Saturday, February 2, 2019

Close and Concentrated: 9th Corps Artillery Conquers the Burnside Bridge

     I had always thought of the fight for the Burnside Bridge as one of infantry. The 2nd and 20th Georgia stoutly defending the bridge and the charge of the 51st New York and 51st Pennsylvania dominate our interpretation of the action there. It was not until today while hiking the Burnside Bridge sector of the Antietam battlefield with my good friend and artillery guru Jim Rosebrock (check out his excellent blog here) that I realized how crucial of a role Ambrose Burnside's and Jacob Cox's artillery played in cracking the conundrum of how to get their men across Antietam Creek.
     The 9th Corps had 53 guns at Antietam, according to Curt Johnson's and Richard C. Anderson, Jr.'s book Artillery Hell. At various points of the fight for the Burnside Bridge, anywhere from 21 to 29 of those guns fired directly on the Confederate infantry defending the bridge or the nearby Confederate artillery that supported the infantry.
     As attack after attack against the bridge and its Confederate defenders failed, there is a marked effort on the part of Burnside, Cox, and 9th Corps artillery chief George Getty to use artillery to drive the enemy away from the banks of Antietam Creek. While the 9th Corps' position always allowed it to converge the fire of its artillery onto the Confederate defenders, as the day wore on, 9th Corps batteries began shrinking their ring of fire, ensnaring the Confederates and ultimately helping drive them away.

     At 10:30 a.m. on September 17, four Federal batteries (21 guns) concentrated their fire against the bridge's immediate Confederate defenders. The average distance that each battery fired from was approximately 1,000 yards.
9th Corps Artillery at 10:30 a.m.
     Following the failed second attack spearheaded by the 2nd Maryland and 6th New Hampshire, additional guns were brought into the sector or turned to fire on the stubborn Confederates. By that time, 29 Federal guns from six different batteries aimed their pieces towards the bridge from an average distance of 860 yards.
9th Corps Artillery at 12:15 p.m.
     By 1:00 p.m., the situation had changed slightly for the 9th Corps. Captain James Whiting's navy howitzers, which had been enfilading the Confederate line at the bridge from the south, focused on new targets to their west as Isaac Rodman's force began crossing the creek at Snavely's Ford. However, a section of George Durell's Pennsylvania battery moved in closer to the bridge as did all of Joseph Clark's United States battery. The subsequent attack of the two 51st's (the 51st New York and 51st Pennsylvania) was supported 26 guns from six batteries. Those guns fired on the Confederate defenders from an average range of just 615 yards. Though many factors surely contributed to the collapse of the Georgians' position overlooking the bridge, this slowly encircling ring of 9th Corps batteries turned the Georgians' defense into a hotter place to fight from.
9th Corps Artillery at 1:00 p.m.
     Exploring the area of the Burnside Bridge fight makes it difficult to appreciate the weight of Federal artillery brought to bear against the Confederates. The bridge sits in a hollow and the surrounding trees and heights often obscure views that were available to the Union artillerists in 1862. With no leaves on the trees and snow covering the ground, today was a good day to see some of the Federal artillery positions in relation to the bridge.
This view looks southeast from the Burnside Bridge past the 51st New York Monument. McMullin's, Roemer's, and Muhlenberg's batteries all fired on the bridge's defenders from this ridge (circled), about 840 yards distant.
This is the approximate view that the artillerists of Simmonds', Durell's, and Clark's batteries would have had while they aided the final Union assault on the Burnside Bridge. The bridge itself can be seen just left of center while the snow-covered heights in the distance were the position of the Confederate infantry protecting the bridge crossing.
     Confederate reports of the action at the bridge do not fail to mention the effects of the Federal artillery. Henry Benning, commanding the two Georgia regiments there, called the enemy artillery's fire "incessant" and "terrific" while other Confederate reports noted the enfilading artillery fire against their positions. Jacob Cox wrote of his efforts to use artillery to carry the bridge: "batteries were placed to enfilade the bridge and all its approaches." Ultimately, the plans of Burnside, Cox, and Getty to squeeze as much artillery into a devastatingly close range of the Confederate defenders is an overlooked but important piece of the action at the Burnside Bridge.


  1. Now that is the first time I have ever heard about this... Very interesting...

  2. Very interesting and superbly explained. As Jacob Cox's biographer, I could have benefited from this when I was writing -- five years ago.
    Separately, in the "what if" category, if McClellan had ordered Burnside to attack early in the morning as the "diversion" it was supposed to be (hard to be a diversion when you attack 5-6 hours later than on the right), the artillery attack would have been just as devastating. More importantly, it would have prevented Lee from sending troops to his left, leading to an inevitable collapse there.

  3. Great write up, KP. I thought the hike was called off due to weather conditions! Extremely disappointed if I missed it. I had every intention of being there and would have, had I known you guys were going out!