Years before the Civil War started, Harpers Ferry, Virginia was the site of a federal armory that abolitionist John Brown raided with the hope of starting a revolution, causing distress throughout the Union that a revolution was in the making. In September 1862, Harpers Ferry became a thorn in the Union side yet again as Confederate General Stonewall Jackson raided and easily captured the town which occupied a strategically important position: the intersection of the Shenandoah and Potomac Rivers. After taking the town, Jackson and his men advanced toward Sharpsburg, Maryland and the bubbling Antietam Creek flowing past the outskirts of Sharpsburg.[i]
Formerly disgraced during the Peninsula Campaign, General George McClellan found himself commanding 60,000 men ready to repel the Confederate advance into Maryland with another 15,000 reinforcements nearby.[ii] Under direction of General Robert E. Lee, the Confederates fortified themselves in the “small groves, rock outcroppings, stone walls, dips, and swells in the rolling farmland” near Sharpsburg in preparation for a Union attack.[iii] Many of the Confederates had been worn down from “exhaustion, hunger, sickness from subsisting on green corn, [and] torn feet from marching barefoot on stony roads.”[iv] One resident of Frederick, Maryland described the sight of the Confederate men as being “the filthiest set of men and officers I ever saw; with clothing that . . . had not been changed for weeks. They could be smelt all over the entire inclosure.”[v] Even amongst the Maryland secessionists, there was a “coldness and even terror” toward their “ragged and needy liberators.”[vi] Throughout the Union ranks, there was a nagging sense that a sound repulsion of the Confederates would redeem the lackluster results of 1862 and turn the tide of war against the South.[vii] A Confederate soldier recalled the sight of the two armies facing each other in their long lines, “flaunting their defiant banners,” and presenting “an array of martial splendor that was not equaled.”[viii] The land between them did not have woods, hills, or any real defilades to speak of but “smooth and gentle undulations” softened by grass and growing corn.[ix]
To inaugurate the fighting on September 17, 1862, the 1st Corps led by Joseph Hooker, a man who fancied himself as the future general of the Union army, charged toward the right side of the Confederate line, posted near “a whitewashed church of the pacifist Dunkard sect,” and pushed the rebels back but was not successful in breaking the line.[x] Amidst booming artillery, reinforcements came to shore up the Confederate line and push back Hooker and his men, but nearby, Union men led by Edwin “Bull” Sumner achieved a breakthrough in a forested area known as the West Woods.[xi] As he was prepared to consummate his breakthrough by rolling up the Confederate line, he found that a Confederate division had arrived with a counterattack possessing sufficient potency to nearly wipe out his entire division and to leave seriously wounded a young captain and future Justice of the United States Supreme Court, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.[xii] Twenty-five years after the fighting, one Union officer wrote that the soldiers were “loading and firing with demoniacal fury and shouting and laughing hysterically,” and after five hours of slaughter on just the north side of the battlefield, 12,000 men were dead and wounded.[xiii] The bullets were “whacking against tree-trunks and solid shot . . . cracking skulls like egg-shells” and amidst such turmoil, “the breast of the average man said to get out of the way,” according to one soldier.[xiv] Another later recalled:
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.[xv]
In the middle of the battlefield, near an area later known as Bloody Lane, the Confederate and Union lines kept on fighting throughout the day in a “ghastly spectacle” that left Confederates going “down as the grass falls before the scythe.”[xvi] Within the Bloody Lane “lay so many dead rebels . . . many of whom had been killed by the most horrible wounds of shot and shell, and they lay just as they had been killed apparently, amid the blood which was soaking the earth.”[xvii] While the Confederate leadership saw the middle of their line as being entirely exposed and the whole army ruined, even forecasting “the end of the Confederacy was in sight,” McClellan did not share this perspective. He had been observing the battle with “a soldierly attitude” and “smoking with the utmost apparent calmness; conversing with surrounding officers and giving his orders in the most quiet under-tones.”[xviii] In actuality, he had been shaken by the events of the day and did not find an attack to be prudent.[xix] Thus, the battle continued.
On the southern end of the battlefield, the morning had been characterized by rebel sharpshooters firing on Union troops that attempted to cross a bridge spanning the Antietam Creek.[xx] Two of Union General Ambrose Burnside’s regiments, taking heavy losses, crossed the bridge and established a bridgehead that permitted other units to cross the creek and drive the rebels back.[xxi] Burnside’s men presently had an opportunity to achieve a breakthrough, particularly if reinforced. Just when McClellan had the Confederates on their heels and was beckoned by Fitz-John Porter to join the Burnside-led advance, he backed down finding the “phantom reserves on the other side” to be too dangerous.[xxii] Moments later, before Burnside could achieve any result resembling a breakthrough of the Confederate line, Robert E. Lee and his officers observed that Confederate General A.P. Hill had trekked from Harpers Ferry to the battlefield to reinforce the southern side of the battlefield. Taken by surprise and unprepared to continue the slaughter, the Union attackers “milled around, stopped, and retreated.”[xxiii] With that, Hill’s counterattack was a success, and an end came to the fighting.
As night fell, soldiers on both sides remained writhing in pain in the fields outside Sharpsburg. Scattered throughout the fields were haystacks that many of those injured on both sides had crawled into during the fighting for protection, but when bursting shells ignited those haystacks, cries rang out in the fields that night as those who were “bled too weak to crawl back out again, were roasted.”[xxiv] That day, General Stonewall Jackson, ever discerning divine blessings but evidently unaware of the toll the battle took on his already exhausted troops, gazed out into the field “so thickly carpeted with dead men that one witness claimed you could walk in any direction across it and never touch the ground,” and said, “God has been very kind to us this day.”[xxv]
In what would arguably be the bloodiest day in American history, 6,000 men died on the battlefield, and 17,000 were injured.[xxvi] Around 30,000 Confederates were left in Lee’s command, and several brigades reported losing more than half of their men, but Lee stayed in his position almost inviting an attack from McClellan.[xxvii] McClellan, always overestimating his opponent, did not attack Lee even after he had the benefit of reinforcements.[xxviii] The following night, Lee retreated back to Virginia, and only then did McClellan attempt a failed pursuit.[xxix] Nonetheless, he wrote his wife:
Those in whose judgment I rely tell me that I fought the battle splendidly & that it was a masterpiece of art. . . . I feel that I have done all that can be asked in twice saving the country. . . . I feel some little pride in having, with a beaten & demoralized army, defeated Lee so utterly. . . . Well, one of these days history will I trust do me justice.[xxx]
While Lee’s men marched back to Virginia, the marching band broke out in “Maryland, My Maryland,” eliciting groans and hisses, prompting a switch to “Carry Me Back to Old Virginny.”[xxxi] The Confederates, despite having been repulsed and still struggling to obtain recognition from Britain or France, saw that an advance into the Union states could result in success albeit at tremendous cost to life and limb. Regardless, McClellan’s prediction to his wife that, following the battle near Antietam Creek, the Confederacy’s “dreams of ‘invading Pennsylvania’” would be “dissipated for ever” proved to be not true within the following year.[xxxii]
[i] See James McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era, 538.
[ii] Id. at 538-39.
[iii] Id. at 539.
[iv] See id. at 535; Mary Bedinger Mitchell, “A Woman’s Recollections of Antietam,” Battles and Leaders, II, 687-88.
[v] See James McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era, 535-36 quoting James F. Murfin, The Gleam of Bayonets: The Battle of Antietam and Robert E. Lee’s Maryland Campaign, September 1862 (New York, 1965) , 108.
[vi] See Henry Steele Commager, The Blue and the Gray, Vol. I, 204.
[vii] See James McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era, 540.
[viii] Henry Steele Commager, The Blue and the Gray, Vol. I, 222.
[ix] See id.
[x] See James McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era, 541.
[xii] See id.; Henry Steele Commager, The Blue and the Gray, Vol. I, 209.
[xiii] See James McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era, 540-41.
[xiv] Id. at 540 quoting David L. Thompson, “With Burnside at Antietam,” Battles and Leaders, II, 661-62.
[xv] David L. Thompson, “With Burnside at Antietam,” Battles and Leaders, II, 661-62.
[xvi] See James McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era, 541 quoting Charles Carleton Coffin, “Antietam Scenes,” Battles and Leaders, II, 684.
[xvii] Henry Steele Commager, The Blue and the Gray, Vol. I, 221.
[xviii] See id. at 209.
[xix] James McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era, 543 quoting Frederick Tilbert, Antietam (Washington, 1961), 39; E. P. Alexander, Military Memoirs of a Confederate, ed. T. Harry Williams (Bloomington, 1962), 262.
[xx] See James McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era, 543.
[xxi] See id.
[xxii] See id. at 544 citing Thomas M. Anderson, Battles and Leaders, II, 656.
[xxiii] James McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era, 544.
[xxiv] Shelby Foote, The Civil War: A Narrative, Vol. I, 700.
[xxv] See id. at 692.
[xxvi] See James McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era, 544.
[xxvii] See id.
[xxviii] See id.
[xxix] See id.
[xxx] McClellan to Ellen McClellan, Sept. 18, 20, 1862, McClellan Papers.
[xxxi] See James McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era, 545.
[xxxii] See Henry Steele Commager, The Blue and the Gray, Vol. I, 200 quoting McClellan to Ellen McClellan, Sept. 20, 1862.