Sunday, October 14, 2012

The "Incomparably Incompetent" Roger A Pryor

The men advanced past a farm, briefly halted, collected themselves and continued on towards the next farm. They stumbled across a small enemy outpost at this farm, to which they easily brushed aside. For most, this was their first encounter with the enemy. So far, so good. Heading still in a southern direction, the men reached a limestone ridge and as they crested it they met a terrific wall of fire that violently erupted from a sunken farm lane teeming with the enemy less than 100 yards away. The enemy had been waiting in this sunken lane and held their fire until the blue silhouettes appeared before them. This initial volley brought down the approaching men “as grain falls before a reaper” and for the next two hours, a savage sanguine fight raged over this strip of depressed terrain once called Hog’s Trough Lane but from thereafter known as the Bloody Lane. (1)

(Roger A Pryor,
The story of the “incomparably incompetent” Roger A Pryor and his performance at Antietam is a classic example of why politicians should never become military leaders. Pryor was sent to the House of Representatives on December 7, 1859 to fill the vacancy of the deceased William O Goode. Pryor was elected to the 36th Congress in his own right but never took his seat because he resigned March 3, 1861 due to the secession of Virginia. He then served in the Confederate Congress until he entered the Confederate army as a Colonel with the 3rd VA.  He received a promotion to Brigadier General in April 1862 and initially commanded the 2nd FL, 14th AL, 3rd VA, and 14th LA.  Shortly before Antietam, Pryor received two more regiments, 5th & 8th FL, lost the 14th LA, and the brigade became known as the “Florida Brigade”. (2)

(End of Rodes line. Beginning of mixed brigades line to Hagerstown Pike)
In order to understand just how badly Pryor screwed things up, an explanation of what was occurring on the field during this time is necessary. I won’t go into every detail of the fighting at Bloody Lane, that in itself is a dissertation, but a general overview of what was happening on the Confederate line. DH Hill had ordered the brigades of Robert Rodes (3rd, 5th, 6th, 12th, 26th Alabama) and GB Anderson (2nd, 4th, 14th, 30th NC) to form a line in the sunken lane corridor as a rallying point for Hill’s three other brigades (Roswell Ripley, AH Colquitt, and Duncan McRae) who were located on the northern part of the field. Rodes was highly respected and considered to be a rising star (I would call him a total Confederate rock star!) and Anderson, while not as popular, was thought to offer as solid leadership as Rodes did. Both brigades were critically understrength, Rodes due to the severe fighting at South Mountain three days prior, and Anderson from general hard duty over the past summer months. To fill in the 150 yard gap that existed from the end of Rodes’ brigade west to the Hagerstown Pike, was placed pieces of brigades that belonged to Colquitt, McRae, and Howell Cobb. This conglomeration of brigades was commanded by William MacRae. (3)

(Union approach to the sunken lane)

William French’s division was on its (perhaps misguided) way to the sunken lane. This division was freshly reorganized and contained a plethora of new recruits. Brigadier Max Weber advanced to Roulette farm and shortly past it brushed aside a small rebel outpost at the Clipp house (interestingly enough, the house isn’t on any maps) and continued moving south until the brigade reached a limestone ridge. As the yankees crested this ridge, they met a blast of fire from a sunken lane filled to the brim with greybacks less than 100 yards away. Three times French’s division charged only to be bloodily repulsed without breaking Hill’s line. Next up was Richardson’s division. Again, the Union assaulted the rebel line and although casualties mounted, the Confederates held fast. (4)

(Rodes' position)

Rodes held a position which allowed a steady and general fire at the yankees while Anderson’s position was more exposed due to the terrain and thus faced a wider arc of incoming fire. As a result, Anderson’s brigade “followed a common theme...federals appeared at the crest; withering volleys stunned them and sapped their momentum; southern troops launched occasional futile and costly sallies; and then both sides settled down to enervating exchanges of musketry at short range” resulting in a bloody stalemate. Furthermore, “Confederate officers...fell so fast that command and control dissolved”. One of the first officers to fall was Anderson. A minie ball embedded itself in his ankle and he was removed from the field (he died on October 16 due to infection/amputation). Next in command was Colonel Charles C Tew. As Tew lifted his hat to acknowledge his new command, a bullet slammed into his head and killed him instantly. Third in line was Colonel Francis M Parker. As Tew, Parker acknowledged the courier and then took ten steps to the left to have his head meet with a killer bullet. Not a good day to be a Confederate officer. (5)

(CWT Map)

(At 10am RH Anderson's division moved east from Hagerstown Pike, across Piper Farm, and swung in a northerly direction to the sunken lane behind GB Anderson's brigade)


At 10am RH Anderson received orders to reinforce Hill’s line. Anderson offered the only reinforcements to be found. Minutes onto the field, Anderson was shot in the thigh and command was transferred to the “incomparably incompetent” Pryor. With Pryor, a tenuous situation was about to take a severe downturn as Pryor “neither knew RH Anderson’s plan nor what to do in the emergency [and] as a result, Pryor’s units filtered into the sunken road by regiments and companies. With Pryor in command, and the loss of officers within the Bloody Lane, there was no one in overall control of the Confederate right”. (6)

(On Hagerstown Pike facing east towards Piper Farm corn and orchard)
Further exacerbating the situation, regimental leadership was in shreds, especially for the Florida regiments in Pryor’s brigade. The Florida brigade “crossed Hagerstown Pike, passed the Piper farmstead, and took position near Piper’s apple orchard...lay prone to avoid unnecessarily exposing themselves to enemy fire” leading to a terse exchange between Rodes and Pryor. Rodes demanded of Captain William D Ballatine to know who they were and why they weren’t fighting. Ballatine informed Rodes that the brigade belonged to Pryor and that they had no orders to move, to advance, or for that matter, to do anything. Rodes immediately found Pryor to let him know his brigade was “behaving badly”. Pryor ordered the Florida brigade (2nd, 8th, 5th FL, 3rd VA, 14th AL) forward and it moved through Piper’s cornfield to the sunken road behind the 14th and 4th NC. Colonel RT Bennett stated in his after-action report that “word came for the command to keep lookout on the extreme right. While directing ourselves to that point, masses of Confederate troops in great confusion were seen...coming to our succor, broke beyond the power of rallying after five minutes’ stay”. In what Bennett labeled as the “stampede”, was the accidental order of a withdraw which caused the Confederate line to retreat and run. One of Rodes’ officers had shifted a company to meet the enemy on the left but an error in orders caused a withdraw instead and caused the whole line to collapse as the Union responded by flanking and enfilading the rebel defenses. Pryor’s scattered division was caught in the melee and retreated back through the Piper farm. (7)

In my search for information and primary sources in regards to Pryor’s Florida brigade and his extremely short command of RH Anderson’s brigade, I found next to nothing to put the pieces together. There are several collections of letters held at various Florida agencies that I couldn’t get to. Possibly, if I had the time I could have located rosters of the regiments filling RH Anderson’s division and then scoured the Library of Congress for diaries and journals, maybe I will at a later date. As far as after-action reports for RH Anderson’s division at Bloody Lane, there is only one report. In fact, in a footnote in Carman/Clemens it is stated “Anderson’s division poses a special problem in terms of gathering information about their role in the battle of Antietam. Anderson was wounded while marching toward the Sunken Road; neither he nor Gen Roger Pryor who eventually assumed command, wrote an after action report. None of the six brigade commanders wrote reports, and of the 26 regiments in the division, only one commander wrote a report”. (8)

The one report is by Captain Abram M Feltus of the 16th MS and seems to me to be the tip of the iceberg for a reassessment of Anderson’s brigade and what it contributed to the fight at Bloody Lane. A rather long but worthy quote from Feltus---“About 10am, being ordered to advance in the direction of the enemy, did so in good order...passing by a large barn, we proceeded, under a heavy fire of artillery and small-arms, several hundred yards further...confronted the enemy in line of battle, who were drawn up some 300 yards from the road, pouring a destructive fire in our ranks...this regiment gallantly held its position until ordered to retire, which it did in as good order as could be expected from its thinned ranks. When we retired as far as the road. A scene of great confusion ensued from the mingling together of different brigades. We continued to fall back until we reached the this position we advanced again upon the enemy, and met them in the corn-field beyond the barn. Here, after a desperate fight, we fell back, by orders, to our original position, on account of the terrific cross-fire of the enemy’s batteries”. This report clearly descibes a different situation than the one by Bennett. In Waters & Edmonds, there are several mentions of bravery as well as pointing out that RH Anderson’s division went with the flow of battle based on what Rodes’ and GT Anderson’s brigades were doing RATHER THAN RH Anderson’s division being the cause of confusion due to Pryor's ineptitude and poor deployment of reinforcements. (9)

1. Robert K Krick, "'It Appeared As Though Mutual Extermination Would Put a Stop to the Awful Carnage:' Confederates in Sharpsburg's Bloody Lane," in The Antietam Campaign ed. Gary W Gallagher, 1999. Pgs 230-233.
2. &
3. Krick pgs 224-228.
4. Krick pgs 230-231. A Small but Spartan Band by Zack C Waters & James C Edmonds, 2010. Pg 33.
5. Krick pgs 236-237.
6.  Waters & Edmonds pg 33.
7. Waters & Edmonds pgs 34-37. TR Bennett Official Report.
8. The Maryland Campaign of September 1862, Vol 2: Antietam by Ezra Carman, ed Thomas G Clemens, 2012. Pg 257 Footnote #31.
9. Abram M Feltus Official Report.

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