Finally, at four o'clock, McClellan sent simultaneous orders to Burnside and Franklin - to the former to advance and carry the batteries in his front at all hazards and any cost; to the latter to carry the woods next in front of him to the left, which the rebels still held.
The order to Franklin, however, was practically countermanded in consequence of a message from General Sumner that if Franklin went on and was repulsed his own corps was not yet sufficiently reorganized to be depended on as a reserve.
Franklin, thereupon, was directed to run no risk of losing his present position, and, instead of sending his infantry into the woods, he contented himself with advancing his batteries over the breach of fields in front, supporting them with heavy columns of infantry, and attacking with energy the rebel batteries immediately opposed to him. His movement was a success so far as it went. That being once accomplished, and all hazard of the right being again forced back, having been dispelled, the movement of Burnside became at once the turning point of success, and the fate of the day depended on him.
Generals Hooker and Sumner, and Franklin, and Mansfield were all sent to the right, three miles away, while Porter seems to have done double duty with his single corps in front, both supporting the batteries and holding himself in reserve. With all this immense force on the right, but sixteen thousand men were given to Burnside for the decisive movement of the day.
Still more unfortunate in its results was the total failure of these separate attacks on the right and left to sustain, or in any manner cooperate with each other.
Burnside hesitated for hours in front of the bridge which should have been carried at once by a coup de main.
Meantime Hooker had been fighting for four hours with various fortune, but final success. Sumner had come up too late to join in the decisive attack, which his earlier arrival would probably have converted into a complete success; and Franklin reached the scene only when Sumner had been repulsed.
Burnside at the Bridge
Attacking first with one regiment, then with two, and delaying both for artillery, Burnside was not over the bridge before two o'clock - perhaps not till three. He advanced slowly up the slopes in his front, his batteries in rear covering, to some extent, the movements of the infantry.
A desperate fight was going on in a deep ravine on his right, the rebel batteries were in full play and, apparently, very annoying and destructive, while heavy columns of rebel troops were plainly visible, advancing as if careless of concealment, along the road and over the hills in the direction of Burnside's forces. It was at this point of time that McClellan sent him the order.
Burnside obeyed it most gallantly. Getting his troops well in hand, and sending a portion of his artillery to the front, he advanced them, with rapidity and the most determined vigor, straight up the hill in front, on top of which the rebels had maintained their most dangerous battery. The movement was in plain view of McClellan's position, and as Franklin, on the other side, sent his batteries into the field about the same time, the battle seemed to open in all directions with greater activity than ever.
The fight in the ravine was in full progress, the batteries which Porter supported were firing with new vigor, Franklin was blazing away on the right, and every hilltop ridge and woods along the whole line was crested and veiled with white clouds of smoke.
All day had been clear and bright since the early cloudy morning, and now this whole magnificent, unequaled scene shone with the splendor of an afternoon September sun.
There are two hills on the left of the road, the farthest and the lowest. The rebels have batteries on both. Burnside is ordered to carry the nearest to him, which is the farthest from the road. His guns opening first from this new position in front, more entirely controlled and silenced the enemy's artillery. The infantry came on at once, moving rapidly and steadily up long, dark lanes, and broad, dark recesses being plainly visible without a glass as they moved over the green hillside.
The next moment the road in which the rebel battery was planted was canopied with clouds of dust swiftly descending into the valley. Underneath was a tumult of wagons, guns, horses and men flying at speed down the road. Blue flashes of smoke burst now and then among them, a horse or a man or a half dozen went down, and then the whirlwind swept on.
The hill was carried, but it could not be held. The rebels columns, before seen moving to the left, increased their pace. The guns on the hill above sent an angry tempest of shell down among Burnside's guns and men. He had formed his columns apparently in the near angles of two fields bordering the road - high ground everywhere about them except in the rear.
The Rebel Attack.
In another moment the rebel battle line appears on the brow of the ridge above them, moves swiftly down in the most perfect order, and though met by incessant discharges of musketry, of which we plainly see the flashes, does not fire a gun.
White spaces show where men are falling, but they close up instantly, and still the line advances. The brigades of Burnside are in heavy column; they will not give way before a bayonet charge in line. The rebels think twice before they dash into these hostile masses.
There is a halt. The rebel left gives way and scatters over the field, the rest stand fast and fire. More infantry comes up. Burnside is outnumbered, flanked, compelled to yield the hill he took so bravely. His position is no longer one of attack; he defends himself with unfaltering firmness, but he sends to McClellan for help. McClellan's glass for the last half hour has seldom been turned away from the left. He sees clearly enough that Burnside is pressed - needs no messenger to tell him that. His face grows darker with anxious thought. Looking down in the valley where 15,000 troops are lying, he turns a half-questioning look on Fitz John Porter, who stands by his side, gravely scanning the field. They are Porter's troops below, are fresh, and only impatient to share in this fight.
But Porter slowly shakes his head, and one may believe that the same thought is passing through the minds of both generals: "They are the only reserves of the army; they cannot be spared."
McClellan remounts his horse, and with Porter and a dozen officers of his staff rides away to the left in Burnside's direction. Sykes meets them on the road - a good soldier, whose opinion is worth taking. The three generals talk briefly together. It is easy to see that the moment has come when everything may turn on one order given or withheld, when the history of the battle is only to be written in thoughts and purposes and words of the general.
Burnside Asks Reinforcements.
Burnside's messenger rode up: His message is, "I want troops and guns. If you do not send them, I cannot hold my position for half an hour."
McClellan's only answer for the moment is a glance at the western sky. Then he turns and speaks very slowly: "Tell General Burnside that this is the battle of the war. He must hold his ground till dark at any cost. I will send him Miller's battery. I can do nothing more. I have no infantry." Then as the messenger was riding away, he called him back. "Tell him if he cannot hold his ground, then the bridge, to the last man! Always the bridge! If the bridge is lost, all is lost."
The sun is already down; not half an hour of daylight is left. Till Burnside's message came, it had seemed plain to everyone that the battle could not be finished today. None suspected how near was the peril of defeat, of sudden attack on exhausted forces - how vital to the safety of the army and the nation was the 15,000 waiting troops of Fitz John Porter in the hollow, but the rebels halted instead of pushing on; their vindictive cannonade dies away as the light faded.
Before it was quite dark, the battle was over. Only a solitary gun of Burnside's thundered against the enemy, and presently this also ceased, and the field was still.