The Civil War’s bloodiest day: Lee turned back at Antietam (1962)
A look back on the centennial, by Merton T. Akers — The Lawrence Gazette (Lawrence, Ohio) September 16, 1962
The bloodiest day of battle in the civil war occurred on Sept. 17, 1862, along the banks of a small stream in western Maryland called Antietam Creek.
Federals called the battle Antietam, from the creek. Confederates called it Sharpsburg, from a nearby village.
Federals called it a victory, Confederates a drawn battle.
Nearly 5,000 men, Blue and Gray, were killed. in action — 2,108 Northerners and 2,760 Southerners.
All told, there were 26,134 casualties — 12,410 federals; 13,724 Confederates.
About 125,000 men fought that red September day. The Confederate invasion of Maryland splashed to a high water mark at Antietam, and then receded back into Virginia where Gen. Robert E. Lee returned to the defensive.
Gains and losses
The two-week invasion was only a partial success. Lee’s objective of recruiting in Maryland fell flat. His aim to lure Union forces out of northern Virginia, already devastated, was successful for only about a month.
Hopes of gaining a decisive victory on Union soil and swaying Britain and France into recognizing the Confederacy vanished. One objective Lee did achieve — he fed his hungry army on the lush provender of Maryland.
After the battle of South Mountain on Sept. 14, Lee pulled his wing of the army back to Sharpsburg, and made a daring decision to stand and fight despite the shaky position and inferiority of numbers.
Nearly half the army, under Stonewall Jackson, was at Harper’s Ferry, south of Sharpsburg.
Harper’s Ferry was a rich prize still in the hands of the federals. Lee had expected it would be abandoned when his army flanked it by crossing the Potomac between it and Washington.
But the federals held on and Lee divided his forces, sending Jackson to capture it.
Jackson was to rejoin the army farther north. Lee de- pended on Major Gen. George B. McClellan advancing his Union Army of the Potomac cautiously.
But Lee’s order dividing his army had fallen into McClellan’s hands, and he was closing in more rapidly.
Jackson made short work of Harper’s Ferry. He closed in on three sides. By Sept. 14, the more than 12,000 federal troops at the Ferry were looking up into the muzzles of Confederate cannon on the heights around the town.
Their situation was hopeless, and at 9 a.m., on Sept. 15, Col. D.S. Miles surrendered. He was killed after the white flags went up.
Leaving the division of Maj. Gen. A.P. Hill at the Ferry, Jackson started his men immediately for Sharpsburg. Harper’s Ferry yielded 11,000 prisoners (1,300 escaped) 13,000 small arms and 73 cannons.
Jackson’s ‘foot cavalry’ marched all night and reached Sharpsburg on the 16th, none too soon.
McClellan had moved his army into a semi-circle north, east and south of Sharpsburg that day but decided ”it was too late to attack” before dark.
Lee’s army lined up north and east of Sharpsburg with its back to the Potomac, a dangerous position in case of defeat.
The battle of Antietam opened at dawn on Sept. 7. The corps of Maj. Gen. Joseph Hooker hit from the federal right, attacking Jackson’s command under heavy artillery fire.
Hooker’s men fought their way into Jackson’s line but eventually were beaten off by reinforcements.
Maj. Gen. Joseph K. F. Mansfield’s corps next struck at Jackson but it, too, was repulsed, Mansfield dying at its head. Hooker was wounded in the foot.
About 8am, Maj. Gen. Edwin V. Sumner marched his corps, the biggest in the Army of the Potomac, across the Antietam and attacked in about the same spot.
Here along a sunken road, called from that day Bloody Lane, the heaviest fighting of the battle occurred.
The bluecoats charged the lane time after time only to be beaten back.
Finally after noon, a Union charge carried the lane. A federal soldier described the scene:
“What a sight was that lane… I saw many a ghastly array of dead afterward, but none, I think, that so affected me as did the sight of the poor brave fellows in butternut homespun who died there… “
At this point, Lee’s left and center lines were little more than threads. But McClellan, overestimating Lee’s strength, held back his Sunday punch and missed his chance.
Soon after noon, the fighting on the federal right died away.
Then the federal corps of Maj. Gen. Ambrose E. Burnside attacked on the left. He had been ordered to carry a bridge over the creek. Three times he sent his troops onto the bridge, which now bears his name. The creek could have been forded almost anywhere.
The blue columns, which filled the bridge from guardrail to guardrail, gave Confederate cannoneers a perfect target and they made the most of it, knocking out whole squads at a time.
But one federal charge rolled over the bridge by sheer force of numbers. They reformed and went up on the slope.
Here, too, complete success eluded the federals.
Burnside was on the edge of victory when part of A.P. Hill’s division hit him on the left. Hill’s men had made a forced march from Harper’s Ferry, about half of them falling exhausted. But enough stood up to deliver the blow at 4 pm, which saved the Confederate army.
All night Sept. 17-18, the armies buried the dead and tended the wounded by lantern light.
Lee held a meeting that night. He decided not to retreat, a move the rulebook called for under the conditions. It was noon of the 18th before Jackson and Maj. Gen. James Longstreet talked him out of an offensive.
McClellan, despite the fact that he had 24,000 troops who had seen little action the day before, and two new divisions which arrived early on Sept. 18, felt too crippled to attack again.
That night Lee withdrew across the Potomac and back into Virginia with only a token pursuit by the federals.
Although McClellan felt too weak to attack, he wrote that day in a private letter: “Those in whose judgment I rely tell me that I fought the battle splendidly and that it was a masterpiece of art.” Few agreed.
Union Maj. Gen, George Gordon Mead summed up the battle this way: “We hurt them a little more than they hurt us.”‘
Scratch victory though it was, President Lincoln seized on it and put the final touches on his Emancipation Proclamation.
This was one of the turning points in the Civil war.
The 93d New York Infantry, Antietam (1862)
Photo from Oct. 4, 1862 shows McClellan’s headquarters guard, the Ninety-third New York volunteers, including unit commander Col. John S. Crocker on horseback to immediate right of the flag.
Dunker Church – Antietam, Maryland (1862)
Battle scene in front of Dunker Church (1862)
Newspaper map of the Battle of Antietam (from 1907)
A. “East Wood,” where Hooker engaged Hood’s Division from sunset till dark, the 16th.
B. The “Cornfield.” where Hooker and Jackson began the terrible contest at dawn, the 17th.
C. “West Wood,” where Sedgwick’s charge was repulsed.
D. Roulette’s House, where French and Richardson dislodged D. H. Hill about the time Sedgwick charged.
E. “Bloody Lane.” where D. H. Hill reformed and was again dislodged. Ricardson was mortally wounded in Field E.
F. Hagerstown turnpike, where Irwin’s Brigade was repelled.
G. Piper’s House, where D. H. Hill, reinforced by R.H. Anderson’s Division, fought.
H. Where Stuart attempted a flank movement, and was driven back by Doubleday’s 30 guns.
J. Scene of Pleasanton’s movement.
K. The heights gained in the charge across “Burnside’s Bridge.”
L. The ford, from which Toombs was driven.
M. Burnside’s lines completed the defeat of D. H. Hill’s Division and gained the outskirts of Sharpsburg.
Hand drawn Battle of Antietam map – Sneden
In this extremely detailed map, Robert Knox Sneden indicated the locations of roads, bridges, the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal, houses, barns, plowed fields, and the Antietam Iron Works. The Union and Confederate signal stations are also noted.
The line of battle is located east of the town of Sharpsburg on September 16; encompassing the town on September 17 (after the actual battle); and to the west of town on September 18th as Lee’s Confederate troops retreated back across the Potomac toward Shepherdstown, West Virginia.
Allan Pinkerton (EJ Allen) “There are no such detectives today” (1912)
Text from The Harrisburg Telegraph (Harrisburg, Pennsylvania) June 25, 1912
Allan Pinkerton was the famous detective and organizer of the Secret Service of the Federal Army. Only a few people, in North and South together, knew his identity.
As “Major Allen,” this keen-witted detective and his operatives, through their secret workings, forestalled and averted battles, divulged secret plots hatched by the enemy, probably saved the lives of generals and helped more than the soldiers to preserve the unity of a nation.
Compared with Pinkerton and his men, the dangers encountered by the modern sleuth sink into insignificance.
For, unlike the detective of today, who has everyone on his side except the guilty, Pinkerton and his followers were not only forced to conceal their identity from those whom they were pursuing, but were also liable at any moment to betray themselves to the entire community in which they moved.
The Secret Service operatives of the Civil War days hunted down men, entered within the enemy’s lines to learn the location of earthworks, the strength of the batteries, the numbers of opposing forces when failure meant death; when success brought only the reward of labor for love of country.
For these men, whose valor was, perhaps, greater than that of the soldiers in the armies, there was no beat of drums and crash of arms and fanfare of war to arouse their courage — their names will not be found on any roll of honor — their place is among the unknown heroes of history.
The names of a few of these great detectives, with their pictures, have been rescued from obscurity with the discovery of the original negatives taken by the great Civil War photographer, Mathew B. Brady.
Battle of Antietam – Army of the Potomac by Kurz and Allison (1888)
Antietam battle scene – Old Sunken Road (1862)
Later: Old Sunken Road aka “Bloody Lane” (1877)
This photograph of Old Sunken Road was taken in 1877. It was the site of the second of three major phases of the Battle of Antietam…
The road became known as “Bloody Lane” when 4,000 men died in 30 minutes.