Defending the Sunken Road
In part three of this series describing the experience of the 8th Ohio at the Battle of Antietam, we examine the battle from the perspective of the men the 8th Ohio faced at the sunken road- the Confederates of Colonel John B. Gordon’s 6th Alabama, Colonel Charles C. Tew’s 2nd North Carolina, and Colonel Risden Tyler Bennett’s 14th North Carolina. By reading what their opponents wrote of the battle, we gain some additional insight into the 8th Ohio’s experience at Antietam.
To circle back a bit, at the dawn of September 17, 1862, General Daniel H. Hill’s division was ordered by General Lee to take a position along the sunken road located north of the Henry Piper farm, this constituting the Confederate center. General Robert Rodes’ Alabama brigade of approximately 850 men went into line to the left of the intersection of the Roulette farm lane and the sunken road; the road makes a slight turn here, and to Rodes’ right the 1150-man North Carolina brigade of General George B. Anderson filed into the road. Later that morning, starting around 9 o’clock, General William H. French division attacked the sunken road in three successive waves of attack, the last wave being led by General Nathan Kimball, the 8th Ohio being one of the right center regiment of Kimball’s line. As Kimball’s men approached the sunken road, a heavy fire from Rodes and Anderson’s lines halted him and the two lines engaged in some of the heaviest fighting of the battle.
Starting with the 6th Alabama, the right flank regiment of General Robert Rodes brigade…
An officer of the 6th Alabama wrote of the heavy losses sustained by his regiment in the sunken road. “We went into action with 265 men,” he wrote, “our loss in killed, wounded, and missing is 190. The right of our regiment was exposed to an enfilading fire, but it still stood battling with the foe until all of the first six companies were killed or wounded save a half dozen men, only one man and one officer escaping from four companies. It was here our gallant Colonel Gordon, though wounded and bleeding profusely in four places, continued cheering his men though oft entreated to leave the field. Seeing all his men dead or dying till one could have walked the length of six companies on their bodies, his heart grew sick at the terrible havoc of death around him. Suffering from loss of blood, he attempted to rise, receiving at the time a bad wound in his face which struck him to earth. Recovering his senses, he found he had strength enough to crawl 100 yards to the rear where the writer, in attempting to rally some men, found him all covered with blood and with the assistance of others bore him from the field.” (Letter from “Soldier,” Montgomery Weekly Advertiser (Alabama), November 19, 1862, pg. 1)
Colonel John B. Gordon himself vividly recalled the effect of Federal fire as Kimball’s two regiments opened upon his 6th Alabama. “The fire from these hostile American lines now became furious and deadly,” he wrote in 1903. “The list of the slain lengthened with every passing moment. One of my officers long afterward assured me that he could have walked on the dead bodies of my men from one end of the line to the other. Before I was wholly disabled and carried to the rear, I walked along my line and found an old man and his son lying side by side. The son was dead, the father mortally wounded. The gray-haired hero called me and said, ‘Here we are. My boy is dead, and I shall go soon, but it is all right.’ Of such were the early volunteers.”
Colonel Gordon’s fortune of passing through battle unscathed ended under the staggering fire at Antietam. He was wounded in the calf of his right leg at the first fire. “The persistent Federals, who had lost so heavily from repeated repulses, seemed now determined to kill enough Confederates to make the credits and debits of the battle’s balance sheet more even. Both sides stood in the open at short range and without the semblance of breastworks and the firing was doing a deadly work. I was again shot higher up on the same leg, but still no bone was broken. I was able to walk along the line and give encouragement to my resolute riflemen. Later in the day a third ball pierced my arm, tearing asunder the tendons and mangling the flesh. A fourth ball ripped through my shoulder, leaving its base and a wad of clothing in its track. I could still stand and walk, although the shocks and loss of blood had left but little of my normal strength.
"I thought I saw some wavering in my line near the extreme right [directly opposite the 8th Ohio] and Private Benjamin F. Vickers of the 6th Alabama volunteered to carry any orders I might wish to send. I directed him to go quickly and remind the men of the pledge to General Lee, and say to them that I was still on the field and intended to stay there. He bounded away like an Olympic racer, but he had gone less than 50 yards when he fell, instantly killed by a ball through his head. I then attempted to go myself, although I was bloody and faint, and my legs did not bear me steadily. I had gone but a short distance when I was shot down by a fifth ball, which struck me squarely in the face and passed out, barely missing the jugular vein. I fell forward and lay unconscious with my face in my cap; and it would seem that I might have been smothered by the blood running into my cap from this last wound but for the act of some Yankee who had at a previous hour shot a hole through the cap which let the blood run out.”
Colonel Gordon wrote of the brave Vickers: “There was no better soldier in either army than Vickers. He had passed unscathed through two previous wars, in Mexico, I believe, and in Nicaragua. He was in every battle with his regiment in our Civil War until his death, and always at the front. The greater the danger, the higher his spirits seemed to soar. The time came, however, when his luck, or fate, in whose fickle favor he so implicitly trusted, deserted him. At Antietam, I called for someone who was willing to take the desperate chances of carrying a message from me to the commander on my right. Vickers promptly volunteered, with some characteristic remark which indicated his conviction that he was not born to be killed in battle. There was a cross-fire from two directions through which he had to pass and of which he had been advised; but he bounded away with the message almost joyously. He had not gone many steps from my side when a ball through his head, the first and last that ever struck him, had placed this brave soldier beyond the possibility of realizing, in this world at least, the treachery of that fate on which he depended.” (Gordon, John B. Reminiscences of the Civil War. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1903, pgs. 88-90)
Moving on to the 2nd North Carolina, the left-most regiment in General George B. Anderson’s line in the sunken road…
On the 35th anniversary of Antietam (September 17, 1897), veterans from the 2nd North Carolina were present at the dedication ceremony for the Irish brigade monument and they adored the inscription on the stone: “Here Meagher’s New York brigade charged and after a bloody and desperate encounter at 30 paces were obliged to retire.” Across the lane the description for Anderson’s brigade read “Here Anderson’s North Carolina brigade stood and checked the advance of the enemy, driving him back with great slaughter.” They were gallant gentlemen that could stand and fight in the open field at 30 paces and hearts of oak that could drive back such a foe,” wrote Captain Matthew Manley of Co. D in 1900 (Clark, Walter, editor. Histories of the Several Regiments from North Carolina in the Great War 1861-65, Volume I. State of North Carolina, 1901, pgs. 166-67)
First Lieutenant John C. Gorman of Co. B of the 2nd North Carolina also fought in the sunken road and was positioned to the right of the 6th Alabama as the left flank regiment of George B. Anderson’s brigade of North Carolinians; Co. B was the left flank company of the regiment. “At daylight on Wednesday morning, we were awakened by heavy artillery and musket firing on our left, and each man was ordered to his place. Desperate and heavy does it roll from the left and the sound seems to come nearer. So we see the wounded come limping toward us, and they say the enemy has attacked our left flank in heavy force and our men are falling back.
“Look at the cloud of dust! Our artillery is retreating, and while we are straining our eyes in the direction of the retreating mass of men that are just emerging in view, away over the open hills on our left, a galloping courier arrives and directs General Hill to change his front to the left. Quickly we are faced to the left, marched through a growing field of corn [Henry Piper’s cornfield on the south side of the sunken road] and then filed to the left in a long lane that runs parallel to our left flank. Our whole division took position in the lane- Ripley on the extreme left, Garland’s next, Rodes’ next, and Anderson on the right.
“In a few moments I could see the advancing line of Yankees. Three heavy columns are approaching us, extending to the right and the left as far as we can see, each column about 100 yards behind the other, and the nearest scarce 400 yards distant. To oppose this was Hill’s weak, little division, scarce one-fourth as large, and my very heart sunk within me as I heard General Anderson say to one of his aides to hurry to the rear and tell General Hill for God’s sake to send us reinforcements as it was hopeless to contend against the approaching columns. It was now about 8 o’clock. The battle had begun also on the right of our position, and Jackson was hotly engaged. Sharpshooters were sent out about 50 yards to the front of us and our line was ordered to lie down in the lane and hold their fire until the enemy was close to us. I stood near Colonel Tew on the crest of a hill in front of our position and gazed with tumultuous emotion over the fast approaching line. Our little corps seemed doomed to destruction, but not an eye flinched, not a nerve quivered, and you could observe the battle-light of determination on every countenance and I felt sure we would do honor to our noble old state that day, though we would not live to see it again.
“On moved the columns until I could distinguish the stars on their flaunting banners, see the mounted officers, and hear their words of command. Just then a Yankee horseman waved his hat at us and Colonel Tew returned the compliment. It was the last I saw of the colonel. Our skirmishers began to fire on the advancing line and we returned to ours. Slowly they approached up the hill and slowly our skirmishers retired before them, firing as they come. Our skirmishers are ordered to come into line. Here they are right before us, scarce 50 yards off, but as if with one feeling, our whole line pours a deadly volley into their ranks- they drop, reel, stagger, and back their first lines go beyond the crest of the hill. Our men reload and await for them to approach, while the first column of the enemy meets the second, rally, and move forward again. They meet with the same reception and back again they go to come back when met by the third line. Here they all come. You can see their mounted riders cheering them on and with a sickly “huzza” they again approach us at a charge, but another volley sends their whole line reeling back. They then approach to the top of the hill cautiously, and lying down, we pour into each other one continuous shower of leaden hail for four long mortal hours.
“The whole air resounds with the din of arms. Musket, rifle, cannon, and shells pour forth an avalanche of lead and iron. Our men are protected by about 6 or 8 inches of the wear of the road, but that is a great protection; they fire cautiously, and apparently as cool as if shooting at squirrels, taking sure aim every fire. The protection, however, is not sufficient. The air is full of lead and many are shot as they are aiming at the enemy, and the groans of the wounded are heard amid the roar of the musketry. Colonel Tew was killed about 11 o’clock, a Minie ball penetrating his brain. It is certain death to leave the road wounded as the balls fly so thick over us. We hear reinforcements coming up behind us, but the fire is so hot they are not able to come to our succor and were forced to fall back.
“Our number is perceptibly reduced by deaths and wounds and our fire slackens, while the enemy has succeeded in planting a battery which rakes the road and sends many to eternity at every discharge. Our left has given way [Rodes’ Alabama brigade], and the enemy has already crossed the lane to our rear. At last the order is given to fall back, and the few that remain uninjured fall sullenly back. The enemy, however, have been so badly punished, they are not able to follow us immediately.”
The 2nd North Carolina, like the 6th Alabama, took horrendous losses. Colonel Tew was killed, Captain John Howard mortally wounded and taken prisoner, Captain D.W Hurtt of Co. I wounded, “and I hear there are only three officers in the regiment,” reported Gorman. “I was slightly wounded on the head and in the right foot about 1 o’clock by a bursting shell. I had no bones broken and I was able to get off the field by myself and did so without being hit again. I went to the rear, had my wounds dressed, hired a horse, and knowing the vicinity of the battlefield would be crowded with wounded, came to this place. [Charlestown, Virginia]” (Letter from First Lieutenant John C. Gorman, Spirit of the Age (Raleigh, North Carolina), October 6, 1862, pg. 3)
And ending with the 14th North Carolina, located to the right of the 2nd North Carolina…
The 14th North Carolina’s position in the sunken road was on the right of the 2nd North Carolina, and they likewise took heavy losses. It entered the battle with 375 men. “It fought all day and while other regiments and men were running, the 14th stood ‘like a Stonewall’ and repulsed three heavy columns of the enemy and would have driven back the fourth but their ammunition gave out. They were exhausted, and they were alone and unsupported, and were obliged to retreat. The next day I was obliged to carry rations to the regiment and found 27 [total], men and officers. The next day we collected 53 men of the immortal 14th who came out unhurt.” Co. E, called the Oak City Guards, went into the fight with 35 men and came out with only two uninjured. (“The 14th N.C. Regiment,” Semi-Weekly Standard (North Carolina), October 3, 1862, pg. 3)
Captain Thomas B. Beall of Co. I of the 14th North Carolina stated that his brigade retreated from the sunken road when a Federal column broke through Rodes’ brigade and came in on their left flank. “We were just getting ready to receive three heavy lines in our front when an officer from the right came to us in great haste and informed our colonel [R. Tyler Bennett] that we were flanked at that point and called our attention to a column coming perpendicular to our rear. Colonel Bennet ordered us to fall back which was done under a murderous fire from front and flank.” (“Reminiscences About Sharpsburg,” Confederate Veteran, August 1893, pg. 246)
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