The Battle of Antietam in the middle of September of 1862 was a titanic and bloody event that took place at the height of the Civil War in and around the farms and towns of Antietam and Sharpsburg, Maryland. So much depended on the outcome of this battle for both sides, the Union and the Confederacy.
For the Confederacy, a victory here would continue a long string of Confederate victories. At that moment in the war, both the English and the French were considering recognizing the Confederacy as an independent state. That decision would be made by the outcome of this battle. If the CSA would win, it could quite possibly have been the blow that would defeat the Union’s efforts to prevent the secession and the break up of the United States of America. A Confederate victory might well have cemented the decision of the English and the French to formally recognize the Confederate States of America (CSA) as an independent country.
For the Union, already troubled by the losses against the Confederate forces under Robert E. Lee, a victory was an absolute necessity here. Abraham Lincoln was already thinking about issuing his Emancipation Proclamation, but was being counseled by his advisors against it at that time. The victory at Antietam would give Lincoln the backing to finally issue that immensely important document in American history.
Lee knew that General McClellan was bringing a massive force of some 85,000 men against his own forces of half that number. Lee issued an order to split his troops to hit McClellan from two sides. Lee’s order went out, but somehow a copy it was lost and was serendipitously found by the Union’s intelligence operators.
McClelland was able to meet elements of Lee’s forces in the days before the two armies came against each other in force at Antietam on the 17th of September.
The battle began early in the morning in a cornfield and the East Woods at the north end of the great battlefield. The fighting was so intense that casualties were piling up at a rate of one per second. By 9:00 a.m. 8,000 men from both sides had been killed, wounded, or were missing.
At 9:00 a.m. the battle turned on an old sunken road that became known as Bloody Lane. Over the next three hours there would be an additional 5,600 killed and wounded. By 1:00 p.m. the total number of casualties would be at around 17,000. And the battle continued. By the end of the day, a total of 23,110 men were killed, wounded or missing on that bloody battlefield. That was more casualties than the country had experienced in the Revolutionary War, the War of 1812, and the Mexican-American War combined. It was, and remains, the bloodiest one day battle in American history.
When the civilians, the farmers and townspeople of Antietam and Sharpsburg, Maryland, returned to their lands and homes after the battle, they found a bleak wasteland, a landscape of utter devastation. Homes and fields were destroyed, everything was in ruins. It would take them five years to rebuild and recover. The two armies moved on and would bloody one another over and over again for another two and a half years.
The American Civil War remains the most costly war in the sheer loss of lives in our history. Latest estimates reveal that up to 750,000 Americans died (including both sides). That averaged out to about 504 each day of the war. The American population at that time was around 7,000,000. Approximately 2.5% of the American population died in that war. In today’s American population numbers that would be the equivalent of 8,000,000 people.
Not to know our history is to not know ourselves. Knowing the history of the Civil War and what led up to it, is pivotal part of knowing who we are as a nation and as a people. The Battle of Antietam is part of that history. It was part of a titanic struggle that involved the survival of the ideals of this then still young democracy. It also involved the terrible cost paid to maintain the national integrity and the monumental price paid to further and to extend the cause of human freedom. The country was only some seven decades old when the Civil War broke out, but the reasons for the Civil War can be traced all the way back to the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia in the mid 1780s.
The past teaches those who have the will to look at it, the desire to learn from it, the courage to take the pains to grow from it, and the wisdom to do what is necessary to avoid the errors in it ever again. The American Civil War still has much to teach us.
Learn more in the video below.