At Bloody Lane, heroes remained

Afternoon: The noon-day sun at Antietam saw a Union attack to break the center of the Confederate line at a point known ever since as Bloody Lane.

September 08, 2002|By Regina Puleo | Regina Puleo,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Bloody Lane was the site of many casualties suffered during Gen. Robert E. Lee's first attempt to press the war onto Northern soil and the scene of great courage displayed by Confederate officers and soldiers, such as Col. John B. Gordon and his 6th Alabama Regiment.

Lee, commander of the Army of Northern Virginia, and Maj. Gen. Daniel Harvey Hill warned Gordon in the early hours of Sept. 17, 1862, that Union troops were heading for his position.

In his Reminiscences of the Civil War, Gordon wrote: "I called aloud to these officers [Lee and Hill] as they rode away: `These men are going to stay here, General, till the sun goes down or victory is won.'"

The 6th Alabama was part of Brig. Gen. Robert Emmett Rodes' brigade at the battle of Bloody Lane, along with the 3rd, 5th, 12th and 26th Alabama regiments.

The 2nd, 4th, 14th, and 30th North Carolina infantry regiments also took part, commanded by Brig. Gen. George Burgwyn Anderson.

Both these brigades took positions in a sunken lane used by farm wagons near the Hagerstown Pike at Sharpsburg, their concealed position stretching for about 1,000 yards.

As Union troops neared the sunken road, Confederates realized they were greatly outnumbered (about 5,700 to 2,200) and short on supplies to carry out a battle. Because "there were four lines of blue to my one of gray" Gordon had his troops hold their fire until the Union forces were almost upon his lines "and then turn loose a sheet of flame and lead into their faces." Gordon instructed his troops to lie down in the grass with rifles pressed upon their shoulders.

When the troops came within 100 yards of each other, the Confederates in the trench and Union soldiers at the crest of a long limestone ridge, the battle began about 10 a.m.

According to Gordon, his plan was initially successful. "My rifles flamed and roared in the Federals' faces like a blinding blaze of lightning accompanied by the quick and deadly thunderbolt."

However, the Union forces regrouped in three lines and advanced five successive times on Gordon's troops with their bayonets drawn before being ordered to load their rifles.

In his official report, Hill wrote: "I sent several messages to General Lee for re-inforcements, but before any arrived a heavy force [since ascertained to be Union Maj. Gen. William B. Franklin's 6th Corps] advanced in three parallel lines, with all the precision of a parade day."

Successive charges by Union troops to break Lee's center with bayonets were futile. They finally abandoned this strategy and loaded their guns.

"The fire from these hostile American lines at close quarters now became furious and deadly," Gordon would recall. But Gordon also noted the poise and bravery of his troops in the face of death.The Confederate colonel himself was thought by his men to be lucky. "They can't hurt him," one soldier professed. Luck was surely on his side at Bloody Lane. Gordon was shot five times and wounded severely.

A fifth bullet, however, struck Gordon in the face and he passed out. According to historian and Civil War expert Robert E. Krick in The Antietam Campaign (1999):

"The modern tendency to ridicule Gordon's late-life memoir for its purple-prose excesses is understandable." Yet Krick warns that that such criticism should not diminish what Gordon accomplished in the battle.

Krick offers this description of the front-line leadership from an unknown soldier at Bloody Lane:

"The 6th Alabama stood as though it were a fixture. Our gallant Col. Jno. B. Gordon, though wounded and bleeding profusely in four places, continued cheering his men, though oft entreated to leave the field.

"Seeing his men dead and 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."

In his official report to Lee, Hill said: "Colonel Gordon, the Christian hero, excelled his former deeds at Seven Pines and in the battles around Richmond. Our language is not capable of expressing a higher compliment."

Rodes praised Gordon for his "customary gallantry" at Bloody Lane. Lee recommended him for promotion to brigadier general.

Despite the good fight by Gordon and others, Lee's center did collapse.

As Carolinians under Anderson on the right began to retreat under Union pressure, amid growing confusion between commanders and their reinforcements, Alabamians on the left blamed their collapse on Lt. Col. James Newell Lightfoot, who had replaced Gordon in command.

After fire became irregular, Rodes returned to the 6th Alabama, finding the men lying down at his rear and not engaged. Lightfoot reported that due to the Carolinians' retreat, his troops were exposed to raking enfilade fire to his right.

As Rodes reported to Lee, "I ordered him to hasten back and to throw his right wing back and out of the old road referred to. Instead of executing the order, he moved briskly to the rear of the regiment, and gave the command, `Sixth Alabama, about face. Forward march."

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