Atop Reel Ridge: Examining Lee’s Fallback Position North of Sharpsburg

By 8:30 a.m. on the morning of September 17, 1862, the left end of Robert E. Lee’s line on the Sharpsburg Heights crumpled under repeated Federal blows. The Confederates of Alexander Lawton’s and J.R. Jones’s divisions had been forced back from their positions defending the high ground adjacent to the Dunker Church. Lee’s left still had three and one-half miles of open land behind it before reaching the banks of the Potomac River, but the commanding general feared for the fate of his left flank.

The red dots indicate Confederate artillery positions on Reel Ridge and around the Piper Farm during the Union breakthrough at the Sunken Road. Any Federals advancing further would do so into a concave formation of Confederate artillery.


Immediately, Lee began cobbling together his fallback position from the Dunker Church Plateau atop the Reel Ridge west of the Hagerstown Pike. He pulled together as many pieces of artillery he could find, a number that eventually totaled approximately 25 guns. Arriving infantry soon buttressed the defensive position, and the Federals never truly tested Lee’s position on Reel Ridge.

Reel Ridge proved crucially important to the preservation of the Army of Northern Virginia on September 17. The host of Confederate cannoneers and their pieces contained Israel Richardson’s breakthrough at the Sunken Road. Indeed, the Confederate artillerists outnumbered their Union counterparts on that part of the field: at least 25 guns to 6 Federal smoothbore pieces. One of those Southern guns even dealt Richardson his mortal wound from atop Reel Ridge, which effectively stopped any further Union incursions beyond the Sunken Road.

This annotated view from atop Reel Ridge shows the commanding nature of the position Lee chose as his left flank’s fallback point.

This past weekend, I had the pleasure of visiting Reel Ridge, which is currently owned by the Civil War Trust. The view from the top of the ridge is spectacular. Standing there and looking towards the Sunken Road gives one a clear picture of why Confederate artillery dominated the Federal artillerists in the area, and why any further advance by Richardson’s blue-coated infantry seemed improbable.

Since a visit to the top of Reel Ridge does not happen often, I thought I would share with the readers at Emerging Civil War the view from the top, with a few of my own annotations mixed in.

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