Thursday, November 6, 2014

The Battle of Antietam

Fought on September 17, 1862, the Battle of Antietam (or Sharpsburg by the Confederacy), was the first major battle in the American Civil War to take place on Union soil. It is the bloodiest single-day battle in American history, with a combined tally of dead, wounded, and missing reaching over 22,000.

Why would the bloodiest battle be recorded in history as both Battle of Antietam and as the Battle of Sharpsburg? The name of a Civil War battle is dependent on which side you’re on. Northern soldiers, far more likely to hail from cities or urbanized areas, were believed to have been impressed with the geography of the south, including its mountains, valleys and abundant rivers and streams. In unfamiliar territory, they named many of their battles after these natural landmarks. For Confederate troops, familiar with the rural terrain, towns and buildings were more memorable, so in the south many of the same battles were referred to after the towns nearby. Union soldiers named the battle “Antietam” because of the nearby Antietam Creek, while the town of Sharpsburg, Maryland was the more easily identified landmark for Confederate soldiers.

The path between Clara Barton and the Cornfield
 Until September of 1862, the Confederacy had been fighting a defensive war. This strategy was not perfect, as there had been some western defeats by the Union army, but it was working overall - the Army of Northern Virginia’s important victories were in the familiar terrain of Virginia. As often is the case - the home team wins. After so many victories, Confederate General Robert E. Lee felt the time was right to go on the offensive and invade the North. The stakes were high, though. Should Lee miscalculate and lose, his army might be destroyed and Confederacy along with it. An invasion of the north was also necessary for logistical reasons, as northern Virginia's farms had been stripped bare of food. Some Confederate politicians, including Confederate President Jefferson Davis, also believed that the prospect of foreign recognition would increase if the Confederacy won a military victory on Union soil. After a second victory at Bull Run on August 30, 1862, Lee decided to take his chances, and marched his 55,000-man army north into Maryland on September 3, 1862. Lee's plan was to divide the Union’s focus by invading Maryland while Braxton Bragg and Kirby Smith led Confederate armies into Kentucky.

Why would Lee risk marching his army through Maryland, which was still a Union state? Based on events such as the Baltimore riots in the spring of 1861, and the fact that President Lincoln had to pass through the city in disguise en route to his inauguration, Confederate leaders assumed that Maryland would welcome the Confederate forces. The Confederate army sang the tune "Maryland, My Maryland!" as they marched, but by the fall of 1862 pro-Union sentiment was winning out, especially in the western parts of the state. Lee was wrong about Maryland joining the Confederate cause. Civilians generally hid inside their houses as Lee's army passed through their towns, or greeted the Confederate army with cold silence, while the Army of the Potomac was cheered and encouraged as it came through the state.

While Lee was marching the Army of Northern Virginia north, Union General George B. McClellan's 75,500-man Army of the Potomac was moving to intercept Lee. Unfortunately for Lee, two Union soldiers, Corporal Barton W. Mitchell and First Sergeant John M. Bloss of the 27th Indiana Volunteer Infantry, discovered a mislaid copy of Lee's detailed battle plans—Special Order 191—wrapped around three left-behind cigars. The order indicated that Lee had divided his army and dispersed portions geographically (to Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, and Hagerstown, Maryland), thus making each subject to isolation and defeat if McClellan could move quickly enough. Fortunately for Lee, the notoriously indecisive McClellan waited about 18 hours before deciding to take advantage of this intelligence, thus squandering an opportunity to defeat Lee decisively.

Dunker Church
Confederate Headquarters
Though the actual battle lasted only one day, it took three days to get everyone into position. The armies first clashed on South Mountain, where on September 14, the Confederates tried unsuccessfully to block the Federals at three mountain passes – Turner’s, Fox’s and Crampton’s Gaps. Following the Confederate retreat from South Mountain, Lee considered returning to Virginia. However, with word of General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson’s capture of Harpers Ferry on September 15, Lee decided to make a stand at Sharpsburg. The Confederate commander gathered his forces on the high ground west of Antietam Creek with General James Longstreet’s command holding the center and the right while Stonewall Jackson’s men filled in on the left. The Hagerstown Turnpike ran north and south along Lee’s line adding to his mobility, but it was still a risky position because the Potomac River behind them held only one crossing back to Virginia. Lee and his men watched the Union army gather on the east side of the Antietam Creek on September 15 and 16. The twelve hour battle began at dawn on the 17th.

McClellan’s plan was, in his words, to “attack the enemy’s left,” and when “matters looked favorably,” attack the Confederate right, and “whenever either of those flank movements should be successful to advance our center.” Over the first seven hours there were three major Union attacks on the Confederate left, but then McClellan’s plan broke down into a series of uncoordinated Union advances. Savage, incomparable combat raged across the Cornfield, East Woods, West Woods and the Sunken Road as Lee shifted his men to withstand each of the Union attacks. After eight hours, the Confederates were held in check and dealt over 15,000 deaths and casualties, but Lee refused to retreat.

Sunken Road
("Bloody Lane")
While the Union assaults were being made on the Sunken Road, Union General Ambrose Burnside amassed his men a mile and a half south and opened an attack on the Confederate right. His first task would be to capture a bridge over Antietam Creek. At first, his men were not particularly motivated, having been punished for insubordination by having their whiskey rations reduced. He negotiated that they would have not only their rations reinstated but they could have all the whiskey they desired if they would just take the bridge! A small Confederate force, positioned on higher ground, was able to delay Burnside and his men for three hours, but eventually they were successful. However, this success was tempered by a two-hour delay in progress as Burnside reorganized his troops. Burnside’s second advance started, only to be turned back by Confederate General A.P. Hill’s reinforcements that arrived in the late afternoon from Harpers Ferry.

Neither flank of the Confederate army collapsed far enough for McClellan to advance his center attack, leaving a sizable Union force that never entered the battle. Despite a combined 22,217 deaths and casualties - nearly four times the number of casualties that would later occur on D-Day in World War II, both armies stubbornly held their ground as the sun set on the blood-soaked landscape.

Upturned Cannon where a CSA General was killed
 The next day, the opposing armies gathered their wounded and buried their dead, and that night Lee’s army withdrew uncontested back across the Potomac to Virginia, ending Lee’s first invasion into the North. Again, McClellan’s indecision hurt the Union; many felt that had McClellan pursued him the war could have either been over shortly after Antietam or kept on Confederate soil. However, Lee’s failure provided President Lincoln something else he had been waiting for: an opportunity to issue the Emancipation Proclamation. Keeping the Confederacy from advancing north gave the Union an even stronger position in the world. Now, the war was no longer just about preserving the Union but committing the Union to the abolition of slavery.

Blogging Through the Alphabet

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  1. I love historic sites and you did a great job of sharing the history of this site. Great job with the letter A. I had to just post an A and B combo to get on track.

  2. This was a great lesson on this battle, thanks for sharing! We are just about to the Civil war so I will come back to this post for reference. I missed the link for A, but left my link in the comments section of the host post.

  3. I am an American man, and I have decided to boycott American women. In a nutshell, American women are the most likely to cheat on you, to divorce you, to get fat, to steal half of your money in the divorce courts, don’t know how to cook or clean, don’t want to have children, etc. Therefore, what intelligent man would want to get involved with American women?

    American women are generally immature, selfish, extremely arrogant and self-centered, mentally unstable, irresponsible, and highly unchaste. The behavior of most American women is utterly disgusting, to say the least.

    This blog is my attempt to explain why I feel American women are inferior to foreign women (non-American women), and why American men should boycott American women, and date/marry only foreign (non-American) women.


    /. /. ./. /.


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