Skip to comments.This Day In Civil War History September 17th, 1863 Battle of Antietam
Posted on 09/17/2008 6:08:42 AM PDT by mainepatsfan
GENERAL ROBERT E. LEE'S first invasion of the North culminated with the Battle of Antietam, in Maryland (or Sharpsburg, as the South called it). The battle took place on Wednesday, September 17, 1862, just 18 days after the Confederate victory at Second Manassas, 40 miles to the southeast in Virginia.
Not only was this the first major Civil War engagement on Northern soil, it was also the bloodiest single day battle in American history.
To view the magnitude of the losses, consider that Antietam resulted in nine times as many Americans killed or wounded (23,000 soldiers) as took place on June 6, 1944--D-day, the so-called "longest day" of World War II.* Also consider that more soldiers were killed and wounded at the Battle of Antietam than the deaths of all Americans in the Revolutionary War, War of 1812, Mexican War, and Spanish-American War combined.
The loss of human life at Antietam shocked both sides doing battle that day. And it nearly resulted in Lee's entire army, with its back to the Potomac River, being cut off from retreat across the Potomac (through Shepherdstown) and being captured by the stronger Union forces.
The battle also became a turning point, an engagement that changed the entire course of the Civil War. Antietam not only halted Lee's bold invasion of the North (see Why Lee Invaded Maryland) but thwarted his efforts to force Lincoln to sue for peace. It also provided Lincoln with the victory he needed to announce the abolition of slavery in the South. And with that proclamation of Emancipation, Lincoln was able to broaden the base of the war and may have prevented England and France from lending support to a country that engaged in human bondage. The battle sealed the fate of the Confederacy.
Ugh. That date should be September 17, 1862.
“The battle sealed the fate of the Confederacy”
That’s unlikely. Lee would invade the North again, and the Union had yet to find a general (Grant) who could win consistently. Most people would say the Confederacy’s fate was sealed July 4, 1863, when federal troops carried the day at Gettysburg and Vicksburg.
Visiting Antietam is always an emotional experience for me. I get a very distinct sense that there are some soldiers from the battle still on and around the fields ..... and I’m not into ghosts, etc. Rather than being ‘scary’, I feel a very deep sense of reverence. It’s happened every time I’ve been there.
I would say the fate of the Confederacy was sealed with the death of Stonewall Jackson after the battle of Chancellorsville. The Army of Nothern VIrginia, and thus the South, never recovered from that tragic loss.
Lee could only buy so much time before he was finally overwhelmed, and Beuaregard/Van Dorn/Bragg/Johnston/Hood all let him and Jefferson Davis down repeatedly.
But Antietam gave Lincoln the victory he needed to issue his Emancipation Proclamation. By injecting an end to slavery into the Union war effort it ended forever the possibility of European intervention on the side of the confederacy. Without that intervention the confederacy was doomed.
I got the same feeling at Gettysberg.
And that fate was sealed by repeating the same mistake that the Britsh had at the Battle of Bunker Hill during the Revolutionary War: you don’t attack someone who has a commanding higher geographic position. Pickett’s charge on July 4, 1863 resulted in essentially wiping out a huge fraction of the Confederate Army, and the British suffered 1,000 casualties (that’s a lot by the standards of war in 1775!) trying to take Breed’s Hill near Boston. You’d think General Lee would have read up on the bloody assault on Breed’s Hill and didn’t repeat that mistake a second time.
This is also the 221st anniversary of the adoption of the Constitution by the convention in Philadelphia.
I haven’t been there yet so I’m thinking the same thing will happen.
And McClelland really erred here by allowing the Confederate Army to escape back across the Potomac. If they had been cut off the war may have been over in 1862!
Wow - such beautiful photos. I have a keen interest in the Civil war, especially the photographs from that era. Absolutely fascinating stuff.
I’ll have to agree with you on that, except I’d push it back a month or so to the little battles of Fort Donelson, and Fort Henry, I think the turning point came when Abraham Lincoln started telling his generals you will move against the enemy or be fired. Oh one last thing, it appears that the confederates sacrificed the Western front to save the Eastern front, after their Western front fell, the game was up.
Lee should have known from personal experience, having massacred a good part of his army on Malvern Hill just a year prior and having watched Burnside slaughter his troops assaulting Marye's Heights at Fredericksburg six months before.
Going to Gettysburg this weekend. Actually, we start at Brandy Station and then follow the route to Gettysburg.
A gentleman named Kendall Gott has written a book called "Where The South Lost The War" taking that very position. Gott's view is that losing Henry and Donelson started a chain of events that opened the Tennessee River and quickly led to the loss of Nashville, Memphis, and the eventual splitting of the confederacy along the Mississippi. I'm not sure I agree completely with his hypothesis but he does make some interesting points.
Problem is that Lee had in fact gotten away with successful full frontal attacks against well-intrenched federal troops holding high ground at least twice before.
The first was at Gaines Mill during the Seven Days' Battles), and the second was at Chancellorsville (just two months before Gettysburg) when Stuart (taking over for the wounded Jackson) overran Hazel Grove.
Lee thought his men could do it a third time during Pickett's Charge, but he was wrong.
I take it you have not been to Cold Harbor?
I have. It’s a very haunted place as well. But for some reason, Antietam just sends shivers up my spine everytime I stop by there. It’s always very quiet, with enough of a breeze blowing (especially at Miller’s cornfield) to make the air seem like its whispering to you.
“By injecting an end to slavery into the Union war effort it ended forever the possibility of European intervention on the side of the confederacy. Without that intervention the confederacy was doomed.”
The concept of “sealing fate” is an abstract one, and invites debate about forests and trees on many levels. Certainly, the South needed outside aid to counter the population and industry of the North. However, given these shortcomings, one might reasonably say that the Confederacy’s fate was sealed before the war began. It is hard to believe that the British would have intervened fiercely enough on the behalf of a slave-nation, with or without the Emancipation Proclaimation.
General McClellan was error incarnate. Like Barack Obama holding the delegate lead while losing primary after primary, McClellan also couldn’t quite “close the deal”.
Me too, Miss Magnolia. My great-grandfather was there with the Union 12th Corps in the Cornfield. Although I have walked the battlefield, and am an Army veteran myself,(Cold War in Europe; pre Viet Nam), I know I have only the vaguest understanding of what that terrible day must have been like. For a while I had a letter he had written to his wife a few days after the battle (I have since donated it to a museum). Describing the march to the battle, and then the battle itself, he wrote:
"To the unitiated the night march would have been impressive in the extreme - the steady solumn tread of ten thousand men, the whispering orders of the officers - the frequent halts and silent advance of one or two to examine the character of the ground ahead - the occasional fire of some miserable straggler and so forth & all tending to make men prepare their minds for something awful upon the break of day. Doubtless many who are now in Eternity had thoughts that night they never entertained before..."
And on The Cornfield itself; "I cannot possibly detail to you now the trials of that day. Suffice it to say that the "iron hail" was so thick and my duties took me to so many different points, nothing but the protecting care of my God can have saved me from injury."
“Problem is that Lee had in fact gotten away with successful full frontal attacks against well-intrenched federal troops holding high ground at least twice before.
The first was at Gaines Mill during the Seven Days’ Battles), and the second was at Chancellorsville (just two months before Gettysburg) when Stuart (taking over for the wounded Jackson) overran Hazel Grove.
Lee thought his men could do it a third time during Pickett’s Charge, but he was wrong.”
It is my understanding that Lee had many victories in absolute numbers, given that the South was always outmanned, but the Union generally prevailed proportionally (i.e. their deaths as a percentage of the whole was less than the South’s). The author I read ascribed to the South’s disproportionate death rate to their cavalier kill or die attitude in charges.
You just reminded me about something, I live in the Murfreesboro, area,(Battle of Stones River), It rained really heavy the days before and after the battle, Because of this the Union Army was able to float supplies down some river to help supply the Union Troops. If this had not happen Gen. Rosecran probably would have had to retreat back to Nashville. Ok now I’m going to have to spend the rest of the day finding out the specfic details about that.
I know what you mean. Standing in “Bloody Lane” gives me chills. I have to imagine that the terror of final minutes of their lives, caused a little piece of the spirit to remain on that battlefield in some way.
My great-great grandfather lost two fingers at Manassas and was allowed to go home to Strausburg Va to recover. He just missed Antietam but went back to his brigade to serve again at Gettysburg.
Roughly 60 % of the Civil War was fought in Virgina
“losing Henry and Donelson started a chain of events that opened the Tennessee River and quickly led to the loss of Nashville, Memphis, and the eventual splitting of the confederacy along the Mississippi. I’m not sure I agree completely with his hypothesis but he does make some interesting points.”
It seems to me that this is missing the obvious. Why credit the battles leading up to the victory at Vicksburg instead of the victory at Vicksburg itself? Plus, it is my understanding that Grant’s victory was far from certain, given that he had to forge through a swamp and lay a prolonged and difficult seige to take the town and split the Confederacy.
Grady McWhiney's Attack and Die: Civil War Military Tactics and the Southern Heritage?
Yeah, McWhiney's famous for his famous "Celtic" and "Cracker Culture" theses. I've got a big problem with his "Celtic" argument since the Federals launched their share of big frontal attacks as well, for instance at Fredericksburg, Kennesaw Mountain, Cold Harbor, and Nashville.
Now how did you arrive at that figure, considering that big campaigns and battles were fought in Tennessee, Georgia, and Mississippi (comprising a MUCH larger geographical area than Virginia), and a host of smaller ones in Louisiana, Alabama, and Missouri?
The battlefield site that always does it to me is Spotsylvania. Walk the path of Hancock’s assault toward the Mule Shoe on a foggy morning and see what that does to you.
I've always believed that the confederacy began to lose the war the moment they fired on Sumter for that reason, there really was no way that they could win.
It is hard to believe that the British would have intervened fiercely enough on the behalf of a slave-nation, with or without the Emancipation Proclaimation.
British intervention was never as imminent as the South liked to think since the Palmerston government was not going to stick its neck out and support the confederacy unless it was certain that the South was going to win. During the summer of 1862, following the confederate victory at Second Manassas, it appears that they were moving towards recognition and the entire cabinet was supposed to take up the issue when they met again in October. Antietam changed that perception that Southern victory was inevitable, and the Emancipation Proclamation made it clear that any future intervention would clearly be supporting slavery.
It makes me wonder if Lee was thinking that the Union would protect its Right and Left wings at all costs and disregard the center. The thing about this is eventually the North figured it out and kept their men in the center. You can fool an old dog once or twice, but it’s gets harder to fool him a third time.
I have not been to Brandy Station, so that will be new for me. I have been to Gettysburg, parts of which are pretty creepy. We’re also stopping in Aldie and Winchester.
Well, the difference at GettysBurg, I think, was Meade, who was not only competent (unlike his predecessors) but was a close personal friend of Lee (most people don’t know this) and knew his idiosyncracies, and had in fact learned the hard way from previous battles. Consequently, he out Lee’d Lee during the battle.
While in Gettysburg, be sure to stop by Spangler’s Srping near Culp’s Hill. It’s a dark, haunted place as well.
I too tend to reject broad cultural interpretation when it comes to tactical military history. But I think the statistics bear McWhiney out. And on a more anecdotal level, every historian notes that people like Lee and Forrest were brash and audacious, whereas the long line of Union generals before Grant are all characterized as soft and vacillating.
“The thing about this is eventually the North figured it out and kept their men in the center”
The North didn’t really need its reserves in the center, anyway. Lee’s plan was doomed by Union artillery. There is no way you can march for a mile under heavy fire and expect to break fresh troops.
Lee had factors strategic as well as a tactic to consider. It is all very well who accuse Lee of having made the wrong decision, but it is not right to do it for the wrong reasons. Lee had one of the finest eyes for ground of any captain in that or any of our wars.
More telling of the man at Gettysburg was his behavior in defeat. He went down into the cornfield approaching his wretched refugees from Pickett's charge, tears coursing down his cheeks, saying, "it's my fault, it's all my fault."
Thanks for the history - I have to get there sometime soon. The Gettysburg Battlefield was a life-changing experience.
Prior to Antietam most units North and South consisted of men who signed up in their home towns and fought together. After Antietam this changed because literally all men or most men from a single unit were killed wiping out a substantial part of the male population from many small towns. The reassigned men from units to ensure this was not as likely to happen again.