Sharpsburg, Maryland (1862 AD)
The Battle of Antietam was arguably the greatest yet indecisive battles of the American Civil War. Fought in September 1862, it was the culmination of Robert E. Lee’s first major attempt to invade the north. Although the Confederate army was significantly outnumbered, they managed to fight the Federal army to a draw. However, in the end they were unable to penetrate the Union lines. The casualties from the battle were catastrophic on both sides. The nearly 23,000 dead and wounded were roughly split between the two armies, the highest single-day toll of casualties in American history. The battle was considered a Union victory as Lee was forced to withdraw in its aftermath.
The Battle of Antietam was the culmination of the Confederacy’s first major invasion of the North in 1862. After his victory at the second battle of Bull Run in August, Robert E. Lee made the first of what would be two attempts at defeating the Union army on northern soil. The strategic objective of the campaign was to convince European military observers of the possibility of a Confederate victory in the war, thereby inducing them to support the rebel cause.
The outlook of the campaign was grim from the start. Lee’s army of 55,000 was outnumbered by the Union army of 75,000 under the command of the incompetant McClellan. The overly cautious McClellan squandered several opportunities to absolutely crush the Confederate army at several points during the campaign. Only Lee’s genious, and a lot of luck, kept the battle from turning into a rebel disaster.
In the days prior to the battle, McClellan received intelligence that the Confederate army had split into two forces, which might have been defeated piecemeal if the Union army moved fast enough, which it didn’t. On September 15, leading elements of both armies arrived in the vicinity of Sharpsburg and Antietam Creek, and the bulk of the Union forces had arrived by the end of the day. It is believed that an assault on September 16 would have resulted in a decisive Union victory. Instead, McClellan waited for the rest of the Confederate army to arrive and dig in.
The main battle took place on September 17, when McClellan finally attacked the enemy. By then the rebels were well entrenched. The result was a bloodbath. Each side took over twenty thousand casualties. In the end, the Union forces failed to dislodge the rebels from their positions. However, the atrocious losses effectively ended Lee’s invasion of the North that year, forcing him to withdraw to Virginia shortly thereafter.
The Antietam Battlefield includes the entirety of the area where the battle took place, including a sprawling cemetery where many of the Union dead are buried, and the Pry House, which was the headquarters of General McClellan. It is now home to a Field Hospital Museum. There is also a visitor’s center with exhibits on the battle and Abraham Lincoln’s rare battlefield visit.
Antietam National Battlefield is located just east of the City of Sharpsburg, approximately sixty miles northwest of Washington DC. It is run by the National Park servce. It is open daily from 8:30am to 5:00pm (except Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year). The cost of admission is $4.00. Web: www.nps.gov/ancm (official website).