Antietam: The Fight for America's Destiny
Whether in blue or in gray, for the soldiers of General Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia and Major General George B. McClellan’s Army of the Potomac, Wednesday, September 17, 1862 was a date on which nothing could be held back. As the warriors of those two armies stared each other down along Antietam Creek near the Maryland village of Sharpsburg, they knew, as the historian James M. McPherson writes, “that the destiny of their respective nations-the United States and the Confederate States-rested on the outcome of” the battle that would take place here. Standing by their comrades, rallied around their respective flags, and fueled by their competing visions for the future, the fight that followed did indeed shape America’s destiny by changing the course of the Civil War.
Earlier that September, General Robert E. Lee had led his Army of Northern Virginia across the Potomac River into Maryland with the goal of achieving a war-winning victory on Northern soil. If Lee and his troops could get the job done in the East, and other rebel forces conducting offensives of their own in the West could find similar success, the major powers of Europe seemed poised to officially recognize the Confederate States of America. As the men in gray could sense, the attainment of Confederate independence was closer than ever before.
Confederate cavalry guiding the Army of Northern Virginia across the Potomac River into Maryland on the night of September 4-5, 1862. (Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Lee had momentum on his side, but his invasion into Maryland hit some stumbling blocks. The entire campaign threatened to unravel after a copy of Lee’s orders, which revealed the dispositions of his scattered army, fell into enemy hands. After suffering a defeat at South Mountain near Sharpsburg on September 14, Lee believed he had to abandon his campaign and return to Virginia to save his army from destruction. Circumstances, however, soon changed. After receiving word that his skilled subordinate, General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson had captured the Union garrison at Harper’s Ferry, Lee decided to seek a decisive battle once again and ordered his scattered units to march to Sharpsburg with urgency.
Although outnumbered nearly two to one, Lee and his 36,000 troops would make their stand along the high ground east of Sharpsburg. With both flanks anchored on water, the rebels “utilized the cover of small groves, rock outcroppings, stone walls, dips and swells in the rolling farmland, and a sunken road in the center of their line,” as described by McPherson. With his army undermanned and its only route of retreat being a single ford over the Potomac three miles to the rear, the late historian Bruce Catton concluded, “It is hard to find in all of Lee’s career any act more completely bold than his calm decision to stand and fight on the Antietam.” Thousands of Lee’s troops were shoeless, most of their uniforms were tattered rags, and nearly all felt the pangs of hunger in their bellies, but those same soldiers were battle-hardened warriors who stood with confidence, ready to follow their commander and win the fight that would secure Confederate independence.
General Robert E. Lee. (Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Since taking command of the Army of Northern Virginia earlier that summer, General Lee had handed the Union a series of dispiriting setbacks. Though those reversals had dampened morale among the soldiers of the Army of the Potomac, upon entering Maryland to confront the invading rebels, they receiving a warm welcome from the citizens of the state and felt reinvigorated. Reminded of their roles as guardians of the republic, the men in blue straightened their spines and moved forward with a resolute determination to defend the Union.
While General McClellan had missed his chance to destroy Lee’s army while it was separated, he still had the power capable of delivering a crushing blow to the rebels on September 17. McClellan had some 75,000 effective troops, but as he so often did, the Union commander believed that the enemy outnumbered him, when in reality he held the numerical advantage. Despite his usual overestimating of the enemy’s strength, McClellan formulated a solid battle plan, intending to send two of his corps, with another in support, to attack the Confederate left. After those troops were in action, Major General Ambrose E. Burnside’s Ninth Corps was “to fight its way across the Antietam on the Confederate right and cut off Lee’s retreat route to the Potomac ford,” as noted by McPherson. McClellan also held ample troops in reserve, including his cavalry, to exploit any breakthrough and to meet any counterattack launched by the enemy.
Major General George B. McClellan. (Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons)
The key to McClellan’s plan was proper coordination, which meant launching simultaneous attacks and applying maximum pressure against Lee’s line, keeping rebel troops in place and preventing Confederates from being shifted from quiet areas of the battlefield to threatened sectors. On the great day of battle, however, McClellan failed to coordinate those attacks and Lee would make him pay for it.
The battle that began at dawn on the 17th pushed the soldiers of both armies to their very limits, forcing them to fight harder than ever before. Throughout the morning, fighting raged on the left flank of the Confederate line, which was defended by “Stonewall” Jackson’s troops and backed up by other rebel reinforcements. Men in blue and gray battled back-and-forth, trading brutal hammer blows across a 30-acre cornfield, in what came to be known as the East and West Woods, and around a whitewashed church of the pacifist Dunkard sect. The cornfield alone changed hands no fewer than six times. As Major General Joseph Hooker, whose First Corps had begun the attack on the Confederate left at dawn described, “every stalk of corn in the northern and greater part of the field was cut as closely as with a knife,” adding that “the slain lay in rows precisely as they had stood in their ranks a few minutes before. It was never my fortune to witness a more bloody, dismal battlefield.” Exemplifying this carnage was the overwhelming price paid by the First Texas, a unit that was rushed into the cornfield to stem a Union breakthrough and lost 82 percent of its men in forty-five minutes of fighting.
Lone Star by Don Troiani, depicting the First Texas fighting in the cornfield at Antietam on the morning of September 17, 1862. (Photo Credit: Don Troiani)
Instead of attacking together that morning, the Union assaults went forward in three different stages, allowing Lee to shift troops from his center and right to meet and mount effective counterattacks against the waves launched by Hooker’s corps, Major General Joseph Mansfield’s Twelfth Corps, and elements of Major General Edwin Sumner’s Second Corps. As McPherson writes, after around four hours of fighting on the rebel left, “Twelve thousand men lay dead and wounded. Five Union and five Confederate divisions had been so cut up that they backed off as if by mutual consent and did no more serious fighting this day.” While the action on this part of the battlefield finally came to a bloody end, the overall fight was still far from over.
The severity of the combat continued to intensify and more grisly carnage followed during the midday phase of the battle, which saw Union and Confederate troops fighting for control of a sunken farm road southeast of the Dunkard Church. This position was the key to the rebel center and after the ferocious clash that took place here, it would forever be remembered as Bloody Lane. For four hours, waves of troops in blue went forward, trying to overcome the well-positioned soldiers in gray fighting from the trench-like cover offered by the sunken road. With superior numbers and firepower, the Federals ultimately broke through, sending shattered Confederate brigades back to the outskirts of Sharpsburg. A northern war correspondent arrived at the sunken road minutes after Union troops had captured it. He described the scene as a “ghastly spectacle” where “Confederates had gone down as the grass falls before the scythe.”
A photograph of Confederate dead in Bloody Lane. Captured by Alexander Gardner after the battle on September 19, 1862. (Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons)
The Union breakthrough at the sunken road left the rebel center wide open. “There was no body of Confederate infantry in this part of the field that could have resisted a serious advance,” reflected a southern officer. “Lee’s army was ruined, and the end of the Confederacy was in sight,” explained another. With more than 10,000 fresh troops in reserve, McClellan had the power to deliver a final knockout blow, but he failed to unleash it. Shaken by the heavy casualties suffered by his men that morning and still fearful that Lee outnumbered him and was massing his troops for a fierce counterattack, McClellan held his reserves back. As he told his Sixth Corps commander, Major General William B. Franklin, who pleaded to be sent forward, “It would not be prudent to make the attack.” McClellan missed his opportunity, giving Lee the chance to patch together a new line along his center. As had happened on the Confederate left, the center of the battlefield now also fell quiet.
It was a fight to the finish at Antietam and the final phase of the battle occurred on the Confederate right. Major General Ambrose E. Burnside had been tasked with getting his Ninth Corps across Antietam Creek and cutting off Lee’s escape route, but his troops faced stubborn resistance all morning. Stymied by a small band of Georgians holding the high ground overlooking the creek, Burnside’s troops finally fought their way over a bullet-strewn stone bridge and established a foothold on the Confederate right early that afternoon. By mid-afternoon, the Federals were pushing the Confederates hard, driving the rebels back towards Sharpsburg and threatening the road that led to the lone ford Lee could use to get his army across the Potomac. As Private David Thompson of the Ninth New York described, the intensity of the fighting here was so great that “the whole landscape for an instant turned slightly red."
Union soldiers fighting their way across the bullet-strewn stone bridge at Antietam on the afternoon of September 17, 1862. What was once called the Rohrbach Bridge became forever known as Burnside's Bridge after the battle. Painting by Don Troiani. (Photo Credit: Don Troiani)
Lee’s right flank was on the verge of collapse, but his salvation arrived just in the nick of time. After receiving word from his commander the night before to finalize the surrender of Harper’s Ferry and fast-track his troops to Sharpsburg, General A.P. Hill had set out early on the 17th and force-marched his division seventeen miles to reach the battlefield. Hundreds of Hill’s exhausted troops fell out of the marching column, but as McPherson reports, “enough men got to Sharpsburg to save the day.” Although the timely arrival of Hill’s division rolled up Burnside’s left flank, the right of the blue attacking line still remained strong. Rather than sending in his reserves to strengthen Burnside’s assault though, McClellan once again held back and sent no support. In the end, Lee’s line was left unbroken.
Darkness descended over the grounds that had witnessed the single bloodiest day in the history of the United States. Antietam was an apocalypse that left nearly 6,000 Union and Confederate soldiers dead or dying and another 17,000 wounded. As McPherson writes, “More American soldiers died at Sharpsburg (the Confederate name for the battle) than died in combat in all the other wars fought by this country in the nineteenth century combined: the War of 1812, the Mexican-American War, the Spanish American War, and all the Indian wars.” At Antietam, the soldiers of both armies truly gave everything they had fighting for America's destiny.
Confederate soldiers killed near the Dunkard Church on the morning of September 17, 1862. (Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons)
As Thursday, September 18, 1862 dawned, the Army of Northern Virginia numbered scarcely 30,000 men alive and unwounded. In spite of that, Lee and his staunch fighters continued to hold their ground, seemingly daring McClellan to renew the attack. McClellan initially seemed to think the clash would indeed recommence, sending a telegram that morning to Union General-in-Chief Henry Halleck professing that “the battle will probably be renewed today.” As McPherson notes, McClellan had “more fresh troops than Lee had men in his whole force.” That advantage in unspent men might have proven decisive, but McClellan decided not to attack and the day passed by without any major action. Later that night, the Confederate commander ordered his army back to Virginia. Lee’s first invasion of the North was over.
At Antietam, soldiers in blue and gray fought with tremendous tenacity and intrepidity, but the performances between the two men who led their respective armies were worlds apart. As McPherson notes, “Never during that long, bloody day from dawn to dusk did McClellan get more than 20,000 men into action at the same time; 20,000 of his soldiers did not fire a shot at all.” McClellan could have won a decisive victory, but he failed to coordinate his attacks or to send in his reserves when the Confederates were stretched to the breaking point. Although outnumbered, Lee’s men packed a powerful punch and he inspired those stout fighters to stand tall through his unwavering presence on the battlefield. As Keith Snyder, a Park Ranger at Antietam National Battlefield adds, “I think that almost every soldier in the Confederate Army saw his boss that day. . . .” Knowing that their commander was experiencing this fiery ordeal with them certainly meant a great deal to the men in the rebel ranks. Also of utmost importance, Lee adeptly shifted troops where they were needed at the right times, making wise decisions that helped his army withstand McClellan’s strong, albeit uncoordinated, assaults.
The Battle of Antietam was a tactical draw between the Army of the Potomac and the Army of Northern Virginia, but it emerged as an unquestionable strategic victory for the Union. Although Lee’s army was not destroyed and escaped back to the Old Dominion, his invasion ended in failure. After a summer of losses and setbacks, this outcome provided the Army of the Potomac and the Northern public with a much needed morale boost. On September 22, 1862, President Abraham Lincoln decided the time had finally come to issue his preliminary Emancipation Proclamation, which warned the states in rebellion that unless they returned to the Union by January 1, 1863, their slaves “shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free.” The combination of Antietam and emancipation shattered the momentum that had been growing in Britain and in France to recognize Confederate independence. Prior to Antietam, Lee and the Confederacy had been on the verge of victory, but after that momentous battle, the course of the Civil War changed. As one of Lee’s top commanders, James Longstreet would later write, “At Sharpsburg was sprung the keystone of the arch upon which the Confederate cause rested.” The war would rage on after Antietam, but that unforgettable fight was one big bloody step on the long and painful road that would eventually help transform America into one true nation under God, indivisible, and though imperfect at times, committed to fighting for liberty and justice for all.
American Battlefield Trust: An Inside Look at Antietam.
American Battlefield Trust: Battle of Antietam Facts & Summary.
Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era by James M. McPherson.
Crossroads of Freedom: Antietam by James M. McPherson.
Mr. Lincoln's Army (Army of the Potomac Trilogy Book One) by Bruce Catton.
National Park Service: A Short overview of the Battle of Antietam.