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Crisis At The Antietam

May 2024
17min read

Upon the clash of arms near a little Maryland creek hung the slave’s freedom and the survival of the Union

A whitewashed Dunker chrch without a steeple, a forty-acre field of corn that swayed, head-high and green, in the September sun, an eroded country lane that rambled along a hillside behind a weathered snake-rail fence, and an arched stone bridge that crossed a lazy, copper-brown little creek—these unimpressive features of a quiet Maryland landscape made the setting in which one of the greatest moments of crisis in American history came to a solution on the bloody day of September 17, 1862.

The crisis involved nothing less than the continued existence as one nation of the United States, an existence which was in a fair way to come to an end in the middle of that wartime September and which got past its hour of greatest danger because of the tremendous shock of battle. In all the American Civil War, no single day was bloodier or more costly than that one day of battle on the hills and fields overlooking Antietam Creek in western Maryland; nor did any single combat in that war go so far toward putting this American crisis on the road toward solution.

Things had not been going well for the Union cause in the summer of 1862. The great drive to capture Richmond, in which the picturesque young General George B. McClellan led the Army of the Potomac down to the very suburbs of the Confederate capital, had failed in the smoke and clamor of the famous Seven Days’ Battles—seven days in which Robert E. Lee, outnumbered anil seemingly doomed to defeat, had led McClellan into confusion, had roundly whipped his army, and had driven general and troops to an uneasy refuge at Harrison’s Landing, a steaming mud Hat far down the James River, many miles from the goal which had been so nearly within reach.

President Abraham Lincoln’s government had scrambled frantically to retrieve the situation, without luck. A new Federal army, styled the Army of Virginia, had been organized and put under command of General John Pope and sent clown overland to get the Confederates under control; but Lee and his famous lieutenant, Stonewall Jackson, had run rings around General Pope and—on the famous field of Hull Run, less than thirty miles from Washington—had shattered his army in a defeat so ignominious that Pope himself was shelved and sent to Minnesota to fight Indians for the rest of the war, while the remnants of his army crept back to Washington to be united with McClellan’s Army of the Potomac, brought back from the fames River to help defend the national capital.

So as September began, the cause of the Union looked very dark. In the West things were no better, with Confederates led by Braxton Bragg marching north into Kentucky. On the home front there was much gloom; the high hopes of spring (when people believed the war would be won in another inoiuh or so) had been replaced by bewilderment and discouragement, and the most influential members of Lincoln’s Cabinet suspected that General AfcClellan might actually be a pro-Southern sympathizer who did not especially want to win the war at all. The vital spark in the Northern war effort seemed to have died and there did not appear to be any good way to bring it back to life.

Worst of all, General Lee’s triumphant Army of Northern Virginia—ragged, weary, worn to a shadow by the heavy fighting it had been through, but powerfully imbued with the notion that there was no Yankee army anywhere that could not be licked—had crossed the Potomac River and was marching up on an invasion of the Northern heartland, aiming apparently at nothing less than the conquest of Pennsylvania and the capture of Washington.

Along with this—as if it were not enough to make a man-sized crisis—there was the open threat of decisive European intervention on the side of the Confederacy. The British government was openly sympathetic with the South, and the papier mâché emperor of France, Napoleon III, was clearly ready to grant recognition and material aid if the British would just take the lead. This the government at London seemed prepared to do. The prime minister and foreign secretary were preparing to suggest to the cabinet that England take the lead in inducing a concert of powers to step in and bring this American war to an end—which, under the circumstances, could mean nothing less than independence for the Confederacy. They were waiting only to see what came of Lee’s invasion of the North. If it went as it seemed likely to go, Britain would act.

Lincoln had been trying desperately to remedy matters, but at the moment there was little he could do. To revive the Northern war effort, it seemed to him that he must somehow bring into full play the vigor and determination of the abolitionists. Thus far, official policy was that the war was being fought for the sole purpose of restoring the Union and that the issue of slavery had nothing to do with it. To Lincoln it was clear that he must now broaden the base; if this could now be made a war against slavery, as well as a war for reunion, it would become a thing in which no British government would dare to intervene.

To bring this about, Lincoln had on his desk a draft of what would eventually be the Emancipation Proclamation. Hut he could not issue it yet. Secretary of State Seward had warned him: We have been beaten and our armies are in retreat—get this out now and it will look like a cry of despair, an appeal to the black race for help, rather than a statement of our purpose to help the black race. … The proclamation could not be issued until the North had won a victory.

So Lincoln did what he could. To the poorly reorganized Army of the Potomac, which was moving up into Maryland to try to catch and defeat Lee, he restored General McClellan, despite the grumbling of important Cabinet members and party leaders. This done, he could only wait for the test of battle. If Lee could be beaten, European intervention could be averted and final victory could perhaps be counted on; if he could not be beaten, then there would presently be two independent nations rather than one between Canada and the Rio Grande. Seldom in American history has so much been at stake on one battle.

During the first two weeks of September the rival armies sparred for an opening. Lee moved west of South Mountain, a long spur of the Blue Ridge that runs fifty miles northeast from the Potoniac, cutting through western Maryland up into Pennsylvania. Screened by his cavalry, which held the South Mountain passes with infantry support, Lee evolved a daring plan. There was a Federal post at Harpers Ferry held by 12,000 troops, and it seemed to Lee that his invasion would go more smoothly il this post could lirst be gobbled up. While McClellan, who was still cast oI South Mountain, was trying to find out precisely where the Confederate Army might be, Lee divided his forces and sent hall of his army, under Stonewall Jackson, doubling back to capture Harpers Ferry.


It worked just as Lee had anticipated. Jackson surrounded the post before the Federals knew what was going on, got artillery into position to bombard it, and forced its surrender. There was, however, one accident. A copy of Lee’s orders setting forth the whole plan was somehow lost, to be picked up by two Federal soldiers as they bivouacked on a field near the town of Frederick, Maryland. It was sent to McClellan, who immediately realized that Lee had divided his army and that the Army of the Potomac was actually nearer to its separate pieces than those separate pieces were to each other.

McClellan was a capable general, but he usually moved very slowly, and Lee had banked heavily on this fact, gambling that he could capture Harpers Ferry and reunite his army before McClellan could interfere. Ordinarily, this gamble would probably have worked. But finding the lost order spurred the usually sluggish McClellan into action. He put his army on the road, broke through the South Mountain passes, and set out to destroy the scattered portions of the Army of Northern Virginia.

He did not move quite last enough to save the Harpers Ferry garrison, and Jackson scooped up his 12,000 prisoners, along with a good deal of materiel which the Confederates needed very badly. But McClellan’s sudden move did put a serious hitch in Lee’s invasion plans. Before he could do anything about entering Pennsylvania, Lee had at all costs to reassemble his army and fight off this thrust of McClellan’s. Hard-riding couriers went galloping down the roads of western Maryland with orders, and the weary Confederates—from Hagerstown, from Boonsboro, from Crampton’s Gap, and from Harpers Ferry itself—were ordered to move at once to Sharpsburg, a little town just north of the Potomac. If McClellan wanted to fight, they would fight there. If they won, then they could go on with the invasion. If they lost—well, Lee had enormous confidence in them; he did not think they were going to lose.

These Confederates were very weary men, a point that needs to be emphasized because it had much to do with the circumstances under which the battle would be fought. Since the middle of June they had marched many dusty miles and had fought many furious battles, and they were on the edge of exhaustion. When Lee led them across the Potomac, thousands upon thousands of them had simply given out, unable to move any farther: from straggling alone, Lee suffered a temporary loss during the first two weeks in September of between 10,000 and 20,000 men. The army that would reunite at Sharpsburg would be very far under strength, if all of its units reached the scene—a matter about which there was some doubt—Lee would have no more than 45,000 men of all arms; and McClellan was on the scene with more than 95,000. Not until the final desperate campaign of Appomattox would Lee enter a major battle with his strength so badly depleted.

But if the Confederate army was thin it was full of high spirits. It had not yet lost a battle, and its members—from the humblest private up to the commanding general—believed they would win this one. What were Yankees for, if not to be beaten? The Confederate sol diet might be ragged and shoeless, doomed to exist on insufficient rations and poorly served by his supply department, but he had the habit of victory, and with a gun in his hands he was as dogged a fighting man as the world has ever seen.

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.

Again it was time for reinforcements, and McClellan now sent in his Second Corps, led by a white-haired old regular named Edwin Sumner. Sumner had three divisions, each one numbering five or six thousand combat men, and he led one of these in across the burnt-out cornfield and into a woodland that flanked the Dunker church on the north and west, aiming to break in the extreme left of the Confederate line. His advance was unopposed, or nearly so, at first, and he reached a position where a wheel to the left would drive away the last of Jackson’s men—and then he ran into an ambush.

Portions of Lee’s army were still coming in, finishing the cruel hike from Harpers Ferry, and some of these reached him that morning in the nick of time. Lee sent them to Jackson’s aid, and they hit Sumner’s leading division in the flank, crumpling it with one savage blow and driving the whole division north in wild retreat with heavy loss. For a moment it looked as if the whole right of McClellan’s army might be involved in the rout, but Hooker’s huge line of guns on the ridge to the north was a rallying point, and the triumphant Confederates were driven back to the Dunker church position. Across the cornfield—which by now, in its littered forty acres, contained at least 10,000 casualties from both armies—the rival forces glared at each other; and although they continued to exchange rifle and artillery fire for the rest of the day, the real fighting in that part of the field was over … stalemate.

Now Sumner brought his other two divisions up to attack the Confederates in the sunken road. Attack after attack followed in bewildering sequence, with trim Union divisions moving up to the deadly little lane, breaking under Confederate fire, retreating, and reforming for another attack. The Confederate position here was very strong, but the Union advantage in numbers was great, and toward noon one of Summer’s division commanders, General Israel B. Richardson, gained a hilltop where his infantry could enfilade the sunken roadway. The Confederates wavered and finally broke, and the triumphant Northerners swarmed in and took full possession of the position. The lane was so fearfully heaped with dead and wounded men that soldiers on both sides referred to it, forever after, simply as Bloody Lane.


Lee now was on the edge of final defeat. The center of his position was lost, and there were no reinforcements in sight. General D. H. Hill had taken a musket and, with a handful of stragglers he had rallied, was fighting like a foot soldier, while Longstreet was helping the gunners in a mangled battery. One determined push, here and now, would have broken Lee’s line beyond recall, and the Army of Northern Virginia might have been destroyed. But McClellan was worried. The men who had taken Bloody Lane were exhausted, General Richardson was mortally wounded, it seemed to McClellan that the entire right of his line was frazzled and unable to fight any more, and the troops that might have been sent in to exploit this success he held in reserve lest Lee mount a counterattack. (A counterattack, just then, was the one thing Lee could not possibly manage; he could only hold on, hoping against hope that his men could stay where they were. But this truth never dawned on McClellan.)

So the fighting died out along the center, just as it had died out farther north, and now the action shifted to the southern end of the line—the chain of low hills overlooking Antietam Creek. Here McClellan’s Ninth Corps, under General Ambrose E. Burnside, moved into action.

It moved ineptly, for Burnside somehow fed his four divisions into action one at a time, instead of massing them for a concerted attack, and although he had a numerical advantage of four or five to one he was never able to make it fully effective. He succeeded, finally, in storming the little stone bridge that led across the stream and dusted the Confederates off the hills that overlooked it. He got one division across the creek by a ford, a mile downstream; and after a long delay, in which ammunition was brought forward and lines were rearranged, he sent his men moving on to take the town of Sharpsburg, get between Lee and the Potomac, and make complete victory possible.

There was not a great deal Lee could do to prevent this, apparently. His understrength army had been fearfully mangled. He had lost at least 10,000 men, and many of the survivors had been blown loose from their commands and could not be reassembled before dusk. The ones who remained were fighting as hard as men have ever fought, but the odds by now were overwhelming. Poorly as Burnside had put his divisions into action, they were about to win.

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.

Yet it had immense power. It finally determined that the Civil War was not merely a war for reunion but also a war to end human slavery; turned it from a family scrap into an incalculable struggle for human freedom, and thus made it a fight in which no civilized outsider could possibly intervene. It harnessed to the Union cause the basic dreams and aspirations of the race, and nailed to the American flagpole the charter of human rights. Everything in American history—and within reason, in world history—would be different after this. The bloody showdown in the cornfield and along the sunken lane and over the little stone bridge that spanned the narrow Antietam had enabled the nation to take a decisive step forward along the road to destiny.

The Antietam was a badly fought battle: badly fought, that is, in the sense that it was miserably directed. To be sure, it was fought magnificently by the enlisted men who had to pay the bill for their generals’ decisions. The casualty list of 25,000 killed and wounded for the two armies, in a struggle that lasted only from dawn to dusk, gives it rank with the most dreadful battles ever waged by man. But the great point about it is that it brought the country to and through a moment of enormous decision. Out of it came reunion and freedom, neither one fully attained even a century later, but each one riveted into the American consciousness in a way time cannot undo.

What America is and hopes to be dates from the fight along Antietam Creek. The fight cost an enormous number of lives, and inflicted pain and disability on many thousands more; but in the infinite economy of the advance of the human race it may have been worth what it cost.

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