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  • James Houser

September 17, 1862 - The Battle of Antietam

Updated: Jun 13, 2021

September 17, 1862. Today is the bloodiest day in American history. As the sun goes down over the Antietam battlefield, 7,650 Americans are dead or dying. It was the soldiers of the Civil War that paid the price, and my theme today is the experience of the average soldier in the Civil War. Above all, Antietam was a soldiers’ battle.


Historians or observers use the term “soldiers’ battle” to describe an engagement that more or less spins out of the control of both sides’ commanders, and is determined by the courage, skill and determination of the individual soldier. The phrase is most famously associated with the Battle of Inkerman in the Crimean War, where the British rank and file fought through pea soup-foggy conditions on their own initiative, totally ignorant of the broader battle around them. Other famous battles that could be called “soldiers’ battles” include Shiloh, Iwo Jima or the city fighting in Stalingrad.


Personally, I find a lot to be desired by the phrase. I’m of the opinion that at their core, all battles are soldiers’ battles, and the commander always has less control than they think. From the distance of history, observers in the present tend to think of battles and campaigns as a complicated chess match, something that could be represented by pixels or game pieces on a board. The reality, of course, is far different and much more granular. The men in command are important, but the men on the ground often make the difference, and they often get slighted in the overall narrative. Battles are fought by thousands upon thousands of individuals making personal decisions based on unique circumstances.


I’m going to examine this theme first by summing up the events leading to Antietam. Fresh off success at the Seven Days Battles and at Second Bull Run, Robert E. Lee decided to invade the North for the first time in the Civil War. After such a long string of victories and believing the Union armies hopelessly demoralized, Lee believed that he should strike NOW while the iron was hot. He devised a complex plan that would involve the encirclement of the Union force at Harper’s Ferry, while the rest of his army strung up a complicated web of illusions to keep Union General George B. McClellan at bay.


Robert E. Lee crossed into Maryland with 55,000 men, but within a few days this had diminished to 45,000. This is Point A in my “soldiers make the war” story I’m spinning here. Many Confederate soldiers refused to invade the North on principle, since they had only volunteered to defend the South. Many others were simply starving or sick; in the last month, the army had been forced to subside on green corn and apples, which inflicted diarrhea on many soldiers. Finally, despite Lee’s magnetic charisma and the army’s victories, the troops were tired. Almost constant fighting from April to August had left many men shells of their former selves, worn out physically and mentally.


Some historians question Lee’s decision to invade the North at all. In fairness to Lee, his logic was sound: McClellan was a cautious general, frankly a moral coward unwilling to take any sort of risk. Lee figured he could pull his plan off without being disturbed despite the recent diminishing of his ranks. That almost certainly would have been the case if not for one of the greatest accidents in the history of military intelligence. A handful of Union soldiers found a copy of Lee’s operations order lying in the grass wrapped around three cigars. The order made it up to McClellan’s headquarters; the cigars didn’t.


Seizing this opportunity, McClellan moved faster and more decisively than he ever had before, bragging that with this revelation “if I cannot whip Bobbie Lee, I will be willing to go home.” Lee knew McClellan well, and perfectly predicted his response under usual circumstances – but with Lee’s entire plan in his hands, McClellan upset that balance.


When Lee realized that McClellan was moving much faster than expected, he moved quickly to bring his scattered forces back together. While Stonewall Jackson besieged and took Harper’s Ferry, Lee bought time with some last-ditch defensive battles at South Mountain. These battles were costly for the Confederates, but served their purpose, and when McClellan finally zeroed in on Lee’s force the Confederates had concentrated near the town of Sharpsburg, Maryland. Lee had gathered his forces in the nick of time, but he still only had about 38,000 men ready for battle, and many of them were still on their way, while McClellan had almost 90,000. It was one of the largest discrepancies of any Civil War battle.


What’s frankly astonishing about the runup to the Battle of Antietam is that Lee chose to fight at all. As his army came strolling up on September 16, 1862, McClellan hesitated to attack. If there was a time to destroy Lee’s army, maybe winning a decisive victory after 16 months of civil war, this was it. Lee had his back to the Potomac River, and though he tried to use the Antietam Creek as a defensive barrier his army was not long enough to defend the whole creek. Lee, for his part, could have used September 16 as an opportunity to retreat and save his army from possible destruction – but he would not leave Maryland without a fight. Lee’s decision not to retreat before the Battle of Antietam was, in hindsight, literally his worst decision of the whole war. It could have cost him his entire army. But McClellan was McClellan, and he did not attack.


The situation was different on September 17, 1862. With Lee clearly holding in place, McClellan was finally forced to attack his foe. George McClellan was famous for refusing to attack even when he had everything in his favor, but at this point he really had no other option. Lee was clearly outnumbered, trapped, but still somehow ready to fight. For image and political purposes, McClellan finally launched his attack on the morning of September 17.


On the Union side, the Battle of Antietam was an extremely poorly-managed battle. McClellan stayed miles behind the lines, only observing the battle through optical devices and issuing orders that were long obsolete by the time they arrived. Uncoordinated, pulled forward only by the impulses of junior officers, Union units plunged into battle haphazardly and randomly. Nevertheless, Lee and his generals – who played a much more active and decisive role – were tested mightily, shifting units around the battlefield to meet the bludgeoning Union attacks. Random points in the Maryland countryside achieved capitalized status: the Cornfield, the Sunken Road, the Bridge, the Turnpike, the West Woods.


With the Union army uncoordinated and virtually leaderless, and the Confederate army’s units shifting everywhere across the battlefield at high speed, command and control began to vanish. Units would retreat, scattering into the forest, then their members would come back with five different units. Union regiments would get lost and fall in with a totally different formation. Bands of men would slip away from the battle, only to find themselves at another point of conflict. While this is always the case in warfare, the chaos at Antietam was peculiar. The clear red and blue lines on the map tell us nothing about the situation on the ground.


The legendary Cornfield, in particular, became a potent symbol of chaos. Throughout the morning of September 17, blue and gray lines surged back and forth over this spot of ground. Initially a fully grown field nearly ripe for harvesting, by the end of the day it was trampled into nothingness. The Cornfield changed hands several times over the course of the battle. Each battle line surging forth to throw the other side out was hardly a perfect parade-ground formation. It was little more than a highly motivated mob of men, usually composed of many different units. As the generals fed more and more men into the battle, the units intermingled and intermixed, until all that was pushing the battle onward was the motivation of the individual soldiers. The Union ultimately won, finally crushing Hood’s Texas Brigade and driving it into the West Woods. The 1st Texas suffered a staggering loss of 82.3% casualties in the Cornfield – 186 out of the 226 engaged.


As the battle shifted south of the Cornfield, men would file in or out of the battle line as they saw fit. One Union brigade went forward under Colonel William Christian, an untested leader who lost his mind at the first sound of gunfire and fled to the rear. Most of his troops gawped as he ducked and weaved, holding his hat over his head, on the way through the ranks of his still-marching men. The soldiers shrugged and pushed forward anyway into the melee near the Cornfield.


The 90th Pennsylvania of Christian’s brigade plowed into the East Woods, where they ran into a firefight with Evander Law’s Alabama soldiers. They left their commander and about 98 men strewn across the field leading up to the woods. The colors went down. 17-year-old William Paul found ten other volunteers to race across the field to recover them. As seven of these men fell, passing the flag to each other, the colors made it back to the line with their third bearer. One of the Lieutenants managed to pull a wounded man back off the field as bullets cracked and buzzed around his head. Scenes like this were occurring everywhere.


The air everywhere reeked of sulfur, burning grass, and blood. It was hot, muggy, difficult to see the sun through the smoke, and a grey light ruled the landscape. As morning rose to near noon, the Union and Confederate generals fed more troops into the fight. Lee tried to patch the hole left by the collapse in the Cornfield, while McClellan from his hilltop camp ordered John Sedgwick’s Union division to assault the West Woods. The dull, hellish roar continued to grow in the ears of everyone on the field. No one could be heard above a shout.

As Sedgwick’s Division, a unit of hard veterans, marched across the field, no one had any idea where they were going. They filed into the West Woods under McClellan’s orders, with no mission and no idea where the enemy was, as the battle continued to roar around them. As the din of battle faded in the dense Maryland forest, they began to relax – then suddenly the storm erupted around them. They had blundered head-on into Lee’s reinforcements, and were caught in a crossfire that began ripping into the soldiers like sheets tearing in the wind.


Captain Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. of the 20th Massachusetts was struck. A musket ball went through the back of his neck and exited out the front, miraculously missing his jugular and windpipe. He sprawled on the ground in a pool of spreading blood as the chaos whipped up around him. As the battle shifted to another portion of the woods, men dropping, reloading, screaming, running, and shooting, a chaplain knelt beside the gasping Holmes and asked if he was a Christian. When Holmes croaked the affirmative, the reverend cackled “Ha! That’s all right!” and left the future Chief Justice of the Supreme Court for dead. Holmes waited until the battle had passed his little patch of dirt, then climbed to his feet in a great deal of pain and hobbled back to his own lines. The rest of Sedgwick’s Division streamed out of the West Woods, torn to pieces.


The battle shifted to the center, where the Confederates were positioned in a sunken wagon trail that formed a natural trench – the Sunken Road that was later called “Bloody Lane.” Union brigades charged them repeatedly, all ripped apart by musket and artillery fire, until Colonel Francis Barlow intervened. This young officer tied a frightened drummer boy to each side of his belt, stormed at his combined New York regiments for cowering, and led them into a flanking position.


The Bloody Lane position finally collapsed when an order came down to one brigade to send some of its men to the rear. Thanks to Murphy’s Law and the perils of battlefield communication, the whole brigade got the message that they were supposed to withdraw. Not needing to be told twice, they got up and ran to the rear, and the whole position collapsed. The center was only saved when Confederate General James Longstreet assembled a hub-to-hub line of artillery and blasted the pursuing bluecoats back into an orchard. Colonel Barlow fell with wounds to his face and groin from canister shot. Several soldiers braved fire and death to carry their commander back; he would be back to lead Union troops until Appomattox and reach the rank of Major General.


The battle shifted south. Here, columns of Union soldiers under Ambrose Burnside tried again and again to storm a stone bridge held by a unit of Georgia sharpshooters. Finally, one of the Union generals offered his men a full ration of whiskey if they managed to cross. The “Double 51” – the 51st New York and 51st Pennsylvania – found their motivation in the promise of booze and charged across the stone bridge, scattering the Georgians. This would end up being the critical moment of the battle, since this Georgia unit had basically been holding Lee’s right flank together.


As Burnside’s troops crossed over what would forever be “Burnside’s Bridge,” Lee’s army was saved by the last-minute arrival of General A.P. Hill’s division, the last unit of the scattered Confederate army. Among them was a South Carolina unit that included Private Berry Benson, who tried to lag behind the rest without being noticed. Under normal circumstances, he was quite courageous, but they had been approaching the roar of battle all day and after Gaines’ Mill, Frayser’s Farm and Second Manassas, his nerves were about shot.


As Benson tried to squirt to the rear, his Union sky-blue trousers, capturing during Second Manassas, nearly proved the end of him. They had split partway up the ankle and gotten soaked earlier in the Potomac. As he retreated, the wet leg split higher and higher as it stuck to his skin, and the flapping pants leg started to stick to his right leg. As he bent down to untangle his disintegrating pants, a bullet smacked him on the right side of the skull, somehow bouncing off and leaving only a scratch. Cursing, he ripped his pants off entirely and bounded back from the battle in only his drawers.

To tell these men that this would be a great battle, remembered for generations, would be enlightening. Lee’s army escaped destruction; McClellan failed in his great opportunity to end the war in a stroke. Lincoln considered Lee’s retreat enough of a victory to issue his Emancipation Proclamation in the days after the fight, but soon relieved McClellan for obvious reasons. The bloodiest day in American history was a momentous occasion, but for the men who fought it, this was probably far from their minds in the heat and smoke of September 17.


Everyone fought their own battle, faced their own trials. Maybe they survived a grievous wound, or avoided a wound and lost their dignity in the process. Some leaders rose to the occasion, some fell to their fears. As we can see from Private Benson, many men sought to escape the fight, but far more went to it of their own will. The casualties at Antietam – of America’s bloodiest day – were made of all these men.


As night fell, Clara Barton and her thirty volunteers hung lanterns in a local farmhouse as they prepared to bring in the wounded. Barton, later founder of the American Red Cross, found a tired surgeon with blood up to his arms staring at a flickering stub of a candle on the table. The surgeon vented to her “I am tired, tired of such heartlessness, of such carelessness. Here are at least one thousand wounded men, five hundred of whom cannot live till daylight without attention. That two inches of candle is all I have or can get. What can I do?”


Barton directed him to the house she had been preparing, where the surgeon glowed to life with the opportunity to save lives. Far from the generals, the maps, the battles and the history books, the doctor and the nurse set to work doing what they could.


The sun went down on September 17, 1862. The battle was over for everyone but the wounded, and those trying to save them.

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