- Historic Sites
The Terrible Price Of Freedom
The bloodiest day’s fighting in our nation’s history took place on ground that has hardly changed since 1862. Antietam today offers a unique chance to grasp what a great Civil War battle was actually like.
April 1989 | Volume 40, Issue 3
The sustained intensity of the morning’s fighting was unmatched in the war. The Cornfield was a maelstrom of unbelievable violence and noise.
At a critical moment John B. Hood’s reinforcing division came storming out of the West Woods and slanted across the meadow to form an attacking line that drove the Yankees back into the Cornfield. The 1st Texas Regiment pursued recklessly and was torn apart by George G. Meade’s Pennsylvania division posted in reserve along the northern edge of the corn. In twenty minutes the 1st Texas lost 82 percent of its men, including eight color bearers shot down in rapid succession.
At the same time, on the western edge of the Cornfield along the post-and-rail fence bordering the Hagerstown turnpike, there was a furious melee between Hood’s men and the Yankees who had gained a foothold in the West Woods. Battery B poured a killing fire of canisters—containers of cast-iron balls that produced the effect of huge shotgun blasts—into the Rebel attackers. In turn so many of the gunners were shot down that infantry volunteers had to serve the cannon. Finally the momentum of Hood’s counterattack was stemmed. “Whole ranks went down, and after we got possession of the field, dead men were found piled on top of each other,” a Union officer recalled. Hooker’s men and Jackson’s had shot each other to pieces to produce a stalemate.
Continuing eastward along Cornfield Avenue and then left (north) on the Smoketown road brings the visitor into the East Woods. In 1862 this woodlot was considerably larger than it is now, extending east of the Smoketown road and north to Mansfield Avenue. For a time Hood’s men held on in here, sniping Indian-style from behind trees and piles of cordwood. The Mansfield monument, at the intersection of the Smoketown and Monument roads, marks the approximate spot where Maj. Gen. Joseph K. F. Mansfield, commander of the XII Corps, was mortally wounded. Mansfield had long sought a combat command and had arrived only two days before to take over the XII Corps. His corps contained a number of raw new regiments, with their equally raw officers, and the generals literally had to lead them to battle and show them how to form up. As one general wrote, he was lucky enough to find a fence at the spot where the regiment was supposed to go, and he simply told the rookies to line up behind it. Mansfield was doing this sort of subaltern’s work when he took a bullet through the chest. He was one of eighteen Union and Confederate general officers hit that day, six of them fatally.
The XII Corps came onto the field too late to strengthen the attack of the I Corps but in time to patch the holes Hood’s counterattack had punched in it. There was renewed heavy fighting all across the Miller farm. A division of the XII Corps, starting from about the spot where General Mansfield fell, broke through and drove for the West Woods, setting the white Dunker church as its target. This offensive is traced by turning around and following the Smoketown road to its intersection with the Hagerstown turnpike.
The Dunker church is one of Antietam’s best-known landmarks. (The original church was wrecked by a storm in 1921, and the present building is a reconstruction using what materials could be salvaged.) The German Baptist Brethren, called Dunkers for their practice of baptism by total immersion, regarded steeples as one of the vanities of man, and consequently most of Antietam’s soldiers mistook their church for a schoolhouse. One of the new regiments of the XII Corps, the 125th Pennsylvania, rushed into the West Woods around the Dunker church, reaching the high-water mark of this Federal offensive.
Continuing to command by fits and starts, McClellan had delayed committing his powerful II Corps, and only now did it begin to appear on the field. John Sedgwick’s division, led personally by the corps commander, Edwin V. Sumner, crossed the Antietam and marched due west (from the three o’clock position) through the East Woods and the Cornfield and across the Hagerstown pike north of the Dunker church. Sumner mistakenly believed he was well beyond the Confederate flank and so advanced into the West Woods in three closely spaced quarter-mile-wide lines, intending to left-face beyond the woods and sweep down behind the enemy positions. Half an hour earlier he might have succeeded. Now, instead, the entire division was wrecked by a surprise flank attack by Stonewall Jackson, using reinforcements that Lee had rushed to him.