By sunrise on September 17, 1862, the Confederate guns waited on the left flank. Ordered to guard “Stonewall” Jackson’s flank and use the high ground advantage to blast Union attackers, the assembled cannons and crews prepared for battle. General J. E B. Stuart had been tasked with covering the flank, and Stuart and his horse artillery commander—Captain John Pelham—ably directed the guns since Jackson’s chief of artillery had remained behind in Harpers Ferry.
The artillery batteries pulled into line on Nicodemus Heights and Hauser Ridge had been gathered from other commands since some of Jackson’s own artillery had also been delayed at Harpers Ferry. Though a total of forty guns would play a role in the Confederate left flank and West Woods defense, the morning opened with about fifteen cannon on Nicodemus Heights directly under Pelham’s command, including the Stuart Horse Artillery, three cannon from the Staunton Artillery, the Alleghany Artillery, and a battery from Danville, Virginia. One of these cannons “opened” the battle, beginning a duel just as the sun’s light turned the morning darkness into a smoky gray.
Across the lines, batteries from Union General Joseph Hooker’s corps responded to Pelham’s fire. Though the Union cannons had a better position, their aim had to be absolutely perfect to actual hit the enemy guns nestled in the irregular terrain on Nicodemus Heights, but every shot from the Confederate pieces blasted into Union camps or waiting troops.
As Hooker prepared for his infantry attack, he moved his artillery, taking some fire power off Nicodemus Heights and allowing Pelham to alter position for better effect. The Confederate artillery repositioned, firing into North Woods and creating a deadly fire pattern into the Cornfield. However, Union batteries stationed near the Poffenberger Farm threw shot and shell at Nicodemus Heights, offering a small distraction and pulling some of the Confederate artillery into a duel which kept their fire power away from the forming infantry attack. The Staunton Artillery and other crews used the back slope of Nicodemus Heights to their advantage, allowing the cannons’ recoil to position the gun just behind the brow of the hill; there, they cleaned and reloaded in relative safety, before pushing the gun back to the crest for another shot.
As Union attacks pressed toward Jackson’s infantry line, Early’s brigade of foot soldiers were directed to provide protection for the artillery. However, Stuart—aware of the danger—ordered Pelham to pull the guns off Nicodemus Heights and reposition about 1,000 yards to the south on Hauser Ridger, to the rear of Dunker’s Church and West Woods. The Confederates accomplished this move either just before or during the Union XII Corps attack which pressed the position in front of Hauser Ridge.
In his essay about Confederate artillery at Antietam, historian Robert Krick pointed out several advantages to the relocation at Hauser Ridge, including removal from the range of Union artillery, a shorter distance for resupplying the ammunition boxes, direct support for Jackson’s struggling infantry line, and a clear escape route toward the Potomac if the battle went badly. It is still debated whether Stuart and Pelham had the guns fire on the XII Corps advancing on West Woods, but it seems probably that they held fire since effective shots would require a trajectory over the trees and very specific shot placement to avoid hitting the Confederate infantrymen. However, as the Union attack reached West Woods, they met “the most terrific fire of grape and canister,” almost running directly into the fire range of the guns Pelham placed on the ridge. When the Union attacks on Jackson’s line had been repulsed, Stuart and Pelham followed, successfully using a “leap frog” pattern to keep their artillery in range of the retreating Federals and eventually reoccupying Nicodemus Heights and successfully used a “leap frog” pattern to bring their artillery back to that position.
Throughout the day, Stuart and Pelham used a series of conventional and unconventional methods as they handled the guns. Several times on September 17, they borrowed a page from Horse Artillery tactics with these regular batteries, having them move position suddenly and rapidly for either more advantageous fire power or battery protection.
Around 5pm, General Lee ordered a reconnaissance probe toward the Union right flank. General Fitz Lee’s cavalry joined by eight rifled guns directly under Pelham’s command headed out. Pelham found a semi-sheltered position and engaged thirty Union guns, but after a short time Stuart called off the attempted attack and reconnaissance.
Interestingly, Stuart and Pelham managed the flank defense and artillery fire for Jackson’s line at Antietam with no evidence that “Stonewall” checked on their work. On other battlefields, Jackson micromanaged his artillery, and it would have been typical for him to have been checking in or following up regularly on gun placement on September 16 or the actual artillery battle on September 17. The argument can be raised that Jackson was simply too occupied trying to handle his infantry and repulse the assaults, but it seems out of the ordinary for Jackson to hand over his guns, especially when his trust artillery chief, Stapleton Crutchfield, was not present.
When Jackson hands over his artillery to Stuart and a twenty-four year old captain, it marks a moment of leadership trust. The events and battlefield experiences on the Peninsula and at Second Manassas had assured Jackson that he could trust Stuart’s judgment and he could trust Pelham’s artillery expertise. At Second Manassas, Jackson had given Pelham “free reign” to go anywhere on his battlefield to harass the Yankees; at Antietam, Jackson handed over approximately forty guns to the cavalry officers.
As for J. E. B. Stuart, his role at Antietam was in classic cavalry tactics: guard the flank. However, with artillery batteries under his command, Stuart adapted his defense that day. Though he allowed Pelham to work his deadly magic, Stuart controlled the situation, making the decision to pull the guns back to Hauser Ridger and later return to Nicodemus Heights. He also ordered his impetuous captain out of potentially disastrous attack at the end of the day.
John Pelham’s experiences at Antietam pushed his artillery command skills to a new level. Already refining the destructive art of mobile artillery, he oversaw lines of guns in this battle. However, in an interesting play of tactics, Pelham occasionally had these other batteries maneuver like his horse artillery. Several times, he altered positions to confuse Union gunners, and he ably oversaw the removal to Hauser Ridge with a remarkable speed. Arguably, Pelham’s experiences at Antietam—including experimenting in advance positions with limited guns—taught him lessons that would lead to one of his finest artillery moments a few weeks later during the battle of Fredericksburg.
John Esten Cooke, one of Stuart’s staff officers and a major voice in the Pelham fan club, later wrote about the Confederate artillery on Jackson’s flank at Antietam:
At Sharpsburg he [Pelham] had command of nearly all the artillery on our left, and directed it with the hand of a master…. I admired now, more than ever, the splendid genius for artillery which this mere boy possessed. There is a genius for everything—Pelham’s was to fight artillery.
The Confederate artillery on the left flank at Antietam proved the success of gun handling and leadership trust. When necessity forced Jackson to hand over the guns to Stuart and Pelham, another military partnership emerged. Stuart might have seemed like an unlikely choice for acting chief of artillery, but his experience protecting flanks paired with Pelham’s expertise with the guns created a stunningly successful operation. The ability to handle artillery adaptively, changing plans and positions as the battle unfolded, hallmarked the Confederate artillery on Jackson’s flank in this battle and were tactics Stuart and Pelham had spent months perfecting on other battlefields.
Gallagher, Gary W. (ed.) The Antietam Campaign. (University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill, 1999). Essay by Robert E. L. Krick, “Defending Lee’s Flank: J.E.B. Stuart, John Pelham, and Confederate Artillery on Nicodemus Heights,” pages 192-222.
Maxwell, Jerry. The Perfect Lion. (University of Alabama Press, Tuscaloosa, 2011.) Pages 155-174.