— Part II of a four-part series printing Sundays in June.
As William Ferguson Leslie and the 11th Regiment Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry were making their way through Virginia in autumn of 1862, Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee was writing his final orders to implement his invasion of Maryland.
Having some awareness of imminent peril, President Lincoln ordered Gen. George McClellan to unite with Gen. John Pope at Washington and organize the armies for active operations to meet the Confederate threat.
The 11th Regiment quickly moved to Upton’s Hill, where they were re-fitted.
On the morning of Sept. 6, Lincoln gave the verbal order that McClellan assume field command of the now-consolidated Army of the Potomac, and the 11th felt the urgency.
They were now attached with both the 12th and 13th Massachusetts and the 83rd New York as part of the Third Brigade, Second Division, First Corps commanded by Maj. Gen. Joseph Hooker.
Washington was in a partial panic and a gunboat lay in the Potomac near the White House. Later that evening, the 11th crossed the Potomac and by midnight was rapidly marching through the darkened streets of Georgetown. They turned to the north and left Washington near today’s Wheaton, then turned west to meet the Confederate threat. The night of Sept. 13 found them encamped at Monocacy Bridge.
Morning reveille sounded at 3 a.m. on Sept. 14 for the First Corps and they were quickly on the march through Frederick, then westward over the National Road as the Rebels were unifying near Sharpsburg. The First Corps advanced west through the Middletown Valley to Turner’s Gap, and late in the afternoon fought on the Union right at the Battle of South Mountain.
Bloody day at Antietam
The fighting for the 11th was light and casualty reports varied, but for an unknown reason Pvt. Leslie was mistakenly listed as wounded. Casualty errors were common in the Civil War on both sides and occurred on a regular basis. Even Col. Richard Coulter, the Greensburg native, was once reported as killed.
But Leslie was fine and – along with the whole Federal army – spent the night of the 14th massed on the mountaintop in and around the deserted Confederate breastworks. Then, fueled with intelligence gained by the discovery of Lee’s general movement command Special Order 191, now known as the “Lost Order," they rapidly advanced in the direction of Sharpsburg. There, on good ground he found to his advantage along Antietam Creek with a quick escape route over the Potomac, Lee decided to turn and fight.
The daylong Battle of Antietam Creek was fought on Sept. 17 and entailed three engagements at different times of the day on completely different areas of the field. The First Corps opened the battle on the Union right at first light and it was over before 11 a.m. The center was fought at midday several hundred yards to the south in the area known as the Sunken Road. From midmorning further south, Gen. Ambrose Burnside and the Union left struggled to cross the Rohrbach Bridge, today known as the celebrated Burnside Bridge for the general’s gallant charge. Burnside finished up at dark, culminating the day in triumph for McClellan.
Coulter’s men fought at the David R. Miller “Cornfield” and the adjoining “East Woods” in early morning.
They faced three brigades of Georgia and Louisiana regiments commanded by Brig. Gen. Alexander Lawton of Stonewall Jackson’s command.
At Lawton’s rear, on a plateau east of the Dunker Church, were 14 guns of Lee’s artillery ranged and waiting.
Known as the Flower of the Confederate Army, all were placed there to stop what Lee anticipated to be one of the heaviest Union assaults.
Hooker’s Second Division crossed the Big Antietam over the “Upper Bridge,” then traveled west as his objective was to gain the high ground between the Antietam and the Potomac. He followed the elevation toward Sharpsburg, feeling for Lee’s flank – his troopers filling their haversacks with apples as they went.