Skirmish in the East Woods - September 16th, 1862
by Scott Mingus
two days after fighting had ceased at South Mountain, Union commander George B.
McClellan moved his forces into position east of Antietam Creek near
Sharpsburg, Maryland, opposite Rebel forces west of the creek. Still uncertain
as to how many men he actually faced in Lee's opposing army, McClellan and his
staff spent much of September 16th on a reconnaissance of the Rebel line,
nearly 4 miles in length snaking west of the creek. Lee was missing A. P.
Hill's "Light Division," which was still at Harpers Ferry, and other units had
yet to arrive in Sharpsburg. Around 2 PM, McClellan ordered I Corps under
"Fighting Joe" Hooker to advance across the creek to the north of the Rebel
position in an effort to locate and turn the Confederate flank. By 4 PM, most
of Hooker's corps was on the move, crossing Antietam Creek at Upper Bridge and
Pry's Mill Ford. They advanced cautiously, knowing that the Confederates were
lead, the 3rd PA Cavalry briefly exchanged fire with CSA pickets from Evander
Law's brigade posted near the Line farm. Prodded on by Hooker, the mounted
cavalrymen advanced towards Law (who fell back through the thin East Woods)
until they were withdrawn under small arms and artillery fire. Confederate
General J. B. Hood (see photo insert) then advanced his remaining brigade, the
famed Texas Brigade, to the vicinity of the woods to relieve Law. He formed a
defensive battle line, and prepared to receive the anticipated Union attack.
Hooker sent forward the 13th PA Reserves (the famed Pennsylvania Bucktails)
with support from the 3rd PA Reserves. Around 6PM after the skirmish line had
advanced nearly three-quarters of a mile, they contacted a part of the Law's
Brigade hidden in the East Woods. The 13th within minutes suffered nearly 30
casualties as they advanced through freshly plowed fields. Lying prone in the
furrows firing their Sharps breechloading rifles, the 13th returned fire as a
few more men became casualties to the incessant rain of lead from the East
Woods. The Federals cautiously crept to within about 75 yards of the Rebels
when their commander, Colonel Hugh W. McNeil, suddenly jumped up and shouted,
"Forward, Bucktails, forward!" An instant later he fell dead as a bullet struck
him in the chest. "A mad fury seized his men," recalled one Bucktail after the
fighting, and the skirmish line leapt forward and drove the Confederates back
into the East Woods. As Law's men began to pull back, the 4th and 5th Texas
Regiments fixed bayonets and swept through the woods, supported by the arcing
fire of a section of howitzers from Stephen D. Lee's artillery battalion firing
from near the Mumma farm. The Bucktails' forward progress was halted, having
lost six men killed (including their colonel). An additional 23 men were
wounded, and 10 were reported missing, although it is likely that some of these
were also killed in action.
Soon additional regiments from both sides soon moved into the woods area,
looking to drive the enemy out as control of the woods changed several times.
The commander of the 11th PA Reserves recalled the ferocity of the Rebel
shelling in his official report. "On Tuesday evening, September 16, after
having crossed Antietam Creek, my regiment, with the balance of the Third
Brigade, was ordered to take a position in line of battle in a strip of woods
and on the right of Captain Cooper's battery, which we succeeded in doing under
a terrific shower of shell from the enemy's batteries in our front and on our
right, with the loss of one man wounded of my command."
As darkness came, the rest of the PA Reserves advanced and the fighting
intensified as additional Union troops from Meade's division entered the fray,
and artillery fire intensified from various points. Long-range guns barked, and
the night sky was filled with terrifying explosions, the sound mingling with
the shrieks and cries of the badly wounded in the East Woods and in the fields
beyond. Men fired at targets in the darkness seen only because of their musket
flashes. Some survivors called it one of the most frightening nights of the
war, fighting an unseen enemy in the woods as artillery shells hurtled to earth
all around them. The 12th PA Reserves' colonel simply stated "In the forepart
of the night the enemy kept up a terrific shower of shot and shell, which
fortunately did no injury to our regiment other than a few slight wounds from
flying splinters and stones." Amazingly for all the noise and theatrics of the
night-time artillery bombardment, few additional lives were lost to the
As night deepened, General McClellan crossed the creek and found Joe Hooker,
who desperately wanted reinforcements for his small corps. As drizzle started
about 9PM, Hooker broke off the attack, leaving the woods contested. With
battle lines still in close proximity, scattered skirmishing would continue
periodically during the late evening as Hooker shifted his corps to the North
Woods. A few hours later, Mansfield's XII Corps arrived in the darkness to
support Hooker for a renewed push in the morning. In the meantime, Hood began
pulling back to the West Woods, and finally his exhausted men settled down near
the small Dunker Church to draw fresh cartridges, catch a brief sleep, and wait
for their supply wagons to bring long-awaited rations.
Around 100 men were lost on both sides in the sharp and violent skirmish of
September 16th. For thousands more soldiers, this would be their last night
alive on earth. Hooker and Mansfield would indeed resume the attack on the
morrow. Strategically, the skirmish had major importance. McClellan had
revealed his intention of where he would strike Lee first. Lee would counter
during the night by shifting part of Jackson's wing to the northern end of his
line. As dawn approached on the 17th, Hooker would face thousands more men and
dozens more guns. The bloodbath of Antietam would begin the next morning.
Within 24 hours, names like the East Woods, Burnside's Bridge, and Bloody Lane
would be a part of American military history.
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Copyright © 2003 Scott Mingus. Used by permission of
the Johnny Reb Gaming Society.
Written by Scott Mingus.
Watch for the exciting "Skirmish in the East Woods" JR3 scenario in "Undying
Courage: Antietam in Miniature," to be published in 2004 by Marek/Janci Design.