Today marks the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Antietam, the bloodiest single day of war in American history. Back in the ‘90s, I became fascinated by the history of the US Civil War; and while I am not as consumed by the history I felt this date couldn’t be passed without notice.
Fought in farms and hills near Sharpsburg, Maryland along Antietam Creek, the fight was marked as the first battle of the Civil War on Union soil. The Confederacy gained ground during the summer of 1862, and General Robert E Lee turned the momentum into advancement across the Potomac River to gain a route to Washington D.C. General George B McClellan pressed his Union troops to hope to make the turn President Abraham Lincoln pressed him for. Events of the battle ebbed across several locations and were marred by moments of bad leadership (Lee’s battle plans fell into McClellan’s hands when one of Lee’s officers dropped them with a few cigars. McClellan matched Lee’s blunder by assuming the plans were a trap.), moments of bravery (the famous ‘Burnsides Bridge’ was named for when Burnside’s Brigade charged over a stone bridge still standing over the river in ultimately breaking a line of Southern forces shooting down on them from the ridge above), and over whelming devastation in massive stalemates (the carnage of the Cornfield in the morning was unmatched in its brutality, until a few hours later when the Sunken Road became blood bath that was won and lost too many times to notice).
As horrible as that day was, history counts the outcome as a strategic Union win, meaning it was pretty close to a draw but the outcome favoured the northern army. The Confederate advancement ended as they returned over the Potomac. Arguably, this could be called a draw, because General McClellan didn’t press the retreat citing a lack of troops even though he still outnumbered the Confederates 2 to 1 (many who saw no action at the battle). This would lead to McClellan losing his job in the months to come. The results of the battle, however, reached further than any win/loss column.
Though not considered the turning point of the Civil War (definitely not in the top two, and arguably not even in the top 5), it was devastating in public opinion.
Politically, it was thought that this lost discouraged England and France from investing in the Confederates, a move that could have turned the war.
Shortly after the battle, Alexander Gardner, a photographer from New York, arrived to take pictures of the battle. No time in the history of the world had war been shown so realistically. Photos include bloated carcasses of men and beast. Body laid in mass piles where they fell in battle. The ugliest includes the sunken road, which seems filled with dead men in both uniforms. For many who never had seen anything like this, it made an immediate reaction and the innocent romance of war was lost, maybe forever.
Yet, this victory, as small as it was, was enough for President Lincoln to release a simple letter. Powerless when published, it effected only those whom as Confederate ‘citizens’ didn’t recognize the President’s commands. Regardless, Antietam allowed Lincoln to Proclaim all slaves in rebel states Emancipated. From that time on, America righted itself onto a new course.
If you ever have a chance to visit Antietam, it is an incredible and oddly beautiful place to visit. It sits just a few hours outside of Washington DC near Fredericksburg, MD and close to Harpers Ferry and Gettysburg. I highly recommend the visit.