Battle of Antietam


On September 4, 1862, advance elements of the Army of Northern Virginia pushed across the Potomac into Maryland. Lee hoped the invasion would afford an opportunity meet and crush the Army of the Potomac under Maj. Gen. George B. McClelland. Politically, the invasion promised to lend support for the anti-war crowd in the north, perhaps rally western Maryland to the southern cause, and perhaps encourage the British to recognize the Confederacy. Lee divided his army, sending Jackson off to capture Harper's Ferry while he and the rest of the army headed north. The remainder of the Army of Northern Virginia left Frederick, Maryland and headed northwest to Boonsboro on the western side of the South Mountain. Here Lee learned of a concentration of federal forces at Hagerstown and leaving D. H. Hill's Corps at Boonesboro took off with Longstreet to Hagerstown. By now McClelland had the Army of the Potomac on the road to Frederick. Camping at Frederick, a union soldier found a copy of Lees special order 191, dividing his army and sending it in two directions. McClelland was energized by the opportunity to confront the smaller portion of Lee's army and leaving the Harper's Ferry forces to look after themselves, sent two army Corps (VI Corps and IX Corps) forward to probe the gaps in the South Mountain. Sharp engagements took place on September 14th at both Crampton's and Turner's Gaps, resulting in federal breakthroughs in both places. But the Union forces failed to follow up their successes and allowed Lee to recall Longstreet from Hagerstown and pull his forces south to Sharpsburg. Lee now had 3 of his 9 Corps concentrated at Sharpsburg on the high ground west of Antietam Creek waiting for developments. On September 15th Harper's Ferry fell and with Jackson soon to be free to support any union attack, Lee was feeling confident in handling the ever cautious McClelland.

The Battle

McClelland took the entire day of the 16th to close up to the battlefield, get his forces into position, and to make final dispositions. It is not certain what his strategy was for engaging the Rebels, but the day began with a series of uncoordinated attacks first at the Confederate left (or north flank) involving the Cornfield, North Woods and West Woods, then the center involving Dunkard's Church, the Sunken Road, later known as the Bloody Lane, and again the Cornfield, and finally an attack on Lee's right. Throughout the day Lee was able to shift forces and artillery to oppose the assaults of Hooker, Mansfield, and Sumner. By mid-afternoon, with the first two efforts stalled, Burnside was sent to take the bridge across Antietam Creek to the south of the earlier fighting. After much difficulty Burnside succeeded in getting his Corps across the creek and driving the Rebels back into the town of Sharpsburg. Just as Lees right flank was collapsing, A. P. Hill's division arrived after a forced march and stopped Burnside's advance.

In each of the three separate union efforts, McClelland had the opportunity to pour in his reserves and crush Lee's army. But McClelland believed he faced a Rebel army with huge reserves just out of sight and was unwilling to risk the fate of Washington or the union on a major loss. He was content not to lose. He got his wish. The next day Lee waited for McClelland to follow-up and resume the battle. McClelland declined the opportunity and the night of the 17th, Lee withdrew his forces across the Potomac and back to Virginia.

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