The bulk of of the Army of Northern Virginia reformed at the hamlet of Sharpsburg, Maryland. The Union army outnumbered them two to one, and the Confederate position backed up against the Potomac River. Only a single bridge allowed the army to retreat to Virginia. Crab wrote:
“[W]e retreated to Sharpsburg, Maryland, and were drawn up in line of battle fronting McClellan for several days before the battle opened. I well remember seeing Gen’l Stonewall Jackson pass by us with his command on his way from Harpers’ Ferry (where he had captured 10,000 of the enemy), to aid us in the coming battle. I will never forget how dusty he looked. You could not distinguish the color of his clothes or of the horse he was riding. His whole command was that way, it was so dusty.”
The army slept in position. The Texas Brigade retired a few hundred yards to Dunker Church – which still stands – to cook breakfast. “No meat had been issued for several days, and only reduced rations of flour.” Alexander, Memoirs p. 254. Crab wrote:
“[Jackson] got to us just in time, for the next day Gen’l McClellan attacked us. While it was grim in sight, it was not without its beauty, for at least 50,000 of his troops could be seen at one time by us as the country was so open.”
At dawn on September 17, 1862, McClellan’s army assaulted Lee’s left flank through Miller’s Cornfield, about 20 acres. The corn, unharvested, stood eight to 10 feet high. General Joseph Hooker with ten brigades shoved the Confederate line out of the cornfield. An urgent call for help brought the Texas Brigade back to the battle line “before many of the men had time to do more than to prepare their dough.” Memoirs, p. 254.
Regardless, the Texas Brigade formed a line of battle and moved into the cornfield.
The brigade caught the Union troops by surprise and routed them. When the Confederates reached the other end of the cornfield, however, canister from the Union artillery tore their lines apart. They retreated, but the Confederates had stopped the attack in the cornfield.
The marker on the battlefield says the entire Texas brigade went into action with 854 men. The brigade lost 560 killed, wounded, or missing. That means the brigade lost two-thirds of its men killed or wounded.
Of all five regiments in the brigade, the 1st Texas lost 186 of its 256 men – 82 percent. That remains the highest percentage of casualties sustained by any combat unit in the war.
Meanwhile, the 4th Georgia moved to the support of the Texas Brigade along the right of the cornfield. Crab wrote:
“The attack began about sunrise with great force. Where my company was, it looked like it was going to succeed and beat us back. Several of our company were shot down before we had hardly shot a gun, including all of our company officers superior to me (second sergeant was the place I held at that time). When the battle was over, I commanded the company for a while.”
The fire wounded General Ripley, the brigade commander, but he remained astride his horse on the field. According to the regimental hstory:
“We moved by the left . . . through an open field, and took position on a ridge overlooking an immense corn field which seemed literally alive with Yankees. The regiment suffered great loss there; had three color-bearers shot in a few moments. Ammunition was now exhausted and the regiment was withdrawn and sent to the rear to replenish.”
H. Thomas, History of the Doles-Cook Brigade, p. 69 (Atlanta 1903).
Of Company D, Crab wrote:
“I made one or two narrow escapes that day, and several of my company were shot just touching me or near enough to touch me. I well remember that Gen’l Ripley, who commanded our brigade, was shot in the neck but not disabled. How bloody he looked as he rode in front of us during the day. This is said to have been the hardest contested battle of the war, and one more evenly matched, with less advantage gained by either side.”
Maps published in R. Bailey, The Bloodiest Day (Time-Life Books, Alexandria, Va., 19184), pp. 69, 78, show the counter-attack of the Texas Brigade and the path of Ripley’s Brigade in supporting the right of the Texans.
The Union now shifted its assault to the center of the line, which also held, barely. On the Confederate left in the afternoon, the Union IX Corps finally overran Burnside’s Bridge, which Georgia sharpshooters had held all day. The Union now formed a mile-long line of battle and began to roll up the Confederate right. The battle seemed lost.
But Jackson’s last division (commanded by General A. P. Hill) arrived from the battle at Harper’s Ferry in the midst of chaos. They swung into the Union line and drove them out in confusion.
General Alexander saw no reason for Lee to fight this battle. As he summed up (Memoirs, p. 249),
“[L]ee took a great risk for no chance of gain except the killing of some thousands of the enemy with the loss of, perhaps, two-thirds as many of his own men. That was a losing game for the Confederacy. Its supply of men was limited; that of the enemy was not. That was not war! Yet now, who would have it otherwise? History must be history and could not afford to lose this battle from its records. For the nation is immortal and will forever prize and cherish the record made that day by both sides, as actors in the boldest and bloodiest battle ever fought upon this continent.”
Almost 23,000 men were killed, wounded, or missing. After all the wars of the Twentieth Century, Sharpsburg remains the bloodiest day in American history.