Battle of Antietam - Bloodiest 1-Day Battle in
Dawn approached slowly through the fog on September 17, 1862. As
tried to wipe away the dampness, cannons began to roar and sheets of flame
burst forth from hundreds of rifles, opening a twelve hour battle that
swept across the rolling farm fields in western Maryland. This clash
between North and South changed the course of the
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
Robert E. Lee and the
Army of Northern Virginia.
In Kentucky and
Southern armies were also advancing as the tide of war flowed north. After
dramatic victory at the
Second Battle of Manassas during the last two days of August, he wrote
Davis that “we cannot afford to be idle.”
Lee wanted to keep up 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
state, but a slave-holding border state divided in its sympathies.
After splashing across the Potomac River
and arriving in Frederick, Virginia, Lee boldly divided his army to capture the
garrison stationed at
Harpers Ferry. The gateway to the Shenandoah Valley,
Harpers Ferry, Maryland, 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.
General Thomas Jonathan "Stonewall" Jackson and about half of the
Army of Northern Virginia
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.,
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 General Lee.
The armies first clashed on
South Mountain where, on September 14th, 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
considered returning to Virginia. However, with word of
Lieutenant General Thomas Jonathan "Stonewall" Jackson
capture of Harpers Ferry on September 15th,
Robert E. Lee decided to make a stand at Sharpsburg.
The Confederate commander gathered his forces on the high ground west of
Antietam Creek, with General James Longstreet’s command holding the
center and the right, while
General "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 Antietam Creek.
Thousands of soldiers in
blue marched into position throughout September 15th and 16th as
General 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 16th, one
Pennsylvanian remembered, “…all realized that there was ugly business
and plenty of it just ahead.”
twelve hour battle began at dawn on September 17, 1862. For the next seven
hours there were three major Union
attacks on the Confederate left, moving from north to south. General Joseph Hooker’s
command led the first Union
assault; then, General Joseph Mansfield’s soldiers
attacked, followed by General Edwin Sumner’s men as McClellan's plan broke down into a series of uncoordinated
advances. Savage, incomparable combat raged across the Cornfield, East
Woods, West Woods and the Sunken Road as General 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
killed or wounded.
assaults were being made on the Sunken Road, a mile-and-a-half farther
General 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.
Neither flank of the
Confederate army collapsed far enough for McClellan to advance his center attack, leaving a sizable
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, 1862, the opposing armies gathered
their wounded and buried their dead. That night
Robert E. Lee's army withdrew back across the Potomac River
to Virginia, ending Lee's
first invasion into the North. Lee's
retreat to Virginia provided
Lincoln the opportunity he
had been waiting to issue the preliminary
Emancipation Proclamation. Now,
Civil War had
a dual purpose of preserving the Union
and ending slavery.
Battle of Antietam was the bloodiest one day battle in
American History. In the end, an
estimated 23,100 casualties were suffered.
Today, the Antietam National Battlefield Site is a part of the National
Park System, and provides a number of historic sites for visitors as well
as a museum. Films and documentaries are available in the Visitor's
Center, and a number of tours are available including a self-guided 8 ½
mile auto tour with 11 stops, self-guided hikes, and Ranger led talks and
Antietam National Battlefield Site was established August 30, 1890, to
commemorate the significant events of September 17, 1862, and to preserve
the important features of the battlefield. Administered by the War
Department until 1933, the site was then transferred to the U.S.
Department of the Interior to be administered by the National Park
Battle of Antietam was fought over an area of 12 square miles. The site
today consists of 184 acres containing approximately 5 miles of paved
avenues. Located along the battlefield avenues to mark battle positions of
infantry, artillery, and cavalry are many monuments, markers, and
narrative tablets. Similar markers describe the actions at Turner's Gap,
Harpers Ferry, and Blackford's Ford. Key artillery positions on the field
of Antietam are marked by cannon. And 10 large-scale field exhibits at
important points on the field indicate troop positions and battle action.
National Cemetery, located at the eastern limits of Sharpsburg, is the
burial place of Federal dead from the Battles of Antietam,
South Mountain, and other minor engagements. Of the 4,773 Civil
burials, 1,836 are listed as unidentified.
Antietam National Battlefield
P.O. Box 158
Sharpsburg, Maryland 21782
of America, updated October, 2015.
Primary Source: National Park Service
Antietam Battlefield today courtesy National
Antietam Cemetery courtesy National Park
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