On September 17th, 1862, Confederate General Robert E. Lee faced off against Union General George McClellan near Sharpsburg, Maryland, which lay about 60 miles outside Washington, D.C.
In the early morning hours, more than 114,000 soldiers and 500 cannons crowded onto a picturesque little farm owned by David Miller, near Antietam Creek. Miller’s farm mostly consisted of cornfields, which dominated the rolling hills. Dunker church, ironically founded by pacifists, was situated in one corner of his property. It was in this peaceful atmosphere that the bloodiest battle of the Civil War occurred.
Simply speaking, the Confederates ought to have been crushed. The Union army had three big advantages:
1) Double the troops (75,000 Union compared to Lee’s army of 38,000)
2) Home field advantage. Antietam was the first Civil War battle in a northern state, and the Union troops knew the area well
3) The element of surprise. The Union general obtained a detailed copy of the Confederate general’s battle plans
General Lee was a bold and brilliant strategist, but General
McClellan’s timidity that determined the outcome of the battle. His conduct was astonishing. When he learned of Lee’s battle plans, McClellan did not set out to intercept him immediately. Instead, for reasons unknown, he did nothing for 18 hours, giving Lee time to position his army favorably on the battlefield.
In another instance, McClellan stubbornly refused to deploy all the Union troops present at the battle. About 25% of the Union troops at Antietam never fired a shot. (Note that Lincoln was well aware of McClellan’s faults. Earlier in the year, the Union general had refused a direct order from the President to attack the Confederates. As he offered various excuses, Lee’s army regrouped, putting an end to hopes of a swift conclusion to the war.)
The battle raged on throughout the morning and through the afternoon. By 5:30 p.m., it ended in a draw. In twelve hours, Lee had lost 31% of his men (10,318 Confederate soldiers); McClellan lost 25% of his men (12,401 Union soldiers). Lee retreated south the next morning. General George McClellan was relieved of command shortly after the Battle of Antietam.
Wartime photographer Mathew Brady hired Alexander Gardner and James Gibson to photo-document the Battle, which was a novel concept at the time. Gardner and Gibson took about 100 photos at Antietam, which were shared with the public. It was the first time American civilians had ever been confronted with graphic, violent images like these. Though people recoiled from them, the photographs brought the war home to the people of the North and South, perhaps in a way nothing else could have.
A century and a half has passed since that fateful September day, yet Antietam has not been forgotten. To this day, Antietam holds the distinction of being the place where more Americans died in conflict, than on any other day in our nation’s history.