A Moment in Time: Suffering commenced in earnest
By Jeffrey S. Williams
Sometime after noon on September 13, 1862 while on bivouac a mile southeast of Frederick, Maryland, Sergeant John M. Bloss and Corporal Barton W. Mitchell from the 27th Indiana Volunteer Infantry discovered a copy of Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s Special Order 191. Wrapped in a package with three cigars, this special order detailed the Confederate general’s intentions and battle plans. They sent this up the chain of command to Major General George B. McClellan’s headquarters ensuring that limited numbers of people had access to the top secret document. McClellan sent a telegraph to President Abraham Lincoln in Washington declaring, “I have all the plans of the rebels…”
The two armies clashed at South Mountain, Maryland the next day, and a few days later fought a major engagement on northern soil. It was a battle that, if properly fought, could have ended the war.
In the aftermath of South Mountain, Confederate General Robert E. Lee was determined to make a stand against Federal Major General George B. McClellan in the area between the Potomac River and Antietam Creek near the town of Sharpsburg, Maryland. Since South Mountain, the two armies, Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia and McClellan’s Army of the Potomac, fought a series of skirmishes that led them here. Even with Lee’s General Order No. 191 in the hands of his adversary, the Confederate general had no plans to retreat.
McClellan’s plan was to have Major General Joseph Hooker’s I corps attack Lee’s position from the north, with Major General Joseph Mansfield’s XII Corps in support. The V Corps, under Major General Fitz John Porter, was to attack the middle of the Confederate line while Major General Ambrose Burnside’s IX Corps would attack from the south. Major General Edwin V. Sumner’s II Corps and Major General William Franklin’s VI Corps would continue to press the attack wherever needed. If it was successful, the Army of Northern Virginia would be pushed beyond the Potomac River and back into Virginia, if not be entirely decimated.
At 5:43 a.m., on Wednesday September 17, 1862, McClellan’s plan went into effect as Hooker’s troops launched the first attack against Major General Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson’s Confederates. For the next three hours, the two armies fought to a draw in the North Woods, the East Woods and through the Cornfield.
“In the time I am writing every stalk of corn in the northern and greater part of the field was cut as closely as could have been done with a knife and the slain lay in rows precisely as they had stood in their ranks a few moments before,” Hooker described in his report to McClellan. “It was never my fortune to witness a more bloody, dismal battlefield.” He called on Mansfield’s XII Corps to support the advance.
Sumner received his orders from McClellan at 7:20 a.m. to support the assaults of the I and XII Corps. He was to take two divisions holding the third in reserve until Brigadier General George Morell’s division of the V Corps could be brought forward.
“I was removed from my saddle in the act of falling out of it from loss of blood, having previously been struck without my knowledge,” wrote Hooker. “While my wound was being examined by the surgeons, Sumner’s corps appeared upon the field on my immediate right, and I have an indistinct recollection of having seen Sedgwick’s division pass to the front. I do not think that I examined my watch that morning, but feel confident as to the time – 10 o’clock a.m.” Sumner met briefly with Hooker and then galloped off to catch the lead brigade of Major General John Sedgwick’s division and conduct his own reconnaissance.
Sumner followed Sedgwick’s lead brigade, led by Brigadier General Willis Gorman, as they entered the West Woods just north of the Dunker Church. After a brief consultation with Brigadier General John Gibbon, one of the I Corps brigade commanders, Sumner caught up to the 1st Minnesota Volunteer Infantry that was marching with its colors still cased.
“In God’s name, what are you fighting for?” he yelled at Sergeant Samuel Bloomer, the regiment’s color sergeant. “Unfurl those colors!” Bloomer and the color guard immediately complied with the order.
The 1st Minnesota, 82nd New York and 15th Massachusetts infantry regiments advanced the furthest of all Federal regiments engaged in the battle against their Confederate foes. They were nearly at Alfred Poffenberger’s farm when they met severe resistance from the Confederates. It was while resting upon a fence post here where Bloomer was shot in the right leg. He recounted his ordeal in his diary entry for that day.
“We were up very early then got our coffee & about 7 o’clock we fell in line, forded
Antietam Creek, marched about 1 mile, formed in line of battle & Advanced through
fields, Woods & over fences & over the field where the Battle commenced early in the
morning & which field was covered with dead & wounded of both sides. At last we
halted at the edge of a cornfield by a rail fence but still we were in the Woods. Had not
been at the fence more than 15 minutes before a most terrific fire was pour [sic] into the
left of our brigade from the rear & front & which fire came quickly down the line to the
right where we were. The firing was very light for a time But I knew I had to go to the
rear for I was shot in my leg just below the knee. I had just got behind a large tree when
the whole line was ordered to fall back, which they did leaving me behind. The advance
of the secesh soon made their appearance & passed by me but did not go a great ways
further but formed their picket line about 40 rods in front of me & shortly their line came
up & formed just where our line had stood, which left me about 7 or 8 rods in front of
their line. A wounded prisoner, I was left on the field all day & the shot & shells of both
armies playing in or about there all day cutting off limbs of trees & tearing up the ground
all around me & which made it a very dangerous place, But as luck would have it, I got
through safe. By that fence my pardner Oscar Cornman was killed & one of Co A
likewise some were wounded & all the while the battle was raging terribly on our left.
Secesh were quite gentlemanly toward me, but they took from me my sword which was a
present to me from Lieut Muller, likewise two revolvers for which I did not care so much."
When it appeared that the II Corps was about to be overrun by the Confederates, Sumner himself tried to rally the broken regiments and get everybody out of harm’s way. When the 59th New York Volunteer Infantry was completely outflanked, the general put his own life at risk to rescue his troops.
“General Sumner appeared in person in the midst of a most deadly shower of shot and shell, and an order was received to fall back,” wrote Colonel Joshua Owen of the 69th Pennsylvania Infantry. Covering the retreat from the West Woods were the three regiments that penetrated the farthest – 82nd New York, 15th Massachusetts and the 1st Minnesota, as each regiment slowly withdrew to the north firing upon the pursuing Confederates the whole way.
One-half mile south of the Dunker Church and the West Woods, soldiers from Alabama and North Carolina took cover in a deep farm road. They were approached by more men from Sumner’s II Corps. Brigadier General William French, who mistook Brigadier General George Greene’s XII Corps division for Sedgwick’s, engaged Major General Daniel Harvey Hill’s Confederates in the sunken road. The fight at what became known as “Bloody Lane” kept on for almost four hours before the Confederates withdrew in the wake of 5,600 combined casualties. By the end of the morning, total casualties for the engagement neared 13,000 including two Federal corps commanders.
At 10 a.m., Burnside received his orders to cross the Rohrbach Bridge and attack the southernmost portion of the Confederate line. It took three hours to get his entire corps across the now renamed “Burnside Bridge” despite being the focal point of forty Confederate artillery pieces.
Because of the fierce battle in his left flank against the Federal I, II, VI and XII Corps, General Lee was now out of reserves. He was no longer able to shift forces around to defend his thin right flank against Burnside’s attack. It was Major General Ambrose Powell Hill who rescued Lee at 3:30 p.m., as the streets of Sharpsburg were getting bogged down with retreating Confederates. Hill attacked Burnside and pushed him back to the banks of Antietam Creek. Burnside requested reinforcements from McClellan, who replied, “I can do nothing more. I have no infantry.” Most of Porter’s V Corps and Franklin’s VI Corps were held in reserve and not even used that day.
Six generals died as the result of the Battle of Antietam. Federal Major Generals Joseph K. Mansfield and Israel Richardson plus Brigadier General Isaac P. Rodman were all mortally wounded. Confederate Brigadier Generals Lawrence O. Branch and William E. Starke were killed. Confederate Brigadier General George B. Anderson was severely wounded in the leg at Bloody Lane and died in October following complications from his amputation.
First Minnesota Color Sergeant Bloomer spent nearly two days on the battlefield before a detail of four Confederates carried their prisoner to the hospital at the Hoffman Barn.
Bloomer notes in his diary how the Confederates retreated during the night. He was recaptured by Union forces the next morning and moved to the Smoketown Hospital nearby for surgery and recovery.
His September 20 diary entry was brief: “This day will long be remembered by me for about 8 o’clock AM [sic] the Doctors put me on the table & amputated my right leg above my knee. Suffering commenced in earnest.” Bloomer recovered, was discharged from the regiment and maintained an active life.
Regarding the ghastly sight of his partner, Oscar Cornman, lying dead on the ground during those two days, Bloomer was dating Cornman’s sister, Ada. Though they never married, there is little doubt that what Sam experienced on the field of battle that day helped drive a wedge between them from which neither could ever recover. Ada Cornman never married nor had any children. She died on August 8, 1917 in St. Paul. Bloomer, who had married and bore children, passed away just two months later.
In Landscape Turned Red, Stephen W. Sears summed up McClellan’s missed opportunity, “In making his battle against great odds to save the Republic, General McClellan had committed barely 50,000 infantry and artilleryman to the contest. A third of his army did not fire a shot. Even at that, his men repeatedly drove the Army of Northern Virginia to the brink of disaster, feats of valor entirely lost on a commander thinking of little beyond staving off his own defeat.”
The combined casualties at the Battle of Antietam are believed to be 22,719 killed, wounded and missing in twelve hours of combat. The McClellan’s army sustained 12,401 casualties with 2,108 killed. Lee’s forces had 10,318 casualties with 1,546 dead. More Americans died in combat operations on this one day than on any other day in American military history before or since.