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The Battle of Antietam, also known as the Battle of Sharpsburg, was the first major battle in the Civil War to take place on Northern soil. It was also the bloodiest single-day battle, as far as casualties, in American history. This was the first of Gen. Robert E. Lee's two seperate attempts to carry the war into the North. His initial objective was to advance his army to Hagerstown, from where he could either advace towards Baltimore, Washington, D. C., or any other place as dictated by the Union army movements.
Lee's Army of Northern Virginia had entered Maryland following their recent victory at the Battle of Second Bull Run. His strategy was to seek new supplies and fresh men from Maryland, which had considerable pockets of Confederate sympathizers (*see bottom of page*), and to impact public opinion in the North. It turned out that the Marylanders were not as thoroughly won over as Lee had hoped, and the Union's strategic victory at Antietam easily diminished any successes Lee may have had in winning the hearts and minds of the people of Maryland. Lee also wanted to give Virginia a chance to recuperate from the constant fighting in the area. The land had been stripped of most of its food sources and this campaign would give the farmers a chance to harvest their crops and use it to help feed the local population.
While Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan's Army of the Potomac was moving to intercept Lee, they stopped at Frederick for a rest break. While there, two Union soldiers, Sgt. John M. Bloss and Cpl. Barton W. Mitchell, discovered a lost copy of Lee's Special Order No. 191 wrapped around 3 cigars. The order contained the detailed battle plans of Lee's army. McClellan waited about 18 hours before deciding to take advantage of this intelligence and position his forces, thus endangering a golden opportunity to decisively defeat Lee.
A Confederate sympathizer was in McClellan's camp and overheard about the lost orders. He left the Union lines to inform Maj. Gen. J.E.B. Stuart about this information. Stuart then went to inform Lee about the lost orders. Lee decided that he had to change his plans.
On September 13-14, instead of going to Hagerstown, he sent some of his corps to Turner's Gap/Fox's Gap and Crampton's Gap. The rest of the army would concentrate at Sharpsburg for a showdown with the Union army. Because Lee had split his army earlier ( troops under Maj. Gen. Thomas J. "Stonewall" Jackson was at Harpers Ferry), he could only hope to delay the Union army. McClellan's victories let him force his way through the South Mountain (Battle of South Mountain/Turner's Gap and the Battle of South Mountain/Crampton's Gap).
On September 15, the Confederates had retreated from South Mountain and headed towards Sharpsburg. McClellan did not immediately pursue them. His army left later and did not arrive there until the next day.
On September 16, Lee had deployed his army behind Antietam Creek along a low ridge by the afternoon. Jackson's force had arrived and was placed to defend the left flank, near the West and East Woods. His line was anchored on the Potomac River. Lt. Gen. James Longstreet was positioned on the right flank, covering the actual town and anchored on the Antietam Creek. This was a precarious position because the Confederate rear was blocked by the Potomac River and only a single ford was available should retreat be necessary.
Although McClellan arrived in the area during the day, his normal caution delayed his attack, which gave Lee more time to prepare defensive positions. Maj. Gen. A.P. Hill's division was still at Harpers Ferry, taking care of the 11,000 Union prisoners and refurbishing themselves with the captured supplies. He was ordered to come as soon as possible to help with the battle.
During the evening, McClellan ordered the I Corps, under Maj. Gen. Joseph Hooker, to cross Antietam Creek and probe the Confederate positions. Maj. Gen. George G. Meade's division cautiously attacked Confederates under Maj. Gen. John B. Hood near the East Woods. After darkness, artillery fire continued as McClellan continued to position his troops. The skirmish in the East Woods unknowingly showed Lee what McClellan's intentions were. Lee prepared his defenses accordingly.
McClellan's plan of attack was to simutaneously attack Lee's left flank with 3 seperate attacks. Hooker would attack first, then Maj. Gen. Joseph K.F. Mansfield's XII Corps, and finally by Maj. Gen. Edwin V. Sumner's II Corps. He planned on Lee shifting troops from his right flank to reinforce the left flank while it was being attacked. This would let Maj. Gen. Ambrose Burnside's IX Corps to then strike the undermanned right flank and trap Lee's army for destruction. Maj. Gen. Fitz-John Porter's V Corps and Maj. Gen. William B. Franklin's VI Corps would be held in reserve. McClellan's plan depended on the attacks to be timed just right for it to be successful.
The battle can be viewed as essentially 3 separate phases: on the Confederate left flank in the early morning, in the Confederate center around mid-day, and on the Confederate right flank in the afternoon. The lack of coordination and piecemeal attacks of McClellan's army almost completely nullified the 2-to-1 troop advantage he had. This allowed Lee to shift around his forces to wherever they were needed at the time, and to stop each Union push.
Click Map To Enlarge
Situation at 0900 Sept 17
At 7:30 A.M., the Confederates were driven partially back when Mansfield's corps attacked next. Mansfield was killed in the initial attack but his corps advanced to the Dunker Church by 9:00 A.M. They came under strong fire from around the church. Soon after, Hooker was wounded in the foot and removed from the field. Lee shifted men from his right flank and center to reinforce Jackson's left flank.
Around 12:00 P.M., Sumner launched his attack. Of his 3 divisions, 2 of them, under Maj. Gen. William H. French, took the wrong road and headed south. They encountered the division of Maj. Gen. D. H. Hill defending a ridge in a sunken road, which formed a natural trench. The other division headed towards Mansfield's corps to relieve the pressure on them. They became bogged down by the Confederate artillery and rifle fire. The morning phase ground to a halt with casualties over 12,000, including 2 Hooker and Mansfield.
SECOND PHASE: At the Confederate center, the incoming Union troops could not see the Confederates in the sunken road until they marched right up on them. The Confederates opened fire at point-blank range. The struggle for the sunken road lasted from 9:30 A.M. until 1:00 P.M. with multiple attacks and counterattacks. The Union forces caught a break when Brig. Gen. Colquitt Rodes ordered Lt. Col. James M. Lightfoot's regiment to "refuse his right." This meant for Lightfoot to throw his right wing back and out of the road to form a smaller concentrated defensive position. Instead of doing what Rodes said, Lightfoot misunderstood the order and thought that Rodes wanted him to fall back. He ordered his regiment to about face and leave the sunken road entirely. The 5th Alabama Regiment, under Major Lafayette Hobson, was on Lightfoot's left. Hobson asked Lightfoot if Rodes order was intended for the entire brigade and Lightfoot told him it was. So Hobson turned around with Lightfoot and left the area. Rodes decided to leave his position since he was dangerously exposed now. This opened up a large hole in the Confederate line. Brig. Gen. Nathan Kimball ordered the Federals to advance and took possession of the sunken road. After this, the Federals tried to advance through the peach orchard and to the high ground to their front. Maj. Gen. William B. Franklin of the VI Corps was ready to exploit the Union breakthrough, but Sumner, the senior corps commander, ordered him not to advance. Franklin appealed to McClellan, who backed Sumner's decision. McClellan had a chance to destroy Lee's army if he would have sent his reserves to the center. Instead, he hesitated and lost his chance. The Union advance was stopped by Confederate rifle fire and Longstreet's reserve artillery. The second phase of the battle was over.
The carnage of all the casualties on both the Union and Confederate armies gave the sunken road the name "Bloody Lane." There were about 5,500 casualties along the 800-yard road.
Porter's reserve unit was near the center. Maj. Gen. George Sykes, commanding his 2nd Division, also recommended an attack in the center later in the day, which intrigued McClellan. However, Porter is said to have told McClellan, "Remember, General, I command the last reserve of the last Army of the Republic."; McClellan demurred and another opportunity was lost.
Click Map To Enlarge
Situation at 1630 Sept 17
THIRD PHASE: Southeast of the town on the Union left, Burnside's corps had been stalled since 9:30 A.M. in attempts to cross a bridge over Antietam Creek. His orders had been to create a diversion in support of the main attack, exploiting it if possible. Due to inadequate scouting, he was unaware that several shallow points existed nearby for crossing his infantry. Over 3 hours and 3 assaults were wasted at the bridge, later named "Burnside's Bridge." He should have had his corps across the creek, formed up, and ready to attack no later than noontime. Brig. Gen. Isaac P. Rodman led his 3rd Division, just south of Burnsides position, to cross the creek at Snavely's Ford and attack the extreme Confederate right flank.
A single brigade of 500 Georgia sharpshooters, under Brig. Gen. Robert Toombs, were the primary impediment to Burnside's progress. Burnside finally crossed Antietam Creek by 1:00 P.M., but took until 3:00 P.M. to regroup before advancing towards Sharpsburg. The Federals made it to the outskirts of town. Maj. Gen. A.P. Hill's Light Division arrived at 4:00 P.M. Hill had received orders from Lee at 6:30 A.M. telling him to advance to Sharpsburg immediately. Hill left one brigade at Harpers Ferry to finish up business and started the rest of his division to Sharpsburg. They arrived just in time to repulse Rodman's attack. Rodman's men were confused at first because Hill's force were wearing Union uniforms that they captured at Harpers Ferry. This gave Hill time to organize his main assault. Union troops came up and stabilized their line by 4:30 P.M. Darkness soon came and the fighting had stopped for the day.
On September 18, Lee believed that there was going to be some more fighting. He kept his army where they were and waited for McClellan to attck him again. In the evening, a truce was agreed upon for both sides to recover their wounded. After this was finished, Lee began to withdraw his army back across the Potomac River and returned to Virginia. McClellan did not make any real effective pursuit of Lee's army. This also ended Lee's Maryland/Antietam Campaign.
Although the Confederates could claim a tactical victory, the Federals considered the battle a strategic Union victory. McClellan missed an opportunity to smash Lee's Army of Northern Virginia. This would be the last chance for a Union general to destroy Lee's army.
The battle is considered a turning point of the Civil War because it ended Lee's first invasion of the North and it allowed President Abraham Lincoln to issue the "Emancipation Proclamation". Although Lincoln had intended to issue the "Emancipation Proclamation" earlier, he was advised by his Cabinet to make the announcement after a Union victory to avoid the perception that it was issued out of desperation.
The Union victory and Lincoln's proclamation played a considerable role in dissuading France and Great Britain's governments from recognizing the Confederacy. Some Northern politicians and leaders had thought that France and Great Britain were planning to acknowledge the Confederacy as an independent nation if the Union army had suffered another major defeat. When the issue of freeing slaves was linked to the progress of the war, neither government had the political will to oppose the North.
HDQRS. ARMY OF NORTHERN VIRGINIA,
September 9, 1862.
I. The citizens of Fredericktown being unwilling, while overrun by members of his army, to open their stores, in order to give them confidence, and to secure to officers and men purchasing supplies for benefit of this command, all officers and men of this army are strictly prohibited from visiting Fredericktown except on business, in which case they will bear evidence of this in writing from division commanders. The provost-marshal in Fredericktown will see that his guard rigidly enforces this order.
II. Major Taylor will proceed to Leesburg, Va., and arrange for transportation of the sick and those unable to walk to Winchester, securing the transportation of the country for this purpose. The route between this and Culpeper Court-House east of the mountains being unsafe will no longer be traveled. Those on the way to this army already across the river will move up promptly; all others will proceed to Winchester collectively and under command of officers, at which point, being the general depot of this army, its movements will be known and instructions given by commanding officer regulating further movements.
III. The army will resume its march tomorrow, taking the Hagerstown road. General Jackson's command will form the advance, and, after passing Middletown, with such portion as he may select, take the route toward Sharpsburg, cross the Potomac at the most convenient point, and by Friday morning take possession of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, capture such of them as may be at Martinsburg, and intercept such as may attempt to escape from Harper's Ferry.
IV. General Longstreet's command will pursue the main road as far as Boonsborough, where it will halt, with reserve, supply, and baggage trains of the army.
V. General McLaws, with his own division and that of General R. H. Anderson, will follow General Longstreet. On reaching Middletown will take the route to Harper's Ferry, and by Friday morning possess himself of the Maryland Heights and endeavor to capture the enemy at Harper's Ferry and vicinity.
VI. General Walker, with his division, after accomplishing the object in which he is now engaged, will cross the Potomac at Cheek's Ford, ascend its right bank to Lovettsville, take possession of Loudoun Heights, if practicable, by Friday morning, Keys' Ford on his left, and the road between the end of the mountain and the Potomac on his right. He will, as far as practicable, co-operate with Generals McLaws and Jackson, and intercept retreat of the enemy.
VII. General D. H. Hill's division will form the rear guard of the army, pursuing the road taken by the main body. The reserve artillery, ordnance, and supply trains, &c., will precede General Hill.
VIII. General Stuart will detach a squadron of cavalry to accompany the commands of Generals Longstreet, Jackson, and McLaws, and, with the main body of the cavalry, will cover the route of the army, bringing up all stragglers that may have been left behind.
IX. The commands of Generals Jackson, McLaws, and Walker, after accomplishing the objects for which they have been detached, will join the main body of the army at Boonsborough or Hagerstown.
X. Each regiment on the march will habitually carry its axes in the regimental ordnance wagons, for use of the men at their encampments, to procure wood, &c.
By command of General R. E. Lee:
R. H. CHILTON,
Lee's Proclomation to the Maryland People:
Army of Northern Virginia.,
Near Frederick Town, 8th September, 1862.
TO THE PEOPLE OF MARYLAND:
It is right that you should know the purpose that has brought the army under my command within the limits of your State, so far as that purpose concerns yourselves.
The people of the Confederate States have long watched with the deepest sympathy the wrongs and outrages that have been inflicted upon the citizens of a Commonwealth allied to the States of the South by the strongest social, political, and commercial ties.
They have seen with profound indignation their sister-State deprived of every right and reduced to the condition of a conquered province.
Under the pretense of supporting the Constitution, but in violation of its most valuable provisions, your citizens have been arrested and imprisoned upon no charge and contrary to all forms of law; the faithful and manly protest against this outrage made by the venerable and illustrious Marylander to whom in better days no citizen appealed for right in vain was treated with scorn and contempt; the government of your chief city has been usurped by armed strangers; your legislature has been dissolved by the unlawful arrest of its members; freedom of the press and of speech has been suppressed; words have been declared offences by an arbitrary decree of the Federal executive, and citizens ordered to be tried by a military commission for what they may dare to speak.
Believing that the people of Maryland possessed a spirit too lofty to submit to such a government, the people of the South have long wished to aid you in throwing off this foreign yoke, to enable you again to enjoy the inalienable rights of freemen and restore independence and sovereignty to your State.
In obedience to this wish our army has come among you, and is prepared to assist you with the power of its arms in regaining the rights of which you have been despoiled.
This, citizens of Maryland, is our mission, so far as you are concerned. No constraint upon your free will is intended ; no intimidation will be allowed. Within the limits of this army at least, Marylanders shall once more enjoy their ancient freedom of thought and speech. We know no enemies among you, and will protect all, of every opinion. It is for you to decide your destiny freely and without constraint.
This army will respect your choice, whatever it may be; and, while the Southern people will rejoice to welcome you to your natural position among them, they will only welcome you when you come of your own free will.
R. E. LEE,