General Robert E. Lee was a master strategist throughout most of the Civil War. As a civil engineer, he knew quite well the advantage of grabbing and maintaining the high ground. The advantages were most evident at the Burnside Bridge at the Battle of Antietam, September 17, 1862.
Confederate General Robert Toombs and General Henry Benning commanded a force of less than 500 Georgia sharpshooters to the heights on the western side of the Rohrbach Bridge across the Antietam Creek. The 2nd Georgia Burke County Sharpshooters made up the bulk of those forces.
The Union’s IX Corps, led by Major General Ambrose Burnside and containing almost 14,000 men, had orders to take the bridge. Edward Harland’s Brigade of Rodman’s Division led by Colonel George Cook’s Ohio Brigade were ordered to make the first attempt to get to the bridge but got lost. The 11th Connecticut Infantry was given the task in their place. Wave after wave of the Connecticut men marched four or five abreast onto the bridge and became targets of the sharpshooters located high up on the far hill. Each attempt to cross the bridge was repulsed by the sharpshooters.
Upon arrival of the 2nd Division 1st Brigade containing Union soldiers of the 2nd Maryland U. S. and the 6th New Hampshire Infantry, another attempt was made. And the results were similar. The Georgia sharpshooters continued holding the upper hand. A third attempt by the 51st New York Infantry and the 51st Pennsylvania Infantry under the command of Brigadier General Edward Ferrero, finally took on the sharpshooters from the other side of the river, allowing for the Union to final take the bridge.
The Georgia Sharpshooters had delayed the federal crossing for several hours. The delay allowed General A. P. Hill’s men to reinforce as they arrived late from Harpers Ferry. It also cost General George McClellan the decisive victory he was seeking. Securing the high ground in this instance had allow a Confederate force of less than 500 soldiers tied up and delay a federal force of over 14,000 men. The Union had twenty eight times the force of the Confederates, yet the Union had a very difficult time overcoming their enemy’s advantage of the higher ground. Union losses on the bridge include as many as 1,000 killed and an untold number wounded. The Georgia Sharpshooters reported casualties of around 160 included killed, wounded and those taken prisoner.
The bridge was later renamed the Burnside Bridge, in honor of Union General Ambrose Burnside.
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