History Magazine

Visiting History: Antietam 1862

By Conroy @conroyandtheman
by Conroy

Visiting History: Antietam 1862

Burnside Bridge over Antietam Creek

This past weekend I went kayaking on the Potomac River with a couple of friends. We put into the river several miles north of Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, at a location heavy with history. Just to the north of where we started, in the area around Sharpsburg, Maryland, is Antietam National Battlefield. In September 1862, this was the scene of the bloodiest day of the American Civil War, and likely, in all of American history. The armies of the North and South suffered nearly 23,000 casualties, including 3,700 men killed, in what became one of the major turning points, but also missed opportunities, of the Civil War.
As these facts suggest, Antietam is more than a name on a map or event obscured by the many years that have passed. As a student of American history, I think it's critical to be aware of an consider places like Antietam. The Civil War was both the most important and most horrible calamity to befall the American nation. As with all history, we must understand what went before and the lessons of those events. We must remember the men who fought and fell on that ground.
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Background
As my friends and I floated down the Potomac, we passed the mouth of Antietam Creek. Had we paddled our kayaks up the stream (which in reality you can't do very far because of several sets of rapids) we would have passed under Burnside Bridge, one of the iconic landmarks of the battle and war. Living so close to this battlefield, I've toured the area before (from land); and a view of the landscape helps one understand just why the battle was so disjointed, confused, and tactically indecisive. A close view also helps one visualize the mass of men thrown together in battle. The entire battlefield is marked by monuments, large and small, of the various units that comprised the armies. These landmarks were commissioned and installed at a time when the Civil War was still a living memory and veterans were still alive to recount the events.

Visiting History: Antietam 1862

Robert E. Lee

Here's a quick review of what happened nearly 150 years ago. By late summer 1862 the Confederate forces in the East were in the ascendency. In late August, the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia, led by Robert E. Lee, defeated the Union Army of the Potomac at the Second Battle of Bull Run, just southwest of Washington, D.C. The Confederate leadership was confident that they could follow-up on this success and win a major victory on Northern territory (a direct assault on Washington was impossible). In the process, it was hoped, they would demoralize the Union cause and convince Britain and France to recognize the Confederacy. So, only days after Second Bull Run, Lee led his army into Maryland, crossing the Potomac southwest of Hagerstown. the invading force was quickly pursued by the reformed Army of the Potomac, led for a second time by the just reinstated George McClellan.
Once in Maryland, Lee divided his forces in search of food and munitions (the army found both). By an incredible stroke of luck, just two days before the battle, Union soldiers recovered a copy of Lee's campaign plans and force disposition. If McClellan had acted swiftly on this intelligence, he could have routed the divided Confederate forces and destroyed the Army of Northern Virginia. Such a result may have irreparably damaged the Southern military capacity and brought the war to an end far sooner. Instead, McClellan, overcautious by nature, waited. By the time he determined to engage, Lee had mostly reconstituted his forces and taken up defensive positions to the north and east of Sharpsburg.
The Battlefield

Visiting History: Antietam 1862

Part of the battlefield as it looked in 1862

When I visited the site I was struck by the terrain and topography. The area where the battle was actually fought seems poorly chosen. The land is heavily rolling, steeper with larger elevation differences than you may expect, especially southeast of Sharpsburg. The ground is amazingly uneven, with rock outcroppings, small ditches, and endless crenelations. It reminds me of no other place in Maryland and I'd hate to walk over such terrain, let alone fight a battle.
It's impossible to see very far from any one position. This is an explanation for why the battle unfolded in separate, seemingly unconnected parts. Further, McClellan's headquarters were well behind the battlefront, which would have made monitoring the force dispositions and battle developments even more difficult. Lee's headquarters were in Sharpsburg, "interior" to the line of his forces making command and troop movements from one point to another much easier.
A Brief Overview of the Battle
On the day of the battle, approximately 75,000 Union soldiers were arrayed against 50,000 Confederates. By the end of the day, over one quarter would be dead or wounded. The actual details are interesting and depressing, but considered broadly, the battle unfolded in three consecutive parts: the north in the morning, the center around midday, and the south in the afternoon. In each of these mini battles the Union forces attacked the Confederate defensive positions. In each case the fighting was remarkably brutal, as brutal as any sustained fighting during the war. In each case the Union forces nearly succeeded in breaking the Confederate positions. In each case Confederate reserves, expertly maneuvered by Lee and his commanders, were able to plug gaps and force the Union forces back. In each case, McClellan failed to exploit initial breakthroughs or deploy his ample reserves at the time and place where they could have been decisive. A third of the Union forces were never engaged.

Visiting History: Antietam 1862

Antietam dead

For those that were, and their Confederate counterparts, one's heart must break when thinking of the countless assaults and counterattacks. The devastation reaped by cannon and rifle. How did these men endure and continue to fight? Was it duty to country or just a responsibility to the men beside them? How terrified they must have been. In cases more than half of the soldiers in individual units were killed or wounded. Such horror was common in the civil war.
After the battle, the Army of Northern Virginia was able to conduct an orderly withdrawal, crossing the Potomac back into Virginia without being pursued by McClellan, let alone brought into further battle. President Lincoln and his War Department were enraged at McClellan's lack of initiative.
The Outcome

Visiting History: Antietam 1862

Lincoln meeting with McClellan

Strategically, the invasion of Maryland was not a success for the South. The Army of Northern Virginia withdrew from Northern soil. The Maryland citizenry was not supportive of the invading forces (Maryland was a slave state barely held in the Union in 1861). The outcome gave President Lincoln the "victory" he needed to announce the Emancipation Proclamation on September 22, which monumentally altered the cause of the North from a fight to preserve the United States to a fight to end slavery. After the Emancipation Proclamation the United States held to moral high ground (to borrow a martial analogy) and there was no chance that Britain, France, or any other other major power would recognize the legitimacy of the Confederacy. This was the first of several strategic turning points that would ultimately lead to Union victory.
On the other hand, McClellan missed the best opportunity to annihilate the major Southern fighting forces in the East. Before, during, and after the battle there were obvious openings to engage and defeat the Lee's forces. McClellan failed to grasp these chances, making bad choices and commanding poorly. Had another leader less cautious and less fearful of Lee, Ulysses Grant or William Sherman for instance, been leading the Army of the Potomac at this critical juncture these many opportunities would not have gone wanting. The war continued for nearly three more terrible years with hundreds of thousands of additional deaths.
McClellan would go on to run against Lincoln in the 1864 presidential election as the Democratic "peace" candidate (though he did not personally support an immediate end to hostilities). Had he won, and that could have happened if not for Sherman's capture of Atlanta in September of that year, the war could have ended far differently.
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Visiting History
The greater Washington, D.C. area is home to many Civil War battlefields and national monuments. Within a few hours drive you can reach not only Antietam but Bull Run (Manassas), Chancellorsville, Fredricksburg, Gettysburg, the Wilderness, Cold Harbor, Spotsylvania, Petersburg, the Shenandoah Valley, and numerous other smaller, less know battlefields. These locations, each places of import and "hallowed ground", have been largely preserved and in many instances enhanced with tours, visitor's centers, and ample historical information. This preservation is entirely correct bot the for historical significance and as a monument for the men who fought and died there. [Note that there are many economic forces pushing for development at some of these locations (Manassas for instance). Understandable of course, but in these cases, history is more important than money.]
Even while paddling on the Potomac or driving on the roads through the area, the weight of the events at Antietam can still be felt. As an amateur historian, I'm glad that's so.

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