The Battle of Antietam (1862)
September 17, 1862 marks the 150th anniversary of not only the deadliest day of the U.S. Civil War but also in the entire military history of the United States. By the end of that late summer day, 3,654 Federal and Confederate soldiers lay dead on the Maryland battlefield. All told there were 23,000 casualties combined for North and South.
The leaders of the opposing forces were General George McClellan (U.S.A.) with his Army of the Potomac and General Robert E. Lee (C.S.A.) bringing with him the Army of Virginia. The battle began at 5:30 a.m. on the 17th and lasted 12 hours. From the start, the advantage was McClellan’s. Not only did his forces far outnumber Lee’s, 75,000 to 55,000, but McClellan had forewarning of Lee’s strategy when a corporal and sergeant discovered a copy of the Confederate battle plans, known as Special Order 191, wrapped around three cigars. But McClellan took advantage of neither, waiting 18 hours after finding the orders to attack Lee and leaving 25,000 troops completely inactive during the battle.
For all the loss of life the battle is deemed by historians as a “draw.” However since Lee was the one who fled the battlefield President Lincoln determined it to be a strategic, if tenuous, victory. (He did however fault McClellan for his complete lack of leadership and failure to press the Confederates after the battle. Eventually McClellan would be removed from command, and the general would actually run against Lincoln for president in 1864.)
The “victory” mattered for Lincoln because it gave him an opportunity to announce the Emancipation Proclamation, the document that would free the slaves – in Confederate territory. (Lincoln would not free the slaves in the U.S. for fear of alienating the border states, Maryland, Missouri, and Kentucky, who allowed slavery.) Had Lincoln issued the Proclamation after a Federal loss, it would have appeared to be a move of desperation. The Emancipation Proclamation went into effect on January 1, 1863.
(All images are photographs of Antietam taken by Alexander Gardner, a Scottish photographer, who took 70 photos of the battlefield and its dead.
Top left: loc.gov – “Confederate dead by a fence on the Hagerstown road”, September 1862. Facsimile. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress (145) Digital ID # cwpb-01097
Top right: npr.org – “Bloody Lane”
Center: npr.org – “A lone grave on the Battle-field of Antietam”
Bottom left: shorpy.com – “Confederate soldier who after being wounded had evidently dragged himself to a little ravine on the hillside where he died.”
Bottom right: nationalparkstraveler.com – Untitled)