Longstreet at Antietam : Profile of a Commander

Nicholas E. Hollis
(All Rights Reserved)

The Battle of Sharpsburg (Antietam) marked the end of CSA General Robert E. Lee’s first invasion of Maryland (September 1862). The epic clash pitted a heavily outnumbered Army of Northern Virginia (ANV) of 41,000—arrayed in strong defensive position—against the Union Army of the Potomac (AP) of nearly 87,000 under the command of Major General George McClellan.

Cornered with his back against the Potomac River, Lee had turned his army to face the pursuing Federals, positioning the ANV’s first corps on the right/center under Major General James Longstreet on the hills above Sharpsburg and Antietam Creek, with ANV’s Second Corps, under Major General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson, on the left across Hagerstown Pike, partially concealed by woods near a cornfield and an old German church. ANV’s cavalry, under Major General J.E.B. Stuart, held the far left.

Deadly September Showdown
The bloodiest day in America history (September 17) began with furious, yet uncoordinated Union attacks on the ANV left. The Union First Corps under General “Fighting Joe” Hooker, delivered the initial assault at dawn, pushing Jackson’s brigades back, but then stalled as ANV Major General John Bell Hood’s Texas brigades counterattacked savagely (1). The AP Twelfth Corps under Major General Joseph Mansfield attacked next through a cornfield at 7:30 a.m., capturing the Dunkard Church (2) — followed by a third massive Union drive led by Major General Edwin Sumner’s Second Corps which slammed into the struggle around Dunkard Church (3) and also pummeled the center of the ANV line held by General D.H. Hill’s division along a sunken road (4) several hundred yards away from Longstreet’s headquarters at Piper House. 

Although there were many heroics on the field on both sides, climaxed by the late afternoon arrival of A.P. Hill’s brigades from Harper’s Ferry (6) in time to flank and check a broad Union offensive on the right led by Union General Ambrose Burnside (5), the actions of James Longstreet at the center deserve special attention. Lee certainly thought so. As dusk settled on the bloody stalemate, and his unit commanders gathered to assess their precarious situation, Lee saw the melancholy and fatigue of near defeat in their eyes. But when Longstreet rode up, Lee approached him as he dismounted , and with apparent exuberance, clasped his shoulders with his hands, exclaiming “Ah, here is General Longstreet, my old war horse. Let us hear what he has to say”.

A Thin Gray Line
In fact, Old Pete’s rugged courage and steady performance at the front that day was the stuff of legends. At the center of the rebel  position, during the apex of Sumner’s assault, Longstreet observed General Richardson’s division (AP) swinging his line up along the crest of the hill (7) overlooking Piper House (Longstreet’s field headquarters). The advance threatened to divide the ANV’s position and rout the Confederates. But as the Federals swarmed over “Bloody Lane”, moving toward the higher ground, Longstreet used his presence to inspire his men and bolster the firing line, ordering his staff officers to man an artillery battery and fire canister into the advancing Federals. The rebel line was only fragmentary, but with shells bursting around him, Old Pete calmly held the reins of his men's horses, while surveying the desperate situation  with his field glasses. He remained mounted, if somewhat inelegant—with a slipper on an injured foot—but his men were awestruck at his confident, imperturbable demeanor. Moxley Sorrel, an aide, called him “magnificent”. When pressed by one of his subordinates for help, Longstreet penned a short note,

“ I am sending you the guns, dear General (Pryor). This is a hard fight, and we had best all die than lose it.”

(Photo courtesy of Paul Breitenbach)

BLOODY LANE--Rebel troops held off Federal attacks for nearly three and a half hours along this sunken road, before being dislodged by B-G Israel B. Richardson’s division.

The Fog of Battle
For the Union commanders facing the ANV center there was no way to determine the depth of Confederate troop strength behind the crest of the rolling hills. Could it be another death trap like the Battle of Second Manassas a few weeks before or even the as the West Woods had become earlier that same day?  Union Cavalry General Alfred Pleasanton (8) had orders to reinforce Richardson’s assault and General Porter’s Fifth Corps was readied to deliver a crushing blow. But the attack never came. Longstreet’s canisters and a demonstration move by D.H. Hill fooled a Union command already in some disarray after both Richardson, and his gallant Colonel Francis Barlow of New York, fell in quick succession leading the advance.

Earlier that morning General Pleasanton had dispatched one of his mounted companies (12th Pennsylvania) under Major James A. Congdon, forward to the far right of the Union line to monitor their rebel counterparts under Stuart. The detached unit was posted off Hagerstown Pike (see diagram) on Poffenberger Lane (9) near the East Woods for “provost duty” (herding stragglers, guarding prisoners) At this position Congdon’s men, including Pvt. Calvin W. Jennings, a nineteen year old farm boy with a bugle, witnessed the carnage of the cornfield – some of the heaviest fighting of the war. Thousands fell in the neat rows of blood spattered corn, and whole units were practically decimated with neither side holding clear advantage.

Sources: National Park Service/Antietam -- Unit Placement. William J. Clipson--Cartography.

A Captured Battle Flag
At one point after fresh Ohio units slammed into the 6th and 27th Georgia regiments, and the 4th Texas of General Hood’s division,  Major Congdon stopped and questioned an enlisted soldier carrying a captured rebel battle flag toward the rear. When the flag’s identity could not be determined, Congdon asked one of his new prisoners, Lt. William E. Barry of G Company, 4th Texas, if he knew the flag. With great emotion, Barry told his captors that the flag belonged to the First Texas—a unit which had sustained heavy casualties, losing 182 out of 226 actives within a few minutes.2/

As bugler, posted near his commander, Calvin Jennings probably witnessed the poignant moment, aware that some of his Jennings relatives were fighting under ANV banners.

VIEW FROM EAST WOODS--Union troops could glimpse the battle, across the  cornfields and the West Woods. This present day photo looking west from Poffenberger Lane near spot where the Twelfth Pennsylvania Cavalry was posted on the morning of September 17, 1862.

Lee retreated across the Potomac into Virginia the following night, his Maryland gamble lost, and later President Abraham Lincoln sacked General McClellan for failing to press the attack. Lincoln would also use Antietam to promulgate the Emancipation Proclamation giving new inspiration to the Union cause. In Richmond, the near disaster of the Maryland campaign prompted a reorganization of the Confederate army. Lee remained in firm command, but on October 9, 1862 he chose Longstreet as his chief lieutenant, elevating him to Lt. General of the ANV’s First Corps. The next day commissions were signed for six other generals, ranked as lieutenant generals, including Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson, who was placed in command of ANV’s  Second Corps.

Antietam proved decisive in other ways. Southern momentum, generated from a string of victories, including Second Manassas in late August, was checked – and the potential of foreign diplomatic recognition for the Confederacy as a sovereign nation (likely with a CSA victory) faded.  The sheer carnage of America’s deadliest day had a profound impact on the country’s psyche – particularly after Matthew Brady’s photographs became public. More than 3,650 Americans had been killed on that September day in 1862 (2,100 Union, 1,550 CSA), with over 17,000 wounded. A hundred forty years later, after the horrors of September 11, 2001, comparisons would be made between Antietam, Pearl Harbor, Omaha Beach (Normandy), and the World Trade Center towers.. But the Battle of Sharpsburg stands apart with searing impact, as it reflected the mounting losses of the larger Civil War – a tragic “family dispute” out of control, with brothers-in-arms warring on each other, whose long shadow still haunts us today.

Notes and Additional Reading

1/Landscape Turned Red: Battle of Antietam, Stephen Sears, (1983,) p.272 

2/Antietam: A Soldiers’ Battle, John Michael Priest, (1989), p. 89

Leather and Steel: The 12th Pennsylvania Cavalry in the Civil War, Larry B. Maier,  (2001)

The Gleam of Bayonets: The Battle of Antietam and Robert E. Lee’s Maryland Campaign, September 1862, James V. Murfin, (1965)

Manassas to Appomattox, James Longstreet, (1895), p.250-252