Monthly Archives: March 2008

River Fording and Burnside’s Options

With the weather allowing, I spent most of yesterday tramping about the lesser known corners of Antietam. One such corner was Snavely’s Ford. If you are at the battlefield and have the time, the 2 mile walk starts at the Burnside Bridge tour stop.

History has not been kind to General Burnside with his choice of crossing points. Some, like Kyd Douglas, have stated Burnside may have crossed at any point other than the bridge and held some success. Others contend Burnside vacillated too long getting his Corps into position to cross by way of the bridge and fords. In the end, most will summarize the action on the southern half of the battlefield as another of Burnside’s hapless blunders.

However, and not trying to redeem Burnside in a larger sense, such dismissal of the General’s and his subordinates’ actions with regard to crossing the Antietam do not take into account terrain and more importantly the tactical requirements for crossing a body of water. I have discussed the later elsewhere with regard to Monocacy (see photo 3) and Early’s rather delayed crossings. In the Civil War period, and arguably the same rules apply today, when crossing a river under fire or at least with the threat of enemy resistance, a military unit requires several attributes for a potential crossing point.

  • First some form of cover on the friendly side behind which to form the body of men crossing the stream. And the far side should afford a covered area to re-form the troops into a fighting formation. Because a crossing requires changes to formation, from column to fighting line, such cover is important. You don’t want the troops changing formation, facing, and such while enemy fire is raining down. Or at least the leader would desire to minimize the exposure.
  • Second a position from which artillery or other covering force may fire upon the enemy to suppress resistance. Mahan’s An Elementary Treatise on Advanced-Guard, Out-Post, and Detachment Service of Troops, pages 80 and 81 offers more detail on this aspect of river crossing.
  • Third, the stream bed should be level, without holes or washes, preferably no more than waist deep. Less rocky is better, provided firm footing exists. If involving cavalry or artillery, rocks in the stream bed are an even more sensitive consideration. Approaches must be smooth with little embankment or wash.
  • Fourth, if possible, the crossing point itself should afford some concealment from enemy eyes.
  • Fifth, as indicated in Mahan’s, distractions and secondary efforts should divert the enemy’s attention.
  • Lastly, if the intention is to carry forward an offensive, the artillery and trains must follow. The eventual “beach head” must have some supply route that supports heavy vehicle traffic. Or wagons in the Civil War context.

To my knowledge, on the Ninth Corps front, the Antietam was crossed at three points. Of course you have Burnside Bridge. Then Snavely’s Ford. But also a ford point upstream from the Bridge where a few companies of the 28th Ohio (Crook’s Brigade) made a wet foot crossing.

The later point is just south of the modern Burnside Bridge Road crossing (thus to the north of the historical bridge).

Upstream from the Burnside Bridge

Looking from the famous bridge upstream, the 28th’s crossing point is just out of view, obscured by the trees along the bank. One can tell the ground on the left (Confederate) side is a gradual slope, compared to the bluffs overlooking the bridge. What the photo does not show, due to the trees and distance, is a creek running down from Sharpsburg joins the Antietam in that area. To the north of that, on the grounds of the Sherrick Farm, the Confederate side of the creek offered gradual slopes. In fact, if we reference Lieut. Col. E. B. Cope’s maps, there are no Confederate units posted in that sector. The crossing point offered a position to assemble a small body of troops, under the cover of artillery (Clark’s Battery was positioned just around the high ground where the modern road passes), and with a ravine on the far side offering some cover while the unit re-formed. However, the down side to the crossing point there was volume. No more than a handful of companies could cross at a time. There simply was not enough staging or re-forming space to do much more. As such, makes sense that only five companies of the 28th Ohio forded there.

Now looking at Snavely’s Ford, the crossing point allowed a little higher volume of traffic.

Snavely’s Ford

Again, cover on the far side to assemble the men, in this case behind a low ridge where full regiments, maybe brigades, arguably even whole divisions could form in column. On the “enemy” side, from which this photo was taken, the Federals had ample assembly area. However factors continued to limit troop flow. As seen at the ford point, the stream bed is rocky, and would slow foot traffic. The ford point is still narrow enough to restrict things down to a four abreast column. The far bank is washed out enough to slow both foot traffic as well as mounted and artillery. The crossing point works, but only if a better, higher volume crossing point is found to support the effort.

Lastly, we have the famous bridge.

Burnside Crossing

From the attacker’s point of view, looking across the bridge from the approaches. The down sides to this crossing point are clear – the enemy posses high ground on the opposite side. What is not clear, but anyone who has visited can attest, the friendly side (behind the camera) is a large open field which denies the attacker cover. The enemy side offers little cover for re-forming. And of course, there is precious little concealment. At 1 p.m. when the two 51sts stormed the bridge, suppression included artillery on the ridge near the Rohrbach Farm to the southeast, Clark’s Battery to the north east, and a ring of supporting infantry regiments around the east bridge approaches. The displacement is in line with Mahan’s description of concentration of fire. The bridge certainly would qualify as a heavy vehicle traffic supply route (it was used by motor vehicles until the 1960s if memory serves).

According to the Historic American Buildings Survey, the bridge spans around 125 feet at this point, and is 190 feet long including abutments. That is a far cry from the “hop, skip, and a jump” mentioned by Kyd Douglas. The creek banks, as all along this length of the course, are two or three foot drops to the water. And, while this writer has not taken the plunge, the depth even in summer is more than waist deep at points.

Taken in perspective, each crossing points offers advantages and disadvantages. None is perfect. I would make the argument the bridge fell in part to the deliberate attack of the two 51sts in conjunction with crossings up and down stream that turned the defender’s flanks.

If there is fault to be laid at Burnside’s feet it is not planning and synchronizing the movements earlier in the day. Knowing the creek must be crossed, and likely that crossing would be contested, then on the 16th elements of the Corps should have reconnoitered potential crossing points. Early in the morning of the 17th the Corps should have forced all points identified. However, none of this would happen in a vacuum. Walker’s division was in the vicinity at daybreak, not yet moved to the center of the battlefield. So it would not just be Toombs’ Brigade contesting the crossings. Of course, this throws a whole new chain of events into play. Now Lee’s counterattack of Sedgwick’s advance into the West Woods would have less punch.

Nobody asked me but….

In addition to probably four or five issues that I see as important in the upcoming election cycle, some local some national, of course Battlefield Preservation is on my list.  And there are several things that irk me as to how preservation is played as a national issue.   I just don’t think any candidate, local, state, or federal, really sees preservation as something in their interest. 

First, why is it in our green-conscious rhetoric, never to I hear the point mentioned that preservation is “green” – both dollars-wise and environmentally.  Preservation means green space.  It means retention of existing habitats.  It means less sprawl.  Seems to me, if your political platform is tied to reducing carbon emissions, putting the stake through the heart of a proposed “dirty, filthy, polluting” power plant, that happens to be next to a battlefield, would hit several tones that play well in the media.  What I’d love to hear on a robo-call, “Hi, I’m <candidate’s name>, and I oppose the big power plant not only because of my concerns for our environment but also because it encroaches upon our national heritage.  So if elected…..” 

Second, off let’s talk about Eminent Domain.  If the courts have upheld the concept that a trailer park may be taken over (“seized” in my definition) by the government for the purposes of building a Wal Mart, condominium, or a nuke plant, then why cannot the government take over a tract of land for the purposes of preservation?  Not so much a question of is it right or wrong, but rather why is this technique not used with regard to clear and present dangers to the battlefields?  Personally this is shaky ground, as I am not really fond of government possessing the unchecked power to “steal” property.  However, I’m just curious why there are few if any cases where Eminent Domain is mentioned in regard to preservation efforts. 

Third, how about a drawing that linkage between preservation, heritage, and education?  Questions regarding the reform of our education system are all in the news.  Why not point out that preservation is an enabler to good education!  How can our history and heritage be taught in school if it is disappearing under the pavers?  I’d love to see some candidate connect those dots and make that part of the plan.  

But before I start sounding like Mussolini letting fly from the balcony, I’ll avoid mentioning taxes and government spending.  The bottom line is, I just wonder why no politician has seized upon the preservation issue as a plank in the platform. 

– Marker Hunter,  and sometimes agitator for more preserved battlefields where even more interpretive markers should be planted…..

More Antietam Progress

I was a bit lax in blogging duties this weekend.  My focus aside from family, was toward continued progress with the Antietam marker project.  Over the weekend, 30 more were posted.  Those posted were mostly on the south half of the battlefield.  Unfortunately, the Burnside Bridge area, while in the database now, isn’t my best work.  There were too many gaps with regard to topic photos.  Perhaps I’m a bit demanding, but if I post a monument or tablet that says, “The 99th Guards Zouave Engineers put a bridge down here,” then I owe the viewer a photo of the spot where the bridge was placed.

On the other hand, the length of Rodman Avenue is now linked as a set.  Certainly an interesting, if under appreciated, section of the battlefield.  Again, this is strictly the geographical grouping.  Intent for the set is to display, in order of appearance, what a viewer would see if driving the tour route.  As the set is amended, groupings for divisions and phases of the battle will serve other purposes.

On-ward if not up-ward!   Branch Avenue is next.  At some point in the near future, I see another quarterly trip to Antietam to fill in the missing spots.

Napoleon Guns at Antietam

Returning to the Antietam thread, the battlefield today boasts a fair sampling of 12-pounder Napoleons for the visitor to examine. Although not as easy to identify from a distance as the Parrott Rifles, the 12-pounder Bronze Field Gun, Light, Pattern of 1857 is also one of the weapons closely identified with the American Civil War. Also known as the Model 1857 or more commonly as the “Napoleon,” this field piece marked the peak of muzzle-loading smoothbore technology in America. Only the 3-inch Ordnance Rifle appears more often in reports.

Production of the Napoleon began in 1856. The first prototype (which survives on display at Petersburg National Battlefield, last time I checked) closely followed European trends for the “Canon-Obusier,” and explains the common name referencing French Emperor Napoleon III. This prototype was found insufficient for American tastes, and all examples which followed were three inches longer, altering the center of gravity, presumably to make the weapon easier to handle. On the books, the Ordnance Department officially designated these as “12-pounder Bronze Field Gun, Pattern of 1857, Modified.” Initial deliveries (about 35 in total) of the modified version sported handles over the trunnions. These were eliminated from later production examples, offering the shape most battlefield visitors easily identify. In the strict sense of the word, the American “Napoleons” were not “gun-howitzers,” as they lacked a powder chamber. So for accuracy’s sake, these are field guns which happen to have the ability to fire as howitzers.

Four Five companies produced 12-pounders for Federal contracts. Ames Manufacturing Company of Chicopee, Massachusetts produced the prototype and 96 additional examples by February 1863. Cyrus Alger & Co. of Boston delivered 170 between August 1861 and January 1864. Miles Greenwood’s Eagle Iron Works in Cincinnati, Ohio provided 50 examples during 1862. Henry N. Hooper & Co. of Boston produced 370 Napoleons, with deliveries ceasing in March 1864. And the largest producer was Revere Cooper, Co., also of Boston, with 443 produced through April 1864. Yes, the dates are correct, the production of the Federal (not Confederate, as that is another subject) ceased in the spring of 1864.

At Antietam today, examples from Alger, Hooper, and Revere mark both the battery locations and the spots where six generals were killed or mortally wounded. Here is the breakdown by location:

  • 4 pieces on Cornfield Avenue, near the Battery B, 1st Maryland Light Artillery monument: Registry number 26 from Alger and registry numbers 47, 53, and 79 from Revere. All four stamped 1862.
  • 2 pieces on Dunker Church Road, near the Battery B, 4th U.S. Artillery tablet: Registry number 33 from Revere stamped 1862. Number 213 from Hooper produced in 1863. The later piece cannot be inspected closely at present, with the field fenced off for cattle.
  • 1 piece at the Mumma Farm: Registry number 91 from Alger, produced in 1862.
  • 3 pieces on carriages around the Sunken Road: To the east of the tower is registry number 254 from Revere. On the Confederate side of the road are registry number 78 and 87 from Alger. Both of the later are badly worn, and the markings are difficult to read.
  • 1 piece at the artillery display near the Visitors Center, near the location of S.D. Lee’s Battalion: Registry number 39 from Alger made in 1862.
  • 2 pieces at the north end of Branch Avenue: Registry numbers 41 and 161 from Revere. Both made in 1862.
  • 6 mortuary monuments. These are only identified by the rimbase numbers, as the muzzels are buried: Foundry number 1097 (Registry number 82) from Alger is the Branch monument. Foundry number 1109 (Registry number 81) from Alger is the Mansfield monument. Foundry number 252 (Registry 232) from Hooper is the Anderson monument. Foundry number 978 (Registry number 36) from Alger is the Richardson monument. And without readable markings, but identified by secondary sources as registry numbers 23 and 39 from Revere are the Starke and Rodman monuments, respectively.

Of those seen at Antietam, all but two date from 1862. All but two (not the same two) were inspected by Thomas J. Rodman, inventor of the Rodman process and gun. (Not to be confused with the Division commander Isaac P. Rodman mortally wounded on the field.)

Sources: On site inspections, with consultation of Ripley’s Artillery and Ammunition of the Civil War and Hazlett, Olmstead, and Parks’ Field Artillery Weapons of the Civil War. Please see my references page for more details.

Another Threat to Manassas

On the news Wire Today:

LS Power, based in New Jersey paid $195,000 for the option, allowing it to start its extensive study and permitting process, said Matt Held, a project development coordinator for the company.

The potentially $500 million plant would be built on a nearly 27-acre property the county bought in 1990 before it scrapped plans to build its own power plant there.

The plan for the property, a little more than a half-mile from Interstate 66 and Manassas National Battlefield Park, has flown largely under the radar.

“I don’t think you’re going to find anybody who knows anything about it,” said Kim Hosen, executive director of the Prince William Conservation Alliance, noting there likely would be opposition when people learn more about it.

Conservation advocates have exerted strong power in the region over the years, quashing the proposed Disney theme park in the mid-1990s and marshaling opposition to a proposed 500-megawatt transmission line in the region.

As Northern Virginia’s population rapidly expands, the region has become an attractive site for a new power plant, Held said.

The company began a feasibility study for the site in January, which would pump up to 873 megawatts into the Washington region’s electric system.

The plant could open as early as 2012, depending on the levels of local and state approval that are required, Held said. The company would pay $7.86 million for the land.

LS Power committed to hold public hearings in the community later this year, said John Hofield, research and marketing director for the Prince William County Department of Economic Development.

“The board has granted them an option for three years to hold the property while they apply for their various permits,” Hofield said. “The plant is not a done deal yet.”

Although the property is designated for heavy industrial use, the company will need to acquire a special use permit to accommodate the plant, a permit from the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality and approval from the State Corporation Commission.

“I think Prince William County has more than its share [of power plants],” Hosen said.

But the company will argue that natural gas will make it a lower-pollution alternative than coal-fire plants in western Virginia.

Having a highly efficient gas-fired plant is a positive benefit for Northern Virginia, Held said.


Sounds like another round of debates on a well trod battleground. And I’m not talking about the physical one.

So a three band Enfield is acceptable?

I usually don’t follow closely the discussions of the Supreme Court.  In true “cut to the chase” fashion, I am normally focused on the ruling and how it impacts my small segment of the world.  But yesterday’s arguments(PDF) regarding the D.C. Hand Gun Ban contained a line that caused me to double take.  From Justice Beyer: 

Now … why isn’t a ban on handguns, while allowing the use of rifles and muskets, a reasonable or a proportionate response on behalf of the District of Columbia?

Allowing the use of muskets within the District of Columbia you say?  That’s interesting.  Can’t wait till this one goes into effect.  Let me be the first to walk the National Mall with my three band Enfield, with ammo box and cap pouch handy.  Look out, pick pockets and nare-do-wells!  I’ve got my forty rounds, sir!  And when that runs out, in “Stonewall” style, I am prepared to give them the cold steel! 

Perhaps I should ease it back a bit and use the Enfield Musketoon or the “modified” smooth bore two banders.  Those would be easier to manage in the Metro.  Wonder if a Sharps Carbine is considered a “musket” under the illogical legal definitions?  I’m a bit handier with the breech loader, and can clear five rounds a minute on a good day (mounted or dismounted, for bragging rights). 

I am reminded of an episode from 1997.  A major reenactment at Shiloh, Tennessee was rained out.  No seriously it rained so much the entire event was scrapped, going down in reenactor legend as “Mudloh.”  In the flight from the event, one individual, dressed in uniform, carrying a musket, was seen walking through Jackson, Tennessee on Sunday morning.  Police responded to the scene and confronted the reenactor.  Seeing he was armed, backup was called forth.  I recall one officer saying, “He had a gun, so we felt we should take all precautions…..” or something similar on the nightly news.  

Third Winchester Trip

Spent the better part of Saturday tracking around the Third Winchester Battlefield. The last trip logged was in August and I wanted to see the terrain sans foliage to better appreciate the ground. Furthermore, the CWPT had placed the last wayside marker and, as a good marker hunter, I needed to catalog the “Thoburn’s Attack” wayside in order to complete the set.

The trail is now complete as the Third Winchester Walking Trail virtual tour by markers. Select hybrid map display for the full effect. Google recently updated the resolution to the point it is easy to pick out Hackwood, some of the trails, and the foot bridge over Red Bud Run.

As with other battlefields, I lament that the markers are not precisely on the spot of the action. While most of the ground to the north remains respectable, the southern portion of the battle line is partly overtaken by a school complex and housing editions. So while the geographic index is nice, it could be better. The site of Emory Upton’s charge is presently sprouting double wide trailers. So the pins on the map are not very useful to track the action.  And one must use some imagination, and consider my humble attempt at photography within the marker entries.
To complete the “tour” I’ve linked a set of markers beyond the walking trail: Third Winchester Driving Tour. Fort Collier is in fair shape, but other locations are more or less pull offs on the road. General Hasting’s Monument is accessible, but within an industrial park. Hopefully Star Fort will be opened for visitors sooner than later. Unfortunately the site of the cavalry charge, starting at Stephenson’s Depot is encroached by development. Rutherford Farm, which was fought two months before Third Winchester, and over some of the same ground, has been lost to development for the most part. Even the historical markers are down while the highway is expanded.

The most inspiring location of the day was an overlook of Red Bud Run, near where Col. Rutherford B. Hayes lead his men across to attack the Confederate left.

Red Bud Run

Hayes moved his command down this slope, across the creek, and back up the far side. In the mud, under fire, on one hot day in September. I don’t care if he lost the popular vote, that President was a leader!