As the morning passed, the battle on the left lulled with both sides glad of an interval of rest. It was apparent that General McClellan's next attempt would be made upon the centre and General Lee and General Daniel H. Hill rode over to caution the leaders and bid them to hold their ground at any sacrifice. A break at that point, he told them, might prove ruinous to the army. He especially charged Colonel Gordon, the senior officer, who was at the very centre of the line, to stand stiffly with his men, as his small force would feel the first brunt of the expected assault. Gordon, likely to give hope to Lee and Hill, as well as to inspire his own men, said in reply for all to hear, "These men are going to stay here, General, till the sun goes down or victory is won."
A short time afterwards, while the men busied themselves by piling rails along their front, in an attempt to improve their defences, General Lee’s prediction came true. With 7500 Yankees bearing down on them, the Confederate skirmishers wasted little time in vacating the buildings of the Roulette farm and hurried back to their own lines. Lee had hardly gotten back to the left of his line when the Union assault began. It was a beautiful and brilliant day, scarcely a cloud mantling the sky. Down the slope opposite marched through the clear sunlight a powerful column of Federal troops. Crossing the little Antietam Creek they formed in column of assault, four lines deep. Their commander, nobly mounted, placed himself at their right, while the front line came to a "charge bayonets" and the other lines to a "right shoulder shift." In the rear front the band blared out martial music to give inspiration to the men. Every man of them wore white gaiters and neat attire, while the dust and smoke of battle had surely never touched the banners that floated above their heads. Were they new recruits from some military camp, now first to test their training in actual war? In the sunlight the long line of bayonets gleamed like burnished silver. As if fresh from the parade-ground they advanced with perfect alignment, their steps keeping martial time to the steady beat of the drum. It was a magnificent spectacle as the line advanced, a show of martial beauty which it seemed a shame to destroy by the rude hand of war.
One thing was evident to Colonel Gordon. His opponent proposed to trust to the bayonet and attempt to break through Lee's centre by the sheer weight of his deep charging column. It might be done, there were only about 2500 Confederates opposing them. Here were four lines of blue marching on the one in gray. How should the charge be met? By immediate and steady fire, or by withholding his fire till the lines were face to face, and then pouring upon the Federals a blighting storm of lead? Gordon decided on the latter, believing that a sudden and withering burst of deadly hail in the faces of men with empty guns would be more than any troops could stand. All the horses were sent to the rear and the men were ordered to lie down in the grass, they being told by their officers that the Federals were coming with unloaded guns, trusting to the bayonet, and that not a shot must be heard until the word "Fire!" was given. This would not be until the Federals were close at hand. On came the long lines, still as steady and precise in movement as if upon holiday drill. Not a rifle-shot was heard only the marching of the columns. As neither side had artillery at this point, no roar of cannon broke the strange silence.
One of the Union regiments in this advance was the 1st Delaware Infantry. Moving forward through the woods and into a cornfield, the advancing Delawarean's came out into about 100 yards of open pastureland at the end of which was a sunken road some four feet below ground level. The 1st Delaware's Colonel John Andrews tipped his hat to the Rebel officers on the other side to which they responded in kind. They were opposing the men of the Alabama Brigade. The awaiting men in gray grew eager and impatient and had to be kept in restraint by their officers. "Wait! wait for the word!" was the admonition. Yet it was hard to lie there while that line of bayonets came closer and closer, until the eagles on the buttons of the blue coats could be seen, and at length the front rank was not twenty yards away. Colonel Andrews of the 1st Delaware dashed in front of his line with the order: "Charge!”
The time had come. With all the power of his lungs Gordon shouted out the word "Fire!" In an instant there burst from the prostrate line a blinding blaze of light, and a frightful hail of bullets rent through the Federal ranks. Terrible was the effect of that consuming volley. Almost the whole front rank of the foe seemed to go down in a mass. But the relentless attack by the Federals would continue as unit after unit was brought forward. After nearly three hours of combat, the Federals brought up batteries and planted them on the flank, which exposed the regiment there engaged, the 6th Alabama, to a cross as well as direct fire, which nothing living could stand. By this point, Colonel Gordon had been severely wounded, so Lieutenant Colonel Lightfoot of the 6th Alabama went to General Rodes to inform him that his right wing was being exposed to a withering enfilading fire and he had but few men left on that side. He was ordered to hurry back and move his right wing back out of the road. Instead of executing the order, he moved briskly to the rear of his regiment and gave the command, “Sixth Alabama, about face; forward march.” Lieutenant Colonel Hobson of the 5th Alabama, seeing this, asked him if the order was intended for the whole brigade. The answer was “Yes”, so immediately his regiment, along with the others to their left, retreated. General Rodes hastened to intercept them at the Hagerstown Road. He found though, that with the exception of a few men from the 26th, 12th and 3rd Alabama, as well as some men from the 5th Alabama under Lieutenant Colonel Hobson, perhaps forty in all, the whole brigade had dispersed and left the field.
The Yankees rushed forward into the sunken road, firing into the backs of the retreating Confederates. The Rebels drew forward their artillery to halt the onslaught. About seventy rounds of canister were poured into the Federal line which was less than seventy yards away. As artillerymen went down, infantry men, even General Longstreet and his staff, served the guns. It was obvious to all that the centre must not be broken. The batteries were soon firing double charges of canister from the red hot barrels. Gunners avoided the time consuming task of swabbing the barrels after each discharge by “thumbing the vents”, a dangerous process by which a Gunner kept his thumb over the gun vent to prevent oxygen from entering the chamber and setting off the charge prematurely while the loaders tamped in powder and shot. When the gunner removed his thumb the cannon immediately fired. Firing these heavy double canister loads, made the gun recoil four or five feet and the gunner who was firing with his thumb had to ride the gun back. A commander of a Federal regiment facing this onslaught commented later that the artillery fire coming out of the orchard was the most effective he had ever experienced and that no one could survive its’ fire.
The Federals finally gave way and the Confederates counter attacked. The enemy being largely reinforced, returned to the slaughter, and in time, forced the Confederate line back towards the Piper barn, which position it held until the close of the day. The sunken road remained unoccupied for the rest of the battle becoming a sort of no man’s land between the two armies. This “Bloody Lane” was filled with dead, for the few wounded which sought cover there were by now surely decimated by the storm of Confederate canister. By about one o’clock in the afternoon, the fighting around the sunken road had ceased. After about four hours of continuous combat the Federal had loss about three thousand men, the Confederates two thousand, two hundred.
At nightfall, when the carnage ceased, so many of the soldiers in gray had fallen that, as one of the officers afterward said, he could have walked on the dead bodies of the men from end to end of the line. How true this was Colonel Gordon was unable to say, for by this time he was himself a wreck, fairly riddled with bullets. The first volley from the Federal troops sent a bullet whirling through the calf of his right leg. Soon after another ball went through the same leg, at a higher point. As no bone was broken, he was still able to walk along the line and encourage his men to bear the deadly fire which was sweeping their lines. Later in the day a third ball came, this passing through his arm, rending flesh and tendons, but still breaking no bone. Through his shoulder soon came a fourth ball, carrying a wad of clothing into the wound. The men begged their bleeding commander to leave the field, but he would not flinch, though fast growing faint from loss of blood. Finally came the fifth ball, this time striking him in the face, and passing out, just missing the jugular vein. Falling, he lay unconscious with his face in his cap, into which poured the blood from his wound until it threatened to smother him. It might have done so but for still another ball, which pierced the cap and let out the blood.
A Federal soldier said this in the aftermath of the battle. “About the center of our line, the rebels occupied a road which ran from the Hagerstown pike to one leading from Sharpsburg to Boonsboro. This road had been dug or washed out some three or four feet below the surface of the ground upon either side of it. For a distance of nearly half a mile hundreds of dead rebels were piled in this road – all shot through the head. I counted upwards of seven hundred and stopped.”
A Confederate officer continues: “It was a dreadful scene, a veritable field of blood. The dead and dying lay as thick over it as harvest sheaves. The pitiable cries for water and appeals for help were much more horrible to listen to than the deadliest sounds of battle. Silent were the dead, and motionless. But here and there were raised stiffened arms; heads made a last effort to lift themselves from the ground; prayers were mingled with oaths, the oaths of delirium; men were wriggling over the earth; and midnight hid all distinction between the blue and the grey. My horse trembled under me in terror, looking down at the ground, sniffing the scent of blood, stepping falteringly as a horse will over or by the side of human flesh; afraid to stand still, hesitating to go on, his animal instinct shuddering at the cruel human mystery. Once his foot slid into a little shallow filled with blood and spurted a little stream on his legs and my boots. I had had a surfeit of blood that day and I couldn’t stand this. I dismounted and giving the reins to my courier I started on foot into the wood of Dunker Church.”
The Battle of Sharpsburg was over by 5:30 P.M. Losses for the day were heavy on both sides. The Union had 12,401 casualties with 2,108 dead. Confederate casualties were 10,318 with 1,546 dead.