The Sword of Antietam

by Joseph A. Altsheler

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

Chapter X. Antietam

Dick arose at the first flash of dawn. All the men of the Winchester regiment were on their feet. The officers had sent their horses to the rear, knowing that they would be worse than useless among the rocks and in the forest in front of them.

A mist arising from the two rivers floated over everything, but Dick knew that the battle was at hand. The Northern trumpets were calling, and in the haze in front of them the Southern trumpets were calling, too.

The fog lifted, and then Dick saw the Confederate lines stretched through forest, rock and ploughed ground. Near the front was a rail fence with lines of skirmishers crouching behind it. As the last bit of mist rolled away the fence became a twisted line of flame. The fire of the Southern skirmishers crashed in the Union ranks, and the Northern skirmishers, pressing in on the right replied with a fire equally swift and deadly. Then came the roar of the Southern cannon, well aimed and tearing gaps in the Union lines.

"Its time to charge!" exclaimed Pennington. "It scares me, standing still under the enemy's fire, but I forget about it when I'm rushing forward."

The Winchester regiment did not move for the present, although the battle thickened and deepened about it. The fire of the Confederate cannon was heavy and terrible, yet the Union masses on either wing had begun to press forward. Hooker hurled in two divisions, one under Meade, and one under Doubleday, and another came up behind to support them. The western men were here and remembering how they had been decimated at Manassas, they fought for revenge as well as patriotism.

At last the Winchester regiment in the center moved forward also. They struck heavy ploughed land, and as they struggled through it they met a devastating fire. It seemed to Dick that the last of the little regiment was about to be blown away, but as he looked through the fire and smoke he saw Warner and Pennington still by his side, and the colonel a little ahead, waving his sword and shouting orders that could not be heard.

Dick saw shining far before him the white walls of the Dunkard church, and he was seized with a frantic desire to reach it. It seemed to him if they could get there that the victory would be won. Yet they made little progress. The cannon facing them fairly spouted fire, and thousands of expert riflemen in front of them lying behind ridges and among rocks and bushes sent shower after shower of leaden balls that swept away the front ranks of the charging Union lines. The shell and the shrapnel and the grape and the round shot made a great noise, but the little bullets coming in swarms like bees were the true messengers of death.

Jackson and four thousand of his veterans formed the thin line between the Dunkard church and the Antietam. They were ragged and worn by war, but they were the children of victory, led by a man of genius, and they felt equal to any task. Near Jackson stood his favorite young aide, Harry Kenton, and on the other side was the thin regiment of the Invincibles, led by Colonel Leonidas Talbot, and Lieutenant-Colonel Hector St. Hilaire.

Around the church itself were the Texans under Hood, stalwart, sunburned men who could ride like Comanches, some of whom when lads had been present at San Jacinto, when the Texans struck with such terrible might and success for liberty.

"Are we winning? Tell me, that we are winning!" shouted Dick in Warner's ear.

"We're not winning, but we will! Confound that fog! It's coming up again!" Warner shouted back.

The heavy fog from the Potomac and the Antietam which the early and burning sunrise had driven away was drifting back, thickened by the smoke from the cannon and rifles. The gray lines in front disappeared and the church was hidden. Yet the Northern artillery continued to pour a terrible fire through the smoke toward the point where the Confederate infantry had been posted.

Dick heard at the same time a tremendous roar on the left, and he knew that the Union batteries beyond the Antietam had opened a flanking fire on the Southern army. He breathed a sigh of triumph. McClellan, who could organize and prepare so well, was aroused at last to such a point that he could concentrate his full strength in battle itself, and push home with all his might until able to snatch the reward, victory. As the lad heard the supporting guns across the Antietam, he suddenly found himself shouting with all his might. His voice could not be heard in the uproar, but he saw that the lips of those about him were moving in like manner.

The two corps on the peninsula had a good leader that morning. Hooker, fiery, impetuous, scorning death, continually led his men to the attack. The gaps in their ranks were closed up, and on they went, infantry, cavalry and artillery. The fog blew away again and they beheld once more the gray lines of the Southerners, and the white wooden walls of the church.

So fierce and overwhelming was the Northern rush that all of Jackson's men and the Texans were borne back, and were driven from the ridges and out of the woods. Exultant, the men in blue followed, their roar of triumph swelling above the thunder of the battle.

"Victory!" cried Dick, but Warner shouted:

"Look out!"

The keen eyes of the young Vermonter had seen masses of infantry and cavalry on their flank. Hooker, fierce and impetuous, had gone too far, and now the Southern trumpets sang the charge. Stuart, fiery and dauntless, his saber flashing, led his charging horsemen, and Hill threw his infantry upon the Northern flank.

It seemed to Dick that he was in a huge volcano of fire and smoke. Men who, in their calm moments, did not hate one another, glared into hostile eyes. There was often actual physical contact, and the flash from the cannon and rifles blazed in Dick's face. The Southerners in front who had been driven back returned, and as Stuart and Hill continued to beat hard upon their flanks, the troops of Hooker were compelled to retreat. Once more the white church faded in the mists and smoke.

But Hooker and his generals rallied their men and advanced anew. The ground around the Dunkard church became one of the most sanguinary places in all America. One side advanced and then the other, and they continually reeled to and fro. Even the young soldiers knew the immensity of the stake. This was the open ground, elsewhere the Antietam separated the fighting armies. But victory here would decide the whole battle, and the war, too. The Northern troops fought for a triumph that would end all, and the Southern troops for salvation.

So close and obstinate was the conflict that colonels and generals themselves were in the thick of it. Starke and Lawton of the South were both killed. Mansfield, who led one of the Northern army corps fell dead in the very front line, and the valiant Hooker, caught in the arms of his soldiers, was borne away so severely wounded that he could no longer give orders.

Scarcely any generals were left on either side, but the colonels and the majors and the captains still led the men into the thick of the conflict. Dick felt a terrible constriction. It was as if some one were choking him with powerful hands, and he strove for breath. He knew that the masses pressed upon their flank by Stuart and Hill, were riddling them through and through.

The Union men were giving ground, slowly, it is true, and leaving heaps of dead and wounded behind them, but nobody could stand the terrible rifle fire that was raking them at short range from side to side, and they were no longer able to advance. Now Dick heard once more that terrible and triumphant rebel yell, and it seemed to him that they were about to be destroyed utterly, when shell and shot began to shriek and whistle over their heads. The woods behind them were alive with the blaze of fire, and the great Union batteries were driving back the triumphant and cheering Confederates.

The Union generals on the other side of the Antietam saw the fate that was about to overtake Hooker's valiant men, and Sumner, with another army corps, had crossed the river to the rescue, coming just in time. They moved up to Hooker's men and the united masses returned to the charge.

The battle grew more desperate with the arrival of fresh troops. Again it was charge and repulse, charge and repulse, and the continuous swaying to and fro by two combatants, each resolved to win. There were the Union men who had forced the passes through the mountains to reach this field, and they were struggling to follow up those successes by a victory far greater, and there were the Confederates resolved upon another glorious success.

The fire became so tremendous that the men could no longer hear orders. Here was a field of ripe corn, the stems and blades higher than a man's head, forty acres or so, nearly a quarter of a mile each way, but the corn soon ceased to hide the combatants from one another. The fire from the cannon and rifles came in such close sheets that scarcely a stalk stood upright in that whole field.

Long this mighty conflict swayed back and forth. Dick had seen nothing like it before, not even at the Second Manassas. It was almost hand to hand. Cannons were lost and retaken by each side. Stuart, finding the ground too rough for his cavalry, dismounted them and put them at the guns. Jackson, with an eye that missed nothing, called up Early's brigade and hurled it into the battle. The North replied with fresh troops, and the combat was as much in doubt as ever. Every brigade commander on the Southern side had been killed or wounded. Nearly all the colonels had fallen, but Jackson's men still fought with a fire and spirit that only such a leader as he could inspire.

It seemed to Dick that the whole world was on fire with the flash of cannon and rifles. The roar and crash came from not only in front and around him, but far down the side, where the main army of McClellan was advancing directly upon the Antietam, and the stone bridges which the Confederates had not found time to tear down.

There stood Lee, supremely confident that if his lieutenant, Jackson, could not hold the Northern opening into the peninsula nobody could. His men, who knew the desperate nature of the crisis, said that they had never seen him more confident than he was that day.

On the ridge just south of the village was a huge limestone bowlder, and Lee, field glasses in hand, stood on it. He listened a while to the growing thunder of the battle in the north--the Dunkard church, around which Jackson and Hooker were fighting so desperately, was a mile away-- but he soon turned his attention to the blue masses across the Antietam.

The Southern commander faced the Antietam with the hard-hitting Longstreet on his right, his left being composed of the forces of Jackson, already in furious conflict. Nothing escaped him. As he listened to the thunder of the dreadful battle in the north, he never ceased to watch the great army in front of him on the other side of the little river.

While Hooker and his men were fighting with such desperate courage, why did not McClellan and the main body of the Union army move forward to the attack? Doubtless Lee asked himself this question, and doubtless also he had gauged accurately the mind of the Union leader, who always saw two or even three enemies where but one stood. Relying so strongly upon his judgment he dared to strip himself yet further and send more men to Jackson. A messenger brought him news that more of Jackson's men had come to his aid and that he was now holding the whole line against the attacks of Meade and Hooker and all the rest.

Lee nodded and turned his glasses again toward the long blue line across the Antietam. McClellan himself was there, standing on a hill and also watching. Around him was a great division under the command of Burnside, and his time to win victory had come. He sent the order to Burnside to move forward and force the Antietam. It is said that at this moment Lee had only five thousand men with him, all the rest having been sent to Jackson, and, if so, time itself fought against the Union, as it was a full two hours before Burnside carried out his order and moved forward on the Antietam.

But Dick, on the north, did not know that it was as yet only cannon fire, and not the charge of troops to the south and west. In truth, he knew little of his own part of the battle. Once he was knocked down, but it was only the wind from a cannon ball, and when he sprang to his feet and drew a few long breaths he was as well as ever.

From muttered talk around him, talk that he could hear under the thunder of the battle, he learned that Sumner, who had come with the great reinforcement, was now leading the battle, with Hooker wounded and Mansfield dying.

Sumner, as brave and daring as any, had gathered twenty thousand men, and they were advancing in splendid order over the wreck of the dead and the dying, apparently an irresistible force.

Jackson, standing at the edge of a wood, saw the magnificent advance, and while the officers around him despaired, he did not think of awaiting the Northern attack, but prepared instead for an attack of his own. There was word that McLaws and the Harper's Ferry men had come. Jackson galloped to meet them, formed them quickly with his own, and then the Southern drums rolled out the charge. The weary veterans, gathering themselves anew for another burst of strength, fell with all their might on the Northern flank.

Dick felt the force of that charge. Men seemed to be driven in upon him. He was hurled down, how he knew not, but he sprang up again, and then he saw that their advance was stopped. Long lines of bayonets advanced upon them, and a terrible artillery fire crashed through and through their ranks. Two or three thousand men in blue fell in a moment or so. Fortune in an instant had made a terrible change of front.

Dick shouted aloud in despair as the brigades steadily gave back. The great Union batteries were firing over their heads again, but even they could not arrest the Southern advance. Their regiments were coming now across the shorn cornfield. Dick saw the galloping horses drawing their batteries up closer and around the flanks. And the rebel yell of victory which he had heard too often was now swelling from thousands of throats, as the fierce sons of the South rushed upon their foe.

But the North refused to abandon the battle here. These were splendid troops, so tenacious and so much bent upon victory that they scarcely needed leaders. Sedgwick, another of their gallant generals, fell and was carried off the field, wounded severely. Richardson, yet another, was killed a little later, but heavy reinforcements arrived, and the Southerners were driven back in their turn.

These were picked troops who met here, veterans almost all of them, and neither would yield. The superior weight and range of the Northern guns gave them an advantage in artillery, and it was used to the utmost. Dick did not see how men could live under such a horrible fire, but there were the gray lines replying, and wherever they yielded, yielding but little.

Noon came and then one o'clock. They had been fighting since dawn, and a combat so impetuous and terrible could not be maintained forever, particularly when the awful demon of war was eating up men so fast. Many of the regiments on either side had lost more than half their number and would lose more. They were human beings, and even the unwounded began to collapse from mere physical exhaustion. Some dropped to the ground from sheer inability to stand, and as they lay there, they heard to the south and west the rolling thunder that told of Burnside's belated advance upon the Antietam.

Down where Lee stood watching, the battle blazed up with extraordinary rapidity. The men who had been held in leash so long by McClellan were anxious to get at the foe. Burnside's brigades charged directly for one of the stone bridges, and Lee, watching from his bowlder, hurried the Southern troops forward to meet them. Again the Northern artillery proved its worth. The great batteries sent a hurricane of death over the heads of the men in blue and toward the town of Sharpsburg. Despite all the valor of the Southern veterans, the heavy masses of the Union men forced their way across the bridge to the peninsula. Lee's batteries and infantry regiments could not hold them.

It seemed now that Lee's own force was to be destroyed and that victory was won, but fortune had in store yet another of those dazzling recoveries for the South. At the very moment when Lee seemed overwhelmed, A. P. Hill, as valiant and vigorous as the other Hill, arrived with the last of the Harper's Ferry veterans, having marched seventeen miles, almost on a dead run. They crossed the Potomac at a ford below the mouth of the Antietam, then crossed the Antietam on the lowest bridge back into the peninsula, and without waiting for orders rushed upon the Northern flank.

The attack was so sudden and fierce that Burnside's entire division reeled back. Here, as in the north, the face of the battle had been changed in an instant. Not only could Colonel Winchester mourn over those lost two days, but he could mourn over every lost half hour in them. Had Hill come a half hour later Lee's whole center would have been swept away.

Lee and his great lieutenants, Jackson and Longstreet, were still confident. Despite the disparity in numbers they had beaten back every attack.

A. P. Hill was a man who corresponded in fire and impetuosity to Hooker. The number of his veterans was not so great, but their rush was so fierce, and they struck at such a critical time that the Northern brigades were unable to hold the ground they had gained. More troops from the dying battle on the north came to Lee's aid, and every attempt of McClellan to take Sharpsburg failed.

Dick, fighting with his comrades on the north, knew little of what was passing on the peninsula in the south, but he became conscious after a while that the appalling fury of the battle around him was diminishing. He had not seen such a desperate hand-to-hand battle at either Shiloh or the Second Manassas, and they were terrible enough. But he felt as the Confederates themselves had felt, that the Southern army was fighting for existence.

But as the day waned, Dick believed that they would never be able to crush Jackson. The Union troops always returned to the attack, but the men in gray never failed to meet it, and actual physical exhaustion overwhelmed the combatants. Pennington went down, and Dick dragged him to his feet, fearing that he was wounded mortally, but found that his comrade had merely dropped through weakness.

The long day of heat and strife neared its close. Neither Northern tenacity nor Southern fire could win, and the sun began to droop over the field piled so thickly with bodies. As the twilight crept up the battle sank in all parts of the peninsula. McClellan, who had lost those two most precious days, and who had finally failed to make use of all his numbers at the same time, now, great in preparation, as usual, made ready for the emergency of the morrow.

All the powerful and improved artillery which McClellan had in such abundance was brought up. The mathematical minds and the workshops of the North bore full fruit upon this sanguinary field of Antietam. The shattered divisions of Hooker, with which Dick and his comrades lay, were sheltered behind a great line of artillery. No less than thirty rifled guns of the latest and finest make were massed in one battery to command the road by which the South might attack.

To the south the Northern artillery was equally strong, and beyond the Antietam also it was massed in battery after battery to protect its men.

But the coming twilight found both sides too exhausted to move. The sun was setting upon the fiercest single day's fighting ever seen in America. Nearly twenty-five thousand dead or wounded lay upon the field. More than one fourth of the Southern army was killed or wounded, yet it was in Lee's mind to attack on the morrow.

After night had come the weary Southern generals--those left alive-- reported to Lee as he sat on his horse in the road. The shadows gathered on his face, as they told of their awful losses, and of the long list of high officers killed or wounded. Jackson was among the last, and he was gloomy. The man who had always insisted upon battle did not insist upon it now. Hood reported that his Texans, who had fought so valiantly for the Dunkard church, were almost destroyed.

The scene in the darkness with the awful battlefield around them was one which not even the greatest of painters could have reproduced. When the last general had told his tale of slaughter and destruction, they sat for a while in silence. They realized the smallness of their army, and the immense extent of their losses. The light wind that had sprung up swept over the dead faces of thousands of the bravest men in the Southern army. They had held their ground, but on the morrow McClellan could bring into line three to one and an artillery far superior alike in quality, weight and numbers to theirs.

The strange, intense silence lasted. Every eye was upon Lee. When the generals were making their reports he had shown more emotion than they had ever seen on his face before. Now he was quiet, but he drew his lips close together, his eyes shone with blue fire, and rising in his stirrups he said:

"We will not cross the Potomac to-night, gentlemen."

Then while they still waited in silence, he said:

"Go to your commands! Reform and strengthen your lines. Collect all your stragglers. Bring up every man who is in the rear. If McClellan wants a battle again in the morning, he shall have it. Now go!"

Not a general said a word in objection, in fact, they did not speak at all, but rode slowly away, every one to his command. Yet they were, without exception, against the decision of their great leader.

Even Stonewall Jackson did not want a second battle. He had shown through the doubtful conflict a most extraordinary calmness. While the combat in the north, where he commanded, was at its height, he had sat on Little Sorrel, now happily restored to him, eating from time to time a peach that he took from his pocket. Nothing had escaped his observation; he watched every movement, and noticed every rise and fall in the tide of success. His silence now indicated that he concurred with the others in his belief that the remains of the Confederate army should withdraw across the Potomac, but his manner indicated complete acquiescence in the decision of his leader.

But in the north of the peninsula the remnants of either side had scarce a thought to bestow upon victory or defeat. It was a question that did not concern them for the present, so utter was their exhaustion. As night came and the battle ceased they dropped where they were and sank into sleep or a stupor that was deeper than sleep.

But Dick this time did neither. His nervous system had been strained so severely that it was impossible for him to keep still. He had found that all of his friends had received wounds, although they were too slight to put them out of action. But the Winchester regiment had suffered terribly again. It did not have a hundred men left fit for service, and even at that it had got off better than some others. In one of the Virginia regiments under Longstreet only fourteen men had been left unhurt.

Dick stood beside his colonel--Warner and Pennington were lying in a stupor--and he was appalled. The battle had been fought within a narrow area, and the tremendous destruction was visible in the moonlight, heaped up everywhere. Colonel Winchester was as much shaken as he, and the two, the man and the boy, walked toward the picket line, drawn by a sort of hideous fascination, as they looked upon the area of conflict.

The dead lay in windrows between the two armies which were waiting to fight on the dawn. Dick and the colonel walked toward the field where the corn had been waving high that morning, and where it was now mown by cannon and rifles to the last stalk. In the edge of the wood the boy paused and grasping the man suddenly by the arm pulled him back.

"Look! Look!" he exclaimed in a sharp whisper. "The Confederate skirmishers! The woods are full of them! They are making ready for a night attack!" Both he and Colonel Winchester sprang back behind a big tree, sheltering themselves from a possible shot. But no sound came, not even that of men creeping forward through the undergrowth. All they heard was the moaning of the wind through the foliage. They waited, and then the two looked at each other. The true reason for the extraordinary silence had occurred to both at the same instant, and they stepped from the shelter of the tree.

Awed and appalled, the man and the boy gazed at the silent forms which lay row on row in the woods and in the shorn cornfield. It seemed as if they slept, but Dick knew that all were dead. He and Colonel Winchester gazed again at each other and shuddering turned away lest they disturb the sleep of the dead.

When they returned to a position behind the guns they heard others coming in with equally terrible tales. A sunken lane that ran between the hostile lines was filled to the brim with dead. Boys, yet in their teens, with nerves completely shattered for the time, chattered hysterically of what they had seen. The Antietam was still running red. Both Lee and Stonewall Jackson had been killed and the whole Confederate army would be taken in the morning. Some said, on the other hand, that the Southerners still had a hundred thousand men, and that McClellan would certainly be beaten the next day, if he did not retreat in time.

None of the talk, either of victory or defeat, made any impression upon Dick. His senses were too much dulled by all through which he had gone. Words no longer meant anything. Although the night was warm he began to shiver, as if he were seized with a chill.

"Lie down, Dick," said Colonel Winchester, who noticed him. "I don't think you can stand it any longer. Here, under this tree will do."

Dick threw himself down and Colonel Winchester, finding a blanket, spread it over him. Then the boy closed his eyes, and, for a while, phase after phase of the terrible conflict passed before him. He could see the white wall of the Dunkard church, the Bloody Lane, and most ghastly of all, those dead men in rows lying on their arms, like regiments asleep, but his nerves grew quiet at last, and after midnight he slept.

Dawn came and found the two armies ready. Dick and the sad remnant of the Winchester regiment rose to their feet. Although food had been prepared for them very few in all these brigades had touched a bite the night before, sinking into sleep or stupor before it could be brought to them. But now they ate hungrily while they watched for their foes, the skirmishers of either army already being massed in front to be ready for any movement by the other.

As on the morning before, a mist arose from the Potomac and the Antietam. The sun, bright and hot, soon dispersed it. But there was no movement by either army. Dick did not hear the sound of a single shot. Warner and Pennington, recovered from their stupor, stood beside him gazing southward toward the rocks and ridges, where the Confederate army lay.

"I'm thinking," said Warner, "that they're just as much exhausted as we are. We're waiting for an attack, and they're waiting for the same. The odds are at least ninety per cent in favor of my theory. Their losses are something awful, and I don't think they can do anything against us. Look how our batteries are massed for them."

Dick was watching through his glasses, and even with their aid he could see no movement within the Southern lines. Hours passed and still neither army stirred. McClellan counted his tremendous losses, and he, too, preferred to await attack rather than offer it. His old obsession that his enemy was double his real strength seized him, and he was not willing to risk his army in a second rush upon Lee.

While Dick and his comrades were waiting through the long morning hours, Lee and Jackson and his other lieutenants were deciding whether or not they should make an attack of their own. But when they studied with their glasses the Northern lines and the great batteries, they decided that it would be better not to try it.

When noon came and still no shot had been fired, Colonel Winchester shook his head.

"We might yet destroy the Southern army," he said to Dick, "but I'm convinced that General McClellan will not move it."

The hot afternoon passed, and then the night came with the sound of rumbling wheels and marching men. Dick surmised that Lee was leaving the peninsula, and, crossing the Potomac in to Virginia, and that therefore tactical victory would rest with the Northern side. The noises continued all night long, but McClellan made no advance, nor did he do so the next day, while the whole Confederate army was crossing the Potomac, until nearly night.

But the Winchester regiment and several more of the same skeleton character, pushing forward a little on the morning of that day, found that the last Confederate soldier was gone from Sharpsburg. Colonel Winchester and other officers were eager for the Army of the Potomac to attack the Army of Northern Virginia, while it dragged itself across the wide and dangerous ford.

But McClellan delayed again, and it was sunset when Dick saw the first sign of action. A strong division with cannon crossed the river and attacked the batteries which were covering the Southern rearguard. Four guns and prisoners were taken, but when Lee heard of it he sent back Jackson, who beat off all pursuit.

Dick and his comrades did not see this last fight, which was the dying echo of Antietam. They felt that they had defeated the enemy's purpose, but they did not rejoice over any victory. The sword of Antietam had turned back Lee and Jackson for a time and perhaps had saved the Union, but Dick was gloomy and depressed that so little had been won when they seemed to hold so much in the hollow of their hands.

This feeling spread through the whole army, and the privates, even, talked of it openly. Nobody could forget those precious two days lost before the battle. Orders No. 191 had put all the cards in their hands, but the commander had not played them.

"I feel that we've really failed," said Warner, as they sat beside a camp fire. "The Southerners certainly fought like demons, but we ought to have been there long before Jackson came, and we ought to have whipped them, even after Jackson did come."

"But we didn't," said Pennington, "and so we've got the job to do all over again. You know, George, we're bound to win."

"Of course, Frank; but while we're doing it the country is being ripped to pieces. I'll never quit mourning over that lost chance at Antietam."

"At any rate we came off better than at the Second Manassas," said Dick. "What's ahead of us now?"

"I don't know," replied Warner. "I saw Shepard yesterday, and he says that the Southerners are recuperating in Virginia. We need restoratives ourselves, and I don't suppose we'll have any important movements along this line for a while."

"But there'll be big fighting somewhere," said Dick.

Return to the The Sword of Antietam Summary Return to the Joseph A. Altsheler Library

Anton Chekhov
Nathaniel Hawthorne
Susan Glaspell
Mark Twain
Edgar Allan Poe
Mary E. Wilkins Freeman
Herman Melville
Stephen Leacock
Kate Chopin
Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson