Antietam National Battlefield

The Civil War

Sharpsburg, MD

October 16th, 1999

SeveralMap name months ago, as we passed through Maryland and proceeded into Pennsylvania, we passed Sharpsburg and the Antietam National Battlefield. Intending to visit this historic point on our return trip, I happened to chance by a copy of "Landscape Turned Red" by Stephen Sears. By the time we had returned I had read the detailed account of the events of September 17th, 1862. Along the way I had also acquired a copy of "North and South" by John Jakes. By the time I had arrived in Sharpsburg, I was convinced that no single entity has had more impact on this country then the "peculiar institution" known as slavery. Here at Antietam, the cumulative effects of a nation divided on this issue were acted out, in what was to become the bloodiest day ever recorded on the North American Continent. The horrid places of the North Woods, the Sunken Road and the Cornfield are quiet now. The rolling hills of manicured lawns give no indication of the death and mutilation that rained down on the 127,000 men that had gathered here so long ago. The Federal Battlefield encompasses around 12 square miles and is located northwest of Sharpsburg. The visitors' center which is north of Sharpsburg on State Route 65, is located on the high ground near the Dunkers church. From here, many of the points of interest can be seen at a distance. The Visitors' center runs a short documentary film which sets forth the issues that were to be decided and the characters involved. Outside, we joined Ranger Keith Snyder for a presentation in progress. I have always been delighted in the National Park Service's ability to find the most energetic and enthusiastic presenters for their service. I was caught up in the tension as Keith narrated us through the ending of the battle, pointing out each point on the horizon as it, in turn, came into play. The warm day and the gentle breeze played into the emotion of the story. I was well into the feeling of the days events when we moved off toward the "Dunker Church". However let me first digress and set the stage for the day. It was the second year of the War between the States, or Civil War depending on whether you're from the north or south. Even in giving a name to the war that divided this nation, each side has its own expression. Later, when we were in Fredericksburg I heard another name offered by a stanch southerner. "The war of northern aggression". It caused me to reflect on my earlier thoughts on slavery. Several Northern Armies had entered into Virginia, with disastrous results being dealt to them by a quiet spoken, highly respected West Point graduate named Robert E. Lee, who had been placed in charge of the Army of Northern Virginia. Abraham Lincoln, needing a new general, appointed the ever popular George McClellen to head up the Union Army. Ironically, both men had been classmates at West Point and had served together in the Spanish American War some twenty years earlier. Lee, convinced that the war would not end until it was taken onto northern soil, made the first of two attempts to go north as he marched 40,000 men into Maryland supported by his longtime classmates and friends, Generals Longstreet and Thomas (Stonewall) Jackson. The overly cautious General McClellen marched out of Washington to meet him with 87,000 men supported by Generals Hooker, Burnside, Mansfield, Sumner and Meade. Lee, being as unpredictable as always, did the unthinkable and on September 15th, split his army while in enemy territory, sending Jackson south to capture the arsenal at Harpers Ferry. The next day, the now famous order, number 191 issued by Lee, was found in Frederick, by union infantrymen wrapped around three cigars. To this date no historian has been able to discover how or why that copy of the order was abandoned, nor has the intended receiver of that specific copy ever been identified. Realizing that Lee's army was diminished, McClellen pushed on ever so slowly. A Confederate spy in McClellen's camp reported the finding of order 191 to Lee who attempted to stop McClellen at South Mountain and again at Turner Gap. All attempts failed and Lee fell back across the Antietam River at Sharpsburg, where on September 17th, he made his final stand. McClellen now with a sizable advantage failed to strike the disorganized Confederate line, preferring instead to stop on the east side of the Antietam and reorganize his Army into proper position. This allowed Lee to summon Jackson from Harpers Ferry and strengthen his defense. The engagement began in the morning when General Hooker lead the first attack through the North Woods against Jackson's troops, during which time Hooker was shot and wounded. McClellen failed to mount a combined attack preferring to advance piece meal allowing the under-strength defenders to meet force with equal force. General Mansfield continued Hooker's advance until he himself was shot dead. The battle swept back and forth across Miller's cornfield continuously for three hours. More fighting took place here than anywhere else at Antietam. Although Jackson was being pushed back, his lines held. Cutting through the battlefield about midway, is an old wagon road over soft ground. Over the years the ground had given way and the road had sunk to a depth of eight feet in places. This "sunken road", also known as "bloody lane" became the scene of a 4 hour pitched battle as Jackson filled it with troops who stood and fired until they were knee deep in their own dead. By the time they were dislodged by General Sumner's final assault, over 5000 bodies lay strewn about. It produced perhaps the most famous picture of the war shot by Mathew Brady. Never before had the carnage of war been recorded before the bodies had been removed. During the days activities, McClellen had ordered General Burnside to attack over the lower bridge, now called "Burnside's Bridge" after the Union general whose troops were held off most of the day by a few hundred Georgia riflemen. It is the battlefield's best known landmark. By late afternoon, the Union had crossed the bridge and had advanced up the hill threatening to cut off Lee's ability to retreat when they ran into the last of the Confederate troops from Harper's Ferry. A.P. Hill who had remained at Harpers Ferry to guard the 12,000 prisoners taken, turned them loose and literally ran the 17 miles to Antietam in the nick of time to check Burnside's advance. With this the battle was over. The next day Lee began withdrawing his army across the Potomac River. The Federal losses were put at 12,410 with the Confederate losses reaching 10,700. Although neither side gained a decisive victory, Lee's failure to carry the war effort effectively into the North caused Great Britain to postpone recognition of the Confederate government. The battle also gave President Abraham Lincoln the opportunity to issue the Emancipation Proclamation which, on January 1 1863, declared free all slaves in States still in rebellion against the United States. Now the war had a duel purpose, to preserve the Union and end slavery. McClellen repeatedly refused to pursue Lee into Virginia even after a direct order from the Present. He was subsequently "cashiered" as it was referred to then, and General Burnside was given the command. He, in turn, was replaced after the disastrous battle at Fredericksburg. Several other generals involved in the fighting at Antietam would take their turn at attempting to run to ground the elusive commander of the Army of Northern Virginia only to find themselves replaced for inefficiency; Hooker, Sumner, and then Meade who would finally defeat the Virginian at Gettysburg.

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