A group of the Antietam Battlefield Guides took advantage of our first truly pleasant day in one-half of forever to hike the areas in and around the Sunken Road this afternoon. It was a detailed study of the Confederate defense during this middle portion of the Battle of Sharpsburg, led by one of the most senior long-term guides – Bill Sagle. I’m reminded again of the truth that I penned in the very first post of this Enfilading Lines Blog – the study of the Civil War (and even one part of one battlefield) is truly bottomless. Let me share some primary thoughts from today:
The visual clarity of the dormant season – I often tell people who come in the off season like winter or early spring or late fall, that they have actually come at a very good time. The park is never more beautiful than when it is green and lush at the height of the growing season, but there is actually more to be seen of the lay of the land during the time of tree and plant dormancy (but don’t be afraid to come at any time of the year!).
The effects of terrain upon battlefield movements and historical interpretation – An especially interesting feature of the Antietam Battlefield is the rolling terrain. Bill Sagle at various points spoke to different rises where certain officers likely moved for a better view of approaching troop movements, or where those same elevations provided an excelling platform for destructive fire. Conversely, numerous ravines were detailed as to the locations for troop movements behind the line of fire – either approaching or leaving the field.
The fluidity of the battle situation – When we view maps of the sunken road action, there are nice straight lines of regiments and brigades. And though we of necessity need to draw it in such a fashion to gain basic understanding, the actual comings and goings of troops in the conflict itself is a good bit messier. It is not as simple as “the Confederates were there waiting, the Union attacked them over and over, and eventually the Confederates retreated back through the Piper Farm.” One breakthrough advance from along the most sunken portion of the lane was that of Colonel Carnet Posey’s 16th Mississippi (Wilkinson Rifles). Of this advance, Colonel R.T. Bennett of the 14th North Carolina said “they disappeared into the ground.”
A tactical point of interesting consideration – Bill Sagle spoke of the smoothbores of the 14th NC, and how their posture of holding a line and drawing the enemy toward it was a tactical move to gain the most effective capacity of their weapons. This helps explain the nature of the wait of the Confederates along the lane. And in my own understanding of the line, I realize I must move the Alabama troops farther to the west, along with their colorful colonel John B. Gordon.
People to study further – I need to search out the writings of Col. Bennett of the 14th NC whom Bill spoke of as a great writer. As an example, from his battle report he said, “At this juncture the colonel commanding gave orders for bayonets to be fixed, preparatory to an advance of the line. However, two fresh columns of the enemy were seen double-quicking to the relief of the shattered ranks of the foe, and stern necessity bade us be satisfied with simple holding of our ground.” The Confederate commander Roger Pryor would also be an interesting character for greater study. He almost died at Fort Sumter, but not in the way you might expect. Abner Doubleday recorded a near fatal incident during the negotiation at the fort after the action had ceased. Roger A. Pryor, a former Virginia senator and future officer for the Confederacy, was with the negotiating party and seated at a hospital table in a dark area (this location being about the only place at Sumter safe from the flames). Near his right hand was a tumbler of drink, as well as a dark bottle. While mechanically reaching to pour a drink, he instead accidentally poured the contents of the bottle into a glass and swallowed what turned out to be iodide of potassium. The doctor, Samuel Wylie Crawford (who would give up medicine during the war to eventually become a general, fighting also at Antietam) took him outside to apply a stomach pump. Doubleday later told the doctor that if the leaders of secession wanted to come over from Charleston and commit suicide by poisoning themselves, he could think of no reason “to interfere with such a laudable intention.” Crawford responded with similar humor, reasoning that he was responsible for government property, and could not allow it to be taken away in Pryor’s stomach.
A great line to use with guests – Often when giving a tour and looking out over a distance to describe a particular spot, there will be people or vehicles at the exact location being referenced. Bill would often say something like, “Out there where I placed those two vehicles just for this moment,” or “over by that big tower I had built.” I’ll use that! One day at Bloody Lane while talking with a bus group, I pointed to a person walking about 50 yards away and said that something happened “about where that man in the red jacket is walking.” It turned out to be someone from their own group … a woman! Oh boy.