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Detailed Accounts of the Great Battle of Sharpsburg.


September 1862

From The Missouri Democrat, Tuesday, September 23, 1862.

Detailed Accounts of the Great Battle of Sharpsburg.

Hooker and Burnside the Heroes of the Day.

Desperate Fighting of the Rebels.


The correspondent of the New York Tribune gives a detailed account of the battle of Wednesday, which he terms “the greatest fight since Waterloo, and contested all over the field with an obstinacy even equal to Waterloo.”

It appears from his statement that Tuesday was spent chiefly in deploying forces and gaining positions.  After the day was over, General Hooker remarked:  “We are through for to-night, but to-morrow we fight the battle that will decide the fate of the republic.”


The battle of Wednesday began with the dawn.  Morning found both armies just as they had slept, almost close enough to look into each other’s eyes.  The left of Meade’s reserves and the right of Rickett’s line became engaged at nearly the same moment, one with artillery, the other with infantry.

A battery was almost immediately pushed forward beyond the central woods, over a plowed field, near the top of the slope where the cornfield begun.  On the open field in the corn beyond and in the woods which stepped forward into the broad fields like a promontory into the ocean, was the hardest and deadliest struggle of the day.

For half an hour after the battle had grown to its full strength, the line of fire swayed neither way.  Hooker’s men were fully up to their work.  They saw their General everywhere in front, never away from the fire, and all the troops believed in their commander and fought with a will.  Two-thirds of them were the same men who, under McDowell, had broken at Manassas.

The half-hour passed, the rebels began to give way a little, only a little, but at the first indication of a receding fire, forward was the word, and on went our line with a cheer and a rush.  Back across the cornfield, leaving dead and wounded behind them, over the fence, and across the road, and then back again into the dark woods which closed around them, went the retreating rebels.

Meade and his Pennsylvanians followed hard and fast—followed till they came within easy range of the woods, among which they saw their beaten enemy disappearing—followed still, with another cheer, and flung themselves against the cover.


But out of those gloomy woods came, suddenly and heavily, terrible volleys—volleys which smote, and broke, and bent, in a moment, that eager front, and hurled them swiftly back for half the distance they had won.  Not swiftly, nor in panic, any further.  Closing up their shattered lines, they came slowly away—a regiment where a brigade had been; hardly a brigade where a whole division had been victorious.  They had met from the woods the first volleys of musketry from fresh troops—had met them and returned them till their line had yielded and gone down before the weight of fire, and till their ammunition was exhausted.

In ten minutes the fortune of the day seemed to have changed—it was the rebels now who were advancing, pouring out of the woods in endless lines, sweeping through the cornfields from which their comrades just fled.  Hooker sent in his nearest brigade, and ordered Doubleday to forward his “best brigade.”

Hartsuff’s and Doubleday’s brigades pushed on and held the hill from which the cornfield begins to descend.  They were severely attacked by the rebels, and though they were severely cut up, and General Hartsuff wounded, they maintained their position.

The crisis of the fight at this point had arrived; Rickett’s division vainly endeavoring to advance, and exhausted by the effort, had fallen back.  Part of Mansfield’s corps was ordered in to their relief, but Mansfield’s troops came back again, and their General was mortally wounded.  The left nevertheless was too extended to be turned, and too strong to be broken.  Ricketts sent word he could not advance, but could hold his ground.  Doubleday had kept his guns at work on the right, and had finally silenced a rebel battery that for half and hour had poured in a galling enfilading fire along Hooker’s central line.

Orders were sent to Crawford and Gordon—the two Mansfield brigades—to move directly forward at once; the batteries in the center were ordered on, the whole line was called on, and the General himself went forward.


To the right of the cornfield and beyond it was a point of woods.  Once carried and firmly held, it was the key of the position.  Hooker determined to take it.  He rode out in front of his furthest troops on a hill to examine the ground for a battery.

At the top he dismounted and went forward on foot, completed his reconnaissance, returned and remounted.  The musketry fire from the point of woods was all the while extremely hot.  As he put his foot in the stirrup, a fresh volley of rifle bullets came whizzing by.  The tall, soldierly figure of the General, the white horse which he rode, the elevated place where he was—all made him a most dangerously conspicuous mark.

Three men were shot down by his side at the same moment that Hooker was struck in the foot by a ball.  The air was alive with bullets.  He kept on his horse for a few moments, though the wound was severe and excessively painful, and would not dismount till he had given his last order to advance.  He was himself in the very front.  Swaying unsteadily on his horse, he turned in his seat to look about him.  “There is a regiment to the right.  Order it forward!  Crawford and Gordon are coming up.  Tell them to carry these works and hold them, and it is our fight!”

It was found that the bullet had passed completely through his foot.  The surgeon who examined it on the spot could give no opinion whether bones were broken, but it was afterwards ascertained that though grazed they were not fractured.  Of course the severity of the wound made it impossible for him to keep the field, which he believed already won, so far as it belonged to him to win it.  It was nine o’clock.

The fight had been furious since five.  A large part of this command was broken, but with his right still untouched, and with Crawford’s and Gordon’s just up, above all, with the advance of the whole central line, which the men had heard with cheers.  As it was impossible to hold the position, General Sumner withdrew the division to the rear, and once more the cornfield was abandoned to the enemy.

French sent word he could hold his ground.  Richardson, while gallantly leading a regiment under a heavy fire, was severely wounded in the shoulder.  General Meagher was wounded at the head of his brigade.  The loss in general officers was becoming frightful.

At 1 o’clock affairs on the right had a gloomy look.  Hooker’s troops were greatly exhausted, and their general away from the field.  Mansfield’s were no better, Sumner’s command had lost heavily, but two of his divisions were still comparatively fresh.  Artillery was yet playing vigorously in front, though the ammunition of many of the batteries was entirely exhausted, and they had been compelled to retire.


At this crisis Franklin came up with fresh troops, and commanding one division of the corps, formed on the left.  Slocum was sent forward along the slopes lying under the first ranges of the division of rebel hills, while Smith was ordered to retake the cornfield and woods which all day had been so hotly contested.  It was done in the handsomest style.  His Maine and Vermont regiments and the rest went forward on the run, and, cheering as they went, swept like an avalanche through the cornfields, fell upon the woods, cleared them in ten minutes, and held them.  They were not again retaken.

The field and its ghastly harvest which the reaper had gathered in those fatal hours remained finally with us.  Four times it had been lost and won.  The dead are strewn so thickly that as you ride over it you cannot guide your horse’s steps too carefully.

Gen. Smith’s attack was so sudden that his suc[c]ess was accomplished with no great loss.

Up to three o’clock Burnside had made little progress.  His attack on the bridge had been successful, but the delay had been so great that, to the observer, it appeared as if McClellan’s plans must have been seriously disarranged.


Finally, at four o’clock, McClellan sent simultaneous orders to Burnside and Franklin; to the former to advance and carry the batteries in his front at all hazards and any cost; to the latter to carry the woods next in front of him to the left, which the rebels still held.  The order of Franklin, however, was practically countermanded, in consequence of a message from General Sumner, that if Franklin went on and was repulsed, his own corps was not yet sufficiently organized to be depended on a reserve.

Franklin, thereupon, was directed to run no risk of losing his present position, and instead of sending his infantry into the woods, contented himself with advancing his batteries over the breach of the fields in front, supporting them with heavy columns of infantry, and attacking with energy the rebel batteries immediately opposed to him.  His movement was a success so far as it went.  That being once accomplished, and all hazard of the right being again forced back having been dispelled, the movement of Burnside became at once the turning point of success, and the fate of the day depended on him.

Generals Hooker, and Sumner, and Franklin, and Mansfield were all sent to the right three miles away, while Porter se[e]ms to have done double duty with his single corps in front, both supporting the batteries and holding himself in reserve.  With all this immense force on the right, but sixteen thousand men were given to Burnside for the decisive movement of the day.

Still more unfortunate in its results was the total failure of these separate attacks on the right and left to sustain, or in any manner, co-operate with each other.  Burnside hesitated for hours in front of the bridge, which should have been carried at once by a coup de main.  Meantime Hooker had been fighting for four hours with various fortune, but final success.  Sumner had come up too late to join in the decisive attack, which his earlier arrival would probably have converted into a complete success; and Franklin reached the scene only when Sumner had been repulsed.


Attacking first with one regiment, then with two, and delaying both for artillery, Burnside was not over the bridge before two o’clock—perhaps not till three.  He advanced slowly up the slopes in his front, his batteries in rear, covering to some extent, the movements of the infantry.  A desperate fight was going on in a deep ravine on his right, the rebel batteries were in full play and apparently very annoying and destructive, while heavy columns of rebel troops were plainly visible, advancing as if careless of concealment, along the road and over the hills in the direction of Burnside’s forces.  It was at this point of time that McClellan sent him the order above given.

Burnside obeyed it most gallantly.  Getting his troops well in hand, and sending a portion of his artillery to the front, he advanced them, with rapidity and the most determined vigor, straight up the hill in front, on top of which the rebels had maintained their most dangerous battery.  The movement was in plain view of McClellan’s position, and as Franklin, on the other side, sent his batteries into the field about the same time, the battle seemed to open in all directions with greater activity than ever.

There are two hills on the left of the road, the farthest and the lowest.  The rebels have batteries on both.  Burnside is ordered to carry the nearest to him, which is the farthest from the road.  His guns opening first from this new position in front, more entirely controlled and silenced the enemy’s artillery.  The infantry came on at once, moving rapidly and steadily up long dark, lanes, and broad, dark recesses, being plainly visible without a glass as they moved over the green hill side.

The next moment the road in which the rebel battery was planted, was canopied with clouds of dust swiftly descending into the valley.  Underneath was a tumult of wagons, guns, horses and men flying at speed down the road.  Blue flashes of smoke burst now and then among them, a horse or a man or half dozen went down, and then the whirlwind swept on.

The hill was carried, but could it be held?  The rebel columns, before seen moving to the left, increased their pace.  The guns on the hill above send an angry tempest of shell down among Burnside’s guns and men.  He had formed his columns apparently in the near angles of two fields bordering the road—high ground about them everywhere except in rear.


In another moment a rebel battle-line appears on the brow of the ridge above them, moves swiftly down in the most perfect order, and though met by incessant discharges of musketry, of which we plainly see the flashes, does not fire a gun.  White spaces show where men are falling, but they close up instantly, and still the line advances.  The brigades of Burnside are in heavy column; they will not give way before a bayonet charge in line.  The rebels think twice before they dash into these hostile masses.

There is a halt; the rebel left gives way and scatters over the field, the rest stand fast and fire.  More infantry comes up, Burnside is outnumbered—flanked, compelled to yield the hill he took so bravely.  His position is no longer one of attack; he defends himself with unfaltering firmness, but he sends to McClellan for help.  McClellan’s glass for the last half hour has seldom been turned away from the left.


Burnside’s messenger rode up.  His message is, “I cannot hold my position for half an hour.”  McClellan’s only answer for the moment is a glance at the western sky.  Then he turns and speaks very slowly:  “Tell General Burnside that this is the battle of the war.  He must hold his ground till dark at any cost.”

“I will send him Miller’s battery.  I can do nothing more.  I have no infantry.”  Then as the messenger was riding away he called him back.  “Tell him if he cannot hold his ground, then the bridge, to the last man!—always the bridge!  If the bridge is lost, all is lost.”

The sun is already down; not half an hour of daylight is left.  Till Burnside’s message came it had seemed plain to every one that the battle could not be finished to-day.

None suspected how near was the peril of defeat, of sudden attack on exhausted forces—how vital to the safety of the army and the nation was the fifteen thousand waiting troops of Fitz John Porter in the hollow.  But the rebels halted instead of pushing on, their vindictive cannonade died away as the light faded.  Before it was quite dark the battle was over.  Only a solitary gun of Burnside’s thundered against the enemy, and presently this also ceased, and the field was still.


The peril came very near, but it has passed, and in spite of the peril, at the close of the day was partly a success—not a victory, but an advantage had been gained.  Hooker, Sumner and Franklin, held all the ground they had gained, and Burnside still held the bridge and his position beyond.

Everything was favorable for a renewal of the fight in the morning.  If the plan of the battle is sound, there is every reason why McClellan should win it.  He may choose to postpone the battle to await his reinforcements.

It is hard to estimate losses on a field of such extent, but I think ours cannot be less then six thousand killed and wounded—it may be much greater.  Prisoners have been taken from the enemy—I hear of a regiment captured entire, but I doubt it.  All the prisoners whom I saw agree in saying that the whole army is there.  Hill and Longstreet are either killed or prisoners.