Known as the single bloodiest day in American history, the Battle of Antietam was just that. It was the battle that has the most lives lost. It was the battle that suffered the most casualties. It was the worst day of the entire Civil War. This battle was different because it was one of the first battles to be fought in the North. On this bloody day, two sides went head to head, force on force, to achieve a victory. A victory in which, if you look at it, no one really won. Although it was a stalemate, it considered a victory for the Union even though both sides suffered catastrophic casualties.
Over 23,000 men were either killed, wounded, or missing after this bloody twelve hour fight. The Battle of Antietam was caused by General Robert E. Lee’s desire to follow up his victory at the second Battle Manassas by heading north into Maryland. His intentions were to sever rail links to Washington and seize supplies. When Union Major General George B. McClellan learned of Lee’s plan, he quickly moved to intercept him. September of 1862, this was a dramatic month/day in American history. During the summer of 1862, Confederate armies had found a strong footing and began pushing back invading Union forces.
In Virginia, this push led to the Battle of Second Manassas, also known as Bull Run, in late August, a major Confederate victory that was one of the most impressive battles of the war for Lee and army. Lee decided it was time to take the war to the enemy and launch an invasion of the North. Maryland would serve as Lee’s target; it was a state which was still in the Union, yet portions of Maryland sympathized with the confederate cause. By September 6th, the Confederates were in Fredrick, Maryland, and they soon split up to capture a Union garrison at Harpers Ferry.
In pursuit of this invading Confederate force was the Union Army of the Potomac, led by Major General George Brinton McClellan. McClellan was loved by his men but did not get along well with President Abraham Lincoln. Despite the disagreements between Lincoln and McClellan, the general known as the ‘Young Napoleon’ was tasked with stopping Lee’s force. Lincoln wanted a victory badly, because a few months earlier he had decided to issue an emancipation proclamation, freeing all those slaves held in the southern states in rebellion.
If McClellan could defeat Lee in Maryland, Lincoln decided he would be ready to issue this important document. On September 14th, Union troops caught the Confederates largely off guard when they attacked at South Mountain, just west of Frederick. This battle was a Union victory, and it forced Lee and the Confederates to reconsider their campaign. Soon, the Confederates would regroup and fall back to the sleepy farming town of Sharpsburg, where they would form a defensive line. A few days later, the Battle of Antietam was fought.
On September 16, 1862, Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan and his Union Army of the Potomac confronted Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia at Sharpsburg, Maryland. At dawn on September 17, Maj. General Joseph Hooker’s Union corps mounted a powerful assault on Lee’s left flank that began the Battle of Antietam, and the single bloodiest day in American military history. Repeated Union attacks, and equally vicious Confederate counterattacks, swept back and forth across Miller’s cornfield and the West Woods. Despite the great Union numerical advantage, Stonewall Jackson’s forces near the Dunker Church would hold their ground this bloody morning.
Meanwhile, towards the center of the battlefield, Union assaults against the Sunken Road would pierce the Confederate center after a terrible struggle for this key defensive position. Unfortunately for the Union army this temporal advantage in the center was not followed up with further advances. Late in the day, Maj. General Ambrose Burnside’s corps pushed across a bullet-strewn stone bridge over Antietam Creek and with some difficulty managed to imperil the Confederate right.
At a crucial moment, A. P. Hill’s division arrived from Harpers Ferry, and counterattacked, driving back Burnside and saving the day for the Army of Northern Virginia. Despite being outnumbered two-to-one, Lee committed his entire force at the Battle of Antietam, while McClellan sent in less than three-quarters of his Federal force. McClellan’s piecemeal approach to the battle failed to fully leverage his superior numbers and allowed Lee to shift f from threat to threat. During the night, both armies tended to their wounded and consolidated their lines.
In spite of crippling casualties, Lee continued to skirmish with McClellan on the 18th, while removing his wounded south of the Potomac. McClellan, much to the chagrin of Abraham Lincoln, did not vigorously pursue the wounded Confederate army. While the Battle of Antietam is considered a draw from a military point of view, Abraham Lincoln and the Union claimed victory. This hard-fought battle, which drove Lee’s forces from Maryland, would give Lincoln the “victory” that he needed before delivering the Emancipation Proclamation — a document that would forever change the geopolitical course of the American Civil War.