The battle of Antietam, as it was named in the North. The battle of Sharspburg as it was known in the South.
This is not a post for Civil War buffs, this is a short post for those less familiar with the American Civil War.
Why is called the ‘bloodiest day in American history’?
Well, you’ll often read that 25,000 men on both sides were casualties on this day.
The exact figure is a little lower.
22,717 dead, wounded, or missing, still enough to earn its reputation as America’s bloodiest single day battle.
Roughly 80,000 Union soldiers attacked roughly 40,000 Confederate soldiers.
Here are ten interesting facts about the battle:
- It’s a battle that was fought on Union territory, not Confederate territory. The battle took place in Maryland, one of four slave states that did not secede from the Union. Quite a few Marylanders did join the Confederate armies, but more fought for the Union.
- The Confederate commander, Robert E. Lee, is often considered to be a military genius. There’s little evidence to show for that today. He knew his army was vastly outnumbered. And he was fighting with a river to his back. At the same time he did not have all his soldiers present. Some of them, a division under general A.P. Hill had to basically run 27 miles from Harpersferry to get there. They arrived just in time to fight off a potentially deadly blow. Oddly, the Confederates did not entrench. They were lucky that the terrain favored them, that their opponent George B. McClellan was too timid to commit his entire force to the attack and that he didn’t attack simultaneously along the entire line, allowing Lee to shift men back and forth to stave off attacks, which he did do brilliantly.
- In defense of Lee: some days prior to the battle one of the most amazing coincidences in military history took place. Lee’s marching orders for his army were found wrapped around some cigars in a field. Union soldiers found the package. It gets better: soon the orders are in the hands of a Union officer who knows and recognizes the handwriting of the man who wrote the orders, making sure the Union knows this is not a hoax. It’s never become really clear how such important documents ended up in a field. I don’t know who ended up smoking the cigars. Anyway, the otherwise extremely timid, even paranoid, McClellan moved with uncharacteristic speed -still quite slow- to attack Lee. Lee could not have guessed this.
- Lee’s army barely managed to blunt the Union’s attacks, but it did. An amazing feat, although it was a battle that the South should have avoided. President Abraham Lincoln was depressed when it became clear that after the battle McClellan did nothing to keep the pressure on an army less than half the size of his own army. Lee stayed on the battlefield the next day, tempting McCellan to renew that attack, but McClellan did nothing. Lee retreated back to Confederate territory, unmolested, Lincoln even went to the battlefield to try and prod McClellan into action, but in vain. A little while later Lincoln replaced him with an even other poor excuse for a general: Ambrose Burnside.
- Lee was invading Union territory, but since Maryland was a slave state, the Confederates hoped that many Marylanders would join their army now that they had the chance. They did not. Probably because Lee was passing through the western part of the state where there weren’t that many slaves, the eastern part of Maryland had more Confederate sympathizers, but that part was harder to reach.
- Europe was keeping a close eye on the events in Maryland. If Lee had beaten the Union army on its own territory it’s likely that France and Great Britain would have recognized the Confederacy as a real nation. This would have given them a huge morale boost and other advantages. Lee’s retreat back into Virginia destroyed this chance. This is why the battle is often seen as a tactical victory for the Confederates, but a strategic victory for the Union. The Union army’s attacks failed, but the Confederates had to leave Union territory anyway.
- The Confederates got a small morale boost almost immediately after their retreat. Their cavalry under James Ewell Brown Stuart rode entirely round the Union army, gained lots of information and came away unscathed. This was quite humiliating for the Union. Especially since it was already the second time that year that Stuart had danced a circle around the Union army…
- One of the first war photographers, Alexander Gardner, took the opportunity to take pictures of the dead at Antietam. The public was shocked. Never before had the carnage of war been so vividly portrayed.
- The famous movie ‘Glory’, about the first black Union soldiers, opens with scenes of the violence at Antietam. And that’s no cooincidence, because the most important fact concerning this battle is…
- …that Abraham Lincoln used the battle, which was seen as something of a Union victory, to draft his Emancipation Proclamation to free the slaves. He could not do it in the wake of a defeat, because then this move would have been seen as a last desperate attempt to sabotage the Confederates. He had to wait for something that was seen as a victory to be pull of this move as a sign of strength. He did it as a war measure, and ironically, he only freed the slaves over which he had no control. Slaves in states loyal to the Union remained slaves until the Confederacy was completely defeated. The Emancipation Proclamation had a detrimental effect on the Confederacy nonetheless. The Union could now arm free blacks and runaway slaves, adding man power to its bloodied armies. England and France would now never recognize the Confederacy, since that would be seen as backing slavery. Lots of slaves were now sure that aiding the Union armies would destroy slavery and so they did, as soldiers, spies, guides, by hiding Union soldiers who had escaped from prisoner of war camps, and so on. The only benefit for the Confederacy may have been that some Union soldiers quit as they didn’t want to fight to free black slaves and that some Southerners were so enraged that they joined the Confederate armies.