This entire battle might be looked at as an indictment on the temperamental and timid Union General Scott McClellan. He was an open critic of President Lincoln. Some historians say he was a decent battlefield commander but his reputation suffered the slings and arrows of what today we would call the cable news syndrome- smearing and backstabbing replaced analysis. Some say his refusal to fight abolitionists and slightly pro Southern empathy made him a target for the Republicans. Lincoln chaffed at McClellan’s truculent tongue and attitudes. “You have a nice Army there,” Lincoln once quipped about the timorous McClellan. “I’d like to borrow it on occasion.”
The battle of Antietam is a textbook example of how not to use numerical advantages. Outnumbering the Confederates two to one, McClellan launched assaults on the Confederate lines piecemeal. Lee had internal lines of communication and defense and simply shifted troops around as needed. McClellan didn’t even launch a pursuit at the end of the battle. The result was 23,000 casualties on one day.
The actual commander of the day was George Meade. In another year he would whip Lee learning from the very mistakes the Union Army made at Antietam. Meade would at Gettysburg establish internal lines of reserve support and fend off the Confederates in three days of battle.
Much of the fighting centered around a road that ran east and west connecting two larger regional thoroughfares. This road was called Sunken Road and later changed the Bloody Lane. The road itself had been so eroded that it set four to five feet into the ground and on both sides it was surrounding by hilly and ploughed corn fields. The Confederates secured this road and fortified it. It had great fields of fire even though the firing was uphill. Many of the Union forces under McClellan were rookie soldiers and had never seen battle. Some had been in the Army for a year and this was their first actual combat. The 63rd Irish organized under a charismatic immigrant named Marr headed downhill and into the gunfire. Half of the 63rd Irish fell in the first volley. All day long this road was fought over and sometimes the smoke and dust in the air was so thick units were lost and shooting at each other.
The facts of the matter contradict some of the bad narratives about McClellan. The fact is he had pierced Lee’s center, had plenty of reserves and could have crushed the Army of Northern Virginia. The losses at the Sunken Road alone made up for 2500 Confederate casualties and 300 Union casualties. All told, there were 22,717 casualties at Antietam, or the battle of Sharpsburg as southerners remember it. Lee had lost half of all the officers he brought into Maryland at Antietam and frankly his troops were exhausted, threadbare and hungry.