frontpaged at My Left Wing

As I sit down to write these words, just about 6 p.m. EST, 142 years ago the greatest (or worst, depending on how you like to choose your adjectives) holocaust in American history was coming to an end.

Those who tell you that the events of September 11, 2001 was the most apocalyptic, destructive, violent day in American history are either lying or ignorant.  It can't even lay claim to be the worst September day in American history.

No, my friends, that will always belong to September 17, 1862.  In the hours between 6 a.m. and 6 p.m., 100,000 men engaged in a titanic death struggle along the banks of Antietam Creek, Maryland, that would change the course of American and by extension world history.

The numbers speak for themselves.  3,000 Americans dead on 9/11.  Exact figures are hard to come by, but it's fair to say that at least 4,500 were killed outright at Antietam.  Some 2,000 more would later die of their wounds, making 6,500 Americans dead as a result of the events of September 17, 1862.

The South was running at its high tide in the late summer of 1862.  Confederate forces had beaten back naval attempts to take the vital city of Vicksburg, Mississippi.  John Hunt Morgan and Nathan Bedford Forrest had been turned loose in Tennessee and Kentucky to make life miserable for Union forces.  The Confederate Army of Tennessee was on the march through the state from which they took their name to Kentucky and perhaps even Ohio.  Most famously, the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia had driven the Northern Army of the Potomac back from within 3 or 4 miles of Richmond until it huddled under the protection of its gunboats on the James River.  The Rebels had then turned North and delivered one of the severest beatings ever administered to an American general at Second Manassas, against the hapless John Pope and his Army of Virginia.  From there, they had turned north into Maryland, with the ultimate goal being the rail center of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.

Jefferson Davis had long seen that foreign intervention was key for Southern hopes of independent nationhood to have any real chance.  Napoleon III, emperor of France, was eager to recognize the Confederacy, but realized he could not act without Britain.  Britain, under the leadership of the extremely politically able Lord Palmerston, had adopted a "wait and watch" stance.  Though very desirious of the opportunity to deal the young American nation a severe blow, Palmerston was not anxious to take steps that might embroil his nation in another costly war with America--who, it should be noted, had already defied seemingly insurmountable odds twice and dealt the British as many heavy defeats.  Only when Southern victory seemed nearly assured would Palmerston act.  

Throughout the summer, the Southern armies had amply demonstrated their ability to defend their own territory.  Now, if they could defeat their enemy's armies on the enemy's soil, it would be a clear demonstration of the army's--and thus the Confederacy's--true viability.  Europe would at last intervene.  Robert E. Lee saw this fact as well as anyone, giving it as one of his primary reasons for invasion in a long letter to Jefferson Davis.

Meanwhile, the North was in a state of near panic.  The new greenback currency and government war bonds were in free-fall on Wall Street.  Lincoln had issued calls for 300,000 new volunteers, as well as scraping up some 88,000 nine-month short term troops, mostly from Pennsylvania and New Jersey.  Pope's army was in a state of near mutiny , so great was the anger and bitterness at their commander.  Lincoln, over the protestations of much of his cabinet, shuffled Pope off to a backwater and folded the short-lived Army of Virginia into the Army of the Potomac, commanded by Major General George Brinton McClellan.

McClellan probably needs no real introduction, so notorious has he become.  Conservative, excruciatingly cautious, prone to realizing hallucinations, McClellan was, in short, a moral coward.  Yet the days to come were to be his finest hours as a commander.

Lee, meanwhile, was having a niggling problem.  In truth he was having many, not the least of which was a shoeless, half-naked, hungry army marching over rocky turnpikes and subsisting on unripe corn and apples.  His biggest concern, however, was what to do about the 12,000 man Union garrison at Harper's Ferry, Virginia.  Though he wanted to move on with all speed to Pennsylvania, he did not feel comfortable leaving that many enemy soldiers lurking in his rear.  Knowing full well how cautious McClellan was, Lee felt comfortable in sending Stonewall Jackson with a large party of the army off to seize the place, along with its garrison.  In Special Orders 191, Lee ordered Jackson to split his force into three different columns, each to move by different routes, in order to surround Harper's Ferry and cut off all escape routes for the soon-to-be-trapped Union soldiers.  

Next, he ordered the remaining part of his army to divide in two, each to cover a likely approach route of the Army of the Potomac.  Lee, known for taking risks no other person would even consider, was making a huge gamble even for him.  He was dividing his army--outnumbered 2 to 1--five different ways.  George McClellan, however, seemed to be just the sort of person to take this gamble against.  Timid and slow in the extreme, it did not require too much imagination to picture McClellan letting his opportunity slip away before he even became aware it existed.

Fate, as so many know, can be a cruel mistress, especially in war.  In this case, and perhaps never more dramatically, she turned her icy fickleness upon Robert E. Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia.  McClellan was turning in his best performance ever, whipping the dispirited and bickering elements of the Army of Virginia and the Army of the Potomac into a cohesive, determined fighting force with high morale.  What was truly remarkable was the fact that he accomplished this task within 10 days.  It is doubtful that such a great change was ever wrought in so short a space of time.  With a newly invigorated army, McClellan set out after Lee, though at his usual tortoise like pace.  

It was then that Lady Fate smiled upon George McClellan.

A copy of Special Orders 191 had been inexplicably used a cigar wrapper--it would never be determined who did, or why they thought this was a good idea.  These cigars likely fell out of someone's saddlebags in a field just outside Frederick, Maryland.  On the day the Union army marched into town, two Indiana soldiers discovered it quite by accident.  The paper quickly rocketed up the Union chain of command.  Determined to be authentic, it revealed to McClellan that Lee had presented him with every general's dream come true--the opportunity to destroy his opponent in detail.

Here, as he so often did, McClellan took his gun away from his enemy and pointed it at his own foot.  Despite the knowledge he now had, he did nothing for 18 hours...hours that would prove critical.  

Still, when McClellan finally did move, it was straight toward the enemy.  Lee, being informed of McClellan's sudden advance, sent riders pounding off to Jackson, telling him to speed up the Harper's Ferry operation and then come to him with all speed.  Meanwhile, part of his army fought a desperate delaying action along the slopes of South Mountain, on September 14th.  Though a tactical Union victory, the Confederates had bought the time required to stave off disaster.  The rest of Lee's army had taken up a strong defensive position along a three mile ridge outside the town of Sharpsburg, Maryland, at the base of which ran Antietam Creek.  During the night of the 14th, the soldiers that had fought at South Mountain fell back to Sharpsburg, to be joined the next night by Jackson's command, who had seized Harper's Ferry the day of South Mountain fight.

McClellan's army began gathering opposite Lee's the afternoon of the 15th.  Here McClellan let another opportunity slip away, delaying attack for a full 40 hours, to be sure all was ready.  Had he attacked the evening of the 15th, Jackson's command would not have been there, or at any rate have been in little shape to fight.  McClellan set the opening of the battle for dawn, September 17th.  He would attack and drive Lee into the Potomac River, just a few miles behind Confederate lines.

The night of September 16th was a tense one for both armies, even for the eve of battle.  The Confederates knew a battle was coming in the morning.  They knew they had a river at their backs, a bad position for an army to be in.  They knew the survival of their army, and thus the Confederacy, rested on if they would be able to break the Yankee wave as it came on the next day.  The Northern soldiers knew also a battle was coming.  They had been inexplicably forbidden to build fires that night, even though the rebels knew damn well what was coming in the morning. That night, the Federal army shivered and chewed coffee grounds, each man having plenty of time to contemplate his possible fate the next day.  They knew they had brought Lee's army to bay.  They knew they were fighting on their own soil.  They knew that a victory the next day might spell the end of the rebellion.  Soldiers on both sides steeled themselves and marshaled their courage.

The battle that began the next day and lasted all day was so horrible that soldiers declared that no words could describe it.  Thus, it would be impossible for me, writing 142 years later, to attempt to do so.  Many have wondered what made the battle so ferocious.  I offer two possible explanations.  First, both soldiers knew the high stakes they were playing for and acted accordingly, thus affording the battle an until then unheard of intensity.  Secondly, they could see each other.  Much of the previous eastern fighting had been done in woods and swamps.  Except for some scattered patches of woods and a few cornfields, the battleground was cleared and open.  At ranges so close that soldiers could often see the expressions on their opponents faces as they slugged it out, such intimacy bred savagery.  

I offer two anecdotes from the battle to illustrate its horror.

First, from Crossroads of Freedom by James McPherson, copyright 2002, page 6.  (I should also note the diary title is taken from a chapter title in the same book...it says everything, really):

Stark memories of Antietam haunted many for their lives.  A private in the 1st Delaware...recalled a Union soldier, "stumbling around with both eyes shout out, begging someone 'for the love of God' to put an end to his misery."  A nearby lieutenant asked him if he really meant what he said.  "Oh yes," the blinded soldier replied...Without another word, the lieutenant drew his revolver, "placed it to the victim's right ear, turned away his head and pulled the trigger...'It was better thus,' said the lieutenant, replacing his pistol and turning toward [me], 'for the poor fellow could--'  Just then a solid shot took the lieutenant's head off."

The shock of such scenes caused psychiatric casualties among even the most hardened and experienced soldiers.  Colonel William R. Lee of the elite 20th Massachusetts, who had gone through a half-dozen previous battles without losing his poise, rode away from his regiment the morning after Antietam and was found..."without a cent in his pocket, without anything to eat or drink, without having changed his clothes for 4 weeks, during all which time he had this horrible diarrhea...He was just like a little child wandering away from home."

The most concentrated hell came during the opening phase of the battle, on the Confederate left.  Union forces had succeeded in driving in the rebels and were following up their advantage when they were struck by the most ferocious counterattack launched during the war.  The best fighters in Lee's army--2,300 men under John Bell Hood--went into the fight shrieking at the top of their lungs, enraged because the Union advanced had interrupted their breakfast...and they had not eaten in almost three days.  

The 30 minutes that encompassed Hood's attack was, for my money, the worst fighting of the war.  So severe would Hood's losses be (nearly 1,200 in a half hour) that later that evening, in reply to an inquiry where his division could be found, Hood replied, "Dead on the field."  But his men succeeded in stabilizing the line, allowing more reinforcements to be brought up.

A Union officer, caught like the rest of his fellows in a situation not unlike a boxer who has fallen for a rope-a-dope and just stumbled into a vicious left hook, described the scene:

(Taken from Landscape Turned Red:  The Battle of Antietam by Stephen W. Sears, copyright 1983, pages 193, 194, and 198)

"Men I cannot say fell; they were knocked out of ranks by the dozens..."

Men were "...loading and firing with demoniacal fury and shouting and laughing hysterically..."

"Men and officers...are fused into a common mass, in the struggle to shoot fast.  Every body tears cartridges, loads, passes guns, or shoots.  Men are falling in their places..."

The first volley of Hood's counter attack "is like a scythe running through our line."

I should draw your attention to the fact that, even though he was writing this decades later, the memory remained so strong and vivid for the officer that he slipped into present tense.  Also, in addition the two previously mentioned books, another excellent full length treament is James I. Murfin's The Gleam of Bayonets.

The battle that ended at dusk was a standoff.  McClellan had missed several distinct opportunities to shatter the Southern lines and end the war.  His caution, however, always overcame him.  Still, as said, this was his finest hour.  He had pulled the army from a crisis of morale and had stopped Lee's invasion...though he could have accomplished so much more.  Lee retreated on September 19th and the war went on.

The real importance of the battle of Antietam was realized five days later.  On September 22nd, 1862, President Abraham Lincoln issued the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation.  Unless the South gave up her fight and returned the Union by the end of the year, all slaves in non-Union held territory would be declared free.  

The import of the Emancipation Proclamation has been studied in great detail by dozens of authors.  I shall not make an overlong diary even longer by rehashing such arguments.  Suffice it to say, that the war--and consequently, this country--was changed irrevocably and forever.  The idea of foreign intervention--the real key to any serious hopes of Confederate victory--was crushed.  Britain would never oppose a government that had officially come out against slavery in favor of a pro-slavery one.  Though it took 31 months more to finally perish, the Southern Confederacy began to die on September 17, 1862.  Lee's chief aide Walter Taylor, Confederate General James Longstreet, and thousands of soldiers on both sides would agree, writing years later, that Antietam was the pivotal event of the war.  Thus, it was one of the most pivotal events in United States and world history.  

The defining moment of the United States was defined by the Emancipation Proclamation, and its meaning and the struggle over it continue to affect us to this day.  Based on Lee's retreat, the Lincoln Administration claimed Antietam as a victory.  The Emancipation Proclamation could not have happened without Antietam.  Much of what Americans live with today grew out of what happened on that beautiful fall day so long ago, a beautiful day of nature made horrible by man.  


The reality of war came home to the Northern public like it never would in the aftermath of Antietam.  Matthew Brady's photographers arrived on the battlefield on September 19th, before the burial crews had finished their work.  The pictures they took would change the American psyche, American ideas about war, and, indirectly, journalism forever.

Image Hosted by ImageShack.us

Dead Louisianians lying along the Hagerstown pike.  The battle lines were so close that, at one point, Federal forces were exchanging fire with the Louisianians standing behind the fence on the other side of the road.

Image Hosted by ImageShack.us

Dead Confederates, likely North Carolinians, in "Bloody Lane"  Note how they lie in heaps.

This diary is dedicated in loving memory to the soldiers--Blue and Gray, Americans alike--who laid down their lives at Antietam.  Forgive us for what we have become and may we work to create a country that would be worthy of your sacrifice.

UPDATE, 9:30 p.m.: Wow! Thanks to all who liked this...I didn't expect such a positive response from something so long and rambling. For now, I'll pass out ratings and respond a little later...got a few things to do first

Originally posted to Raybin on Sat Sep 17, 2005 at 05:22 PM PDT.


Your Email has been sent.