- 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
In 1862 a road from Sharpsburg ran down to the Antietam, crossed the stream on what in that day was called the Rohrbach Bridge, and then ran southward close to the bank. Today the road has been rerouted and the site is reached on foot. When one crosses the bridge and looks at the scene from the Federal (east) side of the creek, it is immediately obvious why General Burnside, in his insistence on forcing a crossing at the bridge, encountered so many problems. He had 12,500 men in the IX Corps; but the bridge is only twelve feet wide, and the Confederates in their hillside positions could not have asked for better defensive ground. They were also supported by artillery firing from the high ground to the rear, including the site where the Antietam National Cemetery is now located.
The first troops Burnside put into action became lost in the woods and never found the bridge. The second attack, made along the creekside road leading to the bridge, was shot to pieces. An attempt to wade the creek nearby met the same fate. A flanking column wasted several hours hunting downstream for a usable ford. At last, at about 1:00 P.M. , as the battle for Bloody Lane was ending, two Union regiments stormed straight down the hill facing the bridge and, as the enemy fire slackened, sprinted across the span. Even then, Burnside required two more hours to reassemble his corps and resupply it with ammunition. Lee had meanwhile taken troops from his right flank to fight off the Federals threatening his left.
It was midafternoon before the IX Corps started forward, and the battlefield’s Branch Avenue offers a clear view of how difficult it was for Burnside’s men to make rapid headway. This broken ground—”compartmentalized terrain,” in military terminology—was ideal for defense, and it explains why the small force of defenders under David R. Jones gave such a good account of itself. Nevertheless, the Federals pressed doggedly ahead, seeking to drive the Rebels out of Sharpsburg and cut their escape route to the Potomac crossing.
From the bridge, it is immediately obvious why General Burnside, in his insistence on forcing a crossing there, encountered so many problems.
They came within a hairsbreadth of succeeding. Along the Harpers Ferry road (today’s Route 65), which enters Sharpsburg from the south, what remained of General Jones’s troops made their last stand behind a stone and post-and-rail fence. Burnside’s men charged this line and, after hand-to-hand fighting, broke it. As Lee’s right flank collapsed, Sharpsburg was filled with retreating troops and batteries, all under fire by long-range Federal artillery. Yankee skirmishers dodged from house to house in the outlying streets.
Then, in what can only be described as a stroke of pure melodrama, A. P. Hill’s Confederate Light Division, after a rapid seventeen-mile march from Harpers Ferry, arrived on the field and launched a surprise flanking attack against Burnside’s advance. The IX Corps had been delayed—both by the Federal high command and by the Confederate defenders—exactly long enough for Lee to finally reunite his army. The Yankees broke under the assault and retreated back to the high ground overlooking the Burnside Bridge. Darkness fell, and the firing sputtered out, and the bloodiest day in our national history was over at last.
When September 18 dawned, Lee was still standing defiantly in his lines, inviting his opponent to renew the attack. McClellan refused the challenge. Satisfied that, outnumbered as he was, he had escaped defeat on September 17, he would take no further risk to win victory. That night Lee withdrew his army across the Potomac. He had inflicted one-fifth more casualties than he had suffered at Antietam, and for the campaign as a whole Union losses (including prisoners) were twice those of the Confederates. Yet Lee had failed in his goal of gaining a decisive victory on Northern soil. McClellan took that as the measure of his own triumph.
The Antietam National Cemetery, on the eastern outskirts of Sharpsburg, seems the natural place to reflect finally on what this day of battle signifies. If the setting of this high ground shaded by its great trees has meaning, the dead here must lie peacefully. They are all Union soldiers— the Confederate dead are interred elsewhere—and as affecting as anything else are the small white stones bearing the single word unknown over 1,836 of the bodies. These dead are honored in this place, but not glorified. Nor was there anything for Antietam’s survivors to celebrate afterward beyond their survival. About one in every four men who saw any action at all on September 17 was hit, and, of course, in the places where the fighting was the most intense the odds of survival had been at best even and often worse. On this field—on any Civil War field—it is entirely proper to cherish the courage and dedication that brought men to endure these awful moments of combat, but certainly there is nothing about this battlefield that glorifies its toll.