Burnside’s Bridge at Antietam

Yesterday was the anniversary of the battle of Antietam, in Maryland, on September 17, 1862. In today’s Mewsing, we take a look at the story of the final Union push across Burnside’s Bridge, which inspired one of our older “retired” dioramas.

2021-09-18 Burnside's Bridge

Around 10:00 a.m., Gen. Ambrose Burnside received orders to attack across Antietam Creek. In response, one division attempted to cross at a ford downstream while a brigade crossed the bridge. Unfortunately, the ford was unusable, so those troops had to search for another. At the bridge, the 11th Connecticut, acting as skirmishers, attempted to cross the bridge and creek. Heavy fire cut down a third of the regiment in less than a quarter of an hour. Meanwhile, the brigade itself got lost and never reached the bridge. Another attempt was ordered, but that brigade faltered under fire from sharpshooters before reaching the bridge.

By now, Gen. George McClellan was getting antsy. He ordered Burnside to “push forward… without a moment’s delay.” In response, the frustrated and offended Burnside ordered Col. Edward Ferrero’s brigade to make the next attempt.

Ferrero formed two of his regiments, the 51st New York and the 51st Pennsylvania, into line. “It is General Burnside’s special request that the two 51sts take that bridge,” he told them. “Will you do it?”

At first no one said anything. Not only did the troops not particularly respect their brigade commander, but the Pennsylvanians were especially upset with Ferrero after he had denied them their daily shot of whiskey. Finally, Corporal Lewis Patterson called out, “Will you give us our whiskey, Colonel, if we take it?”

“Yes,” the colonel thundered in his “stentorian” voice, “You shall have as much as you want!”

Satisfied, the regiments advanced. The plan was to cross the bridge in two columns, four abreast, then the New Yorkers would turn to the left and the Pennsylvanians turn to the right, and they would form a battle line. But the Confederates poured a heavy fire on them as they advanced down the hill to the bridge. The columns broke up; the New Yorkers scurried to the left and hid behind a rail fence, and the Pennsylvanians scurried right and hid behind piles of rails and a stone wall. They fired across the creek at the Confederates from the slight protection of those positions.

The Pennsylvanians’ colonel, John Hartranft, yelled himself hoarse trying to urge his men on. Finally he rasped, “Come on boys, for I can’t halloo anymore.”

After about an hour, the Confederate fire slackened and Capt. William Allebaugh of the 51st Pennsylvania dashed onto the bridge, followed by the color-bearers, his first sergeant, and the color guard. The rest of the regiment swarmed after them, joined by the New Yorkers.

2021-09-18 Burnside's Bridge crop

Across the creek, the Confederates were low on ammunition and aware that the Union division downstream had finally found a ford. Not wishing to be flanked, the Confederates withdrew.

A few days after the battle, Col. Ferrero was promoted to brigadier general. But he hadn’t held up his end of the bargain with the 51st Pennsylvania. So, as the regiments stood in their ranks at the promotion ceremony, Cpl. Patterson commented in a loud mutter, “How about that whiskey?” Ferrero got the hint, and the Pennsylvanians finally got their whiskey.

Reference: Bailey, Ronald H. The Civil War: The Bloodiest Day—The Battle of Antietam. Alexandria: Time-Life Books, 1984.

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