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  • Writer's pictureFrank Armiger

Remembering the Maryland Military at the Battle of Antietam on its 158th Anniversary

On September 17, 1862, the bloodiest day of any American war occurred on the soil of the state of Maryland near the village of Sharpsburg and the meandering Antietam Creek not far from the border with present-day West Virginia. It was a day of total violence lasting from 6:00 AM in the morning when Hookers Corps attacked out of the North Woods and ended around 6:00 PM when Burnside’s final attack was stopped by A. P. Hills troops arriving from Harper’s Ferry to stave off a disastrous Confederate defeat. The 12-hour slugfest left 11,500 Confederate casualties and 12,900 Union casualties for a total of 24,400 American casualties. * As a comparison, the total US casualties on D Day were approximately 6,600 with 2,500 of that total from the 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions. The US 1st and 29th Divisions suffered approximately 2,400 casualties on Omaha Beach.

Seven units represented the state of Maryland with only one unit in action on the Confederate side. The Baltimore Battery under the command of Captain John Brockenbrough was attached to J. R. Jones brigade in Stonewall Jackson’s corps. Like most of the Confederate artillery batteries, it was composed of multiple types of guns: one 3-inch Ordinance Rifle, one Blakely Rifle, one 10-pounder Parrott and one Howitzer. Of course, this caused logistical issues since multiple types of ammunition were necessary to support the battery. The Baltimore Battery fought in the West Woods area near the Dunker Church.

There were two batteries on the Union side. Both were originally part of the Purnell Legion. Maryland Light, Battery A under the command of Captain John Wolcott was attached to Upton’s battalion in Slocum’s division of the VI Army Corps. Maryland Light, Battery B under the command of Lieutenant Theodore Vanneman was attached to Ayres brigade of Smith’s division in the VI Army Corps. Battery A was composed of 8 3-inch Ordinance Rifles and Battery B had 6 3-inch Ordnance Rifles. Note that they were all cannons of the same type. The batteries were organized in Baltimore and Pikesville.

The remainder of this article will focus on the four US infantry regiments that fought in the Union Army of the Potomac under the command of George B. McClellan.

The Purnell Legion was recruited between October 31, 1861 and December 31, 1861 under the auspices of the Baltimore Postmaster, William H. Purnell, at the Pikesville Armory. Originally, the Legion was composed of nine companies of infantry, two light artillery batteries and two companies of cavalry. By the time of the Battle of Antietam, only the infantry companies remained. The Purnell Legion is of particular interest to me because Company A included SGT John F. Armiger and PVTs James B. and George D. Armiger – no doubt ancestors of mine (I’ll need to do some research to verify the relationship).

At Antietam LTC Benjamin Simpson commanded the Purnell Legion and it was assigned to the 3rd Brigade (COL William B. Goodrich), 2nd Division (BG George S. Greene), XII Corps (MG William Mansfield [kia]).

The Legion entered the field about 7:00 AM, and was immediately detached from its brigade, by order of General Williams, and sent to the support of the One hundred and twenty-fourth Pennsylvania Regiment in the Cornfield, which they held until ordered to enter the woods on the right of a white school-house [Dunker Church], where it joined Tyndale’s Brigade in the West Woods. The Legion was on the right of the line next to the 13th New Jersey.

General Greene was under the impression that Sedgewick’s Division was on their right and the Legion was told not to fire in that direction. Col Ezra Carmen of the 13th NJ was concerned about the right flank when his staff officers saw Confederates passing their flank in an effort to envelop it. They turned their right company to face the impending attack from the enemy “who was not there” but it was too little too late. The North Carolina troops struck hard and rolled up the Union line sending the Purnell Legion and the 13 NJ scurrying back to the Smoketown Road and the protection of the Union batteries in the East and North woods.

The 3rd Regiment, Maryland Volunteer Infantry was organized at Baltimore and Williamsport, Md., from June 18, 1861, to February 17, 1862. At Antietam Lieutenant Colonel Joseph M. Sudsburg commanded the regiment. The regiment was assigned to the 2nd Brigade (COL Henry Stainrook’s), 2nd Division (BG George S. Greene), XII Corps (MG William Mansfield [kia]).

After the Confederate right flank had been turned, Stainrook’s Brigade pursued through the East Woods, crossed the fields to the left of the burned out buildings of the Mumma farm, and halted behind the ridge a few yards east of this point where, with the assistance of Monroe’s and Tompkins’ Rhode Island Batteries, it protected the right of French’s Division of the Second Corps, and repulsed several Confederate assaults. About 10:30 A. M. the Brigade crossed this road and entered the West Woods on the left of the Dunker Church, its left on the road. They were on the opposite side of Greene’s line from the Purnell Legion.

The following is from COL Sudsburg’s official report:

“After again being formed, we advanced over a meadow toward the battery of the enemy, who had vigorously shelled us during our advance from the woods. Arriving behind the crest of a little elevation, we were ordered to lie down and await the arrival of a battery which had been ordered to our support, and of which a section shortly came up and unlimbered. A full battery, said to have been Knap’s, came up soon after and went directly into action. The enemy’s infantry advanced from the right, apparently designing to take our battery. We were ordered up, fixed bayonets, and charged forward past the battery, which in the mean time had given the enemy the benefit of two rounds of canister. We drove the enemy, who flew before us across the fields and across the road leading from Bakersville to Sharpsburg. On the other side of the road is a church or schoolhouse, surrounded by woods. Charging through this piece of woods, we drove the enemy out, and held possession nearly two hours. The enemy occupied a cornfield in front of us, and, judging from his fire, must have been in strong force. In this woods I lost most of my men. I took 148 men into action. Our casualties amount to 1 killed and 25 wounded, some of whom have since died. Four were missing.”

The 3rd Maryland joined the Purnell Legion and the rest of Greene’s division as they retreated back to the East Woods, effectively ending the action on this part of the battlefield.

The focus of the battle now turned to a sunken farmers’ lane that would forever be known as the “Bloody Lane.” Confederate troops from Alabama and North Carolina under the command of D. H. Hill occupied the lane that was over 5 feet deep at some points. Using the fence rails along the lane as breastworks the Rebels created an entrenched position that would turn back successive waves of Union attackers.

The 5th Maryland Volunteer Infantry was in the first wave as part of BG Max Weber’s Brigade, 3rd Division (BG William French [a Marylander]), II Corps (MG Edwin Sumner). The 5th Maryland was organized in Baltimore City in September 1861 to serve for three years. At Antietam the Regiment was under the command of MAJ Leopold Blumenberg who would be seriously wounded at the head of his troops and carried to the rear.

Blumenberg had joined the Prussian army at the age of 21 as a First Lieutenant but like many German Jews at that time was blocked from further advancement due to anti-Semitism. Consequently, he emigrated to the US and settled in the Baltimore area where he established a manufacturing business and joined the Har Sanai congregation that is still very active to this day. When the Civil War broke out, he answered the call of duty for his new country to offer his military skills.

Beside Blumenberg there were many men of German descent in the 5th Maryland including the color bearer, a massive man over 6 feet tall, weighing approximately 300 lbs. It was reported that he walked with such a stately gait that the 1st Delaware and 4th New York on either side of the 5th MD moved ahead causing the brigade line to form a huge crescent. As the line crested the hill above the lane the Confederates under the command of Robert Rodes fired a devastating volley pinning the men down.

Major Leopold Blumenberg

The German color bearer reached to within 50 yards of the enemy where he tried to rally the regiment, but to no avail. They did turn back a rebel counterattack that saved the colors of the 1st Delaware but were forced to retreat to the crest of the hill. The 5th Maryland suffered 39 men killed with another 109 men wounded. The German color bearer survived.

Eventually, Israel Richardson’s division of the II Corps was able to finally take the “Bloody Lane” in the mid-afternoon but a thin line of Confederates with massed artillery held off the attack on the Piper Farm staving off a potential Union breakthrough in the middle of their line.

Simultaneous with the action at the “Bloody Lane” MG Ambrose Burnsides’ IX Corps was attempting to cross the Antietam creek at the lower bridge, known at that time as the Rohrbach bridge. Approximately 400 Georgians under the command of BG Robert Toombs defended the crossing. They were well positioned on the heights that rose 100 feet above the bridge having dug rifle pits and using an old stone quarry as a natural defensive position.

After the initial attack failed with high casualties, the 2nd Maryland Volunteer Infantry under the command of LTC J. Eugene Duryea led the second attack. The regiment was a part of the First Brigade (BG James Nagle), Second Division (BG Samuel Sturgis), IX Corps (BG Jacob Cox).

Forming in a column of fours the 2nd Maryland’s line of attack followed the road that paralleled the creek for approximately 200 yards before reaching the bridge. As the Marylanders rushed forward they came under a withering fire for the entire length of the road essentially running a “gauntlet.” As the regiment started to break ranks, Duryea turned and yelled, “What the hell are you doing there? Straighten that line there! Forward!”

This temporarily stiffened their resolve as they closed ranks and continued the charge. However, accurate rifle fire and the murderous artillery fire supporting the Georgians were too deadly and the regiment broke and scampered for cover. Within just a few minutes of action the 2nd Maryland suffered about 40% casualties of the 187 officers and men that composed the regiment that day.

Eventually the IX Corps would take the bridge that would forever be known as “Burnsides’ Bridge” at approximately 1:00 PM. However, the final attack on the Confederate right flank at 3:00 PM that threatened to destroy the Army of Northern Virginia met the unexpected. A. P. Hill’s Light Division had forced-marched the 20+ miles from Harper’s Ferry and arrived on the battlefield at 3:30 PM in the nick of time to save the day from disaster turning back the Union attack.

Thus ended the bloodiest day of the war. After 12 hours of constant combat both armies remained on the battlefield through the next day. Finally, Robert E. Lee decided to retreat on the evening of September 18. McClellan’s victory at Antietam forced Lee to abandon the invasion of Maryland.

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