The Battle of Antietam

September 3, 1862 – “The present seem to be the most propitious time since the commencement of the war for the Confederate Army to enter Maryland.” – Robert E. Lee

The brilliant Southern victories of spring and summer had brought Lee’s Army International renown. “One more successful campaign,” he wrote Jefferson Davis “would force Europe to recognize the Confederacy.”

Now, for the first time, Lee led 40,000 soldiers across the Potomac and onto Union soil.

Lee’s target was the Federal Rail Center at Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.


Hoping Marylanders would rise up against the Union, he instructed his men to sing – “Maryland, My Maryland” as they marched. It didn’t work.

Most residents of the small towns stayed fearfully behind closed doors.

Then, on September 13th, in a meadow near Frederick, a Union soldier found 3 cigars wrapped in a piece of paper. It was a copy of Lee’s Battle Plans which was accidentally left behind.

Union General McClellan now knew Lee had divided his Army, sending one part off to seize Harpers Ferry. McClellan had in his hand, the instrument with which to destroy Lee.

Still, McClellan did nothing for 18 crucial hours.

On September 15th, Lee and his Confederates took up positions along the crest of a 3-mile ridge just east of the town of Sharpsburg which was only 52 miles from Washington.

The Potomac was at their back and in front ran a creek called Antietam.

Antietam Creek
Union Army Antietam

On the forenoon of the 15th, the blue uniform of the Federals appeared among the trees that crowned the heights on the Eastern bank of the Antietam. The number increased and larger and larger grew the field of blue till it seemed to stretch as far as the eye could see. And from the tops of the mountains down to the edges of the stream gathered the Great Army of McClellan. – Confederate General James Longtreet

Had General McClelland hurled his Army at the Confederates that day, the war might have ended. But he did not.

General McClellan

There was a single item in our advantage, but it was an important one. McClellan had brought superior forces to Sharpsburg, but he had also brought himself. – An Aide to Lee remembered and told Lee

Union Wagons in Antietam

September 16th – That night, I lay beside the Charleston Pike and watched until morning the grimy columns come pouring up from the pontoons. It was a weird uncanny sight and drove sleep from my eyes. It was something Demon-like, a scene from an Inferno. They were silent as ghosts, ruthless and rushing in their speed, ragged, earth-colored, disheveled, and devilish. The shuffle of their badly shod feet on the hard surface of the Pike was so rapid as to be continuous like the hiss of a Great Serpent. The spectral, ghostly picture will never be erased from my memory. – Union Captain Edward Hastings Ripley


Antietam Battle Map

The Battle which began the next day was really 3 Battles.

The first began at 6 a.m. on Lee’s left, where a Federal forces charged along the Hagerstown Pike to attack Stonewall Jackson’s men hidden in woods beyond a big cornfield.

The Union objective was a plateau edged with Artillery on which stood a small whitewashed Church, built by a German Baptist Pacifist sect, the Dunkards, for whom even a steeple was thought immodest.

Dunkard Church

The Union Field Commander was Major General Joe Hooker. A profane and hard drinking Massachusetts soldier known as “Fighting Joe”.

Major General Joe Hooker

As Hooker cautiously advanced, he noticed the glint of bayonets in the cornfield and ordered 4 Artillery batteries to fire into it.

The Rebels counter-charged and the battle surged back and forth across the cornfield 15 times. In a matter of minutes, the 12th Massachusetts lost 224 of 334 men. Hooker himself was carried from the field, shot through the foot.

The men were loading and firing with demoniacal fury and shouting and laughing hysterically, and the whole field before us is covered with Rebels fleeing for life into the woods.

Hooker’s men were closing in on the Dunkard Church.

At that moment, Stonewall Jackson sent in his last reserves, General John Bell Hood’s Divison – Fierce fighters at any time, but now enraged at having missed breakfast, which had promised to be their first real meal in days.

Antietam Cornfield Fighting

The fist volley was like a scythe running through our line. – One Union survivor remembered

Then, the Confederate counterattack came on.

Every stalk of corn was cut as closely as could have been done with a knife, and the slain lay in rows, percisely as they stood in their ranks a few moments before. – General Joseph Hooker


Antietam Dead in Cornfield

The Northern Troops ran back through the cornfield. Confederate General Hood’s men ran after them but were stopped by a hail of shells and Federal Reinforcements. When the Confederates finally withdrew, one officer asked Hood where his Division was. “Dead on the Field,” he answered.

Confederate Lt. General John B. Hood

I have never in my Soldier’s life seen such a sight. The dead and the wounded covered the ground. In one spot, a Rebel Officer and 20 men lay near a wreck of a battery. It is said Battery ‘A’, 1st Rhode Island Artillery did this work. – Elisha Hunt Rhodes

Antietam Battery

By 10 a.m., 8,000 men lay dead or wounded. Jackson’s lines had wavered but held.

After his part of the battle was over, Jackson was sitting on his horse, eating a peach, and his Medical Director, Dr. McGuire, was there. He looked out over this field where there were dead of both sides littered all over the place. And as he’s eating the peach, he said, “God has been very kind to us this day.”

Stonewall Jackson sitting on Little Sorrell – “God has been very kind to us this day.”

The second part of the Battle of Antietam began at the center of Lee’s line, a sunken country road now served as a ready-made rifle pit for 2 Confederate Brigades.

Lee ordered it held at all costs. General John B. Gordon assured him, “These men are going to stay here, General, till the sun goes down or victory is won.”

Battery at Antietam

Then the Union attacked.

The brave union Commander, superbly mounted, placed himself in front, while his band cheered them with martial music. I thought, what a pity to spoil with bullets such a scene of martial beauty. – General John B. Gordon

Confederate General John B. Gordon

General Gordon let the Blue line get within a few yards and then gave the order to fire. The Union Commander was killed instantly. Then his men wavered and retreated. Then came back at the Confederates 5 more times.

General Gordon was hit twice in the right leg, once in the left arm, and a fourth time through the shoulder. But he refused all aid while limping along the line to steady his men as the Union soldiers kept coming.

I was finally shot down by a fifth ball, which struck me squarely in the face. I fell forward and lay unconscious with my face in my cap. I might have smothered in blood but for a Yankee bullet hole which let the blood run out. – General Gordon

Still, the Confederates held. Unit after unit of the Northern troops fell back from the sheets of Southern fire.

Finally, some New Yorkers managed to find a spot from which they could shoot down on the road’s defenders. The tide of battle turned.

Antietam dead along Sunken Road

The Sunken Road, remembered now as Bloody Lane, rapidly filled with Southern bodies two and three deep, and the triumphant Federals knelt on top of what one called “This Ghastly Flooring”, to fire at the fleeing survivors.

Antietam Sunken Road

The Confederate Center had splintered. One more push might have broken it apart. General McClellan, however, decided it “Would not be prudent” to attack again.

Antietam Confederate Center breaking

All day long, in hastily constructed field hospitals, Clara Barton tended the wounded. She worked so close to the fighting that a bullet went through her sleeve and killed a man she was treating.

I had to wring the blood from the bottom of my clothing before I could step, for the weight about my feet. – Clara Barton

Antietam Field Hospital

I was lying on my back, supported on my elbows, watching the shells explode overhead and speculating as to how long I could hold up my finger before it would be shot off, when the order to “Get Up” was given. I then turned over to look at Colonel Kimball, thinking he had become suddenly Insane. – Lieutenant Matthew J. Grohan

The third Battle took place on the Confederate right, where the Union Army led by General Burnside’s Corps, tried to fight its way across a strongly defended stone bridge over Antietam Creek.

Antietam Stone Bridge

Ambrose Burnside was a genial dapper man. His distinctive whiskers or sideburns set a fashion but he shrank from responsibility, an admiring fellow Officer said, “With sincere modesty”, and he owed his position to his old friend McClellan, who now promised to support his assault across the bridge.

Ambrose Everett Burnside
Antietam Stone Bridge

Burnside had 12,500 men against barely 400 Georgians led by Robert Toombs. But the Confederates commanded the bluff overlooking the bridge and poured a relentless volley of fire down on the Union troops.

It took three hours and three bloody charges for the Federals to cross the creek and begin fighting their way up the slope towards Sharpsburg.

Seven successive Union Color Bearers were hit before the Confederates finally broke, racing back into the town.

Oh, how I ran, I was afraid of being struck in the back, and I frequently turned around in running so as to avoid, if possible, so disgraceful a wound. – Private John Dooley


While the Union troops cheered, the Confederate Light Division was arriving from Harpers Ferry. 3,000 men, footsore from their 17-Mile March, but otherwise ready to fight and commanded by General A.P. Hill, who was dressed in the Red Shirt he liked to wear in battle.

A.P. Hill is the fightingest Division Commander in Lee’s Army. Hill arrived at another one of those Nick-Of-The-Moment things, and it was the last one, and it succeeded in throwing Burnside back after he finally got across the bridge.

Confederate General A. P. Hill

Hill slammed into the celebrating Union troops.

Burnside begged McClellan to send up the Reinforcements he had promised.

McClellan refused.

The night fell, Burnside withdrew to the Stone Bridge his men had fought so hard to seize.

Antietam Stone Bridge

The Battle was over. No ground had been gained.

Before the sunlight faded, I walked over the narrow field. All around lay the Confederate Dead, clad in Butternut. As I looked down on the poor pinched faces, all enmity died out. There was no ‘Sucession’ in those rigid forms, Nor in those fixed eyes staring at the skies. Clearly, it was not ‘their’ war. – Unknown Soldier

Antietam Stone Bridge at sunset

The sun went down. The thunder died away. The musketry ceased. Bivouac fires gleamed out as if a great city had lighted its lamps.

It had been the bloodiest day in American History.

The Union lost 2,108 dead, another 10,293 wounded or missing. Double the casualties of D-Day 82 years later.

Lee lost fewer men. 10,318 Casualties. But… That was a quarter of his Army.

Why did we not attack them and drive them into the river? I do not understand these things. But then, I am only a boy. – Elisha Hunt Rhodes

McClellan had plenty of reserves waiting outside Sharpsburg, but he never used them.

Lee, outnumbered 3-to-1, braced for a new attack all the next day. It never came.

On the 18th, Lee and his Army slipped back across the Potomac.

McClellan could claim a victory, but he could have won the war.

Lee’s invasion had been halted. He had suffered terrible losses, but his Army had not been destroyed.

The causes of the war were wide apart, but the manhood was the same. – Joshua Lawrence Chamberlian, 20th Maine.




[Credit: Ken Burns Civil War]




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