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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 young adult children who I love very much. I currently volunteer at Antietam 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. Since 2013 I have been conducting in depth research on the regular artillery companies of the Union Army and their leaders. I hope to turn this into a book on this subject in the future. 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. 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.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Our line was throbbing at every point, so that I dared not call on General Lee for help

Last month, the Save Historic Antietam Foundation (SHAF) held its annual spring workday. This year, we continued to clear brush and trees from the Piper Farm Lane. The lane runs east from the Hagerstown Pike past the farm and eventually along an intermittent stream to Richardson Avenue.

As we got started, SHAF President Tom Clemens gave us a history lesson about this area. As Tom said, most people think that after D.H. Hill’s two brigades and elements of Richard Anderson’s division were driven from the Sunken Road between noon and 1PM on September 17, 1862, that no organized resistance was formed south of that line. The reality is that Tom calls this a second Sunken Road of sorts.

This area is bounded on the north by the Sunken Road, on the west by the Hagerstown Pike, and on the south by the Piper Farm Lane. From the farmhouse looking northwest, there are a number of prominent limestone rock formations that are gouged out of the farmland. Running roughly from southwest to northeast, these ledges were carved out of the land by the glaciers and are part of the same fault line that created the limestone rock ledge that I have posted about previously. They are noted on the Copes-Carmen maps to the left. Between the ground immediately behind the Sunken Road, and the Piper Lane, the terrain dips into a swale that forms the start of an intermittent stream that runs when the water is high eastward to the Antietam.

Some popular connotations are that defeated and demoralized rebel troops milled around leaderless and demoralized in this area. We are not helped by the fact that there are no reports of the battle by Confederate division-commander Richard Anderson or any of his subordinate commanders. However, if we look at the Carmen-Copes maps, we see that there are organized Confederate forces manning the Piper line. In fact, there is a lot of Confederate artillery in the area for much of the day. This post will discuss some of that Confederate artillery and in combination with maps and my photos try to paint a picture of the area around the Piper Farm that day.

In the 9:00 AM Carmen-Copes map, Weber’s brigade of French’s division is approaching the Sunken Road. Primarily, two brigades of Daniel Harvey Hill’s division defend the road. Robert Rode’s Alabama brigade is on the left, and George B. Anderson’s North Carolina brigade is on the right. In front of Rode’s brigade is Captain Robert Boyce’s (Macbeth) South Carolina Battery of Nathan Shank’s Independent Brigade. This battery consisted of six guns. The type of guns is not mentioned in the OR, Carmen, or in Johnson and Anderson’s Artillery Hell. However, in recent correspondence that I have had with Warren Scott, Ordnance Sergeant and reenactor of the modern day Macbeth Artillery in it seems likely that the guns of that battery were six-pound howitzers. Boyce reports that he spent the night of September 16th in a hollow in the rear of Cemetery hill. Colonel James B. Walton of the Washington Artillery Battalion ordered the battery to meet and check the enemy in a position north of the Keedysville Road. Boyce moved there and was placed by Colonel P.F. Stevens, of the Holcombe Legion and acting commander of Evan’s brigade in a position around the Piper Farm that Boyce found to be unsuitable for engaging the enemy. Boyce apparently moved forward at least one more time moving through a cornfield to a position shown on the 9AM Copes-Carmen map as being north of Robert Rode’s brigade. By 10:30, he was south of the Sunken Road and west of the Piper Orchard (see 10:30 AM map). Boyce reports that at Lee’s order, he engaged an enemy battery to his left at the extreme limits of range and forced it to relocate.[1] But Boyce’s saved most of his effort for the advancing Federal infantry of French and Richardson’s division. Throughout the morning, he engaged them reporting that he fired 80 rounds of canister and solid shot. D.H. Hill was an artilleryman in the Regular Army during the Mexican War and took an active role in the placement of his guns. Hill was never shy about criticizing the employment of artillery by others (calling the artillery duel on September 16 between powerful Union batteries and the Confederate Washington artillery “the most melancholy farce of the war.”)[2] But he was very complimentary of Boyce’s action “the battery moved out most gallantly...and with grape and canister drove the enemy back was instrumental in halting the Union advance from the old road which he had occupied in the morning, and occupied a cornfield and orchard in advance of it.” Longstreet too said the Union attack was met by two pieces of Captain Miller’s battery of the Washington Artillery, and two pieces of Captain Boyce’s battery and was driven back in some confusion.[3] They [Federals] had got to within a few hundred yards of the hill which commanded Sharpsburg and our rear.”[4] Boyce’s last position in the Piper Lane area (see 1:00 PM map) was at the eastern end of the lane facing the creek. Here the 18th South Carolina Infantry provided infantry support. By then, losses of men, equipment, and horses had reduced Boyce to being able to man only two guns when he was sent further south to confront Burnside’s advance. Boyce lost 4 killed, and fifteen wounded. He also lost 15 horses killed.

At 9:00 AM, the other principle Confederate artillery element in the area was Major Hilary Pollard Jones’ Artillery Battalion of the Artillery General Reserve. Interestingly, Jones’s son, Hilary Pollard Jones Jr., born in 1863 would graduate from the United States Naval Academy in 1884. A decorated naval officer in the First World War, he would serve as the Commander in Chief of the United States Fleet in the 1920s. The senior Jones’s battalion was originally constituted on June 17, 1862 and though assigned to the reserve corps, seemed to be associated frequently with D.H. Hill’s division. Artillery chief William Pendleton’s original order constituting the battalion alludes to this.[5] Jennings Cropper Wise (The Long Arm of Lee Volume 1: Bull Run to Fredericksburg) also states that this battalion was assigned to D.H. Hill.[6] Jones’s battalion consisted of four Virginia batteries and had between 14-16 guns. The Carmen-Copes maps do not break out the individual batteries. The battalion included Captain Richard C.M. Page’s (Morris “Louisa”) battery of four twelve-pound howitzers; and Captain Jefferson Peyton’s (Richmond “Orange”) battery of one 3-inch ordnance rifle, one 12-pound howitzer, and three six-pound howitzers. The battalion also included Captain Abram Wimbish’s (Long Island) battery and Captain William H. Turner’s Company D (Goochland) of Wise’s Legion). Less is known of the last two units. Harsh says that the Goochland battery was unfit to leave Virginia.[7] They had between them 5-7 guns of unknown size. Both would be consolidated with Jones other two batteries in the October 4, 1862 reorganization of the Army of Northern Virginia’s artillery.[8] Early in the morning, Jones' artillery battalion was positioned on the ridge north of Cemetery Hill facing generally toward the Antietam to contest any crossing of the middle bridge. However it was heavily engaged by Union artillery across the creek and was ordered by General Lee to a more protected position. It was around this time that Jones witnessed the famous incident where an artillery round fired by Captain Stephen Weed of Battery I, 5th U.S. Artillery clipped the front legs off of D.H. Hill’s horse while, he, Lee and Longstreet were observing the battle on the ridge north of the Boonsboro Road. Lee and Longstreet had wisely dismounted to avoid drawing fire from the Union guns.[9] Later in the morning Jones re- occupied the ridge with three batteries, two guns of R.C.M. Page's Battery was placed close to the Keedysville road, to fire to the front, in the direction of the middle bridge and the other guns so arranged that their field of fire was off to the left, and then opened fire on Richardson's Division, firing solid shot, which struck the ground in front of the column, Jones says "with wonderful effect.”

Major John Selden Saunders Artillery Battalion accompanied Richard Anderson’s division as it moved on to the field around 10AM to support D.H. Hill’s beleaguered brigades. Saunders, an 1858 graduate of West Point served as an ordnance officer at the Washington Arsenal at the start of the war when he resigned on April 22, 1861 shortly after Virginia’s secession.[10] He was the son of Commander John L. Saunders, U. S. N. and future brother in law of Lee’s adjutant general Walter Taylor. His artillery battalion was composed of Huger's Virginia battery of 4 guns, commanded by Captain Frank Huger; the Portsmouth Battery, 4 guns, commanded by Captain Carey F. Grimes; Moorman's Lynchburg Battery, 4 guns, commanded by Captain M.M. Moorman; and the Donaldsonville, Louisiana, Battery, commanded by Captain Victor Maurin. In the absence of Major John S. Saunders, the battalion was under the command of Captain Grimes. The battalion moved through Sharpsburg and up the Hagerstown road and went into position on the ridge northwest from Piper's barn. Grimes, leading his own battery, went into position about 60 yards to the right of the road; Moorman was on Grimes right and 50 yards west of the barn, and Huger and Maurin were west of the road. The four batteries opened fire on French’s division. Their fire was effective on the right of the 14th Indiana, but of no particular effect upon other parts of French’s line. Counter battery fire from Tompkins battery and the long-range guns of the Federal Artillery Reserve beyond the Antietam enfiladed Saunders guns. Musket fire from the 14th Indiana joined in and soon silenced them and they were forced to withdraw. Grimes was struck from his horse by a shot in the thigh. As his men were bearing him from the field, he was mortally wounded by a second ball that struck him in the groin. Meanwhile the other batteries had re-opened fire but were quickly silenced and withdrawn. Moorman's Battery was badly used up and retired into park two miles from the field in the direction of Shepherdstown. Grimes' Battery followed and Huger's Battery, abandoning one gun because its horses had been killed, followed Moorman and Grimes. Later in the day, troops from George T. Anderson’s brigade would discover this gun. Anderson would report "I found a 6-pounder gun, and, getting a few men to assist putting it in position, a lieutenant of infantry, whose name or regiment I do not know, served it most handsomely until the ammunition was exhausted." The officer who served it was Lieutenant William A. Chamberlaine of the 6th Virginia, of Mahone's Brigade. Chamberlaine was assisting in rallying men in the Hagerstown road, when he noticed the abandoned gun and with the aid of a few men, mostly of G.T. Anderson's Brigade, but some of the 6th Virginia, ran it up the road about 100 yards, nearly to the top of the ridge, where it opened fire upon Richardson's men, moving through the cornfield, but the exposure here was so great that, after two or three shots, it was run back to the mouth of the Piper lane. Here several shots were fired and the gun continued in action until Richardson's line fell back. A marker on the Hagerstown Pike marks the spot where Chamberlaine engaged the Federals. It is one of the very few monuments on the battle dedicated to confederate units at Antietam.

Also appearing for a time before noon was a section of Captain William K. Bachman’s (Charleston “German”) South Carolina Battery of Major Bushrod Washington Frobel’s Artillery Battalion of Hood’s Division. Bachman had two Blakeleys and four Napoleons coming into the battle.[11] Carmen reports that a section of this battery that started the day on Cemetery Hill was ordered to the left along with Miller’s battery. The battery appears on the 10:30 map in the cornfield behind the Sunken Road.

At about the noon hour, the hard-hitting Federal forces under Richardson managed to dislodge the decimated Confederate forces in the Sunken Road forcing them back on to the Piper Farm. For much of that early afternoon, the Confederate artillery was all that stood between the surging Federals and the town of Sharpsburg. Several other gallant Confederate batteries were instrumental in this defense.

One of these was Captain James William Bondurant’s (Jeff Davis) Alabama Battery of Major Scipio Francis Pierson’s Artillery Battalion of D.H. Hill’s Division. This battery had played a key role two days earlier in holding off the Ninth Corps attacks at Fox’s Gap. Once again, it was thrown into the breech along the Piper Lane. Bondurant reports only having two guns, a three-inch rifle and 12-pound howitzer, present on the line. This section appears on both the 12:00 and 1:00 PM maps along the lane behind the eastern part of the orchard.[12]

Perhaps the most famous anecdote about Longstreet’s role in the Battle of Antietam is when his staff took over two nearly abandoned guns and faced down the onrushing Federal Second Corps infantry behind the Sunken Road. As the staff load and fire the pieces, the general calmly holds the reins of their horses all the while chomping determinedly on a cigar. Longstreet’s staff is aiding Captain M.B. Miller’s Battery (3rd Company Washington Louisiana Artillery), Reserve Artillery, Longstreet’s Command. At about 9:15 a.m., this battery of 4 Napoleon guns was ordered from its position on Cemetery hill to the left to Piper's orchard to a position near the center of the orchard, and about 100 yards south of the cornfield in front. In taking position a rain of bullets came showering over it from the right, left and in front, it immediately opened fire on Richardson's advance. In a very short time two gunners and several cannoneers were wounded and Longstreet ordered the battery to cease firing and go under cover, by withdrawing a few yards down the hill. Here it remained 20 minutes, "when, the enemy again advancing, the battery again took position. Captain Miller found himself the only officer with his company, and, having barely enough men left to work a section effectively, he opened upon the enemy with his two pieces with splendid effect. After an action of half an hour he moved his section to a more advantageous position 100 yards to the front and right, placing the remaining section under Sergeant Ellis, directing him to take it completely under cover. He then continued the action until the ammunition was nearly exhausted, when Sergeant Ellis brought up one of the remaining caissons. The enemy had made two determined attempts to force our line, and had been twice signally repulsed. They were now advancing the third time, and were within canister range, when Sergeant Ellis, who had succeeded in rallying some infantry to his assistance, brought one of the guns of his section into action on Miller's left, and gave them canister, with terrible effect. The three guns succeeded in checking the enemy's advance." Longstreet was with Miller's guns at this time, and, as Miller was short handed, by reason of his loss of cannoneers, Longstreet's staff assisted in working the guns, while their chief held the horses, and directed the fire of the guns. Longstreet writes:

"Miller was short of hands and ammunition, even for two guns. (?) Our line was throbbing at every point, so that I dared not call on General Lee for help. As Richardson advanced through the corn he cut off the battery under Boyce, so that it was obliged to retire to save itself, and as Barlow came upon our center, the battery on our left was for a time thrown out of fire lest they might injure friend as well as foe. Barlow marched in steady good ranks, and the remnants before him rose to the emergency. They seemed to forget that they had known fatigue, the guns were played with life; and the brave spirits manning them claimed that they were there to hold or to go down with the guns. As our shots rattled against the armored ranks, Colonel Fairfax clapped his hands and ran for other charges. The mood of the gunners to a man was of quiet but unflinching resolve to stand to the last gun. Captain Miller charged and double-charged with spherical case and canister until his guns at the discharge leaped into the air from 10 to 12 inches."

We hear the term "artillery hell" applied to the Battle of Antietam. There were few more hellish places on the battlefield than the area behind the Sunken Road. Alexander Gardner's indelible images of that bloody lane portray the sacrifice of the Confederate infantry. But just a few yards further back, a few guns of Miller, Boyce, Grimes and others, assisted by some officers of James Longstreet's staff ultimately stopped the Federal advance against Lee's vulnerable center along the second Sunken Road.

NOTE: For additional information on the Confederate artillery units, see my accompanying fact sheet posted below.

[1] Official Records Volume 19, Part 1, page 943

[2] Official Records Volume 19, Part 1, page 1026

[3] Official Records Volume 19, Part 1, page 840

[4] Official Records Volume 19, Part I, page 1024

[5] Official Records Volume 51, Part II, page 575

[6] Wise, Jennings Cropper. The Long Arm of Lee Volume 1 Bull Run to Fredericksburg. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1991 (Reprinted from the 1915 edition)

[7] Harsh, Joseph. Sounding the Shallows. Kent: The Kent State University Press, 2000. 60.

[8] Official Records Volume 19, Part II, page 648, 653.

[9] Longstreet, James. “The Invasion of Maryland” in Battles and Leaders of the Civil War, vol. 2 (New York: Century Co., 1887), 671

[10] Cullum, George W. Officers and Graduates of the Military Academy From 1802-1867. New York: James Miller, 1879. Page 469

[11] Johnson, Curt, and Richard C. Anderson, Jr. Artillery Hell: The Employment of Artillery at Antietam. College Station Tex.: Texas A&M Univ. Press, 1995. 89.

[12] Johnson, Curt, and Richard C. Anderson, Jr. Artillery Hell: The Employment of Artillery at Antietam. College Station Tex.: Texas A&M Univ. Press, 1995. 96.

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