The Battle of Antietam

September 17, 1862

"The Bloodiest Day of the Civil War"

revised January 10, 2001

 

 

Dead near the Dunker Church

Table of Contents

Statistics for the Bloodiest Day of the Civil War

Eyewitness Accounts

Battle Prelude September 15-16, 1862

Links to The Battle of Antietam

The Cornfield

Battlefield Images and Aftermath

Bloody Lane

Dedication

Burnside's Bridge

E-Mail

Antietam resulted in nine times as many Americans killed or wounded (22,726 soldiers) as took place on June 6, 1944--D-Day

Statistics for the Bloodiest Day of the Civil War

Confederate Losses
Union Losses

Killed-1,512

Killed--2,108

Wounded--7,816

Wounded--9,549

Captured/Missing--1,844

Captured/Missing--753

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Battle Prelude September 15-16, 1862

Lee's first invasion of the North came to a halt in the small town of Sharpsburg. Many have questioned Lee's wisdom in choosing this spot to stand and fight due to his inferior numbers and the lack of escape avenues. The Potomac River in the Confederates' rear offered the only major escape avenue available to Lee's forces. Lee's boldness was influenced by the crescent-shaped ridge that ran from the northwest to the southeast of Sharpsburg. It should be noted that General Longstreet objected to this site, while General Jackson endorsed it. The three mile long Confederate line used the Potomac to anchor their left and Antietam Creek to anchor the right.

Many believe that General McClellan failed to take advantage of a golden opportunity on September 16. Instead of attacking Lee, McClellan used this day to prepare his lines and place his artillery. His delay in attacking allowed Lee to quickly bring up General Jackson and his men. The night of the 16th both armies spent in anticipation of the fight that would surely come at dawn.

McClellan's plan was to begin the battle by attacking Lee's left flank, occupied by General Jackson's men, with the I and XII Corps. Support would be provided by two additional corps. It was hoped that this intense attack would result in the collapse of the Confederate left, forcing them into the Confederate center held by Hill. At the same time the IX Corps would attack Lee's right, occupied by General Longstreet, and prevent Lee from being able to access his escape route. The remaining Federal forces would then attack the center, crushing the Confederates in this three prong assault.

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The Cornfield

The tranquility of dawn held the promise of a glorious fall day. That tranquility was soon broken as Major General Joseph ordered thirty-five Union cannons to open fire on the Confederates' left. At 6:00 a.m., 12,000 men from the I Corps charged down the Hagerstown Pike to attack the ground held by Jackson's smaller force of around 7,000. The Union continued the attack through the woods and into a forty acre cornfield. The heavy fire of the Confederate muskets commanded a heavy toll from the Union attackers. With each step forward, Union soldiers fell to the ground, having been struck down by the whining song of the Confederate mini balls. The Union troops almost reached the high ground near the Dunker Church. Lead rained down all around them, as cannonballs and canister took a devastating toll upon the attackers. The cornfield of the Miller farm soon yielded gruesome harvest as the weapons of war turned it into a slaughter pen. The toll was high for both sides as officers and men fell side by side. Shortly before 7:30 a.m., Jackson's line was in danger giving way--it seemed that the Union would succeed. At this desperate moment, the fresh southern troops led by Generals Hill and Hood rushed into the melee, forcing the I Corps from the field. The I Corps lost 25% of its number and were unable to fight any more that day. Their commander, General Hooker, was one the casualties.

The Union's next assault was lead by Major General Joseph K. F. Mansfield. Mansfield commanded the XII Corps composed of the veterans of Banks's Valley Campaign. Mansfield hurried his troops into the battle, and was one of the first to be mortally wounded. The assault moved forward and the Union managed to retake a portion of the east woods and cornfield. This assault lasted around 29 minutes and bore no fruit. Hooker later described the scene in these words, "every stalk in the northern and greater part of the field was cut as closely as could have been done with a knife, and the slain lay in rows precisely as they had stood in their ranks a few moments before. It was never my fortune to witness a more bloody, dismal battlefield."

After 3 hours of murderous fighting, McClellan order a third attack over this bloodied ground. At 9:00 a.m. General "Bull" Sumner attacked Jackson's line from the east-northeast. The lull in the battle had allowed Jackson the time needed to readjust his lines in an arc facing northward. As Sumner's 18,000 men charged forward, they quickly lost alignment and fell victim to Jackson's trap. In less than 20 minutes, Sedgwick's lead division had suffered a casualty rate of around 50%. Jackson then ordered his command to charge into the cornfield and reached the northern end before coming under a galling crossfire from fifty Union cannons hidden from view. Jackson was force to abort his attack. This concluded the four-hour fight on the Confederate left.

 

"In the time I am writing," Hooker reported, "every stalk of corn in the northern and greater part of the field was cut as closely as could have been done with a knife, and the slain lay in rows precisely as they had stood in their ranks a few moments before."

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Bloody Lane

The second phase of the Battle of Antietam began around 10:00 a.m. and would also last four hours. This time the Union assault would be aimed at the Confederate center. Once again McClellan would fail to coordinate his attacks to take advantage of his superior numbers and Lee's weakened center.

As the battle moved to the south Lee's center was held by two brigades commanded by Robert Rodes and G. B. Anderson. These brigades belonged to General Harvey Hill's division. These Confederate troops were along a sunken road that ran 1000 yards to both the south and east. As the Confederates attempted to further fortify their concealed position in this sunken lane, they spotted Union forces on the hill above them. These Union troops were part of Sumner's II Corps. As they moved in the direction of the Confederate center, many described their appearance as being parade like. Major General William H. French commanded the lead division of the Union attack.

As French's division drew within range of the sunken road, a murderous volley was delivered by the Confederates, and the Union troops seemed to suddenly disappear. A second group of Union soldiers met a similar fate as they attempted to attack the southern position. Both sides quickly brought in reinforcements, and for three hours the slaughter continued with neither side gaining the advantage.

Major General Israel B. Richardson's division joined the fight to aid French's division. Near 1:00 p.m., Richardson's men were able to gain the high ground near the road's bend and delivered an enfilading fire upon the remaining 300 Confederates forcing them to fall back to new positions. If General McClellan had continued to push the advantage that these brave men had gained, Lee's center would have collapsed and resulted in the ruin of the army and perhaps the Confederacy as well. General McClellan elected to end the fight in this section stating, "It would not be prudent" to continue the attack. This marked the end of the second phase of the Battle of Antietam.

Union officers who viewed the bodies of the Confederates in the sunken road stated that the lane was completely covered with bodies as far as the eye could see. This sunken road became known from this day forward as "Bloody Lane."

 

Bloody Lane

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Southeast of town, Union Gen. Ambrose E. Burnside's corps of 12,000 men had been trying to cross a 12-foot-wide bridge over Antietam Creek since 9:30 a.m.

Burnside's Bridge

The third and final phase of the Battle of Antietam took place to the south of the battlefield where a stone bridge crossed Antietam Creek. General Ambrose Burnside was given the task of attacking the Confederate right. The Confederates, commanded by Brigadier General Robert Toombs, were entrenched on a hillside overlooking Antietam Creek and the stone bridge that spanned it. Toombs' forces consisted of several small Georgia regiments. The task should have been an easy one for Burnside and the IX Corps if he had used his superior numbers to his advantage. Instead of delivering a massive decisive blow, Burnside sent his troops forward one regiment at a time to cross the stone bridge. The Confederates were able to deliver a rain of shot and shell as the Union troops struggled to cross the narrow stone bridge. Regiment after regiment was forced back by the murderous fire from the hillside.

As the battle at Bloody Lane drew to a close, the Union artillery concentrated a heavy bombardment at the bridge and the hillside. This support allowed the 51st New York and the 51st Pennsylvania to cross the bridge and establish a foothold on the opposite bank. The Confederates were soon forced to retire from the crest of the hill. Once again McClellan had the opportunity to deliver a crushing blow to Lee's army. Once again, delay and lack of coordination proved to be McClellan's downfall as Burnside delayed for over two hours before advancing the attack.

In mid-afternoon, the Union army finally began moving thousands of Federal troops toward Lee's weakened flank. Burnside's superior numbers quickly moved through Toombs' Georgians and engaged D. R. Jones's four brigades. Lee desperately moved both men and guns south to meet the Union's massive attack. The southerners held on through sheer desperation as the cause appeared to be lost. The town of Sharpsburg was in flames and utter confusion as the battle roared around it. The Union moved to within nine hundred yards of Lee's only escape route. Victory seemed within sight for Burnside and his troops.

In the frenzy of battle, with the smell of victory in the air, the Union troops failed to notice the approach from the south of General A. P. Hill's Light Division. Hill's men had been left behind to secure Harper's Ferry. Hill had wisely left his post in mid-morning to march hard towards the sound of the battle. The march of 17 miles was so demanding that only 3,000 of Hill's 5,000 made it to Sharpsburg. Hill's exhausted troops, never stopping, slammed, screaming the rebel yell, into Burnside's left flank. In a matter of minutes, the tide of the battle was turned. The Union advance was stopped and forced back to the banks of Antietam Creek. This marked the final action of the Battle of Antietam.

As night fell, the sounds of battle gave way to the screams and groans of the wounded that the 14 hours of vicious fighting had produced. The Day of September 18th both armies spent waiting for the other side to renew the fight. The fight never came and Lee retired from the field on the evening of the 18th.

Graves at Burnside's Bridge

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Eyewitness Accounts

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Links to The Battle

of Antietam

These links deal with the entire battle

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Battlefield Images

and Aftermath

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Dedication

This page was created by Linda Ervin for the students of Elkton Middle School, Elkton, Virginia. It is my hope that it will in some small way help them to see history in a different light--not just words on a printed page, but as a doorway to the past.

 

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