Monday, September 17, 2012

Battle of Antietam – Bloody Lane

Meanwhile the battle shifted south to the center of the line. Instead of following up on what his men had fought for in the cornfield, McClellan made no efforts to focus his attacks there. Another of Sumner's divisions, under William French, had gotten lost when moving towards disaster and had veered off to the left. There, waiting for them, were D. H. Hill's men. They were in what was called the Sunken Road, or later, Bloody Lane. It was a naturally entrenched position, in which shelter the Confederates could simply meet the Federal attacks. Hill's men had already fought in the defense of the cornfield. But since the battle was now shifting south, they would fight again, this time against different Federals. When French encountered Confederate skirmishers, he eagerly put his men into line for the attack. There was little maneuvering they could make without opening a dangerous whole in the Union line, so they simply charged the road. The attack began around 9:30. As the Federals marched towards the Confederate line, the rebels jeered at them, telling them to go home. "The stillness was literally oppressive,” wrote Colonel John Gordon of the 6th Alabama,
as in close order, with the commander still riding in front, this column of Union infantry moved majestically in the charge. In a few minutes they were within easy range of our rifles, and some of my impatient men asked permission to fire. "Not yet," I replied. "Wait for the order." Soon they were so close that we might have seen the eagles on their buttons; but my brave and eager boys still waited for the order. Now the front rank was within a few rods of where I stood. It would not do to wait another second, and with all my lung power I shouted " Fire !" My rifles flamed and roared in the Federals' faces like a blinding blaze of lightning accompanied by the quick and deadly thunderbolt. The effect was appalling. The entire front line, with few exceptions, went down in the consuming blast. The gallant commander and his horse fell in a heap near where I stood--the horse dead, the rider unhurt. Before his rear lines could recover from the terrific shock, my exultant men were on their feet, devouring them with successive volleys. Even then these stubborn blue lines retreated in fairly good order. My front had been cleared; Lee's centre had been saved; and yet not a drop of blood had been lost by my men. The result, however, of this first effort to penetrate the Confederate centre, did not satisfy the intrepid Union commander.
The Sunken Road from above
French launched several more attacks trying to capture the Sunken Road, but all were failures. Not a man reached the Confederate position. Although he had twice Hill's numbers, French had lost 1,750 men and still could not capture the road. Reinforcements arrived for both sides. Lee decided to send forward his final reserve division under Richard Anderson to join Hill. French was reinforced by the fresh troops of Richardson's divisions. The first attack of an Irish Brigade was unsuccessful, but the next, the fifth brigade to go into the fight, attained more success. Some Federals attained a good position to fire on the Confederate right, and an order was given to bend back the right flank to meet the threat. However, the order was misunderstood, and all of the troops holding the Sunken Road began a retreat. The Confederate situation had been worsened by the loss of several important leaders. Richard Anderson had been wounded soon after arriving on the field, and Colonel Gordon collapsed unconscious after being wounded a fifth time. He may have drowned in his own blood if he had not been for a bullet hole in his cap allowing the blood to drain.
With the Sunken Road abandoned, there was a serious defect in the Confederate line. The Federals had broken through the center, and there was little to oppose their continuing on and rolling up to the right and left. Longstreet was on hand, and he worked desperately with Hill to delay the Federals as long as possible. They found two cannon, but their crew were soon hit by the numerous Federal cannon. So Longstreet's staff dismounted and manned the cannon while Longstreet held their horses. Meanwhile Hill was trying to find any infantry he could lay his hands on. He rallied a few fugitives and created a straggler line, and with this thin line kept the Sunken Road under fire. Hill, watching the Northerners in the road thought that they were about to attack him. Knowing this would be disastrous, he determined to strike first. He asked for volunteers to attempt a charge. None of the men would step forward, until finally one man said he would if Hill would lead them. So grabbing a rifle he set forward with only 200 men. As expected, they made no headway, but for whatever reason the Federals made no movement forward from the Sunken Road. Most of Franklin's fresh corps had arrived, 8,000 soldiers, but Sumner would not let him. Franklin protested, but Sumner told him that they were about to be attacked, and they should not even consider going on the offensive. When a messenger arrived from McClellan with a suggestion to attack, Sumner sent him back saying
Go back, young man, and tell General McClellan I have no command! Tell him my command, Bank's command, and Hooker's command are all cut up and demoralized. Tell him General Franklin has the only organized command on this part of the field!
McClellan came from his headquarters himself to make the decision, and he sided with Sumner. He was too cautious to hazard an attack, and decided that they would just have to hold on to what they gained. He did not understand that he still outnumbered the Confederates, and the rebels were just holding on by a thin thread. No more attacks would be made on the left or center. Both sides had paid dearly for the fight over the Sunken Road. 5,600 men from both sides were either killed or wounded. So many Confederates had fallen in the road that it was said you cold walk from one end to the other on the bodies. After the battle it was given the ominous name of Bloody Lane.


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