The Battle of Antietam (Fall 2012)

With regional identities at stake and diplomatic philosophies scarcely in mind, the American Civil War was one that was going to be remembered. The abolition of slavery was the solitary issue that caused the division of the Union and Confederacy. This combat relied strongly on timing, location, and strength in numbers. The battle near Antietam Creek is where the sunken road became a gory path of uncertainty for the nation.

“The army is not properly equipped for an invasion of the enemies territory” (Hartwig), were the words of General Robert E. Lee in a letter to Jefferson Davis, the Confederate President. Though they had their doubts, they knew what needed to be done in order for the Confederate army to continue working their way into the Union territory. With this, Lee and 55,000 of his men marched North on September 4th, 1862, labeling Maryland as their main objective. After succeeding in the North Virginia Campaign, Lee attempted to gain victory in a crucial state that sat on the border of Union and Confederate territory. Upon entering Union territory Lee stated, “The present seems to be the most propitious time since the commencement of the war for the Confederate army to enter Maryland” (“The Battle of Antietam”). With this being said, the confederate army organized their initial invasion of the North. While Lee and his army attempted to capture Harpers Ferry, a strategic locus for Confederate communication and streamlines, President Abraham Lincoln searched for protection of the nation’s capital. Major General George B. McClellan was chosen to not only provide the protection the President was in search of, but also quickly looked to contend with the invasion from the South. Union soldiers had great confidence in McClellan; “the effect of this man’s presence upon the Army of the Potomac - in sunshine or rain, in darkness or in daylight, in victory or defeat- was electrical” (Hartwig).

As the Union approached South Mountain, where the two armies initially collided, McClellan stated, “..if we defeat the army arrayed before us, the rebellion is crushed, for I do not believe they can organize another army. But if we should be so unfortunate as to meet with defeat, our country is at their mercy” (“The Battle of Antietam”). The Confederate army significantly slowed the Union’s passage through South Mountain; however, it was not successful in creating an obstacle in which they were unable to pass through. With this, the Confederate army retreated and began to prepare for a battle in which they would be outnumbered, by almost two to one. Even with the unsuccessful attempt at South Mountain, the Confederate army had gained some ground. Major General Stonewall Jackson and his men fought for three days and gradually took Harpers Ferry. This was a great success for the Confederates, allowing better communication to Virginia, their latest capture. As he prepared for Battle, Davis stated, “..we are driven to protect our own country by transferring the seat of war to that of an enemy who pursues us with a relentless and apparently aimless hostility” (“The Battle of Antietam”). In this situation it was beneficial for Lee to divide his army, allowing them to take on two areas of battlefield. However, this strategy would soon cause the Confederate army to begin one of its greatest battles, with a significantly lower number of men. The North and South each had a lot at stake, including the ability to run their lives with their own decisions and preferences.

As the fog rolled in on the morning of September 17, 1862, Union soldiers approached Antietam Creek. A near 75,000 men moved forward with caution due to thoughts of Lee having assembled a mere 100,000 men. This belief, however, was far from true. Lee struggled to gather only 35,000 Confederate soldiers on the west side of the creek. With such inaccurate beliefs from each side and the uneasy elements of the early morning, the Battle of Antietam began. “The roar of the infantry was beyond anything conceivable to the uninitiated” (Hartwig), Williams wrote. The Union was greatly successful due to not only their numbers, but their strategy as well. With three attacks, they were able to push the Confederate army further south. Generals Joseph Hooker, Joseph Mansfield, and Edwin Sumner each led an attack slowly deteriorating the Confederates. One of the greatest division losses known from the South was the Louisiana Tigers, losing 323 of 500 that started the battle. Each opportunity was taken to gain churches or fields for preparation to continue forward. Both sides strongly held their ground while quickly destroying the landscape around them.

As the hours continued on, the battle moved midway through Confederate lines. There were a few times when the Union army was near victory, but Lee’s men found weaknesses within the lines of McClellan’s. Lee received a number of reinforcements as the afternoon approached. His men from Harpers Ferry had arrived in time to save the Confederate army, for the time being, from a devastating loss. Corn stalks and false uniforms became the Confederates greatest tactic to gain ground on Union forces. McClellan, however, was growing impatient and wanted to advance further onto enemy territory. The next great attack made by the Union was over the bridge. Burnside’s men finally captured that bridge around 1 p.m. that afternoon. The Union’s fourth, and final great attack was led by General Joseph Mansfield and significantly damaged the Confederates.

The Union was successful for a number of reasons. McClellan didn’t fully use the advantage in numbers he had over the Confederate army. Prior to battle, one of his men found Lee’s strategy wrapped in a few cigars. Finding this type of insight of the opponent’s battle plan gave the North a major advantage upon arriving at Antietam Creek. The result of this battle could have differed greatly had those soldiers not found such substantial information. Even though they were greatly out numbered, there was a number of times the Confederate army strongly defended attacks from the North. Both armies, however, suffered a significant loss of casualties. As the sun began to set, a long day of devastating battle started to come to an end. Though both sides came to a truce, the Union claimed the victory their own. The number of Confederate casualties reached over 10,300 that day, leaving about 1,500 dead. The Union suffered a greater loss with almost 12,500 casualties, leaving about 2,100 dead. The night of September 17th was a long and dreadful wait with anticipation of another attack. “I shall not, however, soon forget that night,” wrote General Williams, “so dark, so obscure, so mysterious, so uncertain” (Hartwig). The Confederate army believed that they would be attacked again by morning. Despite their belief, the Union army was gathering those who had died and laying them to rest. Lee and his army gathered their belongings and prepared to return to the South. Not only did the Confederate army suffer a disastrous loss, but the ramifications of this battle would be greater than anyone had ever imagined.

President Abraham Lincoln placed McClellan in command of the Union army with confidence he would return with a victory. He did just that. After McClellan accepted the position he stated, “I am fighting to preserve the integrity of the Union and the power of the Govt. – on no other issue. To gain that end we cannot afford to mix up the Negro question – it must be incidental and subsidiary” (Hartwig). With anticipation of a Union victory, President Lincoln had prepared a document that would be the most controversial thing the federal government had seen since the Declaration of Independence. The preservation of Union territory at the border was just what he needed to support the publication of the Emancipation Proclamation. For the first time, the President of the United States was taking a stand for the abolition of slavery. The devastation of loss for the South at Antietam was evident when the truce was called and there was no alteration to the border. Upon returning to the South, the Confederates couldn’t ever have imagined the ramifications of the Union victory.

There are a number of different forces that help us better understand the events of the past. Politics and government, economics, personal and group identities, and the role of a specific individual can leave us with a greater understanding of the events at Antietam. The Union and Confederacy were two divided nations, each with a great deal to fight for. The North, a newly industrialist superpower and the location of the only capital prior to the war, had the support of the present day federal government. The South, unlike the North, formed their own government and strengthened their economy, which relied heavily on slavery. People living on both sides took their identity beyond what many would believe necessary. Those who lived the urban life, working in factories and businesses believed that was the only acceptable way to live, and vise versa. The greatest difference between the two was that the Confederacy insisted that the use of slaves was necessary for their nation to prosper. President Lincoln had an enormous effect on this time, proposing the freedom of all enslaved persons within the United States. There were various aspects of the Battle of Antietam that created changes in the future of the country.

With regional identities at stake and diplomatic philosophies scarcely in mind, the American Civil War was one that was going to be remembered. This battle has been able to maintain it’s significance in our history for apparent reasons. The Battle of Antietam opened doors for the publication of the Emancipation Proclamation and also claimed an unheard number of casualties in one day’s battle. This battle left so much uncertainty in the future of both the Union and Confederacy, it was inevitable that it would forever remain a significant turning point of the American Civil War.


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