Battle of Antietam

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Antietam Battlefield (3).jpg
The intensity of artillery fire at Antietam led Colonel Stephen D. Lee, commander of the Confederate cannons shown here, to describe the battle as "Artillery Hell." This painting depicts the earliest part of the battle. The artist's perspective is close to the present-day location of the Visitor Center. Notice the Dunker Church on the left side of the painting. On the right is approximately 5,000 men from Sedgewick's Division of Sumner's II Corp advancing toward the West Woods at about 9:00 am. About the artist. Captain James Hope, a professional artist, was 43 years old and a member of the 2nd Vermont Infantry. Hope had taken part in a dozen engagements prior to Antietam, but disabled by illness, was assigned to sideline duties as a scout and mapmaker. He recorded in his sketchbook the battle scenes before his eyes, and then after the battle converted his sketches into a series of five large paintings.

Courtesy of and Antietam National Battlefield.

The Battle of Antietam was the climax of the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia's first invasion of the Union.

Following the Battle of Second Bull Run, General Robert E. Lee, the Army of Northern Virginia's commander, took his force into the Union. He hoped to win a decisive victory and Confederate independence.

The Battle of Antietam occurred near the town of Sharpsburg, Maryland. On September 16, 1862, Lee positioned his army on a ridge of hills on the outskirts of town. At this point, Lee commanded thirty thousand men. A significant portion of his army, under General Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson, was at Harper's Ferry, Virginia. Confederate forces had seized the city the day before. On the evening of September 16, the Union Army of the Potomac, under General George McClellan's command, arrived on the field. McClellan had twice as many men as his opponent.

The battle began on September 17. The Union began an artillery barrage on the center of the Confederates' position. Union soldiers then advanced towards the Confederates' left flank. As the Union soldiers crossed a cornfield, Confederate infantry rose up and surprised the Union soldiers. McClellan ordered his infantry to withdraw and directed the Union artillery to fire on the cornfield. The Union infantry advanced again, but the attack was repulsed. "Stonewall" Jackson had arrived on the battlefield but a significant number of his men had not. The struggle for the cornfield continued for the rest of the morning. Accounts vary, but in all likelihood, control of this area changed at least one dozen times in the course of the morning. While the struggle for the cornfield was occurring, Union General John Sedgwick led his division against the Confederate left flank. The Confederates launched a counterattack. Sedgwick's men suffered a fifty percent casualty rate in this assault.

While Sedgwick's division was attempting to turn the Confederate left flank, Union General William French led his division against the center of the Confederate position. Confederates, under the command of General D.H. Hill, had taken a position along a sunken road. Years of use by farmers and their wagons had caused the road to be several feet lower than the surrounding terrain. The Confederates also placed fence rails along one side of the road to provide additional cover from Union fire. Between 9:30 AM and 1:00 PM, Union soldiers attacked this position four times. Each time the Confederates stopped the attack. Shortly before 1:00 PM, two Union regiments captured a hill at the end of the sunken road (renamed Bloody Lane by the soldiers). From this position, the Union soldiers were able to fire into the heart of the road. The Confederates quickly withdrew. By the time that the fighting was completed in this part of the battlefield, approximately 5,600 Union and Confederate soldiers lay dead or dying along the sunken road.

The Confederates began to retreat towards Sharpsburg. After the fierce fighting earlier in the day, McClellan did not order his men to pursue the Confederates. Some historians believe that Robert E. Lee might have had to surrender his entire army if McClellan had continued his attack.

Fighting also was raging along the Confederate right flank. General Ambrose Burnside led twelve thousand Union soldiers against this portion of the Confederate line. The Union soldiers had to cross Antietam Creek. A group of 450 Confederates defended the bridge across the creek. Despite having more men, the Union force did not succeed in crossing the bridge until nearly 1:00 PM. The Union soldiers then rested for two hours. Around 3:00 PM, Burnside ordered his men to pursue the Confederates into Sharpsburg. Confederate General A.P. Hill's division arrived at approximately the same time from Harper's Ferry. With these reinforcements, the Confederates were able to drive Burnside's force back to the bridge. The Battle of Antietam drew to a close.

On September 18, both armies remained on the battlefield. They negotiated a temporary truce, allowing each side to remove its wounded from the battlefield. On the evening of September 18, the Confederates began their retreat. McClellan did not immediately pursue the Army of Northern Virginia.

The Battle of Antietam was a Union victory. The Union lost approximately 12,400 men to the Confederacy's 10,700, but the Union had driven the Confederates from the field and ended the Confederate invasion. The battle was Ohioan George McClellan's greatest success during the American Civil War. Nevertheless, President Abraham Lincoln removed McClellan from command of the Army of the Potomac for not pursuing the Confederates immediately.

This Union victory also affected the Union war effort in another important way. Saving the Union had been the initial motivation for pursuing the war with the Confederacy, but on September 22, 1862, President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation. It stated that slavery would end in all states still rebelling against the Union on January 1, 1863. Lincoln and several members of his cabinet were cautious as to the timing of the announcement of the Proclamation. If the president moved to end slavery before a Union victory was won, Europeans, Confederates, and some people in the Union might view this action as a desperate attempt to win support for the Union war effort. The Union victory at Antietam allowed the president to link slavery's demise with the preservation of the Union.

The Battle of Antietam and the resulting Emancipation Proclamation caused both anxiety and hope among Ohioans. Many Ohioans worried that a Union victory in the war was further off than they hoped with Lee's invasion. Other Ohioans welcomed the Emancipation Proclamation and celebrated that slavery's demise was now a Union war aim. Other Ohioans feared a surge in African American migrants to the state if the Emancipation Proclamation was enforced.

See Also


  1. Dee, Christine, ed. Ohio's War: The Civil War in Documents. Athens: Ohio University Press, 2007.  
  2. Gallagher, Gary W. The Antietam Campaign. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1999.
  3. McPherson, James M. Crossroads of Freedom: Antietam. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2002.  
  4. Official Roster of the Soldiers of the State of Ohio in the War of Rebellion, 1861-1866. Akron, OH: The Werner Company, 1893.  
  5. Reid, Whitelaw. Ohio in the War: Her Statesmen, Generals and Soldiers. Cincinnati, OH: Clarke, 1895.
  6. Roseboom, Eugene H. The Civil War Era: 1850-1873. Columbus: Ohio State Archaeological and Historical Society, 1944.  
  7. Sears, Stephen W. Landscape Turned Red: The Battle of Antietam. New Haven, CT: Ticknor & Fields, 1983.