SCHAEFFER: ANTIETAM – PART 12: Slaughter In The West Woods

The first phase of the battle fought along Jackson’s front around the Miller Farm and surrounding woods and focusing on the Dunker Church was a series of Union assaults from Hooker’s I Corps and followed by Mansfield’s smaller XII Corps—each met by furious Rebel counter-attacks. When both assaults were either repulsed or stalled, McClellan moved to commit Sumner’s II Corps into the fray to turn the rebel left and relieve pressure on Mansfield’s men in the East Woods.

Edwin V. Sumner’s II Corps was ordered to send two divisions into action at 7:20 am. The first division under Maj. Gen. John Sedgwick led the way with French’s division in tow. (Richardson’s division was held up by McClellan until reserves could step in and take his position on the east bank of the Antietam.) Sumner would accompany Sedgwick’s 5,400 men. But as they splashed across the creek and advanced into the East Woods, the two divisions became inexplicably separated and French, having lost contact with Sedgwick, found his column drawn south into the Roulette Farm. Sedgwick (and Sumner) unaware that they were now just one division rather than two, marched resolutely towards the West Woods, his three brigades in three long lines, men side-by-side, with only 50 yards separating the ranks. Although good for parade marching, it was cumbersome for maneuvering under fire, as the men would soon find out.

All was eerily quiet as a lull in the fighting occurred and with a false sense of security Sedgwick led his men forward in between the remnants of XII Corps to his left and I Corps to his right, both of whose commanders were wounded and off the field. “Not an enemy appeared,” wrote General Williams, watching Sedgwick’s men pass. “The woods in front were as quiet as any sylvan shade could be.” It appeared, in fact, that but for the Rebel artillery firing on them from the Dunker Church ridge to their left and Nicodemus Heights to their right, that Sedgwick had the field to himself. Wrote a member of the 1st Minnesota advancing in Sedgwick’s division:

We advanced over the ground gained by Hooker, he had just been taken off the field wounded, and his men were exhausted. As we moved on the dead and wounded lay thick and fragments of regiments cheered us as we passed. Our men and Secesh lay as they fell, many begging us for a drink of water, others telling us not to tread on them and it was difficult to march over the ground without stepping on some man.

The situation for the Confederate left seemed critical. All Sumner needed to do it seemed was to march Sedgwick’s division through the woods into the clearing beyond, wheel to the left and roll up Jackson’s entire front. But neither Lee nor Jackson had been idle during this crisis. Lee obliged Jackson by sending him Walker’s division all the way from the south overlooking the Lower Bridge which was still an inactive sector. Lee also ordered McLaws’ division, which had arrived from Harper’s Ferry that morning and was resting west of the town, to the front.

When Lee rode out to confer with S.D. Lee as Sedgwick’s lines approached, the artillerist told him: “General your presence will do good, but only infantry can save the day”. Lee told the artillerist: “Don’t get excited about it, Colonel. Go tell General Hood to hold his ground. Reinforcements are rapidly approaching between Sharspburg and the ford.” The colonel barely went 100 yards when General Lee called out to him and pointed to McLaws division marching onto the field at the double quick.

Jackson, meanwhile, had summoned Early’s brigade from its position supporting Stuart’s horse artillery on Nicodemus heights. With Early coming from the west and McLaws and Walker from the south all converging on the West Woods—and Sedgwick’s unsuspecting formation—a Union massacre was in the making.

All at once, the West Woods which seemed so quiet suddenly exploded with rifle fire and the Union troops found themselves being hit from three sides by withering volleys from the newly-arrived Rebels pouring fire through the trees into their lines. As a member of the 72nd Pennsylvania would remember:

Suddenly, loud above the rattle of musketry and the roar of the artillery, that historic rebel yell was heard. To those who have never heard it I will simply say that it is indescribable; but if ten thousand fiends were unchained and let loose it could not be more unearthly.

Unable to maneuver to return fire, Sedgwick’s men were being cut down in rows. So horrific was the slaughter that by the time Sumner shouted: “Back boys, for God’s sake move back! You are in a bad fix!” and then to Sedgwick: “My God! We must get out of this!” he’d lost 2,200 men in just twenty minutes.

The routed Yankees poured out of the woods racing pell-mell for the protective guns of I and XII Corps which ringed the cornfield…a host of screaming Rebels in hot pursuit.

“All hands ran for dear life,” wrote a 15th Massachusetts survivor. “I pulled to the left to get out of the range of the guns and got off safe and sound. The rebs chased us like the Devil for about a half or 3/4 of a mile when our batteries opened on them with grape and they gave up the chase.”

As had been the case with previous Confederate counter-attacks, they broke upon the solid wall of Yankee cannons, their ranks torn by solid shot and canister and soon retreated back into the West Woods now strewn with a blue carpet of dead and wounded men from Sedgwick’s ill-fated charge. McLaws’ division for its part suffered forty percent casualties at the hands of the union gunners, adding yet more broken and bleeding bodies to the cornfield and surrounding woods already saturated with blood.

But for the subsequent advance of Greene’s division to briefly occupy the Dunker Church ridge before retiring back to the East Woods and burning Mumma farm, the destruction of Sedgwick’s division would be the last major action on Jackson’s front. All eyes and ears now turned to the rising crescendo of sound and clouds of gun smoke drifting from the center of Lee’s line along a sunken farm lane a half mile southwest of the blood-soaked West Woods.

Brad Schaeffer is an historian, author, musician, and trader. His eclectic body of writings have appeared in The Wall Street Journal, New York Daily News, and a variety of well-read blogs and news outlets. Of Another Time and Place is his first novel, which takes place in World War II Germany and the deadly skies over the Western Front. You can pre-order his book here:

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