On September 17, 1862, outside the town of Sharpsburg, Maryland, and along the banks of Antietam Creek, Union and Confederate soldiers fought, bled, and died. That early autumn day is still the bloodiest single day—with 23,000 Americans as casualties—in American history. The majority of the men who fell at Antietam lay in unmarked graves, as is the case with most of the killed at Civil War battlefields. Yet, at Antietam there is an interesting set of monuments that commemorate six men.
These six men who fell that day wore the stars of a general—three wore Southern gray and three wore Union blue. At the approximate location where they were each killed or mortally wounded now stands an upturned canon called a mortuary canon. These cannons, less than six feet tall, including the bases they sit on, list the ranks of the officers, their names, and which side they sacrificed their lives for.
Two of the Union officers who fell were major generals. Joseph King Fenno “K.F.” Mansfield was one of the oldest officers on the field, at age 59. Two days prior to the battle, he was given command of the XII Corps. Leading his men through the East Woods in support of another Federal corps Mansfield was struck in the chest; he died the next day, September 18.
Major General Israel Bush Richardson led a division in the II Corps against Confederate soldiers defending the Sunken Road. He was wounded by fragments of artillery fire but lingered on until November 3, 1862, before he succumbed to his mortal wound.
The last of the three Union officers who were mortally wounded that day was Brigadier General Issac Peace Rodman, who commanded a division in Ambrose Burnside’s Corps that assaulted “Burnside’s Bridge.” On the plains beyond, his division was struck in the counterattack by Confederate General Ambrose “A.P” Hill’s division. Rodman was mortally wounded with a shot through the lungs. He lingered until September 30, when he died.
For the generals wearing gray, the first to fall was Brigadier General William Edwin Starke. Promoted to brigadier general in August 1862, Starke led a counterattack against the Union I Corps when he was struck by three minie balls. He died within the hour.
Brigadier General George Burgwyn Anderson led a brigade of North Carolinians defending the Sunken Road against Union attacks. A West Point graduate in the class of 1852, he was wounded when a minie ball struck him in the ankle joint. Considered a serious but not mortal wound, he was transported to the rear, then to Shepherdstown, Virginia (now West Virginia) and onto Raleigh, North Carolina. The wound became infected, though, and forced doctors to amputate the foot. He died though soon after the surgery, on October 16, 1862.
Arriving in command of a brigade in General A.P. Hill’s Confederate “Light Division” was Brigadier General Lawrence O’Bryan Branch. Although he had been sick during the Second Manassas Campaign, the excitement of the new expedition in Maryland revived his health and thus he was in charge of his brigade when it deployed in the late afternoon at Antietam. From here, two diverging stories about his death unfold: he was either killed by a sharpshooter bullet when conversing with two other Confederate brigade commanders (Maxcy Gregg and James Archer) or he died while leading his brigade. Either way, he was killed outright.
Each of their mortuary canons rests on preserved land, as does the national cemetery where thousands of Union soldiers have their final resting place. Confederate dead from Antietam were reinterred at Washington Confederate Cemetery in Hagerstown, Maryland.