The Battle of Antietam is an infamously significant military operation of the Civil War in a political and strategic sense. The entire campaign takes place over the course of a single day, yet bears a higher death toll than multiple wars combined. The Confederate Army was greatly out-manned, but extraordinarily resilient. However, the greatest advantages of the battle were held by the Union.
Their arguable victory in Sharpsburg propelled President Lincoln’s bold announcement of the Emancipation Proclamation and rallied the morale of Northern soldiers and civilians to preserve the Union and abolish slavery.
Battle of Antietam 3 The Battle of Antietam A terrible reality of war is bloodshed. But neither the North nor the South anticipated the decimation of Antietam, the bloodiest battle of the Civil War. On September 17, 1862 war waged and ravaged the small town of Sharpsburg, Maryland resulting in unprecedented casualties. More lives were lost in a single day’s battle than in all the wars fought in this country during the nineteenth century combined. (McPherson, 2004, p. 3) No other day in American history is saddled with greater loss.
Although, the battle ended somewhat inconclusively with heavy death tolls on both sides, its affect on the War was decisive. Strategically, it was the first Confederate campaign on northern soil and it set an intimidating precedent. General Lee’s astounding resilience, even while out-manned, put a quick halt to any immediate, brazen attacks on Union ground. (Only one other battle was fought in the North, the rest in the South. ) Politically, it stunted progress for the Confederacy by alienating the much-needed European support they had hoped to win.
However, it promoted the Federal agenda by paving the way for President Lincoln’s bold Emancipation Proclamation. With an arguable victory under his belt, came the right opportunity to solidify the North’s abolitionist platform. The scale tipped in their favor strengthening their resolve to continue the fight, rather than concede to peace. James McPherson calls Antietam “the battle that changed the course of the Civil War. ” (McPherson, 2004, p. XVI) Leading up to the Battle
General Lee and his men were still fresh with the Manassas victory (The Second Bull Run), which led to another victory at Harper’s Ferry. There, Jackson’s troop snatched control from a smaller band of Union forces and replenished their supplies. Then quickly rejoined Battle of Antietam 4 Lee’s soldiers in Sharpsburg, where they chose to take a stand against the pursuing Confederate army led by General McClellan. September 17, 1862: 0600 to 0900 The sun had no sooner risen and the first shot was fired from a Union rifle. Antietam Creek was resonant with the sound of roaring artillery.
It was the beginning of an unforgettable exchange between Lee’s 40,000 soldiers and McClellan’s 87,000. Lee arranged his men in defensive positions along Sharpsburg’s bluffs and hills with their backs to the Potomac River. After an early morning volley of rounds, McClellan offensively marched several of his troops towards Miller’s Cornfield. They were immediately met with enemy fire. McClellan responded quickly. He withdrew his men and rained cannon fire into the cornfield. Men and corn were leveled ruthlessly. Eyewitness, Union General Joseph Hooker, comments on the grisly moment:
In the time I am writing, every stalk of corn in the northern and greater part of the field was cut as closely as could have been done with a knife, and the slain lay in rows precisely as they had stood in their ranks a few moments before. (NPS, 2001) The South rallied and retaliated with a storm of artillery fire. The two parties stood among the fallen corn in very close proximity, only 200 or so yards distanced, unloading their weapons into one another. A New York soldier, Isaac Hall, described it the warfare: “They stood and shot each other, until the lines melted away like wax.
” (NPS, 2001) The battle spilled into the West Woods as soldiers attempted to evade the cornfield’s onslaught, but enemy lines kept finding one another and continued to fire at point-blank range. Battle of Antietam 5 September 17, 1862: 0900 to 1300 Towards mid-morning, Confederate troops were chased out of the cornfields and beaten back to a defensive location they’d secured earlier. They began hunkering down in an 80-yard trench, which had been hollowed out by the heavy wagons of nearby farms. Improvising, they stacked fence rail to help shield themselves from the Union’s unrelenting barrage.
McClellan’s men kept advancing and Lee’s men kept defending from their carved out patch of earth. No side showed any signs of surrender, so ammunition continued to fly. The southern troops managed to repel at least four hearty Union advances at the cost of 5,600 lives.. The most shocking quantity of casualties took place in and around this trench, now called, “Bloody Lane”. The scenes captured by American photographers sobered Americans, communicating the true and gritty reality of war. After three hours in the trench, a Confederate officer -misunderstanding his commands- ordered his troops to evacuate the sunken lane.
Others followed suit. The Confederate Army ran back through the cornfields toward the outskirts of the village. McClellan had the upper hand, but decided against pursuing Lee’s forces; although, he could have dispatched his available fresh reserves to complete the task. This hesitation on his part, bought the Confederate troops more time. Earlier that morning, Lee positioned soldiers and Georgian sharpshooters around the Antietam Bridge, where they spent most of the morning warding off the North’s advance.
Finally around 1300, the line broke through. After a two hour rest, the North continued their advance. The renewed northern soldiers had the southerners Battle of Antietam 6 on the run again. At this point, the southern army was in retreat mode, filling the Sharpsburg streets and heading for cover. But hope arrived around 1540. One of Lee’s generals from Harper Ferry (who had been detained) arrived on the scene with 3000 men. Blindsiding the Union troops, they bombarded their left flank. In this swift turn of events, Lee regained ground.
In these last hours of the battle, more Union casualties occurred than Confederate. McClellan suffered great loss, despite the reserve still available to him. He was hesitant to dispatch his full resources and this hesitation allowed the Confederate Army enough leash to fight again another day. Severely depleted in numbers and morale, they retreated across the Potomac River, only to rally again for the next battle. In November, McClellan was dismissed from duty. Both sides were devastated: 12,410 Confederate soldiers and 10,700 Union soldiers died fighting for their way of life.
General Lee’s men withstood incredible resistance, but the North was most advantaged by the battle’s outcome. President Lincoln used the battle’s marginal victory as a stepping stone in the Federal agenda. “Now the war had a dual purpose: to preserve the Union and abolish slavery. ” (NPS, 2001) And, that is exactly what happened. Battle of Antietam 7 References James M. McPherson (2004). Crossroads of Freedom: Antietam, 3, XVI. National Park Services (2001). Battle of Antietam. Retrieved December 8, 2008, from http://www. nps. gov/archive/anti/battle. htm.
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