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Battle of Antietam Sections
Skirmish in the East Woods
Skirmish in the East Woods - September 16th, 1862
Skirmish in the East Woods - September 16th, 1862
by Scott Mingus

Within 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 near.

In the 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on by Hooker, the mounted cavalrymen advanced towards Law (who fell back through the thin East Woods) until they were withdrawn under small arms and artillery fire.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 exploding shells.

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.
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