Antietam National Battlefield & the Bloodiest Day in American History

On the way there, I thought about blood. Blood and how I really should have refreshed my Civil War memory bank before embarking on a long weekend of Civil War battlefield immersion. Blood though, was the thing I remembered about Antietam. It’s what stuck out in my mind, the tiny piece of information I picked up some time in high school and managed to hold onto until now. I couldn’t remember the exact date, couldn’t remember which generals led the Union or Confederate troops, wasn’t even 100 percent sure which year the battle took place, but Antietam, my memory told me, was bloody.

The Battle of Antietam was so bloody, in fact, that September 17, 1862, the day of the battle, is the bloodiest single day in American military history, leaving nearly 23,000 dead, wounded or missing.

By the time Gen. Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia met Gen. George McClellan’s Army of the Potomac at Antietam, the American Civil War had been waging for nearly a year and a half. After success at the Second Battle of Manassas, Lee was ready to take the war north, to Union soil. On Sept. 9, 1862, he issued Special Order 191, outlining his Maryland Campaign. He planned to divide his army, sending troops to Boonsboro and Hagerstown in Maryland, as well as to Harper’s Ferry and Martinsburg in West Virginia. Copies of this special order were distributed to the various Confederate generals who would execute the plan. A few days later, on Sept. 13, Cpl. Barton W. Mitchell of the 27th Indiana Volunteers, a Union Soldier, found an envelope with three cigars wrapped in a piece of paper lying in the grass. It was a copy of Special Order 191. He recognized the document’s importance and sent it up his chain of command, all the way to McClellan, who was, of course, delighted to receive Lee’s plans. After learning his plan had been compromised, Lee almost retreated back to Virginia, but reunited his army at Antietam Creek instead.

The Battle of Antietam began at dawn on Sept. 17 when the Union I Corps assaulted the Confederate left flank. Union forces outnumbered Confederates two to one, but McClellan didn’t know that. Back and forth the two sides went, sweeping across a 30-acre cornfield that changed hands no less than 15 times that morning. There, visibility was so terrible that much of the combat involved rifle butts and bayonets. The Confederate Louisiana “Tiger” Brigade lost 323 of their 500 men. The Union 12th Massachusetts suffered a 67% casualty rate. By the time the morning ended, the casualty count included 13,000 men, including two Union corps commanders.

By midday, fighting shifted to the center of the Confederate line, to a worn wagon road, called the Sunken Road. There, Confederate troops were in a strong defensive position. As Union troops marched up the hill in front of them, the Confederates held their fire until the last possible second when they opened fire and devastated the Union forces, who were blind to what awaited them at the top of the hill. For three hours, the vastly outnumbered Confederate Soldiers held their position, until Union forces broke the line. With 5,600 casualties left along the 800-yard road, it was nicknamed “Bloody Lane.”

That afternoon, action moved to the southern end of the battlefield, toward what would become known as Burnside’s Bridge at Antietam Creek. Around 500 Georgia Soldiers held the bridge against repeated attacks by Union troops. The third attempt at taking the bridge was made by New York and Pennsylvania Soldiers who were told they’d get their recently-revoked whiskey ration back if they were successful. With ammunition running low, the Confederates withdrew. They’d held the bridge for more than three hours and cost the Union around 500 casualties.

By 5:30 p.m., the battle was over. Lee prepared to head back across the Potomac River, back to Virginia. The Union suffered nearly 12,500 casualties with 2,108 dead, which accounted for 25 percent of their force. The Confederates had more than 10,000 casualties and more than 1,500 dead, which accounted for 31 percent of their force. Five hundred Union and Confederate Soldiers who were initially listed as missing were later confirmed dead, and of the casualties, around 3,500 died from the wounds they suffered at Antietam.

The Battle of Antietam is considered a “strategic victory” for the Union. It was a turning point. It ended Lee’s northern invasion and a few days later, on Sept. 22, President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, which freed the slaves in the southern states.

When I got to Antietam, I went straight to the visitor center and was sent upstairs for an orientation talk which gave me the basics of the battle, enough for me to embark on my own adventure. One of the best ways to see Antietam National Battlefield, is to drive the self-guided, 11-stop, 8.5-mile driving tour, which I did. I got out and wandered at every stop and spent a lot of time gazing into the distance, trying to fathom it all, trying to pull memories from the ground. Standing in the Sunken Road, knowing what it looked like as the sun set on Sept. 17, 1862, gave me chills. It’s more than I could imagine.

Visiting battlefields is weird. You read the signs and watch the movie and hear the stories of devastation, the recitation of the casualty count, and then you look across a pristine landscape, manicured and planted, sacred and neat. There’s rolling hills at Antietam, green grass, corn swaying in the summer sun. It’s peaceful, pleasant and impossibly far from the scarred battle-scape of 1862.

The driving tour ends at Antietam National Cemetery. After the battle, burials for the 4,000 dead men were haphazard at best. Some were taken by family for burial closer to home. Some ended up in church cemeteries, and others were buried in long, shallow trenches.

In 1864, a Maryland state senator introduced a plan to establish a permanent resting place for these men. The next year, the state purchased just over 11 acres and while the original plan allowed for the burial of both Union and Confederate forces, Maryland recanted that offer after the South failed to raise funds to help support the venture. Only Union troops are buried at Antietam, while southern Soldiers were re-interred at cemeteries in Hagerstown and Frederick, Maryland, and Shepherdstown, West Virginia. More than 60 percent of those southern Soldiers are unknown.

Identifying the dead and finding the grave sites was a chore that lasted years. According to the National Park Service, “the dead were identified by letters, receipts, diaries, photographs, marks on belts or cartridge boxes, and by interviewing relatives and survivors.” By 1867, the cemetery was complete and on the fifth anniversary of the battle, President Andrew Johnson helped dedicate it. Today, the remains of 4,776 Union Soldiers are buried at Antietam National Cemetery. Nearly 40 percent are unknown.

Antietam National Battlefield is located in Sharpsburg, Maryland. Admission is $7 for a three-day pass. The grounds of the battlefield are open sunrise to sunset and the visitor center is open daily from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.

SOURCES: Wikipedia; National Park Service; History.com

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