Burnside's Bridge, September 17, 1862

Map of Burnside's BridgeBurnside's Bridge painting

Union Major General Ambrose E. Burnside has received much scorn for his decision to have his Ninth Corps charge across the Lower Bridge at Antietam Creek rather than simply ford the stream. "Go and look at it," sniffed Confederate staff officer Henry Kyd Douglas, "and tell me if you don't think Burnside and his corps might have executed a hop, skip, and jump and landed on the other side. One thing is certain, they might have waded it that day without getting their waist belts wet in any place."

Photo of Burnside's Bridge

Photo 1. The chief military obstacle to crossing Antietam Creek, however, is not the creek itself but the steep banks on either side. These would have severely disrupted any Union line of battle, particularly on the far side where the soldiers would have had difficulty clambering out, and the brogans of hundreds of men would quickly have churned the bank into a slippery ooze.





 

Antietam Creek

Photo 2. In November 1994, twenty-five West Point cadets and their instructors tried crossing Antietam Creek at the point from which this photo was taken (about 75 yards downstream from the bridge). The water at its deepest point was only about three feet deep, but it required fully three minutes for everyone to get on-line and wade to the opposite shore, and a further minute or so to clamber up the far bank. Some cadets had to help their comrades exit the stream, and in general their orderly line evaporated in the course of reaching dry ground. What the experience would have been like, with arms raised to keep cartridge boxes, weapons, and haversacks dry, under a severe small arms fire, with wounded soldiers having to be held above the water or allowed to drown, was sobering to contemplate.

The cadets and their instructors concluded that, while Burnside may have erred in his decision to storm the bridge, it was a reasonable course to have taken. Only 500 Confederates defended the bridge, but Burnside could not know this. Indeed, until 8 a.m. a sizeable division of about 4,000 rebels had been in this sector, and Burnside did not know that most of these had been diverted to staunch the Union attacks on the northern part of the Antietam battlefield. Against such numbers, an attempt to wade the creek with massive numbers of troops might have resulted in a failure as bloody as the doomed frontal assaults at the Battle of Fredericksburg in December 1862--assaults for which Burnside is vigorously faulted. By using a relatively small force to secure the bridge, Burnside minimized the casualties involved in effecting a crossing.


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