The battle of Sharpsburg was fought in three major stages and A P Hill completely missed the first two: Stonewall Jackson’s men wrested for control of the Miller Cornfield and the Dunker Church in the morning, and then later in the day, the Union troops nearly over ran the Confederates holding onto a sunken road in the field’s center known as “The Bloody Lane.” The third stage was fought near a stone bridge that spanned the Antietam creek by General Ambrose Burnside, one of Hill’s old West Point classmates.
Word had gone out early that Hill was needed, and he had Division on the road marching hard and with speed towards the battle. The day was hot and the dust hung in a very thick and choking veil. But speed was important as Lee’s army was badly outnumbered and fighting for it’s very life. As the day wore on, matters became more and more desperate for the badly outnumbered and thinly stretched Lee who was forced to shift his bloodied units to each new point of crisis.
As it would turn out, only Hill and McClellan’s cautiousness would save Lee from disaster. As Burnside, who had finally fought his way across the “Lower Bridge” that now bears his name, readied for his attack and to deliver the final coup de grace on the right, Lee looked through his glasses. He saw the dust of a rapidly approaching column from the southwest. “Who’s troops are those?” he asked anxiously. An aide looked through his glass and said, “they are flying the Virginia flags.” Lee exclaimed “It is A.P. Hill is from Harper’s Ferry!”
A.P. Hill had “come up” — just in the nick of time The legend was born. Riding ahead of his division, Hill was met by an embrace from Robert E. Lee — probably the only time that happened on a field of battle!
The National Park Service web site states what happened next:
At 3:40 p.m. Gen. A. P. Hill’s division, left behind by Jackson at Harpers Ferry to salvage the captured Federal property, arrived on the field after a march of 17 miles in eight hours. Immediately Hill’s 3,000 troops entered the fight, attacking the Federals’ unprotected left flank. Burnside’s troops were driven back to the heights near the bridge they had taken earlier. The attack across the Burnside Bridge and Hill’s counterattack in the fields south of Antietam resulted in 3,470 casualties–with twice as many Union casualties (2,350) as Confederate (1,120).
A soldier remembered how Hill showed his intolerance for cowardice at the battle:
At Sharpsburg he (Hill) arrived late in the engagement because of a forced march from Harper’s Ferry, crossing at Boteler’s ford, near Shepherdstown. While hurrying to take position on the line he encountered a second lieutenant of some command crouching behind a tree.His indignation was so wrought up that he took the lieutenant’s sword and broke it over him.
His intolerance for cowardice was mainly towards officers, however. To a trembling soldier who told him “I can not stand it, General” Hill told him to simply go to the rear so he would not cause other good men would not run.
Henry Kyd Douglas, Stonewall’s aide who had helped get Hill released from arrest, recalled in Battles and Leaders that:
But then, just then, A.P. Hill, picturesque in his red battleshirt, with 3 of his brigades, 2500 men, who had marched 17 miles from Harpers Ferry and had waded the Potomac, appeared upon the scene. Tired and footsore, the men forgot their woes in that supreme moment, and with no breathing time braced themselves to meet the coming shock. They met it and stayed it. The blue line staggered and hesitated, and hesitating, was lost. At the critical moment A.P. Hill was always at his strongest. … Again A.P. Hill, as at Manassas, Harper’s Ferry, and elsewhere had struck with the right hand of Mars. No wonder both Lee and Jackson, when, in the delirium of their last moments on earth, they stood again to battle saw the form of A.P. Hill leading his columns on; but it is a wonder and a shame that the grave of this valiant Virginian has not a stone to mark it and keep it from oblivion.
The Army of Northern Virginia had escaped disaster because of Hill and his Division’s speed and hard-hitting fighting.