Wednesday, February 20, 2019

McClellan's Guns of Position: Part 2

     In Part 1 of this series, I examined the makeup of the Army of the Potomac's "guns of position" during the Maryland Campaign before focusing on the core of that artillery grouping, the 20-lb. Parrott rifle. For Part 2, I will look at the effectiveness of these guns and their importance to the Federal army at Antietam.
     First, it is important to establish the fact that even though these guns remained on the east side of Antietam Creek for the entirety of the battle, they did not sit out the fighting. There is a tendency among people visiting the battlefield to think that Federal soldiers positioned east of the creek (with the exception being those around the Burnside Bridge) were merely spectators to the action on the other side of the creek. This is not true, especially in the case of the "guns of position." Even the Union infantry east of the creek fell victim to enemy artillery shells and did sustain minor casualties.
     With their extensive range and excellent fields of fire, McClellan's and Hunt's heavy guns played a large role in the battle and in McClellan's planning during the actions along Antietam Creek. According to the Table of Fire for 20-lb. Parrotts, they had a maximum reach of 4,400 yards or 2.5 miles. This distance could be reached by a shell fired at 15 degrees and would take the shell over 17 seconds from the time it was fired to reach its target.

Using a point in the approximate center of the line of these heavy guns, it becomes clear that their fire could reach nearly all of the Confederate army's lines around Sharpsburg. 
With a maximum range of 2.5 miles, the enemy lines on the other side of the Antietam were well within the range of the 20-lb. Parrott rifles. As long as those enemy formations could be seen by the gunners of the guns of position, the artillerists would be able to rake Robert E. Lee's lines with their fire (stay tuned for Part 4, which will include modern views from the Ecker Ridge).
     A quick elevation profile from the same point on the map used above to the intersection of Rt. 65 and Starke Ave., a distance of exactly two miles, reveals that there are only two points of elevation higher than the Ecker Ridge at 501 feet: the Dunker Church Plateau (site of today's visitor center) at 519 feet and the location of the Philadelphia Brigade Monument at 511 feet. Thus, the only landmark to impede the gunners' view beyond 1.5 miles was the Dunker Church Plateau. However, that plateau was the target of many of the batteries positioned on the Ecker Farm and it was in clear view of the gun's sights.
     The position of McClellan's heavy guns was on a cleared ridge with few trees to obstruct the viewshed. In one of his many photos of the battlefield, Alexander Gardner captured a view of the positions of Elijah Taft's Battery of 20-lb. Parrott rifles.
This view looks south along Antietam Creek towards the Middle Bridge. Taft's Battery was positioned on the open knoll circled in red.
Fortunately, Alexander Gardner managed to capture some of the views that the Federal artillerists had from atop the Ecker Ridge. The view shows an open countryside--one much more open than the battlefield is today. The presence of the East Woods in the distance confirms the wide and expansive field of fire these Union gunners had of their enemy's positions.
This view from near the top of the Ecker Ridge looks northwest. The East Woods is circled in red and the Confederate positions in the Sunken Road are just to the left of the circle and behind the ridge.
     Further south, the guns of Samuel Benjamin's battery also had a clear field of fire and had a panoramic view of nearly the entire battlefield. In 1884, photographers visited Benjamin's position near the Burnside Bridge and preserved this excellent view close to how it looked in 1862.
The East and West Woods are visible in this view, as is the Dunker Church.
It is amazing how the whitewashed walls of the Dunker Church stand out against the dark backdrop of the West Woods. The church was a perfect beacon that the artillerists could use to aim their shots. Judging by another Alexander Gardner photograph, much of the damage to the church's southern wall (the wall that is visible in the above image) might have come from Benjamin's 20-lb. Parrotts.
Was the damage on the south facing wall of the Dunker Church caused by the "guns of position"?
      Finally, after establishing that much of the Confederate positions around Sharpsburg were within range of the guns of position and that those guns could see those enemy formations in the distance, what was their effectiveness? G.F.R. Henderson, a British historian and Stonewall Jackson biographer, believed the Confederate position was weak at Sharpsburg, partially because of the control these guns of position displayed over Robert E. Lee's army. "I certainly did not think it a strong position for an inferior army," he wrote. "It was exposed very close to the Federal artillery."(1) Likewise, Confederate artillerist Edward Porter Alexander said, "Our whole line except the cavalry on the left was within range of the enemy's rifle-guns planted along the high ridges east of the Antietam, beyond the effective range of our guns. Thence, perfectly safe themselves, they practised upon us at leisure all day."(2) The Federal artillerists were not completely immune to counterbattery fire from the west side of the creek (Maj. Albert Arndt of the 1st Battalion New York Light Artillery was mortally wounded on September 16 by Confederate shrapnel) but Henderson's and Alexander's points are valid and they demonstrate the importance of these guns of position to the greater story of Antietam.
     Confederate accounts from units posted on the northern end of the battlefield abound that discuss being hit by these heavy guns east of the Antietam. Ezra Carman noted that the fire of these batteries was aimed "around the Dunkard Church and, though the distance was from 3,200 to 3,600 yards, it was quite accurate and very effective."(3) I will end this post with a litany of Confederate sources from that part of the field and let them attest to the effectiveness of the guns of position. Unless noted otherwise, all of the below quotations come from OR, vol. 19, pt. 1.

"Early on the morning of the 17th, ...the enemy from his batteries on the eastern bank of the Antietam opened a severe enfilading fire on the troops of my command, the position which we had been ordered to occupy being in full view of nearly all of his batteries. This fire inflicted serious loss before the troops were called into positive action, the men lying under it, without flinching, for over an hour, while the enemy plied his guns unceasingly."--Brig. Gen. Roswell Ripley, Ripley's Brigade

"While the brigade was engaged with the enemy's infantry, it was under a heavy fire from their batteries on our right, killing and wounding many of our men."--Maj. J.H. Lowe, Lawton's Brigade

"Soon after daylight the enemy opened fire from a battery which was posted on a hill across the Antietam, and which consequently enfiladed our position, and, as my command was exposed to full view of their gunners and had no shelter, this fire was very annoying, but less destructive than I at first apprehended it would be."--Col. James Walker, Trimble's Brigade

"about 6 A.M. the enemy opened with artillery in front and flank, subjecting us to a heavy and destructive cross fire, from which we suffered much in wounded, yet the [illegible] kept those "[illegible]" quietly and calmly awaiting orders to move forward to the attack."--S.D. Thruston, 3rd North Carolina Infantry, William L. DeRossett Collection, North Carolina State Archives, Raleigh

"in a very short time the enemy's batteries, which were posted on the opposite side of Antietam River, so as to enfilade the line of these two brigades, opened a destructive fire."--Brig. Gen. Jubal Early, Early's Brigade

"so peculiarly exposed was the position I occupied to an enfilading fire from several batteries of the enemy and the fire of their infantry in front, that in a very short time my command was so reduced..."--Brig. Gen. Harry Hays, Hays' Brigade

"Positions were selected for as many of these guns as could be used; but all the ground in my front was completely commanded by the long-range artillery of the Yankees on the other side of the Antietam, which concentrated their fire upon every gun that opened and soon disabled or silenced it."--Brig. Gen. D.H. Hill, D.H. Hill's Division

"in a short time the Federal batteries, so posted on the opposite side of the Antietam as to enfilade my line, opened a severe and damaging fire."--Maj. Gen. Thomas J. "Stonewall" Jackson, Jackson's Command

"The batteries above mentioned while engaged were exposed to an enfilade fire of about twenty rifle guns from across the Antietam..."--Col. Stephen D. Lee, Lee's Artillery Battalion, Longstreet's Command

"Their heaviest field pieces were brought to bear upon us with wonderful rapidity and fearful precision, front and enfilading fires."--Maj. H.J. Williams, 5th Virginia Infantry

"there was a perfect tornado of bursting shells from the long range guns of the enemy playing on us from the opposite side of the river."--R.T. Cole, 4th Alabama, From Huntsville to Appomattox, 65.

1. G.F.R. Henderson to Jedediah Hotchkiss, February 21, 1897, Reel 34, Jedediah Hotchkiss Papers, Library of Congress.
2. Alexander, Military Memoirs of a Confederate: A Critical Narrative, 246.
3. Carman, The Maryland Campaign of September 1862: Antietam, ed. Clemens, 398.


  1. Very interesting material. You have focused on a seemingly important aspect of the battle that has not been emphasized before. From reading Carmen and Harsh, and viewing maps, I was aware of these batteries, but not of how important they were. Thanks for the effort.

    1. Thank you for reading the post. There will be more to come on this topic in the future. They are perhaps the most overlooked and underrated aspect of the Battle of Antietam.

  2. Fantastic Post - This aspect of the battle is so often overlooked. Thanks for the detail. A good example of the use of artillery in a long range support role.

    Keep up the great work.

    1. Thanks for reading, Michael! It is a very overlooked aspect of the battle. I'll have two more posts in the series so stay tuned!