Tour Stop 7 Sunken Road



This farm lane served as a breastwork for the Con­federate center. For about three hours 2,200 Confederates, later reinforced by ad­ditional troops, held off the attacks of a combined Union force numbering nearly 10,000. Finally, just after noon, this thin gray line collapsed and fell back several hundred yards to the Piper Farm. The Union attackers had suffered too many casualties to pursue their advantage. Seeing the dead in the road an observer wrote, "They were lying in rows like the ties of a rail­road, in heaps like cordwood mingled with the splintered and shattered fence rails. Words are inadequate to portray the scene."


A Simple Farm Lane Changed Forever

During the early hours of the battle, Col. John Brown Gordon promised Robert E. Lee: "These men are going to stay here, General, till the sun goes down or victory is won." The Confederate troops that Gordon commanded were part of a well protected line of over 2,200 men hunkered down behind piled-up fence rails in this well worn sunken road.

When the Federal attacks shifted south at approximately 9:30 a.m., the Confederates held their fire until the last possible second. Then, as Gordon remembered, "My rifles flamed and roared in the Federals' faces like a blinding blaze of lightning…the entire line, with few exceptions, went down in the consuming blast."

For more than three hours thousands of men blazed away at each other at point-blank range. Eventually the overwhelming Union numbers and confusion in the Confederate ranks forced the defenders back. When the fighting subsided, 5,500 soldiers lay dead or wounded on the field and in the road. That number included Col. Gordon, who had been hit five different times. After the deadly struggle for this sunken road, soldiers who fought here described it as the "road of death" and a "ghastly flooring." From that day forward, the road has been known as Bloody Lane.

"Heaps Upon Heaps Were There in Death's Embrace"
Confederate Soldier in the 3rd Alabama Infantry

Map of the fighting at Bloody Lane

Within the first few hours of the battle, Gen. D. H. Hill sent more than half of his 5,000 soldiers to reinforce the northern end of the Confederate line. Of the two brigades that remained in the lane, one was commanded by Gen. Robert Rodes and the other by Gen. G.B. Anderson. Combined, they numbered about 2,200 men.

(2) The first Federal soldiers to attack the Sunken Road were Gen. William H. French's troops. At approximately 9:30 a.m., these men crested the ridges just in front of the Sunken Road, and the bloody work began. French had close to 5,000 men under his command.

(3) About 10:30 a.m. Gen. Israel Richardson's division, led by the famous Irish Brigade, advanced and added over 4,000 soldiers to a Union attack where "the missiles of death were flying so thickly."

(4) Some 3,800 Confederate reinforcements, under Gen. Richard H. Anderson, attempted to strengthen the line in the road, but were unsuccessful. Near 1:00 p.m., Richardson's men broke through and captured the Sunken Road. As the Confederates retreated, one soldier remembered that "the minnie balls, shot and shell rained upon us from every direction except the rear."

Some of the Federal troops were able to continue south to the Piper Farm, but were driven back by a desperate Confederate stand. When the fighting ended, over 5,000 soldiers had been killed or wounded. Neither side gained a decisive advantage.


Open Transcript 


Hi folks. My name is Mike Gamble. I'm a park Ranger here at Antietam National Battlefield. We're standing here at stop #7 the Sunken Road.

After the battle on September the 17th, 1862, farmers and townspeople from the surrounding area came here to witness first hand the carnage of the battle. One resident of Sharpsburg said this she said this is not a sunken road, this is a bloody lane. During the years leading up to the Civil War, farmers in the Sharpsburg community took their heavy wagons filled with grain to a grist mill along the Antietam Creek to avoid town and make a faster journey. A shortcut from the Hagerstown Pike to the Boonesborough Pike became very popular among the residents. Because of the heavy use and erosion, several parts of the road were worn down below the surface and people called it, the Sunken Road.

To the Confederate Army, however, this terrain provided a ready made rifle pit and an excellent fall back position. At about 9:00 AM over 2500, soldiers from Major General Daniel H Hills Division took position here, formed the barricades with the fence rails, and awaited the advance of the Union Army. After failing to dislodge the Confederates in the West Woods, Major General Edwin Voe Sumner relied on his other two divisions to protect his left flank.

Major General William French arrived on the field at 9:30 AM and directed his three brigades to the southeast past the Mumma Farm and then the Roulette Farm. Moving through cornfields, plowed fields and orchards. Union soldiers advanced within range of Confederate artillery and rifle fire. Colonel John Brown Gordon, commanding the 6th Alabama, reassured General Lee. He said, “general, these men are going to stay here until the sun goes down or victory is won.”

As Union Brigadier General Max Webber led his brigade over the Ridge in front of the sunken Rd. Volleys of rifle fire tore into his three regiments. Gordon described the action, “with all my lung power, I shouted fire. Rifles flamed and roared in the federal's faces like a blinding blaze of lightning, accompanied by the quick and deadly Thunderbolt. The effect was appalling. The entire frontline, with few exceptions, went down in the consuming blast. Within 5 minutes, 450 union men were struck down. The other two brigades, under French suffered a similar fate as they moved towards the road and went to ground.”

At 10:00 AM, Confederate Major General Richard Anderson's division moved up from Sharpsburg through the Piper Farm to reinforce Major General Daniel H Hills. B lingered men. As they pass through the Piper Orchard and cornfield artillery shells from union batteries across the Antietam blasted the ranks. Suffering a serious wound, Anderson was carried from the battlefield and replaced by Major General Roger Pryor. Floundering without strong leadership, Anderson's attacks stalled as Union Major General Israel Richardson ordered his lead brigade into battle. Brigadier General Thomas F Marr had four regiments in his brigade, three of which were composed of men with Irish ancestry.

Known as the Irish Brigade, Mar led his men over 600 yards of farm fields toward the center of the sunken road. As the regiments approached the Confederate positions, they were met by rifle fire tearing into their ranks. Replaced by Colonel John Caldwell's brigade. Union men pushed forward until they flanked the upper part of the sunken.

The Confederates caught in a devastating crossfire, were forced to retreat. Major General Robert Rhodes was surprised to see his brigade break from their positions and retreat toward the Piper Farm in the Hagerstown Pike. Major General George B Anderson suffered a mortal wound and was carried from the battlefield.

The federal troops surged into the lane and drove the Confederates into Mr. Piper's cornfield. When Major General Richardson placed an artillery battery on elevated ground to support his attack, he was struck by Confederate shell fragments and replaced by Major General Winfield E Hancock. Counterattacks ordered by Confederate Major James Longstreet failed to regain lost ground. Ordered by Major General McClellan to stand down and stabilize his position, Union troops pulled back to the sunken Rd.

During the action at the sunken Rd. the center of the Confederate battle line was forced back to the Hyper Farm. However, the Union failed to break through the Confederate position and drive toward the Potomac River. Over 5000 soldiers were killed or wounded. Both sides failed to gain a decisive advantage.

As the Union advanced struck at the sunken Rd. Union General Ambrose Burnside of the Union 9th Corps was ordered by Major General McClellan to capture the lower bridge and then advance upon Confederate positions around Sharpsburg.

Join us at the next tour Stop Tour, Stop 8 the Burnside Bridge.

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Sunken Road Tour Stop 7



Last updated: April 16, 2023

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