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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.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

The Reel Ridge – Confederate Artillery Redoubt

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As the Sunken Road fighting reached its crescendo in the noon hour, the Confederate position looked bleak.  Israel Richardson’s division had at long last ripped the center of the Confederate line in the Sunken Road.  A Longstreet-inspired counterattack by elements of Colonel Van H. Manning’s brigade against the Union right flank of the Sunken Road had been brushed back by Nathan Kimball’s veteran troops.  George Greene’s division continued to hold a bridgehead west of the Hagerstown Pike around the Dunker Church.  Further north, two divisions of the Union Sixth Corps were coming on line.  In the center, a cavalry division with its horse artillery elements clattered across the Middle Bridge and the gunners opened fire on Cemetery Hill.  Fifth Corps infantry lead by Buchanan’s brigade of regulars inched passed the Newcomer House toward Cemetery Hill along the Boonsboro Pike.  Farther south, Ferraro’s brigade of the Ninth Corps was launching its ultimately successful assault against the Lower Bridge as Rodman’s division capture Snavelys Ford.  A.P. Hill’s division was somewhere out there in the direction of Harpers Ferry but its arrival time was unknown.

It was a critical moment but the Federals had problems of their own.  In Richardson’s sector there was a definite lack of artillery to support a continued attack.  First, Second, Sixth and Twelfth Corps artillery was largely concentrated in the northern area of the battlefield.  Richardson got some support from the Artillery Reserve across the creek and from Pleasonton’s Horse Artillery led most famously by John Tidball.   These batteries however had other targets that they were engaging and were not solely dedicated to Richardson.  He possessed no artillery under his direct control until Fitz-John Porter dispatched William Graham’s Battery K, 5th U.S. Artillery to him late in the morning.

We tend to view the Sunken Road fight on a north-south axis with French and Richardson pushing south against D.H. Hill’s depleted division and Richard Anderson’s poorly employed brigades.  Richardson and French however had problems on their right flank which are often overlooked.  As mentioned, Van Manning brigade lead an unsuccessful attack against the Federal forces along the Mumma Farm Lane.  This is one of those actions that get little attention in the scheme of things at Antietam.  Longstreet is usually remembered for little more than stoically puffing on a cigar and sporting a red carpet slipper as his staff mans an abandoned gun from Miller’s battery at Piper’s Orchard.  In fact Longstreet played an active and aggressive role in confronting this Second Corps attack by orchestrating Manning’s counterattack against French.  Robert E. Lee also recognized the dire situation and beside sending McLaws and Walker forward, had taken other measures to shore up defenses in the threatened Confederate center.


West of the Hagerstown Pike south of the Dunker Church is the Reel Ridge.  The ridge is part of the network of high ground on that side of the road that begins with Nicodemus Heights, continues south to Hauser’s Ridge and ends as the Reel Ridge.  The ridge is the same elevation as the ground in the Cornfield and dominates the Sunken Road position.  Throughout the morning, units of the artillery battalions of the Richard Anderson, D.H. Hill, and John Walker’s divisions were positioned on the Reel Ridge.  All told, 20 guns were positioned on these heights.  While eight were the nearly worthless six-pound and ten pound short-range howitzers, twelve were the much more effective and longer range 10-pound and 3-inch ordnance rifles.  At right angles were 33 more guns in and around the Piper Farm Lane and on Cemetery Hill.  These 53 guns created a kill zone that it was very difficult for Richardson to counter. William Graham’s six Napoleons were woefully outranged and outgunned, as he would relate in his official report.  Our tendency to look only at the activities east of the Hagerstown Pike can cause us to overlook the critical role played by the Confederate artillery west of the Pike.

Looking east from the Reel Ridge toward Sunken Road

Zoom in of Sunken Road from Reel Ridge
These pictures shows this very clearly.  Taken today during a ranger-lead hike along the Reel Ridge, we can clearly see the Sunken Road and Observation Tower spread out before us.  Slightly to the left of the Observation Tower would have been the location of Graham’s Napoleons.  On the Carmen-Copes map of 12 o’clock we see the enfilading fire that the Confederate guns were capable of levying on Richardson’s advancing forces.  It is very possible that one of these guns on the Reel Ridge mortally wounded the aggressive Richardson and halted the Union drive over the nearly prostrate Confederate center.

Things would not go well for the Union on other sectors.  The Sixth Corps never went into action.  Greene’s division pulled back from its Dunker Church salient after running low on ammunition.  Syke’s regulars were halted short of Cemetery Hill and the Ninth Corp’s forward motion after its successful capture of the Lower Bridge stalled until fresh troops from Orlando Willcox’s division were brought forward to continue the advance.  So much time ensued that A.P. Hill’s division was able to arrive and halt Burnside’s final attack toward Sharpsburg.

A key to the Confederate success in denying the Army of the Potomac a decisive tactical battlefield victory on September 17th lay in Lee and Longstreet’s efforts in the center.  Skillful use of the terrain advantages gained by positioning artillery batteries on the Reel Ridge was instrumental.  The next time you visit Antietam, go to the Sunken Road and look west at the important Reel Ridge position.  You will appreciate the importance of that key terrain just as Lee, Longstreet (and I dare say Richardson) did.


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