- Historic Sites
The Terrible Price Of Freedom
The bloodiest day’s fighting in our nation’s history took place on ground that has hardly changed since 1862. Antietam today offers a unique chance to grasp what a great Civil War battle was actually like.
April 1989 | Volume 40, Issue 3
By Lee’s reckoning, the Yankees were demoralized by defeat and their general was timid and ripe for a beating, and he sought to draw them after him to the north and west and force a battle somewhere in the Cumberland Valley of Maryland and Pennsylvania. First, however, he had to free his supply line from the threat of the Federal garrison at Harpers Ferry, at the mouth of Virginia’s Shenandoah River. He devised a complex plan to force the garrison’s surrender, and on September 10 the Rebels moved out of Frederick, scattering in all directions to carry out their assignments. Left behind was a copy of Lee’s operational plan, dropped in one of the encampments by a careless courier. Three days later the Union army entered Frederick and an Indiana soldier stumbled on what would become famous as the Lost Order. Soon it was in McClellan’s hands. He now knew his opponent’s intentions, where his forces were, and his timetable. It was the sort of opportunity generals dream of.
Even this spectacular good fortune did not stir McClellan out of his cautious habits, however, and he advanced too late to overwhelm any of the scattered parts of Lee’s army. On September 14 the Confederates fought delaying actions at Crampton’s Gap and Turner’s Gap on South Mountain, behind which they had been maneuvering since leaving Frederick. The two armies followed the historic National Road, the nation’s first federal highway, which ran through Frederick and Turner’s Gap and on toward the Ohio Valley; today it is called Alternate U.S. 40. On Alternate 40 three miles west of the village of Middletown, at the intersection of Bolivar Road, the Union forces divided left and right to launch flank attacks on Turner’s Gap. The fighting that raged that day on South Mountain can be traced, but a good guidebook, such as The U.S. Army War College Guide to the Battle of Antietam, by Jay Luvaas and Harold W. Nelson, is essential. The maneuvering was complex, and historical markers are not always to be found.
Alternate 40 climbs up the mountain and across the rocky crest at Turner’s Gap, from which, in the small hours of September 15, Lee pulled back down the western face of the range to Boonsboro. Taking a left turning on the Boonsboro turnpike (today’s Maryland Route 34), he set his forces for Sharpsburg. Expecting the enemy to fall back across the Potomac, McClellan announced that Maryland and Pennsylvania were delivered from peril. But at midday word reached him that the Rebels were no longer retreating. Instead they were formed in line of battle behind Antietam Creek and in front of Sharpsburg. Capt. George Armstrong Custer, beginning his military career on McClellan’s staff, reported the sighting: “They are in full view. Their line is a perfect one about a mile and a half long. … We can employ all the troops you can send us.”
Soon Federal troops in the thousands began massing along the east bank of Antietam Creek, swinging off the Boonsboro pike to high ground overlooking the shallow valley of the Antietam. All this ground, with the exception of the Pry house, McClellan’s field headquarters, remains privately owned today. The wooded bluff to the left (south) of Route 34 was open and under cultivation in 1862, and from this commanding spot General McClellan first glimpsed the battlefield. During the fighting on the seventeenth he left the Pry house and returned here for a better view of the action.
What he saw on that afternoon of September 15 was a Confederate battle line that stretched across a patchwork of farm fields, meadows, orchards, and woodlots. Beyond the creek the ground slopes upward to a north-south ridgeline bisecting the land between the Antietam and the Potomac a few miles distant. All that could be seen of Sharpsburg, behind the ridgeline, was its church steeples. Militarily it was a concealing landscape, the ground marked by little rises and hollows, the trees in full foliage, the crops in many of the fields not yet harvested and standing at full growth.
Although McClellan knew from the Lost Order that he was facing no more than half the Confederate army, he had so inflated the enemy’s numbers that he credited Lee with 50,000 men that day. He did not suspect that he was being bluffed by hardly 15,000, and by day’s end he further deluded himself into thinking the other half of the Rebel army had reached the field as well. In fact, Lee’s six divisions still at Harpers Ferry would only begin to reach Sharpsburg the next afternoon.
Committed to his delusion, McClellan allowed September 16 to pass while he worked out a plan to fight the 100,000 Rebels he expected to face. Against this host he could bring 75,000 men to the firing line. Lee used the gift of time to collect his forces. Even when his army was reunited—not to be fully accomplished until the afternoon of September 17—he would have hardly 38,000 men of all arms. The Army of Northern Virginia would not again be so diminished until it surrendered at Appomattox. The prudent course for Lee was to withdraw across the Potomac, content with the 11,500 Yankee soldiers and substantial armaments captured at Harpers Ferry. Yet that would signal an end to his larger ambitions for the campaign. Lee deliberately chose this good defensive ground and took his stand, confident in the fighting ability of his men and in his own ability to out-general George McClellan.