A.P. Hill to Lee's rescue

Counterattack: As the Union army threatened the Confederate army's right flank and line of retreat, Maj. Gen. A.P. Hill arrived to deliver a crushing counterattack, denying the Army of the Potomac a clear victory at Antietam.

September 08, 2002|By Kristen Lorek | Kristen Lorek,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

"A.P. Hill is coming!"

This was the rallying cry of Gen. Robert E. Lee's desperately pressed forces of the right flank at the Battle of Antietam.

Only three days earlier, Maj. Gen. Ambrose Powell Hill had been assigned to rear guard garrison duty at Harper's Ferry, which was then in Virginia.

But now he was a Confederate hero, having marched his men at a killing pace of 17 miles in eight hours to prevent a Union breakthrough of Lee's forces at Sharpsburg. Under heavy fire, Hill saved Lee's army from annihilation.

Hill's counterattack will be re-created in commemoration of the 140th anniversary of the Battle of Antietam Sept. 13, 14 and 15 near Hagerstown. More than 15,000 re-enactors are expected to participate.

On Sept. 17, 1862, Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan had launched his 75,316-man Army of the Potomac against Lee's 37,330 soldiers. After the destruction of his left and center, Lee called upon Hill to proceed immediately to Sharpsburg to save the Confederate forces from defeat.

Hill immediately realized the gravity of the situation. According to Hill's handwritten drafts of his battle reports, he had his men ready for battle before dawn and the first elements of Hill's Light Division marched off at 7 a.m. During the journey, men began to drop from exhaustion. But Hill still managed to cross the Potomac at Boteler's Ford and marched up the road toward Sharpsburg.

Heavily outnumbered, with all of his reserves already committed to battle, Lee struggled to hold his right flank in order to prevent a rout.

Burnside attacks

Union Maj. Gen. Ambrose E. Burnside, commander of the 9th Corps, which made up McClellan's left flank, planned to cross Antietam Creek, crush Lee's right and advance toward Sharpsburg. After a successful crossing, Burnside pushed Confederate Brig. Gen. Robert Toombs' brigade back to within a half-mile of Lee's line of retreat.

Lee's right and, in turn, his entire army would be cut off and destroyed. But Burnside moved slowly, which allowed his own left flank to become vulnerable to attack by Hill's troops that were advancing north from Harper's Ferry.

Union troops advanced in three lines, moving steadily forward while the Confederate brigades were deteriorating. A Union victory seemed imminent.

The Philadelphia Inquirer of Sept. 17, 1862, reported: "The reports that were received from the scene of conflict were highly favorable, our forces having at the time the best position, and the battle being principally with artillery in which we have a great superiority."

However, there were rumors of a Confederate counterattack, the newspaper reported.

"Rumors afloat were various, among which it was said that [Maj. Gen. Thomas J.] Jackson and Hill were again crossing the Potomac in the rear of General Lee by way of Shepherdstown, W.Va., thus coming back from Harper's Ferry to the succor of their commander. This would be practicable, and the rapid manner in which they evacuated Harper's Ferry would indicate their sudden appearance at some point where least expected."

The rumor about Hill proved to be true. When Confederate defeat seemed inevitable, his troops arrived in the nick of time.

One of Jackson's aides, Maj. Henry Kyd Douglas, later wrote, "And without waiting for the rest of the division, he threw his columns into line and moved against the enemy, taking note of their numbers."

Lee first ordered Hill to reinforce Brig. Gen. David R. Jones, who held the extreme right with fewer than 2,000 men. The first of Hill's units to arrive were Col. David G. McIntosh's Pee Dee Artillery.

McIntosh loaded his battery with double canister and fired at almost point-blank range into the oncoming Union lines. Thousands of iron balls shredded the Union troops. They momentarily wavered, then continued their onslaught.

However, McIntosh had outrun his artillery's infantry escort, and Jones was not able to provide support for the battery. When the Union troops were a mere 60 yards from the Confederate batteries, McIntosh concluded that he could not defend them and headed for the rear. Within moments, Connecticut troops captured the artillery.

Under this continued pressure, Hill now detached Col. John M. Brockenbrough and Brig. Gen. William Dorsey Pender to defend the lower Antietam, which would anchor Hill's right flank.

He then sent Brig. Gens. Maxcy Gregg, L. O'Brien Branch and James J. Archer to bolster Jones' line.

Archer was so ill that day that he was barely fit for duty. Despite his weakness, he managed to lead his Tennessee Volunteers through a cornfield.

He and his men suddenly emerged from the cornfield and burst upon McIntosh's captured artillery. The 8th Connecticut Regiment might have decimated Archer's troops, but they were confused by Archer's blue-clad Confederates charging toward them. At Harper's Ferry, Hill had outfitted his men in new captured Union uniforms. The confused Union regiment was nearly destroyed, the survivors retreating in disorder.

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