Crisis At The Antietam

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Again it was time for reinforcements, and McClellan now sent in his Second Corps, led by a white-haired old regular named Edwin Sumner. Sumner had three divisions, each one numbering five or six thousand combat men, and he led one of these in across the burnt-out cornfield and into a woodland that flanked the Dunker church on the north and west, aiming to break in the extreme left of the Confederate line. His advance was unopposed, or nearly so, at first, and he reached a position where a wheel to the left would drive away the last of Jackson’s men—and then he ran into an ambush.

Portions of Lee’s army were still coming in, finishing the cruel hike from Harpers Ferry, and some of these reached him that morning in the nick of time. Lee sent them to Jackson’s aid, and they hit Sumner’s leading division in the flank, crumpling it with one savage blow and driving the whole division north in wild retreat with heavy loss. For a moment it looked as if the whole right of McClellan’s army might be involved in the rout, but Hooker’s huge line of guns on the ridge to the north was a rallying point, and the triumphant Confederates were driven back to the Dunker church position. Across the cornfield—which by now, in its littered forty acres, contained at least 10,000 casualties from both armies—the rival forces glared at each other; and although they continued to exchange rifle and artillery fire for the rest of the day, the real fighting in that part of the field was over … stalemate.

Now Sumner brought his other two divisions up to attack the Confederates in the sunken road. Attack after attack followed in bewildering sequence, with trim Union divisions moving up to the deadly little lane, breaking under Confederate fire, retreating, and reforming for another attack. The Confederate position here was very strong, but the Union advantage in numbers was great, and toward noon one of Summer’s division commanders, General Israel B. Richardson, gained a hilltop where his infantry could enfilade the sunken roadway. The Confederates wavered and finally broke, and the triumphant Northerners swarmed in and took full possession of the position. The lane was so fearfully heaped with dead and wounded men that soldiers on both sides referred to it, forever after, simply as Bloody Lane.

 

Lee now was on the edge of final defeat. The center of his position was lost, and there were no reinforcements in sight. General D. H. Hill had taken a musket and, with a handful of stragglers he had rallied, was fighting like a foot soldier, while Longstreet was helping the gunners in a mangled battery. One determined push, here and now, would have broken Lee’s line beyond recall, and the Army of Northern Virginia might have been destroyed. But McClellan was worried. The men who had taken Bloody Lane were exhausted, General Richardson was mortally wounded, it seemed to McClellan that the entire right of his line was frazzled and unable to fight any more, and the troops that might have been sent in to exploit this success he held in reserve lest Lee mount a counterattack. (A counterattack, just then, was the one thing Lee could not possibly manage; he could only hold on, hoping against hope that his men could stay where they were. But this truth never dawned on McClellan.)

So the fighting died out along the center, just as it had died out farther north, and now the action shifted to the southern end of the line—the chain of low hills overlooking Antietam Creek. Here McClellan’s Ninth Corps, under General Ambrose E. Burnside, moved into action.

It moved ineptly, for Burnside somehow fed his four divisions into action one at a time, instead of massing them for a concerted attack, and although he had a numerical advantage of four or five to one he was never able to make it fully effective. He succeeded, finally, in storming the little stone bridge that led across the stream and dusted the Confederates off the hills that overlooked it. He got one division across the creek by a ford, a mile downstream; and after a long delay, in which ammunition was brought forward and lines were rearranged, he sent his men moving on to take the town of Sharpsburg, get between Lee and the Potomac, and make complete victory possible.

There was not a great deal Lee could do to prevent this, apparently. His understrength army had been fearfully mangled. He had lost at least 10,000 men, and many of the survivors had been blown loose from their commands and could not be reassembled before dusk. The ones who remained were fighting as hard as men have ever fought, but the odds by now were overwhelming. Poorly as Burnside had put his divisions into action, they were about to win.