Question of the Week for Dec. 11, 2012

What was the superior defensive position: the Sunken Road at Antietam, the Sunken Road at Fredericksburg, or the Sunken Road at Shiloh?

Battle of Shiloh
Battle of Shiloh

7 Responses to Question of the Week for Dec. 11, 2012

  1. Today, the lightning-fast media can create a new concept within hours. But even in the mid-nineteenth century, I have often wondered if the most salient sunken road was first described as such; then other similar defensive positions, in retrospect, had that description applied to them? Can anyone find the farm road in front of the Hornet’s Nest at Shiloh described as a “sunken road” in any reports during 1862? My suspicion is that you cannot.

    1. As I recall from my reading, the one at Shiloh was definitely not contemporaneously described as such. It first appeared later, perhaps 20 years, in veterans’ recollections. But I don’t think that altogether discounts the usage of the term. There is obviously some archetypal concept of a sunken road that gave rise to its appearance in all these different places, and I think it must be attributable to more than the fact that it was so named elsewhere. Perhaps it is a gratefulness for a fortuitous protection that was just there for the offing. Or the poetic image–appealing during Victorian times. Maybe a few inches seems much more significant and memorable when one has been under fire than it does to later battlefield walkers. Anyway, whether the term appeared right away, when soldiers were ordered to more immediate concerns, or later–it was a description that came from those who were there, so I think we have to accept it as such.

      1. Amanda, your points are all well taken. As most readers here, I have personally visited each of the three “sunken” roads. The one at Shiloh is much shallower. This, in spite of the fact that the old Natchez Trace runs through very similar soil and terrain, and is still very deeply warn – several feet, in fact. If, twenty years after I had fought at Shiloh, I read of the action at the sunken road in Antietam; I too, would probably identify with the one to two feet of protection, and say that a sunken road protected me from Ruggles’ canon barrage at Shiloh. (With justifiable reasoning)

  2. As I recall from my reading (without going back to check it), the sunken road at Fredericksburg was the only one that was not eventually overrun (at least not on the day of the main battle; it was in the next battle there). So even though the Sunken Road position at Shiloh may have single-handedly saved Grant’s army, and the one at Antietam stymied McClellan’s advance in the battlefield center for quite some time, I would pick Fredericksburg because it held.

  3. I had ancestors fighting at all three: Shiloh: 3rd Misssissippi Battalion; Antietam: 20th North Carolina; Fredericksburg: 18th Mississippi.

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