As a person who truly enjoys history and understands its impact on the here and now, it is hard to truly express the sense of awe when visiting a place such as the Antietam National Battlefield. It is the site of the single bloodiest day in United States military history.
Leading up to September 17, 1862, Confederate armies led by General Robert E. Lee, had begun an invasion of the North, a bold move intended to put the Union on the defensive. Having captured the Harper’s Ferry just days before, Lee felt confident of a stand near Sharpsburg, Maryland.
Abraham Lincoln directed General George B. McClellan to move his forces into a position to strike at Lee, with the intent of destroying Lee’s army McClellan’s plan was to strike at Lee’s flanks, and when conditions were favorable move upon the center of the Confederate lines and crush the invading army.
Dawn of the morning of the battle bore witness to uncoordinated advances by Union commanders on the left of the Confederate lines, followed by an attempt by General Ambrose E. Burnside’s to attack the rebel right flank across a bridge that now bears that general’s name.
The battle lasted only twelve, hours, and essentially ended in a stalemate as McClellan was unable to break Lee’s line of battle. Nearly 23,000 men were killed, wounded or listed as missing, out of the estimated 100,000 that were engaged in the fighting that day. The next day, after the armies buried the dead and reclaimed the wounded, Lee’s army escaped across the Potomac River back into Virginia, ending the first Confederate invasion of Union territory.
To place the casualty figures into some context, more American lives were lost at Antietam in 12 hours than were lost in the Revolutionary War, the War of 1812, and the Spanish-American war…combined.
To walk the field…knowing what took place here – the sheer carnage and brutality of it…there are few words to explain. Gettysburg gets the most attention in part because it marked the tide of changing fortunes for the Union in 1863 and the beginning of the end for the Confederacy. But it is here where one may truly feel the the weight of the price paid in blood that day.
I encourage a visit. The Dunker church, the Cornfield, and the Burnside Bridge are all worth the walk. Several monuments are very well done, and the cemetery is a powerful place. Compared to the complexity of Gettysburg, it is a far more simple battlefield to interpret, in part because it was over in 12 hours compared to the 3 days near that small college in Pennsylvania less than a year later.
Nonetheless, it’s importance to our history is equally vital. While it technically was a draw, the Union claimed the victory because Lee left the field. It gave Abraham Lincoln the win he needed to issue the Emancipation Proclamation, freeing the slaves in throughout the nation. And it also convinced France and the United Kingdom not to recognize the sovereignty of the Confederacy, eliminating the chance the South had for European support for the remainder of the war.
Feel free to visit my gallery of favorite images from my visit to Antietam.