series of small hillocks mark the site of the Nicodemus house, perhaps 200 yards to the west. Confederate reports mention “leapfrogging” among these later in the day as they changed position to present a more difficult target to Federal gunners on the Poffenberger farm and in the Cornfield. The field of fire from these positions is now largely obscured by trees.

The ground dipped once again as we moved west toward Nicodemus Heights, which rises so abruptly one wonders how Pelham’s gunners managed to deploy their pieces on its crest. The view from the crest encompasses the scene of the morning’s fight from the North Woods to the Cornfield at a distance of approximately 1000 yards – effective range for both smoothbore and rifled guns. The sharp crest of the heights presents a narrow target, and Brian noted that a large number of Federal rounds were found imbedded in the steep western face of the hill. The West Woods obscures the battlefield to the south of the Cornfield. Once Hooker’s advance cleared the Miller farm, Pelham’s gunners limbered up and headed south in search of a more effective position. Strangely, no Federal forces occupied the ground despite its obvious tactical advantages.

Up next: Confederate Artillery on Hauser’s Ridge Shatters Sedgwick’s Assault, plus pictures from the hike.

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