Here is a paper with which if I cannot whip Bobby Lee, I will be willing to go home.
–George B. McClellan
In one sense Bobby Lee’s long summer of triumph had put him in an odd fix. The Federals had retreated behind the defenses of Washington, which was then becoming perhaps the most fortified city on the planet. The Army of Northern Virginia, outnumbered two-to-one, could hardly strike there. Nor was it really possible to remain where it was at Manassas. Men and horses both were worn to gristle and bone, and the hard hand of war had stripped the northern Virginia countryside of the food and forage that might sustain them. Lee could either return to Richmond, resting and watching, or take the war across the Potomac into Maryland and Pennsylvania, whose fields and factories could supply him.
After consulting with Jefferson Davis, Lee took the gambler’s chance: he would invade the North. Indeed, a great deal might be achieved by success north of the Potomac. Great Britain might recognize the Confederacy and break the blockade. Then, too, a Rebel army on the Susquehanna River might help elect enough Peace Democrats in November to break Republican control in Congress. A war-weary people persuaded of the hopelessness of conquering a peace might press the Lincoln government to negotiate one. At the very least an invasion would take the Yankees out of Virginia long enough for her farmers to get their crops in. In any event, if Lee was going to strike, now was the time. The Federal armies, Lee believed, were demoralized by a steady diet of defeat in the East, and their successes in the West seemed to have gone for nought now that Confederates were on the march again in Kentucky and Tennessee. Perhaps also Lee was thinking of Stonewall Jackson’s conviction: repeated success will make an army invincible.
Reinforced by three divisions from Richmond, Lee’s army, 55,000 strong, splashed across the Potomac at White’s Ford on September 4. They were toughened veterans of successful campaigns and they were ably led. They also looked like so many scarecrows. The description of one soldier can stand for thousands: “My costume consisted of a ragged pair of trousers, a stained, dirty jacket; an old slouch hat, the brim pinned up with a thorn; a begrimed blanket over my shoulder, a grease-smeared cotton haversack full of apples and corn, a cartridge box full, and a musket. I was bare-footed and had a stone bruise on each foot.” Even a corps commander, Stonewall Jackson, wore a battered cap which, one journalist wrote, “any northern beggar would consider an insult to have offered him.” A Maryland woman remembered them on the march: “This body of men moving along with no order, their guns carried in every fashion, no two dressed alike, their officers hardly distinguishable from the privates… were these the men that had driven back again and again our splendid legions?” These armed ragamuffins were now marching into Maryland at the route step, ill-fed, ill-clothed, and ill-shod, but confident and in high spirits. Marse Robert was going to take them to Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, on the Susquehanna River, tear up some railroads, and terrify the North.
On September 6, they marched into Frederick singing “Maryland, My Maryland.” Lee had hoped that one consequence of an invasion would be to bring thousands of Marylanders to the Confederate colors. Maryland was after all a slave-holding state and generally Southern in its sympathies. Lee even issued, on Jefferson Davis’ instructions, a proclamation to the people of Maryland. His army had come, he wrote, to right “the wrongs that have been inflicted on the citizens of a commonwealth allied to the States of the South by the strongest social, political, and commercial ties… [and] to enable you again to enjoy the inalienable rights of free men.” Marylanders remained unmoved. Most simply watched warily as Lee’s ragged files marched by. None were enthusiastic about selling their goods for inflated Confederate paper money.
As Lee continued his march northwest toward the South Mountain gaps, a logistical problem arose. Once he crossed South Mountain his line of supply would run through the Shenandoah Valley. Threatening that line was the Union garrison at Harper’s Ferry where the Shenandoah flowed into the Potomac. The main purpose of the 12,000-man “railroad brigade” was to keep the Baltimore and Ohio line open, but Lee’s invasion had already cut it to the east. McClellan was probably right when he urged Halleck to send the garrison to the Army of the Potomac then in pursuit of Lee. They were serving no purpose where they were, and the place itself, surrounded by high bluffs, would be difficult to defend in any case. But Old Brains thought not, so they remained where they were.
If they were to remain, Robert E. Lee would have to go after them. Three columns would fall on Harper’s Ferry–Jackson coming down from the northwest, Lafayette McClaws from the northeast, and John Walker from the east. In those three columns was half of Lee’s army; the Rebel commander had again divided his force in the face of a larger enemy. It was a move that worried some on Lee’s staff, for it gave McClellan an opportunity to strike widely separated elements in detail. Lee responded calmly: “Are you acquainted with General McClellan? He is an able general but a very cautious one…. His army is in a very demoralized and chaotic condition, and will not be prepared for offensive operations–or he will not think it so–for three or four weeks. Before that time I hope to be on the Susquehanna.” It was a remarkably acute analysis. Jackson would snatch Harper’s Ferry and hurry north to join Lee at Hagerstown; then united they would march for the Susquehanna.
Lee and Jackson had every chance of doing precisely that–except for the oddest trick of chance. On September 12, the 27th Indiana was camped in a meadow outside Frederick, boiling their coffee and taking it easy. One Corporal Barton W. Mitchell noticed a piece of paper wrapped around three cigars. Grateful for the cigars, he idly read the paper. It was headed “Headquarters, Army of Northern Virginia” and contained “Special Orders No. 191.” It had been on its way from Lee to D. H. Hill when it was dropped in that Maryland meadow. Lee’s orders–giving the disposition of his entire army–had fallen into McClellan’s hands like an extravagant gift of fate, so extravagant that he feared it might be a ruse. He handed it to his staff for their consideration. One of his officers recognized the handwriting as that of a friend from the old army. It belonged to R. H. Chilton, now Lee’s assistant adjutant general. George Brinton McClellan had the paper with which to whip Bobby Lee.
What Special Orders No. 191 gave McClellan was probably the single greatest opportunity of the war. First, it told McClellan precisely where the four elements of Lee’s army were, and second, it told him that those elements were acutely vulnerable. With Lee and Jackson separated by a full twenty miles, McClellan with his 70,000 could force the gaps of South Mountain and destroy the Army of Northern Virginia in detail. Had he done so immediately and aggressively, he would no doubt have put down the rebellion then and there. Lee and Longstreet were all the way to Hagerstown, and Jackson, Walker, and McLaws’ separated commands were still on the march to Harper’s Ferry. Only Jeb Stuart’s cavalry and one Confederate division, D. H. Hill’s, were in position to defend the two critical passes through South Mountain, while McClellan was in a position to drive through them with three entire corps. But just then, when it was most crucial to act, McClellan hesitated. Still haunted by the idea that Lee’s army was 120,000 strong, McClellan sat down to cast cautious and careful plans. The plans were clear and sound, but they did not put the army in motion until daylight of September 14, eighteen hours after the discovery of Lee’s orders. Such luck as Lee would have was first McClellan’s gift of eighteen hours.
Lee’s second stroke of luck was the gift of a sympathetic Marylander who passed on to Jeb Stuart news of the lost orders. Thus, by the night of September 13, Lee was aware of his predicament and could plan to concentrate the scattered pieces of his army. Whether that could be done at all, of course, depended on how quickly McClellan forced the South Mountain passes–Turner’s Gap, through which the National Road ran to Hagerstown, and Crampton’s Gap, six miles to the south and only a brief hike to Harper’s Ferry. The defense of the north pass fell to D. H. Hill’s division; to the south were a handful of cavalry and a few regiments of McLaws. On the Union side facing Crampton’s Gap were William Franklin’s two divisions with a third on loan. These represented the left of McClellan’s advance, and their orders were quite clear: force the gap, “cut off, destroy or capture McLaws’ command,” and relieve the garrison at Harper’s Ferry. After a long, hot fight up steep slopes, Franklin pushed through the gap, but McLaws and Stuart refused to be stampeded. McLaws got reinforcements up and formed a new line in a little valley just west of the mountain. The line looked formidable to Franklin, a capable but stolid commander, and as night drew on he called a halt–a decision the garrison in Harper’s Ferry would have cause to regret. To the north at Turner’s Gap was McClellan himself with the bulk of the Army of the Potomac, but he threw it piece-meal against Hill, whose men fought fiercely on the wooded mountainside. Late in the day help from Longstreet arrived and D. H. Hill still held the spine of South Mountain when darkness halted the fight. The next morning the Rebels were gone, but the Battle of South Mountain had given Lee a third gift: another twenty-four hours to pull his army together.
Although D. H. Hill had won a day’s reprieve, Lee’s army remained in mortal danger. Half of it was still well north of the Potomac in and around Hagerstown, the other half was down on the Potomac at Harper’s Ferry and the better part of those troops were south of the river. One thing Lee could count on was that McClellan, however cautious, would get the whole of his army through the passes and west of South Mountain the next morning. Further, if Franklin, his corps already through the south pass, moved decisively down to the Ferry, he could come in behind McLaws’ division, break it up, and relieve the garrison. Perhaps the most prudent move for Lee would simply be to get all the pieces of his army on the road and withdraw up the Valley, looking for a better opportunity on a better day. But in the end it was Franklin who was prudent. He never made the night march that might have saved Harper’s Ferry.
Sometime late on September 14 Lee learned that Jackson with Walker and McLaws were now on the heights surrounding the Ferry, prepared to seize the place the next morning. Just a fragment of that doomed garrison would escape the prison camps. That night a Mississippi West Pointer, Grimes Davis, led four regiments of cavalry out in the dark on a road that ran under the crest of Maryland Heights. Their path to safety happened to be the road John Brown came down in 1859 brooding about the bloodshed that would purge this guilty land. As for Lee, sure now of the fall of Harper’s Ferry, he ordered a concentration on Sharpsburg, just north of the Potomac and just west of brown and sluggish Antietam Creek. He hadn’t come all this way to go home without giving battle. His troops north of the river would have to quick-march south, and those in front the Ferry would have to hurry north as soon as it was taken. The next morning McClellan would get his army in motion over South Mountain and hike for Sharpsburg also. At dawn thousands upon thousands, in blue and grey and butternut-brown, were all marching toward the bloodiest day in the American experience.
On September 15, Lee and Longstreet were already in Sharpsburg on a rise of ground running roughly north to south with Antietam Creek on their front and the Potomac River a mile or so in their rear. As D. H. Hill came in from the defense of Turner’s Gap, Lee had about half his army in line–about 25,000 muskets in all. At the same time the Army of the Potomac was arriving east of the creek, and by the next day nearly its full weight would be up–60,000 in line with 15,000 more just behind. Fate had been generous to George McClellan on the twelfth when it handed him Lee’s battle order, but McClellan had hesitated and that first great opportunity had slipped away. Now, on the sixteenth, events were giving him a second chance to destroy the Army of Virginia in detail. Little Mac had a three-to-one superiority. One weighty blow with his whole force could buckle Lee’s line and drive it toward the Potomac with a single ford to safety. Lee would never get his army away intact. But again, when the occasion called for action, McClellan hesitated. He would plan his attack carefully. While McClellan was planning, however, the first elements of Jackson’s command were coming up from Harper’s Ferry, two divisions late in the afternoon and more coming up in the dark. At sundown as the opportunity to strike with overwhelming numbers was slipping away, McClellan pushed two corps across the creek to feel for Lee’s left. They provoked a sharp skirmish which died out in the dark without accomplishing much except to tell Lee to look well to his left.
On the morning of September 17, 1862, Lee’s left at Sharpsburg was held by Stonewall Jackson’s men. They were posted in a little patch of woods known ever after simply as the West Wood, just west of the Hagerstown Pike. Immediately south of the wood in a little clearing was the plain, white-washed church of an obscure German sect known as the Dunkers, and here Jackson posted his artillery. Some of the hottest fire of the war was about to ravage the quiet countryside of this pacifist congregation. In fact, Joe Hooker, on the extreme Union right just north of the West Wood, was going to use the little church as the aiming point of his attack when he sent his corps forward. Fighting Joe Hooker was profane, hard-drinking, and ambitious, but he was an aggressive field commander. In the drizzly dawn he sent his skirmish lines directly down the Hagerstown Pike. They got as far as the north end of Mr. Miller’s cornfield just east of the pike and no farther, as they ran into stiff resistance from Jackson’s infantry in front and Jeb Stuart’s horse artillery on their right. Now Hooker called up his guns, six batteries, three dozen in all, and began a murderous cannonade. The tasseled corn, ready for harvest, and the Rebel defenders were blasted flat. “Every stalk of corn… was cut as closely as could have been done with a knife,” Hooker recalled, “and the slain lay in rows precisely as they had stood in their ranks a few moments before.” Now his whole corps, three divisions in line, went forward into a savage collision with Jackson’s men. For two hours the fighting surged back and forth, charge and counter-charge through the smoky confusion, with the Federals slowly driving the Rebels back toward the Dunker Church. Jackson called for help and got it from D. H. Hill in the center and Longstreet on the right. First on the scene were John B. Hood’s Texans from Longstreet. These were fierce fighters at any time, but they were particularly vengeful this morning. They had received a rare enough meat ration early that morning, and now they had been ordered away from their first good meal in a week. They came on with a yell and when they got close, delivered a volley that one Yankee survivor remembered as “a scythe running through our line.” With D. H. Hill’s men pitching in on the east, it was a hard, close-quarters fight, with Hooker’s men giving as good as they got. Sixty percent of Hood’s men never got back to their breakfast that morning. Finally, though, Hookers corps, so close to rolling up Lee’s left, was driven back the way it came, some fighting stubbornly, some in headlong flight across the ghastly cornfield. Hooker was wounded in the foot and his corps shattered.
As Hooker’s survivors were trying to reform on their guns, Hooker sent word to James Mansfield, posted on his left that morning, to bring his corps up and make another push toward the Dunker church. Mansfield was a white-haired, old army regular and he liked his chances. “Boys, we’re going to lick them today,” he shouted, waving his hat. A short while later, while trying to determine exactly where to make his attack, he was mortally wounded by a shot through the stomach. His two divisions went on without him, part of them charging across the Cornfield and part through a patch of wood east of the pike–the East Wood. These completed the wreck of Hood’s division, capturing a flag and pushing on to the Dunker Church. If they could break through here and swing left, they would be squarely in Lee’s rear. Just then, though, Walker’s North Carolina men arrived on the scene from the Confederate right. Lee, gambling that McClellan would not force the bridge on Walker’s front, had sent them to help break up Hooker’s assault. They were too late to fight Hooker, but they were precisely on time to fall hard on Mansfield’s corps. Its attack, now led by Alpheus Williams, reached the Dunker Church, then ground to a halt.
Williams thought that if reinforcements could come up in support, they could push on to take and hold the high ground beyond the Dunker church. Reinforcements were already in motion: the three divisions of Edwin “Bull” Sumner were marching in column one after the other through the East Wood opposite the Dunker Church. Sumner, riding through the East Wood with John Sedgwick’s division, was not quite sure what was in front of him, but he thought he would make his attack across the turnpike, through the West Wood, and push whatever Rebels remained off the ridge behind it. With Sedgwick’s division formed up in three tightly packed lines of a brigade each, he pushed forward into the wood. Here Sumner discovered what was not only on his front but on his left flank and in his rear as well: McLaws’ division just arrived from Harper’s Ferry that morning. The Confederates fell with sudden and savage violence on the Yankee flank, and in fifteen minutes routed Sedgwick utterly, inflicting two thousand casualties. (Among the wounded was Sedgwick himself as well as a future chief justice of the Supreme Court, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., shot through the neck.) With McLaws pursuing the broken Yankees back through the woods, Walker counterattacked on his right, and Williams, too, was forced to withdraw. It was just about noon.
The Federal effort on Lee’s left had fought itself out. Three Federal corps–Hooker’s, Mansfield’s, and Sumner’s–had each attacked, and each in turn had been repulsed by the timely arrival of reinforcements. Seven thousand Yankees had been shot; five thousand Rebels. Mr. Miller’s cornfield, the scene of over fifteen charges, held a grim harvest. The dead lay so thick, one survivor remembered, that a man could walk anywhere in that forty-acre field without touching the ground. Jackson, surveying the morning’s work, said only, “God has been very kind to us this day.”
The fundamental problem on the Federal side was lack of direction at the top. The big push against the Confederate left had been made in three successive assaults instead of a single coordinated stroke. As a consequence, Lee had managed to shift units from his right and center–which had seen no serious fighting yet–to meet the emergency on his left. The morning’s fighting would set the pattern for the Federals, and in the end Antietam would really be three battles, for the Confederate left, center, and right. The struggle over the center was initiated just as the fighting on the left was sputtering out. Sumner’s lead division, Sedgwick’s, had been mauled and driven by McLaws’ sudden and violent appearance on its flank. While Sumner was struggling to get the survivors out of the woods, his other two divisions, William H. French’s in the lead and Israel B. Richardson’s following at a distance, were already veering off south of the wood where they, too, found an enemy on their flank. In an eroded zig-zag country lane that ran between the Hagerstown Pike and the Boonsboro Road, stood D. H. Hill’s division, ordered to hold the position “at all costs.” It was a good position to hold, a natural rifle pit in front of which the Rebels threw up solid breastworks. Further, the ground sloped upward from the lane to a crest a hundred yards off. This accident of terrain meant that the Yankees would be at murderously close range before they could see their enemies. (It also meant that the Rebels in the lane were safe for a time from Yankee artillery.) The first of French’s brigades went forward and discovered how strong a position it was. They came down the slope, took two terrible volleys, and were smashed up. Breaking up attack after attack, the Confederates even jeered and hooted at their enemies. As the dark-coated Yankees with powder-blackened faces came down the slope, the Rebels shouted, “Go away, you black devils! Go home!” John B. Gordon, then colonel of the 6th Alabama, assured Lee that his men would stay “till the sun goes down or the victory is won.” (Gordon himself was wounded five times in defense of the lane.) But the black devils would not go away.
Those who survived the fight at Antietam remembered it as especially savage, as if thousands had been simultaneously seized by a strange battle madness. One thoughtful witness remembered the hiss of the bullets and the hurtle of grape-shot: “The mental strain was so great that I saw at that moment the singular effect mentioned, I think, in the life of Goethe on a similar occasion–the whole landscape turned slightly red.” Nowhere was red war redder than before that sunken road. The Federals dressed their lines, came on, ran into rifle and artillery fire, and fell back–only to reform and come on again. On high ground back beyond the Hagerstown Pike Rebel gunners were doing their destructive best to break up the Federal assault. They were paying a fearful price for their efforts, though. Ordered to concentrate their fire against the infantry, they were helpless to respond to Federal counter-battery fire from across the creek. The Yankee gunners were good and their guns long-range. Their fire wrecked guns, blew up caissons, and killed so many gunners that at the end Longstreet’s staff officers had to pitch in and work the guns. The Rebels remembered the day as “artillery hell.”
In the Sunken Road hell itself was, if possible, becoming more hellish, generating what one New York boy remembered as a “savage continual thunder.” French’s division, having lost contact with Sedgwick in the lead of the advance on the West Wood, had veered south to strike the left of Harvey Hill’s position in the Sunken Road. Now–by 10:30 or so–Israel Richardson’s 4,000 muskets in three brigades were coming up behind French to take up the fight from his exhausted men where they were hanging on to the little ridge fronting the lane. Richardson in fact had been prevented from striking in concert with French in the first place by McClellan himself. From his Pry House headquarters he had refused, with characteristic caution, to allow the division to cross Antietam Creek until a reserve division could come up and take its place. Robert E. Lee, however, riding with D. H. Hill behind the line of his sorely threatened center, immediately committed the last reserve he had on the field, Richard Anderson’s division from Longstreet’s corps. These four brigades were now coming up through the orchard and fields of the Piper Farm and taking a bloody hammering from Federal artillery as they came.
Now the battle for the Confederate center lifted to a new level of fury as the sun climbed toward noon. Richardson, a Mexican War veteran known as “Fighting Dick” to his men, was handling his division skillfully. On French’s immediate left Thomas F. Meagher’s famous Irish Brigade carried their emerald flags toward the lane. As they closed with the Rebels there, however, they met an even more withering fire than that which stalled French’s attack. The first of Dick Anderson’s brigades had crossed the deadly fields of the Piper Farm to add their roar to the thunder erupting from the Sunken Road. For the moment it looked as if Harvey Hill’s division would make good on John B. Gordon’s resolve to hold on until nightfall or victory. But just then Richardson’s second brigade, John Caldwell’s, was swinging slowly but surely south and coming up squarely on the right flank of the embattled Rebel line. Dick Anderson had plenty of reinforcements in Hill’s immediate rear–somewhat scattered now, it was true, but still near to hand if a sure hand were there to guide them.
Anderson, however, was now down with a wound and command passed to his senior brigadier, congressman turned warrior Richard Pryor. Pryor did his best, but reinforcements reached the lane in disorderly bits and pieces and did more to increase crowding and confusion in the lane than they did to stiffen Hill’s battle line. Carnot Posey got most of his brigade into the lane on the Confederate right only to find that stretch of line too crowded for his men to be much help. Just as Posey was struggling to untangle his brigade from the mess there, Caldwell’s Yankees were bearing down from the right and one of the Irish Brigade regiments, the 29th Massachusetts, made a swift and savage attack in front. The combination of pressure in front and flank and the rearward movement of Posey’s men was enough to turn Hill’s sturdy front into a stampede. Suddenly the better part of the Rebel right, both Hill’s men and Anderson’s reinforcements, were in full flight back through the standing corn and apple orchard of the Piper Farm. “We had to run or surrender,” one Rebel remembered. “We ran.”
Over on the Confederate left a similar attempt to respond to Federal pressure was even then compounding the collapse unfolding on the right. There Robert Rodes’s brigade held Hill’s left-center in the shallowest stretch of the Sunken Road, just where it turned southeast. They had shot it out with French’s men, beating back those attacks at a bloody price; then, with the arrival of Meagher’s Irish Brigade, they suffered a galling enfilade fire from that quarter. Near noon, very nearly the same moment that the Rebel right was coming unstrung, Rodes ordered the 6th Alabama to move down the lane and away from the enfilade on its right. By this time command of the 6th had passed from John B. Gordon (shot in the face, his fifth wound) to Lieutenant Colonel J. N. Lightfoot. Lightfoot, apparently misunderstanding the order, turned the regiment about and started rearward. Somehow the misunderstanding was communicated to the remaining four regiments, and before Rodes or anyone else could react, the entire brigade was streaming rearward from the Sunken Road.
With both flanks collapsing, the Rebels’ stout natural rifle pit was now a death trap, known ever afterward as Bloody Lane. Richardson and French drove their men remorselessly forward. The bluecoats had fought long and suffered much to seize this lane; now a “frenzy seized each man,” a New York soldier recalled. When their own rifles were empty, they “tore loaded ones from the hands of the dead and fired them with terrible rapidity, sending ramrods along with the bullets for double execution.” Helpless Rebels were shot “like sheep in a pen,” another recalled. Bloody Lane was soon filled with dead men two and three deep. Madmen in blue, now in full pursuit, had just pierced the center of the Army of Northern Virginia.
D. H. Hill with such survivors and stragglers as he could gather up withdrew toward Sharpsburg and formed a thin grey line. He called for infantry support, but there was hardly a musket to be had anywhere. Five hours of fighting on the left that morning had taken Jackson out of the battle, and Lee had been forced to shift units from his right, so that wing, too, was now perilously thin. Such guns as were at hand were being sent forward by Longstreet, but as soon as they were wheeled up, Federal batteries across the creek tore into them. Hill himself picked up a musket and tried to lead a handful of volunteers back to Bloody Lane. They went forward a bit and were broken up almost as soon as they got off. It had been a gesture really, for as both Hill and Longstreet could see the game was up. One more determined Federal blow on the Confederate center would send the fragments of the army down the road toward Boteler’s Ford in disaster. As one Southern officer put it, “Lee’s army was ruined, and the end of the Confederacy was in sight.”
To McClellan rich opportunity had come twice and twice slipped away. Now the stubborn struggle of his fighting men gave him a third. French’s division, which had struck the Sunken Road first was used up, but Richardson’s, bloodied but ready to fight was still on the field. Behind it and coming up was William Franklin’s corps; they were part of Little Mac’s reserves and had not fired a shot yet today. In all McClellan had about 10,000 men to throw against the broken Rebel line. Long after the war Longstreet admitted that 10,000 Federals striking then and there would have destroyed Lee’s army. McClellan’s instincts just then were sound enough. About mid-afternoon he sent a staff officer to Franklin and Sumner, suggesting but not ordering another assault on the center. Franklin had been preparing for that very assault and was eager to strike when the courier arrived. His senior officer, however, was Sumner, one of whose divisions, Sedgwick’s, had been thoroughly wrecked by McLaws’ flank attack, and a second, French’s, shot to pieces in front of Bloody Lane. He was sure that one more repulse would mean the unraveling of the Federal army. Even so, for a forty-year veteran who had fought Indians on the Great Plains, his response was rather hysterical, “Go back, young man, and tell General McClellan that I have no command! Tell him my command, Bank’s command, and Hooker’s command are all cut up and demoralized. Tell him General Franklin has the only organized command on this part of the field!”
A little later McClellan himself rode across the creek through the wreckage of war to confer. Franklin again urged an attack and Sumner again argued a halt. Their chief, perhaps shaken by the dismal sight of the battlefield, perhaps imagining a massive Rebel counterstroke, considered briefly and decided: “it would not be prudent to make the attack.” McClellan’s third opportunity, bought at such a price, slipped away. In the end, the vulnerable center of Lee’s line may have been held by 50,000 Rebels who existed only in Pinkerton’s reports and McClellan’s imagination.
Real Rebels, however, continued to hold the right of Lee’s line, but they were not many. On heights that looked down on a stone bridge over Antietam Creek were posted three under-strength Georgia regiments, a little more than 500 men in all. These were under the command of ambitious and egotistical Robert A. Toombs. Defeated for the presidency and disaffected in his role as secretary of state, he had turned to a military career, which had thus far been indifferent. He would like to retire, he wrote his wife, but not before he won some great distinction. This day at Antietam would do precisely that for him. His fame would be made possible in part by the steady performance of his Georgians and in part by the incompetence of the commander across the creek, Major General Ambrose E. Burnside.
Burnside was a big, affable well-intentioned man who wore extravagant side whiskers (known now, of course, as sideburns). He commanded the four divisions of the IX Corps, more than 12,000 men, and at 9:00 a.m. he had been ordered to advance across the creek “at all hazards and at any cost.” (This attack was intended to prevent Lee from reinforcing against Hooker’s effort on the Rebel left.) Burnside, for whatever reason, seemed to think that the only way across Antietam Creek was the stone bridge that now bears his name, although anyone who visits the battlefield today will discover that the creek can be waded almost anywhere. He ordered Colonel George Crook with three Ohio regiments to rush the bridge, but, as an indication of the sort of trouble the Yanks would have here, he lost his way, struck the creek a little upstream from the bridge, took some casualties, and stalled. Burnside tried again with two regiments of General Samuel Sturgis’ command, but sharpshooters and artillery knocked that attack to pieces in short order. Hearing that there might be a ford downstream, Burnside now sent Issac Rodman’s division to find it and cross by it, and that division disappeared. McClellan meanwhile grew worried that while his right was in a savage fight, nothing effective was being done on his left. He had been urging Burnside to hurry all morning. At last he sent a direct order: force the bridge now. It was one of McClellan’s very few efforts to take direct control of the battle that day. Unfortunately for McClellan, the only response he got immediately was a complaint from Burnside. “McClellan appears to think I am not doing my best to take this bridge,” he told the courier, “you are the third or fourth one who has been to me this morning with similar orders.” By noon, as the fighting around the Dunker Church was dying out, Toombs’ Georgians were still firmly clinging to the stony hillside above the bridge.
In the end perhaps whiskey had as much to do with taking the bridge as either Burnside or McClellan. Commanding Sturgis’ second brigade was Colonel Edward Ferrero who had been ordered to make another attempt to cross it. Riding up to the 51st New York and the 51st Pennsylvania, he called out to his men: “It is General Burnside’s especial request that the two 51st’s take that bridge. Will you do it?” In light of events thus far at the bridge, it cannot have been an attractive proposition. Just then, a Pennsylvania soldier asked, “Will you give us our whiskey, Colonel, if we make it?” The 51st was thought to be a hard-drinking outfit, and Sturgis had stopped their whiskey ration, a decision much resented in the regiment. Sturgis thought better of it this day. “Yes, by God,” he laughed. The 51st would get its whiskey and Burnside would get his bridge.
Side by side in column of twos, the two 51sts double-quicked directly down the hill, into a storm of rifle and cannon fire on the bridge, and then they were across, fanning out left and right on the west bank and moving up the hillside to drive the Georgians off. It was about one o’clock, seven hours after Burnside’s first effort. Toombs, wounded in the fight, had earned his day of glory and could retire to make a career out of feuding with Jefferson Davis. As for Burnside, now that he had his bridge, he had an opportunity for glory himself that might cancel out an inept morning’s work. He got one division across the creek, with two more near at hand. The thing to do was to get them all in line and throw them on Longstreet’s thin line outside Sharpsburg. But nothing would go right for Burnside this day. Indeed throughout the war Burnside would reveal an extraordinary capacity for turning opportunity into defeat. When at last he got his lead division, Sturgis’, formed up to advance, he discovered that they had used up their ammunition exchanging fire with Toomb’s Georgians. Rather than wait to bring cartridges up, Burnside decided to send this division to the rear and the rear division, Orlando Willcox’s, forward. It was three o’clock before Willcox got going, and when he went, he went alone. Even alone, though, they outnumbered Longstreet’s 2,500 and were stubbornly driving the Rebels back on Sharpsburg and the road that led to the ford and disaster. Then, after spending a good part of the day wandering the creek bottom searching for the ford, Rodman’s division at last came up on Willcox’s left and pitched into the fight.
The opportunity for decisive success for McClellan was at hand once more. Burnside was not managing this attack any more capably than he had managed the bridge, but it was going forward more or less of its own weight. Behind Burnside, though, was an entire fresh army corps–Fitz-John Porter’s V Corps–available to deliver a knockout punch. One of Porter’s division commanders urged McClellan to do just that. While McClellan considered, Porter warned: “Remember, General, I command the last reserve of the last army of the Republic.” Once more the counsel of prudence prevailed, and Porter’s men would not fire a shot in anger that day.
Lee in his headquarters just west of the town was well aware of how critical his situation was. While McClellan had an entire fresh corps on the field that he dared not use, Lee had not a single soldier in reserve. In truth, all Lee had was one long hope that A. P. Hill’s Light Division would arrive from Harper’s Ferry before his last line broke. Late in the afternoon Lee saw the dust of a marching column off to the southwest. Whose troops are those? he asked a lieutenant of artillery. Taking up Lee’s telescope, the officer studied the distant column a moment: “They are flying the Virginia and Confederate flags,” he answered. Hill had come up. Even a marble man must have felt a profound relief. Leaving one brigade at Harper’s Ferry, Hill had put five brigades on the road to Sharpsburg by seven o’clock. They had seventeen hot, punishing miles to make, and Hill drove them without relief. He may well have left half his division straggling in exhaustion on that road, but the other half reached the field by 4:30. When they did, they immediately shook out their battles lines in position to fall on the extreme left of Burnside’s advance, Rodman’s division. Rodman’s men, who had already spent a good deal of the day lost, were now receiving sharp rifle fire from troops they didn’t know were there. And to make bad luck worse, their extreme left–the initial point of collision–was held by the 16th Connecticut. It was as big as a brigade, but these 900 men had been soldiers just three weeks. (Indeed, they had loaded their muskets for the first time just the night before.) Powell Hill’s veterans, many of them now wearing blue coats captured at the Ferry, came on steadily. When the Connecticut men hesitated to fire on men in blue, the Confederates let loose a murderous volley and put 400 of them out of the war then and there. The survivors broke and ran–and ran immediately into a Rhode Island regiment coming up in support. Confused by the spectacle of boys in blue being pursued by boys in blue, they in turn hesitated and were likewise overwhelmed. At that point panic spread left to right all along the Union advance, and soon the Federals were in full retreat, Hill’s men in full pursuit. At 4:30 Burnside’s men had been about to walk into Sharpsburg, at sunset their retreat came to a halt on the high ground they had struggled for that morning. A red sun went down on the Battle of Antietam.
Toward the end of the battle, someone asked John B. Hood where his division was. “Dead on the field,” he answered. The fate of one of his brigades suggests the severity of the fighting: 800 men went into the fight and 300 came out. Lee’s army suffered 11,000 casualties, McClellan’s 12,000: September 17, 1862, remains America’s bloodiest day. Add to this grim reckoning the casualties at South Mountain and Harper’s Ferry, and the campaign had killed, wounded, or imprisoned nearly 30,000 Americans. In tactical terms, the battle had been fought to a draw. Lee had chosen the ground, and McClellan had struck and shaken him three times. In each crisis the combination of Confederate reinforcements and Federal hesitation managed to preserve Lee’s line. McClellan, still believing in Lee’s phantom legions and convinced that “the national cause could afford no risks of defeat,” again fought to save his army rather than destroy Lee’s. Twenty thousand men in his reserve never fought at all that day. In Lee’s reserve was the solitary brigade A. P. Hill had left at Harper’s Ferry. Still, Lee held the field and prepared to give battle again next day if McClellan wanted to continue the contest. McClellan, however, after making “a careful and anxious survey of the condition of [his] command, and [his] knowledge of the enemy’s force and position,” decided to wait for reinforcements. The next day Rebels and Yankees eyed each other warily across the wreckage. The day after that Lee’s army headed south across the Potomac, now singing “Carry Me Back to Old Virginny.”
As far as McClellan was concerned, he had driven the invader from Maryland and won a complete victory. One can imagine Lincoln’s frustration at seeing McClellan’s unwillingness to take up the task at hand: pursuing and finally destroying Lee’s crippled army. McClellan, however, was basking in the glow of victory. “Those in whose judgment I rely,” he wrote his wife, “tell me that I fought the battle splendidly & that it was a masterpiece of art…. I feel some little pride in having, with a beaten & demoralized army, defeated Lee so utterly…. Well, one of these days history will I trust do me justice.” History will not record the battle as “a masterpiece of art,” for McClellan exerted virtually no control over it except to refuse to act decisively at critical moments. Still, Antietam must be counted a significant Union victory. It had turned back Lee’s invasion and inflicted on the Army of Northern Virginia 13,000 casualties–irreplaceable, battle-worthy veterans. Maryland had not risen to the Confederate colors, and the prospect of foreign recognition was now only wishful thinking in Richmond.
Finally, the battle had some small part in shifting the terms and purposes of the war itself. Abraham Lincoln had for some time contemplated emancipating slaves held in the seceded states. Although he had expressly argued that the fundamental purpose of the war was to preserve the Union under the Constitution, he held that he might frame a proclamation of emancipation strictly as a war measure. He had been waiting for military success as the appropriate occasion for his proclamation, and McClellan’s victory at Antietam provided it. The terms of the Emancipation Proclamation, controversial then and now, said essentially this: slaves held in states or parts of states still in rebellion against the Federal Constitution on January 1, 1863, would be “thenceforward, and forever free.” Lincoln, above all, realized that his measure was, as he said, rather like the Pope’s bull against the comet; that is, of no practical value, freeing slaves where the government had no actual power to free them, and keeping them in bondage where it did. But the proclamation did change forever the meaning of the war. The war begun to preserve the Union was now going to determine what human freedom meant in that Union.