March 28, 2021

The Battle of Antietam (Sharpsburg)

Aftermath - Dunker Church.jpg

In this episode of Walking History we visit The Battle of Antietam, also known as The Battle of Sharpsburg, one of the most consequential battles of the American Civil War and the single bloodiest day in American history. We also take a look at what it’s like to visit this extremely well-preserved battlefield today.  

The Battle of Antietam took place on September 17th, 1862 in the Appalachian foothills of western Maryland, just across the border from Virginia. It resulted in almost 23,000 casualties and over 3,500 deaths, although the actual numbers are likely far higher, and lead President Lincoln to issue the Emancipation Proclamation. 

Want to jump ahead in this episode?

 

Summary: 2:08

Interesting Facts: 6:40

Context of the Battle: 8:16

The Battle: 31:26

Aftermath of the Battle: 50:38

Visiting the Battlefield Today: 59:58

In the weeks before the battle, more than 40,000 Confederate troops lead by General Robert E. Lee had made their way north into Union held Maryland and were pursued by almost 90,000 Union troops under the command of General George B. McClellan. Lee eventually positioned his forces in a somewhat precarious position near the town of Sharpsburg, Maryland, with his back to Potomac River. A master tactician, he knew the many faults of his opponent, and was willing to bet his smaller force could still win the day. McClellan positioned his forces north to south, opposite Lee’s, across a small river called Antietam Creek, and set up to attack. 

Small-scale skirmishing occurred on the evening of September 16th, and early on September 17th the Union attack began in earnest. McClellan attacked first at the northern end of the line, and for hours Union forces bombarded Confederate troops in a bloodbath that left thousands dead and wounded. Unable to dislodge the Confederates, McClellan then sent his forces towards the center at what would become one of the most hallowed grounds on a Civil War battlefield, the Sunken Road, also known as the Bloody Lane. Finally, McClellan ordered attacks towards the south of the line where a small bridge crossed Antietam Creek. For hours thousands of Union troops were held back by only 500 Confederates who held the high ground across the river until Union troops finally broke through at 1pm. Almost in a position to outflank Lee’s army and potentially cut them off from retreat, a Confederate force arrived at the last possible moment, stalling the Union advance and effectively ending the battle. 

Lee, outnumbered and battered, remained in his position the next day and then retreated back to Confederate held Virginia. McClellan, despite repeated pleas by Lincoln and the War Department, refused to pursue.

The battle was a strategic victory for the North in that it stopped a Confederate invasion, but could have resulted with the complete defeat or capture of Lee's forces had McClellan acted more decisively or had a more competent commander been in charge. Seeing the battle as an important morale boost for the country, however, President Lincoln used the opportunity to issue one of the most famous and consequential statements in American history, the Emancipation Proclamation, changing the nature of the war and forever altering the course of US history. 

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Useful Links:

Antietam National Battlefield - National Park Service

The Battle of Antietam - American Battlefield Trust

The Emancipation Proclamation