September 17, 1862: The Battle of Antietam
You are there: General Robert E. Lee’s first invasion of the north ends at Sharpsburg, Maryland with a total of 22,727 American casualties during the bloodiest one day battle in U.S. history.
Lee makes his bold move after turning back George McClellan’s 105,000 man force south of Richmond in June and repeating an earlier Confederate victory, this time over John Pope, at Second Bull Run on August 30. Buoyed by these successes, he begins a 50 mile march toward Frederick, Maryland. He arrives there on September 7, with his confident troops singing “Maryland, My Maryland” as they cross the Potomac River into the Slave State.
Surrender of Harpers Ferry
On September 8 Lee drafts Special Order No. 191 outlining his plan of attack. Instead of turning east from Frederick, Lee decides to first take the Union garrison and armory at Harper’s Ferry, and he sends John Walker’s Division to attack it from the south and Lafayette McLaws Division from the north. On September 14, Stonewall Jackson’s I Corps joins in from the west, and Harper’s Ferry surrenders on September 15. A.P. Hill’s Division is charged with holding the site.
While this rebel victory plays out, General McClellan, now back in charge of the Union troops after Pope’s failure, brings his army to Frederick hoping to meet Lee there. After arrival, he is handed an envelope containing three cigars and Lee’s Order No. 191 discovered by Indiana Corporal Barton Mitchell. It tells McClellan that the Confederate forces are scattered south at Harper’s Ferry, west at the South Mountains with Longstreet’s corps, and east with Lee himself.
McClellan immediately begins to chase Lee west, hoping to overwhelm him before he can concentrate in one place. The pursuit ends at Sharpsburg just west of Antietam Creek with Lee scrambling to survive and Little Mac telling his troops:
If I cannot whip Bobby Lee here, I will be willing to go home.
The Battle of Antietem Begins
The opening odds are all with the Union. McClellan has 84,000 men in position as daylight breaks on September 17. Lee counts only 19,000, all set up south of the Dunker Church – some in the West Woods, most on the crucial ‘high ground” hill east of the Hagerstown Pike.
Battle of Antietam: Morning
The first blow comes from Joe Hooker through the North Woods and John Mansfield out of the East Woods and into the shoulder high corn stalks on the Miller Farm. The Confederates under John Bell Hood hold at first, wounding Hooker and killing Mansfield, the first of six Generals (3 Union, 3 CSA) who die that day. But by 9:00am the blue coats have driven down the Pike to the Dunker Church, where Stonewall Jackson and John Walker try to rally a defense. It disintegrates soon after one of Edwin “Bull” Sumner’s two Divisions joins in and forces Lee is to retreat from his one central position of strength.
Military historians argue that had McClellan thrown all of his Divisions against Lee around 10:00am, a rout would have followed. However, true to his past, he proceeds cautiously, fearing a trap, and holding back his reserves.
Meanwhile, Sumner’s other troops make repeated charges against Daniel Harvey Hill’s defenders west of the Pike in a sunken cart path that soon fills up with dead bodies and becomes known forever as “Bloody Lane.” When a last assault succeeds, the Union holds all of the ground north of Sharpsburg proper.
With Lee reeling from one loss after another, the fight shifts south of town along Antietam Creek. Earlier in the day it is defended by 5,000 Confederates scattered along 70 foot high bluffs in an almost impregnable position. But around 9:00am, Lee shifts most of these troops under John Walker north to shore up his center. The Union telegraph station on Red Mountain notifies McClellan of the departure, and he orders 14,000 IX Corps troops under Ambrose Burnside to make an assault centered on what’s known then as the Rohrbach Bridge.
Confusion follows as various brigades end up scattered along the west side of the creek. Throughout the morning Burnside sends small units to try to cross the bridge, but they are easily beaten back by ex-US Senator Robert Toomb’s and his 500 Georgians on the far bluffs.
Battle of Antietam: Afternoon
After Isaac Rodman and 2,000 men depart downstream in search of a crossing at Snavely’s Ford, Edward Ferrero makes a final series of rushes at “Burnside’s Bridge.” He succeeds, with Toombs fleeing west around 1:00pm.
McClellan now controls the battlefield and Lee is left huddled to the southwest of Sharpsburg facing what could be a fatal thrust by Burnside. All that saves him is the sudden appearance around 3:30pm of A.P. Hill’s 3,000 man Division coming up after a 17 mile forced march from Harper’s Ferry. The fact that many arrive wearing fresh blue uniforms confiscated earlier only adds to their shock value as they crash into the Union’s left flank and drive Burnside’s corps all the way back to Antietam Creek.
Battle of Antietam: Evening
By 5:30pm the fighting dies down. Twelve hours of slaughter leave the field littered with nearly 3700 dead and another 19,000 wounded. The battered Confederates retreat across the Potomac with their invasion ending three weeks after it began. McClellan claims that indeed he did “whip Bobby Lee,” but reports of his caution and missed opportunities at Antietam convince Lincoln to again remove him from command in November, this time for good. He has excelled all along at training a professional army, but never at fighting them.