York soldier describes the bitter fighting at Antietam’s Sunken Road
The Sunken Road at Antietam. Part of the Union II Corps attacked this position, while the rest stormed Confederate positions at the West Woods and Dunker Church. Photos by Scott Mingus Sr.
The 130th Pennsylvania contained several companies raised in York County. The men did not participate in battle until September 17, 1862, when the they formed part of General Edwin V. Sumner’s bloody attack on the Sunken Road.
Among the soldiers was 5′ 2″ teenager Edward W. Spangler. He had been rejected as a drummer in the 87th Pennsylvania because of his short stature and youth (the minimum height requirement was 5′ 4″). A sympathetic recruiting officer later allowed Spangler to enroll in the 130th.
Here is young Spangler’s post-war account of his first Civil War battle.
“When we began our march for the battle line, about 8 A. M,, a battalion of artillery with guns at full gallop swept into position, opening in volleys. It was a grand and inspiring sight to witness batteries going headlong into action, — the neighing of horses, the rumbling of caissons, the halt, the furious cannonade, the officers on their chargers with swords gleaming in the sunlight, with buglers clanging out the orders, the passing of ammunition, the ramming, the sighting, the firing, and the swabbing, — the guns booming in chorus like heaven-rending thunder.
We passed through a hollow in the rear of this artillery battalion, the Confederate shells all the while passing over us. We forded Antietam Creek, several feet in depth, in three columns. Immediately beyond our division faced to the left, forming three lines of battle, and against a hot artillery fire moved toward the enemy. Our brigade was in front, with Gen. Kimball’s and Max Weber’s veteran brigades following, the former en echelon on our left. The advance was so rapid that I, with my stiff leg, could not keep up. After traversing an extensive meadow for about a quarter of a mile, the regiment was halted and re-aligned, enabling me to catch up. As I climbed over a post-fence a rebel bullet whizzed past my head which made me dodge. Our company passed between the barn and garden fence of the Roulette premises. Here a number of our company and regiment bolted as they did in every battle, but they are drawing their pensions all the same. The enemy was driven by our regiment out of the garden and orchard beyond, and after passing over a deep gulley in a ploughed field, we were ordered to lie down on the eastern slope of a hill, our company being in the immediate vicinity of a large elm tree.”
The Roulette farm, over which Private Spangler and the 130th Pennsylvania charged. My own ancestors, the Chambers boys, also passed through this area as part of the 7th [West] Virginia in Kimball’s Brigade.
“While prostrate, the Confederates on the crest of the hill fired volleys into our ranks. The bullets flew thicker than bees, and the shells exploded with a deafening roar. I was seized with fear far greater than that of the day before. I hugged the ploughed ground so closely that I must have buried my nose in it. I thought of home and friends, and felt that I surely would be killed, and how I didn’t want to be! Fortunately, the Confederate rifles were aimed just a little too high, and only a few of our company were then wounded.
The First Delaware regiment of Max Weber’s brigade of our division forming the second line, now passed to the front, but only succeeded in reaching the brow of the hill, when a galling fire of the enemy hurled them headlong through our ranks. We were immediately ordered to take the hill which we did in gallant style, forcing, with a withering fire, one of Gen. D. H. Hill’s brigades pell-mell into a sunken road, famous in history as the “Bloody Lane.” The rails of the fence on the near side of the road had been previously piled before it, placing the enemy, as it were, in a fort, which gave them, except as to their heads, immunity from our rifle fire.
The moment I discharged my rifle, all my previous scare was gone. The excitement of the battle made me fearless and oblivious of danger ; the screeching and exploding shells, whistling bullets and the awful carnage all around me were hardly noticed. Nothing but positive orders would have induced me to cease firing. I never experienced such excitement and rapture. Our many wounded were carried off the field by comrades, but I was so busily engaged in firing at the enemy, that it never occurred to me to participate in this commendable and humane service. The hill from which we delivered our fire descended abruptly to the fortified road filled with Confederates, and not more than three hundred feet distant. A score or more venturesome ones came out of this road and advanced toward us along the rail fence of a lane on our immediate left running from the sunken road to the Roulette buildings. All these brave men were killed.
Adjoining our regiment on the left and across this lane, was the 7th Virginia (Union) Regiment, of Kimball’s Brigade, entirely exposed to the enemy’s fire. I could not help admiring the admirable discipline of these veterans, standing up as if on inspection, and firing from a perfectly straight line. Further on the left I saw during the engagement the Irish brigade of Richardson’s division of our corps charge the enemy in gallant style. Meanwhile, the battle was raging with the greatest fury, and the field thickly dotted with the dead. The infantry fire was at close range and the cannonade terrific, causing the earth to shake and tremble.
After I had discharged the forty cartridges in my cartridge-box, I replaced them with the forty in my coat pocket. During the time in which we were engaged, I fired as fast as I could load, causing the barrel of my rifle to become so hot that it burnt me when I touched It. After my eighty rounds were exhausted, I turned over a soldier of the First Delaware, the top of whose skull was shot off, and took from his cartridge-box, ten Enfield rifle cartridges, which fortunately fitted the barrel of my Springfield rifle.
During the engagement, R. H. Anderson’s division arrived from Harper’s Ferry as a greatly needed reinforcement, and plunged down the hill opposite, toward us with their regimental flags waving, the stars and bars being clearly discernible in the noonday sun.
Before they entered the sunken road, where they found nearly all their comrades of the first line wounded or killed, one of their regiments wavered. A large Confederate officer, evidently of high rank, waved his sword in the air in rallying his men, and was especially conspicuous. I was so anxious to get a shot at him that in the hurry I neglected to extract my ramrod, and fired it with the charge. I replaced the ramrod with an Enfield one. Others as anxious as myself, doubtless, aimed at him, and he soon fell wounded or killed.
In the midst of the battle a Confederate tried to climb over the fence at the further side of Bloody Lane, but was shot in the rear as he reached the top, his body hanging on the upper rail. When our regiment buried him, it was found that he had been riddled with seventeen bullets. A correct sketch of this lane filled with dead Confederates, as well as of the one hanging on the rail, was made by Captain James Hope on the spot,
immediately after the retreat of the enemy, and is reproduced here. This Lane was literally packed with their dead. At one point, according to Captain Hope, thirteen dead bodies lay on a heap, at other places they lay two, three, even five deep. No battle of the late war, of so short duration, presented such a scene of carnage.”
The Aftermath at Bloody Lane, by Captain James Hope (2nd Vermont Infantry). Courtesy of the National Park Service and Antietam National Battlefield.
“Our regiment about two o’clock was relieved, the ammunition having been exhausted. I had then two Enfield cartridges left, having fired eighty-eight rounds in all. Immediately after the regiment was relieved I noticed that the stock of my rifle was pierced by a rebel bullet, presumably while loading, otherwise I would have been hit. It muse also have occurred about the time I stopped firing, or I would have seen it sooner. Only eight of our company, myself included, remained on the field when we were relieved. Of these, I can now remember only James McComas, George Young and brother Frank. Not only was the loss very heavy, but each severely wounded man required from two to four men to carry him off the field.
A wide gap occurred on the immediate right of our brigade, on account of French’s division having diverged too far to the left. A daring body of Confederate infantry in perfect alignment marched into this interval, shortly before we returned from the field. A battery of artillery with grape and canister alone prevented them from taking us in reverse. A right wheel brought them at right angles to our brigade, where they were confronted by a brigade of Franklin’s fresh division which opportunely came up the Roulette lane and confronted them. Upon the arrival of Franklin’s other brigades they were instantly driven back, and the line of battle re-established.
No one, unless he has seen it, can realize the tremendous impact of a bullet striking a soldier squarely when discharged at short range. It knocks him down like a catapult. Lieutenant Tomes, of Company B, a man of large stature, was struck in the groin by a bullet, and hurled fully two feet in the air.”
Quoted text from Edward W. Spangler, My Little War Experience (York, Pa.: York Daily Press, 1904)
Many more accounts of the Civil War from soldiers and civilians from York County are included in the upcoming book by Scott L. Mingus Sr. and James McClure, Civil War Voices from York County, Pa.: Remembering the Rebellion and the Gettysburg Campaign (Orrtanna. Pa.: Colecraft Industries, 2011).