On September 17th, 1787, the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia approved the final draft of the United States Constitution, and thirty-eight delegates, including George Washington, the President of the Convention, filed forward to sign the document. It was a great moment in American history. “In writing the Constitution, the Founding Fathers launched a daring experiment. The idea that a free people could begin a new country by designing their own government and writing down the laws and principles they would follow had never been tried before. The Constitution has guaranteed freedom, equality, opportunity, and justice to hundreds of millions of people.” However, this document, birthed out of the promise of freedom for all Americans, allowed for the continuation of slavery in the United States. The question of slavery would not be answered until the American Civil War, a conflict where the issue of slavery and freedom was at its very heart. A century-and-a-half later, the very existence of the country for which the Constitution was created, as well as the question of slavery, would be fought over for twelve agonizing hours along a creek named the Antietam, near a small Maryland town called Sharpsburg.
The road to Antietam began on August 30th, 1862. On that day, Confederate General Robert E. Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia dealt a severe blow to Union General John Pope and his army at the Battle of Second Manassas. It was a major triumph for Lee and his men. They had successfully prevented George B. McClellan and the Army of the Potomac from taking Richmond the past July. Now, another large army had been defeated, and forced to retreat from Virginia. Now, Virginia was briefly free of Federal troops. Lee, not one to rest on his laurels, planned a bold move. He planned to take his army north into Maryland.
Lee had several reasons for doing this. With the fall harvest coming along, he could feed his army well. Maryland was also a state being held in the Union by force, and the presence of Confederate troops in that state could be viewed as liberation. He felt the state might show them hospitality, and the army might receive additional troops from the state as well He also saw a chance to possibly move into Pennsylvania, if things went well. Success in the northern states might also convince European powers to intercede in the war on Confederates behalf. Although some felt skeptical that a move into Maryland, which might be construed as an invasion, would succeed, the plan was approved. On September 4th, 1862, the Army of Northern Virginia began to cross the Potomac River into Maryland, for the first invasion of northern soil by Confederate troops. He divided his army into four wings. Three of the wings were sent with General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson to deal with the Union garrison at Harper’s Ferry, West Virginia. The fourth segment would move along the Blue Ridge Mountains.
In Washington City, Union President Abraham Lincoln was having serious troubles. His last three army commanders had proven to be the wrong man for the job. Irving McDowell had been defeated at First Manassas in July of 1861. George McClellan had lost all nerve and had retreated from the Peninsula the past July. And John Pope had been defeated at the Second Battle of Manassas in August. Lincoln was desperate for a victory, so he reluctantly returned McClellan to command of the Union troops in the field. On September 13th, McClellan received a piece of luck in his hands. A copy of General Lee’s Special Orders 191, detailing the troop movements of the entire Confederate Army, was found in a field wrapped around some cigars. McClellan knew the chance to defeat Lee was given to him. “I have all the plans of the rebels and will catch them in their own trap,” wrote the exuberant McClellan to President Lincoln.
On September 14th, 1862, Confederates were surprised by the Union assaults at Fox’s and Crampton’s Gap along South Mountain. Although they stood defiantly, the Confederates were no match for the oncoming Federals, and Lee was forced to order a retreat. However, Lee halted the retreat when word reached him that Jackson’s attack on Harper’s Ferry was succeeding. He stopped his men near the town of Sharpsburg, Maryland, along a stream known as Antietam Creek, to wait for further word. The following day, Jackson wrote that the garrison had surrendered. Lee decided to wait along the Antietam to reunite his force. While Jackson ordered A.P. Hill and his division to remain at the Ferry to parole Federal prisoners, he took the remainder of his force to reunite with Lee. By the end of the 16th, he had rejoined Lee at Sharpsburg. Still, Lee had only some 38,000 troops, and was outnumbered by McClellan three to one. But McClellan would once again prove being inept to command and his failures as a leader would result in the bloodiest single day in American history.
The Battle of Antietam began at dawn on September 17, 1862. “The Union army launched assault after assault against the Confederate left – precisely where Lee had positioned Jackson. Fierce fighting raged incessantly for nearly four hours in” the Miller Cornfield,” the East Woods, and the West Woods. About midway through the butchery, as Jackson’s reserves were thinning, John Bell Hood rushed forward with his division, the Texas Brigade leading the charge.” Although the Texas Brigade suffered heavy losses, they halted the Union momentum.
The Miller Cornfield, site of some of the heaviest fighting at Antietam.
Also involved in the fighting around this sector was the 49th North Carolina Troops, which would see heavy fighting in the West Woods. Although not present at the battle himself, a member of Company I of the 49th, William A. Day, wrote of the battle in his history that he wrote some thirty years later. “We were in the battle all day and made several charges on the enemy, driving them back several times,” Day wrote. The battle along Jackson’s sector raged for four hours, and although the attacks by six Union divisions had caused the Confederate left to buckle, it did not break. When the first phase of fighting at Antietam was over, over 8,000 men were killed or wounded.
The next phase of fighting shifted to the Confederate center, where Confederates held a depression known as the Sunken Road. Here, Federal troops would once again attack in wave after wave. Amongst the units charging against this position was the Irish Brigade, led by General Thomas Francis Meagher. Although they showed gallantry in the fight, they were unable to successfully drive Confederates from their position. However, Federal attacks did inflict serious casualties. The road became covered in Confederate dead, with blood filling the bottom of the depression. From this time forward, the Sunken Road would be forever known as the Bloody Lane. “The Confederate line broke here after three hours of valiant defense, but the Federals failed to exploit the breach.” 5,500 Confederate and Union troops fell in this phase of the battle.
The Sunken Road (left), and the field Federal troops crossed to get there.
The third and final phase of the fighting shifted to the Confederate right, where Major General Ambrose Burnside attempted to dislodge Confederates on bluffs overlooking the Antietam. He first tried to send troops over a narrow bridge that now bears his name, but to no avail. However, Union troops were able to forward the Antietam downstream, and were successfully able to push the Confederates from their positions. However, just “as Burnside was about to smash Lee’s right, more help arrived: A.P. Hill’s division hurrying up from Harper’s Ferry. Hill’s men swarmed onto the battlefield, stunning Burnside and driving him backward – thus securing Lee’s line and ending the battle at dusk. It represented a remarkable effort by Hill, who had marched his men seventeen miles in seven hours and battled for another three, saving Lee’s army from certain defeat.”
Overlooking the site of A.P. Hill’s attack at Antietam.
With Hill’s successful counterattack, the Battle of Antietam was over. Confederate losses totaled 10,316 killed, wounded and captured or missing. Union losses amounted to 12,401. In just twelve hours of fighting, both sides had lost over 22,700 men, the highest casualty numbers for any single day in American history. And the battle that was fought became a tactical draw for both sides. Although Lee had suffered the loss of nearly a third of his army, he remained in place the following day, as if daring McClellan to strike again. But McClellan chose not to do so, and on the night of the 18th, Lee began to pull his army back across the Potomac, to the safety of Virginia. McClellan chose to not follow, allowing the Confederates to escape.
Although Lincoln was furious with McClellan for not chasing Lee, he realized that the Confederates had been thwarted in their attempt to invade Maryland. This gave the President the “victory” he needed to change the aim of the war. On September 22nd, 1862, five days after the bloody fight at Antietam, Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, stating that any slave held in bondage in those states in rebellion would be forever free as of January 1st, 1863. With this document, Lincoln gave the war a dual purpose: preserve the Union, and end the scourge of slavery. This document also helped to keep European powers at bay, and Confederates began to realize that a war over the very question of slavery was one they could not win. So, it can be said that the Battle of Antietam was truly the beginning of the end of the American Civil War for the Confederacy.
Works Cited and Consulted
Bennett, William J., and Cribb, John T.E. The American Patriot’s Almanac. Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishing, 2008.
Day, William A. A True History of Company I, 49th Regiment, North Carolina Troops, in the Great Civil War, Between the North and South. Newton, NC: Enterprise Job Office, 1893.
Frye, Dennis E. “Bloody Antietam: ‘The Most Terrible Clash of Arms…’” Gods and Generals: The Illustrated Story of the Epic Civil War Film. New York: Newmarket Press, 2003.
McPherson, James M. Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era. New York: Oxford University Press, 1988.
 William J. Bennett and John T.E. Cribb, The American Patriot’s Almanac (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishing, 2008), 354.
 Dennis E. Frye, “Bloody Antietam: ‘The Most Terrible Clash of Arms…’”, Gods and Generals: The Illustrated Story of the Epic Civil War Film (New York: Newmarket Press, 2003), 113.
 William A. Day, A True History of Company I, 49th Regiment, North Carolina Troops, in the Great Civil War, Between the North and South (Newton, NC: Enterprise Job Office, 1893), 28.