September 17, 1862 was the bloodiest single day in U. S. history-by a long shot.
Total deaths — the worst. Total casualties (killed, wounded and missing) — the worst. Deaths and total casualties adjusted as a percentage of total population — worse yet!
During this past week, as we’ve all appropriately reflected on the horrors and transformation of our world on September 11, 2001, perhaps it is worthwhile to also reflect on the self-inflicted horror our own American ancestors “chose” to immerse themselves in over the course of one day of fighting at the Civil War Battle of Antietam (known to the Confederates as the Battle of Sharpsburg).
Generally accepted approximate casualty figures include 6,300 to 6,500 killed or mortally wounded that day. Nearly 20,000 more soldiers were wounded or missing.
Civil War historian James M. McPherson places these statistics into gruesome and sobering context by pointing out that the number killed or mortally wounded that day at Antietam is approximately twice the number of total deaths from the terrorist attacks of 9/11/2001; total casualties that day were nearly four times the total of U.S. casualties on D-Day (the June 6, 1944 invasion at Normandy). Viewed in a contemporary context, casualties that single day at Antietam exceeded the combined American losses in all other 19th century wars involving the U.S. (i.e., the War of 1812, the Mexican-American War, the Spanish-American War, and all the Indian Wars). (Source: Crossroads of Freedom: Antietam, by James M. McPherson (2002, Oxford University Press).
A number of historians and scholars make a credible case that Antietam represents the truest “turning point” of the Civil War, a label usually reserved for the Battle of Gettysburg (and the simultaneous Union capture of Vicksburg) in early July, 1863. But often lost in the discussion of how critical the Antietam “victory” was to the Union is the predictable but nonetheless infuriating paranoia and caution of Union General George McClellan, which resulted in the survival and escape of Lee’s army, to fight again and again: at Fredericksburg, and Chancellorsville, and Gettysburg and the Wilderness, and Spotsylvania, and Cold Harbor, and Petersburg until finally surrendering at Appomattox on April 9, 1865!
And before any reader jumps to McClellan’s defense, here’s one added factual tidbit — he had a copy of General Lee’s troop deployments and battle plans days ahead of time! I’m not making this up — somehow, a copy of Lee’s battle orders (Special Orders No. 191) came into the possession of a Union soldier, and was promptly delivered to McClellan about five days prior to the battle. Included in the intercepted orders were the precise routes which Lee had identified as he split his forces into four separate parts, targeting Harper’s Ferry, South Mountain and Frederick, MD.
McClellan was well aware of what a gift he had received, and was bragging to his own staff and to his superiors in Washington of certain victory. “Now I know what to do!” Another officer present at the time quoted McClellan as rejoicing that “here is a paper with which if I cannot whip ‘Bobbie Lee’ I will be willing to go home.”
McClellan’s telegraph message to the President read: “I think Lee has made a gross mistake, and that he will be severely punished for it… I have the plans of the rebels, and will catch them in their own trap.” But, perhaps to no one’s surprise, McClellan then chose a cautious and SLOW strategy — inexplicably, after waiting six precious hours after intercepting Lee’s orders to issue instructions to his own commanders, he suggested that, rather than an immediate call to arms, movement of Union troops could wait until the next day. Thus was squandered an opportunity to catch Lee’s forces while divided and in transit at South Mountain, Harper’s Ferry and across the Maryland countryside prior to the time they would concentrate at Sharpsburg/Antietam.
The battlefield of Antietam
But in spite of this bizarre procrastination, the prospects for a great and decisive Union victory were still alive. McClellan had three distinct opportunities to destroy or capture Lee’s army. First, at a critical time on the afternoon of the 17th, McClellan refused to engage his reserves as reinforcement to General Burnside’s attempted breakthrough on the Confederate right flank. Added troop support at that stage of the battle would almost certainly have turned Lee’s flank and resulted in a more decisive Union victory. But fresh from his inexcusable failure to aid General Pope at the Battle of 2nd Manassas, McClellan’s friend and sycophant, General Fitz-John Porter, convinced him it was safer and therefore wiser to keep his division of fresh reserve troops out of harm’s way. Instead, nightfall and Confederate General A.P Hill came to Lee’s rescue, and the unprecedented daylong fratricide at battlefield locations still remembered as “the Cornfield,” “Bloody Lane,” “Dunker Church,” “West Woods” and “East Woods,” and “Burnside’s Bridge” came to a close.
The next day, Lee braced for the expected renewed attack by the Union forces which outnumbered him nearly 2 to 1, but that charge never came. McClellan was frozen in place, more certain than ever that the brutality of the previous day’s fighting was proof that Lee must outnumber him 2 to 1, when in fact McClellan held that advantage over Lee.
On the third day, September 19, Lee skillfully withdrew his battered forces away from Sharpsburg and across the nearby Potomac River to Virginia. General A.P. Hill brought up the rear, on the lookout for the anticipated vigorous pursuit by the Union Army which again might very well have captured and destroyed the weaker Confederates. But he encountered only a meager and half hearted pursuing Union detachment, which his rearguard easily repelled on the shores of the Potomac.
McClellan’s reticence to fight on at Antietam allowed Lee to flee safely to the protected sanctuary of the Shenandoah Valley, but did not prevent Abraham Lincoln and the Union from capitalizing on the more modest victory for which such an exorbitant price had been paid in American lives.
Lincoln and the Union derived three significant benefits from the Battle of Antietam: the Emancipation Proclamation (announced on September 22), the continued tenuous neutrality of England, France, and Russia, and finally the dismissal in November of McClellan from command of the Army of the Potomac. The Emancipation Proclamation and European neutrality are topics for future columns.
Most of the editorial opinion and the character attacks on Generals McClellan and Porter in this column are those of the author, but the underlying historical facts are reliably derived from an impeccable source: Crossroads of Freedom: Antietam, by James M. McPherson, cited above.
Patrick Teegarden shares his knowledge about the Civil War with Statesman readers each week. He can be contacted at: Patrick@coloradostatesman.com.