The Battle of Antietam began at dawn (about 5:30) on September 17, when the 8,600 men of Hooker’s I Corps came crashing down the Hagerstown Turnpike and the North Woods, aiming for a small, whitewashed building called the Dunker Church. His troops were met by 7,700 defenders under Stonewall Jackson in strong defensive positions around and below the Cornfield and the West Woods.
Forming Hooker’s battle line was Abner Doubleday’s division on the right (west), moving into the West Woods, James Ricketts’s division on the left (east), moving into the East Woods, and George Meade’s Pennsylvania Reserves division stationed in the center-rear. Forming Jackson’s defense was Alexander Lawton and John R. Jones’s divisions lined up from the West Woods all the way across the turnpike and along the southern end of the Miller Cornfield. Jackson held four brigades in reserve in the West Woods.
Hooker’s men fought it out, holding out for two hours against Stonewall Jackson. As his men advanced, a hot artillery duel broke out – Jeb Stuart’s horse artillery from the west plus Stephen D. Lee’s four artillery batteries versus nine Union batteries on the ridge behind the North Woods and twenty long-range Parrott cannons 2 miles away on the other side of the Antietam.
Hooker spotted Confederate rifles in the Cornfield, halted his men, and called up four artillery batteries to fire over the infantry into the Cornfield. Instantly, melee combat broke out as the Cornfield broke out into chaos. Soldiers whipped out their bayonets and charged each other, savagely beating their opponents with rifle butts and stabbing them with their bayonets. The air was filled with shells, bullets, and screams of the wounded. Field officers galloped on their horses, trying in vain to yell orders amidst the chaos.
Truman Seymour’s 1st Brigade from Meade’s Pennsylvania Reserves advanced through the East Woods to encounter James Walker’s brigade, who forced him back by with help from Confederate artillery. General Abram Duryée’s brigade was forced out of the Cornfield because of lack of reinforcements – and right after his brigade withdrew, his reinforcements showed up. Those were the brigades of George L. Hartsuff and William A. Christian. They had some difficulty reaching the scene because when Hartsuff was wounded by an artillery shell, Christian wildly fled to the rear. After the men were rallied and sent into the Cornfield, they met new resistance under the Louisiana Tiger Brigade led by Harry Hays, who pushed them back towards the East Woods. The Tigers were eventually repulsed when a Union battery was placed directly in the Cornfield and fired point-blank at the Tiger brigade, destroying them.
To the west, the Federals were more successful than the stalemate at the Cornfield. John Gibbon’s Iron Brigade had pushed back Jackson’s slim resistance west of the Cornfield and north of the West Woods, and marched his men into the West Woods. His men were stopped by more than a thousand men of William E. Starke’s brigade fired on them from 30 yards away. Starke was mortally wounded and his brigade retreated after facing heavy fire from the Iron Brigade. Hooker’s men were slowly inching towards their goal: the Dunker Church.
To be continued…