The Sunken Road, near Sharpsburg, Maryland
September 17, 1862
As the Irish Brigade of the Union made their late morning assault against the Confederate position dug in on a sunken farm lane, chaplain Father William Corby rode up and down the line in the heat of gunfire giving absolution to the soldiers who were marching into the shadow of death. Bullets whizzed past his head as his right hand was raised high, blessing them with the sign of the cross. The men of the so-called “Fighting 69th” knew what they were up against, for the field in front of them was already strewn with dead and dying soldiers. The dead, allotted about the green grass like seeds thrown into a field by a farmer, were literally shredded to pieces. Eyes were still open, for the bullets struck with such an impact that death would not even allow them a half a second to close them.
Some men prayed, others mumbled incessantly to themselves, sick to their stomachs with fear as they would meet Brigadier General Daniel Harvey Hill’s men who were nearly invisible, waiting for them behind a fence on the bank of a sunken road. The brigade marched forward nonetheless, inspired by their leader, General Thomas Meagher, who galloped in front on a beautiful brown horse. Men fell in their ranks by the hundred as they continued to march, blood spouting into the air, and landing on the faces of the men behind them. Countless others tripped over the fallen bodies of others, most of which were still alive, screaming in agony knowing they would not receive medical attention for hours, if at all. Faces were black with powder, hands burnt from the heated steel of their rifles.
As the Union soldiers closed in on the road, their strength was dwindling. Meagher’s subordinate officer, also on horseback, ventured too far out in front of his men. He turned his horse sideways, to ride across his line, when a cannonball struck the horse and took off its head. The hoofs continued to gallop for another twenty feet, when the destroyed body slammed into the ground, sending the officer off head first, snapping his neck. He stared upwards at the sky, clouded with smoke, as visions of life back on the Emerald Isle danced into his head, until he thought no more.
The Union continued their pressure, and the Confederates picked them off with ease. Cannon shot from artillery a little less than a mile away knocked over men like dominoes. Solid shot bounced off the ground and tore off legs, while shell shot burst upon contact, throwing men backwards into others. The attack began as a complete mess, for the Union soldiers could not even fire back. The men of the Irish Brigade were armed with “buck and ball” ammunition, which comprised of a musket ball and three small pellets. Just like shot-guns, these were ineffective at long range. This was selected personally by Meagher, who wanted to force his men to get so close to the enemy, that the harp design on their green flags would be visible.
As they reached the halfway point, the Confederate soldiers stopped shooting because the Union soldiers were no longer visible. The land where this attack was occurring was rolling farmland, and luckily for the Irish, they were out of sight as they continued their march on a downward dip of land. These two minutes or so allowed them enough time to catch their breath, and when they emerged, they were so close to the Confederates that now it was their time to inflict damage. The troops under Hill were shocked, and before they could fire back, the Union unleashed a barrage of fire that knocked down half of the front row of soldiers. One man, as he tore the cartridge in between his rotting teeth, was hit with splinters in his left eye, when a fence post shattered under the hail of bullets.
The tide of battle had turned, and the Confederates were trapped. With nowhere to go, they kept firing, even as hundreds of men fell backwards into the road, a sight that was beginning to look like a mass grave. Blood spilled and pooled at the bottom, so much so that when one man looked back and saw his wounded brother sitting up against two other dead soldiers, with his intestines in his lap, and left arm located three feet behind him, he ran to him and slipped in the blood. Falling forward, he was impaled on the bayonet of a rifle that had fallen inconveniently pointed upwards; its owner’s head was missing above the jaw. The Union continued to pour fire into them. There were now so many dead bodies in the lane that retreating Confederates could not even run, as they stumbled over the carcasses that were beginning to bloat in the midday sun.
Even as they ran, the Union kept shooting, as they would show no mercy in this furious attack. The bullets that spurned from the barrels of their rifles acted as the judge, jury, and executioner for human lives, not taking time to wonder anything about the character of the man they were about to take down. When the smoke cleared, and this portion of the battle was over, 2,600 Confederate soldiers lay dead or dying in the small farm lane that only spanned 800 yards. The Union, meanwhile, lost 3,000. All of this happened in the span of three and a half hours.
The Union claimed victory at the road, but the mass grave of twisted and writhing soldiers caused many to throw up at the sight and smell that was beyond putrid. “We shot them like sheep in a pen,” remarked an attacking Union soldier, “If a bullet missed the mark at first it was liable to strike the further bank, angle back, and take them secondarily.” This was just one small part of the battle that spanned only twelve hours on September 17, 1862, and resulted in a combined 23,000 casualties, the most destructive day in the history of America. The first photographs of dead on a battlefield would be taken at Antietam, and though their morbidity completely grossed out the populace, the war continued for nearly three more years.
Stay tuned for next week’s edition, “Tent Flaps Stained Red”.