Battle of Antietam Begins

Battle of Antietam Begins

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Beginning early on the morning of September 17, 1862, Confederate and Union troops in the Civil War clash near Maryland’s Antietam Creek in the bloodiest single day in American military history.

The Battle of Antietam marked the culmination of Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s first invasion of the Northern states. Guiding his Army of Northern Virginia across the Potomac River in early September 1862, the great general daringly divided his men, sending half of them, under the command of General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson, to capture the Union garrison at Harper’s Ferry.

President Abraham Lincoln put Major General George B. McClellan in charge of the Union troops responsible for defending Washington, D.C., against Lee’s invasion. Over the course of September 15 and 16, the Confederate and Union armies gathered on opposite sides of Antietam Creek.

Fighting began in the foggy dawn hours of September 17. As savage and bloody combat continued for eight hours across the region, the Confederates were pushed back but not beaten, despite sustaining some 15,000 casualties.

By the time the sun went down, both armies still held their ground, despite staggering combined casualties–nearly 23,000 of the 100,000 soldiers engaged, including more than 3,600 dead. McClellan’s center never moved forward, leaving a large number of Union troops that did not participate in the battle.

On the morning of September 18, both sides gathered their wounded and buried their dead. That night, Lee turned his forces back to Virginia.

American Civil War: Battle of Antietam

The Battle of Antietam was fought September 17, 1862, during the American Civil War (1861-1865). In the wake of his stunning victory at the Second Battle of Manassas in late August 1862, General Robert E. Lee began moving north into Maryland with the goal of obtaining supplies and cutting the rail links to Washington. This move was endorsed by Confederate President Jefferson Davis who believed that a victory on Northern soil would increase the likelihood of recognition from Britain and France. Crossing the Potomac, Lee was slowly pursued by Major General George B. McClellan who had recently been reinstated to overall command of Union forces in the area.

Shortly after routing the Union Army of Virginia under Maj. Gen. John Pope in the Second Battle of Bull Run (Second Battle of Manassas) in August, 1862, Lee led his own Army of Northern Virginia across the Potomac into Maryland. Reasons for this invasion included taking pressure off the Shenandoah Valley&mdash"The Breadbasket of the Confederacy"&mdashat harvest time encouraging European support for the Confederacy by winning a battle on Northern soil and demoralizing Northerners to reduce their support for the war while encouraging the slave-holding state of Maryland to secede and join the Confederacy.

Believing the routed Union army would require time to rebuild, Lee took the bold step of dividing his own army, sending portions of it to capture various objectives. Primarily, these objectives involved using part of Lieutenant General Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson’s corps to capture the Union garrison at Harpers Ferry, Virginia (now West Virginia), while the largest corps, that of Lt. Gen. James Longstreet, proceeded on the road toward Sharpsburg. Lee informed his commanders of their routes and objectives in Order No. 191 on September 9.

In a series of events too strange to be believable in fiction, a copy of Order No. 191 was used to bundle a few cigars and the bundle was inadvertently dropped in a field on the Best Farm, where it was found by Federal soldiers of the 27th Indiana Regiment. The marching orders were taken to Union Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan, who had been recalled from the Virginia peninsula along with the Army of the Potomac (see Seven Days Battle).

Whatever his flaws as a field commander, "Little Mac" was an organizer who had the confidence of his troops. On September 12, the Army of Virginia was disbanded and absorbed into the Army of the Potomac, with McClellan as the commander&mdashJohn Pope was sent to Minnesota to fight Indians&mdash and he had the army ready for action sooner than Lee had anticipated.

The benefits of the intelligence windfall that dropped into McClellan’s hands were blunted, however, because a Southern sympathizer informed Lee that McClellan had a copy of his orders, and because McClellan moved with his typical glacial pace. He allowed 17 hours to pass before marching toward Lee’s force, allowing time for the Confederates to begin regrouping around the town of Sharpsburg at the base of South Mountain.


Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia—about 55,000 men [11] [12] [13] —entered the state of Maryland on September 3, following their victory at Second Bull Run on August 30. Emboldened by success, the Confederate leadership intended to take the war into enemy territory. Lee's invasion of Maryland was intended to run simultaneously with an invasion of Kentucky by the armies of Braxton Bragg and Edmund Kirby Smith. It was also necessary for logistical reasons, as northern Virginia's farms had been stripped bare of food. Based on events such as the Baltimore riots in the spring of 1861 and the fact that President Lincoln had to pass through the city in disguise en route to his inauguration, Confederate leaders assumed that Maryland would welcome the Confederate forces warmly. They sang the tune "Maryland, My Maryland!" as they marched, but by the fall of 1862 pro-Union sentiment was winning out, especially in the western parts of the state. Civilians generally hid inside their houses as Lee's army passed through their towns, or watched in cold silence, while the Army of the Potomac was cheered and encouraged. Some Confederate politicians, including President Jefferson Davis, believed that the prospect of foreign recognition would increase if the Confederacy won a military victory on Union soil such a victory might gain recognition and financial support from the United Kingdom and France, although there is no evidence that Lee thought the Confederacy should base its military plans on this possibility. [14] [15]

While McClellan's 87,000-man [4] Army of the Potomac was moving to intercept Lee, two Union soldiers (Cpl. Barton W. Mitchell and First Sergeant John M. Bloss [16] [17] of the 27th Indiana Volunteer Infantry) discovered a mislaid copy of Lee's detailed battle plans—Special Order 191—wrapped around three cigars. The order indicated that Lee had divided his army and dispersed portions geographically (to Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, and Hagerstown, Maryland), thus making each subject to isolation and defeat if McClellan could move quickly enough. McClellan waited about 18 hours before deciding to take advantage of this intelligence and reposition his forces, thus squandering an opportunity to defeat Lee decisively. [18]

There were two significant engagements in the Maryland campaign prior to the major battle of Antietam: Maj. Gen. Thomas J. "Stonewall" Jackson's capture of Harpers Ferry and McClellan's assault through the Blue Ridge Mountains in the Battle of South Mountain. The former was significant because a large portion of Lee's army was absent from the start of the battle of Antietam, attending to the surrender of the Union garrison the latter because stout Confederate defenses at two passes through the mountains delayed McClellan's advance enough for Lee to concentrate the remainder of his army at Sharpsburg. [19]


Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan's Army of the Potomac, bolstered by units absorbed from John Pope's Army of Virginia, included six infantry corps. [20] [21]

The I Corps, under Maj. Gen. Joseph Hooker, consisted of the divisions of:

  • Brig. Gen. Abner Doubleday (brigades of Col. Walter Phelps, Brig. Gens. Marsena R. Patrick and John Gibbon, and Lt. Col. J. William Hofmann).
  • Brig. Gen. James B. Ricketts (brigades of Brig. Gen. Abram Duryée, Col. William H. Christian, and Brig. Gen. George L. Hartsuff).
  • Brig. Gen. George G. Meade (brigades of Brig. Gen. Truman Seymour, Col. Albert Magilton and Lt. Col. Robert Anderson).

The II Corps, under Maj. Gen. Edwin V. Sumner, consisted of the divisions of:

  • Maj. Gen. Israel B. Richardson (brigades of Brig. Gen. John C. Caldwell, Brig. Gen. Thomas F. Meagher, and Col. John R. Brooke).
  • Maj. Gen. John Sedgwick (brigades of Brig. Gens. Willis A. Gorman, Oliver O. Howard, and Napoleon J.T. Dana).
  • Brig. Gen. William H. French (brigades of Brig. Gen. Nathan Kimball, Col. Dwight Morris, and Brig. Gen. Max Weber).

The V Corps, under Maj. Gen. Fitz John Porter, consisted of the divisions of:

  • Maj. Gen. George W. Morell (brigades of Col. James Barnes, Brig. Gen. Charles Griffin, and Col. T.B.W. Stockton).
  • Brig. Gen. George Sykes (brigades of Lt. Col. Robert C. Buchanan, Maj.Charles S. Lovell, and Col. Gouverneur K. Warren).
  • Brig. Gen. Andrew A. Humphreys (brigades of Brig. Gen. Erastus B. Tyler and Col. Peter H. Allabach).

The VI Corps, under Maj. Gen. William B. Franklin, consisted of the divisions of:

  • Maj. Gen. Henry W. Slocum (brigades of Col. Alfred T.A. Torbert, Col. Joseph J. Bartlett, and Brig. Gen. John Newton).
  • Maj. Gen. William F. "Baldy" Smith (brigades of Brig. Gens. Winfield S. Hancock and William T. H. Brooks and Col. William H. Irwin).
  • A division from the IV Corps under Maj. Gen. Darius N. Couch (brigades of Brig. Gens. Charles Devens, Jr., Albion P. Howe, and John Cochran).

The IX Corps, under Maj. Gen. Ambrose E. Burnside (Brig. Gen. Jacob D. Cox exercised operational command during the battle), consisted of the divisions of:

  • Brig. Gen. Orlando B. Willcox (brigades of Cols. Benjamin C. Christ and Thomas Welsh).
  • Brig. Gen. Samuel D. Sturgis (brigades of Brig. Gens. James Nagle and Edward Ferrero).
  • Brig. Gen. Isaac P. Rodman (brigades of Cols. Harrison S. Fairchild and Edward Harland). , under Col. Eliakim P. Scammon (brigades of Cols. Hugh Ewing and George Crook).

The XII Corps, under Maj. Gen. Joseph K. Mansfield, consisted of the divisions of:


General Lee's Army of Northern Virginia was organized into two large infantry corps. [12] [22]

The First Corps, under Maj. Gen. James Longstreet, consisted of the divisions of:

  • Maj. Gen. Lafayette McLaws (brigades of Brig. Gens. Joseph B. Kershaw, Howell Cobb, Paul J. Semmes, and William Barksdale).
  • Maj. Gen. Richard H. Anderson (brigades of Cols. Alfred Cumming, W.A. Parham, and Carnot Posey, and Brig. Gens. Lewis Armistead, Roger A. Pryor, and Ambrose R. Wright).
  • Brig. Gen. David R. Jones (brigades of Brig. Gens. Robert A. Toombs, Thomas F. Drayton, Richard B. Garnett, James L. Kemper, and Cols. Joseph T. Walker and George T. Anderson).
  • Brig. Gen. John G. Walker (brigades of Col. Van H. Manning and Brig. Gen. Robert Ransom, Jr.).
  • Brig. Gen. John Bell Hood (brigades of Cols. William T. Wofford and Evander M. Law).
  • Independent brigade under Brig. Gen. Nathan G. "Shanks" Evans.

The Second Corps, under Maj. Gen. Thomas J. "Stonewall" Jackson, consisted of the divisions of:

  • Brig. Gen. Alexander R. Lawton (brigades of Col. Marcellus Douglass, Brig. Gen. Jubal A. Early, Col. James A. Walker, and Brig. Gen. Harry T. Hays).
  • Maj. Gen. A.P. Hill (the Light Division — brigades of Brig. Gens. Lawrence O'Bryan Branch, Maxcy Gregg, James J. Archer, and William Dorsey Pender, and Cols. John M. Brockenbrough and Edward L. Thomas).
  • Brig. Gen. John R. Jones (brigades of Cols. A.J. Grigsby, E. T. H. Warren, Bradley T. Johnson, and Brig. Gen. William E. Starke).
  • Maj. Gen. D.H. Hill (brigades of Brig. Gens. Roswell S. Ripley, Robert E. Rodes, Samuel Garland, Jr., George B. Anderson, and Col. Alfred H. Colquitt).

The remaining units were the Cavalry Division, under Maj. Gen. J. E. B. Stuart, and the reserve artillery, commanded by Brig. Gen. William N. Pendleton. The Second Corps was organized with artillery attached to each division, in contrast to the First Corps, which reserved its artillery at the corps level.

Disposition of armies

Near the town of Sharpsburg, Lee deployed his available forces behind Antietam Creek along a low ridge, starting on September 15. While it was an effective defensive position, it was not an impregnable one. The terrain provided excellent cover for infantrymen, with rail and stone fences, outcroppings of limestone, little hollows and swales. The creek to their front was only a minor barrier, ranging from 60 to 100 feet (18–30 m) in width, and was fordable in places and crossed by three stone bridges each a mile (1.5 km) apart. It was also a precarious position because the Confederate rear was blocked by the Potomac River and only a single crossing point, Boteler's Ford at Shepherdstown, was nearby should retreat be necessary. (The ford at Williamsport, Maryland, was 10 miles (16 km) northwest from Sharpsburg and had been used by Jackson in his march to Harpers Ferry. The disposition of Union forces during the battle made it impractical to consider retreating in that direction.) And on September 15, the force under Lee's immediate command consisted of no more than 18,000 men, only a third the size of the Federal army. [23]

The first two Union divisions arrived on the afternoon of September 15 and the bulk of the remainder of the army late that evening. Although an immediate Union attack on the morning of September 16 would have had an overwhelming advantage in numbers, McClellan's trademark caution and his belief that Lee had as many as 100,000 men at Sharpsburg caused him to delay his attack for a day. [24] This gave the Confederates more time to prepare defensive positions and allowed Longstreet's corps to arrive from Hagerstown and Jackson's corps, minus A.P. Hill's division, to arrive from Harpers Ferry. Jackson defended the left (northern) flank, anchored on the Potomac, Longstreet the right (southern) flank, anchored on the Antietam, a line that was about 4 miles (6 km) long. (As the battle progressed and Lee shifted units, these corps boundaries overlapped considerably.) [25]

On the evening of September 16, McClellan ordered Hooker's I Corps to cross Antietam Creek and probe the enemy positions. Meade's division cautiously attacked Hood's troops near the East Woods. After darkness fell, artillery fire continued as McClellan positioned his troops for the next day's fighting. McClellan's plan was to overwhelm the enemy's left flank. He arrived at this decision because of the configuration of bridges over the Antietam. The lower bridge (which would soon be named Burnside Bridge) was dominated by Confederate positions on the bluffs overlooking it. The middle bridge, on the road from Boonsboro, was subject to artillery fire from the heights near Sharpsburg. But the upper bridge was 2 miles (3 km) east of the Confederate guns and could be crossed safely. McClellan planned to commit more than half his army to the assault, starting with two corps, supported by a third, and if necessary a fourth. He intended to launch a simultaneous diversionary attack against the Confederate right with a fifth corps, and he was prepared to strike the center with his reserves if either attack succeeded. [26] The skirmish in the East Woods served to signal McClellan's intentions to Lee, who prepared his defenses accordingly. He shifted men to his left flank and sent urgent messages to his two commanders who had not yet arrived on the battlefield: Lafayette McLaws with two divisions and A.P. Hill with one division. [27] [24]

Terrain and its consequences

McClellan's plans were ill-coordinated and were executed poorly. He issued to each of his subordinate commanders only the orders for his own corps, not general orders describing the entire battle plan. The terrain of the battlefield made it difficult for those commanders to monitor events outside of their sectors. Moreover, McClellan's headquarters were more than a mile in the rear (at the Philip Pry house, east of the creek). This made it difficult for him to control the separate corps. This is why the battle progressed the next day as essentially three separate, mostly uncoordinated battles: morning in the northern end of the battlefield, midday in the center, and afternoon in the south. This lack of coordination and concentration of McClellan's forces almost completely nullified the two-to-one advantage the Union enjoyed. It also allowed Lee to shift his defensive forces to meet each offensive. [24]

Morning phase

Location: Northern end of the battlefield


The battle opened at dawn (about 5:30 a.m.) on September 17 with an attack down the Hagerstown Turnpike by the Union I Corps under Joseph Hooker. Hooker's objective was the plateau on which sat the Dunker Church, a modest whitewashed building belonging to a local sect of German Baptists. Hooker had approximately 8,600 men, little more than the 7,700 defenders under Stonewall Jackson, and this slight disparity was more than offset by the Confederates' strong defensive positions. [28] Abner Doubleday's division moved on Hooker's right, James Ricketts's moved on the left into the East Woods, and George Meade's Pennsylvania Reserves division deployed in the center and slightly to the rear. Jackson's defense consisted of the divisions under Alexander Lawton and John R. Jones in line from the West Woods, across the Turnpike, and along the southern end of Miller's Cornfield. Four brigades were held in reserve inside the West Woods. [29]

As the first Union men emerged from the North Woods and into the Cornfield, an artillery duel erupted. Confederate fire was from the horse artillery batteries under Jeb Stuart to the west and four batteries under Col. Stephen D. Lee on the high ground across the pike from the Dunker Church to the south. Union return fire was from nine batteries on the ridge behind the North Woods and twenty 20-pounder Parrott rifles, 2 miles (3 km) east of Antietam Creek. The conflagration caused heavy casualties on both sides and was described by Col. Lee as "artillery Hell." [30]

Seeing the glint of Confederate bayonets concealed in the Cornfield, Hooker halted his infantry and brought up four batteries of artillery, which fired shell and canister over the heads of the Federal infantry into the field. A savage battle began, with considerable melee action with rifle butts and bayonets due to short visibility in the corn. Officers rode about cursing and yelling orders no one could hear in the noise. Rifles became hot and fouled from too much firing the air was filled with a hail of bullets and shells. [31]

Meade's 1st Brigade of Pennsylvanians, under Brig. Gen. Truman Seymour, began advancing through the East Woods and exchanged fire with Col. James Walker's brigade of Alabama, Georgia, and North Carolina troops. As Walker's men forced Seymour's back, aided by Lee's artillery fire, Ricketts's division entered the Cornfield, also to be torn up by artillery. Brig. Gen. Abram Duryée's brigade marched directly into volleys from Col. Marcellus Douglass's Georgia brigade. Enduring heavy fire from a range of 250 yards (230 m) and gaining no advantage because of a lack of reinforcements, Duryée ordered a withdrawal. [29]

The reinforcements that Duryée had expected—brigades under Brig. Gen. George L. Hartsuff and Col. William A. Christian—had difficulties reaching the scene. Hartsuff was wounded by a shell, and Christian dismounted and fled to the rear in terror. When the men were rallied and advanced into the Cornfield, they met the same artillery and infantry fire as their predecessors. As the superior Union numbers began to tell, the Louisiana "Tiger" Brigade under Harry Hays entered the fray and forced the Union men back to the East Woods. The casualties received by the 12th Massachusetts Infantry, 67%, were the highest of any unit that day. [32] The Tigers were beaten back eventually when the Federals brought up a battery of 3-inch ordnance rifles and rolled them directly into the Cornfield, point-blank fire that slaughtered the Tigers, who lost 323 of their 500 men. [33]

Capt. Benjamin F. Cook of the 12th Massachusetts Infantry, on the attack by the Louisiana Tigers at the Cornfield [34]

While the Cornfield remained a bloody stalemate, Federal advances a few hundred yards to the west were more successful. Brig. Gen. John Gibbon's 4th Brigade of Doubleday's division (recently named the Iron Brigade) began advancing down and astride the turnpike, into the cornfield, and in the West Woods, pushing aside Jackson's men. [35] They were halted by a charge of 1,150 men from Starke's brigade, leveling heavy fire from 30 yards (30 m) away. The Confederate brigade withdrew after being exposed to fierce return fire from the Iron Brigade, and Starke was mortally wounded. [36] The Union advance on the Dunker Church resumed and cut a large gap in Jackson's defensive line, which teetered near collapse. Although the cost was steep, Hooker's corps was making steady progress.

Confederate reinforcements arrived just after 7 a.m. The divisions under McLaws and Richard H. Anderson arrived following a night march from Harpers Ferry. Around 7:15, General Lee moved George T. Anderson's Georgia brigade from the right flank of the army to aid Jackson. At 7 a.m., Hood's division of 2,300 men advanced through the West Woods and pushed the Union troops back through the Cornfield again. The Texans attacked with particular ferocity because as they were called from their reserve position they were forced to interrupt the first hot breakfast they had had in days. They were aided by three brigades of D.H. Hill's division arriving from the Mumma Farm, southeast of the Cornfield, and by Jubal Early's brigade, pushing through the West Woods from the Nicodemus Farm, where they had been supporting Jeb Stuart's horse artillery. Some officers of the Iron Brigade rallied men around the artillery pieces of Battery B, 4th U.S. Artillery, and Gibbon himself saw to it that his previous unit did not lose a single caisson. [37] Hood's men bore the brunt of the fighting, however, and paid a heavy price—60% casualties—but they were able to prevent the defensive line from crumbling and held off the I Corps. When asked by a fellow officer where his division was, Hood replied, "Dead on the field." [38]

Hooker's men had also paid heavily but without achieving their objectives. After two hours and 2,500 casualties, they were back where they started. The Cornfield, an area about 250 yards (230 m) deep and 400 yards (400 m) wide, was a scene of indescribable destruction. It was estimated that the Cornfield changed hands no fewer than 15 times in the course of the morning. [39] Maj. Rufus Dawes, who assumed command of Iron Brigade's 6th Wisconsin Regiment during the battle, later compared the fighting around the Hagerstown Turnpike with the stone wall at Fredericksburg, Spotsylvania's "Bloody Angle", and the slaughter pen of Cold Harbor, insisting that "the Antietam Turnpike surpassed them all in manifest evidence of slaughter." [40] Hooker called for support from the 7,200 men of Mansfield's XII Corps.

Half of Mansfield's men were raw recruits, and Mansfield was also inexperienced, having taken command only two days before. Although he was a veteran of 40 years' service, he had never led large numbers of soldiers in combat. Concerned that his men would bolt under fire, he marched them in a formation that was known as "column of companies, closed in mass," a bunched-up formation in which a regiment was arrayed ten ranks deep instead of the normal two. As his men entered the East Woods, they presented an excellent artillery target, "almost as good a target as a barn." Mansfield himself was shot in the chest and died the next day. Alpheus Williams assumed temporary command of the XII Corps. [41] [42]

The new recruits of Mansfield's 1st Division made no progress against Hood's line, which was reinforced by brigades of D. H. Hill's division under Colquitt and McRae. The 2nd Division of the XII Corps, under George Sears Greene, however, broke through McRae's men, who fled under the mistaken belief that they were about to be trapped by a flanking attack. This breach of the line forced Hood and his men, outnumbered, to regroup in the West Woods, where they had started the day. [32] Greene was able to reach the Dunker Church, Hooker's original objective, and drove off Stephen Lee's batteries. Federal forces held most of the ground to the east of the turnpike.

Hooker attempted to gather the scattered remnants of his I Corps to continue the assault, but a Confederate sharpshooter spotted the general's conspicuous white horse and shot Hooker through the foot. Command of his I Corps fell to General Meade, since Hooker's senior subordinate, James B. Ricketts, had also been wounded. But with Hooker removed from the field, there was no general left with the authority to rally the men of the I and XII Corps. Greene's men came under heavy fire from the West Woods and withdrew from the Dunker Church.

In an effort to turn the Confederate left flank and relieve the pressure on Mansfield's men, Sumner's II Corps was ordered at 7:20 a.m. to send two divisions into battle. Sedgwick's division of 5,400 men was the first to ford the Antietam, and they entered the East Woods with the intention of turning left and forcing the Confederates south into the assault of Ambrose Burnside's IX Corps. But the plan went awry. They became separated from William H. French's division, and at 9 a.m. Sumner, who was accompanying the division, launched the attack with an unusual battle formation—the three brigades in three long lines, men side-by-side, with only 50 to 70 yards (60 m) separating the lines. They were assaulted first by Confederate artillery and then from three sides by the divisions of Early, Walker, and McLaws, and in less than half an hour Sedgwick's men were forced to retreat in great disorder to their starting point with over 2,200 casualties, including Sedgwick himself, who was taken out of action for several months by a wound. [43] [44] [45] [46] Sumner has been condemned by most historians for his "reckless" attack, his lack of coordination with the I and XII Corps headquarters, losing control of French's division when he accompanied Sedgwick's, failing to perform adequate reconnaissance prior to launching his attack, and selecting the unusual battle formation that was so effectively flanked by the Confederate counterattack. Historian M. V. Armstrong's recent scholarship, however, has determined that Sumner did perform appropriate reconnaissance and his decision to attack where he did was justified by the information available to him. [47]

The final actions in the morning phase of the battle were around 10 a.m., when two regiments of the XII Corps advanced, only to be confronted by the division of John G. Walker, newly arrived from the Confederate right. They fought in the area between the Cornfield in the West Woods, but soon Walker's men were forced back by two brigades of Greene's division, and the Federal troops seized some ground in the West Woods.

The morning phase ended with casualties on both sides of almost 13,000, including two Union corps commanders. [48]

Midday phase

Location: Center of the Confederate line

Sunken Road: "Bloody Lane"

By midday, the action had shifted to the center of the Confederate line. Sumner had accompanied the morning attack of Sedgwick's division, but another of his divisions, under French, lost contact with Sumner and Sedgwick and inexplicably headed south. Eager for an opportunity to see combat, French found skirmishers in his path and ordered his men forward. By this time, Sumner's aide (and son) located French, described the terrible fighting in the West Woods and relayed an order for him to divert Confederate attention by attacking their center. [49]

French confronted D.H. Hill's division. Hill commanded about 2,500 men, less than half the number under French, and three of his five brigades had been torn up during the morning combat. This sector of Longstreet's line was theoretically the weakest. But Hill's men were in a strong defensive position, atop a gradual ridge, in a sunken road worn down by years of wagon traffic, which formed a natural trench. [50]

French launched a series of brigade-sized assaults against Hill's improvised breastworks at around 9:30 a.m.. The first brigade to attack, mostly inexperienced troops commanded by Brig. Gen. Max Weber, was quickly cut down by heavy rifle fire neither side deployed artillery at this point. The second attack, more raw recruits under Col. Dwight Morris, was also subjected to heavy fire but managed to beat back a counterattack by the Alabama Brigade of Robert Rodes. The third, under Brig. Gen. Nathan Kimball, included three veteran regiments, but they also fell to fire from the sunken road. French's division suffered 1,750 casualties (of his 5,700 men) in under an hour. [51]

Reinforcements were arriving on both sides, and by 10:30 a.m. Robert E. Lee sent his final reserve division—some 3,400 men under Maj. Gen. Richard H. Anderson—to bolster Hill's line and extend it to the right, preparing an attack that would envelop French's left flank. But at the same time, the 4,000 men of Maj. Gen. Israel B. Richardson's division arrived on French's left. This was the last of Sumner's three divisions, which had been held up in the rear by McClellan as he organized his reserve forces. [52] Richardson's fresh troops struck the first blow.

Leading off the fourth attack of the day against the sunken road was the Irish Brigade of Brig. Gen. Thomas F. Meagher. As they advanced with emerald green flags snapping in the breeze, a regimental chaplain, Father William Corby, rode back and forth across the front of the formation shouting words of conditional absolution prescribed by the Roman Catholic Church for those who were about to die. (Corby would later perform a similar service at Gettysburg in 1863.) The mostly Irish immigrants lost 540 men to heavy volleys before they were ordered to withdraw. [53]

Gen. Richardson personally dispatched the brigade of Brig. Gen. John C. Caldwell into battle around noon (after being told that Caldwell was in the rear, behind a haystack), and finally the tide turned. Anderson's Confederate division had been little help to the defenders after Gen. Anderson was wounded early in the fighting. Other key leaders were lost as well, including George B. Anderson (no relation Anderson's successor, Col. Charles C. Tew of the 2nd North Carolina, was killed minutes after assuming command) [54] and Col. John B. Gordon of the 6th Alabama. (Gordon received 5 serious wounds in the fight, twice in his right leg, twice in the left arm, and once in the face. He lay unconscious, face down in his cap, and later told colleagues that he should have smothered in his own blood, except for the act of an unidentified Yankee, who had earlier shot a hole in his cap, which allowed the blood to drain.) [55] Rodes was wounded in the thigh but was still on the field. These losses contributed directly to the confusion of the following events.

Sergeant of the 61st New York [56]

As Caldwell's brigade advanced around the right flank of the Confederates, Col. Francis C. Barlow and 350 men of the 61st and 64th New York saw a weak point in the line and seized a knoll commanding the sunken road. This allowed them to get enfilade fire into the Confederate line, turning it into a deadly trap. In attempting to wheel around to meet this threat, a command from Rodes was misunderstood by Lt. Col. James N. Lightfoot, who had succeeded the unconscious John Gordon. Lightfoot ordered his men to about-face and march away, an order that all five regiments of the brigade thought applied to them as well. Confederate troops streamed toward Sharpsburg, their line lost.

Richardson's men were in hot pursuit when massed artillery hastily assembled by Gen. Longstreet drove them back. A counterattack with 200 men led by D.H. Hill got around the Federal left flank near the sunken road, and although they were driven back by a fierce charge of the 5th New Hampshire, this stemmed the collapse of the center. Reluctantly, Richardson ordered his division to fall back to north of the ridge facing the sunken road. His division lost about 1,000 men. Col. Barlow was severely wounded, and Richardson mortally wounded. [57] Winfield S. Hancock assumed division command. Although Hancock would have an excellent future reputation as an aggressive division and corps commander, the unexpected change of command sapped the momentum of the Federal advance. [58]

The carnage from 9:30 a.m. to 1:00 p.m. on the sunken road gave it the name Bloody Lane, leaving about 5,600 casualties (Union 3,000, Confederate 2,600) along the 800-yard (700 m) road. And yet, a great opportunity presented itself. If this broken sector of the Confederate line were exploited, Lee's army would be divided in half and possibly defeated. There were ample forces available to do so. There was a reserve of 3,500 cavalry and the 10,300 infantrymen of Gen. Porter's V Corps, waiting near the middle bridge, a mile away. The VI Corps, under Maj. Gen. William B. Franklin, had just arrived with 12,000 men. Franklin was ready to exploit this breakthrough, but Sumner, the senior corps commander, ordered him not to advance. Franklin appealed to McClellan, who left his headquarters in the rear to hear both arguments but backed Sumner's decision, ordering Franklin and Hancock to hold their positions. [59]

Later in the day, the commander of the other reserve unit near the center, the V Corps, Maj. Gen. Fitz John Porter, heard recommendations from Maj. Gen. George Sykes, commanding his 2nd Division, that another attack be made in the center, an idea that intrigued McClellan. However, Porter is said to have told McClellan, "Remember, General, I command the last reserve of the last Army of the Republic." McClellan demurred and another opportunity was lost. [60]

Afternoon phase

Location: Southern end of the battlefield

"Burnside's Bridge"

The action moved to the southern end of the battlefield. McClellan's plan called for Maj. Gen. Ambrose Burnside and the IX Corps to conduct a diversionary attack in support of Hooker's I Corps, hoping to draw Confederate attention away from the intended main attack in the north. However, Burnside was instructed to wait for explicit orders before launching his attack, and those orders did not reach him until 10 a.m. [61] Burnside was strangely passive during preparations for the battle. He was disgruntled that McClellan had abandoned the previous arrangement of "wing" commanders reporting to him. Previously, Burnside had commanded a wing that included both the I and IX Corps and now he was responsible only for the IX Corps. Implicitly refusing to give up his higher authority, Burnside treated first Maj. Gen. Jesse L. Reno (killed at South Mountain) and then Brig. Gen. Jacob D. Cox of the Kanawha Division as the corps commander, funneling orders to the corps through him.

Burnside had four divisions (12,500 troops) and 50 guns east of Antietam Creek. Facing him was a force that had been greatly depleted by Lee's movement of units to bolster the Confederate left flank. At dawn, the divisions of Brig. Gens. David R. Jones and John G. Walker stood in defense, but by 10 a.m. all of Walker's men and Col. George T. Anderson's Georgia brigade had been removed. Jones had only about 3,000 men and 12 guns available to meet Burnside. Four thin brigades guarded the ridges near Sharpsburg, primarily a low plateau known as Cemetery Hill. The remaining 400 men—the 2nd and 20th Georgia regiments, under the command of Brig. Gen. Robert Toombs, with two artillery batteries—defended Rohrbach's Bridge, a three-span, 125-foot (38 m) stone structure that was the southernmost crossing of the Antietam. [62] It would become known to history as Burnside's Bridge because of the notoriety of the coming battle. The bridge was a difficult objective. The road leading to it ran parallel to the creek and was exposed to enemy fire. The bridge was dominated by a 100-foot (30 m) high wooded bluff on the west bank, strewn with boulders from an old quarry, making infantry and sharpshooter fire from good covered positions a dangerous impediment to crossing.

Confederate staff officer Henry Kyd Douglas [63]

Antietam Creek in this sector was seldom more than 50 feet (15 m) wide, and several stretches were only waist deep and out of Confederate range. Burnside has been widely criticized for ignoring this fact. [63] However, the commanding terrain across the sometimes shallow creek made crossing the water a comparatively easy part of a difficult problem. Burnside concentrated his plan instead on storming the bridge while simultaneously crossing a ford McClellan's engineers had identified a half mile (1 km) downstream, but when Burnside's men reached it, they found the banks too high to negotiate. While Col. George Crook's Ohio brigade prepared to attack the bridge with the support of Brig. Gen. Samuel Sturgis's division, the rest of the Kanawha Division and Brig. Gen. Isaac Rodman's division struggled through thick brush trying to locate Snavely's Ford, 2 miles (3 km) downstream, intending to flank the Confederates. [64] [62] [65]

Crook's assault on the bridge was led by skirmishers from the 11th Connecticut, who were ordered to clear the bridge for the Ohioans to cross and assault the bluff. After receiving punishing fire for 15 minutes, the Connecticut men withdrew with 139 casualties, one-third of their strength, including their commander, Col. Henry W. Kingsbury, who was fatally wounded. [66] Crook's main assault went awry when his unfamiliarity with the terrain caused his men to reach the creek a quarter mile (400 m) upstream from the bridge, where they exchanged volleys with Confederate skirmishers for the next few hours. [67]

While Rodman's division was out of touch, slogging toward Snavely's Ford, Burnside and Cox directed a second assault at the bridge by one of Sturgis's brigades, led by the 2nd Maryland and 6th New Hampshire. They also fell prey to the Confederate sharpshooters and artillery, and their attack fell apart. [68] By this time it was noon, and McClellan was losing patience. He sent a succession of couriers to motivate Burnside to move forward. He ordered one aide, "Tell him if it costs 10,000 men he must go now." He increased the pressure by sending his inspector general, Col. Delos B. Sackett, to confront Burnside, who reacted indignantly: "McClellan appears to think I am not trying my best to carry this bridge you are the third or fourth one who has been to me this morning with similar orders." [69]

The third attempt to take the bridge was at 12:30 p.m. by Sturgis's other brigade, commanded by Brig. Gen. Edward Ferrero. It was led by the 51st New York and the 51st Pennsylvania, who, with adequate artillery support and a promise that a recently canceled whiskey ration would be restored if they were successful, charged downhill and took up positions on the east bank. Maneuvering a captured light howitzer into position, they fired double canister down the bridge and got within 25 yards (23 m) of the enemy. By 1 p.m., Confederate ammunition was running low, and word reached Toombs that Rodman's men were crossing Snavely's Ford on their flank. He ordered a withdrawal. His Georgians had cost the Federals more than 500 casualties, giving up fewer than 160 themselves. And they had stalled Burnside's assault on the southern flank for more than three hours. [70] [71]

Union positions below the Confederates at Burnside Bridge

Burnside's assault stalled again on its own. His officers had neglected to transport ammunition across the bridge, which was itself becoming a bottleneck for soldiers, artillery, and wagons. This represented another two-hour delay. Gen. Lee used this time to bolster his right flank. He ordered up every available artillery unit, although he made no attempt to strengthen D.R. Jones's badly outnumbered force with infantry units from the left. Instead, he counted on the arrival of A.P. Hill's Light Division, currently embarked on an exhausting 17 mile (27 km) march from Harpers Ferry. By 2 p.m., Hill's men had reached Boteler's Ford, and Hill was able to confer with the relieved Lee at 2:30, who ordered him to bring up his men to the right of Jones. [72]

The Federals were completely unaware that 3,000 new men would be facing them. Burnside's plan was to move around the weakened Confederate right flank, converge on Sharpsburg, and cut Lee's army off from Boteler's Ford, their only escape route across the Potomac. At 3 p.m., Burnside left Sturgis's division in reserve on the west bank and moved west with over 8,000 troops (most of them fresh) and 22 guns for close support. [73]

An initial assault led by the 79th New York "Cameron Highlanders" succeeded against Jones's outnumbered division, which was pushed back past Cemetery Hill and to within 200 yards (200 m) of Sharpsburg. Farther to the Union left, Rodman's division advanced toward Harpers Ferry Road. Its lead brigade, under Col. Harrison Fairchild, containing several colorful Zouaves of the 9th New York, commanded by Col. Rush Hawkins, came under heavy shellfire from a dozen enemy guns mounted on a ridge to their front, but they kept pushing forward. There was panic in the streets of Sharpsburg, clogged with retreating Confederates. Of the five brigades in Jones's division, only Toombs's brigade was still intact, but he had only 700 men. [74]

A. P. Hill's division arrived at 3:30 p.m. Hill divided his column, with two brigades moving southeast to guard his flank and the other three, about 2,000 men, moving to the right of Toombs's brigade and preparing for a counterattack. At 3:40 p.m., Brig. Gen. Maxcy Gregg's brigade of South Carolinians attacked the 16th Connecticut on Rodman's left flank in the cornfield of farmer John Otto. The Connecticut men had been in service for only three weeks, and their line disintegrated with 185 casualties. The 4th Rhode Island came up on the right, but they had poor visibility amid the high stalks of corn, and they were disoriented because many of the Confederates were wearing Union uniforms captured at Harpers Ferry. They also broke and ran, leaving the 8th Connecticut far out in advance and isolated. They were enveloped and driven down the hills toward Antietam Creek. A counterattack by regiments from the Kanawha Division fell short. [75]

The IX Corps had suffered casualties of about 20% but still possessed twice the number of Confederates confronting them. Unnerved by the collapse of his flank, Burnside ordered his men all the way back to the west bank of the Antietam, where he urgently requested more men and guns. McClellan was able to provide just one battery. He said, "I can do nothing more. I have no infantry." In fact, however, McClellan had two fresh corps in reserve, Porter's V and Franklin's VI, but he was too cautious, concerned he was greatly outnumbered and that a massive counterstrike by Lee was imminent. Burnside's men spent the rest of the day guarding the bridge they had suffered so much to capture. [76]

The battle was over by 5:30 p.m. On the morning of September 18, Lee's army prepared to defend against a Federal assault that never came. After an improvised truce for both sides to recover and exchange their wounded, Lee's forces began withdrawing across the Potomac that evening to return to Virginia. [78] Losses from the battle were heavy on both sides. The Union had 12,410 casualties with 2,108 dead. [6] Confederate casualties were 10,316 with 1,546 dead. [7] [79] This represented 25% of the Federal force and 31% of the Confederates. Overall, both sides lost a combined total of 22,720 casualties in a single day, almost the same amount as the number of losses that had shocked the nation at the 2-day Battle of Shiloh five months earlier. [80] Of the other casualties, 1,910 Union and 1,550 Confederate troops died of their wounds soon after the battle, while 225 Union and 306 Confederate troops listed as missing were later confirmed as dead. Several generals died as a result of the battle, including Maj. Gens. Joseph K. Mansfield and Israel B. Richardson and Brig. Gen. Isaac P. Rodman on the Union side, and Brig. Gens. Lawrence O. Branch and William E. Starke on the Confederate side. [81] Confederate Brig. Gen. George B. Anderson was shot in the ankle during the defense of the Bloody Lane. He survived the battle but died later in October after an amputation. [55] The fighting on September 17, 1862, killed 7,650 American soldiers. [82] More Americans died in battle on September 17, 1862, than on any other day in the nation's history. Antietam is sometimes cited as the bloodiest day in all of American history. The bloodiest battle in American history was Gettysburg, but its more than 46,000 casualties occurred over three days. Antietam ranks fifth in terms of total casualties in Civil War battles, falling behind Gettysburg, Chickamauga, Chancellorsville, and Spotsylvania Court House.

President Lincoln was disappointed in McClellan's performance. He believed that McClellan's overly cautious and poorly coordinated actions in the field had forced the battle to a draw rather than a crippling Confederate defeat. [83] The president was even more astonished that from September 17 to October 26, despite repeated entreaties from the War Department and the president himself, McClellan declined to pursue Lee across the Potomac, citing shortages of equipment and the fear of overextending his forces. General-in-Chief Henry W. Halleck wrote in his official report, "The long inactivity of so large an army in the face of a defeated foe, and during the most favorable season for rapid movements and a vigorous campaign, was a matter of great disappointment and regret." [84] Lincoln relieved McClellan of his command of the Army of the Potomac on November 5, effectively ending the general's military career. He was replaced on November 9 by General Burnside. [85]

Some students of history question the designation of "strategic victory" for the Union. After all, it can be argued that McClellan performed poorly in the campaign and the battle itself, and Lee displayed great generalship in holding his own in battle against an army that greatly outnumbered his. Casualties were comparable on both sides, although Lee lost a higher percentage of his army. Lee withdrew from the battlefield first, the technical definition of the tactical loser in a Civil War battle. However, in a strategic sense, despite being a tactical draw, Antietam is considered a turning point of the war and a victory for the Union because it ended Lee's strategic campaign (his first invasion of Union territory). American historian James M. McPherson summed up the importance of the Battle of Antietam in his book, Crossroads of Freedom:

No other campaign and battle in the war had such momentous, multiple consequences as Antietam. In July 1863 the dual Union triumphs at Gettysburg and Vicksburg struck another blow that blunted a renewed Confederate offensive in the East and cut off the western third of the Confederacy from the rest. In September 1864 Sherman's capture of Atlanta electrified the North and set the stage for the final drive to Union victory. These also were pivotal moments. But they would never have happened if the triple Confederate offensives in Mississippi, Kentucky, and most of all Maryland had not been defeated in the fall of 1862. [86]

The results of Antietam also allowed President Lincoln to issue the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation on September 22, which gave Confederate states until January 1, 1863, to return or else lose their slaves. Although Lincoln had intended to do so earlier, at a cabinet meeting, Secretary of State William H. Seward advised him to make this announcement after a significant Union victory to avoid the perception that it was issued out of desperation.

The Union victory and Lincoln's proclamation played a considerable role in dissuading the governments of France and Britain from recognizing the Confederacy some suspected they were planning to do so in the aftermath of another Union defeat. When the issue of emancipation was linked to the progress of the war, neither government had the political will to oppose the United States, since it linked support of the Confederacy to support for slavery. Both countries had already abolished slavery, and the public would not have tolerated the government militarily supporting a sovereignty upholding the ideals of slavery. [87]

The battle is commemorated at Antietam National Battlefield. Conservation work undertaken by Antietam National Battlefield and private groups, has earned Antietam a reputation as one of the nation's best preserved Civil War battlefields. Few visual intrusions mar the landscape, letting visitors experience the site nearly as it was in 1862. [88]

Antietam was one of the first five Civil War battlefields preserved federally, receiving that distinction on August 30, 1890. The U.S. War Department also placed over 300 tablets at that time to mark the spots of individual regiments and of significant phases in the battle. The battlefield was transferred to the Department of the Interior in 1933. The Antietam National Battlefield now consists of 2,743 acres.

The Civil War Trust (a division of the American Battlefield Trust) and its partners have acquired and preserved 316 acres of the Antietam Battlefield. [89] In 2015, the Trust saved 44.4 acres in the heart of the battlefield, between the Cornfield and the Dunker Church, when it purchased the Wilson farm for about $1 million. [90] The preservation organization has since removed the postwar house and barn that stood on the property along Hagerstown Pike and returned the land to its wartime appearance. [91]

Mathew Brady's gallery, "The Dead of Antietam" (1862)

On September 19, 1862, two days after the Battle of Antietam, Mathew Brady sent photographer Alexander Gardner and his assistant James Gibson [92] to photograph the carnage. In October 1862 Brady displayed the photos by Gardner in an exhibition entitled "The Dead of Antietam" at Brady's New York gallery. Many images in this presentation were graphic photographs of corpses, a presentation new to America. This was the first time that many Americans saw the realities of war in photographs as distinct from previous "artists' impressions". [93] The New York Times published a review on October 20, 1862, describing how, "Of all objects of horror one would think the battle-field should stand preeminent, that it should bear away the palm of repulsiveness." But crowds came to the gallery drawn by a "terrible fascination" to the images of mangled corpses which brought the reality of remote battle fields to New Yorkers. Viewers examined details using a magnifying glass. "We would scarce choose to be in the gallery, when one of the women bending over them should recognize a husband, a son, or a brother in the still, lifeless lines of bodies, that lie ready for the gaping trenches." [94]

James Hope murals

Capt. James Hope of the 2nd Vermont Infantry, a professional artist, painted five large murals based on battlefield scenes he had sketched during the Battle of Antietam. He had been assigned to sideline duties as a scout and mapmaker due to his injuries. The canvasses were exhibited in his gallery in Watkins Glen, New York, until his death in 1892. He had prints made of these larger paintings and sold the reproductions. In the 1930s, his work was damaged in a flood. The original murals were shown in a church for many years. In 1979, the National Park Service purchased and restored them. [95] [96] They were featured in a 1984 Time-Life book entitled The Bloodiest Day: The Battle of Antietam. [97]


The images below include photographs by Alexander Gardner, who was employed by Mathew Brady and whose photographs were exhibited in Brady's New York gallery in October 1862, and the murals by James Hope restored by the National Park Service.

Battle of Antietam: Chronology and Aftermath

17 September: THE BATTLE OF ANTIETAM (also known as Sharpsburg). It must be pointed out that the exact timing of events at Antietam are, to some extent only approximate. There were a vast number of watches on the field, with no common standard. Dawn, which is listed for 17 September at 0543, Major General Hooker’s Federal I Corps begins advance into the north woods with the divisions of Doubleday and Ricketts. The action against Jackson’s Confederate divisions commanded by Lawton and D. R. Jones commences at approximately 0615.

0700: Brigadier General John Hood’s Confederate Division counter-attacks Hooker’s forces bitter fighting in the cornfield and in the east woods.

0720: Hood’s assault is repulsed Federal XII Corps arrives on the field, deploying into the east woods by 0730.

0830: Major General Edwin Sumner brings Sedgwick’s division of Federal II Corps into the east woods severe fighting continues.

0900: Federal I and XII Corps are fought out by now French’s division of Federal II Corps arrives opposite the sunken road position, ultimately supported by Richardson’s Division of II Corps. Fighting dies out on the Confederate left by 1030.

0930: Federal II Corps divisions of French and Richardson begin to assault the sunken road position in the Confederate centre held by Major General D. H. Hill’s division. There is a great deal of bloody fighting until the position is finally taken by Federal forces at 1300, and then there is little subsequent activity at the Confederate centre. Meanwhile in the south, Major General Ambrose Burnside has received several orders, at least from 1000, to assault the bridge to his front. The stone bridge is finally taken by elements of Sturgis’s division of Federal IX Corps at 1300. The remainder of the Federal IX Corps is across Antietam Creek and advancing towards Sharpsburg by 1500.

Between 1545 and 1600, the Confederate division commanded by Major General Ambrose Powell Hill begins arriving on the field, after completing a seventeen mile march from the Harper’s Ferry area. Hill’s division counter-attacks Federal IX Corps, the action completed by 1630.

There is no further activity of significance anywhere on the field.

18 September: The Army of Northern Virginia begins recrossing the Potomac River into Virginia near Shepherdstown, West Virginia. The operation is completed on 19 September.

The Aftermath

The armies remained in position facing each other through the following day, but by the late afternoon of 18 September Lee was making preparations to withdraw the Army of Northern Virginia back to Virginia. Lee’s army completed the crossing of the Potomac River near Shepherdstown, West Virginia, on 19 September. A. P. Hill’s division was employed again at Boteler’s Ford near Shepherdstown on the morning of 20 September to secure the retreat of Lee’s reserve artillery. There was no really effective pursuit of Lee by the Army of the Potomac. The Maryland Campaign was over.

The battle of Antietam, Maryland, is correctly referred to as the single bloodiest day of the American Civil War. There were more casualties on 17 September 1862 than any recorded on any other field on any other day during the conflict. The Civil War statistician Thomas L. Livermore states that the Army of the Potomac suffered 2,108 dead, 9,549 wounded, 753 missing, for a total of 12,410 casualties. Livermore puts Confederate loses at 2,700 dead, 9,024 wounded, 2,000 missing, for a total of 13,724 casualties. This represents 26,134 casualties in a single day, more casualties than that suffered by the United States during the entire war with Mexico between 1846 and 1847. The United States Army had 1,721 combat deaths in Mexico, suffered 4,102 wounded, and sustained another 11,155 deaths from disease. There were 16,978 casualties in the entire conflict with Mexico, and at Buena Vista, perhaps one of the most severe battles of the Mexican War, the Americans had 665 total casualties. The contrast between the Mexican War experience and the single day of Antietam was a very sobering one for the participants. To the casualty totals of Antietam one could add 1,813 Federals and 2,685 Confederates who fell at South Mountain, and 533 Federal and an undetermined number of Confederate casualties for the action at Crampton’s Gap. The totals climb to 14,756 Federals and more than 16,409 Confederates, for a grand total in excess of 31,165 casualties for the Maryland Campaign. This was considered quite shocking, a general feeling reinforced by the circulation in civilian urban areas for the first time of photographs made on the battlefield of recent corpses. The horror of the war was brought home to many individuals, both civilian and military, by Antietam.

The engagements of Crampton’s Gap, South Mountain, and Antietam represented strategic victory for the North. McClellan had successfully defended Washington, halted Lee’s advance into Maryland, and had arguably inflicted a tactical defeat on the Army of Northern Virginia. Lee’s army was, in any case, retreating into Virginia. From a Northern perspective, the negative aspect was that a great opportunity to destroy Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia completely had been missed. From a Southern viewpoint the Maryland operation contained some positive aspects, such as the reduction of Harper’s Ferry along with capture of substantial Federal war material, and the removal, at least temporarily, of the armies from Virginia. The negative items were somewhat more ominous for the Confederacy. No large numbers of Marylanders had eagerly clamoured to join Southern ranks, nor were there many individuals in Kentucky of similar inclination. In addition, Lee’s retreat from Sharpsburg, when coupled with Braxton Bragg’s retreat in Kentucky following the battle of Perryville (8 October 1862), ended any realistic chance of European recognition of the Confederacy.

Robert E. Lee’s decision to fight a battle at Antietam after the South Mountain operation is questionable. The Southern operational plan had been compromised when McClellan received a copy of Special Order 191, and Lee was fortunate that he was able to prevent the destruction of the Army of Northern Virginia in detail. Although McClellan’s command style lessened the direct possibilities of disaster, it was still a considerable gamble for Lee to risk one of the Confederacy’s principal armies on his reading of McClellan’s character. Lee had done well enough with taking the war into Maryland after the Second Manassas Campaign and capturing Harper’s Ferry. There may have been political reasons for risking a major engagement, but with its back to the Potomac River the Army of Northern Virginia faced the very real prospect of annihilation at Antietam. A more audacious Federal commander, with more attention to timing and command control than McClellan demonstrated, would have accomplished just that.

The counter argument may be that Lee knew his opponent, and that is certainly one of the marks of a great commander. Nevertheless, Robert E. Lee’s fundamentally aggressive nature would cause the South further difficulties in Pennsylvania the following year during the Gettysburg Campaign and during subsequent operations in the autumn of 1863. The basic fact remains that Robert E. Lee fought a masterly defensive battle at Antietam with limited resources. He shifted his available reserves at the proper moment and gave everyone present throughout the day of 17 September the very clear impression that Robert E. Lee was in complete control of his army and of the battlefield. However, it was still very much, as Wellington remarked regarding Waterloo, a very near run thing, and final disaster was only averted by the fortuitous arrival of A. P. Hill’s division from Harper’s Ferry.

George McClellan has been severely criticized by his contemporaries and by historians for the slowness of his strategic movements and for his customary battlefield caution. McClellan’s mission before 13 September was to keep the Army of the Potomac between Lee’s army and Washington – his primary task was the defence of the Federal capital. The capture of Special Order 191 altered the situation considerably, and McClellan was presented with the chance to destroy Lee’s formations one at a time if he moved swiftly. He ought to have ordered a night movement on the evening of 13 September, and as commander-in-chief he should have personally made certain that aggressive pursuit took place on the following day, after the engagements of South Mountain and Crampton’s Gap had been fought. Not only was the pursuit dilatory, but Franklin’s VI Corps was left slightly beyond Crampton’s Gap virtually without orders until early on 17 September. McClellan wasted a further day, 16 September, in and around the Antietam position. He should have attacked directly with whatever forces were immediately at hand. If not all the Army of the Potomac was yet on the field, and even if his unit commanders were unfamiliar with the terrain, the same could be said of conditions prevalent at that moment in Lee’s command. ‘The mud’, Napoleon remarked, ‘is the same for everyone.’ The opportunity was still available on 16 September to destroy elements of the Army of Northern Virginia, but McClellan failed to take advantage of it.

McClellan created a textbook tactical plan for the Antietam engagement. It was an operational conception that relied upon careful timing and close supervision. The uncoordinated nature of the assaults of I, XII and II Corps and the unconscionable delay in the advance of IX Corps have already been discussed – still, it very nearly worked. The Army of the Potomac fought extremely well between regimental and brigade level, but higher command control was lacking. The deficiency originated at the very top. McClellan remained on the eastern side of Antietam Creek through the majority of the battle, allowing his corps leaders to fight virtually their own separate engagements. He failed to supervise adequately the entirety of the Army of the Potomac. In the final analysis, however, it was the Confederate army that only escaped complete defeat by a narrow margin, and it was Lee’s army that was retreating into Virginia by 19 September. McClellan had saved Washington and driven the invading rebels back south. That is one issue. The failure of the Army of the Potomac to destroy the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia totally is quite another.

‘I feel that I have done all that can be asked’, wrote McClellan to his wife on 20 September, ‘in twice saving the country.’

The Battle of Antietam and Federal progress in halting the Confederate invasion of Kentucky that culminated at Perryville contributed in a dramatic fashion to altering the fundamental nature of the American Civil War. It became not only a conflict to preserve the Union but also a struggle to end the institution of Negro slavery in America. The destruction of the ‘peculiar institution’ had assumed the status of a moral crusade for many in the years before the War, although it is important to remember that in the nineteenth century it would not have been considered inconsistent to condemn the institution of slavery on moral grounds yet still have no interest in basic civil and social rights for the Black population as individuals. The Republican Party had argued for the elimination of slavery in Federal territories since 1856.

The election of Abraham Lincoln in 1860 instigated the American Civil War. The course of the conflict would not only retain the Republic, but it would also ultimately destroy slavery. The Emancipation Proclamation issued soon after the battle of Antietam was not without precedent. The Lincoln administration declared slavery illegal in the territories on 19 June 1862. In the spring of 1862, Lincoln informed Congressmen of the loyal slave-owning border states that he was considering emancipation, and the 2nd Confiscation Act of July 1862 declared that all slaves taken as military contraband were to be considered free by Federal authorities. In addition, Lincoln informed his cabinet in July 1862 that he was considering a general emancipation statement. Secretary of State William Seward and others advised him to wait for Northern battlefield victories. Antietam encouraged Lincoln to make public the Emancipation Proclamation in a presidential decree of 22 September 1862, to take effect from 1 January 1863. It freed all slaves held in those parts of the nation in open rebellion, that is basically in the Confederacy. The immediate effect in terms of the numbers of Blacks freed may have been minimal, but it cannot be denied that the basic character of the American Civil War had been altered.

Antietam changed the military character of the war as well. The struggle seemed to have lost its innocence, for the staggering casualty lists and the savagery of a single day’s fighting graphically illustrated that the war as an undertaking was a massive and serious concern. It would not be a conflict lightly pursued nor easily terminated. The American Civil War went beyond mere politics after Antietam. The War concerned itself with the maintenance of the Union, the destruction of Negro slavery, the survival of both Northern and Southern societies, and perhaps the alteration of the very fabric of the Republic. Antietam demonstrated to many participants that the events of which they were a part were not unimportant. Corporal Harrison Woodford of the 16th Connecticut, a veteran of Antietam, apparently thought so. He might stand for all the young men, living and dead, Northern and Southern, who fought in the Maryland Campaign in September 1862. Woodford wrote home to his sister on 26 September 1862, while his regiment was still encamped on the Antietam battlefield, asking her to remind his two younger brothers to assist their father in maintaining the family farm back in Connecticut. ‘Tell them they must be good boys and help father all they can,’ wrote Woodford. ‘I have gone to fight for their freedom and for their interests in the future.’

Reprinted with permission from Osprey Publishing.

NORMAN S. STEVENS is a long time student of the American civil war and the author of numerous books, including Antietam 1862. He is currently a Major and assistant Professor of History at the Virginia Military Institute.

This color lithograph shows Union lines in the midst of the Battle of Antietam. View the original source document: WHI 69490

Location: Antietam Creek, Maryland (Google Map)

Other name(s): Battle of Sharpsburg

Campaign: Maryland Campaign (September 1862)


After fierce fighting, Union forces halted the Confederate Army&rsquos first invasion of the North.

On September 17, 1862, Union and Confederate Armies engaged in 12 hours of savage combat at the Battle of Antietam near Sharpsburg, Maryland, about 40 miles northwest of Washington, D.C. More than 125,000 troops faced off and over 24,000 were killed, wounded or missing. This was the single bloodiest day in American military history. When the fighting was over, Union forces had stopped the Confederate advance, but at great cost.

Wisconsin's Role

Wisconsin's Iron Brigade troops (the 2nd, 6th and 7th Wisconsin Infantry Regiments) were in the thickest of fighting. The 6th Wisconsin Infantry led a charge through the woods and into a cornfield leaving 150 of its 280 men killed or wounded. Of the 800 officers and men of the Iron Brigade who marched out that morning, 343 were wounded or killed.

Links to Learn More
Read a Longer Summary of the Battle
View Battle Maps
View Related Images
View Original Documents

[Source: Report on the Nation's Civil War Battlefields (Washington, 1993) Estabrook, C. Records and Sketches of Military Organizations (Madison, 1914) Love, W. Wisconsin in the War of the Rebellion (Madison, 1866).]

The Battle of Antietam: Bloodiest Day in the American History

The Battle of Antietam broke down into three very separate battles.
(Image: steve estvanik/Shutterstock)

Battle of Antietam

On September 17, 1862, McClellan had more than 70,000 troops in position at Antietam, a two-to-one advantage over Lee. His plan was to apply pressure to both Confederate flanks, weaken the center, and then punch through the center and cut Lee off from the Potomac River, a few miles away. There was only one ford across the Potomac. If anything serious had happened to Lee’s army at Sharpsburg, it would have been an utter disaster. That’s what McClellan hoped to do, but he didn’t apply simultaneous pressure against the line.

Segregated Battle of Antietam

The Battle of Antietam broke down into three very separate battles. It began on the northern end of the field with very heavy Union attacks that were held off by the slimmest of margins on the Confederate side. Then it shifted to the center part of the field, with continued heavy attacks. McClellan in fact broke through in the center, and the officers in command of his troops begged for reinforcements to exploit the break.

However, though McClellan wanted to do so, he decided not to commit his reserves as he considered it to be a dangerous move. So the fighting died out in the center part of the field, and shifted to the left in the afternoon, the southern end of the field. The Federals literally pushed the Confederates to within a few dozen yards of the key road that led to the fords over the Potomac River

However, just when the Federals were about to win, the last division from Harper’s Ferry, marching a 17-mile march, came onto the battlefield, immediately deployed and plowed into the Union left flank, and stopped the final attacks. The battle sputtered to a halt late in the afternoon of the seventeenth.

It had been a series of near disasters for Lee and his army. Lee had been very active, moving back and forth along the line from heavy fighting in a cornfield on the northern end of the field, watching the fighting at what was called the Sunken Road or the Bloody Lane in the middle of the field, and watching anxiously in the afternoon as his right flank seemed about to crumble. Time and again he had plugged in troops at just the last moment to stave off disaster. Good luck and effective management had allowed him to keep his army intact.

This is a transcript from the video series The American Civil War. Watch it now, on Wondrium.

Bloodiest Day in American History

During the Battle of Antietam, thousands of soldiers lost their lives in just one day. (Image: Alexander Gardner/Public domain)

As for McClellan, fully a quarter of his army didn’t fire a shot during the Battle of Antietam, while Lee mustered every man he had. McClellan didn’t use a good part of his army, and, in the end, Lee was able to hold on.

However, it was the bloodiest day in American history. 10,500 Confederates, a third of Lee’s army, were shot down at Antietam in one day, as were 12,500 Federals, a total of more than 23,000.

There were more than 8,000 casualties in a 23 acre cornfield. One Confederate regiment, the First Texas, suffered more than 80 percent casualties in about ten minutes. In a small country lane in the center of the battlefield, the sunken lane, later called Bloody Lane, Confederate bodies lay so thickly packed that a Union officer said that he walked for more than 100 yards without ever touching the ground in that lane, just going from body to body.

A small sunken country lane in the center of the battlefield, later called Bloody Lane, was filled with bodies of Confederate soldiers.
(Image: Captain James Hope (d.1892)/Public domain)

A Pennsylvania solider said, “No tongue can tell, no mind conceive, no pen portray the horrible sights I witnessed.” Photographers got to the battlefield in time to take pictures of the corpses of the dead Confederates. The Union dead had been buried. Those pictures caused a sensation in the North as no one had seen what a battlefield really looked like before. They’d seen heroic woodcuts and so forth. Here was the true human debris of a battlefield.

Withdrawal of Military Campaign

Lee remained on the field through most of September 18, but McClellan did not press him anymore. It was a very risky move on Lee’s part, but he got away with it because McClellan chose not to renew the attacks. Lee withdrew that night toward the fords over the Potomac. McClellan let him go and that was the end of the military side of the campaign.

Mixed Impact of Military Campaign

The consequences and impact of all this were immense. The military consequences were mixed. The battle itself was a tactical standoff. Neither side drove the other from the field. It was very bloody, but there was no real decisive decision on the battlefield. It was not interpreted as a great defeat in the Confederacy at the time, but seen as a drawn battle.

Lee didn’t retreat until a full day later, taking up a position along the Potomac River, and the military frontier remained where it had been following the Battle of Second Manassas. McClellan chose not to pursue Lee, which frustrated Lincoln. He visited McClellan and the army, but could not get McClellan to move. Eventually, in early November, the day after the elections in the North, Lincoln removed McClellan.

So though militarily it was a murky picture, the fact that Lee did retreat and lost the momentum that he had generated with the Seven Days and Second Manassas meant that it was seen as a Union victory.

Consequences on Diplomatic Front

On the diplomatic front, Great Britain edged toward intervention in the war. In fact, on the day of the battle, key British leaders had said that if Lee won another victory, they would mediate an end to this war. When they found out that Lee had retreated, they pulled back from that idea to see what the Confederates would do in the next campaign. It was harder for them to intervene because of another thing that happened right after Antietam, and that was Lincoln’s issuance of the preliminary Proclamation of Emancipation.

Proclamation of Emancipation

There was enough of victory for Lincoln to issue his preliminary Proclamation of Emancipation. This was far more important than just the diplomatic side of what had happened. Once the proclamation was issued, it became difficult for France and Great Britain to come in on the side of the Confederacy because they had ended slavery, and it would be hard for them to support an overtly slaveholding republic in its contest against a nation that was partly on record against the institution of slavery.

What Preliminary Proclamation Meant?

The preliminary proclamation meant that Northern war aims had changed. The war for the Union had become a war for union and freedom because, wherever Union forces marched now, they would be taking the possibility of freedom with them. The stakes were much higher in the war. The whole social fabric of the South was now on the table. If the Confederacy lost the war, they would lose slavery, turning their whole social system upside down. For the white South, there was no more status quo antebellum after the Emancipation Proclamation. It changed the whole nature of the war.

Common Questions about the Battle of Antietam

Though there were heavy causalities on both the sides, Robert Lee lost the momentum and retreated. It was seen in that light as a Union victory .

Since Lee retreated and lost the momentum that he had generated with the Seven Days and Second Manassas, Battle of Antietam was seen as a Union victory. This victory encouraged Lincoln to issue his preliminary Proclamation of Emancipation .

Battle of Antietam is considered to be the bloodiest event in the American History. 10,500 Confederates and 12,500 Federals died in one day .

Battle of Antietam Begins - HISTORY

The Confederates tried to take the battle North into Union territory. In what became the bloodiest day in US history the Union defeated the Confederates at the Battle of Antietam

After his victory at Manassas, Lee had to decide what to do next. He could not maintain his current position, since there was no way he could obtain enough supplies for his army there. His choice was whether to advance or retreat. A retreat was an anathema to Lee. Therefore, his question became to decide where he would advance. Lee felt that Washington's defenses were too strong, so he hoped to head North towards Pennsylvania. His expectation was that he could force the Union army, which he believed were weak and demoralized, into a final fight. He thought this would assure Southern Independence.

Lee had made one very fundamental mistake. While the Union army had been hurt at Manassas, it was intact, and McClellan was back. While he may not have been the most aggressive general in history, McClellan was beloved by the troops. On September 5th, Lee moved his army into Maryland and occupied the town of Frederick. From there, Lee sent Jackson with 10,000 troops to Harpers Ferry (in his rear), to capture the garrison there. Simultaneously, he moved the bulk of the army westward to Boonsboro. The various parts of the army were then to reassemble. The plan was risky. It may have worked, but the orders were explicit, and a copy of these orders fell into Union hands. McClellan now knew the exact disposition and plans of the Confederate army.

McClellan's army now headed westward toward Boonsboro. Between the Union forces and the Confederates lay the South Mountains. A battle developed at Turner Gap and Crampton Gap, two passes through the mountains. The Confederates were not able to hold the line, and finally the passes were in Union hands. Lee considered withdrawing to Virginia. However, Jackson's quick victory over the Union garrison at Harpers Ferry convinced him to make a stand at the town of Sharpsburg. It had one great advantage, his lines could be anchored on the Potomac River. It was also his great weakness, if the battle went poorly, he would have no way to retreat.

On September 15th, Lee planted his army behind Antietam Creek. That evening McClellan and his army arrived on the other side of the Creek. For a day the armies stared at each other, as McClellan made his plans. Finally, the 17th of September dawned. It would be the bloodiest day in American History. As the battle opened, the Union outnumbered the Confederates, three to one. The day began with a flanking attack by Hooker’s corps. They started crossing a corn field, when they came under withering fire. The Union forces briefly retreated, and laid down withering cannon fire that completely leveled the corn field. Then, they advanced through the field, and reached Dunker’s Church, in the face of strong Confederate fire. Just as they arrived at the church, the Confederates counterattacked. They succeeded in driving the Union forces back across the corn field. At that point a new attack was launched by General Mansfield corp( he was soon killed) which once again crossed the field, only to be repulsed at the last moment.

The battle on the North side of the town had now ended, but a second battle soon began, as General Sumner’s corps attacked the Confederate center. The battle quickly centered along the sunken road. Initially, the sunken road was an excellent defensive position. However, once the Union troops advanced, the road became a mass grave for Confederate soldiers, who were trapped in the trench. The Union troops almost broke through the center of the Confederate lines, but the Union advance petered out.

Finally, the third battle of the day began. Union troops, under Burnside, fought their way across the lower bridge– the bridge that soon bore Burnside’s name. Union troops advanced toward Sharpsburg, but at the last moment, A.P. Hill’s division arrived from Harpers Ferry, and managed to break the attack, with a well-timed counterattack. That ended the fighting for the day. The battle was a draw. It was a tactical victory for the Confederates, as they had held off a force that was much greater than their own.

Once again, McClellan's conviction that he faced a force larger than his own, made him hesitate when he should have attacked with his unused forces. The war might have ended that day. However, McClellan hesitated. A few day later, Lee withdrew. General Lee withdrew, for the Confederates, even more than the Union forces could not long endure the suffering of that day on the ground around Sharpsburg. 23,582 Americans were killed that day. The ground around Sharpsburg was littered with corpses. As a NY Volunteer wrote:

"Before the sunlight faded, I walked over the narrow field. All around lay the Confederate dead- undersized men mostly, from the coast district of North Carolina, with sallow hatchet faces, clad in "butternut"- a color running all the way from a deep, coffee brown up to the whitish brown of ordinary dust. As I looked down on the poor, pinched faces, worn with march and scant fare, all enmity died out. There was no secession in those rigid forms, nor, nor in those eyes staring blankly at the sky. Clearly it was not their war."

The Battle of Antietam – 17 September, 1862

The Battle of Antietam is interesting for several reasons the most important of which for me is that it is the single bloodiest day in American military history. There have been bloodier battles in American wars but no single day matches the blood spilled on those Maryland fields that early day in 1862. The Union victory at Antietam, if you can call it a victory, also provided Abe Lincoln with the opportunity to promulgate the Emancipation Proclamation. An executive act that was totally unconstitutional but that he did anyway for domestic and foreign political reasons.

Antietam was the final battle of Lee’s first invasion of the North and while it was not a decisive battle it changed things because of what came after. If anything, from a purely tactical and operational standpoint the battle was a draw. Both sides essentially beat themselves bloody over a few square miles of Maryland territory that neither considered vital. The battle is only considered a Union victory because Lee took his army and left instead of renewing the fighting for a second day leaving the Army of the Potomac in possession of the battlefield.

The commander of the 75,000 man, six Corps strong Union Army of the Potomac was General George B. McClellan. He was opposed the 39,000 man two Corps Confederate Army of Northern Virginia commanded by General Robert E. Lee.

In the fall of 1862 following the Confederate victory at Second Manassas Lee decided to invade Maryland. There were several competing reasons for this decision. One was that it was thought that that best way to force the Union to a negotiated settlement was to inflict a defeat on Northern forces on northern soil. Another was the hope that by successfully taking the war to the North the Southern states could win foreign recognition and potentially aid. It was also believed that Maryland was the state still in the Union whose population was the most sympathetic to the southern cause. Lastly, Lee believed that by invading Maryland and threatening the capture of Washington D.C. he could force the Army of the Potomac under McClellan to accept battle on his terms.

The invasion began on 3 Sep. 1862 and almost immediately (McClellan was a notorious slowpoke) provoked a reaction from the Union forces garrisoned in and around Washington D.C.

Movements at the Battle of Antietam Sep. 3-17, 1962
Map Courtesy

There were several skirmishes and minor battles prior to the culminating battle of the campaign at Antietam. The most significant of these was Stonewall Jackson’s capture of the federal garrison and Arsenal at Harper’s Ferry on Sep. 15th. This was the largest surrender of Federal troops during the war and the loss of weapons was considerable. The Confederates captured roughly 13,000 small arms, 200 wagons, and 73 artillery pieces when they took the Arsenal.

In the days leading up to the battle McClellan was slowly gathering all the disparate forces of the Army of the Potomac together and began to converge them west of Frederick in the vicinity of Sharpsburg. By contrast Lee’s army straggled in from their scattered positions in Maryland on 15 & 16 Sep. but McClellan’s habitual caution allowed Lee the time to consolidate his position prior to the Union assault on the morning of the 17th.

The first engagements between the two armies was on the night of 16 Sep when the Federal I Corps (Hooker) encountered rebel pickets.
During the night the Federal XII Corps (Mansfield) moved up in support of I Corps.

At around 0600 on 17 Sep Hooker’s Corps advanced and attacked the Confederate Left in the area of the North and East Woods and the Cornfield that was held by Stonewall Jackson’s Corps. The attack was almost successful until Hooker’s Corps was hit in the flank by Hood’s division who drove off the Union attack. As the I Corps retreated Mansfield was told that he was needed to cover the broken I Corps or the battle was lost before it really began.

As the XII Corps moved up to the attack Mansfield, it’s commander was mortally wounded and confusion briefly reigned as the 1st Division commander established his command of the Corps
At 0800 the XII Corps finally got into the fight and after heavy combat took and held the Dunker Church area unsupported by other Federal troops.

Morning attacks of the battle.
Map Courtesy USACMH

At about 0830 the II Corps (Sumner) entered the battle passing through the area where I and XII Corps had been so severely handled by Jackson’s Corps earlier. As the II Corps advanced into the battered formation of Jackson’s Corps they were hit in the flank by Fresh troops Lee had sent from his right and last Confederate reserves who managed to halt the attack in and around the Dunker Church and Cornfield. The failed attack by II Corps ended the first phase of the battle.

In the afternoon Sumner wanted to attack the Confederate left again because he believed the Rebels were more badly damaged than him and with the reinforcements from VI Corps he had the chance to

Afternoon movement’s during the battle.
Map Courtesy USACMH

crush the Confederate left. The matter was referred to McClellan who denied permission for the attack and probably squandered the Union’s best chance to decisively defeat Lee’s Army, which was exhausted of reserves. The IX Corps (Burnside) begins to enter the battle around the Burnside Bridge at approximately 1300. At 1600 the IX Corps attacks towards Sharpsburg but the attack falters as the Corps is attacked in the flank by the Division of A.P. Hill and falls back to the bridge by 1700. This was the last major Federal assault of the day and ended the battle although skirmishing continued.

On 18 September both armies remained in position and Lee considered renewing the battle but taking his own casualties and federal strength into account he instead stars withdrawing his army south. McLellan chose not to pursue the retreating Confederates out of a belief that Lee was falling back on significant reinforcements.

Battle casualties near the Dunker Church.
Image: Library of Congress

With 3,782 dead and a total of 22,000 casualties out of 114,000 troops engaged the Battle of Antietam was the single bloodiest day in the history of American Arms. The next costliest battle I can think of that took place on one day and is continually mentioned is the D-Day invasion of Normandy. At D-Day the US had roughly 1,400 dead and a further 3,500 wounded out of approximately 80,000 invasion troops. Casualties at Antietam were roughly 19% while at D-Day they were 4.5 % of troops engaged.

An afterword is that an image was captured at Antietam that was a rarity prior to WWI. Namely, Alexander Gardener captured an image of the battle as it was happening. If you look at the below image on the left side you can see Union cavalry lined up awaiting orders and on the right side you can see the infantry of both armies fighting on the battle line wreathed in the smoke from artillery and their rifles. If you blow the image up you can even see a couple of places where men are dragging casualties away from the line. Why this has not become an iconic image of the Civil War I have no idea.

Photo of the Antietam battlefield taken on the day of the battle by Alexander Gardner

#8 Battle of Antietam is considered a victory for the Union forces

Historians generally believe that McClellan performed poorly at the battle making several strategic errors and failing to press home the advantage amid several opportunities while Robert E. Lee displayed great leadership in holding his own against an army that greatly outnumbered his. Still the Battle of Antietam is considered a victory for the Union as Lee withdrew from the battlefield first and McClellan was able to halt Lee’s invasion of Maryland.

The Battle of Antietam, 1862

fter fifteen months of brutal combat—stretching from Arizona Territory to the eastern seaboard, as well as across the Atlantic Ocean—Union and Confederate armies met in the rolling countryside of western Maryland, in a small town named Sharpsburg, to fight a battle on a Wednesday, which proved to be the bloodiest single day in American history. It still is.

The Battle of Antietam, September 17, 1862

Following the Confederate victory at II Manassas in August of 1862, Robert E. Lee, in command of the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia, made the controversial decision to move his army into Union territory and take the war to the enemy’s ground. A persistent Southern hope throughout the war centered on making the Northerners so tired of the bloodshed that they would negotiate a peace and end the war. That was one thought President Abraham Lincoln could not and would not countenance.

General Robert E. Lee (1807-1870), commander of the Army of Northern Virginia

The President’s most recent hand-picked General, John Pope, had failed him at Manassas. He turned once again to George B. McClellan, a man whom Lincoln knew hated him and was a proven failure, though popular with the army itself. General McClellan knew that Lee was somewhere in Western Maryland, and his job was to track him down, bring the Confederates to battle, and put an end to that army. Providence handed McClellan the opportunity to do just that.

Union General John Pope (1822-1892)

Lee had divided his army into three parts, sending Stonewall Jackson and 13,000 men to capture the Union supply depot at Harper’s Ferry, Virginia, defended by a force of about 12,700. General Longstreet and his Corps continued north to Hagerstown, Maryland, and General Lee with the remainder of his forces camped at Sharpsburg along Antietam Creek. The Union Army of the Potomac marched to Frederick, Maryland, the last known location of the Southern Army. While camping in the vicinity, two Yankee soldiers found General Lee’s entire strategic layout written on a General Order and wrapped around three cigars, carelessly dropped by a Confederate general. They rushed the information up the chain of command and McClellan suddenly possessed the opportunity to crush Lee’s army in detail and end the war.

Union General George B. McClellan (1826-1885)

Confederate observers on South Mountain, which screened Sharpsburg from the Northern army, saw the blue host emerge from Frederick and begin its march across South Mountain to destroy the Southern army. The outlying Southern troops were ordered to Sharpsburg, units were placed in the gaps of the mountain to slow down the overwhelming onslaught, and Lee prepared for the battle of his and his nation’s life. The Southern army had its back to the Potomac River, was outnumbered, 38,000 to 87,000 and was hungry and tired. McClellan, whose reputation was one of caution and slowness, did not disappoint, taking two days to get into position, allowing time for the gray-clad invaders to concentrate at Sharpsburg. The stage was set for the greatest effusion of blood in the history of the United States.

Union troops attack Confederate forces at Turner’s Gap during the Battle of South Mountain, three days before the Battle of Antietam

The battle began early in the morning of September 17 as 8,000+ veteran Union infantry advanced up the Hagerstown turnpike against an approximately equal number of Confederates awaiting them along the post and rail fences and open fields of the farms that lay in the path. Most of the men on both sides were veterans and had proven themselves courageous and deadly many times in the past year. Confederate artillery in front and on the right flank of the Union attack opened fire, as did the massed Union artillery across Antietam Creek. The thunder and lightning of the big guns was both deafening and deadly.

Overview of the Battle of Antietam

The first phase of the battle immortalized places called the Dunker Church, the East Woods, Miller’s Cornfield, and the West Woods. After the two armies exhausted themselves, leaving more than 13,000 men on the ground dead and wounded, including two Union Corps commanders, they shifted the fight to “the Sunken Road” later known as the Bloody Lane. Another six or seven thousand fell here, including several generals. The Confederate line bent but did not break.

Dunker Church behind a field of Union and Confederate dead

A monument marks the sunken road, later known as “Bloody Lane”

The final phase of the battle pitted some 300+ Georgia infantry defending the Rohrbach Bridge against the entire 9th Corps of some 12,000 men and fifty guns, commanded by General Ambrose P. Burnside, who took three hours to get across the bridge and finally breach the Confederate line. They were struck on the flank by the timely arrival of A.P. Hill’s Light Division who virtually ran to the battlefield after receiving the surrender of the Federal forces at Harper’s Ferry, only 26 miles away. While the Southern wounded were carried to Virginia hospitals, Lee remained in line of battle the next day, daring McClellan to attack. Thinking he was outnumbered, although he had an entire Corps of fresh troops, more than all the survivors of the CSA army, he allowed Lee to slip back to safety during the night. The cost of one day of battle shocked both nations: about 23,000 combined casualties with nearly 4,000 dead on the field. Northern photographers rushed to the battlefield and took dozens of photographs, bringing the grim horror of war home to the civilian population for the first time. The shocking truth of battle stunned the nation.

Union General Ambrose Burnside (1824-1881)

Infantry regiments cross Rohrbach Bridge, later known as Burnside’s Bridge

President Lincoln declared Antietam a Union victory and issued the Emancipation Proclamation, adding a new goal to the war—the emancipation of slaves behind the Confederate lines. His move had diplomatic repercussions in England, preventing them forever from recognizing the Confederacy. He also sacked McClellan for not chasing after the retreating Confederates. He replaced him with Ambrose Burnside, who would lead the Union Army to be slaughtered at Fredericksburg, Virginia three months later. As a micro-manager, the President’s ill-starred choices would continue until he brought in George Meade. Lee soon recovered from his losses, won two more huge battles before trying another invasion of the north, the second time paying a visit to another small town, Gettysburg, Pennsylvania.

Union General George Meade (1815-1872)

Watch the video: Glory 18 Movie CLIP - The Battle of Antietam 1989 HD


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