The Battle of Antietam
Understanding the Numbers
As we have now reached the point at which the nucleus of Lee's army has taken position in front of Sharpsburg, while two divisions of McClellan's army have formed up for the attack, the time seems to have come for some remarks upon the character of the two armies. There is no occasion for saying much about the rank and file of either side, for the soldierly qualities of both are too well known. After eighty years of peace, the surface of which had been scarcely ruffled by the war of 1812 and the Mexican war, the men of the North and of the South had shown that they still possessed the soldierly qualities of the Anglo-Saxon race. For fourteen months they had been opposed to each other, and from the first to the second Bull Run, at Williamsburg and Fair Oaks, and Gaines's Mill, and Malvern Hill, and in all the campaigning which came between the first clash of arms and the last struggle at South Mountain, they had displayed intelligence, courage, endurance, tenacity, and patriotism. The qualities that had enabled the South to win the first battle of Bull Run, and had made Massachusetts men "stand in the evil hour" at Ball's Bluff, had been developed and disciplined by the experience of war, and Lee and McClellan now had each an instrument to work with, which had been not perfected, but much bettered by the tempering processes of the field.
When we pass from the men to the commanders, there is more to be said. Lee had Longstreet and D. H. Hill and Hood and Stuart with him, while Jackson and A. P. Hill and McLaws and Walker were hastening to join him. McClellan had for corps commanders, Hooker and Sumner, and Porter and Franklin, and Burnside and Mansfield, while his division commanders were Cox, Couch, Doubleday, French, Greene, Hatch, Meade, Morell, Richardson, Ricketts, Rodman, Sedgwick, Slocum, W. F. Smith, Sturgis, Willcox, and Williams. If a student of military history, familiar with the characters who figured in the war of secession, but happening to be ignorant of the story of the battle of the Antietam, should be told that the men we have named held the high commands there, he would say that with anything like an equality of forces, the Confederates must have won, for their leaders were men who made great names in the war, while the Federal leaders were, with few exceptions, men who never became conspicuous, or became conspicuous only through failure. Their names are for the most part unknown to the public, and few can say who among them are alive or dead.
In September, 1862, McClellan had been for fifteen years a graduate of the Military Academy, and for all but about four of these years he had been in the military service of the United States. He had resigned in January, 1857, giving up the commission of a captain of cavalry, and he had been raised at one step from civil life, in May, 1861, to the position of major-general in the army. He was a man of short and solid figure, good carriage, and singularly pleasing manners. He was never in a hurry, and always seemed to have plenty of time at his command. He had shown marked ability as an organizer, and his men generally felt an almost idolatrous enthusiasm for him. He had been so slow to commence operations against the army that had beaten McDowell in 1861, that many people had come to entertain grave doubts of his capacity, and the doubters had grown more numerous and positive since the failure of his Peninsular campaign, though his shortcomings there did not then incur all the censure they deserved, because of the very generally entertained belief that the failure was owing to interference at Washington with his plans. After Pope's defeat the army turned to him passionately, and the people hopefully, and the time was now coming that was to test the question of his talents.
McClellan's lieutenants were Sumner, Burnside, and Franklin. Sumner was quite an old man, though still vigorous and active. He was not a graduate of West Point, but he had been a soldier all his life, and he was rapidly promoted from a colonelcy of cavalry to the grade of major-general of volunteers. He was a most excellent and every way respectable man, and he had in the highest degree the courage of a soldier, but he was wanting in the courage of a general. He was apt to be demoralized by hard fighting, and to overestimate the losses of his own side and the strength of the enemy, and he seems to have possessed no judgment as a tactician. It is probable that his training as a cavalry officer had done him positive harm as a leader of infantry. Franklin had been a soldier all his life--that is to say, he had been first in his class at West Point, and from 1843, when he graduated, he had been serving in the Topographical Engineers, till May, 1861, when he was commissioned brigadier-general of volunteers. Something has been said of him already, and more will be said of him, when his part in the battle of Fredericksburg is discussed. For the present it is sufficient to say that whatever his merits may have been, he distinctly did not belong to the class of fortunate and successful soldiers. Burnside, also, was a West Point graduate, but he had been out of the service more than seven years when the war broke out. Few men, probably, have risen so high upon so slight a foundation as he. He is dead, and what must be said of him is therefore to be said with forbearance. His personal appearance was striking and fine, and his manner was frank and captivating. Nobody could encounter his smile and receive the grasp of his hand without being for some time under a potent influence. It is probably true that that man's manners made his fortune, for he remained long in the service in high places, and yet his presence was an element of weakness where he was a subordinate, and was disastrous when he held a great command. Hooker, too, is dead. Brave, handsome, vain, insubordinate, plausible, untrustworthy, he had many of the merits of a lieutenant, but not all, and he too failed dismally when he was made commander-in-chief. As an inferior, he planned badly and fought well; as chief, he planned well and fought badly. He was so unfortunate in his bearing as a corps commander that his great chief Sherman was glad to be rid of him, and he left the army in front of Atlanta, and never was set to work against troops again. Of the unfortunate Porter it is unnecessary to speak. His vindication at the hands of the Military Commission is magnificent, but he had little to do at the battle of the Antietam, and nothing to do afterward. The excellent Sedgwick never climbed high on the hill of fame, and Grant's presence so overshadowed Meade from the spring of 1864, that one is left to saying with some diffidence that he seems to have been rather a meritorious than a brilliant commander. The names which afterward became more or less splendid, such names as Hancock, Humphreys, Griffin, Warren, Barlow, and Miles, belonged to men who, in September, 1862, were brigade commanders or not so high. The only other division commander who went into action on the Federal side at the Antietam who calls for special mention, was Cox, a useful citizen of the Garfield type, a good soldier, and an admirable man. As a corps commander in Sherman's army, and afterward as Governor of Ohio, he came to be widely and favorably known in the West, but he was almost a stranger to the army of the Potomac, with which he only served for about two months.
On the afternoon of the hot fifteenth of September, while the long columns of the Federal army were resting along the Boonsboro' road, General McClellan passed through them to the front, and had from them such a magnificent reception as was worth living for. Far from the rear the cheers were heard, faintly at first, and gradually the sound increased and grew to a roar as he approached. The weary men sprang to their feet and cheered and cheered, and as he went the cheers went before him and with him and after him, till the sound receding with the distance at last died away. The troops moved on later, slowly and wearily, and some of them were not in position till the next morning.
General McClellan says that after a rapid examination of the position, he found it was too late to attack on Monday. He does not say at what hour he reached the front, but, as has been said, it was well into the afternoon. Neither does he tell us why he arrived so late. Besides making the rapid examination of which he speaks, he seems to have done nothing beyond directing the placing of the batteries in the centre, and indicating the bivouacs for the different corps. This last was a simple matter, as he merely massed them near and on both sides of the road from Keedysville to Sharpsburg. So all this day, the fifteenth of September, Lee stood in front of Sharpsburg with the troops of Longstreet and D. H. Hill alone, while the whole army of the Potomac, excepting Franklin's command and Morell's division of the Fifth Corps, was near him.
Tuesday the sixteenth was a terribly hot day in its early hours, with a burning sun and no breeze, but at about eleven the sun became overcast, and a little air stirred from time to time. It was a day of mere idleness throughout, for a large part of the army, and no one but the gunners had anything to do in the forenoon. We lay about on the eastern slope of the ridge which interposed between us and the valley of the Antietam, and occasionally we would go to the crest of the ridge to see what we could see. There was plenty to see, but unfortunately that was not all of it. The Confederate batteries were wide awake, and their practice was extremely good, and projectiles flew over the crest so thickly that mere curiosity was not sufficient to keep any one there long.
On the morning of this day Jackson arrived at Sharpsburg with his own division, under J. R. Jones, and Ewell's division, under Lawton. His troops were allowed some rest, and then his own division was placed on the left of Hood, who, being himself on the left of D. H. Hill, prolonged the Confederate line northward and westward to the Hagerstown pike. Jackson's right rested on the pike. Winder's and Jones's brigades formed his front line, and Taliaferro's and Starke's his second. Early's brigade of Ewell's division was formed on his left, to guard his flank, and Hays's brigade was formed in his rear. Stuart, with the cavalry, was still further to the left, near the Potomac. Lawton's and Trimble's brigades, of Ewell's division, were left to rest near the Dunker Church. Walker, also, early this day, crossed the Potomac on his return from Harper's Ferry, but he also seems to have rested till daylight the next morning, when he placed his two brigades on the extreme right of the Confederate position, about a mile and a half south of Sharpsburg, and in support to General Toombs, whose brigade was guarding the approach by the "Burnside Bridge." These were all the troops which Lee had with him all day on the 16th, for McLaws did not come on the ground till sunrise the next morning, Anderson's division followed him, and A. P. Hill did not arrive till half-past two P.M. Artillery seems to have been singularly plenty among the Confederates, for D. H. Hill, after stating that on the morning of the 17th he had but 3,000 infantry, proceeds as follows: "I had, however, twenty-six pieces of artillery of my own, and near sixty pieces of Cutts's battalion temporarily under my command." As twenty-six pieces is a liberal allowance for 9,000 infantry, this statement excites some surprise.
The ground occupied by the Confederates near the "Burnside Bridge" was favorable for their defence. It consisted of undulating hills, their crests commanded in turn by others in their rear. The bridge itself is a stone structure of three arches, with a stone parapet above. This parapet to some extent flanks the approach to the bridge at each end. The stream runs through a narrow valley. On the right bank (held by the Confederates), a steep slope comes very near the edge. In this slope the roadway is scarped, running both ways from the bridge, and passing to the higher land above by ascending through ravines. On the hill-side immediately above the bridge was a strong stone fence, running nearly parallel to the stream. The turns of the roadway were covered by rifle-pits and breastworks made of rails and stone. The slope was wooded to a considerable extent.
For some reason which has never been made public, the right division of the army, Burnside's command, was divided at Sharpsburg. Hooker's corps was made the extreme right of the army, and the other corps, the Ninth, now under Cox, with whom Burnside went, was made the extreme left. It was the understanding of the time at Burnside's headquarters that Hooker had in some way procured this separate duty, with a view to giving himself more importance. Burnside declined to assume personal command of the Ninth Corps when this separation took place, intimating that if he should so assume command, it would look like acquiescence on his part with the arrangement, and might tend to make it permanent. Thus Burnside's position became somewhat anomalous. It is possible that this division of his command may have been the commencement of the estrangement between him and McClellan, of the existence of which at a later date there is strong evidence.
General McClellan went to the left of his line himself, to see that the Ninth Corps was properly posted, his idea being that that force must be prepared both to resist an attack by the left bank of the stream, and to carry the bridge at the proper time. It is believed in some quarters(1) that Burnside was very slow in moving to the position assigned him, but McClellan simply says that he found it necessary to make considerable changes in his position, and that he directed him to advance to a strong position in the immediate vicinity of the bridge, and to carefully reconnoitre the approaches to the bridge.
By this time McClellan's plan for the battle seems to have taken definite shape in his mind. It was extremely simple, and ought to have been successful. It was in brief to attack the Confederate left with the corps of Hooker and Mansfield, supported by Sumner's, and if necessary by Franklin's, and, as soon as matters looked favorably there, to move the Ninth Corps against their extreme right, and whenever either of these movements should be successful, to advance
(1) It is even asserted that on coming up to the line formed at the Antietam, on the 15th, Burnside placed his command behind some of the troops already in position, instead of moving at once to the ground assigned to him on the left, and that he stayed there till a late hour, in spite of repeated orders to move; that again on the 16th he did not move to his assigned position till after the receipt of repeated urgent orders from McClellan. This is given for what it is worth. The success of our army was undoubtedly greatly lessened by jealousy, distrust, and general want of the entente cordiale.
his centre with all the force disposable. With what McClellan knew then, with all we know now, nearly twenty years after the battle, the plan seems to have been well suited to the position of affairs. There is no censure too strong for his delay, but, having determined or permitted himself to delay, he shaped his programme well enough.
But for the success of this as well as every other military enterprise, two things were important, if not indispensable--first, that he should not tell his opponent what he was going to do; and second, that he should do well the thing he proposed to do. Able commanders seek to delude their opponents. They use all the craft which they possess to induce the enemy to believe that the blow is to fall at some place other than the place which they have chosen. If possible, they lead the enemy to strengthen the point where the feigned attack is to be made, and to weaken the point where the real attack is to be made. Thus Marlborough carried the line of the Mehaigne at Ramillies. Thus Thomas deluded Hood at Nashville. Military history is full of such examples. But McClellan resorted to no such artifices; on the contrary, he informed Lee that he proposed to make his main attack with his right, and not only that, but almost certainly told him that he had greatly strengthened it for the purpose. With Maryland so full of Confederate sympathizers as it was, we cannot doubt that Lee knew by this time the general division of McClellan's army, and we can hardly doubt that he knew that he had departed from it to fight this battle. However this may have been, it seems undeniable that McClellan's dispositions on the 16th were exactly appropriate to a plan of battle which contemplated a main attack to be made by his left, strengthened by troops to be moved there under cover of the night, and that they were extremely inappropriate to the plan which he had formed and to which he adhered.
On the high ground in the centre of his position, between the Keedysville read on the left and Fry's house on the right, McClellan placed several batteries of long range guns. Standing among those guns, one could look down upon nearly the whole field of the coming battle, while the view was perhaps more complete from the high ground on the left of the road, where some of the Fifth Corps batteries were placed. From this point one could look to the right through the open space between the "East and West Woods." From the further bank of the stream in front, the land rose gently toward the ridge occupied by the Confederates, checkered with cleared fields and cornfields, and traversed by many fences. The famous "sunken road" was almost in front of the spectator looking west. It branched off from the northern side of the Keedysville pike, about half way from the river to Sharpsburg, and ran in broken lines to the Hagerstown pike, which it entered about half-way between Sharpsburg and the Dunker Church, but nearer the latter.
The conformation of the ground was such that these central Federal batteries could sweep almost the whole extent of the hostile front. Some of them had a direct fire through the space between the East and West Woods, and others of them could enfilade the refused left wing of the Confederate army.
About 2 P.M. McClellan ordered Hooker to cross the Antietam at the upper bridge and a ford near by, to attack and, if possible, turn the enemy's left. He also ordered Sumner to cross Mansfield's Twelfth Corps during the night, and to hold the Second in readiness to cross early the next morning. He seems to have devoted the rest of the day to examinations of the ground, finding fords, clearing approaches, and hastening the arrival of the ammunition and supply trains.
It is an ungrateful task to be always finding fault, but an important battle is to be described, and the reasons why its results were what they were, and only what they were, must be fully given. The perniciousness of the mistake which McClellan made in delaying his attack cannot be too strongly insisted upon. The reasons which he gives for his delay are entirely inadequate, and part of the use which he made of the time thus placed at his command was positively damaging. But having delayed his attack till the enemy was largely or completely concentrated, and having informed him, by the language of acts which it was difficult to misinterpret, where he meant to strike, it yet remained possible to strike with vigor and with concert. Instead of doing so, he issued such orders to his corps commanders on the right as made it impossible that they should act with concert early on the 17th, and improbable that they would act with concert at all. Under such orders, the attacks were far more likely to be successive than to be simultaneous.
On Tuesday the 16th, at 4 P.M., Hooker moved. He crossed the Antietam without opposition, at the points indicated. Circling around until he faced southward, he presently came upon the Confederate pickets. His troops were deployed at once, with Meade in the centre, Doubleday on his right, and Ricketts on the left. The attack, such as it was, fell upon Hood's two brigades, Meade's division of Federals being principally engaged. The advantage seems to have been slightly upon the side of the Federals, though each side claims to have forced back the other. Longstreet says "Hood drove him back, but not without severe loss," and Hood admits that he was relieved by Lawton, with two brigades, at the close of the fighting, though he claims that this was to enable his half-starved men to cook. The relieving brigades were those of Trimble, which formed up next to the division of D. H. Hill, and Lawton's, which took position on its left.
During the night Mansfield crossed the Twelfth Corps, following in the track of Hooker, and passed what was left of the night about a mile in rear of Hooker. The Federal and Confederate pickets on Hooker's front were exceedingly close together. Sumner's Second Corps, Burnside's Ninth Corps, and all of Porter's Fifth Corps that had arrived, remained in bivouac. Morell's division of the Fifth Corps arrived in the evening of the 16th. Franklin's Sixth Corps and Couch's division of the Fourth Corps were still at a distance, in the neighborhood of Crampton's Gap. Of the Confederate army, all the divisions were now in position excepting those of McLaws and Anderson, which, as has been said, arrived very early on the morning of the 17th, and A. P. Hill's, which arrived after noon of that day.
As the Federal and Confederate armies have now been brought face to face, it may be well to say what there is to be said about the strength of each army. The Confederates have always claimed that they fought this battle with such vastly inferior numbers that it deserved to be considered a glorious victory for them. Jackson's soldierly report of this battle contains no boastful assertions upon this point, and Early, contrary to his later habit, is equally temperate, but A. P. Hill declares that three brigades of his division, not numbering over two thousand men, with the help of his "splendid batteries," drove back Burnside's corps of 15,000 men. D. H. Hill, whose writing in his report is especially offensive, declares that he opened upon an "imposing force of Yankees" with five guns at twelve hundred yards distance, and routed them by artillery fire alone, unaided by musketry. He also declares that the battle was fought with less than thirty thousand men, and that if all their stragglers had been up, McClellan's army would have been completely crushed or annihilated. It is but fair to him to say that his compliments are not paid to his opponents alone. He declares that "thousands of thieving poltroons" had kept away from the battle on his side "from sheer cowardice." Hood declares that his "two little giant brigades" became engaged with "not less than two corps" of the Federal army, "wrestled with this mighty force," and drove it from its position and forced it to abandon its guns. McLaws considered the battle of Sharpsburg a very great success, regard being had to the "enormous disparity" between the opposing forces. D. R. Jones uses the same phrase of enormous disparity. Longstreet says that the Confederate forces seemed but a handful when compared with the hosts thrown against them, and permits himself the following assertion: "Before it was entirely dark, the hundred thousand men that had been threatening our destruction for twelve hours, had melted away into a few stragglers." Lee declares that this great battle was fought by less than forty thousand men on his side. Finally, Colonel Taylor, in his "Four Years with General Lee," makes Lee's entire strength at Sharpsburg 35,255.
Apropos of Southern statements as to the forces present on their side in the battles of the War of Secession, a New England man who had served in the Army of the Potomac said: "A few more years, a few more books, and it will appear that Lee and Longstreet, and a one-armed orderly, and a casual with a shot-gun, fought all the battles of the rebellion, and killed all the Union soldiers except those who ran away." The wit of this speech will be most enjoyed, and its point most clearly seen, by those who are familiar with Southern military writings, but it is no more than simple justice to Colonel Taylor to say, that in estimating the force of the Federal and Confederate troops present at Sharpsburg, he has gone to sources which he had a right to consider original, and that he has used his material fairly. His total of 35,255 Confederates was arrived at by using the official reports of the Maryland Campaign, published by authority of the Confederate Congress, and as these reports are for the most part dated within a very short time after the battle, they are entitled to the credit which attaches to evidence which is substantially contemporaneous. He next asserts that McClellan states in his official report that he had in action, at the battle of the Antietam, 87,164 of all arms, and this is true, though it was undoubtedly a careless utterance of McClellan. His comments, however, are unfair, and this must be put in a clear light. He says, for instance: "As a wall of adamant the 14,000 received the shock of the 40,000, and the latter, staggered by the blow, reeled and recoiled in great disorder." This he says in speaking of the fighting on the Confederate left, and then he says: "The disproportion in the centre and on our right was as great as, or even more decided than, on our left." And in summing up he says: "These 35,000 Confederates were the very flower of the Army of Northern Virginia, who, with indomitable courage and inflexible tenacity, wrestled for the mastery in the ratio of one to three of their adversaries." This is calculated to give not only an erroneous but a false impression. The battle was very creditable to the Confederates, but in no just sense, nor in any sense at all, could they be said to wrestle for the mastery in the ratio of one to three. So far is this from being true, that it is highly probable that all the wrestling that was done was done by nearly equal forces, and reasonably certain that there was not an hour, nor a quarter of an hour, when Lee's lines were simultaneously pressed by 15,000 Union soldiers. If this be shown, it will detract from the credit of the Federal commander, but it will dispose of the extravagant claims made for the Confederate soldiers.
Colonel Taylor says explicitly: "Every man was engaged. We had no reserve." The first thing to be done, therefore, is to test the accuracy of his estimate of the Confederate strength. Without undertaking to reject the statements of other Confederate commanders as to their strength, we cannot accept D. R. Jones's statement, which Colonel Taylor adopts, that "on that morning (September 17th), my entire command of six brigades comprised only two thousand four hundred and thirty men." There were twenty-seven regiments in these brigades, they had been on the ground since the morning of the 15th, and so their stragglers had had plenty of time to come up, and were sure to have done so, as the Federal army had been following them all the way from Turner's Gap. General Jones himself says that two of his regiments, the Second and Twentieth Georgia, numbered 403 men. Therefore he must be understood as asserting that twenty-five regiments numbered only 2,027, or about 81 men each. The summer had been a hard one for the Army of Northern Virginia, it is true, but the Confederate brigades, which General Johnston said averaged 2,500 before Seven Pines, could not have been so nearly annihilated as this would indicate, especially when it is remembered that a very large part of the men who were wounded at Seven Pines on the 31st of May and 1st of June, and in the Seven Days at the end of June, had had time to recover and to rejoin their colors. Moreover, the other Confederate brigades, thirty-three in number, present on the 17th September, averaged over 700 men, without counting their artillery. We conclude, therefore, that D. R. Jones's estimate of his force is at least 2,000 too low.
It is further to be remarked that it is highly probable that Colonel Taylor's figures do not include all the officers present. Thus D. H. Hill speaks of having, by reason of straggling, but 3,000 infantry. As officers are not wont to straggle, infantry probably means muskets. Rodes speaks of having less than eight hundred effective men. This language, again, is more appropriate to musket-bearers than to a total of officers and men. McLaws reports the number of men in his four brigades, and of the officers in three, but says that the number of officers in Cobb's brigade was not known. D. R. Jones says that his entire command of six brigades comprised only 2,430 men. McLaws's report shows that in three of his brigades the officers numbered over eleven per cent. of the men. If we suppose that not all, but half of the Confederate officers, in reporting their totals, gave the number of muskets only, and add eleven per cent. for officers to half their infantry as given by Colonel Taylor, it will add 1,500 to their total present in the battle. Moreover, the report of the officer commanding the Hampton Legion of Wofford's brigade, at the Antietam, shows that he does not include in his total present, "skirmishers, scouts, cooks, and men barefooted, unfit for duty." If skirmishers and scouts alone were habitually omitted, this would make a great difference, as the Confederates were accustomed to use skirmishers very freely.
Finally, many of the reports contain such phrases as so many "at the beginning of the fight," "on the morning of the 17th," "when we went into action." It is probable that this means that their numbers were increased during the action by the arrival of gallant men who had been delayed by fatigue or by being footsore, but who got into the fight as soon as they could. This would be likely to be the case with many of the commands, but particularly with those which arrived on the very day of the battle. Taking all these things into consideration, it seems to be fair to conclude that Lee's total at the battle of the Antietam was not less than forty thousand men, which is certainly not a large total for thirty-nine brigades of infantry and 8,000 cavalry and artillery. It gives a little over eight hundred officers and men to an infantry brigade, and the infantry brigades seem to have averaged something over four regiments to a brigade. One or two had only three, but many had five. Those who believe that the Confederate officers habitually and designedly understated their forces, will think 40,000 a low estimate,(1) but it is offered for the acceptance of those who are contented to accept the result of the best evidence accessible, with entire confidence that it is not too high.(2)
(1) Estimate of chief clerk in office of the Adjutant-General of the Army of Northern Virginia, made from recollection, in 1865: Sharpsburg, total effective of all arms, 41,500. Taylor's Four Years, etc., p. 158. Field Return of Army of Northern Virginia, September 22, 1862. Present for duty, 36,187. Ib., p. 165. This return seems to include no cavalry or artillery, and of course excluded the loss at Sharpsburg, and included such stragglers as may have come up.
(2) At about 10 A.M. of the 17th, the writer, having just received a severe wound from a canister shot fired by one of Stuart's batteries, fell into the hands of Colonel (now Senator) Ransom, then commanding the Thirty-fifth North Carolina Regiment of R. Ransom's brigade. As he was taken to the Confederate rear, he saw a small body of men marching by the flank, and carrying four battle flags, he inquired whether it was the custom in the Confederate army for a regiment to carry more than one set of colors, and was informed that the body of men was a brigade. It is to be remarked, however, that most of the sharp fighting on that part of the ground had then been done, and that the brigade he then saw may well have been two or three times as large three or four hours before.
The next thing to be considered is the number of the Federal troops which the Confederates encountered. It must be carefully borne in mind that this is the precise question. No matter how many men McClellan had, we are to determine how many men he used. The credit of Lee may be increased, and the credit of McClellan diminished, by proving that there were on either side of the Antietam, on September 17th, two Federal soldiers to one Confederate, but the question under discussion is different. It is whether "the Army of Northern Virginia" "wrestled for the mastery in the ratio of one to three." Fortunately for the patience of those who are intolerant of statistics, the answer is simple and the proof is easy. The answer is that the Army of Northern Virginia did nothing of the kind. It wrestled gallantly, but it did not wrestle in the ratio of one to three, or anything like it. The proof is taken from McClellan's Report. He says:
Our own forces at the battle of Antietam were as follows:
First Corps 14,856
Second " 18,813
Fifth " (one division not arrived) 12,939
Sixth " 12,300
Ninth " 13,819
Twelfth " 10,126
Cavalry Division 4,320
Total in action 87,164
This assertion of McClellan's was most unfortunate in form, and most untrue in spirit. It only meant that the morning reports of the several corps showed so many men present for duty, and left entirely untouched the vital questions:
First.--How many officers and men were with the colors that day?
Second.--How many officers and men really engaged the enemy?
It is probable that no one who did not actually see service with the Army of the Potomac in 1862 can be brought to believe how enormous was the difference between the "present for duty" of the morning report and the number of actual effectives, whether for drill, dress parade, or battle. The conduct of military affairs was incredibly extravagant in the matter of the use of men who were supposed to be bearing arms. The details for the Quartermaster and Commissary departments were lavish in the extreme, and also for field hospital duty, and what with the added details for headquarter guards and orderlies, for wagoners and company cooks, for officers' servants and pioneers, the number of men which a colonel could take into action was vastly below what his morning report would indicate. Different officers will estimate the proportion differently, no doubt, and probably the varying character of superior officers made the evil greater or less in the various commands; but in well-disciplined regiments in good divisions, commanders were fortunate who could take into action four-fifths of the "present for duty" of the morning report. It is probable that this statement will be considered quite within the truth by most officers who served in the Army of the Potomac in 1862. It was discreditable. It showed poor discipline to some extent, and poor management to a greater, but the fact existed. If one-fifth and no more be taken from McClellan's total, it will reduce it below seventy thousand men. But as it is not probable that assertions of this character will be accepted by the Southern men who are supporters of the one-to-three thesis, it is sufficient to make them and to leave them. They will be accepted by those who know.
Colonel Taylor says: "Every man was engaged. We had no reserve." Again he says: "With consummate skill were they manúuvred and shifted from point to point, as different parts of the line of battle were in turn assailed with greatest impetuosity." This is all true, and there is but one word for the Confederate losses--they were awful. But the question for discussion is, how many Federal soldiers were engaged against them? No matter how many men were looking on, nor even how many were in the fringes of the engagement, the question is how many Federals were wrestling with these thirty-five or forty thousand Confederates?
The Federal troops which really fought at the battle of the Antietam were the First, Second, Ninth, and Twelfth Corps. This is proved by the statement of losses. These corps lost over twenty per cent. of their numbers, as given by McClellan, while the Fifth and Sixth Corps and the cavalry division, numbering, according to McClellan, 29,550 men, lost only 596, or almost precisely two per cent.; in other words, they were hardly used at all. If due allowance be made for the almost total absence from the actual fighting of nearly all these commands, and any allowance be made for the notorious difference in McClellan's army between morning report totals and effectives in action, it will appear that the Federals engaged cannot have outnumbered the Confederates in more than the proportion of three to two, and probably did not outnumber them so much. This is by no means large odds, when the attacking force has to deal with a force occupying a strong defensive position, as the Confederates confessedly did, and one where the ground was admirably adapted for the safe and secret and rapid transfer of their troops from a less pressed to a more pressed portion of their line. Whatever difference there may be about details, however severe may be the condemnation of McClellan for not fighting his army more thoroughly as well as more simultaneously, no candid person can examine the figures without coming to the conclusion that the one-to-three theory is purely visionary, and that the disproportion fell below two to three.
This page last updated 12/17/03
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