On Sept. 17, 1862, America’s bloodiest single day, a small force of Confederates on high ground for three hours defended the critical crossing against troops belonging to Ambrose E. Burnside’s 9th Corps.
With the wounding of General Joe Johnston at the Battle of Seven Pines, the Confederate army shifted strategy, as Lee assumed command. Lee judged correctly that the South’s inferior supply of men and materials would never outlast the North, and swift aggressive action was the only recourse. MacClellan, the Union commander, was trained in the European school of war, involving trenches and sieges. Often he would entrench, finally attack, and find the enemy had simply evaporated.
Lee drove McClellan back from Richmond – the War Department was so sure the war was almost over, they stopped recruiting officers. Lee drove north, and in a daring move, split his army, sending Stonewall Jackson and his troops west to take Harper’s Ferry, while he drove north. McClellan chased Lee north, but then in one of those accidents of war, two Union soldiers found some papers wrapped around cigars – the Confederate battle plans. Lee realized his plans had been exposed, and quickly moved to reunite his army – at Antietam Creek, in Maryland.
The stage was set for the bloodiest day ever.
“Imagine a river… about 500 yards wide, from two to three feet deep, and the water very swift. Now it is just as full of men as it can be for 600 to 700 yards, up and down, yelling and singing all sorts of war and jolly songs, and in this connection, you must find room for eight to twelve regimental bands in the river all the time, the drums beating, the horns a tootin’ and the fifes a screamin’ , possibly every one of them on a different air – Dixie, My Maryland, Yankee Doodle – all the men apparently jolly. I, at least, did not feel jolly, though I imagine some of them contemplated the serious side of the situation. This concourse wading the river, many would never press the soil on the south side of the Potomac again.” – Private John W. Stevens, 5th Texas.
McClellan made sure his army came to the battle resupplied, bringing in 100,000 pairs of shoes, 93,000 pairs of trousers, and 10,000 blankets. By contrast, the Confederates were “the roughest set of creatures I ever saw, features, hair, and clothing matted with filth – tired, hungry, and no uniforms at all – they wore anything you could imagine, that had the least color of butternut to it.”
In the early morning fog of September 16, 1862, an artillery battle began, with the outmatched Confederate batteries soon dropping out – but not before having some effect. One of the 8th Ohio watched as a twelve pound shell arced toward the men surrounding the Union flag, wondering which of the group would survive – all but one did. He “slept the sleep of death, while the wind rustled through the flag’s silken folds, making the old flag droop and sigh for its brave guard, unable to defend it any longer.” The Union cannon were rifled, with superior numbers, range, and power. The Confederates were short on ammunition.
Beginning about 7AM, McClellan fought skirmishers at Middle Bridge, but failed to follow up when they fell back. Another uncoordinated attack on Lee’s right failed to yield results. McClellan exhibited his trademark caution, and delayed further attack until the next day.
On the 17th, the action began at the cornfield (see battle map). Federals under Hooker attack Jackson, pressing hard through the cornfield – Jackson calls up Hood’s Texas regiment. The Federals tried to capture Dunker church, where Jackson had his headquarters. Confederates concealed themselves in the tall corn, just showing “the glint of bayonets”. Hooker began an intense artillery barrage, followed by hand-to-hand. The fighting in the cornfield is so intense, someone later said it looked as though the corn had been cut at knee length with a knife – and the Confederate soldiers lay in rows, where they fell. Hood’s group suffered 80% losses, more than any other – F Company was completely wiped out. It was “…the most deadly fire of the war. Rifles are shot to pieces in the hands of the soldiers, canteens and haversacks are riddled with bullets, the dead and wounded go down in scores.”
In the midst of the cornfield battle, a hero emerged. Johnny Cook joined the 4th US Artillery at age 13, as a bugler. Now 15, and a messenger during the battle, he saw a Federal battery about to be overrun. Abandoning his message carrying duties, he took up the ram and shot, manning the cannon himself, by now 15 years old. General Gibbon, the unit commander, saw what was happening, and jumped from his horse to help Johnny. They fired canister rounds into the advancing Confederates, who were a mere 20 yards away. They maintained firing, and turned the line. Johnny became the youngest Medal of Honor recipient, at age 15.
At the Harry Reel farm, John P. Smith, a civilian boy witnessed the soldiers brought from the battlefield. “I saw a number of Confederate wounded and dead brought into the yard. Some were having limbs amputated, others were horribly mangled and dying. One man I shall never forget – he was mangled by an exploding shell, so that his whole abdomen was open and contents dangling. He uttered piercing, heart rending cries, and begged for someone nearby to for God’s sake kill him. But death came soon and he was buried in a shallow grave.
About 9:30 AM, General William French’s division veered south, and engaged Confederate D.H. Hill at the Sunken Road. French’s troops were mostly green, while the rebels were seasoned veterans – and that made the difference. Even so, the numbers were with the Federals, and the Confederates were so pressed that Hill himself took up a musket to lead a company ahead, and Longstreet and his staff manned a cannon.
The road became known as Bloody Lane. Three thousand Federals fell, and five hundred Confederates in their defense. Some regiments lost more than fifty percent of their men.
The third major offensive in the battle was at Burnside Bridge. Earlier in the morning, Lee moved troops away from the bridge leaving only 450 Georgians under Toombs to defend it.
This weakness could have been exploited earlier and more forcefully , smashing the Confederate center, and cutting Lee’s army in two – but McClellan failed to take advantage of it. Federal artillery knocked out most of the Confederate batteries in the area. But Confederate sharpshooters provided a convincing argument against a head-on assault, as the 2nd Maryland learned as one third of them fell.
The Federals persisted, and each time, got a little farther. Toombs men were running out of ammunition. Col. Robert Potter waved his sword, and urged the Federals forward. At the same time, General Isaac Rodman’s division waded the chest high creek, weapons held aloft as shrapnel and cannister whistled over their heads. One man remarked that it sounded like a flock of wild ducks, whining and quacking their destructive wake. Emerging from the creek, Rodman’s men flanked the Georgians, and with few rounds left to fire, it was over. The Federals lost five hundred men taking the bridge. General Rodman was among those killed.
Just as things began to look bleak for the Confederates, A. P. Hill’s men arrived after a forced march of seventeen miles, to shore up the right flank and relieve Tooms. Adding to the confusion, some of Hill’s men were wearing captured Union uniforms from their victory at Harper’s Ferry.
By 5:30PM the fighting ceased, as McClellan failed to press his advantage, and pulled back, in an incredible display of tactical incompetence – it would later cost him his command.
Over 22,000 men died in a single day, and over 3,600 were wounded. In addition, thousands of horses died, leading Lee to remark, “We are without transportation.”
In Fredericksburg, the churches were converted to hospitals, the pews to beds and operating tables. Townsfolk from nearby villages came to the battlefield the following day, to offer food and help with medical care, and burying the dead.
“No other campaign and battle in the war had such momentous, multiple consequences as Antietam. In July 1863 the dual Union triumphs at Gettysburg and Vicksburg struck another blow that blunted a renewed Confederate offensive in the East and cut off the western third of the Confederacy from the rest. In September 1864 Sherman’s capture of Atlanta electrified the North and set the stage for the final drive to Union victory. These also were pivotal moments. But they would never have happened if the triple Confederate offensives in Mississippi, Kentucky, and most of all Maryland had not been defeated in the fall of 1862.“— James M. McPherson, Crossroads of Freedom
If you’d like to know more on the battle, I recommend Ted Alexander’s book “The Battle of Antietam”, and Jim Murfin’s “Gleam of Bayonets”. You may also like the video tour of the battlefield at the link below.