Eb Joseph Daniels, ABG Contributor
On this day in 1862 just over 87,000 Federal troops under the command of Major General George B. McClellan attacked around 38,000 Confederate troops at the Battle of Sharpsburg. The battle has the distinction of being the single bloodiest day of combat during the War Between the States
Following his successful expulsion of the Federal invaders from Virginia in the summer of 1862, Lee pursued the Federal Army of the Potomac as it retreated into Maryland. Lee hoped to force the complete withdrawal of the enemy force, allowing the Confederacy to stabilize the rapidly deteriorating situation in the Western Theatre with a concurrent campaign in Kentucky. He was also eager to take advantage of fresh supplies and recruits in Maryland, as the state was reputed to be home to numerous Confederate sympathizers and Virginia had been stripped bare after months of hard fighting.
Upon entering Maryland, however, Lee found that political persuasions varied greatly from region to region. Many locals refused to assist his army, either out of Unionist sentiment or fear of reprisals, and most fervent Maryland secessionists had already enlisted in the Confederate army. Nevertheless, the Army of Northern Virginia was hailed as a liberating force in several towns and greeted with outpourings of public support.
In early September, Lee divided the Army of Northern Virginia in order to expedite its movement through Maryland and secure additional military goals. One such goal was the seizure of Harper’s Ferry, an important military town and installation. These movements were outlined in Special Order 191, a copy of which was famously discovered by Federal soldiers and passed on to McClellan. McClellan, however, was reticent to act aggressively in regards to the information the order contained, and modern historians question the extent to which the capture of the orders influenced the Maryland Campaign.
Starting on September 13th, Jackson began his assault on Harper’s Ferry, although the garrison would not capitulate until the 15th. Meanwhile, Lee learned that McClellan was moving in force through the Blue Ridge Mountains to attack the Army of Northern Virginia: Lee dispatched Major General D.H. Hill, to be supported by Major General James Longstreet, to delay the approaching army at the Battle of South Mountain on September 14th.
Aware of McClellan’s approach, Lee deployed his remaining troops in a strong defensive position just outside of Sharpsburg, Maryland, running roughly north and south at a slight diagonal. The Confederate left was anchored by the mighty Potomac River, and its right by Antietam Creek, although the creek was shallow and could be easily traversed in several places. In the northern section, dense woods and cornfields surrounded Dunker Church, home to a congregation of Baptist Germans, while Nicodemus Hill rose up from the banks of the Potomac. The town of Sharpsburg was near the center, although to the rear of the action, and the southern section was approached by a stone bridge across Antietam Creek, known then as Rohrbach's Bridge but soon to be remembered as Burnside Bridge.
On the morning of the 16th, the first Federal corps arrived. At this time Lee had not yet re-consolidated his forces and had only about 20,000 men available, while the Federals had nearly 60,000. McClellan did not attack, however, as he feared a trap and believed that Lee actually had considerably more men waiting in ambush. Throughout his tenure as commander of the Army of the Potomac, McClellan was consistently convinced that the Army of Northern Virginia was much larger than it really was, due to faulty intelligence which relied on pseudo-scientific analyses of campfire smoke and footprints and wheel ruts in roads, and ruses carried out by the Confederates. McClellan was not willing to begin his assault until the arrival of the rest of his command on the 17th, by which time more of Lee’s troops had assembled as well.
At dawn on the 17th Corps I, under Major General Joseph Hooker, attacked from the north, fighting its way through dense woods and ripened fields of corn. There they encountered Jackson’s corps, in a well-fortified position, and the fighting was bloody and intense.
Several units marched directly into the cornfields, which, due to the height of the stalks, severely reduced visibility. Confederates and Federals would stumble into each other among the corn, sparking fierce melee combat, or else ranks would fire blindly wherever they heard unexpected noise, killing friend and foe alike. Persistent artillery fire, from both sides, soon turned the cornfields into a bloody no-man’s land and whole regiments were cut to pieces: the 12th Massachusetts suffered 67% casualties, while the famed Louisiana “Tiger” Brigade lost 65%.
Closer to Dunker Church, to the southwest, the Federal advance was making better progress. The famed Iron Brigade, under Brigadier General John Gibbon, was matched with Brigadier General William E. Starke and his brigade, which slowed their advance, but at the cost of Starke’s life. Just as the Federal troops were about to break through, Lee shifted reinforcements from his extreme right and also gained new divisions recently arrived from the surrender at Harper’s Ferry. The Confederate left continued to hold. Particular credit must be given to the Texas Brigade of Brigadier General John Bell Hood, which counterattacked to secure the Confederate lines and suffered a lost of two thirds of its men in doing so.
Control of the area around the cornfield would shift back and forth over a dozen times during the battle, but the entire section of the battle quickly devolved into a bloody stalemate. Following the wounding of Hooker, the Federal advance stalled from poor organization and lack of leadership. After a disastrous attempt to turn the Confederate extreme left which nearly led to a Federal rout, the morning’s action in his section of the battlefield largely came to a close around 10 am.
Further south, Hill and his command of 2,500 were holding the Confederate center along a sunken road, which acted as natural trench. Although severely outnumbered by the attacking Federal division of Brigadier General William French, the Confederates were able to hold out against almost half a dozen successive attacks. During these attacks, however, many officers were killed or wounded, contributing to confusion among the Confederates.
The 6th Alabama was stationed at the end of the sunken road and commanded by Colonel John B. Gordon of Georgia, who would go on to great fame as a general and statesman. He was wounded no less than five times during the battle, however, and finally incapacitated: Gordon would later remark that he would have drowned in the blood pooling in his hat had the hat not had enough holes in it to drain the blood out. The officer who assumed command after Gordon fell misunderstood an order and inadvertently caused the collapse of the Confederate troops from the sunken road when an order to "about face" directed at one regiment was obeyed by five more, causing the Confederate line to effectively implode. Heavy artillery fire, however, prevented this section of the Confederate center from collapsing completely. The fierce fighting around this embankment earned the area the name “The Bloody Lane,” and it was said that the dead were piled so close together that one could walk from one end of the lane to the other without once touching the ground.
Further south, beyond Sharpsburg and at Rohrback’s Bridge, things had been largely quiet. Although Major General Ambrose Burnside had orders to launch a diversionary attack with Corps IX across the bridge to distract the Confederates earlier in the morning, he had failed to do so, believing that his casualties would be too great. Meanwhile, Lee had slowly been siphoning off men from his right to defend his left, and by 10:00 am the Confederate troops around the bridge consisted of two regiments, or about 400 men, under the command of Brigadier General Robert Toombs, while 3000 men under the command of Brigadier General David Jones held Cemetery Hill between the bridge and Sharpsburg.
Toombs, a firebrand secessionist and one of the most famous statesmen in the Confederacy, had gained a reputation as an uneven officer after joining the army following his resignation from the executive cabinet of President Jefferson Davis. He disliked several of the career army officers he had met and openly mocked the regular army as "Davis' Janissaries," believing that standing armies were antithetical to republican liberty and that the Confederacy would be better served relying on militia and state troops. Lax with discipline and disinterested in the minutia of military command, he had recently been personally chastised by "Stonewall" Jackson himself for not properly deploying pickets along the Confederate lines. But Toombs was also a doughty warrior who had an excellent rapport with his men, who held puckish and redoubtable commander in the highest esteem.
These plucky, rough-hewn Georgians were the only thing standing between the Federal Corps IX and the southern approach to Sharpsburg. After sending skirmishers to secure the bridge, who were quickly driven off by fire from Toombs’ men, Burnside finally attacked in mass a little after noon. Toombs and his men held through five waves of attack, however, only withdrawing upon learning that Federal skirmishers had located a ford further south and were preparing to launch a flanking attack; the Georgians had managed to hold the bridge against overwhelming odds for over three hours.
Word that the Federals had seized the bridge, however, started a panic in Sharpsburg. Although poor management caused the Federal crossing to drag out over several hours, the slow but steady advance of the enemy troops terrified Jones’ brigades. After fierce fighting around Cemetery Hill, the brigades began to rout, pouring into the city and tangling with the civilians who were likewise fleeing for their lives. Only Toombs’ men remained at their stations, fortifying a position on the outskirts of town to await the Federal attack.
Fortunately for Toombs, the extended delay had provided time for Lee to procure reinforcements. Men under Major General A.P. Hill from the Second Corps rushed to the defense of the town, driving the Federals back in a successful counterattack. Burnside was so unnerved by the assault that he retreated, requesting more men from McClellan. McClellan, however, claimed that he did not feel comfortable committing more men to an assault, as he believed that a massive Confederate counterattack was imminent.
The Confederates, however, had no men to spare for such an adventure. By 5:30 pm the fighting had ceased and both sides settled into a truce to collect their dead and wounded. On the evening of the 18th, Lee began an orderly retreat, departing Maryland and ending the campaign.
In the whole battle, Federal casualties totaled 12,410, with 2,108 dead, while the Confederate suffered casualties 10,316 with 1,546 dead. McClellan was castigated in the press and by the Federal government for not acting more aggressively, as he had had at his disposal considerably more men than Lee; as usual, McClellan was blamed for being too cautious and indecisive, although it should be noted that Lee had intentionally selected ground that would have made it difficult for McClellan to have established greater local superiority anywhere.
Nevertheless, his failure to decisively defeat Lee at Sharpsburg and his decision to not pursue the Army of Northern Virginia as it retreated led to McClellan being relieved of command on November 5th. Lincoln did, however, take advantage of the “victory” at Sharpsburg to preliminarily issue the Emancipation Proclamation, which gave the Confederate states one last opportunity to rejoin the Union and preserve slavery prior to its abolition in states not loyal to the Union.
Historian, self-proclaimed gentleman, agrarian-at-heart, & curator extraordinaire