Eighty-nine brigades were involved in the action at Sharpsburg. Eighty-three of those were infantry brigades and six were cavalry. The Army of the Potomac had forty-four infantry brigades on hand and three cavalry brigades while the Army of Northern Virginia had thirty-nine infantry brigades and three cavalry brigades. This blog will look at each brigade separately in its action on September 17.
150 years ago yesterday, two well-known
Antietam personalities fought one another west of Atlanta at the Battle of Ezra
Church. Both Oliver Otis Howard and
Stephen Dill Lee were, however, in much larger command roles than they were in western
Maryland two summers earlier. This time,
Oliver Howard commanded an army—the Army of the Tennessee—while Stephen Lee
controlled one corps of John Bell Hood’s Confederate Army of Tennessee. For the two, their lives often ran parallel
paths, but in late July 1864, they converged in a pitched battle where, for the
first time, each would be new to the commands they now controlled.
Oliver O. Howard had, by 1864, experienced nearly a decade of service with the
United States Army. Born in Maine,
Howard, at the young age of 20, became a teacher at Bowdoin College before
entering the United States Military Academy at West Point. Howard graduated fourth of 46 in the class of
1854 and served various roles in the antebellum army. When the American Civil War began, Howard
found himself promoted to Colonel of the 3rd Maine Infantry and he
commanded a brigade at the Battle of First Bull Run. By the spring of 1862, Howard had been
appointed a Brigadier General in the Army of the Potomac. During that army’s campaign against Richmond,
Howard’s right arm was shattered by two bullets in the Battle of Fair Oaks
outside the Confederate capital. The arm
had to be amputated.
the setback, the tough Mainer rejoined the Army of the Potomac by late August
of that year and commanded a brigade of infantry in John Sedgwick’s Second
Corps Division. The one-armed Howard led
his brigade of Pennsylvanians into the West Woods in the mid-morning of
September 17 at the Battle of Antietam, where it lost 545 men in the confusing
action that ensued. However, John
Sedgwick’s wounding propelled Howard into command of the division and by the
Chancellorsville Campaign the next spring, Oliver Howard commanded the Union
Eleventh Corps. Following the Battle of
Gettysburg, Howard and his corps were transferred to the war’s Western Theater,
where he remained the rest of the conflict.
the spring of 1864, Howard commanded the Fourth Corps in George Thomas’ Army of
the Cumberland, a command he held until promoted to command the Army of the
Tennessee following James McPherson’s death at the July 22 Battle of Atlanta. Howard’s promotion became official on July
27, 1864, the very day before his first test as an army commander.
Oliver Otis Howard
counterpart during that first test was 30-year-old Stephen Dill Lee, a native
South Carolinian. Like Howard, Lee also
attended the United States Military Academy and graduated 17th in
the Class of 1854. Thus, he and Howard
had been classmates early in their military careers. But the Civil War did not find Lee and Howard
on opposing sides, just as it had done for so many other West Point classmates. Lee was a quartermaster in the United States Army
but resigned on February 20, 1861 to cast his lot with his native state.
early parts of the war found Lee serving various staff positions but by the
time of the Seven Days Battles, Lee commanded artillery in the Army of Northern
Virginia and rose to the rank of Colonel.
By the time of the Battle of Antietam, Lee commanded six batteries of
artillery placed in position on the Dunker Church Plateau, where it fought in
the early stages of the battle. Lee
later coined Antietam “artillery hell,” a term derived in large part from the
staggering casualties his command suffered on that open high ground—86 soldiers
and 60 of his horses.
the Maryland Campaign, Lee held several posts in the war’s Western Theater and
eventually became a prisoner following the fall of Vicksburg, Mississippi. He was exchanged later in 1863 and by the
spring of 1864, he commanded the Confederate Department of Alabama and East
Louisiana, until promoted to command of the Army of Tennessee’s Second Corps on
July 26, 1864. The promotion came just
two days before his baptism of fire in this new command role. July 28, 1864 witnessed two former classmates
and two well-known Antietam personalities pitting off against each other, both
with very new commands to grasp.
Stephen Dill Lee
night of July 26 was busy for Oliver Howard.
At 10 pm that night, he received word from William Tecumseh Sherman,
commanding the Military Division of the Mississippi, that he was to take
command of the Army of the Tennessee and prepare to move his new command
shortly. The Army of the Tennessee, then
on the east side of Atlanta where it had beaten back Hood’s Confederates just
four days earlier at the Battle of Atlanta, was instructed to move the next day
to the western side of the city in an effort to cut the Macon & Western
Railroad running southwest out of Atlanta.
The movement began early on the morning of July 27 and by 11 am the next
day, Howard’s Army of the Tennessee positioned itself on the right of the Union
Army of the Cumberland. The Sixteenth
and Seventeenth Corps mainly faced east towards the city while John Logan’s
Fifteenth Corps refused the line, his troops facing almost due south.
the massing of Federal forces west of Atlanta, John Bell Hood, commanding the
Army of Tennessee, sought to stop the enemy from getting any closer to the
railroad. Setting the westward
travelling Lick Skillet Road as the objective, Hood desired to turn the Federal
flank just as he had done six days later on the opposite side of Atlanta. The commanding general dispatched newly
appointed Stephen D. Lee to take two of his Second Corps divisions and hold the
Lick Skillet Road near Ezra Church, which sat at a key crossroads. The road bisecting the Lick Skillet Road near
the church was the main north-south road Sherman planned to use to cut the
Macon & Western Railroad. Following
Lee and working in conjunction with him would be two more divisions, this time
of Alexander P. Stewart’s Third Corps, that were supposed to “pass in rear” of
Logan’s right flank “and attack.” The
Confederate movement meant to push the Federals away from the Lick Skillet Road
began just as Howard’s army settled down in its new position on the road.
Stephen Lee’s Confederates moved out of their Atlanta entrenchments to gain the
Lick Skillet Road, he discovered that near Ezra Church, “the enemy had gained
the road.” Lee’s instructions were no
longer accurate as the enemy already held the crossroads. Recognizing this, Lee, on his own initiative,
determined to attack and retake the vital position. Oliver Howard noted, “Now the rifle firing on
our front increased,” as he turned to Sherman, telling him a battle would soon
commence. About this time, the men of
John Logan’s corps began constructing hastily built breastworks with any fences
or tree limbs they could find. Some
Federals stationed near the church even pulled the pews out of the building for
Battle of Ezra Church, as portrayed in Haprer's Weekly
the rebel yell was heard as Federal officers told their men, “Take steady aim
and fire low at the word!” Confederate
general John C. Brown’s division advanced first and initially met success,
driving the Fifteenth Corps back from the Lick Skillet Road. Brown continued to advance, however, until he
came upon the Federal breastworks, “from which he was driven back with
considerable loss,” noted Lee. Lee
continued to press the attack, next sending in Henry Clayton’s division on
Brown’s right. Clayton’s attack fared no
Lee was beating his head against Howard’s defenses, one division of Alexander
Stewart’s Third Corps formed on Lee’s left.
Walthall’s division was the next in a series of failed Confederate
onslaughts. This last attack convinced
Lee that Howard’s Army of the Tennessee could not be pushed away from the Lick
Skillet Road. The fight lasted only
several hours in the early afternoon of July 28 and Lee’s men quietly remained
on the battlefield until nightfall, when they withdrew towards Atlanta’s
defenses. In Oliver Howard’s first
battle as commander of the Army of the Tennessee and Stephen Lee’s first battle
in command of the Army of Tennessee’s Second Corps, the native Mainer bested
the South Carolinian.
his after-action report of the fight, Stephen Lee wrote, “if all the troops had
displayed equal spirit we would have been successful,” a statement that might
seem too hopeful. He further justified
this belief because, as he rightfully put it, the Fifteenth Corps’s breastworks
“were slight, and besides they had scarcely gotten into position when we made
the attack.” Perhaps Lee is correct in
his assessment of the Battle of Ezra Church, but the Federal works were
defensive works no matter how slight they were and they, the lack of knowledge
of the Federal position, the thickly wooded terrain, Lee’s piecemeal attacks, and
the zeal of the Army of the Tennessee defeated Stephen Lee on this day.
Howard wrote after the battle that in his first fight as commander of the army,
“I was delighted with the conduct of [the] officers and men.” Howard tallied in his report of the fight
that his army suffered only 642 casualties as compared to the supposed 7,000
lost by the Confederate Army (the real number is estimated around 3,000). For his actions at Ezra Church, Oliver Howard
was awarded the brevet rank of Major General in the United States Army.
nose had been bloodied once again at the hands of the Army of the Tennessee and
from then on, Hood “seemed satisfied to stand on the defensive as long as he
held Atlanta.” Ezra Church became yet
another fight that tightened the Federal noose around Atlanta’s neck.
the two generals overseeing the fighting on July 28, their stories went far
beyond fighting at Antietam and Ezra Church.
Oliver Howard went on to become the commissioner of the Freedmen’s
Bureau, the superintendent of the United States Military Academy, and the
president and founder of Howard University.
Stephen Lee became the first president of what is today known as
Mississippi State University and was one of the founders of the Vicksburg
National Military Park Association, an organization influential in getting the
Vicksburg battlefield listed as a national military park. Howard lived until 1909, Lee until 1908. The two former classmates turned adversaries
on many Civil War battlefields were “the last surviving commanders of
independent armies in the field during the Civil War.” On July 28, 1864, their careers had taken
them a long way from the fields of western Maryland as the two men faced off
against each other in very different positions than the ones they had known in
mid September 1862.
Ballard, Michael B.Vicksburg:
The Campaign That Opened the Mississippi. Chapel Hill, NC: The
University of North Carolina Press, 2004.
Eicher, John H., and David
J. Eicher.Civil War High Commands. Stanford, CA: Stanford University
Howard, Oliver Otis.Autobiography
of Oliver Otis Howard. Vol.
2. New York: The Baker & Taylor
U.S. War Department. The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of
the Official Records of the Union
and Confederate Armies. 128 vols. Washington, D.C.: GPO, 1880-1901.