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Col Henry L Benning's Official Report

Report of October 13, 1862

H. Benning

[author biography]

HEADQUARTERS TOOMBS' BRIGADE
Camp near Winchester, October 13, 1862.

Capt. D. M. Du Bose,
Assistant Adjutant-General.

CAPTAIN: I have the honor to submit to you the following report of the part taken in the battle of Sharpsburg on the 17th ultimo by Toombs' brigade, the command of which devolved on me by his being in command of the division:

On the morning of the 15th I was ordered by General Toombs to place the brigade across the road leading from Sharpsburg to Rohrersville at the Stone Bridge over Antietam Creek and to defend the bridge. Hardly had I received this order and commenced to execute it when I received another order from him to detach two regiments of the brigade and send them toward Williamsport in pursuit of the enemy's cavalry, which the night before had escaped from Harper's Ferry and gone toward Williamsport to the peril of our wagon train, proceeding to that place from Hagerstown. Accordingly, I detached the Fifteenth and Seventeenth Georgia and sent them off under Colonel Millican on this duty. This left me for the defense of the bridge only two small regiments, the Second Georgia, under Lieutenant-Colonel Holmes, and the Twentieth Georgia, under Col. John B. Cumming. With these two regiments I proceeded to the bridge and there put them in position as ordered. For a long distance below the bridge, and for some distance above it, the ground rose very steeply from the creek for fifty or sixty yards. The face of this slope was clothed with rather thinly scattered trees, and in one place on the left it had a sort of pit large enough to hold twenty or thirty men. Behind the trees at the top of the steep slope ran a rail fence. Along the face of this slope among the trees, in a rather irregular line, to suit the ground, I placed the two regiments, the Second on the right and the Twentieth on the left, with the line of the Twentieth extending forty or fifty yards above the bridge. Thus the greater part of the general line was placed below the bridge. This disposition was adopted because the road to the bridge on the other side of the creek ran from below up the bank of the creek near the water for 100 or 200 yards. The rails were taken from the fence and built up against such trees as were in suitable situations, and where there were no such trees the rails were laid in simple piles. These rude barricades, few and far between, afforded to men lying behind them tolerable shelter against small-arms. Such was the protection on which the regiments had to rely. The creek was fordable everywhere above and below the bridge; in most places was not more than knee-deep. The hill-side occupied by the regiments was on its left commanded by a sharp ridge about 200 yards beyond the creek, and throughout by good positions for cannon at the distance of from 500 to 600 yards beyond the creek. Pickets and skirmishers were soon thrown across the creek several hundred yards to the front. The day passed off with perhaps an occasional shot from these; and so passed the next day, except that the skirmishing was heavier and that a number of well-directed shells were thrown across the creek from Captain Eubank's battery at small parties of the enemy as they showed themselves and at spots in which it was supposed the enemy lay concealed.

The next morning early (that of the 17th) the skirmishing was renewed. It continued, constantly growing heavier on the part of the enemy, till about 9 o'clock, when our skirmishers were driven in. At about 8 o'clock Captain Eubank discovered a large body of the enemy opposite to him in a wood within range of his guns. He opened fire on them and drove them in confusion from the wood, and with loss, to judge from the movement of their ambulances. Not long after his battery had finished this work it was ordered away. Thus the two regiments were left at the bridge without army artillery supports whatever. The general line of battle of our army was nearly, if not quite, three-quarters of a mile in their rear, and not a soldier was between them and that line. The intervening ground for a great part of the way was a long slope facing the enemy's batteries, and thus commanded by those batteries, so that re-enforcements, if they had been sent, would have been cut up by shells before they could have reached their destination. A regiment had been posted on the right further down the creek, but this soon after the battle commenced abandoned its post and went to the rear. Thus the two regiments were also without infantry supports, and without the expectation of receiving any re-enforcements. The two together numbered not more than 350 men and officers, the Second having only 97, and the Twentieth not more than 250. In their front was Burnside's whole corps of not fewer than 12,000 or 15,000 of the enemy's best men, with a numerous artillery. In this forlorn condition were the two regiments at about 9 o'clock, when the fight opened in earnest. At this time the enemy's infantry, aided by the fire of many pieces of artillery, advanced in heavy force to the attack; and soon the attack opened on our whole line as far up as the bridge. It was bold and persevering. The enemy came to the creek. The fire not only from their infantry, but from the artillery, was incessant, the artillery being so placed that it could fire over the heads of the infantry. It was met by a rapid, well-directed, and unflinching fire from our men, under which the enemy, after a vain struggle, broke and fell back. This attack was succeeded by two similar ones from apparently fresh bodies of troops, and with like results, the last of the two extending above the bridge to the upper part of our line. At length, toward 12 o'clock, the enemy made preparations for a still more formidable attack. A battery was placed in position from which it could command at almost an enfilade the whole face of the hill occupied by our troops. Soon it opened fire, and the infantry, in much heavier force than at any time before, extending far above as well as below the bridge, again advanced to the attack. The combined fire of infantry and artillery was terrific. It was, however, withstood by our men until their ammunition was quite exhausted, and until the enemy had got upon the bridge and were above and below it fording the creek. I then gave the order to fall back. Colonel Cumming, with two companies which had a few rounds of ammunition left, remained near the bridge as a little rear guard, and was, with these, the last to leave the ground. When he left it the enemy had crossed above and below him, and were coming up on both his flanks. They indeed cut off a few of his men by getting to his rear. The men of both regiments, though retreating different ways, were exposed for a long distance to the shells of the enemy. Under an order received from General Toombs they retired to a position near the right of the general line of battle. Thus at near 1 o'clock we were driven from the bridge, but we had held it long enough to enable the advance troops of General A. P. Hill to reach their position in the line of battle; and this, I suppose, was attaining the great object of defending a place so far in front of that line - a place so untenable as was the bridge.

The Second Regiment lost in killed and wounded forty-two, nearly half of its number. Among its killed was Lieutenant-Colonel Holmes, a good officer, and as gallant a man, I think, as my eyes ever beheld. The loss of the Twentieth in killed, wounded, and missing was sixty-eight, more than a fourth of its number. No words of mine in praise of officers and men are needed. The simple story is eulogy enough. I must, however, bear witness to one fact: During that long and terrible fire not a man, except a wounded one, fell out and went to the rear - not a man. The loss of the enemy was heavy. Near the bridge they lay in heaps. Their own estimate, as a paroled sergeant of ours taken at the bridge told me, was at from 500 to 1,000 men killed. He also told me that they informed him that at about 12 o'clock an order came from General McClellan to take the bridge, cost what it might, and that then the whole corps advanced to the attack, and Colonel Cumming counted seven flags near the bridge. Shortly before the fight at the bridge terminated the Fifteenth and Seventeenth by forced marches had returned from Williamsport by way of Shepherdstown, and when that fight terminated they were in line of battle on the right and 400 or 500 yards in advance of the general line of battle, which was along the summit of the ascent from Antietam Creek. This position they, together with about half of the Eleventh Georgia, under Major Little, had been placed in by General Toombs, who ordered me, when I returned from the bridge, to take command of the whole. I did so. All remained in this position until, I think, near 4 o'clock. The enemy, except a few skirmishers, were too far off to be fired upon. These skirmishers were driven back by ours, and themselves got out of range. Shortly after I was put in command by General Toombs, he informed me that we would be relieved by General Gregg's brigade, and that then I must carry the men, much exhausted by their late long and rapid march to the right of the general line for rest. At about 4 o'clock General Gregg brought his brigade down and took our place, and we commenced marching to the position assigned us. Before, however, we got half way there, an order was sent to me to hasten the march and carry the command some distance to the left of that position along the road running into Sharpsburg until we came opposite to the enemy advancing from the bridge. This point was distant, I suppose, half a mile.

Again and again was this order repeated, the last time with the startling addition that the enemy had broken our line and were nearly up to the road with not a soldier of ours in their front. The pace was accelerated to a double-quick, which in a short time carried the head of the line beyond the corn-field and in sight of the enemy. A brigade of them was standing composedly in line of battle not 200 yards from the road, apparently waiting for the nearer approach of supports, and neither in their front nor far to their right (our left) was a man of ours to be seen, but three abandoned pieces of ours were conspicuous objects about mid-way between the road and the enemy's line. Major Little, with his battalion, was in advance. The Seventeenth, under Captain McGregor, was next, the Fifteenth, under Colonel Millican, was next, and a large part of the Twentieth, under Colonel Cumming, again ready for action, notwithstanding the severe work of the morning, brought up the rear. All, however, made but a short line. I carried the head of the line opposite to the right of the enemy, and ordered it to commence firing on the enemy without waiting for the rest of the line to come up. It did so with promptness and spirit. The rest of the line as it came up joined in the fire. The fire soon became general. It was hot and rapid. The enemy returned it with vigor, and showed a determination to hold their position stubbornly. In about ten or fifteen minutes a cannon or two opened on them, and their line, which had already shown signs of wavering, broke and fled down the hill and was soon out of sight, concealed by the crest of the hill. General Toombs ordered pursuit, and our whole line rapidly advanced after them. We could not see what was below the crest of the hill, but I knew a very large force of the enemy must be somewhere below it, for I had from our late position seen three or four successive long lines of them march out from the bridge. I therefore suggested to General Toombs the propriety of halting the line, as its numbers were so small and it had no supports behind it, just before it reached the crest of the hill, and sending to that crest only the men armed with long-range guns. This suggestion he adopted, and the men armed with those guns quickly advanced to the crest and opened on the retreating enemy. Their other forces under the hill soon commenced falling back also. After getting near the creek, however, a large portion of them halted and formed behind a fence. On discovering this General Toombs ordered down the greater part of the command to dislodge them, soon following himself. After a very hot fight, in which Colonel Millican fell mortally wounded, he succeeded in his object. But it is for him to relate what took place there, as I remained behind with the small reserve. Our loss in this part of the battle as in numbers light, considering the large force of the enemy and the short distance of the fire. Their loss was very heavy. The conduct of both officers and men was, as far as I could observe it, as good as it could be, To mention some names without mentioning all would therefore be unjust. The service they rendered, to say nothing of the saving of the three abandoned guns, was, I think, hardly to be overestimated. If General Burnside's corps had once got through the long gap in our line it would soon have been in the rear of our whole army, and that anybody can see would have been disastrous.

I am, captain, your obedient servant,

HENRY L. BENNING,
Colonel, Commanding Toombs' Brigade.

Source: OR1





Notes

1   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/Part1 (Ser #107), pp. 161-165  [AotW citation 157]

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