Antietam: 11 Hours of Fury and Death in a Cornfield; Bloodiest Day in U.S. History

The Washington Times (Washington, DC), September 16, 2006 | Go to article overview

Antietam: 11 Hours of Fury and Death in a Cornfield; Bloodiest Day in U.S. History


Byline: Francis P. Sempa, SPECIAL TO THE WASHINGTON TIMES

The Battle of Antietam, fought near Sharpsburg, Md., on Sept. 17, 1862, was the bloodiest day in American history.

Eleven hours of the most savage fighting that has ever occurred on U.S. soil resulted in more than 23,000 casualties, including more than 3,500 dead.

Most of the carnage took place in a relatively small area located between the Hagerstown Pike, a small church and a small wooded area to the west; two parcels of woods and a cornfield to the north and east; and a long, sunken road to the south. A recent trip to the site of the battle, well-preserved by the National Park Service, helped explain the course of the battle on that fateful day.

Four objectives

The genesis of the battle was Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee's decision to capitalize on the momentum gained from his recent victory over the Army of the Potomac at Second Manassas (also known as Second Bull Run) by invading Union territory.

Lee and Confederate President Jefferson Davis hoped that a successful invasion of the North would accomplish several objectives.

First, invading the North might bring Maryland, or at least more Marylanders, to the side of the Confederacy.

Second, Lee's Army of Northern Virginia could gain needed supplies in Maryland and Pennsylvania.

Third, by crossing the Potomac River, Lee could threaten Washington, Baltimore and Philadelphia, thereby relieving pressure on Confederate territory, including the capital, Richmond, which earlier in the year had been the object of Union designs during the Seven Days Battles.

Fourth, Lee and Davis believed that a Confederate victory in the North could persuade Britain and France to formally recognize and, perhaps, provide assistance to the Confederacy.

The lost orders

In early September 1862, Lee's army of 35,000 to 40,000 troops crossed the Potomac and established camp in Frederick, Md. It was there, on Sept. 9, 1862, that Lee issued Special Orders 191, which directed his subordinate commanders to split the Army of Northern Virginia into four parts, one of which would attempt to guard the gaps in South Mountain to the east and three of which would converge on the Union garrison and arsenal at Harpers Ferry.

This was a bold but very risky move to divide the Confederate army when it was being chased by a Union army more than twice its size. Part of Lee's genius as a commander was his audacity, and another aspect of that genius was his ability to accurately assess the skill and approach of his opposing commanders in this instance, the exceedingly hesitant George B. McClellan, who had been returned to command after the Union's stunning loss at Second Manassas. Lee believed he would have time to divide his army, capture Harpers Ferry and reunite the army before McClellan would attack.

On Sept. 13, after Lee's divided army left Frederick, a Union soldier discovered a copy of Special Orders 191 on the ground, inside an envelope, wrapped around three cigars. It was forwarded to McClellan, who grasped its significance but waited more than 18 hours before moving to take advantage of this precious information.

During that fateful delay, Lee learned that a copy of his directive had fallen into Union hands, and he immediately ordered his army to reunite near the town of Sharpsburg.

In the meantime, Union forces had penetrated three gaps in what is known as the Battle of South Mountain, and Confederate forces under Stonewall Jackson had captured Harpers Ferry, forcing the surrender of more than 12,000 Union troops, the largest surrender of United States forces until Bataan and Corregidor in World War II.

The cornfield

Lee's army reached Sharpsburg first and established a defensive position running north to south on high ground east of the town and west of Antietam Creek.

To the north, Lee's forces occupied land near a small Dunker Church adjacent to a 40-acre cornfield whose stalks were as tall as a soldier. …

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