The Battle of Antietam: Was it a Turning Point in the War?

In September of 1862, Robert E. Lee was fresh from hammering Union Armies across the Virginia peninsula and northern Virginia. For Lee and the Confederacy, a bold move was needed. A win on northern soil could affect how the British perceive the South. And in turn, the South could receive recognition and aid, and even intervention from Britain and other nations in Europe. So, an advance in to the North was approved. Lee and his cadre of Generals thought they would be welcomed as heroes in Maryland, a slave state that remained in the Union. They were jeered in every town. Nothing about Lee’s invasion went as planned. The result marked a turning point in the war, but not a military one.

The Battle of Antietam was the single bloodiest day in American history. 23,000 men were killed or wounded on that day. The fact that Lee was able to survive and the Army of Northern Virginia lived to fight another day made Lincoln livid. In what should have been a Union rout, Lee managed against all odds. Everything about this battle pointed to the Union routing the Confederates.

When Lee crossed into Maryland in September of 1862, he was leaving every advantage the South had used to defeat the Union up to this point in the eastern theater. No longer did he have homefield advantage, knowledge of local resources, and most importantly, the support of the local population. Lee said,

“The present seems to be the most propitious time since the commencement of the war for the Confederate army to enter Maryland.”

Even Confederate President Jefferson Davis approved the invasion when he said,

“…we are driven to protect our own country by transferring the seat of war to that of an enemy who pursues us with a relentless and apparently aimless hostility.”

Once Lee crossed into Frederick, Maryland, Lee split his army into 4 parts. He sent his plan, Special Order 191, to his generals. Not every General on the Confederate side got this message. Wrapped with cigars, one set fell into Union hands, found by a Union soldier on the side of the road. The orders read,

Special Order 191
September 9, 1862.
I. The citizens of Fredericktown being unwilling, while overrun by members of his army, to open their stores, in order to give them confidence, and to secure to officers and men purchasing supplies for benefit of this command, all officers and men of this army are strictly prohibited from visiting Fredericktown except on business, in which case they will bear evidence of this in writing from division commanders. The provost-marshal in Fredericktown will see that his guard rigidly enforces this order.

II. Major Taylor will proceed to Leesburg, Va., and arrange for transportation of the sick and those unable to walk to Winchester, securing the transportation of the country for this purpose. The route between this and Culpeper Court-House east of the mountains being unsafe will no longer be traveled. Those on the way to this army already across the river will move up promptly; all others will proceed to Winchester collectively and under command of officers, at which point, being the general depot of this army, its movements will be known and instructions given by commanding officer regulating further movements.

III. The army will resume its march tomorrow, taking the Hagerstown road. General Jackson’s command will form the advance, and, after passing Middletown, with such portion as he may select, take the route toward Sharpsburg, cross the Potomac at the most convenient point, and by Friday morning take possession of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, capture such of them as may be at Martinsburg, and intercept such as may attempt to escape from Harper’s Ferry.

IV. General Longstreet’s command will pursue the main road as far as Boonsborough, where it will halt, with reserve, supply, and baggage trains of the army.

V. General McLaws, with his own division and that of General R. H. Anderson, will follow General Longstreet. On reaching Middletown will take the route to Harper’s Ferry, and by Friday morning possess himself of the Maryland Heights and endeavor to capture the enemy at Harper’s Ferry and vicinity.

VI. General Walker, with his division, after accomplishing the object in which he is now engaged, will cross the Potomac at Cheek’s Ford, ascend its right bank to Lovettsville, take possession of Loudoun Heights, if practicable, by Friday morning, Keys’ Ford on his left, and the road between the end of the mountain and the Potomac on his right. He will, as far as practicable, co-operate with Generals McLaws and Jackson, and intercept retreat of the enemy.

VII. General D. H. Hill’s division will form the rear guard of the army, pursuing the road taken by the main body. The reserve artillery, ordnance, and supply trains, &c., will precede General Hill.

VIII. General Stuart will detach a squadron of cavalry to accompany the commands of Generals Longstreet, Jackson, and McLaws, and, with the main body of the cavalry, will cover the route of the army, bringing up all stragglers that may have been left behind.

IX. The commands of Generals Jackson, McLaws, and Walker, after accomplishing the objects for which they have been detached, will join the main body of the army at Boonsborough or Hagerstown.

X. Each regiment on the march will habitually carry its axes in the regimental ordnance wagons, for use of the men at their encampments, to procure wood, & c.

By command of General R. E. Lee:

Assistant Adjutant-General.

R. E. LEE, General.

The orders made it to the head of the Army of the Potomac, George McClellan. Never in the history of warfare had a General ever had full knowledge of not only the battle plans of the opposition, but also the movements and positions of said opponent. For the Union, victory looked imminent. McClellan could crush Lee’s army piecemeal and end the nemesis Lee. A defeat of Lee’s Army was not going to be enough, McClellan had to destroy the Army of Northern Virginia’s ability to fight another day. On September 15th, 1862, President Lincoln sent the following message to McClellan: “God bless you and all with you. Destroy the rebel army if possible.” It should have been possible thanks to Special Order 191.

But this was George B. McClellan, the Union General who fancied himself as another Napoleon. McClellan said of the orders,

“Here is a paper with which, if I cannot whip Bobby Lee, I will be willing to go home […] If we defeat the army arrayed before us, the rebellion is crushed, for I do not believe they can organize another army. But if we should be so unfortunate as to meet with defeat, our country is at their mercy.”

It never happened. He hemmed and hawed that September. McClellan would attack Lee, but he could have destroyed him had he acted earlier. Two complete days went by before he attacked. Those two days allowed Lee to reinforce his positions.

The morning of September 17th began like previous skirmishes that had happened in the days before. But it would not end the same. In a cornfield on the Miller farm outside of Sharpsburg, Maryland near Antietam Creek, the battle began. It would end twelve hours later. The names of the places have been etched into lore: The Sunken Road, Burnside’s Bridge, and The Bloody Lane. McClellan and the 75,000 strong Union army slowly attacked Lee’s 38,000 man Army of Northern Virginia. For three hours, the battle raged on in the cornfield near the Miller farm. Finally, the overwhelming number of Union troops finally took the field.

Fighting shifted to the Sunken Road in the late morning. Still the Union soldier kept coming, wave after wave. McClellan, while initially slow to attack, had his generals, Burnside, Hooker, and Masnfield, keep attacking in what appeared to be an uncoordinated attack. The Sunken Road became a slaughter as the Confederates had no defense. Their line wilted. The Union had broken through. A destruction of the Confederates was imminent. McClellan did not attack. Even though he had General Fitz John Porter left in reserve, McClellan called off the attack.

That afternoon saw Lee regroup. Union General Burnside’s attack on the bridge, later renamed after him, was critical to the fight. Burnside felt it was imperative to take the bridge over the creek. His soldiers could have waded across the creek. There was no need to waste so many lives to take the stone bridge. In the end, Burnside took the bridge and the remnant’s of Lee’s army lay before Burnside. The destruction was close at hand. If not for the arrival of A.P. Hill from Harper’s Ferry, Burnside could have wiped the Army of Northern Virginia out of history. Hill slammed into General Burnside’s flank and ended the Union assault.

The fighting ended around 7 p.m. 23,000 lay dead or wounded, the single bloodiest day in America. The day ended in a draw thanks to AP Hill, but not to McClellan. Lincoln was furious. Lee crept back into Virginia in the coming days with no pursuit. McClellan thought Lee was still going to attack.

A.P. Hill

The handwritten Emancipation Proclamation

Lincoln while furious at McClellan, used the retreat as a victory to issue the Emancipation Proclamation on September 22, 1862. This changed the aims of the war from about preserving the Union for Lincoln; it was now about something else. If the Union took over territory in the South, those slaves would be freed. However, if any southern states rejoined the Union before January 1, 1863, they could keep their slaves. None did. This war was nowgoing to be what Lincoln would later call a “new birth of freedom.”

As for McClellan, his refusal to go after Lee ended his career as leader of the Army of the Potomac. Lincoln fired him. Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia lived to fight another day and would invade the North again the next summer. McClellan’s inability to engage a weakened Lee allowed the escape and for Lee to heal his army. Thus, the war dragged on in the eastern theater for two and half more years.

That October of 1862, in New York City, Mathew Brady put on display Alexander Gardner’s photographs of Antietam. Never before had Americans seen a war and its devastation so close. The photographs shocked the nation.


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