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The War’s Worst Day

Looking back at Antietam

Sep 24, 2012, Vol. 18, No. 02 • By GEOFFREY NORMAN
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Sharpsburg, Md.
The ground is now restful and easy to walk, as it no doubt was in the days before the battle. The Park Service has done an admirable job of restoring and protecting the hardwood stands that were the East and West Woods, the 40 acre plot that became “the cornfield,” the sunken road known as the Bloody Lane, and the little stone bridge that began the day as the Rohrbach and has been, ever since, Burnside’s Bridge. You can see it all in a couple of hours, by vehicle and on foot, and can easily understand what part the ground—known to soldiers as “terrain”—played in the battle. Impossible, though, to imagine what this little piece of Maryland farmland must have looked like at the end of September 17, 1862, which remains the bloodiest single day in American history.


Confederate dead from the battle

More were killed or mortally wounded here, that day, than on September 11 or on D-Day. Casualties, according to official records, totaled 22,719 in both armies. Twenty-five percent of the Union forces. Over 30 percent of the Confederates. There were 1,546 Confederate dead, 2,108 Union. Many of the 1,771 missing were dead, and many of the wounded would die. It was, in the minds of many who survived the battle and, then, the entire war, the worst day they ever experienced. “Beyond words,” they would almost invariably write.

If the horror of the battle was inarguable to anyone surveying the field that day, hardly anything else was. Not even an answer to the simple question, Who won? The Union Army had attacked and took the offensive everywhere along the line of battle. At the end of the day, the Confederate Army had not been broken, had given only a little of the ground it originally held, and seemed almost defiantly ready for more.

By that measure, there was no winner. The battle had been a very bloody draw. But as time passed, it became increasingly clear that if the tactical situation had been changed little by the battle, the strategic landscape and history itself were. The battle that looked, on the day it was fought, like so much pointless butchery almost certainly saved the Union and by doing so ended slavery in what would become again, after another two and a half years of slaughter, the United States of America.

Still, Antietam was an unusually—even epically—tragic battle. Not least, of course, for the casualties but also because, if things had gone just a little differently, if mortals had behaved with just slightly less imperfection, those two and a half years could have been avoided and the war could have been won, completely, that day.

A lot of questions occur to you when you walk a battlefield like this one. Among them, “Why here?”

What brought the two armies into contact here along Antietam Creek, outside of Sharpsburg, a little town of absolutely no strategic importance? Why, for that matter, were the Confederates in Maryland at all, when they had gone to war, they said, to defend their homeland?

The Confederates were the invaders, in spite of the fact that they had fewer men under arms and nothing like the material resources of the Union. But the Army of Northern Virginia had run out of Union armies to fight on its own ground. After Robert E. Lee had taken command in May, he had seized the initiative and attacked relentlessly, first halting General George McClellan’s advance on Richmond and then driving him into a defensive position on the James River, where he hunkered down until ordered to bring his army back to Washington to defend the city.

The city required defending because, after rendering McClellan impotent, Lee had turned his attention to General John Pope’s army that was operating between Richmond and Washington. Lee sent Stonewall Jackson on a long march that ended far to Pope’s rear and destroyed his base of supply. Then, when Pope attempted to attack the outnumbered Jackson, Lee struck with the rest of his army. Pope was routed. The battle was called the Second Bull Run, and it so alarmed Washington that, against the wishes of the majority of his cabinet, President Lincoln turned to McClellan. “We must use what tools we have,” said the president. “There is no man in the Army who can man these fortifications and lick these troops of ours into shape half as well as he. If he can’t fight himself, he excels in making others ready to fight.”
McClellan interpreted the appointment as a validation and vindication, and wrote to his wife, “I consent to take it for my country’s sake and with the humble hope that God has called me to it.”

Union soldiers cheered his return to grace. They were the last to lose faith in him.

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