When I began this web site, I had visions of viewers writing articles on various topics in large numbers. That was three and a half years ago, and I have accepted the fact that there will be no large number of articles to flow from viewers for whatever the reasons.

Recently, however, Jack Nelson. a UNC grad who lives in California sent me an e-mail about the "Battle of the Crater" after I had seen the movie "Cold Mountain," and I thought to myself, this is good and the kind of thing that I believe viewers will enjoy during the off season for UNC items. I shared his description of the Battle of the Crater with you several months back.

After my trip to Antietam several weeks ago, it occurred to me that Jack possibly could write an article on Antietam which would be superior to anything I could write. Now, if I could only persuade him to do it. As it turned out, Jack was receptive to my invitation to write the article on Antietam. I hope you enjoy it as much as I have.


It was the bloodiest single day of the war. In fact it was, and is, the bloodiest single day in any war Americans have ever fought, a day in which nearly 23,000 soldiers became casualties. It was September 17, 1862, the day of the Battle of Antietam.

Antietam Creek, the lazy, winding waterway that gave name to the battle, is a tributary of the Potomac. It flows through western Maryland, past the town of Sharpsburg (and for which the battle is sometimes called, particularly in the South) and empties into the Potomac a few miles above Harper's Ferry. The surrounding countryside is pretty, and in early fall looks today much as it did in 1862. Gentle, rolling hills dotted by patches of forest, quiet lanes bordering prosperous-looking farms, corn head-high in the fields, orchards heavy with fruit. The town of Sharpsburg has of course changed with the times, and there are fast food places and motels to house visitors. Nearby there is a neat little military park and a National Cemetery, and tourists may be seen walking about with little maps, reading tributes on the many stone monuments to men and deeds of long ago. There are a number of cannon in the park, their wheels forever locked in concrete, quaint rather than fearsome, and now and again a visitor may be seen to peer curiously into the muzzle of one of these.

The Battle of Antietam is also the story of three singular Americans. Two of them are as famous as any: Robert E. Lee, commander of the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia, and Abraham Lincoln, 16th President of the United States. Lee is the eternal gray warrior, riding out of the mists and myths of the Lost Cause, a man for whom duty met and performed meant everything; America's greatest soldier. And Lincoln, whose kindly, homely face is a part of our everyday life, is the man who freed the slaves and saved the Union; our greatest president. The third man was in 1862 as famous as either of the other two, but today is consigned to the data banks of the Civil War buff. He was George Brinton McClellan, Major-General commanding the Army of the Potomac. The burial places of Lincoln and Lee are national shrines, where visitors speak and walk softly as people will in the presence of dead heroes. No stream of visitors goes to Trenton to view the last resting place of General McClellan.

The Battle of Antietam has of course more stories than just these three men, not the least of which would be the stories of the 23,000. And, like all battles it has prolog and consequence. By September 1862, nearly 18 months had past since Fort Sumter. It had been over a year since the Federal disaster at Bull Run; time enough for yet another disaster at the same place; time enough for both successful and failed campaigns on both sides; time enough for those who had spoken glibly of a short war to realize just how wrong they had been. By September 1862 men had learned names like Savage 's Station, Malvern Hill, Elkhorn Tavern and Shiloh Church; ordinary places made terrible by war. Also, they had learned to read casualty lists.

George B. McClellan seemed to have all the gifts a general needed. He was brilliant, handsome, and could be charming. He was a West Pointer, graduating second in the class of 1846 and had performed exceptionally well as an engineer in the Mexican War, winning praise and promotion. McClellan had left the army in the late 1850's to go into railroading, and by 1861 was president of the Ohio & Mississippi. When the war came, McClellan offered his services to Ohio, and was immediately appointed Major General in charge of all military forces of the state. Within a month he was also appointed Major General in the regular army, with broad responsibilities covering Ohio, West Virginia and Kentucky. He performed admirably, leading a campaign into West Virginia that despite the fact it was opposed by an outnumbered, ill-equipped and ragtag Confederate force was hailed as a great Northern victory. So, after the Bull Run fiasco, McClellan was called east and given, at the age of 35, the title of General-in-Chief and command of all US forces. Since then, McClellan had experienced problems. He was slow and cautious, and his first campaign against Richmond had failed. Demoted, he had been reinstated when his replacement, Pope, proved incompetent.

For Robert E. Lee, the Civil War was the crowning of an outstanding military career. Graduating second in the Class of 1829, Lee like McClellan chose the Engineer Corps, and had achieved a brilliant record. Also like McClellan, Lee had served in the Mexican War - in fact the two had served together on Winfield Scott's staff - and Lee had won promotion from captain to colonel. When the war came, Lee was commanding the 1st US Cavalry. Robert E. Lee was no admirer of slavery and strongly opposed to secession, but believed those were matters for the public to decide in democratic process. Thus, when his home state of Virginia seceded, Lee went with it, believing he was duty-bound to do so. He was quickly made a full general, one of five in Confederate service.

Lee had been given command of the Army of Northern Virginia during McClellan 's Richmond campaign, and had beaten the much larger Union army and sent it into retreat. Having blunted McClellan's campaign, Lee then turned his attention to John Pope, crushed him at the old Bull Run battlefield and sent Pope reeling back to Washington. With Virginia cleared of any active Federal campaigns, Lee convinced Davis that the time was right for an invasion of Maryland. So in early September 1862, the Army of Northern Virginia crossed the Potomac just south of Frederick, MD, and by September 7th had occupied the town.

However, there was one problem Lee hadn't anticipated. At Harper's Ferry, a few miles southwest of Frederick, there was a Federal garrison with 11,000 troops. Lee had assumed that once he crossed the Potomac, Harper's Ferry would be evacuated. Military logic dictated that it should have been, but military logic was not one of the strong suits of Secretary of War Edwin M.Stanton. Stanton ordered it held at all costs.

Lee could not operate effectively in Maryland with 11,000 men sitting directly on his supply line, and anyway it was a rich prize Lee could not ignore. When word reached him on September 10th that Harper's Ferry was still occupied, Lee set out to capture it. Lee's plan called for Stonewall Jackson with five divisions to surround the place, while Lee and Longstreet with the balance of the army moved west to Boonesboro, a small town just beyond the rise of South Mountain, a few miles down the National Road beyond Frederick. Then, Jeb Stuart brought Lee news that shocked him. The Federal Army was at Frederick!

Lee had counted on the Federals taking from three to four weeks to rest and recover from the recent beatings at Richmond and Manassas. But he had badly miscalculated. The Yankees had indeed been whipped, but they had fought hard and well, and had gained confidence even in defeat. Also, the restoration of McClellan to full command had sent a shock wave of enthusiasm rippling through the Union forces; 'Little Mac' was tremendously popular with the rank and file. And for once, McClellan did not dawdle around Washington but got his army on the move promptly, heading straight for the Army of Northern Virginia.

McClellan's presence at Frederick posed a huge problem for Robert E. Lee. Having divided his army, Lee saw that if McClellan pushed on through the gaps in South Mountain, he could put his 80,000 men between the separated halves of Lee's army. Lee would be ruined, and he knew it. So great were the odds against him that a general retreat seemed certain. Lee calculated that he would need 72 hours to fully reunite his command. Lee would chance it; he would stay and fight. Historians have wondered at the decision, a seemingly desperate gamble against almost impossible odds, since even at full strength Lee would have only 40,000 men to McClellan's 80,000. But Lee was used to long odds, and he knew McClellan. Quite frankly, Lee thought he could win.

McClellan was indeed moving faster than usual, but he was far from being reckless. Part of McClellan's problem here (and at Richmond too) was that he was the victim of poor intelligence. McClellan believed Lee commanded over 100,000 men. He was therefore cautious as he approached South Mountain. As the Confederates retreated down the mountain and across the Antietam into Sharpsburg, McClellan slowly followed. As expected, Jackson had captured Harper's Ferry and its entire garrison. However, it would take some time to accept the surrender and then parole 11,000 Union soldiers. Jackson would head to Sharpsburg with two of his divisions; the other three to follow as soon as possible, but they would not arrive before the morning of the 16th. So, by evening of the 15th, Lee had less than half his army at Sharpsburg. Across the Antietam, McClellan himself was at hand with his leading Corps, and more men coming up every hour.

Throughout the 16th of September, McClellan busied himself arranging his men, meeting new units as they arrived and giving out orders as to where they should deploy. He also personally arranged his artillery and met incoming supply wagon trains, doing a job his staff should have done. In this manner McClellan wasted most of a day, and it is hard to avoid the feeling that Little Mac was stalling - he wasn't ready to fight. Meantime, Jackson and his footsore divisions were arriving in Sharpsburg, after a hard all-night march. Finally, as the day closed McClellan gave orders for the following morning. I Corps, 12,000 men under Major General Joe Hooker, was to open the attack by striking the Confederate left, supported by two other Corps. When this part of the battle was well developed, a second attack against the Confederate right was to be launched by Major General Ambrose E. Burnside and 12,000 men of the IX Corps. The rest of McClellan's host would hold the center and advance if the opportunity arose. McClellan ordered Hooker to position himself that night, so that he could launch his attack at dawn. Lee of course saw what was happening, and positioned Jackson north of Sharpsburg to meet whatever Hooker had in mind.

Lee's battle line ran roughly north and south, between the town and the Antietam. On the north side, the line followed the Hagerstown Pike for a few hundred yards, then bent west towards the Potomac. There was high ground at the end of the line, and there Jeb Stuart had placed his horse artillery and dismounted his troopers. Jackson held the east-west salient and the angle where the line turned south. Below him, Longstreet had positioned his men along the rising ground above the Antietam, taking advantage of whatever terrain features were available. The lower part of Lee's line, southeast of the town, was placed on some high ground directly above the creek. All in all, it was a strong position but Lee was holding it with 25,000 men. McClellan had 60,000 with him, and another 20,000 still to come up. Never before had the Confederates faced such an imbalance in forces.

Morning came and with it a fierce battle, as blue and gray lines surged against one another, gaining ground and losing it, casualties piling up by the thousands. From the north, the battle slowly swung south, as McClellan send his corps in to battle, one at a time, a division at a time. Lee responded by pulling men out of his southern lines and sending them, plus fresh units arriving from Harper's Ferry, to where the pressure was greatest, always having just enough men to prevent a breakthrough.

The huge losses at Antietam can be traced to two factors. One was that the men fighting here were by now veterans, at least for the most part, and they had been through battle before. Neither side gave ground willingly. But the big killer was the fact that army tactics were still taken right out of Napoleon's battles. Soldiers still marched into combat shoulder to shoulder. But the weaponry of the time had vastly improved over Napoleon's day, and men now carried rifled muskets that had five times the range of the old smoothbores. Men attacking in tight formations could be shot to pieces before they ever reached enemy lines.

While the battle to the north raged and then died out, Burnside with four divisions had been holding McClellan's extreme left, and on that part of the field the Antietam ran between the two lines, both of which occupied high ground on opposite sides above the water. To be sure, there was a bridge: a triple-arched stone bridge, 12 feet wide by 125 feet long, directly between the two lines. Burnside had spent the morning trying and failing to take this one bridge, despite the fact that on the Rebel side of the creek, there were at most a few hundred defenders; Lee had pulled most of a division away to support the action elsewhere. Burnside, for his part, acted as though time was an inexhaustible commodity. Of his four divisions, one was held in reserve, and a second under Gen. Isaac Rodman was sent down the creek to find a ford that supposedly had been marked out by McClellan's engineers. That left two divisions at hand, more than enough to force the bridge. But Burnside decided that because of the narrowness of the bridge it could only be taken by one regiment attacking in column of fours. One regiment tried it, and was shot to pieces before they ever reached the bridge. Then another, and another: same results.

Finally, Burnside moved up a pair of brigades to lay down a covering fire, and had two regiments form up on the back side of the hill just opposite the bridge. When the signal came they were to charge in column straight over the hill, down to the bridge, and straight over without stopping. Once over, they would fan out left and right and engage the defenders while the rest of the division crossed. It worked exactly as outlined, and why Burnside didn't try this tactic four hours earlier is beyond any rational explanation other than Burnside was Burnside. In the meantime Rodman's division had forded the creek.

A hard drive by Burnside would turn Lee's right, cut him off from the Potomac ford, and collapse his army from south to north like falling dominoes. Lee's only hope was the arrival of A. P. Hill's 'Light Division' from Harper's Ferry, his last uncommitted force. But Burnside was no driver. Once over the creek and on the high ground behind it, Sharpsburg dead ahead and defended by the thinnest of lines, he stopped. Burnside claimed later that he felt his two at-hand divisions were too tired and low on ammunition, and wanted to bring up the reserves. This would require most of an hour, and during that time fully 8,000 soldiers opposed by a quarter their number sat and waited for ammunition wagons to arrive. Finally, as the afternoon began to fade, Burnside moved forward.

At the edge of town, Robert E. Lee had ridden up beside a battery of artillery to survey the scene and to see what might be done. A column was seen moving up from the south. Lee turned to the young officer commanding the battery and said, "What troops are those?" The officer looked through his glass for a moment and then said, "They are flying the United States flag." Lee then indicated another column coming up from the southwest: and those men? The officer looked, and replied, "They are flying the Confederate and Virginia flags". "It is A. P. Hill from Harper's Ferry" said Lee quietly.

Damned right it was. The hard-driving Hill had left at dawn and had relentlessly driven his 6,000 man division on a brutal 17-mile march, not stopping to rest. Hill was up and down the column, using the point of his saber to prod along stragglers. Even so, Hill had left fully half of his men gasping for air along the way, but he had the other half exactly where they needed to be and when they needed to be there. From first to last Lee had needed some 72 hours to fully reunite his army, and McClellan had given exactly that much time to the one man who above all others knew how to use it.

Now Hill attacked, coming in on the flank of Rodman's men. Rodman had a few green regiments in his command, and there was confusion as some of the oncoming troops were wearing blue uniforms. Being sensible soldiers, Hill's men had replaced ragged gray uniforms with new blue ones captured at Harper's Ferry. Rodman's men hesitated for a moment too long, and were ripped apart by a blast from Rebels they had taken for friends. Soon, Burnside's whole command was in retreat. The fighting for the day, mercifully, was at an end.

So ended the Battle of Antietam. The next day, Robert E. Lee stood fast on the ground he had so narrowly defended, as if he were daring McClellan to try something. McClellan had had enough. On the 19th, Lee pulled out of Sharpsburg and re-crossed the Potomac. McClellan followed cautiously, pushing a brigade over the river in pursuit. Jackson and A. P. Hill saw it coming and swatted it back over the river with losses, and McClellan pursued no further. In all, 11,000 Confederates and 12,000 Federals had become casualties; and now Abraham Lincoln would take center stage to try to give some meaning to so horrifying a set of numbers.

Lincoln had a document in mind that just might do it; had it in his pocket, in fact, since early summer. It was a draft of a proclamation he had wanted to make, one that would define the war in terms of the South's 'peculiar institution', human bondage. Lincoln was and always had been a moderate on the slavery question, feeling as he once told a Northern newspaper editor that it was his duty to save the Union and he would do so whether it meant freeing some of the slaves, all of them, or none at all. Lincoln had come to feel that freeing the slaves was valid as a war aim, and had drafted his Emancipation Proclamation with that aim in mind. He had, however, been talked out of issuing it by his cabinet, who felt that short of some Union victory in the field it would look like an act of desperation. Now, Antietam would give Lincoln the opportunity he needed.

The Emancipation Proclamation was a peculiar document, because in the short term it would free no slaves at all. Lincoln had to tread carefully, since there were still slave states that had not seceded; Kentucky in particular. So Lincoln, his lawyer's mind in high gear, had worded it in such a way that it only would take effect in areas then in rebellion - in other words, in just those areas where the United States Government could not enforce it. It would free the slaves if and only if the Union won the war. But it was enough, and it had two immediate and dramatic consequences. First of all, it meant that there would be no turning back, no compromise peace that might restore the union but leave slavery in place. It would be a war to the finish, and men on both sides realized it. Now the war would have a moral, as well as a political, side.

The other consequence was that the Emancipation Proclamation kept Europe out of the war. For some months, the opportunistic British and the imperialistic French had been discussing some sort of direct intervention in the US Civil War. After the Second Battle of Bull Run, those two powers, along with Russia, had indeed reached just such an agreement: a demand (backed by a military threat) for a six-months cease fire that could only mean independence for the Southern Confederacy. The plan had been put on hold pending the outcome of Lee's invasion of Maryland. Now the Emancipation Proclamation had changed everything. Of course, there was much sneering derision in the high places of the British and French governments, as there usually was for any political document issuing from the American side of the Atlantic. But working-class people in Paris and the Midlands needed to read only so far as the part that went "thenceforward and forever shall be free" to know what was at stake. To back the Confederacy meant to endorse slavery, and common people simply would not have it. From that moment on, the possibility of the Civil War ending by foreign intervention died, and even Jefferson Davis had to admit that the possibility no longer existed. Lincoln had insured that Americans would decide their own destiny.

That done, Lincoln had one more task to perform: he had to get rid of George B. McClellan. The task was not an easy one, for McClellan was still popular, Lincoln liked him personally, and there was some thought that McClellan left to his own devices could be dangerous. But Lincoln knew McClellan was not a man he could use to win the war. In early November Lincoln fired him, and when the blow fell McClellan took it like a man, graciously turning over the command to a reluctant Burnside. There had been fears that McClellan might lead a mutinous army to Washington rather than give up the command, but in retrospect those fears were baseless. McClellan was no more capable of mutiny than Robert E. Lee would have been. McClellan went home, his active part in the war over.

For Robert E. Lee, the war would go on. After the Battle of Antietam, some would claim the battle had been a draw, but Lee himself knew better. His invasion had failed, and he had lost 11,000 men, some of them among the best in his army. He had been brilliant in defense, but he had no business being where he was, and he saved his army by the thinnest of margins. Lee had unlimited confidence in his Southern infantry, and they had never failed him; would not fail him until a fateful day in July 1863.

But Lee's greatest day as an American soldier would come in April 1865. Retreating from Richmond, Lee was approached by a trusted subordinate, who urged him to disband the army rather than surrender; in effect declare guerrilla war. Lee knew instinctively what that meant: fighting that would go on for years, possibly decades; old hurts and hatreds passed down from generation to generation; a country never to know peace. Other civil wars have ended just that way. Lee would have none of it. For Lee, his duty was clear. He would surrender and accept the consequences of his actions. Because he was Lee, he would find honor and dignity in defeat, and because he did other men could as well. There would be some anger and bitterness, but never more than the nation could handle. It is ironic that Robert E. Lee, who had spent four years in a quest to separate the nation, would in the end be one of the men most responsible for keeping it together.

As to George B. McClellan, his star had begun to set. He remained on active duty but no assignments were given him. Finally in 1864, the Democrats approached him to be their presidential candidate, and he accepted. The Democrats wanted McClellan to run on a "peace at any price" platform, but McClellan would not buy it. Instead, he ran his campaign on the premise that if elected, he would prosecute the war to its conclusion. He lost, and saw no more public service except for a three-year stint as Governor of New Jersey. Little Mac traveled extensively, wrote a memoir, dabbled in business, and died in 1885, aged 59. A smart man by any standard, George McClellan was never smart or perceptive enough to understand Abraham Lincoln. His arrogance got in the way. Guilty of referring to the President at times as the "baboon" and the "original gorilla", McClellan once when in Washington and told the President was waiting in the front parlor to see him, promptly went to bed, leaving Lincoln sitting on his duff. Lincoln later remarked that he would hold McClellan's horse if it would help win the war. McClellan was never wise enough to see that it was he who should have been holding Lincoln's horse.

As for McClellan's view of Robert E. Lee, his old comrade from Mexican War days, he was once again betrayed by his own self-importance. Told that Lee had taken command of the Army of Northern Virginia, McClellan dismissed him as too old and too set in his ways to be an effective commander. "He will not be aggressive enough", pronounced Little Mac. You just can't be any more wrong than that.

June 1, 2004

Jack Nelson
UNC '65