1862 Antietam

September 17, 1862


In September 1862, with the Union army “weakened and demoralized,” Lee led forty thousand soldiers into Maryland, stopping at Frederick. Maryland was a border state, but allowed slavery, which gave it strong ties to the South. If residents of Maryland could be swayed to join the Confederacy, Lee could trap the Union capital at Washington, D.C. inside a Confederate state.

Lee Divides His Army

The army Lee brought across the Potomac was tired, under-supplied, and hungry. They had been “marching, fighting, and starving” since June. Nearly a quarter of the men were barefoot. To protect his own supply line, Lee needed to capture the Union garrison at Harper’s Ferry which threatened him. He sent “Stonewall” Jackson to secure Harper’s Ferry, dividing his forces, while the rest of his forces marched toward Hagerstown, Maryland.

This bold and dangerous move left his army scattered and vulnerable for five days. The reputation of General McClellan lulled Lee into not worrying about a counter-attack. McClellan was well known for his tedious attention to preparation before marching.

In war, decisive battles are often determined as much by chance as strategy. On September 13, a soldier from Indiana decided to take a nap under the shade of a tree in a meadow east of Frederick, Maryland. He saw a bulky envelope in the grass. When he looked at the envelope he found Lee’s orders for his plan.

Even after the discovery that his orders had fallen into enemy hands, Lee went ahead with his planned capture of Harper’s Ferry. On September 15, Federal forces gave up and surrendered 12,500 men. Lee decided to reunite his army and engage McClellan east of Sharpsburg, Maryland, near a little creek called Antietam. The Conferate line stretched out four miles long with their backs to the Potomac, leaving only a shallow crossing as an escape route.

A Great Deal at Risk for the North

The series of Confederate victories had brought both England and France close to recognizing the Confederacy. If the Union sustained another victory here, the British Prime minister was ready to recognize the South. If the South lost the battle, England would hold off a while to see how things proceeded. At the same time, morale was very low in the North, and Lincoln was under pressure to make peace before the upcoming elections.

By September 15, McClellan had amassed 75,000 men. Lee had half as many, but McClellan assumed he had 120,000. While McClellan waited for reinforcements, Lee built up his defences and was able to welcome Stonewall Jackson’s men back. Late in the afternoon, McClellan sent Ambrose Burnsides IX Corps across Antietam Creek to cut off Lee’s route to the Potomac. He kept two divisions in reserve to take advantage of a Union breakthrough and to counter any Confederate offensive. McClellan would never have more than half his troops in combat at any time, negating his superior numbers and firepower. After a brief skirmish, both sides settled down for the night. In the morning they would fight the battle that would determine the fate of the Republic.

The Battle

The battle began with Hooker’s three divisions charging into a thirty acre cornfield at dawn. Three divisions opposed Hooker’s men. Hooker fought without backup. Lee sent three additional divisions into the battle. Some of Hooker’s men managed to fight their way past the cornfield. The Confederate line was dangerously weak. At that moment the Confederate line was reinforced with a 2,300-man division led by Brigadier General John Hood that came out of the woods and pushed the Yankees back into the cornfield. By 9 A.M. more than 8,000 Americans had been killed or injured–and the battle was just begun.

The Union was making progress a few hundred yards to the west. Major General Edwin Sumner sent a division across the cornfield into the West Woods. The enemy fell back and led Sumner’s men into an ambush. Sumner had 2,255 men dead, injured, or missing.

The fiercest battles of the day took place on Bloody Lane, a farm road at the center of Lee’s forces. The road was lower than the surrounding land, and the trench gave a strong defensive position to Lee’s forces. Wave after wave of Union soldiers charged the road only to be mown down. The Irish Brigade was among those who participated in the assault. After two hours the Confederate line broke. In a space of about ten acres lay a thousand dead men and as many wounded. Hundreds of horses lay mangled.

In the afternoon the fighting shifted to Lee’s right. Ambrose Burnside’s men forced their way across a heavily guarded bridge. Burnside’s unit included two future presidents, Colonel Rutherford B. Hayes and Sergeant William McKinley. By 3 P.M. Burnside had eight thousand Union men advancing on a front three-quarters of a mile long near Sharpsburg. Burnside appeared to be on the verge of capturing Harpers Road and cutting off Lee’s escape, outnumbering the Confederate force four to one. At this time Major General A. P. Hill and his division of experienced men rode to the rescue. They arrived just in time to save their general and crush the exhausted Union soldiers.

Four times as many men died on the battlefield near Sharpsburg than were killed in the D-Day invasion of Normandy in World War II. In spite of the carnage, the Union commander was able to claim a victory. The Confederate offensive had been blunted, and Lee was forced to retreat.

The Confederate army survived to fight another two and a half years. Despite the victory, Lincoln fired the over-cautious McClellan. It was McClellan’s victory at Antietam that changed the tide of the war and ultimately kept the Union together.


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