- 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
McClellan’s “design,” as he termed it, was a double envelopment of the enemy flanks, the heavier attack to fall on the better fighting ground along Lee’s left (northern) flank. The plan is made clear in displays at the Visitor Center, reached by turning off Route 34 to State Route 65 in Sharpsburg. Before one sets out to tour the battlefield, however, I commend the overview offered by Antietam’s observation tower. This modest stone structure, erected at the turn of the century, is on Richardson Avenue, at the center of the battlefield. The view from the tower reveals the compass-like symmetry of the field.
Lee deliberately chose this good defensive ground to take his stand, confident in his fighting men and in his ability to outgeneral McClellan.
Lee ran his line in a generally north-south direction, paralleling the bisecting ridgeline on which ran the turnpike to Hagerstown. This is today’s Route 65, although the modern road follows a bypass around the section of the old turnpike running through the battlefield. Three woodlots prominent in the fighting along this line are appropriately named the North Woods, the East Woods, and the West Woods. Antietam Creek has a north-south axis as well, and it served McClellan as a defensive moat behind which he husbanded his forces, sending his columns one at a time forward (westward) across the creek to give battle.
The fighting progressed in three distinct stages, like acts in a play, starting in early morning and lasting until dark and moving from the northern end of the Confederate line to the center and finally to the southern end. This is not to suggest that the Battle of Antietam had no confusing moments or that at times the fighting did not shift around to every point on the compass. Yet its essential features are easily seen. It is perhaps the single virtue of McClellan’s generalship on September 17 that his disjointed actions provide historians with a convenient framework for narrating the battle.
“Fighting Joe” Hooker opened the contest at first light on the seventeenth from a point on the battlefield’s Mansfield Avenue, site of the North Woods. McClellan considered Hooker one of his best combat generals, and he gave his I Corps the honor of leading the attack on Lee’s northern flank. Hooker had crossed the Antietam the afternoon before to take up this flanking position, and now he began the assault by driving due south, along the axis of the Hagerstown turnpike. His objective was the open plateau where the Visitor Center now stands, which was crowded with Confederate artillery. Off to the west beyond Route 65 can be seen the modest high ground called Nicodemus Heights, where Jeb Stuart directed additional artillery fire at the Federals all morning long, beginning with Hooker’s men.
In a matter of four hours that morning the Federals launched three successive offensives—by the I, XII, and II corps—over this same ground, which measures hardly a mile on a side. Each one was opened along a different axis. Represented on a clock face with 12:00 as north, the I Corps came in from 12:00, the XII from 1:30, and the II from 3:00. The sustained intensity of the fighting here was unmatched in the Civil War. For me the strongest impression of these savage hours is gained by tracing the successive movements, although this sometimes means going against the grain of the battlefield tour directions.
Heading southward from Mansfield Avenue along the old Hagerstown pike for a quarter of a mile brings the visitor (as it did Hooker’s men) to the David Miller farm. This is a working farm, and corn is still grown where in 1862 Mr. Miller’s thirty-acre cornfield earned a terrible distinction as simply “the Cornfield.” Hooker’s advance, stretching from the West Woods west of the turnpike through the Miller farm to the East Woods, smashed against a line Stonewall Jackson had drawn like a crossbar on a T to meet this flank attack.
Continuing southward along the turnpike, you pass two cannons on the right, marking the position of Battery B, 4th U.S. Artillery, which advanced to support Hooker’s assault. Turning left (east) on Cornfield Avenue takes you into what was that morning a maelstrom of unbelievable violence and noise. Hooker’s men, crashing out of the Cornfield a few yards north of the present avenue, were met by a hail of fire from a Confederate battle line in the meadow to the south. “Men, I can not say fell; they were knocked out of the ranks by dozens,” a Federal soldier wrote. “But we jumped over the fence, and pushed on, loading, firing, and shouting as we advanced.” Attack and counterattack surged back and forth over this ground. Rock ledges and piles of fence rails served some as cover, but for the most part the battle lines stood and faced each other in the smoky din two hundred yards or a hundred or even fifty yards apart. A war correspondent compared the volleys of musketry to “the rolling of a thousand distant drums.”