The Battle of Antietam
According to Shotgun
There have been literally dozens of books written about the battle of Antietam. Some good, some not so good, all interesting. While there is no shortage of material on this battle, it is nonetheless an extremely difficult battle to understand. This is an attempt to simplify the story as much as possible for those that may be new to the Civil War and is by no means meant to give the entire details of the battle.
After defeating Pope's Army of Virginia in late August '62, at the 2nd Battle of Manassas, Lee had a decision to make. What to do next. Did he pull back into a defensive position and await Lincoln's next move, or did he dare think of something bolder? Since the opening guns at Fort Sumter in April of '61 most of the war in the East had been fought on Virginia soil. The land and the people needed a break. But how did he give it to them? He knew that to fight a strictly defensive war would, sooner or later, mean the end of his army. He could not match the Union forces gun for gun, now, or at anytime in the future. He must draw the enemy onto a field of his choosing and defeat them if possible. It was then he devised his plan for his first foray into northern territory. There would be two such invasions by the Confederates. This one, known in history as the Maryland Campaign, and the other as the Gettysburg Campaign which would occur less than a year later. Lee consulted with Davis (the President of the Confederacy) about his plan, then, making no attempts to hide his army, moved north across the Potomac into Maryland.
On September 8, 1862 Lee had his Army of Northern Virginia concentrated in and around the city of Frederick, Maryland. In accordance with Davis's instructions prior to moving across the Potomac, Lee issued a proclamation to the people of Maryland stating what his objectives were. The following is the last part of that proclamation:
"....This, citizens of Maryland, is our mission, so far as you are concerned. No constraint upon your free will is intended; no intimidation will be allowed within the limits of this army at least. Marylanders shall once more enjoy their ancient freedom of thought and speech. We know no enemies among you, and will protect all, of every opinion. It is for you to decide your destiny freely and without constraint. This army will respect your choice, whatever it may be; and while the Southern people will rejoice to welcome you to your natural position among them, they will only welcome you when you come of your own free will."
However, the citizens in this part of Maryland were pro Union and more closely aligned with the people of Pennsylvania to the North than they were with the Virginians to the South. However things being as they were, Lee could not long worry himself with political matters.
McClellan, again in charge of the Union forces, had gathered an army of about 90,000 and, with his right anchored on the B&O railroad and his left on the Potomac, began moving his forces toward the Monocracy where he is told Lee's army is. Lee, on the other hand, has no intention of fighting in his present location. He wants to draw the Union army further from its base and at the same time threaten Pennsylvania. It was with this in mind that he published his Special Orders (S. O.) No. 191 on September 9, 1862. This shows that Hagerstown, across the Blue Ridge (called South Mountain in that area), is his immediate destination. Additionally, it is with this order that he splits his army once again and sends Jackson to capture Harpers Ferry. Most think that Chancellorsville was the first time that Lee split his army. Not exactly true. As one can readily see, by studying the battle at 2nd Manassas, and now again with the Maryland Campaign, Lee had no problem at all in splitting his forces if the situation dictated it. By the time of Chancellorsville, in May of '63, it had become old hat to him.
On the 9th, Lee held his council of war with Longstreet and Jackson, the commanders of the two wings of his army, and issued S. O. 191. This dictated that Jackson leave early on the morning of 10th via the National Highway. The National Highway (present day Route 40) plays a major role in the coming days, for it is this highway that passes through Turner's Gap on South Mountain. There D. H. Hill and his little division will make a gallant stand to hold off McClellan's army while Lee reassembles his army along the Antietam. This will result in what has become know as the Battle of South Mountain. Anyway, Jackson is to proceed up the highway, veering off and ultimately wind up at Harpers Ferry and capture the garrison there. Longstreet will follow taking his corps (half the army) toward Hagerstown.
To put everything in perspective one needs to back up a few months. In the summer of '61 Irvin McDowell had been soundly defeated at 1st Bull Run and George McClellan was brought in to reorganize the Union army and lift its sagging spirits. Then the army, under McClellan, was sent to the Virginia Peninsula and were virtually at the gates of Richmond when Joe Johnston, commanding the Confederate troops, was wounded and Robert E. Lee took over the Confederate army in the field. After Lee took over things did not go very well for McClellan. After the Seven Days Battles Lincoln, despite protests from McClellan, decided to withdraw the army from the peninsula. In the meantime he (Lincoln) had brought in a Western general, John Pope, to command his newly formed Army of Virginia. Pope, as we all know was thoroughly defeated at 2nd Manassas by Lee a short time later. Now Pope was gone and McClellan was again in charge. As the word spread, the cry went up from the thoroughly demoralized Union army "Mac's Back! Mac's Back!!" Their savior had at last been returned to them. Now they would show the upstart Bobby Lee! So here we are, in less than 90 days Lee has driven one army from the gates of Richmond and off the Peninsula, defeated another army, and is preparing to face still another. It was indeed a heck of a war!
Lee left Frederick on the morning of the 10th with Jackson in the lead with orders to proceed to Harpers Ferry, invest and seize the garrison there. Longstreet, with his wing of the army, followed close behind with orders to proceed to Hagerstown. By September 13, 1862 the first part of Lee's plan is complete. Jackson has Harpers Ferry sealed off and has begun his bombardment. However, there is a glitch in Lee's overall operation which will be explained later. As Lee crossed South Mountain on the 10th he learned that Hagerstown was being threaten by a Union force and placed Longstreet there on the evening of 11th. D. H. Hill, bringing up the rear, has crossed South Mountain and is now encamped at Boonsboro with his rear guard holding the pass at Turner's Gap on South Mountain. Lee is somewhat concerned with the speed at which McClellan's forces are moving and in the condition of his own army. He writes to Davis on the 13th stating, "Our ranks are very much diminished--I fear from a third to one-half of the original numbers." The original number with which he began the campaign was about 70,000. Lee would fight the Battle of Antietam on the 17th with somewhere around 40,000 effectives.
In the meantime, McClellan's Army of the Potomac reached Frederick and finds a copy of Lee's S.O. No. 191 on the 13th. This is the glitch that I alluded to earlier. He now knows the disposition of Lee's army and how badly it is split. This is an excellent opportunity for him to close fast and destroy Lee's army piecemeal. He writes to Lincoln that he now knows the whereabouts of Lee's army and states he will pursue and destroy them. The reasons why he did not is speculation even today. Could it have been he feared a trap as Halleck had warned? Could it be that he was listening to faulty intelligence and thought Lee had an army of at least 100,000 - 120,000. Who knows!
Now the stage is set for the opening guns of Antietam, the "Battle of South Mountain," beginning on the morning of September 14th, 1862. D. H. Hill probably described it best in an article written after the war.
".....The battle of South Mountain was one of extraordinary illusions and delusions. The Federals were under the self-imposed illusion that there was a very large force opposed to them, whereas there was only one weak division until late in the afternoon. They might have brushed it aside almost without halting, but for this illusion. It was a battle of delusions also, for, by moving about from point to point and meeting the foe wherever he presented himself, the Confederates deluded the Federals into the belief that the whole mountain was swarming with rebels...."
While this writing does not even attempt to give the details of the battle, it does try to give the reader a flavor for it. D. H. Hill had been bringing up the rear of Longstreet's Corps and was encamped at Boonesboro on the 13th. About midday on the 13th Stuart asked for help to defend Turner's Gap and Hill sent him the brigades of Colquitt and Garland. As the evening progressed on the 13th, Lee became more uneasy with the position of his army. Around midnight he ordered D. H. Hill to retrace his steps and defend the passes on the Eastern slope of the mountain with his division of 5,000. He also orders Longstreet back to help. While both comply, Longstreet will not arrive until around 3 o'clock on the afternoon of the 14th. Hill arrived, with the remainder of his division, at Turner's Gap between daylight and sunrise on the 14th. He found Stuart had gone to Crampton's Gap and Garland's brigade was at the Mountain House (at Turner's Gap) and Colquitt's was at the foot of the mountain on the Eastern side.
On the morning of September 14, 1862, a pivotal battle in the campaign is about to occur. The Yanks called it the "Battle of South Mountain" while the Rebs referred to it as the "Battle of Boonesboro". Call it by any name, it was still a key moment.
I think this description by D. H. Hill of what he saw when he arrived at Turner's Gap says it all.
".... I had seen from the lookout station near the Mountain House the vast army of McClellan spread out before me. The marching columns extended back far as eye could see in the distance; but many of the troops had already arrived and were in double lines of battle, and those advancing were taking up positions as fast as they arrived. It was a grand and glorious spectacle, and it was impossible to look at it without admiration. I had never seen so tremendous an army before, and I did not see one like it afterward. For though we confronted greater forces at Yorktown, Sharpsburg, Fredericksburg, and about Richmond under Grant, these were only partly seen, at most a corps at a time. But here four corps were in full view, one of which was on the mountain and almost within rifle-range. The sight inspired more satisfaction than discomfort; for though I knew that my little force could be brushed away as readily as the strong man can brush to one side the wasp or the hornet, I felt that General McClellan had made a mistake, and I hoped to be able to delay him until General Longstreet could come up and our trains could be extricated from their perilous position."
Instead of going into the fine details of the action on the mountain the "Editor's Notes" from "Battles and Leaders" are used to describe the action.
"....The fights of September 14th were so distinct as to time and place, and the positions of the troops were so often changed. that any single map would be misleading without analysis: (1) The early morning fight was mostly on the south side of Fox's Gap, between Cox's two Union brigades and Garland's brigade, the latter being assisted on its left by a part of Colquitt's brigade which was at Turner's Gap. By 10 o'clock Garland had been killed and his brigade routed. (2) Then Cox encountered G. B. Anderson's arriving brigade, repulsed it. and fell back to his position in the morning. (3) G. B. Anderson was then posted at Fox's Gap on both sides of the old Sharpsburg road. D. H. Hill's two other brigades came up toward noon, Ripley being joined to G. B. Anderson, and Rodes being sent to occupy a hill on the north side of Turner's Gap, near where Garnett is placed. (4) About 2 o'clock, on the Union side, Cox's division was reenforced by the arriving divisions of Willcox, Sturgis, and Rodman: and Hooker's corps of three divisions was moving north of the National road by way of Mount Tabor Church (Hooker's headquarters) to flank the Confederate left. About the same time D. H. Hill's brigades at Fox's Gap were reenforced by Longstreet's brigades of G. T. Anderson, Drayton, Law, and Hood: and north of Turner's Gap three of Rodes's four regiments were sent still farther to the left. The defense was afterward strengthened by the posting of Longstreet's brigades of Garnett and Kemper supported by Jenkins, on the hill first held by Rodes. Evans's brigade arrived later, and was of assistance to Rodes when the latter had been thrown back by Meade's flank movement. (5) The last severe engagements began at both gaps after 3 o'clock and lasted until after dark. Colquitt and Gibbon, in the center, joined desperately in the battle...."
Thus ended the battle of South Mountain. Although the Union forces now controlled the mountain, the Confederates had accomplished what they set out to do, buy time for Lee to start concentrating his army along the Antietam. The sad part about this whole day is that two fine generals were killed. Garland on the Confederate side and Reno on the Union side. The loss of Reno would have grave consequences in the battle along the Antietam coming on the 17th. Who knows what might have happened had it been Reno in charge of 9th Corps at the "Lower Bridge" on the Antietam instead of Burnside.
In the early morning hours of September 17, 1862, both armies were prepared for battle. Jackson and most of his force had arrived on the afternoon of the 16th and were now in the battle line. Hooker had crossed the Antietam on the afternoon of the 16th to face Jackson on the left of the Confederate line. Mansfield crossed during the evening and bivouacked about a mile and a half behind Hooker. The alignment of the armies at daybreak was, on the Confederate side, Jackson on the left and Longstreet on the right. It was good ground to fight on. Lee has chosen well. He occupied the high ground known as the Sharpsburg ridge, and because of a bend in the Potomac had his left flank firmly anchored on the river and his right flank anchored on the Antietam. He was ready. On the Union side Hooker and Mansfield were on the right, Sumner in the middle, and Burnside on the left, with Porter in reserve. McClellan was ready. As soon as it was daylight, both sides opened with artillery. About 6 a.m. Hooker begins his 1st Corps attack but is soon bogged down by artillery manned, in part, by the "Gallant Pelham" (Stuart's "boy" artillerist) on Nicodemus Hill, a high position on the far left of Jackson. However, because they were so exposed, they were driven off.
Hooker's attack soon continues through the "Cornfield" and are repulsed by the confederates. Mansfield brings his 12th corps up about 7 a.m. but he too is repulsed. Hooker now is wounded and Mansfield is killed. The command of the Union forces of this part of the field devolves to Meade.
The fighting is fierce back and forth through the "Cornfield" with neither side gaining an advantage. When it started, the field, a full thirty acres, was filled with corn higher than a man's head. When it was over, it was stubble and filled with dead and wounded from both sides. It was said that a man could walk from one end to the other and never touch the ground.
As the battle continued, Sumner moved his 2nd corps across the Antietam with the divisions of Sedgwick and French, with orders for Richardson's division to follow. Sumner, instead of remaining in control of his corps, decides to lead Sedgwick's division himself toward the area of the West Woods near the Dunkard Church. Sumner approached the West Woods with Sedgwick's division where unbeknownst to him, McLaws (Confederate) had arrived on the field and was moving his division from South to North in the "swales" leading to the West Woods. As Sumner approached, McLaws slammed into his left flank and completely decimated Sedgwick's division. It was a terrific fight with the Confederates just overwhelming the Union forces. By 10 o'clock the major fighting on the extreme left of the Confederate line was over and there were two generals dead, Starke on the Confederate side and Mansfield on the Union side.
French , whose division was supposed to support Sedgwick's left as soon as he crossed the Antietam, veered a little South (his left) to a position that put his division in front of Confederates in the Sunken Road (about the center of Lee's line). This was one of the biggest blunders of the battle. It is speculated that when the division emerged from the woods along the creek, they could see part of Greene's Division, belonging to Mansfield's XII corps, occupying the knoll on which the Visitor's center now sits and thought they were the left of Sedgwick's line and moved to support them as ordered. It was this move put them in front of the Confederates. In the meantime, Richardson's division had crossed the Antietam and hearing the fighting at the sunken road, thinking it must be French supporting Sedgwick, formed on the left of French. After several bloody attempts the Confederates were finally pushed out of the sunken road, but at the cost of two more generals lives. Anderson on the Confederate side and Richardson on the Union side. Because of the terrible cost in casualties during this action, this part of the battlefield will be forever known as the "Bloody Lane".
Almost at the same time as the "bloody lane" was occurring, the action started at the lower bridge. The lower bridge represented the far right of Lee's line. Burnside with the 9th Corps had received orders to "carry" the bridge. However this was not going to be an easy task as he would soon find out. Toombs' "Georgians" , led by Col. Henry Benning, through only about 500-550 strong, were firmly entrenched in natural firing pits on the high ground on the other side of the bridge. While this action started about 10 o'clock, it would be 1 o'clock before the "Georgians" finally gave ground and the bridge was "carried". Now here is another strange occurrence. Burnside, once the bridge was carried, halted his advance and took time to rearm and feed his troops. It was not to be until around 3 o'clock that he would begin his advance again. As the 9th Corps slowly fought the retreating Confederates and were about to turn their flank, A. P. Hill showed up from Harpers Ferry with his Light Division and slammed into the left flank of Burnside's line, and stopping the Union advance in its tracks. The fighting in this area would continue until dark, with the loss of two more generals. Branch on the Confederate side, and Rodman on the Union side.
As darkness fell across the battlefield, the fighting ceased. Though the lines had not significantly changed, there were over 23,000 casualties. The single bloodiest day of the war was over. Instead, of slipping out under cover of darkness, Lee elected to hold his position and await battle the next day. McClellan, instead of calling up his reserve corps (Porter) and crushing Lee's army on the 18th, elected to sit out the day waiting on more reserves. This is why many call this battle a draw rather than a Union victory. When the battle was not resumed on the 18th, Lee began moving his army out that evening, and slipped back across the Potomac. The Maryland Campaign was over.
Although the battle, according to many, was a "tactical" drawn, it was a "strategic" victory for the Union. This single battle, as no other, would change the course of the war. On September 22, 1862, Lincoln, because of a perceived victory at Antietam, issued the draft of the Emancipation Proclamation. While this document, in and of itself, did not free a single slave, it would have far reaching effects. It quieted the very vocal "abolitionists" in the North and it stopped Great Britain and France from entering the war on the side of the Confederacy. No country could support a "slave holding" country in a war against a country whose now avowed purpose was to free those slaves. The Confederacy was doomed to fight on alone after this battle. Finally, an unintended side effect of the Proclamation was to open to the ranks of the Union forces to the Black Soldier. This would prove to be of enormous benefit for the Union as the war dragged on and manpower became increasingly scarce for both sides.
In summary, as a direct result of this battle, the war was suddenly not only a war to save the Union, but was also now a crusade to free the slaves.
This page last updated 09/18/05