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Chapter
This webpage reproduces a chapter of
R. E. Lee: A Biography

by Douglas Southall Freeman

published by Charles Scribner's Sons,
New York and London, 1934

The text, and illustrations except as noted, are in the public domain.


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Vol. II
p378
Chapter XXVI

With Eyes on the Harpers Ferry Road

Sharpsburg appeared in the morning light of September 15, 1862, as a quiet, substantially built little town lying under one of a series of ridges between the sluggish Antietam Creek and the winding Potomac. The course of the river is from north to south until it reaches a point about three miles southwest of Sharpsburg, where it turns almost directly east. The meandering Antietam runs almost due south into the river. The average depth of position between the creek and the river is about three miles. The ground Lee had chosen for his concentration was thus a peninsula between the Antietam and the Potomac, reasonably strong but dangerously shallow in case of disaster. In rear of it was only one good ford, about a mile and a half below Shepherdstown.1

Slowly and doggedly Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Longstreet's and Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.D. H. Hill's divisions tramped down from Centreville, by way of the Boonsboro and Sharpsburg road, crossed the creek, and took positions on either side of the road. Their first dispositions were nearly parallel to the Antietam and east of the town. All the morning the dusty veterans moved toward the town and turned to right and to left before they reached it.2 Lee personally helped to put the last of them into position. "We will make our stand on those hills," he said, as he told the men where to go.3 They were only 18,000, all told — such had been the price of Lee's dispersion of force — and they seemed a pitifully small command with which to face the army they knew was in pursuit. Most of the soldiers were hungry, too, for the commissary had broken down, and few rations were to be had by the roadside.

About noon4 a courier galloped up the road from Shepherdstown p379 and came to Lee's temporary quarters. He brought a message from Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Jackson, written in the familiar, unsoldierly handwriting of "Stonewall." General Lee broke the seal and read:

Near 8 A.M., September 15, 1862.

General: Through God's blessing, Harpers Ferry and its garrison are to be surrendered. As Hill's troops have borne the heaviest part in the engagement, he will be left in command until the prisoners and public property shall be disposed of, unless you direct otherwise. The other forces can move off this evening so soon as they get their rations. To what place shall they move? I write at this time in order that you may be apprised of the condition of things. You may expect to hear from me again today after I get more information respecting the number of prisoners, etc.

Respectfully,                         
T. J. Jackson,          
Major-General.5

"That is indeed good news," said Lee, "let it be announced to the troops."6 Quickly the word was passed; the men seemed charged with new courage when they heard it. The worst danger from the division of the army would soon be over; for Lee, of course, immediately ordered Jackson's stout-hearted brigades to rejoin the main army as soon as possible. Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.McLaws and Walker, likewise relieved from detached duty by the capture of Harpers Ferry, would also proceed promptly to Sharpsburg. This prospect of an early reconcentration of his whole army seemed to answer the question Lee had asked himself at dawn. He could now afford to invite attack on the Maryland side and need not forego the advantage of prospective manoeuvre in the enemy's country or take a chance of losing what Jackson had captured at Harpers Ferry.

Lee was over his map at 2 P.M., studying troop positions and roads,7 when a message from Fitz Lee advised him that the enemy was approaching the Antietam.8 Soon the Union troops began to p380 appear. Steadily through the afternoon, moving clouds of dust, far-off flags and glimpses of blue on distant hills showed that the Federals were coming up in great strength. They made no attack, however. Only their fine, long-range artillery warned the Confederates of what was in store for them.9 Lee watched guns and moving columns with apparent unconcern. So confident was Lee of this that he did not hesitate to express the opinion that the next day would pass without a battle.10

Before the 15th ended, Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Stuart the ubiquitous rode over from Harpers Ferry with fuller news of what had befallen Jackson. He had a tale to tell of successes that more than counterbalanced the losses at South Mountain. Moving by Williamsport, Light's Ford, and Martinsburg, Jackson had come in sight of Bolivar Heights, in rear of Harpers Ferry, about 11 A.M. on the 13th.11 Walker had failed to destroy the aqueduct at the mouth of the Monocacy but had reached Loudoun Heights on the afternoon of the 13th.12 McLaws had encountered some opposition from the strong Federal positions on Maryland Heights but had managed to get his troops on the crest by 4:30 P.M. the same day. On the 14th Jackson had made his dispositions very skillfully and had seized commanding ground behind the town.13 McLaws had been gravely threatened that day when the Federals had broken through Crampton's Gap, but with some help from Stuart he had drawn his lines to face the enemy in his rear. He had been in as instant danger as Lee had supposed on the night of the 14th, but fortunately he had not been pushed.14 By the morning of the 15th, the Federals at Harpers Ferry had been so completely under the Southern artillery that the garrison had surrendered. Only a small cavalry command had escaped. More than 11,000 men, 73 guns, about 13,000 small arms, and vast miscellaneous stores had been captured.15 When Stuart had left, the way had been clear p381 for McLaws to cross to Harpers Ferry. As the garrison at Martinsburg had fled to Harpers Ferry and had been included in the capitulation, the line of communications via the Shenandoah Valley was clear, the roads were open, and the detached units could rejoin the Army of Northern Virginia as soon as they could cover the ground from Harpers Ferry to Sharpsburg. The situation was immensely bettered. But for the rapid and unexplained advance of the Federals, all Lee's misgivings of the night of the 14th-15th would have been dissipated by the news Stuart brought, and the campaign of manoeuvre could have swept northward according to the original plan.

Refreshed by sound sleep, Lee on the morning of September 16 exhibited no fear of the fast-swelling mass of Federals in front of him. "If he had had a well-equipped army of 100,000 veterans at his back," wrote a comrade who saw him that day, "he could not have appeared more composed and confident."16 He had as yet only the 18,000 infantry who had marched from South Mountain. The great bends of the Potomac behind his lines were like the coils of a snake waiting to envelop him. But not once did he hint of any withdrawal across the Potomac. He had to allow time for the removal of the booty taken at Harpers Ferry; he was dealing with a cautious adversary who had never yet fought an offensive battle; he would soon have together all the units of an unbeaten army that had established its superiority over Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Pope's greater host only a little more than a fortnight before. A quick withdrawal in the face of his proclamation to the people of Maryland would mean the definite and probably the permanent loss of that state to the Confederacy. The considerations that brought him across the Potomac kept him there: if Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.McClellan should attack and could be defeated, all the promising manoeuvres Lee had projected at Frederick might still be executed, whereas retreat would restore the morale of the Army of the Potomac and would carry the war back into the strife-swept counties of Virginia, ever nearer and nearer to Richmond.

So, on the 16th, Lee waited. When the sun was at its highest, dust along the road from the Potomac heralded the approach of a column. A little after 12 o'clock, Jackson and Walker rode up p382 to headquarters and reported that their troops were behind them, en route to Sharpsburg. Lee shook the hands of the two generals and congratulated them on the outcome of the operations at Harpers Ferry. With their aid, he said, he felt he could hold his ground until the arrival of the three missing divisions of A. P. Hill, R. H. Anderson, and McLaws, which he expected to come up during the day.17 Jackson's troops, on arrival, were directed to the left.18 Walker's men, who had marched behind Jackson,19 were given some rest and, at 4 P.M. received instructions to move before light the next morning and to occupy the extreme right of the Confederate position.20

The artillery had been active most of the forenoon. As Lee had gone through Sharpsburg, unconscious of danger and leading Traveller by the bridle, he had cautioned passing gunners not to waste their ammunition in an idle duel with the Federal batteries but to save it for the infantry,21 which was crossing the Antietam, out of range, and was massing opposite the Confederate left. About sundown, the Union artillery quickened its fire on that part of the front. Soon there came to Lee's ears the rattle of musketry and the shouts of engaging troops. The enemy was attacking, but as his advance was against Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Hood's veteran division, which had never yielded ground, Lee probably felt no concern. The attack ended with darkness and left the opposing wings about where they had stood when it commenced.22

At headquarters, during the evening, Lee waited in vain for the arrival of the three divisions that Jackson had left on the south side of the river. Their absence began to be serious, for everything indicated that the enemy would attack the next day. It would be a difficult matter to hold off the whole of the Army of the Potomac if three divisions were missing. A hurried message was dispatched to A. P. Hill to hurry forward with all speed.23 Soon Stuart rode up for orders and was sent to the Confederate left, where the ground seemed to offer some opening for a possible counterstroke.24 Hood came, also, with a report that his p383 men had received only half a ration of beef in three days. They were exhausted, he said, and should be relieved from the front line in order to they might rest and cook rations. Lee was sensitive to their distress but in the absence of A. P. Hill, Anderson, and McLaws, he had to admit to Hood that he did not have a division to put in his place. He could only suggest that Hood go to Jackson and ask if he could send part of a division to man the front Hood had occupied. Hood went and found Jackson willing to help him but so conscious of the odds the army would have to face on the morrow that he exacted a promise from Hood to bring his troops back into line if Jackson needed them in the morning.25 At 10 o'clock Hood's men slipped silently to the rear, and Lawton and Trimble of Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Ewell's division moved into their places.26 A gentle rain was falling then, but the tired veterans would have slept on in spite of it had not a nervous picket-firing swept often and loudly all the long, dark lines that lay across the hills. It was a brief last night of earth for hundreds of the soldiers, such a night as the army had not known since the field of Seven Pines. Always before, the graycoats had expected to attack; now they must stand on the defensive. Odds they had always faced, and with confidence; this time, the odds were appalling. Both because of straggling and because of the arrival of the enemy before the whole army had been reconcentrated, they numbered less than 25,000, artillery and cavalry included. Twenty-four brigades faced forty-four,27 with strong Federal reserves close at hand. Even if all the troops engaged in the Harpers Ferry operations could be brought up, Lee would have less than 40,000 with which to face twice that number.

The bivouac of this ghost of an army was just to the east of a road that starts at the Potomac and runs northward to Sharpsburg and thence in the same direction toward Hagerstown. The road is roughly parallel to the Antietam on the east and to the Potomac on the west; it defends the hills around Sharpsburg from an attack across the Antietam and covers the crossings of the river. From the highway, rounded ridges go down to the Potomac. The ravines among them are not generally precipitous but p384 they were to have a singular influence on the action that was soon to open. For these ridges and ravines segmented the battlefield so completely that men on the right could not see what was happening on the centre, nor those on the centre all that occurred on the left. The Antietam, in fact, offered not one battleground, but three, on each of which, ere another day passed, the dead were to lie in hecatombs.

Beginning at a point about a mile and a half south of the town, the right extended to the road that runs from Boonsboro to Sharpsburg. With a small cavalry force on the flank, the southern end of this part of the front, which was strongly defended by hills overlooking the creek, was to be occupied at daylight by J. G. Walker's division of 3200.28 On his left, extending as far as the Boonsboro-Sharpsburg road, already was D. R. Jones's division of Longstreet's command, only 2430 effectives, well supported by artillery.29 Flanking the Boonsboro-Sharpsburg road on either side was Evans, with his own and G. T. Anderson's brigades, some 2600 men.30 North of the road from Boonsboro to Sharpsburg was a strong artillery force on high ground, and then D. H. Hill's division, reduced by straggling and by losses at South Mountain to hardly more than 3000 men. Its line extended irregularly northward from the road for slightly more than a mile and a quarter. Most of the division was on a little farm road subsequently bearing the sinister name of "Bloody Lane." The left brigade of D. H. Hill under General Ripley, was about a quarter of a mile south of a grove known after the battle as the East Wood. Hill's line faced slightly east of north and had in support the admirable artillery of Stephen D. Lee, in a fine position just southeast of a whitewashed Dunker church that was a landmark on the Sharpsburg-Hagerstown road.


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Position of that part of the Army of Northern Virginia
in the immediate vicinity of Sharpsburg at daylight, September 17, 1862.

Opposite the East Wood, in advance of Ripley, was Lawton's scratch command, consisting of his own and Trimble's brigades. The front held by these units bent sharply to the westward opposite the East Wood, so that Lawton's brigade faced almost due north. Beyond Lawton's left was Jackson's old division under Brigadier General J. R. Jones, plus Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Early's brigade of Lawton's p385 division.31 On J. R. Jones's left was Stuart's cavalry, with its artillery. The distance from Lawton's right, where it covered Ripley, to the extreme left flank of the infantry was about three-quarters of a mile. Approximately 5000 infantry were on this p386 sector, and beyond them about 3000 cavalry,32 with Hood's 2400 infantry in immediate reserve.33 This was not a heavy concentration, but it was the best that Lee could present, despite the fact that McClellan had incautiously, almost ostentatiously, massed troops in that quarter during the afternoon of the 16th as if to advertise his intention of attacking there.34 Lee had no breastworks on any part of his line.35 About 50 batteries, slightly more than 200 guns and 3000 men, were on the field, though some of them were in exposed positions where they could not cope with the heavier metal of the enemy. Except for Hood's division, which was subject to call by Jackson at any time, no reserves were at hand and none could be expected until McLaws and R. H. Anderson arrived in advance of A. P. Hill. They were expected hourly — but when would they come up?


The Author's Notes:

1 Plates XXVIII and XXIX in the Atlas of the Official Records offer the best maps, except for the remarkable and detailed Atlas of the Battlefield of Antietam, prepared under the direction of the Antietam Battlefield Board (1904).

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2 Longstreet, 233.

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3 Morgan, 141.

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4 Long, 216.

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5 O. R., 19, part 1, p951.

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6 Owen, 139.

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7 White, 211.

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8 Fitz Lee had skillfully delayed the enemy's advance after the blue columns had begun to stream down Turner's Gap at 8 A.M., and at this time he was retiring slowly before them (O. R., 19, part 1, p148).

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9 O. R., 19, part 1, p844; Longstreet, 234.

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10 Owen, 139.

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11 O. R., 19, part 1, p953.

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12 O. R., 19, part 1, p913.

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13 O. R., 19, part 1, p954.

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14 O. R., 19, part 1, pp826, 854‑55, 862‑64, 870; McDaniel, 11; History of Kershaw's Brigade, 147 ff.

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15 O. R., 19, part 1, pp954‑55.

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16 General J. G. Walker in 2 B. and L., 675.

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17 O. R., 19, part 1, p141; 2 B. and L., 675.

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18 O. R., 19, part 1, p955.

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19 O. R., 19, part 1, p148.

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20B. and L., 675; O. R., 19, part 1, p914.

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21 Owen, 141.

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22 O. R., 19, part 1, pp148, 923; Hood, 42.

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23 O. R., 19, part 1, p981.

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24 1 von Borcke, 229.

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25 Hood, 42; Longstreet, 237.

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26 O. R., 19, part 1, p149.

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27 Taylor's Four Years, 73; 2 D. H. Hill, 407.

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28 O. R., 19, part 1, p914; Taylor's Four Years, 72.

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29 O. R., 19, part 1, p886.

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30 O. R., 19, part 1, p939; Taylor's Four Years, 71‑72.

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31 Lawton was temporarily commanding Ewell's division.

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32 Taylor's Four Years, 71.

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33 The line of Longstreet, from the heights above the Antietam to the vicinity of the Boonsboro-Sharpsburg road, is regarded as the right. The centre is here treated as the front from Longstreet's left to the point where Trimble's brigade stood, close to the East Wood, at the beginning of the engagement. The left extended from Trimble to Stuart.

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34 Palfrey: The Antietam and Fredericksburg, 60, 62, 73.

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35 Clarke in 5 N. C. Regiments, 73.


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