Spotlight: Battle of Antietam

Published:September 17, 2012 by Brendan Wolfe

On this day in 1862, at about five thirty in the morning and after a long night of light rain and fitful sleep, Confederate artillery opened fire, inaugurating what would become the bloodiest twelve hours in American history: the Battle of Antietam.

Readers of these pages will already be familiar with many of the events that led up to this day: the Union defeat at Second Manassas; George B. McClellan‘s return to command; Robert E. Lee‘s decision to enter Maryland and then, once he was there, to split his army up; the loss by Confederates and then discovery by McClellan’s men of a copy of Special Orders No. 191, detailing Lee’s plan; and then the subsequent Battle of South Mountain.

All of which nearly caused Lee to say “never mind” to the whole invading-Maryland thing, but in the end he decided he could make a stand at the little village of Sharpsburg. Which he did, on September 17.

The ensuing battle occurred on what the historian Stephen W. Sears has called “a largely anonymous landscape, except for such casual everyday designations as this farmer’s woodlot or that farmer’s lane or someone else’s cornfield. The war would change all that, imprinting names of its own for the historical record—names like the East Woods, the West Woods, the Cornfield, the Sunken Road.” And don’t forget Dunker Church, which looks peaceful enough now, but was less so in the days following the battle.

And then there was Burnside’s Bridge, one of three bridges across Antietam Creek and where the Union general Ambrose E. Burnside famously attacked sometime between nine and ten in the morning. This is from our entry:

Burnside made several small runs at the 500 Confederates on the west bank of the Antietam, but the bridge—an arched, stone walkway—was too narrow to mount an effective charge. Finally, Burnside sent troops downstream, where they found a place to ford the creek and then came upon the Confederates from behind. At the same time, a small storming party made one last rush on what came to be known as Burnside’s Bridge. One Virginia soldier described the fighting as “volumes of musketry and noise of the artillery … mingled in one vast roar that shook the earth.” By one o’clock the crossing was in Union hands.

What might it have been like for Union soldiers wading across the creek? The historians Mark Grimsley (wading) and Brooks Simpson (Yankees cap) demonstrate:

By day’s end, both armies were pretty well spent, but when Lee retreated back to Virginia on the 19th, he conceded victory to McClellan. In other words, as our contributor, Tom Clemens, insists, Antietam was not a draw. It was a Union victory—one that made the Emancipation Proclamation possible and, for that reason, changed the course of the war. Ironically, it also cost McClellan his job. The conventional wisdom is that McClellan was arrogant and slow, and refused to pursue Lee and destroy the Army of Northern Virginia. In our entry, Clemens offers a different take:

For political reasons, the president was happy to capitalize on the Army of the Potomac‘s success, but he still refused to accord much credit to its leader, whom he viewed as a potential political rival. Even in 1862, it was well established that successful generals became presidents, and the Republicans were not anxious to jeopardize their political control by lionizing McClellan, who was a Democrat.

According to Clemens, McClellan’s army was “exhausted and poorly supplied,” and Lincoln insisted that it should “march overland to Richmond, a strategy the general, and Winfield Scott before him, had long opposed. When McClellan’s rate of advance did not meet Lincoln’s expectations, he was removed from command on November 5. Not coincidentally, this came one day after the midterm elections, when McClellan’s popularity could no longer hurt the administration.”

You can read more about Clemens’s argument that McClellan was “a victim of history” here.

One can truly geek out on Civil War battles like Antietam. When I was a kid it was my favorite battle to study, although that sounds awfully strange to my ears nowadays: a “favorite” battle? Ask the kid in the photograph at top whether it was his favorite battle. Alexander Gardner, a Scotsman by birth, took that image, by the way. Then working for Mathew Brady, he and his assistant, John F. Gibson, arrived on the battlefield a day or two after the fighting had stopped and composed ninety-five haunting photographs of the dead. These were later exhibited in Brady’s New York City gallery, prompting a review in the New York Times:

The living that throng Broadway care little perhaps for the Dead at Antietam, but we fancy they would jostle less carelessly down the great thoroughfare, saunter less at their ease, were a few dripping bodies, fresh from the field, laid along the pavement.

You can read the rest here. Or, if you have the patience for academics using phrases like “interstitial spaces,” you can watch a lecture on Gardner’s photographs here. And, finally, if you’d like to take a pretty cool virtual tour of the Antietam battlefield, go here.

IMAGES:He sleeps his last sleep. A Confederate soldier who after being wounded had evidently dragged himself to a little ravine on the hillside where he died. Sept. 1862,” Alexander Gardner (Library of Congress); “Dunker Church, Antietam Battlefield, near Sharpsburg, Maryland” by Carol M. Highsmith (Library of Congress); “Between the North Woods and The Cornfield—Antietam Battlefield, MD” by Flikr user Jeff Tsuruoka, May 11, 2008; detail of Abraham Lincoln and George B. McClellan, October 3, 1862, near Sharpsburg, Maryland, by Alexander Gardner (Library of Congress)