The hardest part of any battlefield is walking the approach going into the engagement. From a tactical level, it requires examining the ground and interpreting it the way a brigade, regimental of company commander might have at the time of the battle. Antietam, because of its non-commercial, pristine fields is one of the best to conduct such a tour, particularly since the National Park Service has put so many excellent walking trails upon it.
This post is about interpreting a battle through the eyes of the participants and because of the heavy photo content, it will probably take s few entries to complete it. I have chosen to Union attack south through the Cornfield, which claimed some 8,000 casualties between the two armies within about 2.5 hours. It will start in the North Woods, south of the Joseph Poffenberger house to the southern edge of the Cornfield.
The Setting: September 17, 1862
1. The Union I Corps will start its march south with its right (west) flank on the Hagerstown Pike and Its left (east) on the Poffenberger farm lane at daylight 5:45 a.m. under artillery fire from S.D. Lee’s Battalion on the Dunker Church Plateau (Visitor Center) and some Confederate artillery to the southwest on Nicodemus (Hauser) Ridge.
2. On a map, the approach looks easy., and it would have been, except for the following factors:
a. Ground fog – having rained the night before a heavy ground fog, with bright sunlight up above, blanketed all of the hollows in an eerie haze, which seemingly evaporated as the lines marched through it.
According to OCOKA, this was concealment but in an era without GPS and infrared, it also meant that if the Confederates could not see the Federal lines, the Union troops in the hollows could not see the men to their front or flanks in their own line.
b. The land undulates terribly. Deep hollows flanked the Union center, which was on high ground.
c. Woods – The Union line passed through the North Woods, an open woodlot without underbrush, which allowed the easy passage of lines but also subjected the line to collateral damage from incoming artillery rounds.
The following photographs show the center, left and right of the I Corps line in the North Woods.
3. As they moved south from the North Woods, the Union infantry on the center and the left of the line entered a massive plowed field, which stretched, from the Hagerstown Pike to Poffenberger’s lane. The plowed ground ended at the crest of the ridge shown below. Throughout the entire advance, Confederate artillerists in the field east of the West Woods, on the Dunker Church Plateau, and from Houser’s Ridge, west of the West Woods fired into the formation, and the ones which followed, from the south and the west. The Union infantry continually marched in and out of the ground fog as they descended into hollows and reappeared on the ridges across their front.
4. Upon reaching the crest of the ridge seen above, the Federal infantry came into full view of the Cornfield and the Confederate gunners to the south.
5. The corn at the time was between five to seven feet tall.
a. The farmers planted the rows two feet apart in every direction. Picture a checkerboard. The intersection of the lines marked where they would have planted a seed from which one to two stands would grow.
b. The men remember it being an excellent field with bright green leaves, unlike so many of the unharvested cornfields in the vicinity.
c. The farmers planted melons and gourds in between the rows.
d. Planted in that style, the men could pass between the rows, the major obstacle being ground hog holes, rock ledges, and melons and gourds.
6. Notice how the ground south of the crest drops. This was a mow grass field.
a. Between about 6:15 a.m. and 8:40 a.m., the field would change hands four times.
b. During that time the small arms fire, the incoming artillery, and the constant movement of troops leveled the corn as if it had been harvested.
c. The first line entering the field would probably have destroyed the fence on the northern edge of the field, though no one specifically mentioned doing so.
d. Troops generally removed obstacles impeding the line of approach. It was safer and easier to destroy a Virginia Rail fence than to climb over it.
7. The Cornfield, not being level, covered in a sulfuric, low hanging cloud, and blanketed in fog (until around 7:30 a.m.), made command control nearly impossible.
a. The high humidity kept the smoke from the small arms and artillery fire low to the ground.
b. A virtually cloudless day, with hardly any breeze, the smoke settled thickly in the low ground.
c. That reduced visibility to a matter of feet and yards for the larger part of the action once the first shots echoed across the field.
8. The smoke and undulating terrain severely restricted Fields of Fire in the Cornfield.
a. Lines ended up shooting at shadows and muzzle flashes at point-blank range, which explains why regiments were knocked down in formation.
b. The geographical and atmospheric conditions on the field nullified Observation and destroyed command control on anything larger than a company or a squad.
9. Concealment resulting from the above-mentioned factors led to the chaos and the confusion on the field.
10. Cover, because of the rolling, ground did not exist.
11. The terrain varied from GO to Slow Go but did not affect the Federal approach into the corn.
12. Key Terrain – The I Corps did not attempt to go after the guns on Hauser Ridge. They did not reach the Confederate guns on the Dunker Church Plateau or in front of the West Woods.
13. There was only one Avenue of Approach for either side – head on - because the narrow fronts from the northern or southern approaches left them no other options.