If you ask most Americans what was the bloodiest day in our history, you would probably get either 9/11 or Pearl Harbor, depending on the age of the responder. Neither would be correct.
In Western Maryland is a sluggish creek called the Antietam.
The scene is pastoral with rolling hills and farms dotted by occasional patches of woods. Nestled within these gentle ridges is the tiny hamlet of Sharpsburg. Stone monuments and bronze tablets dot the landscape. They seem strangely out of place here. Only some enormous event can explain their presence.
Almost by chance two great armies collided here. Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia was invading the North for the first time. The Union Army of the Potomac under Maj. General George B. McClellan was out to stop them. On September 17, 1862 the two forces fought the Battle of Antietam to decide the issue.
Their violent conflict shattered the quiet of Maryland’s countryside. When the hot September sun finally set upon the devastated battlefield, 23,000 Americans had fallen making this day the single worst act of mass killing of Americans in history. This single fact, with the heroism and suffering it implies, gives the markers and monuments their meaning. No longer do they presume upon the landscape, rather their mute inadequacy can only hint of the great event that happened here—and of its even greater consequences.
To comprehend just how terrible the killing was this day, we must consider that, though McClellan brought a host of 87,000 men to the battlefield to confront Lee’s mere 38,000 depleted ranks (from desertion or straggling), the Union commander only committed 50,000 of his men to battle. So the 23,000 losses in one day — roughly 12,500 Union and 10,500 CSA — represented over 25% casualties. (This was the same horrific attrition rate the 8th AF suffered in its disastrous raid on Schweinfurt in WW2).
At the end of the day a Confederate diarist recorded that in the confusion and chaos that “half of Lee’s army was off searching for the other half.” But he was lucky to be alive.
The consequences of this battle were as monumental as the scale of the losses suffered. Although tactically the battle was a draw as Lee did hold the field—though barely by a thread—when merciful darkness finally arrived to put an end to the killing, it was clear his grievously wounded army would have to abandon any invasion plans and limp back to Virginia. McClellan could claim a victory in that he ended Lee’s northern ambitions. But an abler general with his vast uncommitted reserves would have broken Lee’s army against the banks of the Potomac River at its back and ended the war.
Still the appearance of victory had far-reaching effects in the North’s favor. Throughout the summer of 1862 Lincoln, seeing the war in a higher moral and broader political vision than merely putting down an insurrection, was anxious to announce his preliminary Emancipation Proclamation. His Secretary of State Seward, however, dissuaded him from doing so while the Union armies were being trounced by the Rebels on the battlefields of both the Eastern and Western theatrers, fearing it would appear to the world as “the last shriek on the retreat.”
Antietam changed all that. It gave Lincoln the victorious platform from which to transform the war from a war against rebellion to a war against slavery—in short, declaring in a proclamation what the fighting had always been about. The vocal objections of some libertarians, rogue historians, Lew Rockwell acolytes and Lost Causers notwithstanding, and regardless of Lincoln’s motives which ranged from moral enlightenment on one side to political opportunism on the other, the beginning of the end of the great crime of slavery and that “new birth of freedom” about which he would speak a year later, can be traced back to that brutal September day.
Antietam for all practical purposes ended the once very real prospect of European intervention on the parts of England and possibly France on the side of the Confederacy; these prospects were never so strong as in the summer of 1862. But Lee’s elusive quest for the Southern Saratoga would go unfulfilled that summer — and finally dashed completely upon the fields of Gettysburg nine months later.
The battle also brought to the North the first photographed images of what real war was all about. No colorful and stylized lithographs, but rather Matthew Brady’s New York City exhibit of photos of the battlefield’s aftermath which he simply called “The Dead Of Antietam.” Brady’s images, it was said, was as if he’d laid the corpses at the doorstep of every isolated civilian’s home, striking them with the gruesome harvest of the modern battlefield.
Although further disappointment awaited them at Fredericksburg (and to a lesser extent Chancellorsville) Antietam showed the Army of the Potomac, indeed Lincoln himself, that they could fight with the mettle of their vaunted Southern opponents. The seeds of Gettysburg and beyond were sown on the fields of Sharpsburg. It would only take proper leadership at the very top for the Union army to eventually prevail. When asked by a slave woman in Sharpsburg after the battle if he’d had a hard fight, a Rebel soldier replied: “Yes Aunty. The Yankees gave us the devil today. And they’ll give us hell tomorrow.”
But that tomorrow never came. Despite his army’s battered condition, or perhaps because of it, Lee chose to remain on the smoldering field on the 18th, daring his opponent across the creek to renew the assault. But McClellan was no Grant. Content with not losing, McClellan idled away the hours and eventually the day. He would allow Lee to escape that night back across the Potomac River to live to fight another day.
Lee’s most reliable general, James Longstreet, noted that at one point during the battle the situation for the Rebs was so precarious that in the height of the fighting, with his lines in disarray and fresh battalions of blue troops clearly visible on the bluffs east of the creek, he personally minded his staff’s horses so they could serve an artillery piece. His artillerist, Porter Alexander, would write: “Lee’s army was ruined and the end of the Confederacy was in sight.” But it would not end that day. Lincoln had picked the right man to organize his demoralized army, but the wrong man to take it into battle. Because of the hopelessly timid George McClellan, Antietam was the great missed opportunity to end the war.
In a way the sportsman in me likes that notion that the battle was a tie, so to speak. With such bravery and suffering, it seems a shame that one side should lose such a desperate fight. The South’s survival that day ultimately can be attributed to the exceptional skills of its high command: General Lee, and his two corps commanders, Jackson and Longstreet. Lee in fact, considered it his finest battle, believing his men had shown their best against the worst odds. From a military standpoint, Lee certainly never should have fought there. But for his opponent being George McClellan he probably would not have. Yet once the battle was joined, he moved his units back and forth over the field like a master chessman. But his efforts there and elsewhere would not be enough to stave off the inevitable that finally came to pass in April 1865. The South was never going to win the Civil War. That it did not end in September 1862 is a tragedy equal to the story of the the Battle of Antietam itself considering the casualty lists of the next two and a half years. But I like to think the legacy of generations of free men and women, whose chains began to dissolve that decisive summer day, gives the 23,000 dead and wounded sublime meaning after all.