Duel at the Sunken Road

Lee’s army was under pressure the morning of…. September 17, 1862.  The flow of reinforcements from the southern end of his line to the maelstrom in the Cornfield created weaknesses in the Confederate positions.  Fresh troops crossing the Antietam extended the Union front to the south- and the exposed Confederate line.  The center of Lee’s line was held by one division, D.H. Hill’s , along an old sunken farm road.  The better part of three Union divisions were on a collision course with the well entrenched Confederates.  The next two hours would forever enshrine this road as the Bloody Lane.  Confederate Colonel John B. Gordon described the Union onslaught….

NPS- Sunken Road today

“The day was clear and beautiful, with scarcely a cloud in the sky. The men in blue filed down the opposite slope, crossed the little stream (Antietam), and formed in my front, an assaulting column four lines deep. The front line came to a charge bayonets, the other lines to a “right shoulder shift.” The brave Union commander, superbly mounted, placed himself in front, while his band in rear cheered them with martial music. It was a thrilling spectacle.  Their gleaming bayonets hashed like burnished silver in the sunlight. With the precision of step and perfect alignment of a holiday parade, this magnificent array moved to the charge, every step keeping time to the tap
of the deep-sounding drum. As we stood looking upon that brilliant pageant, I thought, if I did not say, ” What a pity to spoil with bullets such a scene of martial beauty!”…My rifles flamed and roared in the Federals’ faces like a blinding blaze of lightning accompanied by the quick and deadly thunderbolt. The effect was
appalling. The entire front line, with few exceptions, went down in the consuming blast. The gallant commander and his horse fell in a heap near where I stood…”

General Francis Meagher, Commander of the Irish Brigade… led the gallant Irishmen into the Confederate fire.  The Irish Brigade advanced closer to the Sunken Road than any other Union troops.  Meagher described the struggle…


 “Advancing on the right and left obliquely from the center, the brigade poured in an effective and powerful fire upon the column, which it was their special duty to dislodge. Despite a fire of musketry, which literally cut lanes through our approaching line, the brigade advanced under my personal command within 30 paces of the enemy, and at this point, Lieut. Col. James Kelly having been shot through the face and Capt. Felix Duffy having fallen dead in front of his command, the regiment halted…the charge of bayonets I had ordered on the left was arrested, and thus the brigade, instead of advancing and dispersing the column with the bayonet, stood
and delivered its fire, persistently and effectually maintaining every inch of the ground they occupied…Of other transactions on the battle-field in connection with the Irish Brigade I will not presume to speak. My horse having been shot under me as the engagement was about ending, and from the shock which I myself sustained, I was obliged to be carried off the field.”

It was only 11am….

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