“There was a single item in our advantage but it was an important one. McClellan had brought superior (above: Lincoln & General McClellan, October 3, 1862) forces to Sharpsburg. But he had also brought himself”
– An aide to General Lee.
“In making his battle against great odds to save the Republic, General McClellan had committed barely 50,000 infantry and artillerymen to the contest. A third of his army did not fire a shot. Even at that, his men repeatedly drove the Army of Northern Virginia to the brink of disaster, feats of valor entirely lost on a commander thinking of little beyond staving off his own defeat.”
– Stephen W. Sears, historian.
The Battle of Antietam was fought on today’s date, September 17 in 1862, 151 years ago. It was certainly the most significant battle of the American Civil War up to that point. But some historians believe it was the most significant battle of the entire war, perhaps even in American history. But this claim is based not so much on what happened during the battle, but what happened five days after the battle. So for those of my “Today in History” readers who groan at the thought of another posting devoted to another bloody battle, just read the following sentence, and then move on to my posting for September 22: the Union “won” the Battle of Antietam, and showed that however impressive the Confederacy was on the battlefield, it could still, in fact probably would still be beaten. But for those of you interested in the contest of wills, the poignancy, as well as the tragedy of armed combat, read on.
General George B. McClellan: the Little Napoleon.
General George B. McClellan (above) was a brave officer. He had the complete confidence of his troops who affectionately called him “Little Mac”. He was also called “the Young Napoleon” because of his way with his army. He had trained the Union’s Army of the Potomac into a first rate fighting force. But once he had them ready to go, he could not bear to risk them in battle. He was hampered by caution to a nearly disabling degree. And in the Peninsula Campaign wherein he laid siege to the Confederate capital of Richmond, he had shown the sort of inability to move quickly which would characterize his entire command history. The Confederacy had appointed Robert E. Lee to command her troops and Lee would soon show the dash and the daring that made him such a legend. McClellan thought that Lee would be cautious, but had completely misjudged him. And in the Battle of the Seven Days (6/25 – 7/1, 1862) Lee had chased McClellan’s much larger force back into Maryland. McClellan was constantly over estimating the size of his opposition, and refusing to move against them. Even when Lee’s battle plans were found wrapped around a bundle of cigars on Sept. 13, he did nothing for 18 crucial hours, thus giving Lee time to assemble his dispersed forces.
The Battle of Antietam
At Antietam, McClellan’s failure to bring all of his forces to bear had grave consequences. Instead of fighting all along his 4 mile front in coordinated attacks, where his superior numbers would make the difference, McClellan had three separate battles. At about 6:00 a.m. the Union forces under Joseph Hooker attempted to turn the rebel left flank held by Stonewall Jackson’s men by attacking through a cornfield in front of the Dunker church. The battle raged back and forth across this cornfield for hours. In the words of reporter George W. Smalley: “In ten minutes the fortune of the day seemed to have changed; it was the rebels now who were advancing pouring out of the woods in endless lines, sweeping through the cornfield which their comrades had just fled.” Hooker’s men were unable to take the cornfield, and the rebel left flank held.
A Landscape Turned Red – the Sunken Road
The Battle now shifted at about 10:00 a.m. to the center of the rebel line along a sunken road; a natural rifle pit for the Southern defenders. It was dubbed “Bloody Lane.” Time and again Federal troops under Generals Sumner and Richardson stormed the road only to be driven back. Eventually a New York regiment found a spot from which to fire down on the Southern defenders. Private David Thompson of the 9’th New York Infantry recalled: “…as we rose and started all the fire which had been held back so long was loosed. In a second the air was full of the hiss of bullets and the hurtle of grapeshot. The mental strain was so great I saw at that moment the singular effect… the whole landscape turned slightly red. I see again, as I saw it then in a flash, a man just in front of me drop his musket and throw up his hands, stung into vigorous swearing by a bullet behind the ear.” The Confederate line was nearly broken at this spot. A push forward with his reserves would have split Lee’s forces. But McClellan thought it imprudent – he was worried about the giant rebel force he thought that he faced.
General Burnside and the Bridge Over Antietam Creek
The battle finally came to the Rebel right flank and the stone bridge over the creek which gave the battle it’s name: Antietam. The bridge was just southeast of the town of Confederate-held town of Sharpsburg. The troops of General Ambrose Burnside numbered over 12,000, and the rebels a mere 400. But the rebels also controlled the bluff overlooking the bridge from which they rained down a steady stream of fire upon the Federals. Three hours and as many bloody charges went by before the Union finally got across, and started up the slope to Sharpsburg. Then, just when it seemed that the union might
have finally overtaken General Lee’s army, A.P. Hill (above) arrived with reinforcements from Harper’s Ferry. Henry Kyd Douglas, an aide to Gen. Jackson remembered what happened next: “But then, just then, A.P. Hill, picturesque in his red battleshirt, with 3 of his brigades, 2500 men, who had marched 17 miles from Harper’s Ferry and had waded the Potomac, appeared upon the scene. Tired and footsore, the men forgot their woes in that supreme moment, and with no breathing time braced themselves to meet the coming shock. They met it and stayed it. The blue line staggered and hesitated, and hesitating, was lost.” Burnside’s men were thrown back to the bridge. He begged McClellan to send up reinforcements. But the Little Napoleon was still convinced that the rebels had masses of men waiting to do what Hills’ Corps had just done. So McClellan refused to commit his unused reserves, and by nightfall, Burnside was obliged to fall back across the stone bridge for which his men had fought so valiantly.
The Aftermath: the Union Has a “Victory”, But Lee Escapes
On the morning of September 18, Lee prepared for a Union attack which never came. After a brief truce to gather up the wounded and begin burying the dead, his army which had held off the Union but which was in fact greatly depleted by casualties moved back
across the Potomac into Virginia. McClellan declined to pursue them. Confederate dead at Antietam (above) numbered 1,546 with total casualties of 10,318. The union lost 12, 401 casualties with 2.108 dead. This was the greatest number of American casualties in one day ever, double the number on D-Day in Europe some 82 years later. And at this point Lee was greatly outnumbered. But despite repeated requests and finally orders from Lincoln to go after the Rebels, McClellan still dallied and stalled. Finally, Lincoln relieved him of command on November 6. The great Battle of Antietam had been a stand-off for all intents and purposes. The union had suffered more casualties than the Confederacy. But because Lee’s invasion of Maryland had been halted, and because he had left the field, it was cast, and widely seen as a Union “Victory”. And that is it’s true significance. Because it was seen as a Union victory something became possible five days later which changed the nature and the course of the war itself, and of American history. For more details on that, the real epilogue to this day of bloodletting, read my posting for September 22……
Episode 3, “Forever Free”, Dir. by Ken Burns PBS Home Video, 1989.
Edited by Stephen W. Sears, Literary Classics of the United States Inc., New York, 2012.