Monday, October 26, 2020

Bombarding the Burnside Bridge

The 51st Pennsylvania's Lt. Col. Thomas Bell
fell mortally wounded from a Confederate artillery
round within 50 feet of the Burnside Bridge
(digitalcommonwealth.org)

Standing at the Burnside Bridge makes one feel cut off from the rest of the Antietam battlefield. Antietam presents great vistas that allow visitors to examine large swaths of the battlefield at once. Not so at the Burnside Bridge. There, after a long drive from the Bloody Lane on the auto tour, visitors stand and look into two hillsides, their visibility limited to just a few hundred yards. At the bridge, you are down in a deep swale that you can hardly see out of when you are in it and you can barely see into it unless you are standing on top of the hillsides that surround it.

Then how, in this secluded low point on the battlefield, do numerous Union accounts at the bridge mention coming under Confederate artillery fire? No Confederate guns were perched alongside Henry Benning’s Georgians overlooking the bridge and Antietam Creek. What is to account for these Federal tales of being struck by enemy artillery shells?

At least two mentions of this made their way into Ezra Carman’s chapter on the fighting at the Burnside Bridge. First, when relating the attack of Crook’s brigade, Carman mentions the left-wing of the 11th Ohio Infantry being exposed to a “severe fire of infantry and artillery.”[1] Later, after the 51st Pennsylvania and 51st New York carried the bridge, “Confederate guns on Cemetery hill threw their shell and shrapnel into the ranks of the [Federals] lying in the road near the bridge, killing and wounding many…”[2]

One of the Federals killed by this artillery fire was Lt. Col. Thomas Bell of the 51st Pennsylvania. Thomas Parker, in his History of the 51st Regiment of P.V. and V.V. wrote of the scene:

A short time elapsed after the bridge was taken before any other troops came forward to reinforce the two heroic regiments; during which time the 51st P. V. stacked arms on a line parallel with the creek, and about ten feet from it. A few fires were then kindled by the men for the purpose of making a cup of coffee, but as the smoke towered up to the tops of the trees and rising higher than the hill, it gave unmistakable evidence that the Union soldiers were still in the neighborhood of the bridge; the enemy taking the smoke as a point at which to range their batteries, opened their guns with case-shot, shell, and grape. Lieut. Col. Bell had been up the creek about one hundred and fifty yards, and as he was returning towards the bridge and when within fifty yards of it he met private Hugh Brown, and giving him a friendly slap on the shoulder, remarked as he passed him. “We did it for them this time, my boy;” but he had not taken more than two or three steps when a grape-shot grazed his left temple. He made a whirl round as if on a pivot, fell on his side and rolled down the bank of the creek to where the guns of his regiment were stacked. The men rushed to his aid, and taking him up they found that he had received a frightful and mortal wound; he was carried to the other side of the creek in an unconscious state; he lived only a few hours after being removed to the field hospital.[3]

This story partially confirmed a suspicion of mine that Confederate artillerists may have been using distance estimates drawn from their presence on the battlefield two days prior to September 17 and utilizing indirect fire to rain shells in the area directly adjacent to the bridge. According to Parker’s account, Confederate gunners on Cemetery Hill used the smoke from the Pennsylvanians’ campfires as a mark to shoot towards. It is then reasonable to assume they utilized the dense battle smoke around the bridge as a similar target to get their shells into the valley of the Antietam.

Surprisingly, a viewshed analysis from heywhatsthat.com shows that Confederate eyes on Cemetery Hill could have seen more of the terrain around the bridge than I had first imagined. This particular analysis was taken from the location of Garden’s Battery behind Antietam National Cemetery. The red indicates visible land from that position and the elevation profile shows that no terrain feature blocked their view from the top of Cemetery Hill to the Antietam Valley.

Viewshed analysis from the position of Garden's Battery
looking towards the Burnside Bridge (heywhatsthat.com)

Elevation profile of the viewshed analysis from Garden's Battery
looking towards the Burnside Bridge (heywhatsthat.com)

In this light, the Confederate defense of the Burnside Bridge and the southern end of the field becomes more impressive. Yes, approximately 400 Georgians defended the bridge directly but they were aided by Confederate artillery on the battlefield, even Confederate guns nearly three-quarters of a mile away and close to 200 feet higher in elevation than the bridge itself. David R. Jones truly created a layered defense south of Sharpsburg. That no doubt benefited him and delayed the Federal capture of the Burnside Bridge roughly three hours after their efforts began.


[1] Carman, Antietam, 412.

[2] Ibid., 420-21.

[3] Parker, History of the 51st Regiment of P.V. and V.V., 236-37.

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