Sunday, September 20, 2009

Antietam 147th Anniversary - From the Cornfield to the Bloody Lane

We returned to the Cornfield to begin the morning portion of the anniversary hike. The unifying theme of this year’s hike was the Medal of Honor. Ranger Keith Snyder related the stories of men who earned their country’s highest honor on the field of Antietam. Twenty soldiers received the medal for actions at Antietam. Keith also noted the Confederate equivalent award, assignment to a Roll of Honor. Surviving veterans elected one member of each company in a regiment to the Roll. Not al regiments participated, and the Confederacy lacked the resources to produce a physical medal.

As Hooker’s initial assault cleared the Cornfield, Battery B, 4th US Artillery (Campbell) deployed astride the Hagerstown Turnpike. As the Iron Brigade went into action, their commander, John Gibbon, assisted in directing the fire of his old outfit. Jackson ordered his reserves forward. Hood’s Division swept into the Cornfield. The 1st Texas advanced along the western edge, their ranks decimated by a withering fire from the Iron Brigade and Campbell’s Battery to the north and west. A Federal soldier later retrieved their color in the midst of a heap thirteen bodies of the men who died to protect it.

The rest of the Texas Brigade wheeled toward the Hagerstown Turnpike and blazed away. Losses on both sides were terrific. The commander of Battery B went down in the hail of fire. A fifteen year old soldier, Johnny Cook, led his commander to safety, returned, and served on a gun crew during the hottest part of the fight. Another soldier, borrowed from the 23rd New York, found himself the lone survivor of his gun crew. Undaunted, he coolly loaded and fired on his own. Not satisfied, he rejoined his regiment and continued the fight. Both of these soldiers received the Medal of Honor.

On the opposite end of the Cornfield, near the East Woods, Law’s Brigade of Hood’s Division drove the Federals over the fence bordering the north edge of the field. The 2nd Mississippi regiment continued to advance and found themselves in a storm of shot and shell from front and flank. Federal reinforcements poured in and Hood’s Division relinquished their hard won position. The Cornfield had changed hands for the second time that day. The 2nd Mississippi regiment chose one man per company for its Roll of Honor. Keith read the names of each man aloud. Most of them gave their lives at Sharpsburg.

John Hoptak set the scene following the struggle for the Cornfield, when Edwin “Bull” Sumner rode onto the field and led Sedgwick’s Division to disaster in the West Woods. John has a way of evoking sympathy for the scapegoats of the Army of the Potomac at Antietam. Had Sumner been released earlier in the morning as he desired, and with his entire corps, perhaps his assault would have met with more success. John did not absolve Sumner, however, of the chaos wrought by the formation of Sedgwick’s Division in its attack, which he demonstrated physically, organizing our group into three successive lines.

After a short break, we moved on to Bloody Lane. Here again, French’s Division stumbled into the attack in three successive lines. Here we walked in the footsteps of the 5th Maryland Regiment. The sunken road, invisible at first, rises into view as you crest the higher ground in its front. The chilling aspect of rifles rested on fence rails awaiting the soldiers of French’s Division as they marched over this same ground truly comes home as you move in their footsteps. Ranger Brian Baracz, who provides much of the tactical detail at each stop, relates that Colonel Gordon of the 6th Alabama claimed the entire Federal front line fell at the first fire. Brian builds a comprehensive picture of the events of this chaotic battle using carefully selected anecdotes in the words of the soldiers themselves. That French’s units did not disintegrate entirely is a tribute to the bravery of these men and their officers. Keith described the heroism of Lieutenant Charles Tanner of the 1st Delaware, who advanced under the withering fire from the lane in an attempt to save his regiment’s colors from capture. He was wounded in the process, but did save the colors, and received the Medal of Honor for his bravery.

As French’s Division ground to a halt before this withering fire, Richardson’s Division assaulted the Bloody Lane to their left. In front of the Irish Brigade, about 100 yards from the lane, stood a fence that threatened to impede their advance. Private Samuel Wright recklessly exposed himself, tearing down the fence, doubtless saving many lives that may have been sacrificed in crossing the obstacle under fire. The Irish Brigade slugged it out with G.B Anderson’s men at a distance of perhaps 30 yards. In the confusion that ensued among the Confederate defenders of the lane as one officer after another was shot down, a misunderstood command resulted in the withdrawal of Rodes Brigade, and the entire position collapsed. Richardson, while attempting to organize another assault to carry the day, was wounded by an artillery shell before he was able to do so.

Later in the day, the VI Corps arrived to shore up the Federal defenses on this part of the field. Irwin’s Brigade faced the remnants of D.H Hill’s division on the Piper Farm. Why he ordered the 7th Maine regiment forward to attack rebel positions that had resisted much stronger assaults earlier in the day is beyond understanding. Perhaps he was drunk, as Major Thomas Hyde, commander of the 7th Maine, alleged afterward. The Maine men never had a chance, and suffered heavy casualties to no good purpose. But as Keith explained, the bravery and coolness under fire displayed by Major Hyde earned him a citation for the Medal of Honor. Richard Curran, an assistant surgeon in Irwin’s Brigade, also earned the medal on this part of the field, recklessly exposing himself far more than his responsibilities required to aid the wounded left in the wake of Irwin’s disastrous assault order. A sad close to the action on the northern end of the battlefield, and yet heroism and compassion still rise above the folly of this final act at the Bloody Lane in the battle of Antietam.

2 comments:

dehbird76 said...

Steven,

It was a pleasure to meet you while trekking the fields of Antietam on the anniversary. Much of what you write about escaped my notes, so I'm especially thankful for that! Wasn't that a unique and poignant moment when we were allowed to view Wright's actual Medal of Honor at the Sunken Road? I look forward to the southern portion post(s)! -Dylan

Steven Mynes said...

Hi Dylan,

Pleasure to meet you as well. Thanks for reminding me about the Wright medal. So much for my memory for details!

By the way, you can review all of the awards for the Antietam Campaign over at www.aotw.org (I used it to help me remember some of the names Keith mentioned during our hike).

Second half coming soon!

Steve