A House Divided

33e. Bloody Antietam

Lincoln with General McClellan

This photo was taken on the Antietam battlefield in October 1862. A month later, on November 7, 1862 , Lincoln sacked General McClellan and replaced him with General Burnside.
McClellan is 4th to the left of President Lincoln.
Click the picture to enlarge. On the far right leaning against a tent is another famous general: George Armstrong Custer

The South was on the move.

In August 1862, a Confederate Army invaded Kentucky from Tennessee. They seized Frankfort and seated a Confederate governor. During that same month, Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia had defeated the Union Army again at the Second Battle of Bull Run.

Lee and Jefferson Davis believed that one more successful campaign might bring British and French recognition of the Confederacy. Foreign powers are reluctant to enter a conflict on the losing side. Although Britain and France both saw advantages of a split United States, neither country was willing to support the Confederacy without being convinced the South could win. Lee and Davis were desperately seeking that decisive victory.

Lee wanted to attack the North on its own territory. His target was the federal rail center at Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, but the Union General George McClellan was pursuing him. Lee decided to stop and confront the Union Army at Sharpsburg, Maryland. In front of the town ran a little creek called Antietam.

On September 15, Lee deployed his 30,000 soldiers on some four miles of rising ground behind Antietam Creek. He utilized the cover of rock outcroppings, rolling farmland, stone walls, fields of standing corn, and a sunken road in the center of his line.

Two days earlier, a Union corporal had found a copy of Lee's special orders wrapped around three cigars. But McClellan refused to act because he thought Lee's troops outnumbered his own. When McClellan started deploying his troops on September 16, he had 60,000 active soldiers and 15,000 in reserve. Had he thrust his complete force against the Confederates on September 15 or 16, he might have smashed Lee's army.

Antietam Battle Map
This map shows troop movements during the Battle of Antietam. Confederate troops are shown in red, Union troops in blue. (Click to enlarge)

The battle began early on the morning of September 17 when Union troops under the command of General Joseph Hooker attacked the forces of Stonewall Jackson across a cornfield that lay between them. The fighting was ferocious. The battle surged back and forth across the cornfield 15 times, costing each side nine generals. Within five hours, 12,000 soldiers lay dead or wounded, and the weary opponents stopped fighting for the day.

By midday, the struggle had shifted to a sunken country road between two farms. Two Confederate brigades stood their ground repeatedly as Union soldiers attacked and fell back. Finally, Union attackers assumed a position from which they could shoot down on the Confederate soldiers occupying the road. It was quickly filled with the dead and dying, sometimes two and three deep. The road earned a new name: Bloody Lane. The Confederates fell back, and McClellan again had the opportunity to cut Lee's army in two and ruin it. But McClellan did not follow through, and the battlefield fell silent.

This day sits in history as the bloodiest single day America has ever suffered. Over 22,000 soldiers were killed, wounded, or missing — more than all such casualties during the entire American Revolution. Lee lost a quarter of his army; the survivors headed back to Virginia the next night.

The horror of Antietam proved to be one of the war's critical events. Lee and Davis did not get their victory. Neither Britain nor France was prepared to recognize the Confederacy. Five days after the battle, Lincoln issued his preliminary Emancipation Proclamation. On November 5, Lincoln, impatient with McClellan's hesitancy, relieved him of command, and replaced him with General Ambrose Burnside.

Antietam changed everything.

On the Web
Antietam — a Photographic Tour
In addition to presenting a history of the battle, this website takes visitors on a virtual tour of the town of Sharpsburg. See the battleground at Antietam Creek through this photographic journey, which can be accessed either chronologically or by region. Maps, original battle photography, and modern-day images make this website one of the most engaging resources about Antietam.
Antietam National Battlefield Homepage
The National Park Service's largest website is extraordinary. Details of all phases of the battle and a picture gallery with historic photos and paintings of battle scenes round out this official site. Take a look at modern monuments, trace the movements of the battle, or plan a field trip to Antietam National Battlefield.
Carnage At Antietam 1862
The whole landscape for an instant turned red, wrote Union soldier David Thompson. "[The cornfield] was so full of bodies that a man could have walked through it without stepping on the ground," observed another soldier. Read first-hand accounts of the bloodiest battle of the Civil War at this EyeWitness website. Punctuated with images and maps, these descriptions really bring home the horrors of the battle.
Battle of Antietam: Official Records and Battle Description
Read a brief summary of the battle itself, then pursue a collection of original documents provided by this Civil War history website. Lee's request to Jefferson Davis asking to invade Maryland is included, as is Davis's response. Look through the battle lists for each side. See how the South, short on medals of honor, recognized distinguished troops at Antietam.
The Battle of Antietam on the Web
A Civil War buff began this website as a hobby, but it has "taken on a life of its own." At this comprehensive, well-designed, and artistic site, read source material, look at photographs, examine battle histories, and peruse exhibits on every aspect of the battle. Don't miss Lincoln's visit to the battlefield, and McClellan's take on why Lincoln showed up, and the battle maps that show exactly where each army was during the fighting.
Clara Barton earned the nickname "Angel of the Battlefield" at Antietam.
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