A Bridge Too Far

Misunderstood or incompetent?

General George McClellan ordered the Union IX Corps…. across the Antietam creek as early as 9am on September 17, 1862.  As the battle raged to the North, General Ambrose Burnside’s men stumbled about the East side of the creek searching for an easy ford.  The Rohrbach bridge was defended by Confederates protected in rifle pits.  The proper fords were not located in time to coordinate with the hasty assault on the bridge.  Burnside later claimed that his orders called for an assault on the bridge, but the presence of McClellan’s chief engineer in the search for a ford indicates that multiple crossings were ordered.  The carnage that followed led to charges of incompetence hurled at Burnside.  Colonel James Nagle described his regiment’s attempt…

“Of the first hundred men who passed through the opening in the fence, at least nine-tenths were either killed or wounded.  Such sweeping destruction checked the advancing column, but the men sheltered themselves behind logs, fences, and whatever other cover they could find, and bravely held the ground already gained.”

“Yes by God! You shall have as much as you want, if you take the bridge!”

A young officer named George Crook could not contain… his frustration with the poorly conceived tactics:

 “I was expected to accomplish with my brigade what a division had failed to do, and without ever getting the benefit of the knowledge he had gained in his reconnaissance. Such imbecility and incompetency was simply criminal…”

Confederate commander, Robert Toombs, could not…. believe his luck that day:

“Though the bridge and upper ford were thus left open to the enemy, he moved with such extreme caution and slowness that he lost nearly two hours in crossing and
getting into action on our side of the river, about which time General A. P. Hill’s division arrived from Harper’s Ferry.”

Toombs’ subordinate, Colonel Henry Benning, did not understand… the fixation on taking the bridge:

“The creek was fordable everywhere above and below the bridge; in most places not more than knee-deep.”

So why Burnside’s bridge?

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