September 17, 2012

Battle of Antietam--September 17, 1862--150th Anniversary

Battle of Antietam, by Thure de Thulstrup, 1887
Today, September 17, 2012, is the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Antietam.  Antietam was fought near the banks of the Potomac River in extreme western Maryland near the little town of Sharpsburg.  The Battle of Antietam has the distinction of being the single bloodiest day of the American Civil War, with a combined total of about 23,000 men killed, wounded, or missing from Lee's Army of Northern Virginia and McClellan's Army of the Potomac.  This battle was the culmination of Lee's invasion of the North, and while the battle is generally considered a tactical draw between the two armies, it is also viewed as a strategic victory for the North, and gave President Lincoln the ability to issue the Emancipation Proclamation.

Dunkard Church
The Battle of Antietam really was a near run thing for Lee and his Confederate army.  He was significantly outnumbered by McClellan's Federal army, and he had his back to the Potomac River with really very limited maneuvering room.  Tactically, Lee did have the advantage of interior lines, and could more easily move his forces to respond to areas of weakness along his lines as the Federals attacked.  This advantage, however, would have been largely nullified if McClellan's army had been able to attack the Confederates in a sustained and coordinated fashion.  As it was though, McClellan's attacks over the course of the day were initiated in a piece-meal fashion starting early in the morning in the northern portion of the battlefield, near the Dunkard (or, Dunker) Church, the North Woods, the East Woods, and the Cornfield.  In this part of the battlefield two large Federal corps (I and XII Corps) slugged it out with rebel troops commanded by Stonewall Jackson and James Longstreet.  The fighting in the Cornfield was the scene of some of the most savage and indescribable slaughter, and it was estimated that the Cornfield changed hands no fewer than 15 times in the course of the morning.

After the Federal attacks in the northern sector of the field were repulsed, the fighting in this area became quiescent by mid-morning.  True to character, McClellan then began feeding troops from two more Federal corps into the battle in the center portion of the field immediately east of the town of Sharpsburg.  Again, the fighting was intense and brutal as Lee shuffled his troops to meet the new threats, and two farm roads along which much of the fighting occurred are now well known features of the battlefield--The Bloody Lane and The Sunken Road.  Repeated Federal charges and Confederate repulses resulted in the dead and dying being stacked like cord-wood along these two roads.  By mid-afternoon, the two more Federal corps were largely thrashed and the fighting slowly died down along the center.

Burnside's Bridge, by Edwin Forbes, 1862
Lee's army was clearly on the ropes, and McClellan was beginning to believe that one more good push might be all it would take to shatter the rebel army.  Finally, he was able to get Major General Ambrose Burnside's IX Corps moving on the southern portion of the battlefield.  Burnside's corps was on the east side of Antietam Creek, and was separated from Lee's right flank by a well-made stone bridge over the creek known as Rohrbach's Bridge, but is now known as 'Burnside's Bridge'.  The bridge was stoutly defended by some rebel troops from Georgia that commanded the forested high ground on the west side of the creek.  Eventually a concerted and coordinated charge initiated by the 51st New York and 51st Pennsylvania were able to weather the musket fire of the rebel troops and charged across the bridge and gained the high ground.  The 21st Massachusetts, located on the left side of the bridge, provided covering fire during charge, and it was here that a direct ancestor, on my father's side, was badly wounded (shot through both legs with a musket ball).

Once the bridge was taken and successfully crossed, much of the IX Corps then poured across Antietam Creek and began advancing through the fields southeast of Sharpsburg towards Lee's main lines.  It was at just this moment though that a division of Lee's army, under A.P. Hill,  that had been tasked with capturing the Federal garrison at Harper's Ferry reached the field after a hard 17-mile forced march.  Hill's men struck Burnside's left flank and threw most of them back almost to Antietam Creek.  For all intents and purposes, the Battle of Antietam was over and combat across the field slowly died down.

Over the course of the day of battle, the Federals suffered 12,400 casualties, including 2,108 killed.  The Confederate army suffered a total of 10,318 casualties, including 1,546 killed.  McClellan lost about 25% of his total force during the battle, and Lee sustained losses approximating 31% of his total force.  Bluntly put, more Americans died on this day (a total of 3,654 killed), 150 years ago, than on any other day in our country's military history. In fact, a soldier in the 9th New York, part of Burnside's IX Corps, wrote after the battle that--
The mental strain was so great that I saw at that moment the singular effect mentioned, I think, in the life of Goethe on a similar occasion--the whole landscape for an instant turned slightly red.
Finally, I think it is important to point out that for much of the day Lee's army's entire position had been in dire straits, and had McClellan thrown his entire army forward in one concerted effort it is hard to imagine any other outcome other than the complete defeat of the rebel army.  It didn't happen though, because all along McClellan just couldn't convince himself that he wasn't horribly outnumbered by Lee's army, and that his own army was near complete disaster itself.  While McClellan was a good organizer of the Union army, he was essentially incapable of actually using the army to fight.  McClellan was imbued with what Lincoln called "the slows".  In fact, for several days after the battle McClellan, and his army, remained on the field near Sharpsburg, and had let Lee safely disengage his army and slip away back across the Potomac River unimpeded and into Virginia.  President Lincoln was not impressed, to say the least, and finally relieved McClellan of his command of the Army of the Potomac on November 7, 1862.

If you are interested in reading more about the Battle of Antietam, I would offer the following suggestions--

The Gleam of Bayonets: The Battle of Antietam and Robert E. Lee's Maryland Campaign, September 1862
By James V. Murfin
Softcover, 472 pages
Louisiana State University Press, 1965 (reprinted 2004)

Landscape Turned Red: The Battle of Antietam
By Stephen W. Sears
Softcover, 464 pages
Mariner Books, 1985

The Maps of Antietam: An Atlas of the Antietam (Sharpsburg) Campaign, Including the Battle of South Mountain, September 2-20, 1862
By Bradley Gottfried
Hardcover, 326 pages
Savas Beatie, 2011



  1. This is an excellent summary of Antietam, but I have a question about the numbers you cite. When historians say it was the single bloodiest day, with 23,000 killed, wounded or missing, and then a total of 3,654 killed, is the latter number those who died on Sept. 17, 1862 on the battlefield. Presumably, many who were wounded died of their wounds shortly afterwards, and the many of the missing would later be presumed dead.

  2. First, I want to thank you, Jane, for stopping by and leaving your comment. I'm glad you enjoyed this quick little posting about this fascinating and important battle. Regarding your question, it is my understanding that the 3,654 killed would include those killed-in-action and those mortally-wounded-in-action. I am sure that you are right that some of those missing may have been killed too, or died later, but just weren't adequately accounted for. The fighting was absolutely ferocious during this battle, particularly during the morning in the northern part of the field, and then at mid-day in the center portion. Some units on both sides suffered casualties of 75-80%!

    Again, thanks for your visit, Jane! Cheers! Chris