As you hike or drive around the Antietam Battlefield, you will see many limestone outcroppings around the countryside. Many are visible around the Piper Farm. Products of the last Ice Age, one of these rock ledges played an important role in the Battle of Antietam. This particular one parallels the Hagerstown Pike north of Starke Avenue. It was the scene of desperate fighting throughout the morning of September 17. While one of many that crisscross the battlefield today, this one had a notable effect on the fighting in the area south of the Miller Farm and along the Hagerstown Pike. The ledge is clearly visible today and is marked on the Copes-Carmen Copes maps (see map to the left).
On the map shown here, today’s Starke Avenue is at the split rail fence to the west of and perpendicular to the Hagerstown Pike. The intersection of that fence and the road is just slightly below center on the map. The ledge begins about 200 yards west of the Hagerstown Pike just north of that split rail fence. It then angles slightly to the northeast so that by the time that it ends just south of the Miller barn near the haystacks mentioned in Battery B’s battle report, it is less than 75 yards from the road. Another split rail fence runs along the length of the ledge and is visible on the map. From the southern end of the ledge, the elevation of the ground gradually increases as you move east toward the road. The entire ledge runs along a contour line that is about 545 feet above sea level. (Note: The maps are somewhat confusing to those of us who are familiar with modern day topographical maps. The contour lines on these maps express an elevation that is in addition to the elevation of the water level of the Antietam Creek at the Burnside Bridge. At the bridge, the elevation is 375 feet above sea level. Therefore where you see a contour line on the Copes-Carmen map of 200 feet, this is actually 575 feet above sea level (375+200=575). The contour lines are also only 10 feet apart unlike modern topographical maps that are usually 20 feet apart. I choose to use the actual elevation and not the contour line elevation on the maps.) The Hagerstown Pike is about 30 feet higher than the ledge at its base but the road gradually descends so that near the Miller barn on the west of the road, the ledge and road are at about the same elevation. This means that soldiers at the northern end of the line (i.e. closer to the Miller Barn) had a better field of fire than those at the lower end of the ledge where the road is higher. They were not firing as much up hill in the north as they are in the south. Nevertheless along its entire length, the ledge is a natural fighting and both sides would use it to advantage at various times during the day.
Along most of its length, it is about three feet high. Soldiers can crouch behind the ledge while reloading and are relatively well protected. From their vantage point, they can sweep the Hagerstown Pike and the Cornfield to the east.
The Confederates were the first to take advantage of this rock ledge. As Gibbon’s Brigade, with the 6th Wisconsin in the lead advanced into the Cornfield, skirmisher’s from Captain A.C. Page’s 21st Virginia of John R. Jones brigade, Stonewall Division, took them under fire from the rock ledge and West Woods. As Lieutenant Colonel Bragg of the 6th Wisconsin attempted to continue his advance, the fire from both from the rock ledge to his right and from Grigsby’s line to his front in the West Woods increased in volume. Bragg went down wounded and Major Rufus Dawes assumed command of the regiment. To flank the Confederate defenders along the ledge, General Gibbon ordered the 19th Indiana and 7th Wisconsin to deploy to the right of the Hagerstown Pike and brought Lieutenant James Stewart’s two-gun section of Battery B, 4th U.S. Artillery forward. Doubleday ordered Patrick’s brigade to cross the pike and support Gibbon’s two Iron Brigade regiments that were deploying there. Skirmishers from the 19th Indiana under Captain W.W. Dudley quickly dislodged Page’s skirmishers from the rock ledge and sent them back into the West Woods. The Iron Brigade resumed its advance southward now on a four-regiment front. From left to right were the 2nd and 6th Wisconsin supported by Phelps Brigade in the Cornfield and along the Hagerstown Pike. To their right on the west side of the pike, the 7th Wisconsin and 19th Indiana advanced supported by Patrick’s Brigade. As the two left regiments swept through the Cornfield and cleared the southern split rail fence, Confederates from three regiments of Lawton’s Brigade who were lying down in the pasture stood and delivered a withering volley. The Wisconsin men held and gave as well as they got. Eventually superior numbers began to tell compelling Lawton’s men to fall back. Advancing forward, the Federals spotted another Confederate force emerging across the road from the West Woods. This was the rear line of Jackson’s old “Stonewall” division – the two brigades of Generals Starke and Taliaferro, about 1,100 strong. Under the overall command of Starke, these brigades were responding to an earlier request for assistance from Colonel Grigsby who commanded the front two brigades of the division. Starke’s men obliqued to the right and headed directly for the Wisconsin men in the Cornfield. Leading the attack, Starke was hit three times and fell mortally wounded. Soon the two opposing lines were blasting away from the murderously short range of 75 yards across the two post and rail fences of the Hagerstown Pike. Walter Phelps’s 14th Brooklyn and the 2nd U.S. Sharpshooters moved forward to aid the two left regiments of the Iron Brigade. See the 6:45 AM Copes-Carmen map. Meanwhile Gibbon advanced Stewart’s section of Battery B and began to engage Starke’s men with spherical case. The 80th New York Infantry of Patrick’s brigade was detached to support the battery. After 30 minutes of severe combat Starke’s command began to retire in relatively good order toward the West Woods pursued by Gibbon and Phelps’s men on the left of the Hagerstown Pike. Their forward momentum would not last long as another strong force of Confederates screaming the rebel yell, came charging down the Hagerstown Pike. This was Wofford’s Texas Brigade of Hood’s Division. Hood was responding to an earlier request received from Lawton at about 6:45 AM for assistance. Hood’s division advanced on a two-brigade front. Wofford was on the left advancing directly down the Hagerstown Pike, and Laws on the right obliquing to the right and moving more or less toward the East Woods. Stewart turned his guns on the new targets but Wofford’s men advanced steadily driving the Wisconsin men and Phelps New Yorkers out of the Cornfield. Soon Hampton’s Legion, the 18th Georgia, and later the 4th Texas brought over from Wofford’s right were targeting the badly exposed men and horses of Stewart’s two guns. The remnants of the 2nd and 6th Wisconsin and Phelps’s brigade (about 150 men according to Carmen) grudgingly crossed the Pike and formed up behind Battery B just as Captain Campbell galloped forward and unlimbered the remaining four guns of the battery. He was soon seriously wounded and helped to the rear by 15-year-old Johnny Cook, a future Medal of Honor awardee. Stewart took command of the battery and soon all six guns were desperately firing double canister into the advancing Texans across the Pike in the Cornfield. Young Cook, the battery bugler hurried back to the front to assist in firing the cannons. There the youngster beheld his former battery commander General Gibbon, “conspicuous” in full uniform of a general officer himself manning one of the guns. With the exception of the 1st Texas that continued to advance north and deeper into the bloody cornfield, Wofford’s other regiments wheeled to the left (west) along the post and rail fence on the Hagerstown Pike to engage their tormenters. Meanwhile, west of the Hagerstown Pike, the right half of the Iron Brigade and Patrick’s Brigade had also been pursuing Starke’s shattered command until they saw the advancing Texas Brigade. Seeing an opportunity to enfilade the Confederates, they wheeled to the left, passed over the rock ledge, and charged eastward toward the Hagerstown Pike. The deadly fire of Battery B and the musketry of the infantry of Patrick, Phelps, and Gibbon finally forced Wofford to withdraw his shattered brigade from the Cornfield and back toward the Dunker Church. Gibbon and Patrick’s men in the rock ledge chased them to the Hagerstown Pike but were themselves forced to withdraw when the remnants of the indomitable Starke’s command now led by Lieutenant Colonel Stratford reemerged from the West Woods and struck them in the right flank causing them to withdraw to the northwest.
Low on ammunition and with heavy losses, Doubleday’s battered division pulled back. Except for the other divisional artillery, and Patrick’s brigade that would help rally Sedgwick’s shattered division later in the morning, his decimated command was out of the fight. The gallant Midwesterners and New Yorkers had inflicted grievous losses on the veterans from Virginia, Louisiana, Texas, South Carolina, and Georgia along the bloody Hagerstown Pike.
But the fighting along the rock ledge was far from over. About 9:00 AM, the men from Sedgwick’s division of Sumner’s Second Corps advanced across the rock ledge toward the West Woods. They included men from the 1st Minnesota of Gorman’s Brigade and the 19th Massachusetts Infantry of Dana’s brigade. Their stay in the West Woods would not be long as southern reinforcements from McLaws’s Division, Early’s and G.T. Anderson’s brigades struck Sedgwick’s left flank and rolled it up. The 1st Minnesota along with the tired warriors of Patrick’s brigade would do much to stabilize the line along another rock ledge just north of the Miller Farm. But now, it would now be the tough veterans of Jubal Early and William Barksdale’s brigades who occupied the important position. Edward Sumner who moments before contemplated breaking the Confederate left now faced a totally different reality. A seemingly inexhaustible reserve of Confederate forces had stopped every Union attack in its tracks. First Corps commander Joseph Hooker was by now wounded and on his way back to the Pry House. Twelfth Corps commander Joseph Mansfield lay dying in the in the East Woods. Sumner ordered Mansfield’s successor Alpheus Williams to rush all available forces from the East Woods to the West Woods to succor the embattled Second Corps troops. With only the 2nd Massachusetts and 13th New Jersey from Samuel Crawford’s brigade immediately available, Williams ordered them across the now devastated Cornfield with the remainder of the brigade to follow shortly. The 2nd Massachusetts was a veteran regiment commanded by West Pointer (Class of 1851) George Andrews. It advanced to the west just south of the Cornfield. To its right was the rookie 13th New Jersey, commanded by future Antietam historian Colonel Ezra Carmen. In his manuscript, Carmen while careful not to mention himself, proudly describes the advance of his regiment. “For the first time in their soldier experience the men loaded their muskets, and, the command being given, the regiment advanced in line of battle through the cornfield, becoming somewhat disordered as it neared the road, but it was ordered over the fence into the road, where it was thought reform. The right of the regiment was first to reach the fence, no men could be seen on the road, there were a few men off to the right and front, and nothing was visible to the immediate front, where there was ominous silence. Part of the regiment climbed the fence into the road and the rest were following when puffs of white smoke were seen at the rock ledge, 150 yards in front, and a hail of musketry went through the regiment, killing some and wounding many. It was a trying experience for a new regiment, the first time in action, and there was some confusion, but officers and men soon rallied; on the right Captain H.C. Irish crossed the second fence and called upon his men to follow, the gallant Irish fell dead a few yards beyond the fence, and the colonel, recognizing that a mistake had been made, ordered the men to form behind the first fence and hold the ground. This was soon found impossible, the men were being shot buy a foe they could not see, so perfectly did the ledge protect them; they scarcely knew how to load their muskets and were doing little or no execution; to hold them longer under fire would be murder and they were ordered back to the East Woods, retiring in good order, under the circumstances, and rallying on the spot from which they had advanced.” It is the image of Captain Hugh C. Irish that tops the New Jersey monument, erected not far from where the gallant officer fell at the intersection of Cornfield Avenue and Dunker Church Road.
To their left, the veterans of the 2nd Massachusetts faced a similar galling fire from the rock ledge. When Andrew’s men reached the pike and he ordered color bearer Sergeant Lundy to “show your colors” the regiment was greeted by a shower of bullets. Mortally wounded was the regiment’s lieutenant colonel Wilder Dwight. Also seeing action with the 2nd Massachusetts that day was Captain Robert Gould Shaw, future commander of the all black 54th Massachusetts Infantry. Unable to advance further, the 2nd Massachusetts also withdrew back through the Cornfield to the East Woods where it rejoined the rest of Gordon’s brigade, now moving forward.
The action along this part of the line finally began to wind down. Successfully held by both Union and Confederate defenders at different points during the day, it had proved to be a formidable position.