The Anniversary of the Battle of Antietam

by Scott Auld, Guest Author

September 17, 1862. Antietam.

This was bloodiest day in United States history, with a combined tally of 22,717 Americans dead, wounded, or missing.

After pursuing Robert E. Lee into Maryland, George McClellan launched attacks against defensive positions behind Antietam Creek, near Sharpsburg, Maryland. At dawn on September 17, Joseph Hooker’s corps mounted an assault on Lee’s left flank. Union assaults pierced the Confederate center, but the Federal advantage was not followed up. In the afternoon, Ambrose Burnside’s Union corps entered the action, capturing a stone bridge over Antietam Creek on the Confederate right. Hill’s Confederate division arrived from Harpers Ferry and launched a surprise counterattack, driving back Burnside and ending the battle.

Although outnumbered two-to-one, Lee committed his entire force, while McClellan sent in less than three-quarters of his army, enabling Lee to fight the Federals to a standstill. During the night, both armies consolidated their lines. In spite of crippling casualties, Lee continued to skirmish with McClellan throughout September 18, while removing his battered army south of the Potomac River.

McClellan’s failure allowed Lee to shift forces and moving along interior lines. Despite ample reserve forces that could have been deployed, McClellan failed to destroy Lee’s army. McClellan’s persistent but erroneous belief that he was outnumbered contributed to his cautiousness throughout the campaign.

McClellan had halted Lee’s invasion of Maryland, but Lee was able to withdraw his army back to Virginia. McClellan’s refusal to pursue Lee’s army led to his removal from command by President Abraham Lincoln in November. With Lee’s withdrawal into Virginia, Lincoln had the confidence to announce his Emancipation Proclamation, which encouraged the British and French governments to drop plans to recognize the Confederacy.

This was all 157 years ago.


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