TIME MACHINE: The Battle of Antietam



Two days ago, September 17, marked the 150th anniversary of the Civil War conflict, The Battle of Antietam. Also known as The Battle of Sharpsburg in the Southern states, the battle was the first major conflict of the war that took place on Union soil, near Sharpsburg, Maryland.

The road to the Battle of Antietam began in the aftermath of a Confederate victory at Second Battle of Bull Run two months earlier. Embolden by success, General Robert E. Lee and the Jefferson Davis Administration in Richmond decided to take the war to Union soil by invading Maryland. Lee’s invasion of Maryland was intended to run simultaneously with an invasion of Kentucky by the armies of Braxton Bragg and Kirby Smith. It was also necessary for logistical reasons, as northern Virginia’s farms had been stripped bare of food. Lee, Davis and the Confederate politicians also believed that a successful invasion into the North would destroy Northern morale and lead the Abraham Lincoln Administration to sue for peace. In the wake of the Baltimore Riot of April 19, 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. However, Lee and Davis failed to discover that by the fall of 1862, pro-Union sentiment was winning out, especially in the western parts of the state.

Not long after Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia marched into Maryland, General George McClellan and the Army of the Potomoc followed in pursuit. Two Union soldiers of the 27th Indiana Volunteer Infantry – Corporal Barton W. Mitchell and First Sergeant John M. Bloss – discovered a mislaid copy of Lee’s detailed battle plans wrapped around three cigars. Special Order 191 made it clear that Lee had divided his army and dispersed portions to Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, and Hagerstown, Maryland. This would have made each portion of the Army of Northern Virginia subject to isolation and defeat. But General McClellan did not move fast enough. He waited about 18 hours before deciding to take advantage of this new intelligence and squandered his chance for a complete defeat of Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia.

The Battle of Antietam actually consisted of three battles. The first stage began at dawn on September 17. Union General Joseph Hooker’s I Corps stormed Confederate General Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson’s Second Corps around the Dunker Church, the West Woods, and David Miller’s cornfield. Union troops made repeated attacks, but furious Confederate counterattacks kept the Union in check.

The fighting moved south to the middle of the battlefield by mid-to-late morning. Union troops under General Edwin Sumner inflicted devastating casualties on the Confederates along a sunken road that became known as “Bloody Lane” between 9:30 am and 1:00 pm, before the Confederates retreated. Meanwhile, McClellan refused to apply reserves to exploit the opening in the Confederate center, because he believed Lee’s forces to be much larger than it actually was. In the late afternoon, Union General Ambrose Burnside and his IX Corps attacked General James Longstreet’s First Corps across a stone bridge that came to bear Burnside’s name. Union troops crossed the creek, but a Confederate counterattack brought any further advance to a halt.

The battle finally ended by early evening. The two armies remained in place throughout the following day, on September 18, in order to care for their wounded during a truce. Later that night, Lee and his army began their retreat to Virginia. Casualties for the Union Army numbered at 12,401, with 2,108 dead; and Confederate casualties numbered at 10,318, with 1,546 dead. These numbers represented 25% loss for the Union Army and 31% for the Confederates. More Americans died in battle on September 17, 1862; than on any other day in this nation’s military history.

Although the Union Army drove General Lee’s forces back to Virginia, the battle proved to be a lost opportunity for them. McClellan had an overwhelming numerical advantage, but he did not know it. Another attack on September 18 could have scattered the Confederates and cut off Lee’s line of retreat. But McClellan and the Union forces did not follow, much to President Lincoln’s disappointment. Nearly a week later, on September 22, President Abraham Lincoln issued his preliminary draft of his Emancipation Proclamation. This document took effect on January 1, 1863 and expanded the Union goal from a war for reunification into a crusade to end slavery.

Below are some recommended books about the Battle of Antietam:

*“The Long Road To Antietam: How the Civil War Became a Revolution” by Richard Slotkin

*“Crossroads of Freedom: Antietam” by James McPherson

*“The Antietam Campaign” by Gary W. Gallagher

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