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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
To bring this about, Lincoln had on his desk a draft of what would eventually be the Emancipation Proclamation. Hut he could not issue it yet. Secretary of State Seward had warned him: We have been beaten and our armies are in retreat—get this out now and it will look like a cry of despair, an appeal to the black race for help, rather than a statement of our purpose to help the black race. … The proclamation could not be issued until the North had won a victory.
So Lincoln did what he could. To the poorly reorganized Army of the Potomac, which was moving up into Maryland to try to catch and defeat Lee, he restored General McClellan, despite the grumbling of important Cabinet members and party leaders. This done, he could only wait for the test of battle. If Lee could be beaten, European intervention could be averted and final victory could perhaps be counted on; if he could not be beaten, then there would presently be two independent nations rather than one between Canada and the Rio Grande. Seldom in American history has so much been at stake on one battle.
During the first two weeks of September the rival armies sparred for an opening. Lee moved west of South Mountain, a long spur of the Blue Ridge that runs fifty miles northeast from the Potoniac, cutting through western Maryland up into Pennsylvania. Screened by his cavalry, which held the South Mountain passes with infantry support, Lee evolved a daring plan. There was a Federal post at Harpers Ferry held by 12,000 troops, and it seemed to Lee that his invasion would go more smoothly il this post could lirst be gobbled up. While McClellan, who was still cast oI South Mountain, was trying to find out precisely where the Confederate Army might be, Lee divided his forces and sent hall of his army, under Stonewall Jackson, doubling back to capture Harpers Ferry.
It worked just as Lee had anticipated. Jackson surrounded the post before the Federals knew what was going on, got artillery into position to bombard it, and forced its surrender. There was, however, one accident. A copy of Lee’s orders setting forth the whole plan was somehow lost, to be picked up by two Federal soldiers as they bivouacked on a field near the town of Frederick, Maryland. It was sent to McClellan, who immediately realized that Lee had divided his army and that the Army of the Potomac was actually nearer to its separate pieces than those separate pieces were to each other.
McClellan was a capable general, but he usually moved very slowly, and Lee had banked heavily on this fact, gambling that he could capture Harpers Ferry and reunite his army before McClellan could interfere. Ordinarily, this gamble would probably have worked. But finding the lost order spurred the usually sluggish McClellan into action. He put his army on the road, broke through the South Mountain passes, and set out to destroy the scattered portions of the Army of Northern Virginia.
He did not move quite last enough to save the Harpers Ferry garrison, and Jackson scooped up his 12,000 prisoners, along with a good deal of materiel which the Confederates needed very badly. But McClellan’s sudden move did put a serious hitch in Lee’s invasion plans. Before he could do anything about entering Pennsylvania, Lee had at all costs to reassemble his army and fight off this thrust of McClellan’s. Hard-riding couriers went galloping down the roads of western Maryland with orders, and the weary Confederates—from Hagerstown, from Boonsboro, from Crampton’s Gap, and from Harpers Ferry itself—were ordered to move at once to Sharpsburg, a little town just north of the Potomac. If McClellan wanted to fight, they would fight there. If they won, then they could go on with the invasion. If they lost—well, Lee had enormous confidence in them; he did not think they were going to lose.
These Confederates were very weary men, a point that needs to be emphasized because it had much to do with the circumstances under which the battle would be fought. Since the middle of June they had marched many dusty miles and had fought many furious battles, and they were on the edge of exhaustion. When Lee led them across the Potomac, thousands upon thousands of them had simply given out, unable to move any farther: from straggling alone, Lee suffered a temporary loss during the first two weeks in September of between 10,000 and 20,000 men. The army that would reunite at Sharpsburg would be very far under strength, if all of its units reached the scene—a matter about which there was some doubt—Lee would have no more than 45,000 men of all arms; and McClellan was on the scene with more than 95,000. Not until the final desperate campaign of Appomattox would Lee enter a major battle with his strength so badly depleted.
But if the Confederate army was thin it was full of high spirits. It had not yet lost a battle, and its members—from the humblest private up to the commanding general—believed they would win this one. What were Yankees for, if not to be beaten? The Confederate sol diet might be ragged and shoeless, doomed to exist on insufficient rations and poorly served by his supply department, but he had the habit of victory, and with a gun in his hands he was as dogged a fighting man as the world has ever seen.