Antietam - Sedgwick's Division of II Corps Attacks into the West Woods



    By just 8:30, the Union I and XII Corps had shot their bolt.  After marching across Antietam Creek, sixty-five year old Edwin Sumner was now arriving at the edge of the East Woods with the leading unit of his II Corps - Sedgwick's Division, composed of around 5,500 men.  Sumner's other two divisions were not yet available.  Lack of immediate support would argue for prudence, but the Confederates in his sight appeared to be used up, and the enemy flank was vulnerable.  Perhaps the shock of Sedgwick's division would pierce the weak Confederate line, roll up their flank, and win the war.  So without skirmishers, and formed into a column of three lines - one line for each brigade - Sedgwick's massive column, a third of a mile wide, headed toward weak Confederate resistance in the West Woods.  Sumner placed himself on the right of the first line.  


From Southern Edge of the Cornfield

     Sedgwick's division was approaching the field from a different axis - nearly 90 degrees from route Hooker's corps had taken.  Moving across the Smoketown Road, the Yankee division advanced west toward the Hagerstown Pike and the West Woods.  To their left, SD Lee's Confederate artillery could have enfiladed them earlier in the day from near the modern Visitors Center, but under pressure from Greene's division of the XII Corps, the southern guns withdrew.  The men of Greene's division reached the high ground where Lee's guns had been, and the 125th PA went into the woods near the Dunker Church.  There they were isolated and vulnerable.

    To the right of Sedgwick's division, elements of the I Corps were at the northern end of the West Woods, and friendly infantry of the reforming I and XII Corps were sprawled from the Cornfield to the North Woods.  Sedgwick's division boldly went forward into the West Woods, between Greene and the I Corps.  Could Sedgwick's division pierce the rebel line?



You are NOT here!  You're with Sedgwick.



Hauser's Ridge

    This is the view looking west from just off the modern Sharpsburg Pike, or the Route 65 Bypass.  Federals at the front of Sedgwick's column, Gorman's brigade, emerged from the West Woods.  They must have had a view something like this.  On Hauser's Ridge to their front was Confederate artillery - horse artillery under Pelham that had moved from the north, and SD Lee's guns - guns that had redeployed from near the Dunker Church.  Remnants of Confederate infantry units also opposed them.  Confederate guns fired double loads of canister, stopping the Federal column.

15th Mass and 59th NY

     The rebels to their front ended up being just a portion of their worries.  Confederate divisions under McLaws and Walker had just arrived on their flank.  The Yankees near the Dunker Church were the first victims, with the 125th PA loosing 229 of its 700 men as it was swept back.  Sedgwick's division was next.   The 15th Mass. was in the left-center of the front line, and it was one of the first units to suffer, loosing 54% of its men in less than half and hour.  Taking fire not only from front and flank by the enemy, they also took friendly fire from the rear.  Today, the regiment is remembered with a lion-topped monument near this road cut on the modern Sharpsburg Pike.  The Union line roughly paralleled the modern road, and the flanking Confederates attacked along the axis of this road.  Not far from the 15th Mass marker is a small monument showing where Lt Col Stetson of the 59th NY was mortally wounded.  On the far left of the first line, the 59th NY lost 224 of its 321 men.

     First halted, then attacked in its flank, Sedgwick's division was in confusion.


Center of Sedgwick's Column

    This modern-day open field, then part of the West Woods, is the rising ground behind the first line of Sedgwick's column.  The first line would have been parallel to the woods on the far left of the panorama, and the right of the column extended all the way to modern Starke Avenue.  The following second line, Dana's brigade, would have been somewhere in this field.  The prominent tree line in this panorama marks the eastern edge of the West Woods.  At this edge of the woods was the third line, O.O. Howard's brigade.  Beyond this tree line is the park service tour stop for the West Woods. 

On the far right of the picture is the modern field that we just saw, separated from the park service tour stop by a fence and a line of small trees.  The parking area is near the prominent Philadelphia Brigade monument, just behind the location of the third line of the Union column.

From Rear of Sedgwick's Column

    The Starke mortuary cannon shown here is from an earlier action, when Confederates counterattacked Hooker's advance on the Dunker Church.  During the attack of Sedgwick's column, this would have been the view to the Union rear.

     The third line in the rear of the column wasn't safe from the Confederate attack either.  In fact, they were among the first to feel the sting of the attack.  Confederates advancing up the Hagerstown Pike from the right of the picture - from the Dunker Church - attacked the flank and rear of the Union column here in the open ground behind the West Woods.  The massive Union column was under attack from three sides. 

    In the confusion of the Confederate attack, Union troops fired on each other, adding to the chaos.  In the period of around half an hour, the Union division lost 2,200 of its 5,500 men and was put to flight.  Greene's division near the Dunker Church had been pushed back, and now Sedgwick's division was fleeing north along the axis of the Hagerstown Pike - in the direction of the Cornfield, modern day Starke Avenue, and the North Woods beyond.  Hopes for a quick and easy victory were dashed.

    The battle in this area stabilized, but the remaining two divisions of Sumner's corps would cross Antietam Creek and enter the battle at the center of Lee's line near a sunken farm lane.

Copyright 2008 by John Hamill

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