For the North, the fight along Antietam Creek became known as the Battle of
Antietam. In the South, it became known as the Battle of Sharpsburg. Of the
nearly 70,000 Federal troops actually engaged in the battle, nearly 13,000 were
killed, wounded, or missing; the approximately 35,000 Confederates engaged lost
almost as many.
history page 2
the Battle of Antietam
approached slowly through the fog on September 17, 1862. As soldiers tried to
wipe away the dampness, cannons began to roar and sheets of flame burst forth
from hundreds of rifles, opening a twelve hour tempest that swept across the
rolling farm fields in western Maryland. A clash between North and South that
changed the course of the Civil War, helped free over four million Americans,
devastated Sharpsburg, and still ranks as the bloodiest one-day battle in
Battle of Antietam was the culmination of the Maryland Campaign of 1862, the
first invasion of the North by Confederate General Robert E. Lee and the Army of
Northern Virginia. In Kentucky and Missouri, Southern armies were also advancing
as the tide of war flowed north. After Lee’s dramatic victory at the Second
Battle of Manassas during the last two days of August, he wrote to Confederate
President Jefferson Davis that “we cannot afford to be idle.” Lee wanted to keep
the offensive and secure Southern independence through victory in the North;
influence the fall mid-term elections; obtain much needed supplies; move the war
out of Virginia, possibly into Pennsylvania; and to liberate Maryland, a Union
state, but a slave-holding border state divided in its sympathies.
splashing across the Potomac River and arriving in Frederick, Lee boldly divided
his army to capture the Union garrison stationed at Harpers Ferry. Gateway to
the Shenandoah Valley, Harpers Ferry was a vital location on the Confederate
lines of supply and communication back to Virginia. The 12,000 Union soldiers at
Harpers Ferry threatened Lee’s link south. Gen. Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson and
about half of the army were sent to capture Harpers Ferry. The rest of the
Confederates moved north and west toward South Mountain and Hagerstown,
Maryland. Back in Washington D.C., President Abraham Lincoln turned to Major
General George B. McClellan to protect the capital and respond to the invasion.
McClellan quickly reorganized the demoralized Army of the Potomac and advanced
towards Lee. The armies first clashed on South Mountain where on September 14
the Confederates tried unsuccessfully to block the Federals at three mountain
passes – Turner’s, Fox’s and Crampton’s Gaps. Following the
Confederate retreat from South Mountain, Lee considered returning to Virginia.
However, with word of Jackson’s capture of Harpers Ferry on September 15, Lee
decided to make a stand at Sharpsburg. The Confederate commander gathered his
forces on the high ground west of Antietam Creek with Gen. James Longstreet’s
command holding the center and the right while Stonewall Jackson’s men filled in
on the left. The Confederate position was strengthened with the mobility
provided by the Hagerstown Turnpike that ran north and south along Lee’s line;
however there was risk with the Potomac River behind them and only one crossing
back to Virginia. Lee and his men watched the Union army gather on the east side
of the Antietam.
of soldiers in blue marched into position throughout the 15th
McClellan prepared for his attempt to drive Lee from Maryland. McClellan’s plan
was, in his words, to “attack the enemy’s left,” and when “matters looked
favorably,” attack the Confederate right, and “whenever either of those flank
movements should be successful to advance our center.” As the opposing forces
moved into position during the rainy night of September 16, one Pennsylvanian
remembered, “…all realized that there was ugly business and plenty of it just
twelve hour battle began at dawn on the 17th. For the next seven hours there
were three major Union attacks on the Confederate left, moving from north to
south. Gen. Joseph Hooker’s command led the first Union assault. Then Gen.
Joseph Mansfield’s soldiers attacked, followed by Gen. Edwin Sumner’s men as
McClellan’s plan broke down into a series of uncoordinated Union advances.
Savage, incomparable combat raged across the Cornfield, East Woods, West Woods
and the Sunken Road as Lee shifted his men to withstand each of the Union
thrusts. After clashing for over eight hours, the Confederates were pushed back
but not broken, however over 15,000 soldiers were killed or wounded. While the
Union assaults were being made on the Sunken Road, a mile-and-a-half farther
south Union Gen. Ambrose Burnside opened the attack on the Confederate right.
His first task would be to capture the bridge that would later bear his name. A
small Confederate force, positioned on higher ground, was able to delay Burnside
for three hours. After taking the bridge at about 1:00 p.m., Burnside
reorganized for two hours before moving forward across the arduous terrain—a
critical delay. Finally the advance started only to be turned back by
Confederate General A.P. Hill’s reinforcements that arrived in the late
afternoon from Harpers Ferry.
flank of the Confederate army collapsed far enough for McClellan to advance his
center attack, leaving a sizable Union force that never entered the battle.
Despite over 23,000 casualties of the nearly 100,000 engaged, both armies
stubbornly held their ground as the sun set on the devastated landscape. The
next day, September 18, the opposing armies gathered their wounded and buried
their dead. That night Lee’s army withdrew back across the Potomac to Virginia,
ending Lee’s first invasion into the North. Lee’s retreat to Virginia provided
President Lincoln the opportunity he had been waiting for to issue the
reliminary Emancipation Proclamation. Now the war had a
dual purpose of preserving the Union and ending slavery.