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On the Brink:

The Confederate Center, Boonsboro Turnpike

H. Dryer
H. Dryer

[biography]



 

Few military organizations find themselves on the precise spot, at the precise moment, to be a trigger to war's conclusion. For Brigadier General George Sykes' 2nd (Regular) Division, Fifth Army Corps, one such golden opportunity came at Antietam.

star See more about ... the Regulars on a detailed map of their battlefield situation at about 5:00 PM.

The Setting

Between 8 and 9 A.M., while Stonewall Jackson parried massed assaults on the Confederate left, Robert E. Lee went south to the Boonsboro Pike on personal reconnaissance. With him rode generals Longstreet and D.H. Hill whose troops would meet the next likely onslaught. On Cemetery Hill not twenty feet from the pike, Lee and Longstreet dismounted, Hill remaining in the saddle. Peering through his binoculars Longstreet spotted a well-aimed artillery shell hurtling toward them, fired from bluffs looming above the Middle Bridge, which instantly carried away the forelegs of Hill's horse.1 Hill awkwardly dismounted his stricken beast, the trio unnerved by potential aggression against the Confederate center fronting the east approach to Sharpsburg. As the day wore on, this point would emerge as Lee's untested Achilles' heel.

Lee had posted abundant artillery and four infantry brigades at the edge of town as rearguard along the pike approach from Keedysville. Throughout the morning substantial portions of this array were withdrawn to reinforce either flank as Major General George B. McClellan applied increasing Federal pressure. By early afternoon the east entrance to town had been denuded of most of its strength, this sector now largely held by unsupported artillery north of the pike with two thin infantry brigades arrayed near the crest of Cemetery Hill.


The Instrument

Earlier in the Campaign, as the Federal army marched in pursuit of Lee, the Regular Infantry Division had been held in reserve by Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan, "the young Napoleon," as his personal "Old Guard" shock troops.2 Itching for a fight, the division reached Middletown early on September 14 and stood down to await developments on the mountain. Instead of sending the Regulars as a back-up to Major General William B. Franklin at Crampton's Gap where partition of Confederate forces was anticipated, Sykes' men idled at Middletown throughout the day. McClellan had promised -- and Franklin had requested -- additional troops for the intended breakthrough, Sykes' division being the only uncommitted troops in the Catoctin Valley standing idle a mere five miles away.3,4,5 This was but the first of two potentially decisive campaign opportunities to elude the Regulars.

Breaking camp on Monday the 15th at 10 A.M., Sykes' division crossed South Mountain via Fox's Gap, marched through Keedysville, and took position fronting Antietam Creek on the Boonsboro Pike at the Middle Bridge. They were only the second Union division to arrive.3,6 While the rest of the Union army closed up, the Regulars swept back Lee's rearguard, taking control of the bridge and the pike. On the 17th, as both Lee's flanks were thoroughly battered, his weak center in front of Sharpsburg became his soft spot, cannibalized to reinforce the flanks. Here stood Sykes' Regulars chomping at the bit.

Nearer Antietam Creek McClellan too had left minimal strength along the pike. Sykes' division of Regulars, numbering near 4,000, restlessly idled there while encamped at Porterstown as they had been since the 15th. Regulars cleared adjoining meadows on the 16th. On the morning of the great battle Brigadier General Alfred Pleasonton's cavalry and horse artillery were thrown across the bridge to tap Lee's defenses, sparking a nasty long-range artillery exchange as Confederate skirmishers yielded still more ground. Outranged, Pleasonton's guns were soon swapped with Sykes' divisional artillery to even the odds.

Meanwhile Captain Hiram Dryer, 4th U.S. Infantry, was ordered to assume command of a token Regular task force sent across the bridge to back up Pleasonton at 3 P.M. Captain John Poland's 2nd & 10th U.S. Infantry skirmished its way forward south of the pike taking possession of a high ridge fronting the town. Colonel Robert Buchanan, commanding the First Brigade of Sykes' division, brought up the 1st Battalion of the 12th (1/12th) U.S. and both battalions of the 14th U.S. Infantry, preceded by 4th U.S. Infantry skirmishers, until all were massed in a deep ravine north of the pike immediately below Cemetery Hill parallel to Poland.

Poland's composite battalion then swept into Sherrick Lane immediately below Cemetery Hill, its right wing impetuously bulling ahead partway up the hill before officers could restrain it. Regulars settled in behind the rail fence bordering the lane and commenced peppering everything in sight. The assault Lee had feared that morning had abundantly materialized.7

Fearing the worst, two Confederate battalions -- the 8th and 18th Virginia -- advanced down the face of the hill as though to charge Poland's command. The 1st Battalion of the 14th (1/14th) U.S. deftly slid over to the lane on Poland's right and cut up the Virginians with well-directed oblique fire. Now the reason for sudden aggression became clear. Confederate guns were withdrawing from Cemetery Hill as their miniscule infantry attack abruptly turned about as fast as it had come. It had been a mere feint. The Virginians at least had concluded that the hill would fall. The Regulars now controlled all ground below the edge of town.8


Capt. Hiram Dryer's Reconnaissance

Sykes had pushed forward only a small portion of his command to develop his front. By the time Dryer's array approached near to Sharpsburg, Second Corps troops had driven D.H. Hill back from the Sunken Road onto the Piper farm on Dryer's right. Burnside's Ninth Corps had pushed across the stubbornly defended Lower Bridge to Dryer's left and was deploying toward the south side of town and the Harpers Ferry road. The 17th Michigan of the latter corps fell in on Poland's left flank closing the gap between Fifth and Ninth Corps along Sherrick Lane. Additional regiments of Wilcox's division were pouring onto the south flank of Cemetery Hill, skirmishers penetrating into Sharpsburg streets.9 As Confederate resistance on both his flanks was giving way, Sykes' reconnaissance in force stood idle for hours awaiting orders. Instinct told the Regulars they would be put in shortly, but still no orders came. Impatient for action, Dryer intrepidly spurred his horse up the right (north) side of the pike beyond his 4th Infantry skirmishers and into Confederate positions to see for himself at about 4:30, bullets whizzing uncomfortably near. There he saw only two weak battalions and a battery knitting together the wings of Lee's army. Sending an aide back with a crumpled note, Dryer alerted his command for imminent assault. Dryer's aide came skidding up to Buchanan on a lathered mount, crisply saluted, then breathlessly stabbed a crumpled note into Buchanan's hand. "Old Buck" read aloud that Dryer had impetuously ridden into enemy lines and back again unscathed, reporting only two weak regiments and a battery on Cemetery Hill stitching together halves of Lee's army. He asked permission to attack immediately with every Regular in sight. Thoroughly delighted Buchanan turned in his saddle, barking out, "Fall in your men. Our turn has come at last." Caps were tugged down, cartridge boxes and canteens shifted for easy access. "There was but one possible thought at that moment from General to Drummer boy. The time for attack! The chance for victory!"10


Prophet of Indecision

Electrified by the prospect, Buchanan quickly passed Dryer's note on to McClellan, Sykes, and Major General Fitz John Porter who were mounted nearby along the pike, jointly sizing up the situation . Both Sykes and McClellan were on the verge of issuing orders which would catapult the Regulars into town. Porter then turned to McClellan saying, "Remember, General! I command the last reserve of the last Army of the Republic."11 McClellan considered, hesitated, and then let opportunity slip away into dusk.

Though pressed to his limit, Lee survived to fight another day.

Incredulous, the Regulars were later ordered back to their camps in a savage mood, evening devoted to violent recriminations about lost chances. Dryer was among the most vocal, petulantly casting dispersions upon the head of Captain Matthew Blunt for his declining to join his 1/12th U.S. to Dryer's 4th for an unauthorized assault. That night the Regulars came as close to mutiny as they ever would.

Some of Sykes' men, those who survived the war, would steadfastly remember Sharpsburg as the matchless moment which might have precluded all fighting and dying thereafter. Next day Dryer and Blunt rode together unmolested into town and learned from a resident that they had indeed been pitted against only two regiments and some heavy guns.10

What Dryer had actually seen were two thin brigades -- those of Brigadier Generals Nathan Evans and Richard Garnett, numbering roughly 120 and 200 men respectively12 -- shockingly reduced by heavy fighting at Turner's Gap and exhausted straggling to Sharpsburg, low on ammunition and devoid of reinforcement. Logic dictates that these forlorn elements could not have resisted the Regulars for long. Moreover, lacking infantry support north of the pike, Confederate artillery would have been quickly forced to displace to save its guns when pressed by Regular infantry in strength, Pleasanton's horsemen poised to exploit any breakthrough. Opportunity however never came to full maturity.


Was Porter Accurate or Paranoid?

Certainly Porter's Fifth Corps was fragmented. Major General George Morell's division was standing nearby 6,000 strong, but Brigadier General Andrew Humphreys' division was a day's march away.13 Sykes' division itself was liberally distributed to both sides of Antietam Creek. His Third Brigade of volunteers had been loaned to Burnside. Quick footwork would have brought the Regulars together for a an eager spearhead, ably supported by Pleasonton's cavalry and guns.

But could McClellan have affixed a solid shaft to Sykes' spearhead? Franklin's Sixth Corps stood idle and uncommitted further north on the field awaiting orders, only one of its brigades committed to the West Woods debacle. Over 12,000 strong, Sixth Corps marked time, an instrument without purpose, over half its number yet to pull trigger in the campaign.14

Ninth Corps inroads into Sharpsburg were forestalled when A.P. Hill belatedly arrived on the extreme Federal left, shifting the axis of battle in that direction. Longstreet clung to his tenuous grasp of the Piper farm north of town ill-disposed to fend off another massed attack.

In summary, Sykes' incursion into Sharpsburg seemed highly favorable provided scattered Union strength could be swiftly concentrated for an emerging objective within the remaining two hours or less of daylight.

Sykes reported he had "no doubt that he [Dryer] could have crowned the Sharpsburg crest." In counterpoint Porter avowed, "I had not the force asked for, and could not, under my orders, risk the safety of the artillery and center of the line," this in light of stalemate on Burnside's front. Incensed nearly beyond containment, in his report Dryer withheld mention of his reconnoitered revelation, emphasizing instead that Buchanan's order to pull back precluded further advance. Regular discipline inevitably silenced frustration.1516

More intriguing, after the war Sykes vividly recalled his impromptu conference with McClellan and Porter, McClellan's inclination to attack, and Porter's cautious admonition. Porter however denied any knowledge of "Captain Dryer's report," claiming the discussion with McClellan and Sykes had not taken place. Recall that in the postwar era Porter still sought Army reinstatement after court martial through charges laid by Gen. John Pope after Second Manassas.11

Unknown to these commanders a solitary horseman, Charles C. Coffin -- intrepid reporter for the Boston Journal known for dogged, accurate pursuit of a story -- had boldly ridden into this sector for a close look.17 In tune with Sykes and his men, Coffin's later assessment best typifies the majority opinion:

"It was the plain dictate of common sense that then was the time when Porter's eleven thousand [sic] should have been sent across the Antietam and thrown like a thunderbolt upon the enemy. It was so plain that the rank and file saw it. 'Now is the time' was the universal comment. But not a soldier stirred from his position. McClellan saw it, but issued no order.... It has been said that McClellan's excuse for not throwing in Porter's corps at that moment was the reason given by Napoleon at Borodino when asked why he did not at a certain moment put in the Imperial Guard: 'If I am defeated today, where is my army for tomorrow?' There was no parallel between Antietam and Borodino. The moment had come for dividing Lee's army at its center and crushing it back upon the Potomac in utter route."18

At that late hour Lee clearly had little or nothing with which to stop Sykes. Be that as it may, by merit of the assault's hang-fire nature the prospect remains purely hypothetical and therefore a riveting might-have-been.

-- Tim Reese, Burkittsville, Maryland
AotW Member




The Dryer portrait above is from the MOLLUS Collection of the US Army Military History Institute (USAMHI)19, Carlisle, PA, and was prepared for publication from the original by Mr Reese.





Notes

1   Johnson, Robert U., and Clarence C. Buel, eds., Battles and Leaders of the Civil War, 4 vols., New York City: The Century Company, 1884-1887, Vol. 2, pg. 671  [AotW citation 1]

2   On Sept. 11 McClellan sent word to Sykes instructing him to move forward "without fatiguing your men unduly [...] your command kept as fresh as possible under the circumstances."
US War Department, The War of the Rebellion: a Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies (OR), 128 vols., Washington DC: US Government Printing Office, 1880-1901, Vol. 51/Part 1 (Ser #107), pg. 815  [AotW citation 2]

3   US War Department, The War of the Rebellion: a Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies (OR), 128 vols., Washington DC: US Government Printing Office, 1880-1901, Vol. 19/Part1 (Ser #27), pg. 350  [AotW citation 3]

4   US War Department, The War of the Rebellion: a Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies (OR), 128 vols., Washington DC: US Government Printing Office, 1880-1901, Vol. 51/Part 1 (Ser #107), pgs. 826-827  [AotW citation 4]

5   Reese, Timothy J., High-Water Mark: The 1862 Maryland Campaign in Strategic Perspective, Baltimore: Butternut and Blue, 2004, pg. 33  [AotW citation 5]

6   Gen. Israel Richardson's division of the Second Corps arrived first at the Middle Bridge, giving place to Sykes' division when it moved upstream to the Upper Bridge.
Reese, Timothy J., Sykes' Regular Infantry Division, 1861-1864: A History of Regular United States Infantry Operations in the Civil War's Eastern Theater, Jefferson (NC): McFarland&Company, Inc., 1990, p. 132-133  [AotW citation 7]

7   Poland's battalion consisted of nine companies of the 2nd U.S. and three of the 10th U.S. Infantry, temporarily combined as an administrative expedient. Throughout the first two years of war Regular infantry regiments found endless difficulty in assembling widely dispersed companies from prewar Western postings.
US War Department, The War of the Rebellion: a Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies (OR), 128 vols., Washington DC: US Government Printing Office, 1880-1901, Vol. 19/Part1 (Ser #27), pp. 362-363  [AotW citation 11]

8   Commanding officers of these two regiments imagined that heroics successfully forestalled Regular advances when in fact obedience to orders held them in place.
US War Department, The War of the Rebellion: a Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies (OR), 128 vols., Washington DC: US Government Printing Office, 1880-1901, Vol. 19/Part1 (Ser #27), pp. 896-901  [AotW citation 10]

9   US War Department, The War of the Rebellion: a Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies (OR), 128 vols., Washington DC: US Government Printing Office, 1880-1901, Vol. 19/Part1 (Ser #27), pp. 430, 438-439  [AotW citation 12]

10   Capt. Thomas M. Anderson letter to Davis, Jan. 31, 1897. Anderson commanded the composite battalion of the 2/12th and 8th U.S. Infantry, Buchanan's brigade, which remained on the east side of Antietam Creek.
Antietam Board, Antietam Battlefield Commission Papers, Washington DC: National Archives and Records Administration, 1891-1898, entry 707, Record Group 92  [AotW citation 6]

11   Johnson, Robert U., and Clarence C. Buel, eds., Battles and Leaders of the Civil War, 4 vols., New York City: The Century Company, 1884-1887, Vol. 2, pg. 656n  [AotW citation 13]

12   US War Department, The War of the Rebellion: a Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies (OR), 128 vols., Washington DC: US Government Printing Office, 1880-1901, Vol. 19/Part1 (Ser #27), pp. 143, 894-904, 939-950  [AotW citation 14]

13   US War Department, The War of the Rebellion: a Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies (OR), 128 vols., Washington DC: US Government Printing Office, 1880-1901, Vol. 19/Part1 (Ser #27), pp. 55, 61  [AotW citation 15]

14   Gen. Darius Couch's lone division of the Fourth Corps, strategically paired with Franklin's corps, did not arrive until next day from Pleasant Valley where it had monitored departure of A.P. Hill from Harpers Ferry. These troops too had not been engaged thus far in the campaign.
Reese, Timothy J., Sealed With Their Lives: The Battle for Crampton's Gap, Baltimore: Butternut and Blue, 1998, pp. 186-187  [AotW citation 16]

15   US War Department, The War of the Rebellion: a Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies (OR), 128 vols., Washington DC: US Government Printing Office, 1880-1901, Vol. 19/Part1 (Ser #27), pp. 356-357  [AotW citation 17]

16   Reese, Timothy J., Sykes' Regular Infantry Division, 1861-1864: A History of Regular United States Infantry Operations in the Civil War's Eastern Theater, Jefferson (NC): McFarland&Company, Inc., 1990, pp. 146-148  [AotW citation 18]

17   A news colleague typified Coffin as habitually following closely in the wake of troops, "up hill and down, over breastworks, parapets, rifle-pits, rocks, fallen trees ... with his head down, like an animal which trails by scent." In his zeal Coffin certainly represents an animated exception to the journalistic rule of that period.
Reese, Timothy J., Written in Stone: Brief Biographies of the Journalists, Photographers, and Artists Whose Names Appear on the War Correspondents Memorial Arch, Gathland State Park, Crampton's Gap, South Mountain, Burkittsville: Friends of Gathland State Park, 2000, pg. 10  [AotW citation 19]

18   Johnson, Robert U., and Clarence C. Buel, eds., Battles and Leaders of the Civil War, 4 vols., New York City: The Century Company, 1884-1887, Vol. 2, pg. 684  [AotW citation 20]

19   USAMHI Image #RG98S-CWP 176.99
US Army, Military History Institute (USAMHI), American Civil War (ACW) photographs, Military History Institute Photograph Database, Published c. 1998, first accessed 01 January 2005, <http://cdm16635.contentdm.oclc.org/cdm/search/collection/p16635coll20/>, Source page: ----  [AotW citation 40]