- 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
Then—at the last minute of the last hour—up came Confederate reinforcements: A. P. Hill’s division from Harpers Ferry, exhausted after a seventeen-mile hike in which General Hill personally, with sword in hand, had pricked laggards out from fence corners and out from under shady trees. This Hill was not a cautious man. A McClellan would have reflected that if he drove his men too hard most of them would fall out, and he would have arrived, with everything in tiptop shape, at nine o’clock next morning, eighteen hours too late but with everybody present and accounted for. Hill did it the other way; he drove his men unmercifully, and he lost at least half of his division along the way, but the ones who survived arrived on the scene at the exact moment when they were needed, and just now, with Burnside’s blue soldiers preparing to walk in on Sharpsburg and kill the Southern Confederacy forever, A. P. Hill’s beat-out soldiers, dust in their mouths and on their clothing, came stamping up the hill from the Potomac and smote Burnside in the flank.
It was the push that settled things. The Yankees who were under the gun fell back. Burnside, fully as cautious as McClellan, conceived that he was in trouble and acted that way; his advance elements were ordered to withdraw, his numerical advantage evaporated because he no longer thought it existed, and in a short time he was sending frantic messages to McClellan announcing that he believed he could hold his position if he were heavily reinforced.
And so, as a smoky dusk came down, the great battle of the Antietam came to an end, with a Union army, which did not know it had won, digging in for a lastditch stand and with a Confederate army, which had been pounded to the last inch of human endurance, grounding its arms and making the best bivouac it could on a field that already stank with the hideous odor of unburied corpses. The battle was over: human beings had done the worst they could do to each other and nothing in particular had been settled, and perhaps tomorrow the thing would start all over again.
Perhaps: the word needs to be underscored. The most amazing thing about this battle is that Lee held his army in position all through the day of September 18, daring an opponent who had twice his numbers and five times his reserves to come and fight him if he had the nerve. McClellan did not have the nerve. He held his forces together throughout the eighteenth, wondering if he might not be attacked and hoping that he could hold his army in hand if that happened; and on the night of September 18, Lee pulled his army out of its lines and went back across the Potomac to rest and recruit and see if he could build the army up to something like the strength it used to have. (As it turned out, he could, and as a result the war went on for two and one-half years longer.)
So that was the battle of the Antietam: a bloody standoff, with 25,000 men in the two armies shot down in twelve dreadful hours, and with neither side winning anything in particular. And yet, even though he had played his hand with ruinous caution and had missed all of the opportunities that were open to him, McClellan had won the decisive victory of the warone of the great, decisive victories in American history.
He had won it, mostly, because he had not lost it. He had won it because, even though the fight itself was no better than a draw, Lee had had to retreat afterward; because of this battle, his dream of an invasion of the North had come to nothing. And since this dream faded out and was lost in the mist and shadows of time, the companion dream—the great, overriding threat to the continued existence of the American nation—also became dark and died.
Lee’s invasion failed. So England decided not to recognize the Confederacy, and the possibility that Europe would settle the American Civil War went out the window. With England out, France also was out; from September 17 on, the South would win if it could gain a clear-cut decision on the battlefield and not otherwise. After the Antietam the Confederacy never again came within 24 hours of final victory; after this fight the Stars and Bars were on the downward slope, with great darkness lying at the end of the slide.
Even more: Lincoln now had the victory which he had to have. It was a shadowed victory, no victory at all technically, not much of a victory even judged by the long-term pull; but still a victory, a turning back of the Confederate invasion, a triumph over an army which up until that crucial September day had had just about everything its own way.
So Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, and the course of American history thereafter was different.
The Emancipation Proclamation in many ways was one of the weakest state papers ever issued in the United States. It decreed the end of slavery in precisely those areas where the writ of the Federal government did not run—namely, in those states that, as yet unconquered, were still in rebellion; it left slavery untouched, in the “loyal” slave states like Maryland and Kentucky; in many ways it was nothing more than a pious statement of intent.