Burnside Bridge Controversy: What Exactly Happened at Antietam Creek?
The fighting that occurred around Burnside Bridge at the Battle of Antietam remains one of the most controversial subjects of the engagement. It was in the vicinity of the bridge, known at the time as the Rohrbach or Lower Bridge, that a small contingent of approximately 400 Georgians held off three separate assaults by elements of the Union 9th Corps for three critical hours.
At roughly midday, during the third assault, Brig. Gen. Isaac P. Rodman’s 9th Corps division managed to cross Antietam Creek at Snavely’s Ford, located about ¾-mile south-southwest of the bridge as the crow flies. These troops flanked the Confederate defenders at the bridge and sealed their fate. Most historians agree that had the flanking movement at Snavely’s Ford happened sooner, rather than later, Antietam would have been a different battle.
Many popular historians lay the blame for the tardiness at Snavely’s Ford on the shoulders of the Union Army commander, Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan, or more specifically, his chief engineer, Captain James C. Duane. As the story goes, on the day before, September 16, McClellan, Duane, and other staff officers inspected 9th Corps locations and found it necessary to redirect their positions.
About noon McClellan stopped at Maj. Gen. Ambrose Burnside’s headquarters and left Duane to post the 9th Corps divisions. Duane proposed that Burnside give him three staff members so he could show them their desired positions. Those three staffers in turn would guide the divisions to their intended locations. Rodman’s division was shown a spot where Duane indicated there was a usable ford. Unfortunately, on the morning of September 17 Rodman discovered “Duane’s ford” was unusable. Rodman did the best he could to correct Duane’s mistake and after a two-mile overland march found Snavely’s Ford. The time lost because of Duane’s faulty intelligence resulted in the lateness of Rodman’s attack. Historians that support this popular narrative mostly agree that had Captain Duane positioned Rodman’s division correctly, the assault at Snavely’s Ford would have occurred sooner.
Most of these popular narratives share a common trait: they rely exclusively on the postwar writing of Brig. Gen. Jacob D. Cox. He began the Maryland Campaign as commander of the Kanawha Division, but the fortunes of war and the chain of command placed Cox in corps command after the death of Maj. Gen. Jesse Lee Reno at the September 14 Battle of South Mountain. The accepted historical consensus regarding Duane is found solely in Cox’s postwar writing.
From the outset, any discussion of events between South Mountain and Antietam must contend with another controversy that revolves around the temporary suspension of the Union Army’s wing structure, specifically Burnside’s Right Wing. Prior to the Battle of South Mountain Burnside commanded the 1st Corps and the 9th Corps. On the morning of September 15 McClellan suspended the formal structure and assumed direct command over Maj. Gen. Joseph Hooker’s 1st Corps. Some evidence indicates that Burnside perceived the reorganization as a sudden and senseless demotion. Rather than assume direct command of the 9th Corps, Burnside relied on Cox and treated him as a corps commander in a structure that no longer existed. “General Cox was still retained in temporary command of the Ninth Army Corps,” reported Burnside on September 30, 1862, “which was the only portion of my command then with me, and my orders were to a great extent given directly to him.” There, incredibly, remains confusion as to who, Burnside or Cox, exercised command of the 9th Corps at Antietam.
In his official report Burnside provided no information on events of September 16. He left that entirely to Cox, citing his “very excellent and minute report.” But Cox’s report, written on the 23rd, quickly moved past events of September 16. “On the afternoon of the 16th the whole corps, except Wilcox’s division, was moved by command of Major General Burnside,“ wrote Cox, “the columns were conducted to their positions by staff officers of the personal staff of General Burnside.”
In the years after the war Cox offered additional details in the January 1, 1884, issue of the popular Century Magazine (later published in Battles and Leaders of the Civil War), he penned an article on “The Battle of Antietam.” He began with the remarkable confession that on September 16, “we confidently expected a battle, and I kept with my division.” Cox claimed he urged Burnside to assume immediate command of the corps,” and that Burnside objected on the grounds he was the “commander of the right wing.” Regarding the inspection of positions on the 16th Cox wrote, “In the afternoon McClellan reconnoitered the line of the Antietam near us, Burnside being with him.” But other contemporary accounts show that Cox was mistaken, Burnside did not accompany McClellan on his late morning ride (it was not afternoon). As Cox continued, because of McClellan’s reconnaissance:
“We were ordered to change our positions at nightfall, staff-officers being sent to guide each division to its new camp…The inquiry and reconnaissance for the fords was made by engineer officers of the general staff, and our orders were based on their reports.”
Cox left no doubt that by “general staff” he meant McClellan’s staff. A key element of the postwar narrative was also added. As Cox related, “Rodman’s division went a half mile to the left, where a country road led to a ford in a great bend in the Antietam.” The inference being Rodman’s division was located at a ford and would be in ideal position to cross the creek next morning. Cox also makes the surprising admission that on September 17, his troops “found during the engagement another ford a short distance above Burnside Bridge.”
If Cox laid the foundation for the popular postwar narrative in his 1884 Century Magazine article, he certainly cemented it with the publication of his Reminiscences of the Civil War in 1900. Most of the issues raised in 1884 were repeated in 1900, the exception being that McClellan was accompanied by Burnside on the late morning ride. The other significant difference is that in 1884 the information regarding the fords of the Antietam was acquired from local inhabitants, or as Cox phrased it, “obtained from the neighborhood.” In 1900, though, he claimed it was obtained by Captain Duane. “McClellan’s staff was better supplied with officers of engineers,” wrote Cox, “and Captain Duane, his chief engineer, systematized the work of gathering topographical information.”
In the 1900 account Cox also revealed the inefficient manner in which the 9th Corps was led to their positions on September 16:
“We were ordered to change our position at nightfall, staff officers being sent to guide each division to its new camp. The selected positions were marked by McClellan’s engineers, who then took members of Burnside’s staff to identify the locations, and these in turn conducted our divisions.”
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Regarding McClellan’s late morning reconnaissance and the role of Duane, there are two primary sources that predate Cox’s postwar claims. The first comes to us from Henry J. Hunt, McClellan’s Chief of Artillery, who accompanied him on the reconnaissance. On January 12, 1876, Hunt wrote to McClellan:
“In the meantime will say as to Burnside at Antietam. We (you and I) rode together on the 16th and passing headquarters, dismounted and went in. You told him then that you wanted him to move up his command to the area near the bridge. After we left you asked me to note the time…It was either noon or 1 p.m. I am not sure which. I think noon.”
Three points may be taken from Hunt’s letter; Burnside did not accompany McClellan on his late morning ride, and second is that McClellan provided explicit verbal guidance to Burnside on September 16 regarding his intentions. Third, the 9th Corps was ordered to change position at midday, not nightfall.
The proof that Duane was present at Burnside’s headquarters is also found in a September 17 dispatch to McClellan from Lt. Col. Lewis Richmond, Burnside’s Assistant Adjutant General. The dispatch was in response to a scolding Burnside received on the evening of September 16. In it, he was called upon to explain his delay following McClellan’s order “to be in a designated position at 12 m. [Noon] to-day.”
“General Burnside directs me to say immediately upon receipt of the order…which was after 12 o’clock, he ordered his corps to be in readiness to march, and instead of having Captain Duane post the division in detail, and at the suggestion of Captain Duane, he sent three aides to ascertain the position of each of the three divisions, that they might post them. These aides returned shortly before 3 o’clock, and they immediately proceeded to post the three columns.”
So there is another contemporary source stating the 9th Corps was ordered to change position at midday. Also, Richmond’s syntax is clear: Burnside sent three aides, without Duane. It is not known if one of the three was Burnside’s Topographical Engineer, Captain R. S. Williamson. Richmond’s dispatch regarding Burnside’s staff is confirmed by Hunt’s 1876 letter to McClellan:
“In the afternoon, four or five o’clock I think, passing that way again and seeing no sign of a move, I dismounted, went in and asked him [Burnside] why on earth he had not moved that I was certain you expected him to be in position by that time. He said he had ordered some staff officers to examine the position so they could all move up together. I don’t know (recollect) when he did move. Not until late that evening certainly.”
Clearly, Richmond and Hunt indicate that Cox’s postwar accounts regarding the timing and inefficient manner of posting the troops on September 16 is not factual. Burnside’s staff were not led in person by McClellan’s engineers and certainly not by Duane. Since Duane accompanied McClellan on the late morning ride it is certain he shared the locations of any possible crossing points. McClellan claimed in his postwar writing that his morning reconnaissance took his group “beyond our actual and eventual left.” If true, that certainly included the vicinity of Snavely’s Ford.
Scouting the Creek
It is uncertain how much of Antietam Creek may have been scouted by Federal troops in September 16 due to the presence of Confederate pickets. Nonetheless, if Henry Hunt can be trusted, some of it was explored. As Hunt remembered “we forded the river to test the actual conditions,” and, in the area tested, “nowhere did the water reach our saddle girths.” We have McClellan’s word that Duane was also present, and if not a participant in the testing, he was at least an observer.
There is no way of knowing if McClellan and staff were testing conditions at Snavely’s Ford, but one thing is certain: they were testing conditions somewhere in the Antietam Creek. Being an engineer, Duane quite likely marked the locations of suitable crossings on a map. Nonetheless, even if the information was only verbal, it was Burnside’s staff (as reported by Richmond on September 17 and Cox on September 23, 1862) that were responsible for ascertaining and examining the locations, based upon intelligence provided by McClellan and/or his staff.
The presence of at least one of Burnside’s staff later in the day is confirmed by eyewitness observation. It is generally overlooked by battle historians that elements from both the 36th Ohio and 48th Pennsylvania Infantry were around the Lower Bridge on September 16.
According to Antietam historian Ezra Carman, Captain James Wren, with a detachment of the 48th Pennsylvania, “went a mile down the Antietam, and saw nothing but [Confederate Colonel Thomas T.] Munford’s cavalry, on the west bank of the stream.” If it was Munford’s Cavalry observed by Wren, that places him in the vicinity downstream of Snavely’s Ford. This is important because Wren was not alone in his observations. In his diary entry of September 16 Wren noted:
“I was out with my Company about 4 o’clock in the afternoon. [We] advanced about 1 1/2 miles from the Bridge…& while thear a Staff officer came up to me and asked me if I had seen anything of note & I told nothing except of Mounted men on the opposite side of Antetam [Antietam] Crick and I directed him to the place & he took out his Large field glass & looked at them.”
The staff officer was under the impression it was none other than “Stonewall” Jackson on the opposite side of the Antietam. We know it was not, but what is important to note is the time of day and that it was a solitary staff officer. McClellan and his party (including Duane) made their reconnaissance in the late morning, not late afternoon. More importantly, Wren did not run into a group, he encountered a solitary staff officer and that is more consistent with Burnside’s staff doing the reconnaissance. Lastly, it should be noted that one mile downstream of the Lower Bridge is Snavely’s Ford. Another half mile downstream is Myer’s Ford. It is assumed both fords were visible to someone with a “Large field glass.”
In addition to Snavely’s Ford and Myer’s Ford, there were two other usable fords in the vicinity of the Lower Bridge on September 17. Approximately 350 yards upstream from the Lower Bridge was a rough farm ford, known today as “Crook’s Ford.” This is the ford Cox mentioned in his postwar writing as being found “during the engagement.” Although apparently unsuitable for wagons and artillery, Colonel George S. Crook crossed five companies of the 28th Ohio at this ford around 1 p.m.
There was also a rough farm ford described by Cox as being at “a great bend in the Antietam.” Popular narratives claim that this ford was unusable to Brig. Gen. Rodman because it could not accommodate wagons or artillery. Colonel Hugh Ewing did cross three regiments of his brigade at this ford around 1 p.m. Rodman’s division was not posted “opposite” the ford in the great bend as Burnside claimed in his report. Nor was that division placed where a “country road led to the Antietam ford, half a mile below the Burnside bridge,” as Cox claimed in his postwar writing.
If Rodman’s division had been located in the ford at the “great bend,” it would have been shown in that location on the comprehensive maps of Antietam published by the War Department. These maps, compiled under the direction of Antietam Battlefield Board member Ezra A. Carman and informally known as the “Carman-Cope Maps,” show Rodman’s position at “Daybreak” on a ridge 1/2 mile northeast of the bend in the creek. It also does not show the “country road” described by Cox.
Since Rodman was mortally wounded and did not leave a report, details of his orders and movements are not precise. There are some conclusions, however, that can be drawn from other sources. It appears from the Carman-Cope maps it took Rodman 2½–3 hours to reach Snavely’s Ford from his position on the ridge. For argument’s sake we will use 3 hours. Colonel Edward Harland, commanding 8th Connecticut, reported he began moving his brigade “About 7 o’clock.” If continued, Harland’s movement would have brought him to the vicinity of Snavely’s Ford three hours later around 10 a.m. But for unknown reasons Harland was ordered into a position “where we remained between one and two hours.” Eventually Rodman’s division moved in response to Confederate artillery fire and Rodman was searching for a ford as he moved. Colonel Harland sent out two companies “to discover, a ford by which the creek could be crossed.” This indicates Rodman had not received any intelligence regarding Cox’s ford in the bend or Snavely’s Ford.
If the importance of Snavely’s Ford had been appreciated and had Rodman been ordered to move first thing on the morning of September 17, he could have been there by 10 a.m., which was a critical time. On the morning of September 17 Confederate Brig. Gen. John G. Walker’s division was guarding the lower fords of the Antietam. Cox used this in his postwar writing to argue against an early stream crossing, but he ignores the fact that by 10 a.m. Walker’s Division was gone. The first assault on Burnside Bridge occurred around 10 a.m. Could it have succeeded if supported simultaneously by an assault at Snavely’s Ford?
To recap, the traditional narrative surrounding events at Snavely’s Ford is misleading. Although Burnside possessed adequate staff (including a topographical engineer) and several companies of cavalry to conduct his own reconnaissance at first light on September 16, that task fell to McClellan. Because many 9th Corps units moved after dark on September 15, McClellan had good reason to inspect their locations the next day. McClellan visited Burnside at his headquarters by midday on September 16. McClellan verbally communicated his intentions, or “plan,” to Burnside (including Hooker’s part). His Chief Engineer, Captain Duane, shared information from the late morning reconnaissance with Burnside, who in turn sent his staff to verify the intelligence. At least one of Burnside’s staff was in the vicinity of Snavely’s Ford during the late afternoon of September 16. For reasons unknown, by late afternoon Burnside, or Cox, had not acted on McClellan’s midday instructions. When the 9th Corps divisions did move, they were conducted by Burnside’s staff, some in the dark of night. Rodman was not conducted to a spot where Duane had indicated there was a ford. During the morning of September 17 Rodman literally conducted his own reconnaissance in force to find Snavely’s Ford. In addition to the Lower Bridge, there were four fords available to cross the Antietam Creek. The evidence indicates some of these fords were scouted and utilized on September 17 by Crook (in the heat of battle), Rodman, and Ewing independent of Burnside’s or Cox’s staff.
Brigadier General Cox proved himself a capable division commander; however, the evidence seems to indicate Cox was unable to meet some of the corps command challenges he faced in the final days of the Maryland Campaign. In all fairness to Cox, a shortage of staff (five members of Reno’s staff accompanied his remains home) and an ambiguous command structure worked against him. In his report Burnside acknowledged 18 of his staff “for their constant and unwearied efforts.” One is forced to question what level of help they provided Cox on September 16. Although some historians insist on pointing the finger at McClellan, Burnside certainly must shoulder some of the responsibility for creating the command structure confusion that hindered Cox.
Be that as it may, there are no primary sources yet discovered that place Jacob D. Cox at the midday meeting at Burnside’s headquarters. Cox’s Reminiscences of the Civil War was written 38 years after the fact when most of the other participants were dead and unable to offer any rebuttal. These memoirs appear to be the exclusive source of the popular narratives surrounding Captain Duane (and by association McClellan). Regarding events of September 16, 1862, by his own admission, Cox stated, “I kept with my division. In the afternoon I saw General Burnside.” Whatever Cox thought he knew about the midday meeting came from Burnside, or Burnside’s staff. Therefore, Cox’s statements about Captain Duane, the lower fords of the Antietam, and the inefficient manner by which the 9th Corps was posted on the eve of the battle of Antietam are open to question. Upon close examination these postwar reminiscences do not agree with more contemporary sources.
The readers of popular histories that rely exclusively on the postwar writing of Jacob D. Cox regarding the events of September 16, 1862, are advised to do so with a large grain of salt.
Steven R. Stotelmyer writes from Hagerstown, Md., and is the author of The Bivouacs of the Dead: The Story of Those Who Died at Antietam and South Mountain and Too Useful To Sacrifice, Reconsidering George B. McClellan’s Generalship in the Maryland Campaign. He is a National Park Service Volunteer as well as a Certified Antietam Battlefield and South Mountain Tour Guide.
this article first appeared in civil war times magazine
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Steven R. Stotelmyer September 27, 2022 at 12:06AM
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