Tuesday, June 29, 2010

A Walk at Antietam, Part 2: From the Sunken Road to Burnside Bridge

Photo-9 After completing my stroll around The Cornfield, I went back to the Visitor’s Center and started on the Bloody Lane Trail. Here, fighting began about the time it ceased in The Cornfield. The Union II Corps was moving towards the main line of battle in The Cornfield, but its divisions became separated as Sedgwick’s headed across the field towards the West Woods, while French and Richardson turned towards what was the Confederate center. The Southerners had made use of an old country lane called the Sunken Road because the roadbed was several feet below the level of the fields on either side. As a result, the roadbed made a natural trench line, running roughly west to east. When General French saw a line of Confederate troops there, he turned his division and began a series of assaults.

Photo-10 Given the strength of the Confederate position, these attacks were blunted time and again. The Confederate fire was described by one Union officer as “murderous.” Most of French’s attacks focused on the left of the Confederates in the road but, when Richardson’s Division arrived, they extended the Federal attack to the right. Richardson’s attack was led by the famous Irish Brigade, commanded by the legendary Irish patriot, Francis Meagher. The Irishmen pressed their attacks, but took heavy losses and still the Confederates held the road. After three hours of fighting, Union casualties were mounting and there was no sign of a breakthrough. Then, one Union brigade under General John Caldwell became disoriented as they approached the road and accidentally found themselves on the Confederate right flank. Caldwell immediately took advantage of this lucky mistake and ordered his men to attack down the road, pouring an enfilading fire into the Southern ranks, and rolling up their flank. Now, the Sunken Road’s natural advantage turned it into a death trap. Confederate soldiers fell by the dozens, many as they tried to climb out of the road bed to retreat.

The entire line collapsed and Union troops poured over the embankment, slaughtering the Confederates, both those who were desperately trying to hang on as well as those attempting to flee to safety. When the fighting was over, the road was choked with dead and dying men. So many Confederates had been cut down in the roadbed that one Federal noted it was impossible to walk down the road without stepping on a corpse. As a result, this once peaceful country road, which up to that day had seen nothing but the occasional farm wagon headed to market, became forever known as The Bloody Lane.

 Photo-11 From there, I drove to the Burnside Bridge. This old bridge, which was called the Rohrbach Bridge before the battle, is perhaps the most popularly recognizable feature from the Antietam battlefield. Before the battle, this area was a favorite with local children, who wiled away summer afternoons splashing and swimming in Antietam Creek. But, on this September afternoon, the quiet stillness of the creek was torn away by the sounds of battle as Burnside’s IX Corps attempted to force a crossing of the bridge in order to gain a position on the Confederate right flank.

Photo-12 The creek and the bridge sit at the foot of a high, steep bluff, from which 500 Georgians under Robert Toombs held back most of IX Corps. This natural advantage allowed Toombs men to pour a murderous volley into any column trying to force the narrow path over the bridge. For hours, one regiment after another tried and failed to gain the far side of the creek. Finally, General Edward Ferrero went to the 51st New York and 51st Pennsylvania Infantry Regiments and ordered them to make one more try. He shouted to the Pennsylvanians, “Will you take the bridge, boys!” Photo-13 However, he heard no “huzzahs” in response and his call was met with only a stony silence. The 51st Pennsylvania had recently been disciplined with the loss of their alcohol rations and they were not a happy group of soldiers. Finally, one of the Pennsylvanians shouted back, “If we do, will you give us back our whiskey?” Ferrero replied that, if they took the bridge, he would get them their whisky even if he had to order it from New York and pay for it himself. With that, the 51st Pennsylvania formed up, charged the bridge, and took it. The general was true to his word and a shipment of whiskey found its way to the 51st a few weeks later.

Photo-14One of the other interesting sights at Burnside Bridge is its Witness Tree. This tall Sycamore tree located at the northeast end of the bridge was here at the time of the battle, as can be seen in the photo below. It was only about 15 feet high in 1862 and its trunk was ripped by rifle fire. One can well imagine that, if you cut through it, you find more than a few lead slugs still buried there. Now, with over 140 years of peace and fed by the waters of Antietam Creek, the tree towers over the bridge. Whenever I visit this place, I always reach out and touch the tree, wanting to somehow connect with a still living thing that was here that day. Gazing up at it, you cannot help but wish it could tell its story and describe what it saw that September afternoon.

I finished up my trip to Antietam by visiting the national cemetery. There, a tall, massive granite monument towers over the soldiers’ graves. The monument is topped with a statue of a soldier, known to the locals as “Old Simon,” standing in the “at rest” position, gazing north towards home. Around him, lie more than 4,000 Union soldiers plus the graves of a few more recent veterans. As I walked among the headstones, I was reminded of a recent conversation with an acquaintance of mine who told me about Photo-15 a friend of theirs who thought any interest in history was silly.  Her friend said that history was nothing but meaningless dates, numbers, and names, and that it had no relevance in the modern world. What an utterly shortsighted, self-involved, and almost criminally stupid point of view. I thought to myself, I would like that person to come here, to look at each grave, and tell the man lying there that they are just a meaningless date, number, and name, and that they had no value, that they did nothing, that their sacrifice meant nothing.

I always walk away from Antietam, and from any battlefield, feeling humble and more grounded. This place reminded me once again that the stress of work, of troubled relationships, and just living in the 21st century really does not amount to much, not when compared to what happened here. Here, ordinary people did the extraordinary and were willing to sacrifice, to give that last full measure of devotion, for something far greater than themselves. And, in doing so, they gave us and all the generations that have followed a wonderful gift in the freedom we enjoy and an even greater challenge to continue their work.


1 comment:

  1. Besides the ability to bring out the dark and stark reality of our past, your words of truth and passion in history should serve as a reminder for our future, and for those to come, of the past battles fought.

    The contrast in the then and now pictures helped to bring home the broader picture.

    Thank you for an incredible two-parter!