Crisis At The Antietam

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Lee put his men in position on the high ground just north of Sharpsburg on September 16, while McClellan’s host assembled on the hills opposite, on the far side of Antietam Creek. Why McClellan did not open an immediate attack is beyond fathoming. Understrength as his army was, Lee had hardly more than half of it on the scene; the greater part of the segment that had taken Harpers Ferry was still on the road, and most of it would not arrive until the next day. McClellan’s numerical advantage was overwhelming. His real strength, to be sure, was not as great as it looked on paper; he had nearly 97,000 men on his rolls, but nearly 20 per cent of these were in noncombat assignments and would not go into action. Nevertheless, he had every advantage, and a full-dress attack on September 16 would almost certainly have driven Lee’s men into the Potomac.

But McClellan, as has been said, was a leisurely character. Also, for some unaccountable reason, he always believed that he was outnumbered. So now he was cautious, spending long hours appraising the situation, waiting for his troops to get into position, making plans and revising them, leaving nothing to chance … with the fate of the nation resting on what he was doing and with Lee’s absentees plodding along under a broiling sun, coming up to the hills to get into the fight. In the end the whole day of September 16 passed with nothing more serious taking place than clashes between outposts.

Lee’s position was strong, but it had no depth. The Potomac River comes down from the north at Sharpsburg and then swings sharply to the east, with Sharpsburg lying inside the bend. Coming down parallel to the big river, and only a few miles east of it, is Antietam Creek, with rolling high ground folded in between creek and river. It was on this thumb of land that Lee’s army was waiting for battle. The position was good—the Yankees would have to come uphill to fight—but it was shallow; if the line broke anywhere the entire army might be destroyed.

Lee had two principal subordinates—the famous Jackson and the almost equally famous General James Longstreet, a very tough fighter who was at his best on a defensive assignment. Jackson held the left—the high ground around a little Dunker church, a mile or so north of Sharpsburg—with infantry massed in a big cornfield north of the church and in a grove flanking the cornfield to the east: a cornfield owned by a man named Miller, known forever after simply as the cornfield. Center of the line, angling south and a little east from the Dunker church, was held by a division led by General D. H. Hill, under Longstreet’s general supervision; it occupied a sunken lane which went zigzagging along near the crest of a rolling hill—a natural trench, as good as a fort. South of this position, on a hilltop just east of Sharpsburg, Longstreet had more men and artillery, with his extreme right posted to the south and east on some low hills overlooking the looping course of the Antietam.

Having spent the day of September 16 arranging his own masses opposite this position, McClellan ordered an attack at dawn on September 17, and in the earliest light of day the fighting began.

The first move was entrusted to McClellan’s First Army Corps, led by General Joseph Hooker—“Fighting Joe,” they called him—a florid, handsome man much admired by his troops. A thin drizzle dimmed the early light as Hooker got his corps into line and began to move south, along the road that ran from Sharpsburg north toward Hagerstown. His objective was the Dunker church position.

Hooker had three divisions in line—16,000 men, on paper; actually, about 9,000 in action. Preceded by skirmish lines, these approached the cornfield, found it full of armed Southerners, and wavered to a halt. On a ridge immediately behind the Federal infantry, Hooker ordered up guns, and 36 of them swung into action there, banked up hub to hub. They opened fire on the cornfield, plastering it unmercifully; men who watched said that cornstalks flew in the air, and knapsacks, muskets, and bits of human bodies. Then the bombardment died down and the Federal infantry moved in.

Through the cornfield and the wood just east of it, Hooker’s divisions made their advance, clearing their way despite a murderous fire and coming out at last on open ground facing the Dunker church—where they were hit by a vicious counterattack, John B. Hood’s division of Mississippi and Texas troops, which drove them back to their starting point. Reinforcements came up: the Federal Twelfth Corps, under General Joseph K. F. Mansfield, which regained the wood lot and the cornfield, driving out Hood’s men and the remnants of the original Confederate line. Mansfield was killed, Hooker was wounded, and the two corps had fought themselves out so completely that they could advance no farther. Hooker later wrote that by this time, over most of the cornfield, the corn had been cut down by rifle and cannon fire as completely as if reapers had gone through with sickles; and Hood admitted that on no other field in all the war was he so constantly worried by the fear that his horse would step on some wounded man.