Fought along Antietam Creek, at Sharpsburg, Maryland, this battle brought about America’s bloodiest day, the product of Confederate audacity and Union command failure.
Following Second Manassas, General Robert E. Lee advanced into Maryland, believing that the potential strategic and political gains justified his defiance of the avowed Confederate defensive policy. Lee’s complex operational plan divided his outnumbered force; disaster loomed when a lost copy of that plan came to the Union commander, Major General George B. McClellan. Slow, cautious, and defensive-minded, however, McClellan wasted all the advantages of his lucky discovery and his two-to-one numerical superiority.
The battleground Lee selected was well suited for defense but dangerous as well, having the Potomac River behind him. McClellan planned to overwhelm Lee’s left flank but failed to exercise command control, so the combat diffused south along the battle line.
The first four hours of fighting, much of it across farmer David Miller’s thirty-acre cornfield, were indecisive. Next came a series of bloody head-on attacks against Lee’s center that finally overran the area afterward called Bloody Lane. The last action of the day was against Lee’s right, where Union troops pierced the line (weakened to reinforce other sections) but were stopped by late-arriving Confederate reinforcements.
Lee withdrew across the river on September 18, suffering 10,318 casualties (of 38,000 engaged) to McClellan’s 12,401 (of 75,000). The draw that the Union claimed as a victory provided the Lincoln administration enough justification to issue the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation. A series of graphic battlefield photographs of the dead, taken by Alexander Gardner, brought to the home front “the terrible earnestness of war.”
NOAH ANDRE TRUDEAU
The Reader’s Companion to Military History. Edited by Robert Cowley and Geoffrey Parker. Copyright © 1996 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.