Battle of Antietam, September 17, 1862.
Sgt. William McKinley Jr. and Gen. Jacob D. Cox played important roles in the Antietam campaign. Antietam Creek flows near the Maryland town of Sharpsburg and a stone bridge spanning the creek saw fierce fighting involving the 23rd Ohio with McKinley.
These IX Corps troops kept the Confederates from advancing across, and the bridge is now called Burnside Bridge in honor of the IX Corps Commander Gen. Ambrose Burnside. Cox was the brigadier general under Burnside, and McKinley went beyond doing his duty as commissary sergeant on Sept. 17, 1862, the day of the battle.
Ordered to move from the Washington fortifications toward the Confederate army, Cox was proud of his Kanawha Division, as he stated they had not yet learned to straggle as the other eastern troops were doing, acquiring the name of Roadside Brigade. Stopping for the evening, Gen. Jesse Reno blamed Col. Rutherford B. Hayes, 23rd Ohio, for taking straw from local farms and not bivouacking "closed in mass." Cox explained that the quartermasters would settle for the straw if the farmers were loyal and the troops in the presence of the enemy should sleep in line so to be ready to fight if need be.
This incident would surface to be held against him when Rutherford B. Hayes ran for president.
The next day they marched along the National Road that crosses South Mountain, with depressions called Turner's and Fox's Gaps. On Sept. 13 McClellan acquired a lost copy of Gen. Lee's orders, revealing the positions of Lee's army. Gen. Stonewall Jackson's Corps with Gen. Ambrose P. Hill were at Harpers Ferry, raiding ammunition and stores from the Federal Arsenal. McLaw's division and Anderson's were on Maryland Heights and Gen. Longstreet's men were near Boonsboro with Gen. D.H. Hill (Stonewall Jackson's brother-in-law) and Gen. Jeb Stuart's Cavalry as the rear guard. In Cox's opinion Gen. McClellan did not act quickly enough for he could have attacked Lee's army on Sept. 16 before his army was united.
Cox ordered Col. Scammon's division, with the 23rd Ohio to be the advance in support of Pleasanton's Cavalry at Turner's Gap, on Sept.14. They met Col. Moor of the 11th Ohio who had been captured, days before at Leesboro. They asked him if the enemy was ahead. Moor, who had been paroled had taken an oath not to reveal any information, quickly answered, "Be careful" and continued down the mountain.
At 9 a.m. rebel pickets fired on the Ohioans who charged over rocks, broken ground and through woods under this heavy enemy fire. Capt. Abraham Hunter, an officer who had served for Britain in the Crimean War, stated this was the hottest fire he had ever seen. Hayes was hit in the left arm. They made three charges before the Confederates retreated toward Sharpsburg. The 23rd Ohio casualties were: 32 men killed, with 87 enlisted and eight officers wounded. Before sunset, Reno came to Cox wondering why the regiments had not advanced to the summit. Cox thought that the ground was rough and rocky; Reno went on reconnaissance and was killed, making Cox the brigadier general under Burnside.
Reno's staff took his body back to Washington, leaving Cox without knowledge of the terrain or enemy positions, so Cox proceeded toward Sharpsburg without this important information.
On Sept. 17, picket and cannon fire before sunrise alerted all to the up coming battle. Troops had been deployed directly in front of Confederates, this was discovered before daylight and their quick movement away caused the Confederates to open fire. Cox had been eating breakfast but quickly struck the tents and saddled horses. McClellan did not want a center assault: This was across opened ground and the enemy was well entrenched. His plan was to attack the flanks.
Burnside and Cox were on the left flank by the lower bridge, then called Rohrbach's Bridge. Gen. Hooker was on the right with Gen. Meade and Pennsylvania troops. The bridge was a bottleneck, 12 feet wide, so a ford across the creek was searched for. Rodman's division searched for another crossing. The stone bridge as well as stone walls separating fields were used as cover. Sturgis' division was in the center flank, Crook advanced above the bridge, with the 11th Connecticut covering them. Another ford was found and five companies of the 28th Ohio crossed.
Crook brought up a light howitzer of Simmond's battery to fire on the furthest end of the bridge. Crook and Sturgis' men charged the Confederates who were pushed back.
In the afternoon Burnside was ordered to take the bridge at all costs. The orders were passed down to the 2nd Brig. Cmndr. Edward Ferrero from New York, he chose the 51st PA and the 51st NY, who quickly crossed the bridge. At this time on the hill, Rodman's men were charging the enemy then Rodman was killed, this caused confusion as the troops were without a leader. At 4 p.m. A.P. Hill arrived, his soldiers wore U.S. blue uniforms taken from Harpers Ferry, so they were thought to be friendly until they began firing. That night the men slept on the ground, Cox held on to the reins of his horse all night.
The 23rd Ohio had crossed a ford and were awaiting orders. They also took fire from A.P. Hill's men. They had been in position since 2 a.m. without rations. Nineteen year old McKinley knew this and walked two miles back to the wagons, loaded cooked meat, pork and beans, crackers-hardtack and coffee. John Harvey of Co. I volunteered to help, they rode by two blockades, officers ordered them to go back but they went to the front and fed the famished men. One of the wagons was hit by cannon fire, but that did not stop them. A wounded soldier cried, "God bless the lad." After the war the veterans tried to get the Congressional Medal of Honor for McKinley but he refused.
In 1903, two years after McKinley's death, the state of Ohio erected a monument near the now called Burnside's Bridge as a tribute to his valiant act of heroism. This act gained McKinley a commission as lieutenant.
There was no fighting on Sept. 18 and by the 19th, Lee's army had crossed the Potomac River and was back in Virginia. McClellan held the battlefield and declared a victory, giving President Abraham Lincoln the chance to release the Emancipation Proclamation.
Total casualties at Antietam are reported to be 25,000. Cox states Union dead at 12,410 and Confederate at 11,172. Giving Antietam the distinction of having the most casualties of any one day during the war, or the bloodiest day of the war.
Sources: Cox: Recollections of the Civil War, Vol. 1, and Major McKinley, William McKinley and the Civil War by William H. Armstrong
Compiled by members of the CW150 Committee