Antietam, Battle of
Great possibilities rode with the Army of Northern Virginia as it began crossing the Potomac River northwest of Washington on 4 September 1862. The most powerful nations in the world, Britain and France, were considering diplomatic recognition of the Confederacy; one more military victory would win that crucial goal. A large faction in the Northern Democratic Party wanted peace negotiations; another Union defeat might enable them to capture the House of Representatives in the fall. President Abraham Lincoln had decided in July to issue a proclamation to free the slaves in Confederate states and was awaiting a Union military victory to announce it.
After the defeat at Second Manassas (Bull Run), Lincoln had merged the Union Army of Virginia into the Army of the Potomac and given McClellan command, ordering him to “destroy the rebel army.” Cautious as always, McClellan probed northward along the Potomac. On 13 September at Frederick, Maryland, he had extraordinary luck: two Union soldiers found a copy of Lee's invasion orders wrapped around some cigars lost by a Confederate staff officer. Lee had divided his army into five parts, sending three under “Stonewall” Jackson to capture the Union garrison at Harpers Ferry, which lay athwart Lee's line of communications with the Shenandoah Valley. If he moved quickly, McClellan could destroy the separated units piecemeal. He did not move quickly. Union attacks did overrun Confederate defenders in the South Mountain gaps west of Frederick on 14 September, but failed to save the 12,000 Union troops at Harpers Ferry, which surrendered to Jackson on 15 September. McClellan's tardiness enabled Lee to reunite most of his army along high ground east of the village of Sharpsburg—his left flank on the Potomac and his right on Antietam Creek. Although he outnumbered Lee by about 80,000 troops to 45,000, McClellan assumed that the enemy outnumbered him.
After deliberate preparations that gave Lee time to unite his army, McClellan attacked at dawn on 17 September. His plan called for a one‐two punch against the Confederate left and right, followed by reserves to exploit whatever breakthrough might occur. The Union attacks were uncoordinated, enabling Lee to shift troops from quiet sectors to threatened points. During the early morning hours, assaults by six Union divisions on Jackson's corps were contained in vicious fighting in locales that became forever famous: the Cornfield, the West Woods, and the Dunkard Church. Meanwhile, the commander on the Union left flank, Maj. Gen. Ambrose Burnside, tried to force his troops across a bridge over the Antietam instead of fording that shallow stream. In the center at midday, two Union divisions broke through Confederate defenses along a sunken farm road known ever after as Bloody Lane, but McClellan failed to exploit this success because he feared Lee's nonexistent reserves. Burnside finally punched across the Antietam in early afternoon and advanced toward Sharpsburg, threatening Lee's rear and his retreat route across the Potomac. But at about 4:00 P.M. Maj. Gen. A. P. Hill's Confederate division arrived after a forced march from Harpers Ferry and hit Burnside's flank, halting the Union advance.
The sun set on the deadliest single day in the Civil War—indeed, in all of American history. Some 6,000 men lay dead or dying, and another 16,000 were wounded. The fighting was not renewed next day, and that night Lee retreated to Virginia. McClellan failed to follow up, but nevertheless claimed a victory. Britain and France did not recognize the Confederacy. Republicans retained control of the House in November. And five days after the battle, Lincoln issued his preliminary Emancipation Proclamation.
[See also Civil War: Military and Diplomatic Course.]
James V. Murfin , The Gleam of Bayonets: The Battle of Antietam and the Maryland Campaign of 1862, 1965.
Stephen W. Sears , Landscape Turned Red: The Battle of Antietam, 1983.
Gary W. Gallagher, ed., Antietam: Essays on the 1862 Maryland Campaign, 1989.
James M. McPherson
Antietam, Battle of
ANTIETAM, BATTLE OF
ANTIETAM, BATTLE OF. The Battle of Antietam took place on 17 September 1862. With an estimated 23,100 total casualties, it was the bloodiest single-day battle of the American Civil War. As a result of the high number of casualties on each side, the battle was a tactical draw, although a strategic victory for the Union.
The battle was a result of the Confederate army's first attempt to wage war in the North. Early in September 1862 General Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia crossed the Potomac into Maryland. He concentrated at Frederick, then sent T. J. "Stonewall" Jackson's corps south to take Harpers Ferry and General James Long-street's corps westward across the South Mountain. On 14 September, Union general George Brinton McClellan's Army of the Potomac forced the mountain passes.
Lee began to concentrate toward the Potomac and took position at Sharpsburg, on Antietam Creek. While Longstreet was assembling, Lee heard that Jackson had captured Harpers Ferry and made the bold decision to stand and fight behind the creek, with the Potomac at his back. Longstreet took the right of the line, and Jackson's troops, as they arrived, took the left. McClellan planned to strike Lee's left with three corps (commanded by Generals Joseph Hooker, Joseph Mansfield, and Edwin Sumner). He would follow this blow with an attack by General Ambrose E. Burnside's corps on the Confederate right and hold Fitz-John Porter's and W. B. Franklin's corps, with Alfred Pleasonton's cavalry, in reserve in the center. But Hooker, Mansfield, and Sumner attacked successively, not simultaneously, and each in turn was beaten. Burn-side's attack on the other flank came still later.
On the Confederate side, Longstreet's line had been weakened to reinforce Jackson, for Lee had no real reserve. As a result, although Burnside made some progress at first, when fully engaged he was struck in flank by A. P. Hill's division, the last of Jackson's troops returning from Harpers Ferry. Burnside was driven back to the bridge by which he had crossed the creek, and darkness ended the fighting.
On 18 September, Lee stood fast and McClellan did not renew his attack. The following day, Lee withdrew his army across the Potomac. The numbers engaged are uncertain; perhaps a fair estimate is 50,000 Union, 40,000 Confederate. But this represented Lee's entire strength, and McClellan had 20,000 troops in reserve, never used. Losses for the Union army numbered about 12,000 casualties, including 2,108 killed. The Army of Northern Virginia lost almost 25 percent of its forces, including at least 1,500 killed. News of the carnage spread throughout the country after newspapers published photographer Alexander Gardner's vivid and disturbing photographs of the battlefield. As a strategic Northern victory, Antietam provided the positive news President Abraham Lincoln thought a prerequisite for issuing the Emancipation Proclamation. The victory also gave the impression that the North was doing better in the war, which may have helped elections for the Republican Party in 1862.
Antietam was designated a national battlefield by an act of Congress on 30 August 1890. Today the park is run by the National Park Service and receives approximately 280,000 visitors each year.
Gallagher, Gary W., ed. The Antietam Campaign. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1999.
Harsh, Joseph L. Sounding the Shallows: A Confederate Companion for the Maryland Campaign of 1862. Kent, Ohio: Kent State University Press, 2000.
Johnson, Curt, and Richard C. Anderson Jr. Artillery Hell: The Employment of Artillery at Antietam. College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 1995.
Oliver Lyman Spaulding
Antietam, Battle of