Henry Benning meets the 8th Connecticut

Colonel Henry Benning, in command of Toombs’ Brigade on the morning of September 17, 1862, had mounted a very impressive defense and delaying action at the Rohrbach Bridge. His “brigade” consisted of the 2nd and 20th Georgia infantry regiments with “not more than 350 men and officers, the Second having only 97, and the Twentieth not more than 250.”[1] A small contingent of the 50th Georgia Infantry from Drayton’s Brigade guarded Snavely’s Ford the intended crossing site for Rodman’s Division of the Union IX Corps. By one o’clock in the afternoon, the matter was decided both at the bridge and the ford. A final assault of the bridge found success coming more as a result of the Confederate’s loss of men and short supply of Georgians. Colonel Benning had mounted an impressive defensive effort against Burnside’s corps, but now it was time for a hasty withdraw of his shrinking band of infantrymen toward Sharpsburg.

Henry Lewis Benning had struggled to prove to the professional officers of the Army of Northern Virginia that he was not simply another politician turned officer trying to gain votes through his service. Benning wanted to do his duty to the southern cause as his record of service to the Army of Northern Virginia would clearly prove to all. On September 17, 1862, the ardent secessionist and former associate justice of the Georgia Supreme Court was still viewed as fighting more for his own political aims than victory on the battlefield. Soon after raising the 17th Georgia Infantry in his hometown of Columbus, Georgia, Benning had joined the Army of Northern Virginia and immediately found controversy by openly opposing the Conscription Act of the Confederate government as violating states’ rights. Benning had even faced the threat of court martial for his refusal to obey certain orders he felt to be unconstitutional.

However, Colonel Benning’s performance in battle during the Seven Days and Second Manassas battles had proven his leadership abilities to his soldiers who knighted him as “Old Rock.” On this day on the banks of the Antietam Creek, Benning had again proven his steadfastness in battle. His troops had suffered serious losses and now the disappointment of giving up the bridgehead, but they had accomplished their mission. The successful defense of the Rohrbach bridge for over four hours enabled General Lee to “the advance troops of General A. P. Hill” saving the Confederate right flank and possibly the entire Army of Northern Virginia.[2]

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Henry Lewis Benning

The change of position also brought two pieces of good news for Benning. His battered troops would get a well-deserved rest behind the new defensive line being established by Hill’s Division plus the 15th and 17th Georgia regiments had just arrived from their mission in Shepherdstown. Along with a battalion of troops from the 11th Georgia reassigned to Benning by Robert Toombs, the colonel once again had a respectable fighting force. The relief would not last long.

Before Benning could move his newly reinforced, but completely exhausted brigade to their resting location, all hell broke loose on the right side of the Confederate line. After two plus hours of dilatory preparations, Burnside finally had IX Corps organized and moving forward toward the Harpers Ferry Road and the town of Sharpsburg beyond. Even as A.P. Hill’s Division began to arrive to reinforce the Confederate right, it was all hands to the line to meet Burnside’s assault. Henry Benning’s Brigade was halted and turned around to plug a gap in the line along the Harpers Ferry Road.

Benning describes the actions of his brigade and the Union soldiers in front of them:  

The pace was accelerated to a double-quick, which in a short time carried the head of the line beyond the corn-field and in sight of the enemy. A brigade of them was standing composedly in line of battle not 200 yards from the road, apparently waiting for the nearer approach of supports, and neither in their front nor far to their right (our left) was a man of ours to be seen, but three abandoned pieces of ours were conspicuous objects about mid-way between the road and the enemy’s line. Major Little, with his battalion, was in advance. The Seventeenth, under Captain McGregor, was next, the Fifteenth, under Colonel Millican, was next, and a large part of the Twentieth, under Colonel Cumming, again ready for action, notwithstanding the severe work of the morning, brought up the rear. All, however, made but a short line. I carried the head of the line opposite to the right of the enemy, and ordered it to commence firing on the enemy without waiting for the rest of the line to come up. It did so with promptness and spirit. The rest of the line as it came up joined in the fire. The fire soon became general. It was hot and rapid. The enemy returned it with vigor, and showed a determination to hold their position stubbornly.[3]

The “brigade” described as standing in front of Benning’s troops was actually the 8th Connecticut Infantry Regiment who had advanced to within a few hundred yards of the gap in the Confederate line. After the debacle of the 16th Connecticut and the 4th Rhode Island in John Otto’s 40-acre cornfield, the 8th Connecticut found themselves as the lone advancing regiment from Harland’s Brigade. With the three regiments of Fairchild’s Brigade locked in a deadly fight on their right, the Connecticut regiment began to veer to the right in an attempt to maintain contact with Fairchild while continuing to leverage the shelter of the draw they had followed since crossing the Antietam three hours earlier. Each swale brought relief from the Confederate small arms and artillery now focusing on them. Euphoria set in the ranks as one company of the regiment successfully attacked and seized the artillery pieces of McIntosh’s Battery only a hundred yards from the Harpers Ferry Road.

However, timing was not on the side of the Connecticut troops. Benning’s division commander, D.R. Jones, recognizing the hazard of the advancing Union soldiers moving toward the gap in the Confederate line, hastily moved into action. Jones’ order given through Toombs served as the impetus to rush Benning’s Brigade forward in order to prevent a tragic outcome to the battle even while the 8th Connecticut celebrated the capture of McIntosh’s Battery. Just as one highly excited member of the Connecticut regiment sat astride one of the captured cannons waving his kepi, Benning began to bring his troops on line giving the order to commence firing even before the entire line was situated. The Confederate commander’s quick and aggressive action helped save the right of Lee’s line and allowed them to retake McIntosh’s Battery as the Connecticut unit assumed a defensive posture in what now became a desperate fight.

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Benning (commanding Toombs’ Brigade) checks the advance of the 8th Connecticut

One can easily speculate on what might have happened without Benning’s immediate compliance with his orders from Toombs and Jones. The 8th Connecticut could have reached the Harpers Ferry Road and enfiladed the Confederate right. Although, without support, it is unlikely the lone Union regiment on this part of the field could have held for very long. What is clear is that Benning’s Brigade moved quickly and aggressively to help halt the advance of the 8th Connecticut and possibly a much different outcome to the Battle of Antietam. “Old Rock” Benning and his Georgia troops had held the line.

ENDNOTES:

[1] The War of the Rebellion: a Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies (OR), 128 vols., Washington DC: US Government Printing Office, 1880-1901, Vol. 51/Part1 (Ser #107), pp. 161-165

[2] IBID.

[3] IBID.

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