The Battle of Antietam The Battle of Antietam just outside of Sharpsburg Maryland, was a one-day battle between 41,000 Confederate soldiers under the command of General Robert E. Lee and 87,000 Union soldiers commanded by General George B. McClellan. The stage was set when Lee undertook an invasion of the North in the late summer of 1862. (A Soldiers View by Col G. F. R. Henderson c1958) The Battle of Antietam was one of the bloodiest battle in history. In such an important battle men stick out for their heroic actions--one man inparticular, General Robert E. Lee. Robert E. Lee had a tremendous effect on the battle of Antietam.
General Robert E. Lee was born January 19, 1807, at Stratford Hall, at a place called "Big House"Ã¯Â¿Â½ (Virginia's General by Albert Marrin pg 7 c1994) of his family's plantation located on the Potomac River in Westmoreland County, Virginia. (Virginia's General by Albert Marrin pg 7 c1994).
Robert E. Lee's fater was known as "Light Horse Harry"Ã¯Â¿Â½ he was a cavalry officer, a friend of George Washington, and a hero in the War of Independence. His mother, Ann Carter, was a third generation daughter of Carters, perhaps one of the wealthiest of all plantation dynasties of Virginia. (Robert E. Lee by Peter Earle pg 20 c1973).
In 1809 when Robert E. Lee was two, his father, got in debt and was sent to prison. Three years later he was freed from jail and got involved in a political brawl in Baltimore and was beaten up. In 1813 he left for Barbados, still in debt. ( Robert E. Lee by Peter Earle pg 21 c1973) Robert E. Lee's mother did not have enough money to allow Robert to attend college so he chose the best career available to him. ( Robert E. Lee by Peter Earle pg 24 c1973). He successfully enrolled at West Point at the age of eighteen in June of 1825. ( R E LEE V1 pg 48 by Douglas Freeman c1934). Lee did extremely well at West Point decided to enter the engineers program ( which was the most popular program for successful cadets.) As an engineer he was not only employed to build and maintain specifically military installations, but also to assist the Federal government in providing internal improvements as the vast flood of native Americans and immigrants took up the empty lands across the Appalachians and pushed to the Mississippi and beyond. Lee worked many jobs but the greatest of these jobs was clearing snags and altering the course of the Mississippi to help save St. Louis as a river port. Promotion opportunity was slow and money was tight especially after his marriage in 1831. (Robert E. Lee by Albert Earle pg 23-24 c1973).
His wife was Mary Anne Randolph Custis, the daughter of George Washington's adopted son. Lee then became an heir to the tradition of Washington. The double heritage of Washingtons and Lees that would insure a path that he would take thirty years later when the outbreak of the Civil War would force him to make the greatest decision of his life. Being married to Mary did not bring Lee wealth until her father died in 1857. Before then he had to support his wife and seven children almost entirely from his army officer's pay. ( Robert E. Lee by Albert Erale pg 24 c1973) In 1869, Lee was troubled with rheumatism and heart troubles that had bothered him at Gettysburg. Doctors suggested for Lee to go south in 1870 to seek the sun for benefit of his health. He went through Georgia and the Carolinas which did little to improve his health. Back in Virginia he gradually declined and died at home in Lexington on the 12th of October. ( Robert E. Lee by Albert Earle pg 210 c1973) On Wednsday, September 3, 1862, four days Lee's Confederate army's victory at the Second Battle of Bull Run. Lee wrote a long letter to President Jefferson Davis. In the letter he said that it was a good time for the Confederate army to enter Maryland. Also in the letter he announce that he wanted to take the war to enemy soil for the first time in the Eastern theater. He would take his Army of Northern Virginia north, traveling into a border state and launching a campaign that would start the single bloodiest day of combat in American history.
By invading Maryland, Lee thought, he could achieve his first military objectives. He could pressure the enemy on enemy soil. He would be able to feed his army and their horses on Maryland's rich autumn harvest. Lee was also almost certain he could lure the Federal forces away from Washington, which would prevent another enemy march on Richmond before winter came. ( The Bloodiest Day by Ronald Bailey pg 8 c1984) On the morning of September 3, General Lee decided to berak camp and directed his troops towards the shallow fords of the Potomac River, which is located just above Leesburg, Virginia, 25 miles northwest of Chantilly. Lee had a good idea when he chose this particular destination. It was about 30 miles upriver from Washington and just East of the Blue Ridge Mountains. If the Confederates attacked, the Federals would take it as a direct threat to either Washington or Baltimore and would almost surely respond by massing their forces on the north side of the Potomac River. This would remove enemy pressure from Lee's supply line through Manassas Junction and give the Confederate troops who stayed behind time to collect arms and care for the wounded soldiers on the battlefields around Bull Run. (The Bloodiest Day by Ronald Bailey pg 10 c1984).
On the way to the Potomac Lee lost two thirds of his men. Many men dropped out because they enlisted because they thought they were going to be protecting their homes, not going to invade other places. Other men fell behind due to poor physical conditions, lack of food, illness, or exhaustion. During the march about 15,000 men dropped out of Lee's army. However, substantial reinforcement from Richmond joined him along the way- three infantry divisions, a brigade of cavalry and the reserve artillery. Even with the new troops which came out to be about 20,000, Lee would enter Maryland with barely more than 50,000 men. Lee and his men successfully crossed the Potomac River with little trouble. ( The Bloodiest Day by Ronald Bailey pg 15-16 c1984) When Lee entered Maryland he addressed the people with a letter called "To The People of Maryland."Ã¯Â¿Â½ The letter stated that Lee's army had come prepared " to assist you with the power of its arms in regaining the rights of which you have been despoiled. It is for you to decide your destiny freely and without constraint. This army will respect your choice what ever it may be."Ã¯Â¿Â½ ( The Bloodiest Day by Ronald Bailey pg 18 c1984). The decision the people made was obvious. Stores would no longer take the Confederates' money and the army was looked down apon.
Lee knew that if everything went his way that he would be able to drive as far north as Pennsylvania. When he reached Frederick, Maryland he could take his army about 25 miles northwest across Catoctin Mountain and South Mountain to Hagerstown, Maryland. After that he could use these mountains to shield his right flank, he could then follow the path of Cumberland Valley Railroads, which curved 70 miles northeast to Harrisburg. Just west of Harrisburg is the Susquehanna River and an essential bridge of three Pennsylvania railroads. If they could destroy the bridge, it would sever a vital Federal supply route between east and west.
To carry out this plan Lee would have to protect his means of communication and supply against Federal cavalry raids. Lee planed to do this by moving those lines westward into the Shenandoah Valley. Before Lee could do this he would have to deal with two Federal outposts that stood virtually astride his intended supply route in the Valley. Harpers Ferry was at the flowing point of the Potomac and the Shenandoah Rivers, which was manned by nearly 12,000 Federals. In Martinsburg just northwest of that town was a 2,500 manned garrison. By moving into Maryland Lee had isolated both sides. Lee had assumed that he could evacuate when it was called for. But McClellan ( general in Federal army) commanded both garrisons to stay put.
To take care of this unexpected event, Lee made up a plan that would split up his army four ways. Longstreet had three divisions, the reserve artillery and the supply trains, which would be the first group to move into Pennsylvania. They would have to cross South Mountain to Boonsboro- halfway to Hagerstown.. The majority of the army ( the other six divisions) were trying to eliminate the Federal outpost that were threatening the relocation of supply lines. In three separate commands, this force would regroup at Harpers Ferry. Jackson, who commanded three divisions, would take a circuitous route west, capturing Martinsburg and then swinging back upon Harpers Ferry. At the same time, McLaws who commanded two divisions would descend upon Harpers Ferry from the Maryland side of the Potomac. Then General Walker's division would recross the Potomac and enter the town from the Virginia side. After reducing the Federal strong hold, Jackson, McLaw, and Walker would march north to regroup with Longstreet, and wait for further instructions. ( The Bloodiest Day by Ronald Bailey pg 19, 21 c1984) All of these orders were issued in a document called Special Order 191. Lee had copies made and sent one to each of the commanders involved. Knowing that the orders were giving specific movements of the next several days, many of the commanders took special precautions to make sure the paper didn't fall into the wrong hands. Jackson saw that he was suppose to detach from D. H. Hill's division made a copy of the order and sent it to him. Jackson was not aware that Lee had already sent Hill a copy of the order. Jackson's copy never reached Hill and apparently it arrived in the hands of an unidentified Confederate Staff officer, who unwrapped it and found three fresh cigars. The officer placed the package in his pocket. ( The Bloodiest Day by Ronald Bailey pg 21 c1984) On Saturday the 27th 10 am Sergeant John M. Bloss and Corporal Barton W. Mitchell from the 27th Indiana n the Union army, were lounging in the grass of an old Confederate camp site. Mitchell caught sight of something nearby in the grass. He picked it up and it was three fresh cigars wrapped in a sheet of paper. Mitchell and Bloss took the sheet of paper to the company commander, which was quickly sent up the chain of command. The division adjutant general, Samuel E. Pittman, immediately realized the authenticity of the document. He recognized the hand writing from Robert H. Chilton, Lee's adjutant general. And a comrade from the prewar Army. Pittman sent the letter to McClellan and McClellan sent it to Lincoln.
There was one exception to the document that was found. At Boonsboro 15 miles northwest of McClellan's headquarters at Frederick, Longstreet's wing was suppose to halt. Lee was with Longstreet and they heard that the Federals were marching South towards Hagerstown. Since Hagerstown was the main point for Lee's invasion of Pennsylvania, he and Longstreet and 10,000 men went to that city, leaving D. H. Hill a 5,000 man division to guard the rear. Now Lee's 50,000 troops were deployed in five separate forces instead of four, and they were spread out over 25 miles. This provided McClellan with even a greater opportunity than he imagined. On the following Saturday afternoon McClellan waved a copy Lee's order he shouted to one of his brigadiers. ( The Bloodiest Day by Ronald Bailey pg 38 c1984) " Here is a paper with which if I cannot whip Bobbie Lee, I will be willing to go home."Ã¯Â¿Â½ (The Bloodies Day pg 38 Ronald Bailey c1984 ) Lee knew that the Federal garrison at Harpers Ferry was the key. He also knew it was a very crucial factor. Lee needed a quick victory so that his divided forces could reunite before the army of the Potomac caught up with them. There was a small fight at South Mountain and the Federals had lost 1,800 and the ??Confederates lost 2,700 had 800 missing. ( The Bloodiest Day by Ronald Bailey pg 47 c1984) On September 15, The Confederates were retreating from South Mountain and crossing Antietam Creek. Robert E. Lee commanded his troops to make a stand on the hills just outside of Sharpsburg, Maryland. That afternoon more news came from Harpers Ferry that strengthened Lee's resolve to fight the Federals at Sharpsburg. Lee would have to make do with a very weak force until Jackson arrived from Harpers Ferry. Lee had 18,000 men, the men From D.H. Hill's division, and Longstreets two divisions. This was less than one-third the number of pursuing Federals. One of Lee's artillery officers showed concern about the pursuing Federals, and Lee reassured him that the Federal would not attack on that day or on the next morning.
Lee's choice of position promised strong defense. It had a tree lined Antietam, which flowed from north to south and was less than a mile east of Sharpsburg before it entered the Potomac 3 miles south of town. The river was fordable in places and had three stone bridges, each a mile or so apart. The area north of Sharpsburg was a mile away from Antietam and ran parallel to it. It consisted of mainly fenced cornfields and pastures.
Lee deployed his troops between the northern barriers and the Potomac. He made a four mile line with his troops. The terrain provided excellent barriers for Lee's infantrymen. It had rail and stone fences, limestone outcroppings that were waist high, little hallows and swales. Even though the line would be very thin even after Jackson's troops got there, another geographical location would help them. Just to the west of the ridge there was a major north south road. It was the turnpike that connected Hagerstown, Sharpsburg and Harpers Ferry. It was a good route for shifting troops back and forth rapidly. Lee overlooked one aspect of the terrain. They would have to fight with their backs to the Potomac. If they wanted to fall back there was very little room between Sharpsburg and the river. The risk of this would have caused most generals to retreat, but not Lee.
As Lee had predicted earlier, McClellan was pursuing very slowly. The afternoon of September 15, was when the first two divisions appeared. It was dark by the time the majority of the army reached the location. ( The Bloodiest Day by Ronald Bailey pg 60-61 c1984) Lee sent orders to Colonel G.T. Anderson just before 7:30, commanding a brigade on the Boonsboro road, east of Sharpsburg, to go support Hood. Then he directed General J.G. Walker to give Jackson two brigades of his division. This meant he was going to have to use thirteen of his twenty four brigades in a one mile distance when there was four miles to cover. On the right flank to defend one and a half miles he left seven brigades. In the center of the line D.H. Hill had 3,000 men ready to engage. Lee order McLaw to go through what the enemy had broken. Lee himself rode to the left flank for the safety concern. He directed Capatin Cater to move his battery to defend the ridge about three quarters miles north west of Sharpsburg. He hoped this would keep the enemy from turning left. ( R.E. Lee V 2 by Douglas Freeman pg 387-389 (c1934) Lee had placed cannon on Nicodemus Height to his left, the high ground in front of Dunker Church, the ridge just east of Sharpsburg and on the heights overlooking the Lower Bridge. Infantry filled in the lines between these points, including a sunken lane less that half a mile long with worm fencing along both sides ( later known as Bloody Lane). A handful of Georgia sharpshooters guarded the Lower Bridge ( Burnside Bridge). By the evening of the 16th McClellan had about 60,000 troops ready to attack- that is double the number available to Lee. The battle opened at a damp, murky dawn on the 17th when Union artillery on the bluffs beyond Antietam Creek began murderous fire on Jackson's lines near Dunker Church.
As the Federals marched towards Miller's Cornfield north of town, the confederates rose up in the cornfield and fired on the advancing lines. McClellan responded by withdrawing his infantry and training cannon on the corn. Hookers troops advanced again, driving the Confederates before them. About 7 a.m. Jackson was reinforced and succeeded in driving the Federals back. An hour later Union troops under Gen. Mansfield counterattacked and regained some lost ground. Less than 200 yards apart, the opposing lines fired leadin to each other for a half hour. Fighting continued back and forth over the 20-acre cornfield, with the field changing hands 15 times, according to some accounts. Then in an effort to turn the Confederate left flank, General Sedgwick's division of Gen. Sumner's corps advanced into the west woods. There Confederate troops arriving from other parts of the field struck Sedgwick's flank, killing or wounding nearly half of his division- about 2,255 men- within a quarter hour of point blank fire. During the three hours of battle, the Confederates had stopped two Federal corps and a division from another, totaling about 20,000 men. Approximately 10,000 men from both sides lay dead or wounded by 9 a.m. ( The Bloodiest Day by Ronald Bailey pg 73-83 c1984).
Meanwhile General French's division of Sumner's Union corps moved up to support Sedgwick but verved south into the center of the Confederate line, under General D.H. Hill. The Confederates were posted along a ridge in an old suken road seperating the Roulette and Piper farms. The 800 yard long road had been worn down over the years by heavy wagons taking grain to nearby mill, making an ideal defense trench for the Rebels. At dawn about five brigades of D.H. Hill's troops guarded this lane. Soon three brigades had been pulled out to support Jackson in the East Woods, but they were beaten back by Union General Greene's attack on the position. By 9:30 a.m. the Confederates were stacking fence rails on the north side of the road to provide additional protection from Union forces, advancing in paradelike precision across the field.
From 9:30 a.m. to 1 p.m., bitter fighting along this deeply cut lane ( later known as Bloody Lane) as French, supported by General Rivhardson's division, also of Sumer's corps, sought to drive the Southerners back. By 1 p.m. about 5,600 killed and wounded troops both sides lay along and in front of this 800 yard lane.
Finally seeing a weak spot in the Confederate line, the 61st and 64th New York regiments penetrated the crest of the hill at the eastern end and began firing volley after volley full length down the sunken line. Then, misinterpreting an order, a Confederate officer pulled his regiment out of the road. The remaining defenders rapidly scrambled out of the lane, over the fence, and fled through the cornfields to the south, some not stopping until they had reached the outskirts of Sharpsburg. More than 300 Rebels threw down their arms and surrendered on the spot. Lee's army was ruined and the end of the Confederacy was in sight. About 200 Rebel infantry attempted a weak counter attack, while Lee rushed 20 cannon to the Piper farm. An attack through this hole would have crushed the Confederate center, and the remaining divisions could be destroyed piecemeal. Fortunately for the South, however, McClellan decided aganist a counter attack with his fresh reserve. That fateful decision would allow the Confederacy to fight on for three more years. ( The Bloodiest Day by Ronald bailey pg 86-109 c1984) Southeast of town, Union General Burnside's corps of 12,000 men had been trying to cross a 12 foot wide bridge over Antietam Creek since 9:30 a.m. About 450 Georgian sharpshooters took up positions behind trees and boulders on a steep wooded bluff some 100 feet high and overlooking the Lower Bridge. Greatly out numbered, the COnfederates drove back several Union advances towards the bridge. Finally, at 1 p.m. the Federals crossed the 125 foot long bridge and, after a 2 hour delay to rest and replenish ammunition, continued their advance towards Sharpsburg. By late afternoon about 8,000 Union troops had driven the Confederates back almost to Sharpsburg, threatening to cut off the line of retreat for Lee's army. By 3:30 p.m. many Rebels jammed the streets of Sharpsburg in retreat. The battle seemed lost to the Southern army.
Then at 3:40 p.m. General A.P. Hill's division, left behind by Jackson at Harpers Ferry to salvage the captured Federal property, arrived on the field after a march of 17 miles in eight hours. Immediately Hill's 3,000 troops entered the fight, attacking the Federals unprotected left flank. Burnside's troops were driven back to the heights near the bridge they had taken earlier. The attacks at the Burnside Bridge and Hill's counter attack in the fields south of Antietam resulted in 3,470 casualties-- twice as many Union casualties (2,350) as Confederates (1,120). McClellan although held 20,000 men of V Corps and VI Corps in reserve--and lost a second opportunity to defeat the entire Confederate army. By 5:30 p.m., the Battle of Antietam was over.
The Next day Federal and Confederate leaders struck up an informal truce, so they could begin gathering up the wounded and dying. During the evening of the 18th Lee began withdrawing his army across the Potomac River. ( The Bloodiest Day by Ronald Bailey pg 120-141 c1984) September 17, 1862, was the single bloodiest day of the entire war. Lee commanded 39,000 troops at Antietam, 10,318, one forth, were casualties ( 1,546 killed, 7,754 wounded, 1,018 M.I.A.). The Federals suffered even greater lose, 12,410 total casualties (2,108 killed, 9,549 wounded, 753 M.I.A.). McClellan at the beging of the battle commanded 71,500 men. ( Robert E. Lee by Emory M. Thomas pg 162 c1995) Refrences Virginia's General: Robert E. Lee and the Civil War Marrin, Albert (c1994). Robert E. Lee: a biography. Atheneum Macmillan Publishing Company.
R. E. Lee Volume 1 Freeman, Douglas (c1934). Robert E. Lee biography Charles Scribner's Sons.
R. E. Lee Volume 11 Freeman, Douglas (c1934). Robert E. Lee biography Charles Scribner's Sons Robert E. Lee Earle, Peter (c1973). Robert E. Lee biography George Weidenfeld and Nicolson Limited, London.
Robert E. Lee Thomas, Emory (c1995). Robert E. Lee biography W. W. Norton and Company Inc, New York.
The Bloodiest Day Bailey, Ronald and the editors of Life Books (c1984) Time Life Books Inc.