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I am a lifelong student of military history with particular interest in the Battle of Antietam. I work for the federal government in Washington DC and have two teenagers who I love very much. I currently volunteer at the battlefield and devote much time to the study of this battle and the Maryland Campaign. I enjoy collecting notable contemporary quotations by and about the men of Antietam. These words often add a degree of color and character not found elsewhere in their stories. A feature of this blog is the presentation of some of these quotes. My perspective comes from a 28 year career in the U.S. Army. Travels took me to World War II battlefields in Europe and the Pacific where American valor ended the tyranny of Nazism and Empire. But our country faced its own greatest challenge 80 years earlier during the Civil War. And it was the critical late summer of 1862, when Robert E. Lee launched the Maryland Campaign that fortune could have gone either way. It is an incredible story of drama, carnage, bravery, and missed opportunities that culminated around the fields and woodlots of peaceful Sharpsburg MD. So join me as I make this journey South from the North Woods.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Poffenberger Hill

I had an opportunity last Sunday to tromp around the northern part of the battlefield. The combination of a bright winter sun, light dusting, of snow, empty fields harvested of their crops, and the absence of foliage on the trees permitted a rare opportunity for me to study the terrain features and contours of the field. I also literally had the whole park to myself as the cold weather and the last shopping week before Christmas contributed to the lack of visitors on this day.

I was drawn to the high ground immediately behind the Joseph Poffenberger farm. Carmen refers to this as a “prominent hill or rounded ridge 220 feet above the Antietam, and the highest point of the battlefield, dominating all the ground west of the Hagerstown road.” Most of the year, there are crops in the fields but they had been harvested and I could range up and down this hill without fear.

The Park Service is completing renovation of the farmstead so the area around the barn is fenced off. Nevertheless, I was able to hike the fields directly behind the farm and take in the view from the high point of the hill just north of the barn.

The hill behind the farm is off the beaten path. What most people who travel the park roads see of the hill is from tour stop 2 - the view looking north past the farmstead. The hill rises an additional 40 feet behind the barn. I actually walked to the summit of the hill. There is now a wire fence line that runs roughly north from Mansfield Avenue. Past the barn, I crossed the fence and walked to the top of the hill. Looking northeast, I plainly saw the Middlekauf farm at the foot of the hill. At the base of the hill before the farm, an intermittent stream flows westward emptying into the Potomac. At the time of the battle, the entire hill was covered in pasture. Around the immediate area of the house were a grove of trees. A fence surrounded the farmhouse and out-buildings. To the south, is a farm lane which intersected the Hagerstown Pike, and just below that, there ran a narrow band of corn. A split rail fence separated this first cornfield from the North Woods.

Looking back to the south, I could appreciate the commanding view that this position afforded. For the layman, the top of the hill might not appear significant but for Doubleday’s artillerymen, who manned this point throughout the day, it was indeed decisive. Because Civil War artillery was a direct fire weapon, and the gunner needed to see his target to hit it, an additional elevation advantage was important. And like Pelham’s artillery on Nicodemus Heights and Stephen Lee’s on the Dunker Church plateau, the high ground offered numerous additional targets simply because they could be seen. At daybreak on September 17th, 1862 this hill was the jumping off point for Abner Doubleday’s First Division of the First Corps. This was an Army of Virginia divison originally commanded by Rufus King. King would step down from command during the Second Manassas Campaign after a recurrence of his epilepsy. John Hatch commanded the division until he was wounded at South Mountain three days earlier. Now the division’s senior brigadier, Abner Doubleday who had fought at Fort Sumter moved up. When the division arrived in the area on the afternoon of September 16th, its four infantry brigades faced west. Refer to the first Carmen Copes Map at daybreak. Starting at the intersection of the Poffenberger farm lane and running north along the east side of the Hagerstown Pike were the four small regiments of Lieutenant Colonel J. William Hofmann’s Second Brigade. This had been Doubleday’s brigade till his elevation to division command three days earlier at South Mountain. Hofmann had slightly more than 700 men under his command. To their right and farther north, also on the road was Marseena Patrick’s Third Brigade. His four New York regiments numbered around 800 infantry. Until early in the morning of September 17th, there was a small gap between the two brigades. About 3:30 AM that morning, Lieutenant Frederick M. Edgell’s 1st Battery, New Hampshire Light Artillery closed the gap moving up to a stone fence along the pike and aimed his five Napoleon’s west toward the high ground across the road. A second line of infantry occupied positions behind these first two brigades. Immediately to the north of the farm buildings in a column of four regiments was Brigadier General John Gibbon’s brigade of Midwestern troops who had recently earned the nickname of the Iron Brigade. Recognizable by their regulation Hardee Hats, the brigade also was known as the Black Hat Brigade. The largest brigade in the division, Gibbon’s 1,000 man brigade had settled in among a line of limestone outcroppings between the farm and the southern summit of the hill. To the north of the summit behind Patrick’s brigade was the “other” Iron Brigade commanded by Colonel Walter Phelps. Phelp’s New York command, the smallest in the division also included the 2nd US Sharpshooters and numbered around 430 men. Behind these two infantry lines and running from south to north along the summit of the hill were the remaining three artillery batteries of Doubleday’s division. At the summit of the hill was Captain J. Albert Monroe’s Battery D, 1st Rhode Island Light Artillery. Monroe served as the division artillery commander probably and selected this highest point to most effectively oversee his four batteries. To his left, just south of the summit was Captain Joseph Campbell’s Battery B, 4th US Artillery. This command, destined to suffer among the highest casualty rates of any artillery units that day lay behind Gibbon’s men and just north of the barn. Gibbon, their old commander during the Morman War of the late 1850s no doubt kept an eye on his gunners. To the right of Monroe on the north slope of the hill was Battery L, 1st New York Light Artillery commanded by Captain John A. Reynolds. Reynolds battery was the only one to have six of the excellent 3 inch ordnance rifles. Doubleday’s other three artillery commands had the equally good Napoleons. Altogether, there was approximately 3,000 infantry and 22-24 guns on Poffenberger Hill as the day dawned.

Most of Doubleday’s infantry would not remain here for long. By 6AM, the brigades of Gibbon, Phelps and Patrick and Battery B would have begun their advance south along the Hagerstown Pike. A bloody trail that would take them into the Cornfield and West Woods awaited these veterans. The 6AM Carmen Copes map (see below) shows only Hofmann’s brigade and three remaining artillery batteries left on the hill.

This little drill was a great way for me to walk the terrain and then compare it with the Carmen Copes maps. It was not my intent here to show activities on the hill throughout the day. That may happen in a future post.

On Sunday, I also poked around and took lots of pictures at the limestone ledge that is west of and parallel to the Hagerstown Pike and north of the West Woods. That area is where many of Doubleday’s men would fight over the next three hours. But that part of the hike and those maps too, are meat for a future post.






3 comments:

  1. Jim,
    I love your page here on FB. My name is George and I've been doing a "True Time" walk on the Antietam National Battlefield on September 17 for 17 years in a row now. This place is so special to me.

    ReplyDelete
  2. George,
    I am glad you like the site. Have a great holiday season. Hope to see you at the park sometime.
    Regards
    Jim

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  3. Jim,
    I hope you had a nice Christmas and have a happy and healthy new Year.

    I made a mistake: it's been 18 years in a row now.

    If you ever want to see me there then be out there on September 17 at any "true time" spot that day and I will be there.

    George

    ReplyDelete