Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Hidden, in Plain Sight: Terrain at Antietam

Terrain at Antietam
by Mannie Gentile

When I begin my programs at the battlefield I hold up a park brochure opened to the map and say:  "This, isn't the battlefield".  Then I gesture toward the vast bank of windows of the observation room toward the landscape beyond and say "That, is the battlefield".

Now, I know, that's all pretty obvious.  Unfortunately the way we learn history is through maps, flat,  two dimensionally.  Peering down at a map everything seems so clear and understandable, and we find ourselves making judgements about how the various generals comported themselves during the battle, in a very all-knowing way, towering over it all, bathed in 151 years of combined analysis of the battle, with our handy park brochure.

None of which was available to the generals that actually fought the battle.

The point I try to make to the visitors is that the battlefield, the actual three dimensional one, is a vastly confusing place, and what we view as gently rolling and very beautiful countryside, was seen more as a death-trap for the men who fought here.

Recently I did a little study of some of the terrain features that figured into the first four hours of the battle, the "Cornfield phase" which would range from East woods to Nicodemus Heights. from Poffenberger ridge to beyond the Mumma farm.  Now, believe me, I broke no new interpretive ground here.  This story of terrain is one that has been told by generations of Rangers here at the battlefield, and they all do a better job of it than I ever could. However I'm the one with the camera!

Here are some revealing photos. 


Here I am (nice vest eh?) in the Cornfield, facing east.  Note the very dramatic ridge just behind me.  This ridge has a declination of about five feet and is about two hundred feet long running north-south.


And here's what you see from the other direction:

You are viewing this west of my position, you are looking east with the remains of the East Woods beyond the Cornfield in the foreground.  Imagine if several regiments of your enemy were hidden from your view if you were advancing in this direction.  Or imagine if your regiment, in line of battle, was advancing in a line parallel to the fence, suddenly your left flank or center would disappear from view.  My, how confusing.  Even more so when men are trying in earnest to kill you.

Here I am crouched behind a rock outcropping that runs perpendicular to Starke Avenue due west of the Cornfield.  This ridge is several hundred feet long and has a declination of between two and four feet.


It also has a commanding view of...


the Hagerstown Pike and any unfortunates who would happen to be advancing down it.

This rock ledge is mentioned in several reports and other accounts of the battle.

This rock ledge served as an impromptu fortress three times during the course of the Cornfield fight. Initially, Union troops under Doubleday enfiladed elements Hood’s Division. In subsequent action, Confederates of the 46th North Carolina, commanded by E.D. Hall would enfilade Union troops advancing along the Hagerstown Pike. Due to its commanding position of this rock ledge, relative to the Hagerstown pike, it becomes immediately evident that any troops positioned behind this outcropping possess a field of fire encompassing the road and any troops unfortunate enough to be on it. Ezra Carman, Antietam historian and colonel of the 13th New Jersey led some of those unfortunates and recalled the scene thus; “The men were being shot by a foe they could not see, so perfectly did the ledge protect them”.


The "Disaster in the West Woods", the destruction of Sedgewick's Division in the West Woods by Confederates under Early was due in great part to  a ravine system behind the Dunker Church that runs through the West Woods.  Good luck and these ravines channeled Confederates to advantageous positions on the flank and in the rear of Sedgewick's doomed division.  What is often cited in historical analysis as superb or lackluster generalship is often more the work of chance and terrain.

Deep down in one of the ravines travelled by Early's men.  Seldom did visitors venture into this area.  Now, however the area is accessible on the Park's West Woods trail.

Finally, one last terrain feature that had an important role in the battle.

This is the view the Confederates had of the Mumma swale on Dunker Church plateau.  This is just behind the Visitor Center.

It looks like an easy advance to the Mumma Farm and points east.

Your only concern is that little guidon snapping in the breeze.


Not until its too late will you (assuming you are a Confederate) realize that the guidon represents Union General George Sears Greene...

and his 1,700-man division concealed from view just beyond the lip of the swale, which will rise up and destroy your regiment.


Make no mistake, I love maps, they are fabulous teaching tools.  But to really understand the battle, there is no substitute for  walking the actual ground and discovering an appreciation ofthe difficulties faced by those who fought over this very dynamic, and confusing landscape nearly a century and a half ago.

Come see for yourself at your National Park.

Ranger Mannie

1 comment:

  1. I rarely find an article that stresses terrain in a battle. Add in smoke, noise, and confusion and you see how hard a CW battle was to fight. An officer standing on the ground could hardly see the enemy. It is no wonder that so many men had to die on this field. Excellent article.

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