The Terrible Price Of Freedom

The Confederates bowled past the Dunker church, pouring out a terrible fire, and the Yankees lost twenty-three hundred men in fifteen minutes.

Jackson’s assault was a classic example of how devastating such a flank attack could be. The ground over which it took place is reached by going north on the Hagerstown turnpike and then taking the two left turnings off the pike, first the road to the Philadelphia monument and then Starke Avenue. There was no way the Federal regiments, aligned as they were and hit “end on,” could wheel to face the assault without overlapping. Some panicked units fired into neighboring units; others were decimated without being able to return fire at all. The Confederates bowled northward through the West Woods past the Dunker church, sending the rookie soldiers of the 125th Pennsylvania flying before them, and poured a terrible fire into Sedgwick’s division from three sides. The Yankees lost twenty-three hundred men in less than fifteen minutes. The survivors fled all the way to present-day Mansfield Avenue, from which Joe Hooker (and today’s visitor) had set out earlier.

Although there would be another, later outburst of action around the Dunker church, the repulse of Sedgwick’s division essentially marked the end of the fighting on the northern flank and closed the first act of the Antietam drama. Act Two opened by misdirection and accident. The second of the II Corps divisions, under William H. French, was late in crossing the Antietam and lost track of where Sedgwick’s division had gone, and French decided to turn off to the left, or south. Soon he stumbled into the Confederates defending the center of Lee’s line at what would be called the Sunken Road or, more descriptively, Bloody Lane.

The Sunken Road, reached now by Richardson Avenue, was a farm lane leading to a local gristmill that over the decades had been worn down by heavily loaded wagons and erosion until its surface was several feet below the fields on either side. It was a natural trench that faced the Federals in the shape of a shallow V, made even stronger defensively by a low ridge running along in front of it.

French’s men, later reinforced by Israel B. Richardson’s division, had to cross this ridge before they could even see their target, fifty to eighty yards away. As one stands today in this grassy depression, with its neat bordering fences, the images of that September day become almost overwhelming. Clearly, it was virtually impossible for the Rebels in this spot to miss the figures of the charging Yankees silhouetted against the skyline. Most of the soldiers at Antietam were farm boys, and they came easily on a figure of speech to describe what they saw at Bloody Lane. His regiment took careful aim and fired a volley, one Confederate wrote, “which brought down the enemy as grain falls before a reaper.”

The slaughter was repeated as French and then Richardson threw brigade after brigade against the impregnable position. Suddenly, by yet another mischance, the Bloody Lane fighting took a new turn. A young Confederate officer, misunderstanding his instructions, ordered part of the line abandoned. A similar misunderstanding sent other defenders scrambling for the rear. The Federals at the point of the V crowded forward to deliver a murderous fire left and right down the length of the enemy lines. Now it was their targets that were impossible to miss. “In this road there lay so many dead rebels that they formed a line which one might have walked upon as far as I could see,” a New Hampshire soldier recalled. The Confederates fell back through the Henry Piper farmstead behind the Sunken Road. Lee’s last reserves were already committed. He and his lieutenants worked desperately to form a last-ditch line of artillery on the Piper farm and along the Hagerstown turnpike.

McClellan was called on for reinforcements and artillery to press the newly won advantage. None were available. He was hoarding all his reserves of men and guns to meet the counterattack he expected any moment from the massive Rebel army. His troops in front of Bloody Lane were told only to hold their positions. The chance to cut Lee’s army in two was wasted. One-third of the Army of the Potomac would not fire a shot on September 17, and one leaves this spot, so terrible in its silent eloquence, in wonder at the obtuseness of George McClellan.

A final act remained to be played out. Any Antietam battlefield tour includes the famous and picturesque Burnside Bridge, on Lee’s right (southern) flank. By McClellan’s design Ambrose E. Burnside’s IX Corps was supposed to envelop Lee’s right while Hooker and his supporting forces enveloped his left, but this never happened. McClellan held off ordering Burnside to attack until fresh troops arrived to swell his defensive reserves, and then the fumbling Burnside could not discover any way to get quickly across Antietam Creek.