“Human courage should rise to the height of human calamity.” – Robert E. Lee
Wednesday 17 September 1862
Early Morning around 6:00 am
The troops of the 8th Connecticut are awakened by the officers and non-commissioned officers of the regiment as they are told to prepare immediately for battle. An intermittent rain has fallen throughout the night and a light fog is rising from the Antietam Creek as the soldiers begin to stir from their ready positions of the night to seek coffee and check their equipment. Most of the troops understand that this will likely be the day of the big battle and anxiety runs high throughout the regiments of the IX Corps.
As daylight breaks the gray sky, a group of inexperienced troops meander over the ridge facing the Rohrbach Bridge to catch a glimpse of the Confederates defending the stone span over the creek. This gives the Confederate artillerymen on the ridge above the bridge the opportunity to determine the location and gauge the range of the Union units scattered around the Henry Rohrbach farm. The Confederates begin to shell the units of the IX Corps including Rodman’s division and Harland’s brigade. In response to the incoming artillery fire, Colonel Harland moves his brigade down the Rohrbach lane to evade the fire and support a Union battery. The Confederates continue lobbing shells that are air burst artillery rounds as well as solid shot. Captain Marsh notes that there was no counterbattery fire from the IX Corps artillery units.
Colonel Harland moves his brigade to the left rear into a swale and then faces the brigade to the left. This provides more protection for his troops as they await orders for the battle everyone now knows will take place today.
About 7 o’clock, in accordance with an order received from General Rodman, I moved the brigade into a position to the rear and to the left of the one formerly occupied, facing to the left, the new line of battle forming nearly a right angle with the old one. In this position we remained between one and two hours. Our next movement was a change of front formed on first battalion. This brought the line of battle in a position parallel to the one occupied at first, the right resting about 200 yards in the rear of the first position to the left. [Harland]
Around 7:15 am
A Confederate solid shot from artillery across the creek lands in the 8th CVI’s area killing three soldiers and wounding four in Company D. There may have also been a separate artillery attack before the brigade was moved. Nonetheless, several soldiers of the 8th were killed or wounded during these bombardments including a members of Companies F and A and a Sergeant George H. Marsh of Company A.
Croffut and Morris recount:
Sergeant George H Marsh of Hartford was killed by the first cannon shot that went through the ranks at sunrise. He was ill but determined to be at his post and there he died a trusty soldier with a spotless reputation.[ii]
According to Jacob Eaton, an officer in the 8th CVI, after the incoming artillery, the soldiers panicked and scattered to avoid more incoming fire. Lt. Marvin Wait, Company A, 8th CVI is covered with dirt from the impacting rounds and blood from the wounded soldiers, yet he helps to calm the men and reform the unit.
Being under fire on the morning of the l7th of September a ball from a rebel battery struck in the midst of his company killing three men and severely wounding another Lieutenant WAIT was covered with blood and earth. The shot produced some confusion in the company and several of the men commenced giving way. The brave fellow sprung to his feet amid a shower of bullets and ordered every man back to his post in the most gallant manner.[iii]
Around 7:30 am
The incoming artillery fire concerns Colonel Harland so that he repositions the 8th by moving the regiment back to the front of his brigade.
Around 8:10 am
In a further attempt to protect the regiments from the incoming fire and prepare for future orders, Harland begins to extend his lines to the left by moving his brigade. The brigade is now short the 11th CVI who have been detached by General Rodman to serve as skrimmers for the Rohrbach bridge assault.
Around 9:00 am
The artillery continues to pour in on Harland’s Brigade and the 8th CVI is relocated to a ravine further to the left of the line. This provides some protection from the shelling.
Around 10:00 am
There is a great deal of controversy regarding the timing of General McClellan’s order to General Burnside to begin the attack and assault the bridge. However, around 10 o’clock the orders are issued by Burnside and the assault begins. The 11th CVI is designated to act as skirmishers in the attempted capture of the Rohrbach Bridge. They move quickly to the left of the stone bridge, but are in an exposed position. The mission quickly becomes a disaster for the Connecticut regiment as the Georgia troops on the far side of the creek have clear fields of fire on the skirmishers. Captain Griswold of the 11th valiantly leads his company of the 11th in an attempt to wade the creek just below the bridge. Many of his men are shot down in the water but Griswold makes it to the far side of the creek despite being struck by several minnie balls. The young captain falls dead on the far bank. He is first Union soldier to cross the Antietam that day at the lower brigade, but it is in vain. The ill-fated attempt to capture the bridge now stalls as the regimental commander, Colonel Kingsbury, is mortally wounded leading his troops. About the same time or shortly thereafter, two companies of the 8th CVI are sent downstream to find a ford.
The remaining soldiers and officers of the 8th CVI watch the attempts to take the bridge by New York and Pennsylvania regiments. Captain Marsh calls it “the Grandest sight of my life.” It seems that Marsh is watching the attempted assault by Crook’s brigade. Crook was unable to get his brigade beyond the fence along the Rohrbach Bridge road.
The Rohrbach Bridge which became known as Burnside Bridge after the battle
Around 11:30 am
Rodman’s division was ordered to move left, downstream to cross at the ford supposedly identified the previous day by General McClellan’s engineers. Two companies of the 8th CVI are sent to find the ford. The ford identified by the engineers is not Snavely’s ford, but a closer yet inadequate crossing site. It is being defended by sharpshooters of the 50th Georgia on the high banks of the far side of the creek and Rodman quickly determines the division cannot cross at this site. The companies of the 8th continue down the creek in search of the ford. It takes Rodman’s division two hours to locate and move to Snavely’s ford although it is only two miles from the Rohrbach Bridge.
I then sent out two companies of skirmishers from the Eighth Regiment Connecticut Volunteers to discover, if possible, a ford by which the creek could be crossed. [Harland]
[ii] The Military and Civil History of Connecticut: The War of 1861-1865, W.A. Croffut and John M. Morris, Ledyard Bill, New York, 1868.
|[iii] Memorial of Marvin Wait, Jacob Eaton, Thomas J. Stafford, New Haven, 1863.|