After CSA General Robert E. Lee pushed US Major General George B. McClellan from the peninsula, at the conclusion of the Seven Days, he pushed quickly after US Major General John Pope’s Army of Virginia. The two adversaries would clash at Second Manassas from August 28–30, 1862. While Pope had a numerical advantage for much of the battle, he failed to take advantage of it. With the arrival of CSA Major General James Longstreet’s Right Wing, on the afternoon of August 29, Lee was able to completely defeat Pope, pushing him back towards the Washington City defenses.
After resting and resupplying his Army of Northern Virginia, Robert E. Lee set his sights north of the Potomac. Northern Virginia had been ravaged by the Civil War for over a year. The citizens of the commonwealth had been punished by the marauding armies – with their crops, livestock and other foodstuffs having been depleted. Lee’s army, while achieving its goal of pushing McClellan from the Richmond area, and defeating Pope, had suffered significant casualties during three hard campaigns. Lee believed there was widespread Confederate sympathies in Maryland, a slave state. By invading Maryland Lee could find ample food for his army and recruit new soldiers for his army. Confederate president, Jefferson Davis, believed a victory in Maryland would provide the impetus for England and France to recognize his fledgling country. A victory would also hurt Lincoln’s Republican party during the midterm elections making it difficult for them to pursue the war against the South. With the approval of the civilian government, Lee crossed the Potomac River, entering Maryland, on September 3.
The Armies Gather
Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia would cross the Potomac River using White’s Ford and Cheek’s Ford, after pushing through Dranesville and Leesburg, Virginia. Pushing north to Frederick, Maryland Lee quickly learned that Confederate sympathies were not what he expected. Writing Jefferson Davis on September 7, Lee stated, “I do not anticipate any general rising of the people in our behalf.” While there were some kind acts, such as civilians giving the shoe less Confederate soldiers their shoes, or a drink of water, Lieutenant William Johnson summed it up well, “We were not received with cheers or songs or other evidences of approbation, but instead they looked at us in self-evident pity.”(i)
On September 9, Lee issued Special Orders No. 191, which detailed the operational plans for the upcoming campaign. CSA Brigadier General John Walker’s two brigade division would turn around and counter march to Harper’s Ferry, while CSA Major General Lafayette McLaws would push through South Mountain with two divisions and take position on Maryland Heights. Meanwhile, CSA Major General Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson’s 2d Corps would approach Harper’s Ferry from the west, after the three divisions crossed the Potomac River into the Shenandoah Valley. This three pronged attack would trap the Federal garrison without an escape route. The rest of Lee’s army would leave Frederick, cross South Mountain and maintain a position at either Boonsboro or Hagerstown, Maryland.
George B. McClellan, now commanding an expanded army of over 100,000 soldiers, took the field on September 5 with approximately 75,000 men. Using three roads to move his large army, he was able to move more efficiently. Portions of the army pushed along the north bank of the Potomac River, through Poolesville, others pushed through Rockville and Gaithersburg, while the remainder pushed further north through Brookeville and New Market. The destination was Frederick County, Maryland. McClellan’s Army of the Potomac stretched from Frederick on the north, through Buckeystown, to Licksville on the south. In the environs of Frederick were US Major General Joseph Hooker’s I Corps, US Major General Edwin Sumner’s II Corps, US Major General Joseph Mansfield’s XII Corps, US Major General Ambrose Burnside’s IX Corps (under the command of Jesse Reno) and a division of US Major General Fitz John Porter’s V Corps commanded by US Brigadier General George Sykes. Further south, at Buckeystown was US Major General William Franklin’s VI Corps. Holding the Federal left flank was a division of the IV Corps commanded by US Major General Darius Couch.(ii)
On September 13, a copy of General Lee’s Special Orders 191 was found wrapped around three cigars along a fence row near Frederick (today this spot is marked across from the Monocacy National Battlefield’s Visitor’s Center on Urbana Road). According to an examination by Stephen W. Sears, in his book “Landscape Turned Red: The Battle of Antietam,” the “Lost Orders” were found by Corporal Barton Mitchell of Company F 27th Indiana Infantry. They would be sent by US Brigadier General Alpheus Williams through the XII Corps headquarters to McClellan, who received them by 12:00 p.m. The copy was destined for CSA Major General Daniel Harvey (D.H.) Hill commanding a division in Jackson’s 2d Corps. Hill claims to have never received the order and there was never any written evidence that he, or his adjutant, Major J.W. Ratchford, ever signed for the order. Regardless of whether Hill received Special Orders 191 or not, the controversy still swirls today. With the intelligence the “Lost Orders” gave McClellan - that Lee’s army was scattered from Harper’s Ferry to Boonsboro and possibly as far away as Hagerstown - McClellan had an opportunity to attack the Army of Northern Virginia and defeat it piecemeal before they could consolidate their commands. Unfortunately, McClellan acting in his usual deliberate fashion did not put his army in motion for a full eighteen hours – truly missing an opportunity to completely defeat Lee. So, in this author’s opinion, the real controversy is not whether Hill received the orders, but why McClellan waited so long to take advantage of the intelligence they offered. For a detailed analysis of the controversy of the “Lost Orders” see Appendix I in Sears’ book.(iii)
On September 14, McClellan finally put his Army of the Potomac in motion. Marching west on the National Road to Fox’s and Turner’s gaps were Hooker’s I Corps and Reno’s IX Corps. Further south, Franklin’s VI Corps pushed west towards Crampton’s Gap. In what would be called the Battle of South Mountain, they would be opposed by three divisions of Longstreet’s 1st Corps (McLaws, Hood and D.R. Jones), and Hill’s Division of Jackson’s 2d Corps. The fighting would be in very close quarters, as the gaps were narrow, and would end with a Confederate withdrawal leaving the Federal forces in command of all three passes. The battle would be costly, with the Federals suffering 2,300 casualties and the Confederates suffering nearly 2,700.(iv)
Robert E. Lee would move to consolidate his forces on the west side of Antietam Creek, around the village of Sharpsburg, Maryland. Having captured Harper’s Ferry, Jackson would reunite with the rest of the Army of Northern Virginia by September 15. Lee would create a fairly defensible position at Antietam. His biggest weakness being that he was backed up against the Potomac River with one ford to cross his army if he needed to retreat.
On September 15, McClellan would push after Lee, arriving on the east bank of Antietam creek. He would have his entire army in place on September 16. If he had attacked immediately, he would have had a numerically superior force. Unfortunately, McClellan would continue to operate very deliberately.
McClellan could easily see the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia from his headquarters at the Pry house. Having lost the advantage of attacking Robert E. Lee’s army while it was separated, he would be forced to attack Lee where he was. His plan was to attack Lee’s left flank with two corps (I and XII), rolling it up and allowing him to trap Lee against the Potomac River. He would demonstrate against Lee’s right flank, at the lower bridge, with Burnside’s IX Corps, to keep him from reinforcing his other flank. Additionally he would hold Franklin’s VI Corps in reserve, utilizing it where necessary. In preparation for his attack, McClellan had ordered Hooker’s I Corps to cross Antietam Creek, utilizing the upper bridge, late on September 16, probing the Confederate defenses. The stage was set for the bloodiest single day of fighting in American history.
The Battle Opens – 5:30 a.m. to 10:00 a.m. – September 17
Hooker’s I Corps pushed down the Hagerstown Pike early on September 17. Crossing through the North Woods they would enter a field of brown corn, ready for harvest. US Brigadier General Abner Doubleday’s division was on the right flank, US Brigadier General James Rickett’s Division was on the left flank and US Brigadier General George Meade’s Division was behind them. As the made their way through the Corn Field, the waiting Confederates could see them coming – their muskets glistening above the corn in the early morning light. Facing them were CSA Brigadier General John Jones’ division from Jackson’s 2d Corps and CSA Brigadier General John Bell Hood’s division from Longstreet’s 1st Corps. As the Federals exited the Corn Field they were met with a terrific blast of musketry from the two Confederate divisions. The battle would rage back-and-forth for close to three hours with control of the Corn Field changing hands several times. McClellan would order Mansfield’s XII Corps to support Hooker with the corps pushing through the East Woods towards the fighting in the Corn Field. They would engage Hood’s Texans as they approached the southeast corner of the Corn Field. During this action Mansfield would be killed and command of the XII Corps would pass to the senior brigadier, Alpheus Williams. US Major Rufus Dawes, of the 6th Wisconsin, would pick up their regimental colors after four color bearers had fallen, urging his men forward. The 6th Wisconsin was part of US Brigadier General John Gibbon’s Iron Brigade and was in the thick of the fighting at the Corn Field. Dawes described the action that morning, “When I took that color in my hand, I gave up all hope of life. It did not occur to me as possible that I could carry that flag into the deadly storm and live. I felt all that burning throng of thoughts and emotions that always comes with the presence of Death.”(v)
The Corn Field was strewn with the dead and wounded. Each side fought to control the small parcel of ground. The corn would be mowed down from artillery and musketry fire. While none of the Federal divisions gained much ground, Gibbon’s Iron Brigade would have some success on the far right flank. Pushing south astride the Hagerstown Pike, they would enter the West Woods where they would encounter Jackson’s troops. Pushing them aside the Iron Brigade would continue to push towards the Dunker Church. With two Confederate brigades, commanded by CSA Brigadier General William E. Starke, arriving to reinforce Jackson’s 2d Corps, the Iron Brigade received a fierce volley from over 1,100 men. While Gibbon’s soldiers were halted, they returned such a withering fire that Starke was killed and his brigade was forced to retreat. A Confederate war correspondent, Felix de Fontaine would write about this action, “The fire now became fearful and incessant, (it) merged into a tumultuous chorus that made the earth tremble. The discharge of musketry sounded upon the ear like the rolling of a thousand distant drums…”(vi) Gibbon’s brigade was again pushing towards the Dunker Church, tearing a wide gap in Jackson’s reeling lines.
With continuing pressure from Hood’s Division, the battle for the West Woods and Corn Field continued to sway back-and-forth. By 10:00 a.m., with US Brigadier George S. Greene’s XII Corps’ division arriving, between the Corn Field and the West Woods, the Federals were able to gain a solid footing near the West Woods. In the melee of fighting, Hooker would be shot through the foot and command of the I Corps would be passed to the senior division commander, Brigadier General James Ricketts. This would end the morning phase of fighting in the Corn Field and the West Woods. While stalled, the Federal offensive had gained ground and placed Jackson’s 2d Corps in a tenuous situation. The gains came at an extremely high price for the opposing forces. Total casualties in this sector approached 13,000 men.
For a map of the late morning fight for the West Woods and Corn Field click HERE.
Battle for the Sunken Road – 10:00 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. – September 17
George B. McClellan recognized the dangerous nature of the battle waging near the Corn Field. He was able to clearly see the battle from his headquarters at the Pry house on the east bank of Antietam Creek. Having already committed the I Corps and XII Corps to the battle, he ordered US Major General Edwin V. Sumner’s II Corps into the fray at 7:30 a.m. Riding with US Major General John Sedgwick’s division he pushed towards the action near the West Woods. Sedgwick would be injured in the fighting there and ultimately the division would be pulled back by Sumner. Inexplicably, his other division detailed to the attack, commanded by US Brigadier General William French, would lose contact with Sedgwick’s division and veer towards the southeast. Sumner’s last remaining division, commanded by US Major General Israel Richardson, was to follow the first two divisions, providing support where necessary. Following closely behind French, Richardson’s division would also veer away from the fighting raging near the Dunker Church.
French’s division quickly ran into enemy skirmishers from D.H. Hill’s division. Hungry for a fight, the ever aggressive French pushed after the skirmishers pushing them back to their lines. Hill’s 2,500 man division was posted on a slight rise just past a road that was sunken from years of wagon traffic. Their position, while below the rise of ground the Federals would have to cross to reach them, was defensible. Dressing their lines, French’s division, followed by Richardson’s division on the left, left the sheltered confines near the Roulette Farm. Marching across a field, they would quickly begin climbing a rise. As they approached the crest of the rise, they became silhouetted for Hill’s Rebels at the Sunken Road, below them. Unleashing a withering volley into the Federals, CSA Brigadier General Robert Rodes Brigade slowed French’s Union soldiers. On the left side of the Federal line, Richardson’s division, being led by US Brigadier General Thomas F. Meagher’s famed Irish Brigade, reached the crest and were also slowed by a musketry volley from CSA Brigadier General George B. Anderson’s North Carolina Brigade. As the Federal troops pushed down the hill, towards the Sunken Road, additional Confederate reinforcements arrived to stabilize D.H. Hill’s line. CSA Major General Richard Anderson’s 1st Corps division arrived from the direction of the Piper farm and provided relief for Hill’s battered division which had begun to pull back. Under intense fire from the reinforced Rebel line, Richardson ordered Meagher’s Irish Brigade forward. Armed with smoothbore muskets, Meagher’s Fenians unleashed a terrible blast from the crest of the hill. Encouraging his brigade forward, Meaher yelled to his men, “Boys! Raise the colors and follow me!”(vii) With a yell the Irishmen poured down the hill and into the Sunken Lane. The fighting was often hand-to-hand and the Irish Brigade would eventually have to pull back for additional ammunition. Richardson’s last brigade would arrive as the Irish Brigade was pulling back. Commanded by US Brigadier General John Caldwell, they provided the necessary reinforcements for the Federal line to not just hold, but defeat the Rebels in near the roadbed. Approaching from the left side of the Federal line, Caldwell’s men were able to position themselves to enfilade the entire length of the Confederate line, making the Sunken Road untenable for the Rebels. They would be forced to pull back to the Piper Farm around 12:30 p.m. CSA Captain John Gorman of Company B 2d North Carolina described the fighting, “(the) lead was flying thick (making it) too hot (for reinforcements to come up).”(viii)
As the smoke cleared from the air along the Sunken Road, it became clear that the cost in life was terrible. Besides nearly 5,600 combined casualties, each side would lose experienced commanders while fighting for the Bloody Lane. Federal Division commander General Israel Richardson would be mortally wounded – the second Federal general officer that would die from his wounds at Antietam. On the Confederate side, things were worse. Major General Richard Anderson was wounded, Brigadier General George B. Anderson would be killed and his senior regimental commander, Colonel C.C. Tew, would be instantly killed moments after taking over brigade command. Brigadier General Ambrose R. Wright would be seriously wounded and a rising star in the Army of Northern Virginia, Colonel John B. Gordon, would be seriously wounded. As on the Federal right, the Union forces were able to move forward and capture ground held by the Confederates. Robert E. Lee’s position was tenuous at best. He was significantly outnumbered and his left and center were under brutal attack. If matters were not bad enough for Lee, his right flank was beginning to be attacked at the lower bridge. The entire outcome of the Battle of Antietam would be determined by the results of the fighting on his right.
Burnside’s Attack on the Confederate Left – 10:00 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. – September 17
McClellan’s battle orders for Burnside called for his IX Corps to divert attention from the fighting on the right flank (the Corn Field fight) to keep Lee from sending reinforcements from this sector to Jackson’s 2d Corps. However, Burnside was told to wait for orders before he attacked. These orders did not arrive until 10:00 a.m. – four full hours after the Hooker launched his attack. By this time Lee had already pulled a significant amount of troops from his right flank to support Jackson. With nearly 13,000 men, Burnside held a significant numerical superiority to the Confederates on the opposite bank of Antietam Creek. By this time only two Georgia regiments held the opposite bank – the 20th and 2d infantry regiments. Unfortunately, these regiments held a commanding position 100 feet above Antietam Creek. This position allowed them to pour a deadly fire into Burnside’s troops as the moved towards the south bridge along Rorhbach Bridge Road. The Federal troops would be under Confederate artillery and musket fire for several 100 feet along the road, and then have to cross the 125 foot bridge – all the while under heavy fire.
US Brigadier General George Crook’s brigade, from the Kanawha Division, was ordered to cross the bridge first, followed by two divisions commanded by US brigadier generals Samuel Sturgis and Orlando Willcox. Burnside’s last division, commanded by Brigadier General Isaac Rodman were ordered to cross the Antietam at Snavely’s Ford, approximately two miles further downstream.
Crook had his brigade in motion shortly after McClellan’s orders arrived at 10:00 a.m. He sent skirmishers from the 11th Connecticut to seize the bridge. Within about 15 minutes time they would be roughly treated and forced back, suffering 139 casualties. Unfortunately, Crook’s primary assault never materialized as he had led his men to a position nearly a 1/4 mile upstream. By 11:30 a.m., with Rodman’s division attempting to cross at Snavely’s Ford, Burnside would send US Brigadier General James Nagle’s brigade forward to take the bridge. These soldiers would also be turned away by the Confederate fire from the far bank. At 12:30 p.m., under increasing pressure from McClellan to take the bridge, Burnside sent Sturgis’ other brigade, commanded by US Brigadier General Edward Ferrero to take the bridge. These men, motivated by a promise of whiskey, quickly established a hold on the east bank of the creek and began shelling the Georgians with double canister. CSA Brigadier General Robert Toombs, in overall command of the Georgians, knew his situation was bad. He was running low on ammunition and at 12:30 p.m. had received word that Rodman’s Federal division had crossed Snavely’s Ford. CSA Colonel Henry Benning described the situation, “The combined fire of infantry and artillery was terrific.”(ix) With little ammunition left, and an entire Federal division on their flank, they were forced to withdraw. The Federals cheered when they saw the Georgians retreat.
With the bridge open, and no Rebels in their front, Burnside now had another problem to contend with. While his soldiers were bottle necked trying to cross the bridge, it became known that staff officers had not brought adequate ammunition forward. This would cause another two hour delay as Burnside waited to get ammunition – and men – across the narrow bridge. It was approximately 2:00 p.m. Meanwhile, Lee could spare no men to shore up his crumbling right flank. Burnside’s ammunition shortage could not have come at a better time. At 2:30 p.m., A.P. Hill had reached Lee and advised him that his 3,000 man division would be on the field in the next hour. Lee ordered Hill to place them on his right flank. Burnside, planning for an attack west towards Sharpsburg, was unaware that Lee was being reinforced. At 3:00 p.m., leaving Sturgis’ division to guard the bridge, Burnside pushed west with close to 8,000 troops and 22 heavy guns. With only D.R. Jones small division separating Burnside from flanking the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia, the situation was bleak. Additionally Rodman’s division was pushing towards Jones’ flank from the south. The residents of Sharpsburg were panic stricken. Burnside’s troops had pushed the Confederate flank back to within a couple hundred yards of town.
Things changed rapidly. At 3:30 p.m., A.P. Hill arrived with his light division. Having marched at the double quick for 17 miles, they were worn out. However, they became energized when they heard the sound of battle. Separating his command in two columns, he would detach two brigades to protect his flank. The remaining 2,000 soldiers marched quickly to the right of Jones’ shattered division. Burnside was unprepared for the vigorous assault by A.P. Hill’s Division. Some of the heaviest fighting would occur in John Otto’s corn field where CSA Brigadier General Maxcy Gregg’s South Carolinians attacked the 16th Connecticut of Rodman’s division. These young men had barely been in the Federal service three weeks and were immediately routed, leaving 185 casualties on the field. Lieutenant B.G. Blakeslee of the 16th described the initial contact with Gregg’s Brigade, “(the order to move on had just been given) when a terrible volley was fired into us from behind a stone wall about five rods in front of us….In a moment we were riddled with shot.” Blakeslee added, “Orders were given which were not understood. Neither the line-officers nor the men had any knowledge of regimental movements.”(x) While the 16th Connecticut was receiving its baptism of fire, the 4th Rhode Island came up on their right. They were confused as many of the Confederates were wearing Federal uniforms captured at Harper’s Ferry. They quickly broke and ran leaving only the 8th Connecticut in Otto’s field. They also were quickly driven from the field and towards Antietam Creek. Other than one last counterattack by the Kanawha division, which was unsuccessful, the fighting was over.
For my photo essay on the Battle of Antietam click HERE.
Outcome: U.S. Victory
Union: 12,410 (killed, wounded or missing/captured)
Confederate: 10,300 (killed, wounded or missing/captured)
While the battle was a technical “draw,” the North considered it a victory since the Army of the Potomac held the field, after Lee retreated. After having written the Emancipation Proclamation, Lincoln held it, waiting for a victory on the battlefield. Using Antietam as the victory, Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation on September 22, 1862. This proclamation is widely considered to have changed the North’s war goals of reunification of the Union, to a battle to eradicate slavery in the United States. The South’s goals to receive European recognition, and fresh recruits, was never realized. US Major General George McClellan, a model of deliberate action, did not pursue Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia quickly enough for Lincoln and was removed from command on November 7, 1862.
Recommended reading on the Maryland Campaign
Details about “The Landscape Turn Red: The Battle of Antietam”
Written by: Stephen W. Sears
Paperback: 464 pages
Publisher: Mariner Books
Date of First Edition: June 3o, 2003
Details about “Antietam: The Soldiers’ Battle”
Written by: John M. Priest
Paperback: 424 pages
Publisher: Oxford University Press
Date of First Edition: January 20, 1994
Details about: “Guide to the Battle of Antietam”
Written by: Jay Luvaas, Harold W. Nelson and the Army War College
Paperback: 310 pages
Publisher: University Press of Kansas
Date of First Edition: August 1996
(i) Sears, Stephen W., Landscape Turned Red: The Battle of Antietam, published by Ticknor & Fields in 1983, Pg. 85.
(ii) Sears, Stephen W., Landscape Turned Red: The Battle of Antietam, published by Ticknor & Fields in 1983, Pg. 127.
(iii) Sears, Stephen W., Landscape Turned Red: The Battle of Antietam, published by Ticknor & Fields in 1983, Pgs. 349–352.
(iv) Battle of South Mountain, at Wikipedia, was used to research this article.
(v) Sears, Stephen W., Landscape Turned Red: The Battle of Antietam, published by Ticknor & Fields in 1983, Pg. 198.
(vi) Sears, Stephen W., Landscape Turned Red: The Battle of Antietam, published by Ticknor & Fields in 1983, Pg. 194.
(vii) Priest, John M., Antietam: The Soldiers’ Battle, published by White Mane Publishing Co., Inc. in 1989, Pg. 160.
(viii) Priest, John M., Antietam: The Soldiers’ Battle, published by White Mane Publishing Co., Inc. in 1989, Pg. 162.
(ix) Sears, Stephen W., Landscape Turned Red: The Battle of Antietam, published by Ticknor & Fields in 1983, Pg. 266.
(x) Sears, Stephen W., Landscape Turned Red: The Battle of Antietam, published by Ticknor & Fields in 1983, Pg. 288.