On September 17, 1862, Generals Robert E. Lee and George McClellan faced off near Antietam creek in Sharpsburg, Maryland, in the the first battle of the American Civil War to be fought on northern soil. Though McClellan failed to utlilize his numerical superiority to crush Lee's army, he was able to check the Confederate advance into the north. After a string of Union defeats, this tactical victory provided Abraham Lincoln the political cover he needed to issue his Emancipation Proclamation. Though the result of the battle was inconclusive, it remains the bloodiest single day in American history, with more than 22,000 casualties.
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The American Civil War, fueled by the debate over slavery and states' rights, pitted North against South in the costliest conflict fought on U.S. soil.
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The Emancipation Proclamation of 1863 freed slaves in states that remained in rebellion during the American Civil War.
Did You Know?
The 1st Texas Infantry lost 82 percent of its men during the Battle of Antietam, the highest casualty rate for any Confederate regiment in one battle of the Civil War.
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.
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Classroom Study Guides
Teacher's Guide to the program dramatically exploring the events, meaning, and significance of the watershed battle at Antietam.
Teacher's Guide to the program covering the last few weeks of the Civil War, from President Abraham Lincoln's second inauguration, to the surrender at Appomatox, the assassination of Lincoln, and the final laying down of arms by the Confederacy.
Sherman's March (PDF)
Teacher's guide to General William Tecumseh Sherman's military campaign. In 1864 General Sherman began his "March to the Sea," burning crops, confiscating supplies, destroying buildings and ripping up the rail tracks on his way.