Warning: This article includes historic photos of the dead at Antietam.
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The Battle of Antietam was the last act in the Confederate invasion of the North. After smashing a Union army at the Second Battle of Bull Run, Confederate General Robert E. Lee had moved across the Potomac River from Virginia into Maryland on September 4, 1862. His forces had then divided to reap supplies and prisoners from scattered Union bases across many miles of territory. Union troops had found a discarded copy of Lee’s battle plan shortly after the invasion and Union commander George McClellan had set off in uncharacteristically fast pursuit. 1
On Sept. 16, McClellan’s Army of the Potomac cornered part of Lee’s army at the small village of Sharpsburg, Maryland set between the Potomac River and Antietam Creek. Although the Union forces greatly outnumbered the Confederates, McClellan decided to wait until the next day to attack, allowing General Lee to fortify his positions and bring up reinforcements. 2
The Union assault in what would become the bloodiest day in American history began before dawn on September 17. Although the Union forces still held an advantage in numbers, General McClellan would squander his men’s lives by allowing uncoordinated and unsupported attacks in three different sectors of the battlefront. As he had during the Seven Days Battles, McClellan would stay away from where his men were fighting and made decisions based on outdated and incorrect reports. Union coordination would also be undermined by the heavy toll of lives of his subordinate commanders. In contrast, the Confederate command system was flexible and responsive to new developments on the battlefield. While the Union troops were not outfought that day, George McClellan was out-generaled.3
The Irish Brigade had been chasing Lee’s army for more than ten days. When the battle opened, it was on the right side of the Union line. Out of sight of the opening attacks through cornfields and woods, Irish Brigade commander Thomas Meagher could hear sounds of desperate struggle to his right, but had no orders to intervene. The Irish Brigade was part of the II Corps under command of Major General Edwin Sumner, the oldest Union general on the field. Sumner’s corps was made up largely of veterans who were among the most battle tested in the army, but Sumner was on the verge of a nervous collapse. 4
When Sumner was ordered into the battle, he decided to personally lead one-third of the II Corps into battle. A stunning Confederate attack routed Sumner’s troops and plunged him into a confusion that he did not recover from that day. He effectively lost control of his men. 5
The Irish Brigade and the rest of Sumner’s Corps were left behind with little direction and no knowledge of where Sumner was, but the officers of the II Corps were not prepared to let their fellow soldiers be slaughtered without trying to help. Marching towards the sound of the fighting, they headed for a place that became so wretched with death that to this day it is known as the Bloody Lane. The lane was a sunken road where Confederate defenders were protected while fighting as though they were in a trench. The lane was protected by farmers’ fences that would break up any advancing Union forces and the approach was heavily covered by Confederate artillery. It was here that nearly half of the men of the Irish Brigade would die or be seriously wounded in the course of just a few hours. 6
The Irish Brigade Monument at Antietam
When Meagher gave the order for the Irish brigade to advance against the waiting Confederates, he recalled, they “obeyed this order with a heartiness and enthusiasm which it was rare to expect from men who had been wearied and worn by the unremitting labors of a nine months’ campaign.” Hard marching and defeat in previous battles had not demoralized them. The brigade, under musket and artillery fire the whole time, was held up in its attack by a fence obstructing its path. Soldiers had to dash forward to dismantle it so the brigade could pass, but many men were lost in the effort. Meagher described the scene as his men were finally able to move past the fence:
The enemy’s column, with their battle-flag advanced and defiantly flying in front, was at this time within 300 paces of our line. A clover field of about two acres interposed. Then came the plowed field in which this column of the enemy was drawn up, and from which from their double front they had delivered and sustained a fire… [A Confederate attack on the endangered Union line] was suddenly checked by the impetuous advance of the Irish Brigade, which in a great measure filling up the gap through which the rebel column was descending to the rear of the Federal lines, drew up in line of battle within 50 paces of the enemy… . On coming into this close and fatal contact with the enemy, the officers and men of the brigade waved their swords and hats and gave the heartiest cheers for…the Army of the Potomac. Never were men in higher spirits. Never did men with such alacrity and generosity of heart press forward and encounter the perils of the battle-field.7
McClellan, observing the fight from a safe distance, wrote later that:
Meagher’s brigade, advancing steadily, soon became-engaged with the enemy, posted to the left and in front of Roulette’s house. It continued to advance, under a heavy fire, nearly to the crest of the hill…the enemy being posted in a continuation of the sunken road and corn-field… Here the brave Irish Brigade opened upon the enemy a terrific musketry fire.8
Many of the soldiers had joined the Irish Brigade so that they would have a Catholic chaplain instead of the evangelical ministers common in other regiments. Father William Corby, one of the priests serving with the brigade, rode on horseback with the men into battle, risking the same fate that might await them. He wrote that “As soon as my men began to fall, I dismounted and began to hear their confessions on the spot.” As Catholics, many of the men believed that sacramental care at the moment of death could help them gain eternal life in heaven. Corby was willing to die to offer them this comfort. 9
Dead soldiers of the Irish Brigade at Antietam
The next day the New York Times reported on the Irish Brigade’s fight at the Sunken Road:
The musketry firing at this point was the severest and most deadly ever witnessed before. Men on both sides fell in large numbers every moment, and…eye-witnesses…did not suppose it possible for a single man to escape. The enemy…were concealed…so that only their heads were exposed. The brigade advanced…when a most deadly fire was poured in by [Confederates] concealed in the Sharpsburgh road, which at this point is several feet lower than the surrounding surface, forming a complete rifle-pit. [T]he color-bearer…advanced…to the front and defiantly waved his flag in the face of the enemy. In this road was massed a large force of infantry, here was the most hotly contested point of the day.10
Here, in front of the Sunken Road, the Irish Brigade shot it out with the protected Confederate line. McClellan described the bloody struggle:
The Irish Brigade sustained its well-earned reputation. After suffering terribly in officers and men, and strewing the ground with their enemies as they drove them back, their ammunition nearly expended, and their commander, General Meagher, disabled by the fall of his horse, shot under him, this brigade was ordered to give place [to another brigade].11
Instead of running from the field as other units had done, McClellan wrote that the Irish reformed their regiments and marched away from the road “as steadily as on drill”. A Union attack soon after drove the Confederates from the Sunken Road. 12
The next day, a New York Times reporter went to the Sunken Road and described it as the place where the Irish Brigade “made such a terrific slaughter in the enemy’s ranks, and gained imperishable renown. The dead and wounded were strewn…in hideous confusion… [T]he dead and wounded rebel and Union troops were in heaps…and everywhere could be seen stern, unmistakable evidence of the desperate struggle. Mangled humanity in all its ghastly forms could be seen upon the field…”13
Confederate dead in the Sunken Road
Father Corby and the doctors of the Irish Brigade would attend to that “mangled humanity” in the days after the fighting. Fr. Corby recalled that “All the wounded of our brigade, numbering hundreds, were carried to a large straw stack, which had to answer for a hospital. Here I saw one poor man with a bullet in his forehead, and his brains protruding from the hole made by the ball. [H]e lived three days, but was speechless and deaf and had lost his senses entirely. “ The mortally wounded man was not alone. According to the records of just one of the Irish Brigade’s regiments, the Fighting 69th New York Volunteers, of the 330 men it brought into the battle, 71 were either killed outright or died from their wounds and 125 were seriously wounded, a total of 196 men killed or wounded.14
The Irish Brigade would gain lasting fame for its actions this day, but the families of the dead and permanently disabled in New York’s Irish community began to ask if their men’s lives had been thrown away by incompetent commanders. The uneasy consensus among the city’s Irish in support of suppressing the slaveholders’ rebellion would begin to crack as the dead were still finding their way into graves near Antietam Creek.
Video: Overview of the September 1862 Maryland Campaign
Video: Photographing the Dead at Antietam
1. From the Peninsula to Antietam by George B. McClellan in Battles and Leaders of the Civil War Vol. II pp. 545-555; George B. McClellan: The Young Napoleon by Stephen W. Sears published by Ticknor and Fields (1988); Landscape Turned Red: The Battle of Antietam by Stephen W. Sears pub. by Houghton Mifflin; The Long Road To Antietam: How the Civil War Became a Revolution by Richard Slotkin (2012); The Maryland Campaign of September 1862 Vol. 1 by Ezra Carman Edited by Thomas Clemmens published by Savas Beatie (2010); September Suspense: Lincoln’s Union in Peril by Dennis Frye pub. by Antietam Rest Pub. (2012); Unholy Sabbath: South Mountain in History and Memory by Brian Jordan published by South Mountain Press (2012); The Maps of Antietam by Bradley Gottfried published by Savas Beattie (2012); From the Peninsula to Antietam by George B. McClellan in Battles and Leaders of the Civil War Vol. II pp. 545-555; The Battle of Antietam by Jacob Cox in Battles and Leaders of the Civil War Vol. II pp. 630-659; The Invasion of Maryland by James Longstreet pp. 663-674.
2. The Battle of Antietam by Ted Alexander published by The History Press (2011).
3. George B. McClellan: The Young Napoleon by Stephen W. Sears published by Ticknor and Fields (1988); Landscape Turned Red: The Battle of Antietam by Stephen W. Sears pub. by Houghton Mifflin; The Long Road To Antietam: How the Civil War Became a Revolution by Richard Slotkin (2012).
4. Landscape Turned Red: The Battle of Antietam by Stephen W. Sears pub. by Houghton Mifflin.
5. Landscape Turned Red: The Battle of Antietam by Stephen W. Sears pub. by Houghton Mifflin.
6. The Battle of Antietam by Ted Alexander published by The History Press (2011).
7. BGen Thomas F. Meagher’s Official Report of September 30, 1862.
8. McClellan Final Report.
9. Memoirs of Chaplain Life by Fr. William Corby p. 112-113.
10. The Most Fearful Ordeal edited by James McPherson pub. by St. Martins Press p. 197.
11. McClellan Final Report.
12. McClellan Final Report.
13. The Most Fearful Ordeal edited by James McPherson pub. by St. Martins Press p. 204.
14. Memoirs of Chaplain Life by Fr. William Corby p. 112-113.
The Immigrants’ Civil War is a series that will examine the role of immigrants in our bloodiest war. Articles will appear monthly between 2011 and 2015, the 150th Anniversary of the Civil War. Here are the articles we have published so far:
1. Immigrant America on the Eve of the Civil War - Take a swing around the United States and see where immigrants were coming from and where they were living in 1861.
2. 1848: The Year that Created Immigrant America - Revolutions in Europe, famine and oppression in Ireland, and the end of the Mexican War made 1848 a key year in American immigration history.
3. Carl Schurz: From German Radical to American Abolitionist- A teenaged revolutionary of 1848, Carl Schurz brought his passion for equality with him to America.
5. ...And the War Came to Immigrant America -The impact of the firing on Fort Sumter on America’s immigrants
10. Immigrant Day Laborers Help Build the First Fort to Protect Washington-The Fighting 69th use their construction skills.
12. Immigrants Rush to Join the Union Army-Why?- The reasons immigrants gave for enlisting early in the war.
17. Immigrant Regiments on Opposite Banks of Bull Run -The Fighting 69th and the Louisiana Tigers
39. A German Regiment Fights for “Freedom and Justice” at Shiloh-The 32nd Indiana under Col. August Willich.
40. The Know Nothing Colonel and the Irish Soldier Confronting slavery and bigotry.
43. Union Leader Ben Butler Seeks Support in New Orleans-When General Ben Butler took command in New Orleans in 1862, it was a Union outpost surrounded by Confederates. Butler drew on his experience as a pro-immigrant politician to win over the city’s Irish and Germans.
49. The Irish Brigade Moves Towards Richmond-The Irish brigade in the Peninsula Campaign from March 17 to June 2, 1862.
50. Peninsula Emancipation: Irish Soldiers Take Steps on the Road to Freedom-The Irish Brigade and Irish soldiers from Boston free slaves along the march to Richmond.
54. Making Immigrant Soldiers into Citizens-Congress changed the immigration laws to meet the needs of a nation at war.
60. Emancipation 150: “All men are created equal, black and white”- A German immigrant reacts to the Emancipation Proclamation
The Harp and the Eagle: Irish American Volunteers and the Union Army, 1861 to 1865 by Susannah Ural Bruce
Jews and the Civil War: A Reader Edited by Jonathan Sarna and Adam Mendelsohn
Civil War Citizens edited by Susannah Ural Bruce
Germans in the Civil War: The Letters They Wrote Home edited by Walter Kamphoefner and Wolfgang Helbich
A World on Fire: Britain’s Crucial Role in the American Civil War By Amanda Foreman
Irish Green and Union Blue by Peter Welsh
Immigration Vacation -Civil War Sites
Fort Schuyler- Picnic where the Irish Brigade trained