A.P. Hill to Lee's rescue


"A.P. Hill is coming!"

This was the rallying cry of Gen. Robert E. Lee's desperately pressed forces of the right flank at the Battle of Antietam.

Only three days earlier, Maj. Gen. Ambrose Powell Hill had been assigned to rear guard garrison duty at Harper's Ferry, which was then in Virginia.

But now he was a Confederate hero, having marched his men at a killing pace of 17 miles in eight hours to prevent a Union breakthrough of Lee's forces at Sharpsburg. Under heavy fire, Hill saved Lee's army from annihilation.

Hill's counterattack will be re-created in commemoration of the 140th anniversary of the Battle of Antietam Sept. 13, 14 and 15 near Hagerstown. More than 15,000 re-enactors are expected to participate.

On Sept. 17, 1862, Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan had launched his 75,316-man Army of the Potomac against Lee's 37,330 soldiers. After the destruction of his left and center, Lee called upon Hill to proceed immediately to Sharpsburg to save the Confederate forces from defeat.

Hill immediately realized the gravity of the situation. According to Hill's handwritten drafts of his battle reports, he had his men ready for battle before dawn and the first elements of Hill's Light Division marched off at 7 a.m. During the journey, men began to drop from exhaustion. But Hill still managed to cross the Potomac at Boteler's Ford and marched up the road toward Sharpsburg.

Heavily outnumbered, with all of his reserves already committed to battle, Lee struggled to hold his right flank in order to prevent a rout.

Burnside attacks

Union Maj. Gen. Ambrose E. Burnside, commander of the 9th Corps, which made up McClellan's left flank, planned to cross Antietam Creek, crush Lee's right and advance toward Sharpsburg. After a successful crossing, Burnside pushed Confederate Brig. Gen. Robert Toombs' brigade back to within a half-mile of Lee's line of retreat.

Lee's right and, in turn, his entire army would be cut off and destroyed. But Burnside moved slowly, which allowed his own left flank to become vulnerable to attack by Hill's troops that were advancing north from Harper's Ferry.

Union troops advanced in three lines, moving steadily forward while the Confederate brigades were deteriorating. A Union victory seemed imminent.

The Philadelphia Inquirer of Sept. 17, 1862, reported: "The reports that were received from the scene of conflict were highly favorable, our forces having at the time the best position, and the battle being principally with artillery in which we have a great superiority."

However, there were rumors of a Confederate counterattack, the newspaper reported.

"Rumors afloat were various, among which it was said that [Maj. Gen. Thomas J.] Jackson and Hill were again crossing the Potomac in the rear of General Lee by way of Shepherdstown, W.Va., thus coming back from Harper's Ferry to the succor of their commander. This would be practicable, and the rapid manner in which they evacuated Harper's Ferry would indicate their sudden appearance at some point where least expected."

The rumor about Hill proved to be true. When Confederate defeat seemed inevitable, his troops arrived in the nick of time.

One of Jackson's aides, Maj. Henry Kyd Douglas, later wrote, "And without waiting for the rest of the division, he threw his columns into line and moved against the enemy, taking note of their numbers."

Lee first ordered Hill to reinforce Brig. Gen. David R. Jones, who held the extreme right with fewer than 2,000 men. The first of Hill's units to arrive were Col. David G. McIntosh's Pee Dee Artillery.

McIntosh loaded his battery with double canister and fired at almost point-blank range into the oncoming Union lines. Thousands of iron balls shredded the Union troops. They momentarily wavered, then continued their onslaught.

However, McIntosh had outrun his artillery's infantry escort, and Jones was not able to provide support for the battery. When the Union troops were a mere 60 yards from the Confederate batteries, McIntosh concluded that he could not defend them and headed for the rear. Within moments, Connecticut troops captured the artillery.

Under this continued pressure, Hill now detached Col. John M. Brockenbrough and Brig. Gen. William Dorsey Pender to defend the lower Antietam, which would anchor Hill's right flank.

He then sent Brig. Gens. Maxcy Gregg, L. O'Brien Branch and James J. Archer to bolster Jones' line.

Archer was so ill that day that he was barely fit for duty. Despite his weakness, he managed to lead his Tennessee Volunteers through a cornfield.

He and his men suddenly emerged from the cornfield and burst upon McIntosh's captured artillery. The 8th Connecticut Regiment might have decimated Archer's troops, but they were confused by Archer's blue-clad Confederates charging toward them. At Harper's Ferry, Hill had outfitted his men in new captured Union uniforms. The confused Union regiment was nearly destroyed, the survivors retreating in disorder.

During Archer's attack, Gregg and Branch defended Jones' right and rear forces from Burnside's advancing 9th Corps and joined in the counterattack. The two brigades stymied the Union charge and decimated the enemy ranks. They pursued retreating Union troops into a cornfield, where the ensuing battle was among the fiercest of the Civil War.

In J.F.J. Caldwell's South Carolina Brigade, a member of the 4th Rhode Island Regiment, remembers the Confederate army "pouring in a sweeping fire as they advanced, and our men fell like sheep at the slaughter."

After attacking the enemy on his front, Branch was reinforced by Gregg and Archer, who united with him to repel another advancing federal column on his left. While maneuvering to gain a better view of the field, Branch was shot and killed.

Hill's 2,000 troops were then joined by those of Jones and Toombs, and were supported by the enfilading fire of Brig. Gen. John J. Walker. Burnside's troops retreated to safer ground along the banks of the Antietam.

Narrow escape

"For thirty minutes, the sound of firing came steadily in the same direction; then it seemed to recede eastward, and then to die away almost entirely. We knew that Hill was up; that the Federals had been driven back, and that the Confederate army had narrowly escaped defeat," Walker recalled, quoted in Battles and Leaders of the Civil War.

In a little more than an hour, Hill's decisive action secured at least a draw at the Battle of Antietam.

In his Wartime Papers, Lee states that "Hill drove the enemy immediately from the position they had taken, and continued the contest until dark, restoring our right, and maintaining our ground."

His timely arrival saved Lee from certain destruction. With a mere 2,000 men, Hill had engineered a final counterstrike against an army twice the size of his.

When McClellan gave no sign of renewing the battle, Lee prepared to recross the Potomac. The army began its journey south, and Hill withdrew his Light Division to shadow Lee's line of retreat.

A natural commander, Hill emerged a hero due to his timely arrival, decisive military executions and masterful counterattack. His action is credited with prolonging the Civil War for another 2 1/2 years.

Only 35 years old at the outbreak of the war, Hill was promoted rapidly from colonel of the 13th Virginia Infantry Regiment to major general in command of the Light Division.

According to William Hassler, author of A.P. Hill: Lee's Forgotten General, Hill was considered one of the most distinguished officers in Lee's Army of Northern Virginia.

Hill was at home on the battlefield and, according to one of his admirers cited in J.C. Wise's The Long Arm of Lee, Hill had "an unquenchable thirst for battle," invigorated by "the fierce joy of victorious fight."

Hill's style of leadership often put him in harm's way and ultimately placed him in the sights of two Pennsylvania sharpshooters on April 2, 1865, during the siege of Petersburg, Va.

Reported in the Southern Society Historical Papers, Lt. Gen. James Longstreet mourned his loss: "[T]he Southern service has lost a sword made bright by brave work upon many heavy fields."

After hearing this devastating news, Lee honored his general: "Hill is now at rest, and we who are left are the ones to suffer."

Kristen Lorek is a senior majoring in journalism at Loyola College in Baltimore. This article was written as part of a practicum at The Sun.

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