- The Washington Times - Friday, September 15, 2006

The Battle of Antietam, fought near Sharpsburg, Md., on Sept. 17, 1862, was the bloodiest day in American history.

Eleven hours of the most savage fighting that has ever occurred on U.S. soil resulted in more than 23,000 casualties, including more than 3,500 dead.

Most of the carnage took place in a relatively small area located between the Hagerstown Pike, a small church and a small wooded area to the west; two parcels of woods and a cornfield to the north and east; and a long, sunken road to the south. A recent trip to the site of the battle, well-preserved by the National Park Service, helped explain the course of the battle on that fateful day.

Four objectives

The genesis of the battle was Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee’s decision to capitalize on the momentum gained from his recent victory over the Army of the Potomac at Second Manassas (also known as Second Bull Run) by invading Union territory.

Lee and Confederate President Jefferson Davis hoped that a successful invasion of the North would accomplish several objectives.

First, invading the North might bring Maryland, or at least more Marylanders, to the side of the Confederacy.

Second, Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia could gain needed supplies in Maryland and Pennsylvania.

Third, by crossing the Potomac River, Lee could threaten Washington, Baltimore and Philadelphia, thereby relieving pressure on Confederate territory, including the capital, Richmond, which earlier in the year had been the object of Union designs during the Seven Days Battles.

Fourth, Lee and Davis believed that a Confederate victory in the North could persuade Britain and France to formally recognize and, perhaps, provide assistance to the Confederacy.

The lost orders

In early September 1862, Lee’s army of 35,000 to 40,000 troops crossed the Potomac and established camp in Frederick, Md. It was there, on Sept. 9, 1862, that Lee issued Special Orders 191, which directed his subordinate commanders to split the Army of Northern Virginia into four parts, one of which would attempt to guard the gaps in South Mountain to the east and three of which would converge on the Union garrison and arsenal at Harpers Ferry.

This was a bold but very risky move — to divide the Confederate army when it was being chased by a Union army more than twice its size. Part of Lee’s genius as a commander was his audacity, and another aspect of that genius was his ability to accurately assess the skill and approach of his opposing commanders — in this instance, the exceedingly hesitant George B. McClellan, who had been returned to command after the Union’s stunning loss at Second Manassas. Lee believed he would have time to divide his army, capture Harpers Ferry and reunite the army before McClellan would attack.

On Sept. 13, after Lee’s divided army left Frederick, a Union soldier discovered a copy of Special Orders 191 on the ground, inside an envelope, wrapped around three cigars. It was forwarded to McClellan, who grasped its significance but waited more than 18 hours before moving to take advantage of this precious information.

During that fateful delay, Lee learned that a copy of his directive had fallen into Union hands, and he immediately ordered his army to reunite near the town of Sharpsburg.

In the meantime, Union forces had penetrated three gaps in what is known as the Battle of South Mountain, and Confederate forces under Stonewall Jackson had captured Harpers Ferry, forcing the surrender of more than 12,000 Union troops, the largest surrender of United States forces until Bataan and Corregidor in World War II.

The cornfield

Lee’s army reached Sharpsburg first and established a defensive position running north to south on high ground east of the town and west of Antietam Creek.

To the north, Lee’s forces occupied land near a small Dunker Church adjacent to a 40-acre cornfield whose stalks were as tall as a soldier. A little farther south, the Confederates occupied a sunken road that served as a natural defensive entrenchment. The southern end of the Confederate line held the high ground on the western side of Rohrbach Bridge (soon to be known as Burnside’s Bridge), the southernmost of three bridges that crossed Antietam Creek.

About 6 a.m. on Sept. 17, Union forces led by Gen. Joseph Hooker emerged from the north woods to attack Confederate forces along the Hagerstown Pike. Confederate forces rushed into the cornfield to meet the attackers, and all hell broke loose.

For the next several hours, both sides poured troops into the cornfield and the area near the Dunker Church as if shoving meat into a meat grinder. One Union soldier described soldiers in the cornfield “loading and firing with demoniacal fury.” Another soldier remembered that the fighting was so intense that “men … were knocked out of ranks by the dozen.”

One Texas regiment suffered more than 80 percent casualties in less than 50 minutes of fighting in this sector. Gen. Hooker later wrote of the action in the cornfield that “every stalk of corn … in the greater part of the field was cut as closely as with a knife … and the slain lay in rows precisely as they had stood in their ranks a few minutes before.”

“It was never my fortune,” Hooker recalled, “to witness a more bloody, dismal battlefield.”

The sunken road

Later that morning, a Union division under Gen. John Sedgwick crossed Antietam Creek and attacked waiting Confederate forces in the west woods near the Dunker Church. In less than 20 minutes, more than 2,000 Union soldiers fell dead or wounded, including future Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. Seeing the carnage, Sedgwick’s corps commander, Gen. Edwin Sumner, cried out, “My God, we must get out of this.”

Part of Sumner’s corps shifted south toward the sunken road. The ground leading to the sunken road gradually inclines until it reaches a crest less than 100 yards from the road, then dips a bit and inclines again until reaching the rim of the sunken lane. The road itself is several feet below ground level, which made it a naturally strong defensive position.

The topography meant that the oncoming Union troops could not have seen the Confederate defenders in the sunken road until it was too late. For nearly four hours, a series of Union attacks here were repulsed by the Confederate defenders. The result, writes historian James McPherson, was “a carpet of blue-clad corpses strewn across the fields northeast of the sunken road.”

The Confederate position in the sunken road began to collapse, however, when a defending brigade mistakenly pulled out of the road as a result of a misinterpreted order. This allowed Union troops to occupy the abandoned position and flank the entire Confederate line in the sunken road.

“What had been a sheltered position,” explained historian Shelby Foote, “became a trap.” Union troops fired down the sunken road, and dead and wounded Confederate bodies began to pile up. The result, as depicted in the famous photograph taken shortly after the battle, was that the sunken road in some places nearly filled with Confederate dead piled on top of one another. The sunken road thereafter was known as “Bloody Lane.”

‘Dead on the field’

While all this carnage was going on in the northern and central sectors of the field, more than 4,000 Union troops under Gen. Ambrose Burnside, instead of fording the shallow creek at safer locations, repeatedly attempted to force their way across the lower bridge of the Antietam against about 500 Georgia troops situated on the opposing hillside. The results were needless Union casualties and the loss of precious time, which allowed Confederate forces under Gen. A.P. Hill to arrive in the nick of time from Harpers Ferry to successfully hold off the final attack of Union forces late in the day after Burnside finally had made it across the bridge.

By about 5 or 6 p.m., the fighting stopped. The next day, instead of renewing the fight, “the armies lay face to face all day, like sated lions,” Mr. Foote wrote, “and between them, there on the slopes of Sharpsburg ridge and in the valley of the Antietam, the dead began to fester in the heat and the cries of the wounded faded to a mewling.”

As Confederate forces withdrew toward Virginia, someone asked Gen. John Bell Hood, whose troops were in the thick of things in the cornfield and near the Dunker Church, “Where is your division?” Hood responded, “Dead on the field.”

In all, there nearly 4,000 men lay dead on the field, and about 3,000 more died later from wounds suffered at Antietam. Lee lost one-fourth of his army that day. “The troops that Lee lost,” Mr. Foote wrote, “were the best that he had — the best he could ever hope to have in the long war that lay ahead.”

A bloody draw

McClellan claimed victory because Union troops held the field at the end of the day, but in reality, Antietam was a bloody draw. It was perceived as enough of a victory, however, for President Lincoln soon thereafter to issue his Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation, which did not free one slave (because it only applied to Confederate territory) but made it politically unlikely, if not impossible, for Britain or France to extend diplomatic recognition to the Confederacy.

There was much more fighting and dying to be done before the war was over. More men fell at each of the later Civil War battles of Stones River, Chancellorsville, Gettysburg, Chickamauga and the Wilderness than at Antietam, but all of those battles were spread over two or three days.

When the war was over, after more than four years of fighting, the dead on both sides numbered more than 600,000. It is a sobering experience to walk that hallowed ground and reflect on the fact that on no single day during more than 1,400 days of war did more men fall than on that September day at Antietam.

Francis P. Sempa, author of “Geopolitics: From the Cold War to the 21st Century,” is an assistant U.S. attorney for the Middle District of Pennsylvania and an adjunct professor of political science at Wilkes University.

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