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The Bloodiest Day

Originally aired on September 16, 1994 - In part 3 of our Civil War series, Virginia Tech history professor James Robertson tells us about the bloodiest day in U.S. history and how it became a turning point in the conflict between North and South.

#3 – Antietam: September 1862

September is a pleasing month, a time when the joys of late summer give way to the beauties of early autumn. It is also the month in which the bloodiest day in our history occurred. It was a day that may have been the climax of the great Civil War. It was a day that would lead to a declaration of freedom for all Americans, the enchained as well as the enlightened.

By the first week of September, 1862, the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia, under General Robert E. Lee, had cleared all major Union forces from Virginia. Lee then had his army to cross the Potomac River and carry the war into the North itself. Among the factors behind the decision to launch an invasion was the hope that a Southern victory on Union soil might convince England and France to give official recognition and aid to the Southern Confederacy. Such a development would enhance the South’s chances of winning this civil war.

Commanding the Union army in front of Lee was Major General George B. McClellan, an officer noted more for organization than for audacity. McClellan became beneficiary of one of the greatest military leaks in history when a copy of Lee’s marching orders came into his possession. Yet even though McClellan now knew not only where Lee’s army was but also where it was going, he gave pursuit in snail-like fashion.

This gave Lee, a master at fortifications, the chance to prepare a substantial battle line. It extended in a four mile arc north and east of the sleepy village of Sharpsburg in western Maryland. Much of the defensive position was on hills overlooking a stream called Antietam Creek.

Had McClellan attacked Lee simultaneously at every point with his huge Army of the Potomac, the sheer weight of Union numbers would likely have broken if not destroyed the Confederate army. Instead, McClellan chose to launch a series of concentrated attacks at single points along Lee’s line. This decision, of course, would enable Lee to shift soldiers from one threatened sector to the other.

September 17, 1862, was a clear, somewhat cool day. Before sunrise, Union divisions began charging against the Confederate left. For some three hours, through the East Wood and the West Wood, around the Dunker church, Northerners and Southerners struggled back and forth in one enormous free-for-all.  The Confederate line held in large part because it was under the command of General “Stonewall” Jackson, who had been in the same West Point class with George McClellan.

In midmorning, the Union commander switched his assaults to the Confederate center. The point of attack was a sunken road that extended a quarter of a mile under the lee of a long hill. North Carolina soldiers manned that position, and they proved as steady as Jackson’s Virginians in hurling back gallant Union charges. Billy Yanks eventually seized the road (known forever after as “Bloody Lane”, but they could advance no farther.

It was now early afternoon. A human carpet of bodies blanketed the rolling country; Antietam Creek was running red with blood. McClellan ordered another part of his vast army to assail the Confederate right. The battle now focused on a stone bridge that arched over the Antietam. There Union brigades fought their way across the stream and up onto high ground – only to be torn apart when Confederates in General A. P. Hill’s division dashed onto the field from Harper’s Ferry and slammed into the unprotected Union flank.

The long day ended, and the long battle ended. The sun set, blood red in the smoky air. As darkness came and the guns died down, a new sound arose: the unceasing, unanswerable crying and moaning of thousands upon thousands of wounded men. And the pitiful appeals continued through the night as Death walked slowly over the bloody fields of Antietam.

The casualties in those twelve hours of fighting defied belief. Over 7,800 men were dead; another 15,500 were injured. A total of 23,000 American soldiers had fallen that Wednesday. By way of comparison, on D-Day in World War II, American forces suffered 6,000 losses – about one-fourth the casualties of Antietam.

Lee’s invasion of the North was over. The Confederate Army of Northern Virginia would regain its strength and win successes in other places, but the independence the Confederacy sought was never again quite as within reach as in those September days of 1862 in Maryland. Moreover, Union President Abraham Lincoln would convert the indecisive battle of Antietam into a smashing victory for the North (and for mankind) when he used the engagement as a springboard for issuing his Emancipation Proclamation.

The bloodshed at Antietam was a turning point in American history.

Dr. James I. "Bud" Robertson, Jr., is a noted scholar on the American Civil War and Alumni Distinguished Professor Emeritus at Virginia Tech.