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Posted on May 13, 2008 in War College

Virtual Tour Antietam: The Civil War’s Bloodiest Day

By David J. Eicher

Phillip Pry House. David J. Eicher.Tour Point 7 — The Philip Pry House: Not one to ride forward with the troops, Union commander McClellan set up shop at a large brick farmhouse 1 ½ miles east-northeast of the battlefield’s center and watched the action through field glasses. Philip Pry, his wife Elizabeth, and five children lived in this handsome structure on 125 farming acres. The house overlooks Antietam Creek from the east. Many officers spent time at this house, including Capt. George A. Custer, Maj. Gen. Edwin V. Sumner, and of course McClellan’s whole staff. After his mortal wounding in Bloody Lane, Israel Richardson was moved to the house and spent several weeks here before dying in early November. He was even visited by President Lincoln here during the chief executive’s trip to the Antietam battlefield in October. One of McClellan’s staff officers, Lt. Col. David Hunter Strother, watched the fight for Bloody Lane from the ridge beside the house. “I was astonished to observe our troops moving along the front and passing over what appeared to be a long, heavy column of the enemy without paying it any attention,” he wrote. “I borrowed a glass from an officer, and discovered this to be actually a column of the enemy’s dead lying along the hollow road. . . . Among the prostrate mass I could easily distinguish the movements of those endeavoring to crawl away from the ground; hands waving as if calling of assistance, and others struggling as if in the agonies of death.”

Burnside Bridge. David J. Eicher.Tour Point 8 — Burnside Bridge: Farther south from the Pry House, along the southeastern edge of the field and spanning Antietam Creek, is the Lower Bridge, after the battle invariably termed Burnside Bridge (also the Rohrbach Bridge). This famous stone structure held the key to the Union assault that broke the lower end of the Confederate lines in the afternoon. From the eastern side of Antietam Creek, Union troops attempted to cross the creek and push the Confederates back toward Sharpsburg. Overcautious Union Maj. Gen. Ambrose E. Burnside, commanding the IX Corps, waited nearly all day before attacking the mostly Georgia troops who defended the bluff west of the creek. Burnside sent numerous narrow columns of attackers across the bridge, many of whom were slaughtered by the crack-shot Georgians occupying the dominant high ground of the bluff that rises high over the bridge’s western end. Had Burnside checked the Antietam’s depth, he would have found it fordable in a position away from the deadly Confederate fire. Despite this foolishness, ultimately Union attackers crossed the bridge and fought back against the Confederates driving them in disarray toward the town.


Hawkins' Zouaves Monument. David J. Eicher.Tour Point 9 — Hawkins’ Zouaves Monument/Final Attack Position: On the edge of town, just off Mechanic Street/Harpers Ferry Road, stands a small monument dedicated to the 9th New York Infantry Regiment, Hawkins’s Zouaves, named for their colorful, European-style uniforms and their commander, Col. Rush C. Hawkins. Just east of this monument stands another, a down-turned cannon marking the position where Union Col. Israel P. Rodman was mortally wounded. These monuments, accessible via a walking path from the road, mark the position of the final drama of the battle. After capturing the Lower Bridge and reforming his IX Corps, Burnside moved westward across the hilly terrain, hoping to cut off Lee’s line of retreat. However, just in the nick of time, Confederate Maj. Gen. A. P. Hill and his “Light Division” arrived in this area, having completed an exhausting forced march from Harpers Ferry, and struck into the Union advance, driving them back.

Antietam National Cemetery. David J. Eicher. Tour Point 10 — Antietam National Cemetery: After the battle, 4,808 men lay dead on the field. The human cost at Antietam shocked the nation, partly because they saw graphic images of the dead for the first time. Antietam National Cemetery, established in 1866, was formulated when thousands of individual graves, dug where the soldiers had fallen, were disinterred and the bodies moved here. Some 4,695 soldiers lie within the cemetery’s eleven acres. In the center of the memorial, you’ll see a statue, the Private Soldier, nicknamed “Old Simon.” One brevet brigadier general, Jacob E. Duryée, is buried here.

David J. Eicher
is the author of eight books on the Civil War, including Civil War Battlefields: A Touring Guide (Taylor, 2005).

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