Antietam. The Bloodiest Day In American Combat History.

by Daniel Russ on July 6, 2009

Abraham Lincoln at Antietam Abraham Lincoln at Antietam

September 17, 1862, near Sharpsburg, Maryland,

It was the bloodiest single-day battle in all of American history, on US soil or off with about 23,000 casualties.

The overall strategy looked like this. Jefferson Davis and Robert E Lee were conducting defensive warfare, hoping to bait the North into invading the South. They thought a northern invasion would inflame locals to support the Confederacy and perhaps even convince Britain to give the new Southern nation recognition it so wanted.

But the real story about Antietam is that Lincoln had a series of commanders who were too timid, and the disaster here was its punctuation mark. Civil War historian Shelby Foote put it this way  (and I am paraphrasing here) : “The North had the population, the money, and industrial might. It was like they were fighting with one hand tied behind their back.” McClellan was no lead from the front general. Frankly he was an egomaniac who often was caught up in the accoutrements and perks of commanding an Army. He came off as an effete snob who had missed an opportunity to smash an 11,000 man army holed up in Yorktown of Revolutionary War fame when the Union forces under his command numbered 100,000. As one Union officer noted “McClellan has the unique ability to see the reality of delusions.” (Paraphrased). Lincoln was growing tired of sending reinforcements to McClellan and once quipped, “If General McClellan isn’t going to use his army, I’d like to borrow it for a time.”

That said, Lincoln was looking for a replacement. Grant’s name came up. Primarily because he was winning battles in the Western theatre that was getting little attention. Before Ulysses S. Grant was appointed commander of the Army of the Potomac, critics complained that he was a drunk, and unkempt and comported himself as not befitting an officer. Lincoln said: “If I knew what brand of whiskey Grant drinks, I would send a barrel to my other generals.” That’s because Grant fought. He didn’t fight to avoid casualties. He was willing to take casualties to win and many in history thought he was a butcher.

General George McClellan was in charge of the Northern Army on the 17th of September 1862 when Lee invaded a little place near Sharpsburg, Maryland…a place forever named after a creek where the skirmish line was:  Antietam. He had missed opportunities to press the attack many times before, but this one history never forget. He thought Lee had 120,000 troops when in fact he had less than 30,000. Here’s the killer. A Southern officer had lost a copy of the entire battle plan wrapped up with three cigars. The plans were sent to McClellan. He had 70,000 men and Lee had 26,000 troops. Rather attack Lee on the way in, when his troops were vulnerable, McClellan held back about 45,000 men and sent in forces piecemeal. It was a textbook case history on the misuse of superior forces.

At the end of the day, Lee’s Army was forced to retreat. But McClellan refused to pursue and missed an opportunity to crush Lee’s Army and see the war to an end.

Antietam was the single bloodiest day in American military history. There were 23,000 casualties. 23,000 people suffered or died to build this nation. That is really what this is all about.

Mass Graves at Antietam Mass Graves at Antietam

Sources and Citations

McPherson, James M., Crossroads of Freedom: Antietam, The Battle That Changed the Course of the Civil War, Oxford University Press, 2002

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{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Benji April 11, 2011 at 5:18 pm

War is hell!

Mark Wilkins May 27, 2011 at 12:59 pm

Its a sad thing to look back at what America had become back then. I had relatives on BOTH SIDES of this war. I guess it was something that was unavoidable and would have happened sooner or later.

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