On the bloodiest day of battle in American history, the Battle of Antietam, also known as the battle of Sharpsburg in September 1862 was the first major battle fought on Northern soil. The armies of Robert E. Lee and George McClellan faced off in a see-saw battle that saw a combined 22,000 casualties in one day. But one never knows what particular small incentive will motivate their troops…

Many Special Forces senior NCO’s and Officers used to conduct “Staff Rides” and revisit Civil War battlefields and discuss the battle, tactics, the decision-making that went into each and how the lessons learned were subjects that we could remember and process for the military of today. One such trip was to Antietam and a small part of the battle was of particular interest.

The Union Army of the Potomac aggressively attacked Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia in a series of assaults after McClellan with a lost copy of Lee’s operational plan, waited too long to take advantage of the audacious Lee’s plan to split his force.

The first four hours of the battle raged back and forth across the cornfield of a farmer, David Miller was indecisive. The Federal troops finally broke thru Lee’s center in an area called the Bloody Lane. But late arriving troops of A.P. Hill’s division from Stonewall Jackson’s corps, fresh from Harper’s Ferry stemmed the Union tide and forced the battle into a draw.

But it stopped Lee’s advance into the North as he retreated across the Potomac the next morning on September 18, 1862, his army of 38,000 men had suffered 10,318 casualties. McClellan’s army of 75,000 had failed thru overcautiousness on the part of their commander had failed to crush a vastly numerically inferior opponent. McClellan’s army suffered 12,401 casualties. All of this in a single day.

One of the more curious pieces of the battle took place on the south side near Antietam Creek at the site of the Rohrbach Bridge. Constructed in 1836, it was a 125-foot long, three-span concrete bridge. McClellan gave Gen. Ambrose Burnside orders to take it.

Burnside, still smarting after McClellan took away some of the troops under his command, delayed in implementing the order but sent a brigade to take it. But the terrain on the other side favored the defense with high ground dominating the approaches and the ridgeline opposite. The road to the approach of the bridge paralleled the creek, putting the troops in easy view of the enemy. And the road itself funneled into a depression between the high ground on both sides.

The Confederates under the command of Henry “Old Rock” Benning with a third of the men easily held the bridge for three hours. There has been much debate for the past 150 years over whether the creek was easily forded in several places farther up and down stream. Either way, the Union was intent on taking the bridge and pushing forward.

After two failed attempts, Brigadier General Edward Ferrero was given the task, and he brought up his brigade consisting of the 51st Pennsylvania, the 51st New York, the 21st Massachusetts and the green 35th Massachusetts. During the march to Antietam, the men from Pennsylvania had their liquor rations taken away from discipline problems on the march.

Ferrero a former dance instructor and a teetotaler addressed the men.

“It is General Burnside’s special request that the two 51st’s take that bridge. Will you do it?”

A Pennsylvania soldier called out:
“Will you give us our whisky, Colonel, if we make it?”

“Yes, by God!” yelled Ferrero. ‘You shall have as much as you want, if you take the bridge.’ He added that he would see to it if he had to send back to New York to get the whisky and pay for it out of his own pocket.

Despite, wild inaccurate and wasteful shooting by the men from Massachusetts, the troops made it the end of the bridge where they were pinned down by accurate fire from the other side of the bridge.

Colonel John Hartranft and the men of the 51st Pennsylvania were stalled and took cover, using fence rails wherever they could. Ferrero, watching from a distance grew impatient and dispatched an aide to find out why the bridge hadn’t been taken.

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Hartranft, hat in hand, raced to the mouth of the bridge with his colors.His men rallied, but the 12-foot-wide roadway across the bridge grew clogged as individual soldiers halted to shoot at Rebel snipers in the opposite treetops.

The fire from across the bridge grew silent. Benning’s troops were tired and running low on ammunition. Just then the 51st New Yorkers, who had indeed forded the stream and flanked the Georgians of Benning.

The bridge was jam packed with troops trying to cross, stopping to shoot at individual Rebel sharpshooters and men bringing wounded back. The Union had finally taken the bridge but the amount of time that it had taken had once again dashed any hopes of turning Lee’s flank.

By the time they were reorganized and moving, A.P. Hill’s division crashed into them and sent them reeling back again. An opportunity to crush Lee and his army was lost. The battle ended up being a draw, but with Lee retreating back to Virginia, it gave President Lincoln the chance to issue his Emancipation Proclamation soon after.

And the men of the 51st Pennsylvania? They got their whisky.

Photo courtesy Andrew Gardner

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