Antietam National Battlefield is located in Maryland about 70 miles northwest of Washington, D.C. Visiting a battlefield is always a sobering experience and visiting Antietam was certainly that. Serene and quiet now, but on September 17, 1862, there occurred here the bloodiest single-day battle in all of American history.
This park encompasses a little over 3,000 acres and we spent quite a bit of time walking parts of the battlefield and following the marked auto tour route to more distant locations. With the help of the information from the visitors center, we were able to piece together the locations and the timeline of the battle.
This was prime farm ground and there were a number of farmsteads that inadvertently became battlefields. Standing looking over the Cornfield, it’s hard to imagine what it must have been like to run through that cornfield into a hail of bullets or to have your home become a part of a battlefield.
As with most historical events, there are several points at which the outcome could have been dramatically different. General Robert E. Lee (C.S.A.) took command of the Confederate army June 1, 1862. At that point, the Confederacy appeared on the verge of collapse but with Lee in charge, there was a dramatic reversal of fortune.
Early spring 1862, the Union army had succeeded in capturing Forts Henry and Donelson, the cities of Nashville and New Orleans and won the Battle of Shiloh.
In late June, Lee (C.S.A.), in a weeklong series of battles known as The Seven Days, thwarted Major General George B. McClellan’s (U.S.A.) attempts to capture Richmond, the Confederate capital.
The final week of August, Lee (C.S.A.) defeated General John Pope (U.S.A.) at Second Manassas and drove the Union forces back to Washington.
War transferred from the gates of Richmond to the outskirts of Washington. Lee (C.S.A.) decided to launch an invasion of the north and thus began the momentous Maryland Campaign of September 1862 which would culminate in the Battle of Antietam. There were a number of reasons for this audacious move by Lee. He wanted to: create anxiety in the North and give credence to a rising anti-war sentiment; influence upcoming 1862 Congressional elections; bring Maryland, a slave-owning border state, under the Confederacy; and pick a fight on favorable, defensive ground of his own choosing.
Many things were hanging in the balance and both Union and Confederate armies were in trouble. Lee’s army was in bad shape and the Union army was greatly disheartened by Second Manassas
Lee (C.S.A.) devised a plan which divided his army into several parts with the intent being to clear the Shenandoah Valley, capture Harpers Ferry, move across South Mountain and ultimately drive north into Pennsylvania. A great deal of coordination and speed was required to accomplish these goals before the Federal army could march out of Washington and catch up.
Lee prepared Special Orders No. 191 and copies were distributed to the commanders of each of the separate forces. Somehow the copy addressed to General D.H. Hill (C.S.A.) got lost. It remains a mystery as to who lost it and how it got lost but it played a pivotal role in the upcoming confrontation.
On September 13, Special Orders No. 191 was found by Corporal Barton Mitchell (U.S.A.) in tall grass in a meadow which had earlier served as a Confederate campsite. Sending the paper up the chain of command, McClellan (U.S.A.) was literally handed the enemy’s plans.
The Union army immediately headed west intending to prevent Lee’s divided forces from reuniting. The Union seized crucial South Mountain passes. However, the Confederates delayed the Union advance long enough that General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson (C.S.A.) effected the surrender of Harpers Ferry and set out to join the main Confederate force.
Lee knew if McClellan moved quickly enough he could destroy the Army of Northern Virginia (C.S.A.) so Lee decided to retreat to Virginia.
Lee’s primary goal had been to draw the Union army out from the safety of Washington and bring it to battle on good defensive ground. With the anticipated arrival of Jackson’s command, Lee called off the retreat as he determined that the terrain west of Antietam Creek was well suited for defense. He began placing his men in position.
The morning of September 15, Union forces arrived on the east side of Antietam Creek. McClellan ordered his men not to attack until he arrived but, by the time he arrived, it was too late in the day to launch an attack.
September 16, an impenetrable fog blanketed the area. As they waited for the fog to burn off, the remaining divisions of Lee’s army arrived. An artillery duel was kept up intermittently throughout the day but primarily the day was used by both armies to move into position.
The morning of September 17, the battle began. Many specific locations have become well known because of the horrific carnage that occurred there: the Cornfield, Dunker Church, the East Woods, the West Woods, the Sunken Road (“Bloody Lane”), Burnside Bridge.
Sunken Road (“Bloody Lane”)
At the beginning of the battle, the Army of the Potomac (U.S.A.) had 85,000 soldiers and 300 cannons, and the Army of Northern Virginia (C.S.A.) had 45,000 men and 200 cannons. In this one-day battle Lee (C.S.A.) lost 25% of his men killed and wounded and McClellan (U.S.A.) lost 23% of his men.
By the end of September 17, there were 23,000 casualties: an estimated 4,000 were killed in action, another 17,000 fell wounded (the numbers of battle-related deaths continued to rise in the ensuing days, weeks, and months), another 2,000 were either captured or listed as missing in action. Six generals lost their lives at Antietam, three from each side.
Under the cover of darkness, Lee began to retreat. Tactically, the battle was a draw but in many ways it was an important Union victory. As a result, five days later Abraham Lincoln issued the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation and all thoughts of European intervention on the part of the Confederacy were effectively ended.
We came away from our time at Antietam musing about many “what ifs.”
What if Lee had not been put in command of the Confederate army?
What if Special Orders No. 191 had not been lost and fallen into Union hands?
What if the Union forces had attacked on the morning of September 15 rather than waiting?
What if it hadn’t been foggy on September 16?
What if McClellan had pursued and attacked Lee’s army on September 18?
Much food for thought.
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