Now that I’m past forty and have three kids at home, “Father’s Day” is more than just calling my Dad. It’s a special day away from the trials and tribulations of politics and law practice.
This year Sharon and the kids gave me a chance to be outdoors, experience history and spend time with the family. We drove to the Antietam Battlefield in Sharpsburg, Maryland (or “the Battle of Sharpsburg” as we Virginians call it).
It was my oldest daughter’s idea. I had taken all three children to Manassas a couple years ago and made them walk the battlefield while I described the history — mainly to myself. Today was their turn to return the favor.
Unlike the condensed terrain at First Manassas, the battlefield at Antietam represents three engagements spread miles apart. Due to the hilly terrain, it’s challenging to hike or even bike. So we spent most the time driving, then getting out to walk around.
Here’s the story …
The battle on September 17, 1862 started on the north side of town where the Union Army, led by “Fighting Joe” Hooker began forward at 530 a.m. and smashed into Stonewall Jackson’s tired troops (just marched up from Harper’s Ferry). The Union Army was in place to wipe out the Confederates that day as they had pinned Lee’s invading army against the Potomac River.
The battle over The Cornfield raged for hours and featured charges and counter-charges by each side. The stalks of high corn hid the advances which added to the confusion, until rifle fire and shrapnel literally shredded them.
Tempers ran high at the early charge by the Federal Army. Legend has it that John Bell Hood’s division of Texans was getting their first hot meal in days when the Union attacked. Furious, they charged into the corn and destroyed Hooker’s Corps. Then they in turn were driven out of the Cornfield by Union artillery.
At one point in the morning, the Union Army, with greater numbers, drove through Jackson’s Confederate line and reached the Dunker Church, on a key piece of high ground. However the lead troops became isolated and then shot apart by the Southerners on each side. They packed up and headed back to their jump-off spot. By 11 a.m., both sides were exhausted and the battle on the north side essentially ceased.
The action moved about a mile south where Sumner’s US Army Corps attacked D.H. Hill’s North Carolinians along the Sunken Lane which was later renamed “Bloody Road.” The crest of the hill hid the marching infantry til they were almost on top of the Rebels, who then stood up and blasted them back. That happened several times.
But the Lane was eventually seized by the “Irish Brigade,” recruited from the streets of New York, who smashed through the split rail fences and fought their way into the middle of the Confederate line. They then turned and hit the Carolina boys with enfilade fire until the defenders skedaddled.
At Antietam, there’s a marker to Gen. Daniel Meagher, commander of the Irish Brigade, who was an Irish freedom fighter exiled by the British Crown to Tasmania for sedition. He escaped to America and there raised the Brigade, which became one of the most famous units in U.S. Army history. Promoted to major general, he later served as Governor of Montana before drowning in a Missouri River flood in 1869.
Ireland, Tasmania, New York, Antietam, Montana. That’s a full life.
The battle culminated at the “Burnside Bridge” across Antietam Creek. After some early disorganization (perhaps related to his inability to shave his whole face), U.S. General Ambrose Burnside seized the Bridge and drove off the Confederate right wing. At this point he was prepared to march into Sharpsburg, cut off Lee’s Army from the Potomac River and end the war.
Not to be. In one of the most dramatic episodes of the Civil War, CSA General A.P. Hill – of Culpeper Virginia, naturally – came up the road from Harper’s Ferry with his “Light Division,” so named because they moved faster than anyone else in either army.
This day they covered seventeen miles in six hours from Harper’s Ferry under a hot sun carrying their long rifles. Hill in his red battle shirt rode at the head of the column and pushed them ahead. At about 4 pm, Hill’s hard chargers smashed into Burnside’s flank and halted the Union drive just a few hundred yards short of Sharpsburg.
The battle was over for the day with nearly 25,000 casualties combined between the two armies. It was the bloodiest single day of the Civil War.
The next day Lee slipped back across the Potomac. The Union Army did not destroy the Army of Northern Virginia. However, their performance at Sharpsburg did give President Lincoln the political leverage to release the Emancipation Proclamation which freed the slaves (at least in name) then living in the Southern States.
Although the War continued on til 1865, it had reached a key watershed moment at Sharpsburg.
Ok, you read that in 5 minutes. My kids on the other hand had to spent six hours with me. Either way, I am always glad to share the great history of this nation with my children. That’s my kind of Father’s Day.