Thursday, May 14, 2015

And speaking of mortars... baggage followed me to Antietam battlefield last week.

The Monday after my father died I drove from the rural town in southeastern Pennsylvania where my parents have lived for the past decade south and west to the hilly border of south-central Maryland, to the old Civil War battlefield of Sharpsburg (as the rebels called it) along the Antietam Creek.

I needed a day away from the room where I'd spent the past three days watching my old man die, and although I wrote about the fight back in 2008 I'd never been to the actual field. Given the park-like setting of these old battlegrounds it seemed like a good place to find peace.

And the park is, as all these parks memorializing the battles long ago in this most brutal of America's industrial wars seem to be, very pretty and pastoral. The stone soldiers and green-barreled cannon always seem to be a little sheepish, as if silently apologizing for reminding you of the vicious slaughter that they commemorate.

So I spent a pleasant idle day driving and wandering around the old battlefield, marveling at the suicidal bravery of those men on both sides who walked upright into a storm of rifle-musket and cannon fire. I stood by the narrow stone bridge now named after one of the U.S. Army's least competent general officers and tried to figure out how I as a sergeant of 1862 would have convinced my platoon to advance over that beaten zone and couldn't imagine it. Christ, what an awful nightmare.

But the place where my backstory caught up with me was near what had been the center of the fight, what has become known as Bloody Lane.
Here's what the Park Service says about this place:
"The Sunken Road, as it was known to area residents prior to the Battle of Antietam, was a dirt farm lane which was used primarily by farmers to bypass Sharpsburg and been worn down over the years by rain and wagon traffic. On September 17, 1862, Confederate Maj. Gen. Daniel Harvey Hill placed his division of approximately 2,600 men along the road, piled fence rails on the embankment to further strengthen the position and waited for the advance of the Union army. As Federal troops moved to reinforce the fighting in the West Woods, Union Maj. Gen. William H. French and his 5,500 men veered south, towards Hill's position along the Sunken Road. As French's men approached the Sunken Road, the Confederate troops staggered them with a powerful volley delivered at a range of less than one hundred yards.

Union and Confederate troops dug in. For nearly four hours, from 9:30 a.m. to 1 p.m., bitter fighting raged along this road as French, supported by Gen. Israel B. Richardson`s division, sought to drive the Southerners back. Outnumbered but with a well-defended position, the Confederates in the road stood their ground for most of the morning. Finally, the Federals were able to overwhelm Hill's men, successfully driving them from this strong position and piercing the center of the Confederacy's line. However, the Federals did not follow up this success with additional attacks, and confusion and sheer exhaustion ended the fighting in this part of the battlefield. In three hours of combat, 5,500 soldiers were killed or wounded and neither side gained a decisive advantage. The Sunken Road was now Bloody Lane."
The stroll through the fields down to Bloody Lane was quick and pleasant, the sun warm on my shoulders and the shade of hedgerows noisy with the chipping of the sparrows. But the Lane itself came as something of a surprise.

I had imagined the feature as a sort of natural field fortification; deep, narrow, and with a long slope down to the east in front of it. This would have satisfied the conventional image of the Lane as a fearsome barrier and perfect killzone. The actual topography of the Lane and the ground imediately to the east is very different.

For one thing, the Lane runs along a natural swale with high ground to both east and west. A D.H. Hill private with an Enfield rifle-musket standing in the bottom waiting for French's guys to come at him would have seen this:

The field of fire from the Lane to the crest of the high ground to the northeast is maybe 30 meters, and nowhere more than 50. Hill's troopers' fire commanded a distance that a guy with a strong arm could have hucked a rock.

Now that surprised me.

I had imagined that the Union attack had to push across hundreds of yards of beaten zone, a sort of American St. Privat, and that bloody slog was what had given Bloody Lane its name. But, no. The Yanks had a perfectly good piece of dead ground close enough to have had the whole dang brigade dug into shallow foxholes covering the Reb positions whilst the battalion mortars dropped baseplates in defilade 200 meters to the rear and just fucking pasted the living shit out of every sonofabitch in that sunken road.

But...that was the problem. French and Richardson's people didn't have mortars.

Or, at least, not the sort of mortars I expect to have providing me with indirect fire support and blowing hell out of enemy revetments like this. Somewhere they had what were called "coehorn" mortars, but those things were probably stuck somewhere in the field trains miles away. Their supporting field artillery might have had a couple of howitzers stuck in somewhere, but their arc of fire was probably little more than a shallow rainbow that would have - assuming that the grunts could have worked out some way of running back to the battery to adjust the fall of shot - like as not either missed long or buried their shells in the front slope of the Lane.

The Bloody Lane Problem is just another occasion of the problem that American Civil War infantry had throughout the war; they just flat out didn't have any means or methods of quickly throwing effective quantities of high explosive into a hastily dug-in enemy. That problem was solved by the "trench mortar" forty years later...and the defenders responded by digging narrower and deeper trenches and roofing them over. No military technology is decisive for very long; human ingenuity is simply too ingenious. But in 1862 the rifled musket was the King of Battle, and the only way to winkle some bastards with Springfields or Enfields out from behind a wall or a fence, or out of a sunken lane, was with human muscle behind another Springfield, or Enfield backed up with direct-firing cannon artillery.

So the poor sods died in their thousands and tens of thousands assaulting Bloody Lane and the Mule Shoe and the stone bridge just a couple of miles away.

We Americans love our military technology. If anything, we tend to think that there's a technical solution to damn near any military problem. Bloody Lane, though, is a good reminder that sometimes the problem is that the technological solution won't work, or can't be applied, or just isn't there, and that the price of "politics by other means" will then be paid in full, and in blood.


Ael said...

I recognized that bridge even before I could read the title of the post. A spooky place. Like Seminary Ridge.

Speaking of Burnside Bridge, when I visited it 30 years ago, I figured I could have waded the creek easily a few hundred metres upstream or down. But under pressure, people can really get tunnel vision and not spare the time to look around.

Lisa said...

I hail from this neck of the woods.

The eerie stillness and silence bears homage to the profound suffering and sorrows of that spot of ground which time cannot erase.