2nd Manassas - Aug. 1862
The Battle of Antietam - Wednesday, September 17, 1862
Crossing Burnside's Bridge

The Antietam Creek from Burnsides Bridge.
After the battle and to the present day, the question often surfaces about why General Ambrose Burnside chose to launch his attack on the Confederates by crossing the Rohrbach Bridge instead of fording the Antietam Creek elsewhere. He had in fact ordered General Isaac Peace Rodman, a Quaker General, to ford the creek downstream and assault the Confederates in flank. However, in front of the entrenched Georgians who thwarted the blue coats' attempts to cross the bridge, the banks of the Antietam Creek were steep and wet. If the Federals could not quickly cross a dry, unobstructed bridge, how much more treacherous would the slippery inner banks of the Antietam Creek prove, especially after thousands of wet, slippery feet tried to climb out of the water while under fire.

Commanding General McClellan would say of the terrain near the Bridge his old friend was ordered to cross, "The valley of the Antietam at and near this bridge is narrow, with high banks. On the right of the stream the bank is wooded, and commands the approaches both to the bridge and the ford. The steep slopes of the bank were lined with rifle-pits and breastworks of rails and stones. These, together with the woods, were filled with the enemy's infantry, while their batteries completely commanded and enfiladed the bridge and ford and their approaches.

Soldiers' Graves at Burnside's BridgeIn his official report, General Burnside described the creek's banks in similar detail. "The bridge itself is a stone structure of three arches, with stone parapet above, this parapet to some extent flanking the approach to the bridge at either end. The valley in which the stream runs is quite narrow, the steep slope on the right bank approaching quite to the water's edge." He would add of the dangers encountered, "On the hill side immediately above the bridge was a strong stone fence, running parallel to the stream; the turns of the roadway were covered by rifle-pits and breastworks made of rails and stone, all of which defenses, as well as the woods which covered the slope, were filled with the enemy's infantry and sharpshooters. Besides the infantry defenses, batteries were placed to enfilade the bridge and all its approaches." During a recent visit to the Antietam National battlefield, a National Park Service Ranger mentioned that the Antietam was about waist high during the battle. Crossing at this time under fire would also have risked dampening the soldiers' gun powder which was wrapped in paper casings along with a minie ball. [9]

The picture a the top of this page shows the Confederate side of the creek and the bank as it appears today. The black and white image shows the temporary graves of soldiers who died during this phase of the battle.