The view of the north side of the Burnside Bridge, from the west bank of Antietam Creek, in September 1862. Photographed by Alexander Gardner. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Civil War Glass Negatives and Related Prints collection.
The scene in 2021:
As explained in more detail in the previous post, the Burnside Bridge—or lower bridge, as it had previously been known—was the focal point of the later phase of the Battle of Antietam on September 17, 1862. Ahead of the battle, the Confederates under Robert E. Lee had taken a defensive position near the town of Sharpsburg, with a line of soldiers that extended north to south. The southern end of his line was anchored on the heights just to the west of this bridge, and this led to intense fighting for control over the bridge.
Opposing the Confederates in the vicinity of the bridge was General Ambrose Burnside, whose IX Corps was positioned to the east of here, in the distance on the left side of this scene. However, because of poor coordination on the part of the Union commander, General George B. McClellan, Burnside received no orders until around 10:00 a.m., long after the fighting had begun on the northern part of the battlefield.
Despite the bridge being defended by only 500 Confederate soldiers, it took Burnside’s 4,000-man corps several hours to take the bridge, suffering about 500 casualties in the process. The Union forces finally took the bridge around 1:00 p.m., but Burnside delayed in moving his men, and they did not all cross until around 3:00 p.m. This gave the Confederates time to gather reinforcements, and rather than striking a decisive blow at the Confederate line, Burnside’s soldiers were faced with fresh Confederate soldiers commanded by A. P. Hill. The final portion of the battle occurred on the heights to the west of the bridge, to the right of where these photos were taken, and it was largely inconclusive, with Burnside’s soldiers managing to hold the bridge but unable to gain much ground.
The bridge came to be known as Burnside Bridge in his honor, although his actions here did face criticism. Some criticized his delays in moving his corps over the bridge, while others questioned whether the Union could have simply waded across the shallow creek, rather than making a costly and time-consuming effort to seize the bridge. Nonetheless, he was subsequently promoted to command of the Army of the Potomac in November, but he was ultimately dismissed after the disastrous Battle of Fredericksburg, which likewise involved a time-consuming crossing of a waterway.
The first photo was taken only days after the battle, by prominent Civil War photographer Alexander Gardner. Today, not much has changed here in this scene. The bridge is still standing, as is one of the trees from the first photo. Barely noticeable on the far left side of the first photo is a small sycamore tree, which now towers over the bridge in the present-day scene. It is the most famous “witness tree” at Antietam, and both the tree and the bridge itself are major landmarks here at the Antietam National Battlefield.