During the Maryland Campaign, Barksdale was in Major General Lafayette McLaws’ division (Longstreet Corps ANV). Although at this time I will not be focusing on Harpers Ferry operations, it must be stated that Barksdale was engaged there and his was one of the brigades that attacked Maryland Heights. Instead, I will focus on Barksdale’s performance at Antietam as his brigade was crucial in saving the Confederate left flank against Major General John Sedgwick’s attack in the West Woods.
So I briefly go back to Harpers Ferry to put things in perspective. By the night of September 16, Harper’s Ferry had surrendered and Lee had decided to remain in Maryland and offer battle to McClellen at Sharpsburg. McLaws had earlier received orders to hurry along to catch up with the rest of the Confederate Army at Sharpsburg. McLaws faced a host of problems, primarily moving his division across clogged bridges and through congested streets, not to mention his soldiers were tired and hungry. At 11am McLaws let his men rest but by 3pm, when an order from Lee urging McLaws to hurry arrived, they grudgingly got up and began moving again. The division marched along Sheperdstown Road until around 9pm when it reached a point 2 miles from Boteler’s Ford and made camp. Around 11pm a second order came from Lee that in no uncertain terms stated McLaws was due at Sharpsburg immediately. At 4am McLaws reached Sharpsburg and searched for Lee. He found Longstreet, then Jackson, and finally Lee. Lee directed McLaws to keep his division posted on Sheperdstown Road and allow his men to rest until they were needed. Meanwhile, McLaws swan-dived into the tall grass along the road and took a nap.
He saw the 125th Pennsylvania which “had gotten detached from its brigade, and all alone it was advancing in splendid ignorance down the Smoketown Road, a journey that, because of the sharp angle the road took in the East Woods, was carrying the regiment toward the Dunkard Church” placing them past Early’s right flank. Early observed Union artillery on the Dunker plateau facing the town which threatened to cut off Early from the town and the rest of the Confederate army. Early watched the beginnings of Sedgwick’s division emerge from the East Woods and head in his direction. Quite an hour!
In response to this series of threats, Early snuck his brigade south behind Hauser’s Ridge and swung left to face east and open fire on those near the Dunker Church. Two of Sedgwick’s brigades, Gorman and Dana, entered the West Woods on Early’s left. Another wandering regiment, Gorman’s 34th NY, went astray and ended up taking position with the 125th PA at Dunker Church. This mistake would prove to be costly because it left a 300 yard gap between the left flank of Gorman’s brigade and the nearest Union regiment, the 15th MA. Even more worrisome was had the 34th NY been in the right place it would have filled a ravine in the West Woods that extended the length of the woods to Hagerstown Pike. Where the regiment currently stood, the ravine was neither noticed nor occupied by the 34th NY. Just then, Early noticed reinforcements headed his way marching up Hagerstown Pike. However, Early also realized that if he continued his attack in an eastward direction then a case of friendly fire would occur. As Early attempted to call off the attack, the 125th PA and 34th NY realized the overextended pickle they were in and retreated and Early’s brigade gave chase. Early watched Sedgwick’s third brigade (Howard) enter the West Woods, regained control of his own brigade and moved them back to Hauser’s Ridge and did not participate in the fury of McLaws’ division smashing into Sedgwick’s division.
|A map that illustrates just how confusing the situation in the West Woods was.|
(courtesy of CWT)
Initially, things did not look to bode any better for Barksdale. In his Official Report, Barksdale noted “that a portion of men had fallen by the wayside from loss of sleep and excessive fatigue, having been constantly on duty for five or six days, and on march for almost the whole of the two preceding nights, and that I went into the fight with less than 800 men”. He formed a line of battle at 1000am and followed Kershaw in pursuit of the 125th PA and 34th NY but when he came under fire from the north Barksdale “discovered that a very large force of the enemy were attempting to flank me on the left. I therefore ordered the Eighteenth and Thirteenth to wheel in that direction, and not only succeeded in checking the movement they were making, but put them to flight”. These two regiments, along with Semmes and the supporting brigade of GT Anderson unleashed a devastating fire along the Union lines. The men of Sedgwick’s division fled from the West Woods to the safety of the North and East Woods.
|Battlefield Tablet |
Joseph Harsh "Taken at the Flood" pgs 364-392.
Marion Armstrong "Unfurl Those Colors" pg 184.
Official Reports of Lafayette McLaws, William Barksdale, Jubal Early, Paul Semmes, Willis Gorman, Joseph Kershaw.