“A Great and a Terrible Day”: The Battle of Antietam


By Colin Woodward

Back in September, I started reading Stephen Sears’s Landscape Turned Red about the battle of Antietam, still the bloodiest day in American history. In the movie Glory, Governor Andrew of Massachusetts, an abolitionist, called it a “great and a terrible day.” The carnage in Maryland was appalling, but it was a victory, and it spurred Lincoln to issue his Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation. Landscape Turned Red is a classic, and I guess I started reading it as a way to celebrate the 151st anniversary of the battle.

Sears takes him time getting to the bloodshed. At one point, I was 150 pages in, and the fighting at Sharpsburg hadn’t happened yet. There’s a lot of background information leading up to the events of 17 September 1862. We learn much about McClellan (Sears is his best biographer; see his work The Young Napoleon) and the feud “Little Mac” had with Lincoln over supplies and timetables. McClellan, Lincoln complained, suffered from the “slows.” And it was very difficult for Lincoln to get McClellan moving. The story of the Army of the Potomac from late-1861 to late-1862 is the story of an internal battle between the “Young Napoleon” and the Lincoln Administration.

McClellan was a gifted commander, but he was no Napoleon. He was at his best when he was training and equipping his soldiers. He was good on the defensive. But he lacked one of the most crucial elements of a great commander: aggressiveness. As we learn in Sears’s pages, an aggressive commander would have crushed Lee’s army at Antietam. McClellan, convinced he was outnumbered, attacked Lee’s forces piecemeal, and he kept thousands of men in reserve that could have overwhelmed the Army of Northern Virginia. Lee got lucky to have fought the North to a draw in Maryland. However, despite being outnumbered 2:1, Lee held a psychological advantage over McClellan that allowed him to fight a better battle tactically. McClellan always thought Lee had more men, and it was this delusion that gave Lee confidence that he could carry the day. Federal troops’ morale was high and they fought well, but they were mismanaged. McClellan did not visit the front lines. Lee had good coordination among his officers, and he directed the battle firsthand. His men were torn apart at the cornfield and the sunken road, but they held on.

Lee was aggressive, and he drove his men hard. He had taken command of the Army of Northern Virginia in early June, and by the end of 1862, his army had fought four major campaigns (at the Seven Days, Second Manassas, Antietam, and Fredericksburg). Lee was the best chance the Confederacy had for achieving victory. And he knew every month was critical.

Reading Sears’s book got me thinking: one of the misconceptions people have about the past is that it was somehow slow, simple, or leisurely. Yet, people didn’t live as long as they do now, and so they didn’t waste their time to such a great degree. Laziness was a much more serious thing. Crops needed tending, animals needed feeding. You worked a lot to make a meal or build a house or get to the store. Yes, there were no cars or planes, but people still traveled, and it’s amazing how far they managed to get on foot. If you think the past was slow or boring, read about the Antietam campaign.

In late June 1862, Robert E. Lee took command of what would become the Army of Northern Virginia. The situation was dire for the South. The North’s Army of the Potomac was five miles from the Confederate capital. At the battle of the Seven Days, Lee’s men fought back the Yankees, who retreated from Richmond to the Atlantic coast. A month later, Lee’s men, now in northern Virginia, fought another huge battle at Manassas. By September, Lee’s men were in western Maryland–Union territory. By the time the battle of Antietam was over on 17 September, Lee’s men had marched hundreds of miles, fought 3 battles, taken a large Federal garrison at Harpers Ferry, and had lost 50,000 men. What did you do last summer?

No, the past was not a succession of long, slow, boring days. Or at least, no more so than they are today. Farming is no less boring than an office job. Lack of instant information and technological gadgets did not mean people didn’t have anything to do, or that their lives were slow. Women had children, lots of them. A family of ten does not make for boredom. People went to church. They sang songs and wrote music. They joined the military. They sailed up rivers and rode in wagons across continents. Huge battles were fought in a day or two. In contrast, in the 21st century, the U.S. has been in Afghanistan for twelve years. Has much changed?

Star Wars came out more than thirty years ago, and I still see guys wearing Boba Fett t-shirts. Music hasn’t changed much in the past decade. There’s not much difference between the music of 2003 and 2010. But look at how different the Beatles were in 1969 from how they were in 1962.

Yes, things could change very quickly in the “slow” eighteenth and nineteenth century. And men crammed a lot of living in their shorter lives. Mozart died at 35. Poe at 40. Achievement is a matter of will, not technology.

Sears does not scrimp on the detail in Landscape Turned Red. The violence is worse than what we see in the first twenty minutes of Saving Private Ryan. Antietam was a battle of unimaginable slaughter. The North suffered 13,000 casualties that day. The South suffered 10,000. Lee lost a quarter of his men.

Dead soldier at Antietam. The battle was the first during the Civil War in which photos of casualties were widely viewed by the public.

The Civil War, as Shelby Foote noted, was a war in which weapons were “way ahead of the tactics.” There were no machine guns at Antietam, but men killed one another easily enough. In the Civil War, armies developed ways of sustaining overlapping fields of fire. Despite the fact that each man could only fire 2-3 shots per minute, a few hundred men could hold back thousands–as was the case at the fighting at “Burnside’s Bridge” at Antietam. At the bridge, the Confederates held back a much larger force because they had good cover on high ground and a thick target to shoot at.

burnside's bridge
Burnside’s Bridge

If it’s one thing I took away from Sears’s book it was how badly McClellan fought it. Despite finding a copy of Lee’s battle orders, which allowed him to know that Lee’s army was divided, McClellan hesitated to act quickly to crush Lee’s forces in turn. The day of the battle he used his men sluggishly. Burnside’s famous attack was botched enough as it was, but McClellan also undermined it by having Burnside attack late in the day. Not only did McClellan lack the killer instinct, he failed to keep cavalry on his left flank, which would’ve keep reinforcements (most famously, A. P. Hills’s division) from reaching Lee’s lines at a critical moment. Lee expected another fight on September 18, but McClellan refused to attack. Ulysses S. Grant would have fought at least one more day. With his back to the Potomac, Lee was vulnerable, but McClellan allowed him to escape back to Virginia.

After Lee’s retreat, McClellan could claim a victory. For Lincoln, it was an empty one. Lee fought for two and half more years. The time McClellan wasted allowed Lee to build up his forces significantly. McClellan’s lack of aggressiveness was very important in his failure. But he might have stayed in the army (though not necessarily as the head of the Army of the Potomac) had he understood the political implications of his actions. He made the mistake of thinking he, not Lincoln, was the boss. And his arrogance and his ineptitude in handling the political aspects of his work got him fired. Whether you are a winner or loser, stay on your boss’s good side.

Colin Woodward is a historian and archivist. He is the author of Marching Masters, Slavery, Race, and the Confederate Army during the Civil War (University of Virginia Press, 2014). He is writing a second book on Johnny Cash.

4 thoughts on ““A Great and a Terrible Day”: The Battle of Antietam

  1. So you are a “Southern historian” who hates the essence of the South. Interesting. The intricacies of Post-Modern irony often escape me.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s