Antietam – A Battle That Changed The Course Of The Civil War.

[This blog is posted in commemoration of Memorial Day.  It also illustrates the flexibility of narrative paragraphing].

It is still remembered as the bloodiest day in American history, a deadly encounter which took place back on September 17, 1862, in a small Maryland town by the name of Sharpsburg, about seventy miles northwest of Washington D.C. virtually in the shadow of the nation’s capital.  The battle has gone down in history as simply “Antietam“, named for the nearby creek that meandered southerly from its source in Pennsylvania.

The strategic approach to Antietam began on September 4, 1862, with Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s invasion – there is no other term for it, strange as it may sound – of Maryland.  Poised to threaten Washington, D.C., and buoyed by the Union’s rout at the Second Battle of Manassas (Bull Run) on August 30, Lee hoped to continue recent Confederate victories, bring border state Maryland into the Confederacy, and secure support and recognition for the Rebel cause from France and England.

Union forces were heavily demoralized following their humiliating defeat at Bull Run.  Lincoln sacked General John Pope, in command of Union forces there, fearing an army mutiny if Pope was retained.  He merged Pope’s Army of Virginia with General George McClelland’s and reluctantly put McClellan in charge of the revamped and reorganized Union army, designating the combined force as the Army of the Potomac.

There were strong objections raised by several cabinet members to McClellan’s selection, who wanted him court-martialed or dismissed because of his failure to send troops to help Pope, his detested rival, at Bull Run.  After Ambrose Burnside declined Lincoln’s offer to take over the Army, there seemed to be no other alternative to McClellan.  But those cabinet members voicing serious concerns to McClellan felt vindicated by his subsequent failure to come to the rescue of the Union garrison at Harper’s Ferry, West Virginia, which surrendered to Stone Wall Jackson on September 15, 1862,  allowing Jackson’s forces to reinforce Lee just before Antietam.

Earlier, on September 13, in a field near Frederick, Maryland, two Union soldiers stumbled upon a military bonanza, a copy of Lee’s order “directing the movement of the army from Fredericktown [sic],” apparently carelessly dropped by a Rebel officer.  McClellan now had at his disposal information giving him the opportunity of a commander’s lifetime, with advance knowledge of the disposition of Lee’s forces.  The army was scattered, with many miles separating each from the other part, the two largest units some twenty five miles apart with the Potomac River in between.  McClellan had only to push through the South Mountain passes east of Antietam Creek, annihilate each of these parts before they could unite, to seal the fate of the Confederate army.

But Lee, being alerted to the loss of the order, dispatched troops to block the passes through South Mountain, giving him extra time to pull the remainder of his forces together.   Moving cautiously, still fearful that Lee’s forces greatly outnumbered him (in fact, he outnumbered Lee by approximately two to one), McClellan waited until daybreak on September 14, an 18 hour delay, in getting his troops on the move. This gave Lee the time he needed concentrate the disparate units of his army.

Following a bruising battle at South Mountain on September 14, Lee withdrew his forces overnight to Sharpsburg and contemplated withdrawing across the Potomac.  The losses he had sustained in recent fighting had made his smaller army more vulnerable than ever before to the advancing might of the Union forces.  However, news that Harper’s Ferry had been secured by Stonewall Jackson and that help was on the way caused him to reconsider and set up defensive positions west of Antietam Creek  in anticipation of Federals, approaching from the east side later that day.

Attacking at dawn from the North on the bloodiest day, September 17, 1862, Union forces led by Major General “Fighting Joe” Hooker’s divisions, three abreast, stormed southward along the Hagerstown Turnpike and Smoketown Road, clashing with Rebels and driving them through sites whose names have become famous, synonymous with the bloody encounters that occurred in them – Dunkard Church, West Woods, Bloody Lane, and perhaps the deadliest killing field of them all, The Cornfield, a 40-acre plot bordered by a stand of woods on the east side. Withering rifle fire accompanied by canister shot and thunderous artillery volleys carved out staggering losses from the lines on both sides.  Aided in no small part by recent advances in weapons and ammunition technology, including the rifling of rifle barrels, which increased accuracy up to 500 yards, the carnage was appalling, with men on both sides being cut down in droves by the murderous fire.

Antietam is remembered today for the deadly toll taken in American lives. Total casualties for the day from both Union and Confederate forces exceeded 23,000, with over 6,000 killed and mortally wounded, a total of more dead American soldiers then were killed in the entire American Revolution, more than those dying in combat in all the wars fought by the United States of the nineteenth century combined,  four times the number  killed on the beaches of Normandy on June 6, 1944, and over twice the number of fatalities suffered by the country at the hands of terrorists on September 11, 2001!

Both sides had been staggered by their losses, but McClelland still had fresh troops and outnumbered Lee nearly two to one, even after Lee had been reinforced by Stonewall Jackson’s forces arriving from Harper’s Ferry. Lee had lost countless veteran, seasoned troops, which he could ill afford to lose in view of what was now the prospect of a long, continuing war, his plans for an early ending by invasion having been turned back.  If McClellan had followed through, as Lincoln wanted, and renewed battle the next day after Antietam, many believe that he could have shattered Lee’s army and thereby shortened the war considerably.  McClellan, however, wired Lincoln that victory was complete, and believed to his dying day that Antietam was his finest hour because he had saved the Union.

Coming at a time when the survival of the United States was open to question, Antietam was a decisive battle that changed the course of the Civil War.  Though it was a limited Union victory strategically, the consequences of Antietam in other respects were enormous. It restored morale in the North and allowed the Republican Party to remain in control of Congress. It shattered hopes of British recognition of the Confederacy.  Finally, it  provided Lincoln with the opportunity he had been seeking to issue his Emancipation Proclamation, declaring all slaves in areas still in rebellion against the Union as of January 1, 1863, “shall be… forever free.”

Copyright © 2012.  Arnold G. Regardie.  All rights reserved.

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