- Historic Sites
Crisis At The Antietam
Upon the clash of arms near a little Maryland creek hung the slave’s freedom and the survival of the Union
August 1958 | Volume 9, Issue 5
A whitewashed Dunker chrch without a steeple, a forty-acre field of corn that swayed, head-high and green, in the September sun, an eroded country lane that rambled along a hillside behind a weathered snake-rail fence, and an arched stone bridge that crossed a lazy, copper-brown little creek—these unimpressive features of a quiet Maryland landscape made the setting in which one of the greatest moments of crisis in American history came to a solution on the bloody day of September 17, 1862.
The crisis involved nothing less than the continued existence as one nation of the United States, an existence which was in a fair way to come to an end in the middle of that wartime September and which got past its hour of greatest danger because of the tremendous shock of battle. In all the American Civil War, no single day was bloodier or more costly than that one day of battle on the hills and fields overlooking Antietam Creek in western Maryland; nor did any single combat in that war go so far toward putting this American crisis on the road toward solution.
Things had not been going well for the Union cause in the summer of 1862. The great drive to capture Richmond, in which the picturesque young General George B. McClellan led the Army of the Potomac down to the very suburbs of the Confederate capital, had failed in the smoke and clamor of the famous Seven Days’ Battles—seven days in which Robert E. Lee, outnumbered anil seemingly doomed to defeat, had led McClellan into confusion, had roundly whipped his army, and had driven general and troops to an uneasy refuge at Harrison’s Landing, a steaming mud Hat far down the James River, many miles from the goal which had been so nearly within reach.
President Abraham Lincoln’s government had scrambled frantically to retrieve the situation, without luck. A new Federal army, styled the Army of Virginia, had been organized and put under command of General John Pope and sent clown overland to get the Confederates under control; but Lee and his famous lieutenant, Stonewall Jackson, had run rings around General Pope and—on the famous field of Hull Run, less than thirty miles from Washington—had shattered his army in a defeat so ignominious that Pope himself was shelved and sent to Minnesota to fight Indians for the rest of the war, while the remnants of his army crept back to Washington to be united with McClellan’s Army of the Potomac, brought back from the fames River to help defend the national capital.
So as September began, the cause of the Union looked very dark. In the West things were no better, with Confederates led by Braxton Bragg marching north into Kentucky. On the home front there was much gloom; the high hopes of spring (when people believed the war would be won in another inoiuh or so) had been replaced by bewilderment and discouragement, and the most influential members of Lincoln’s Cabinet suspected that General AfcClellan might actually be a pro-Southern sympathizer who did not especially want to win the war at all. The vital spark in the Northern war effort seemed to have died and there did not appear to be any good way to bring it back to life.
Worst of all, General Lee’s triumphant Army of Northern Virginia—ragged, weary, worn to a shadow by the heavy fighting it had been through, but powerfully imbued with the notion that there was no Yankee army anywhere that could not be licked—had crossed the Potomac River and was marching up on an invasion of the Northern heartland, aiming apparently at nothing less than the conquest of Pennsylvania and the capture of Washington.
Along with this—as if it were not enough to make a man-sized crisis—there was the open threat of decisive European intervention on the side of the Confederacy. The British government was openly sympathetic with the South, and the papier mâché emperor of France, Napoleon III, was clearly ready to grant recognition and material aid if the British would just take the lead. This the government at London seemed prepared to do. The prime minister and foreign secretary were preparing to suggest to the cabinet that England take the lead in inducing a concert of powers to step in and bring this American war to an end—which, under the circumstances, could mean nothing less than independence for the Confederacy. They were waiting only to see what came of Lee’s invasion of the North. If it went as it seemed likely to go, Britain would act.
Lincoln had been trying desperately to remedy matters, but at the moment there was little he could do. To revive the Northern war effort, it seemed to him that he must somehow bring into full play the vigor and determination of the abolitionists. Thus far, official policy was that the war was being fought for the sole purpose of restoring the Union and that the issue of slavery had nothing to do with it. To Lincoln it was clear that he must now broaden the base; if this could now be made a war against slavery, as well as a war for reunion, it would become a thing in which no British government would dare to intervene.