Monday, September 10, 2012

The bloodiest day: Lee turned back at Sharpsburg

Story and Photos 1st Lt. William Carraway
Media Relations Officer, Public Affairs Office
Sept. 10, 2012

Four days after Second Manassas, the Army of Northern Virginia, 55,000 strong, crossed the Potomac River into Maryland. General Robert E. Lee hoped to achieve a victory on northern soil and win official recognition of the Confederacy by a foreign power.

On September 9, 1862, Lee drafted General Order 191, which directed the movements of his army. Copies of the order were dispatched to his subordinate commands which were dispersed from Harpers Ferry, W.Va. to Hagerstown, Md.

Major Gen. George McClellan’s 75,000-man Army of the Potomac, only recently returned from the Peninsula Campaign, was in characteristically slow pursuit of Lee and his formidable force. President Abraham Lincoln understood that official recognition of the Confederacy would end the conflict as effectively as French intervention ended the American Revolution. He had drafted an executive order designed to free slaves held in the rebellious states with the intent of preventing foreign recognition of the Confederacy. Upon the advice of his cabinet, Lincoln had withheld the order until the Union achieved a victory, lest the proclamation appear to be made out of desperation.

On September 13, 1862, Corporal Barton Mitchell of the 27th Indiana found three cigars wrapped in paper beneath a tree where the regiment had paused to rest. As he enjoyed one of the cigars, the corporal was shocked to discover the paper wrapping was a detailed order of battle for the Army of Northern Virginia. The corporal had discovered a lost copy of Lee’s General Order 191 which revealed the exact positions, strengths, and routes of march for his army. The order was brought to McClellan, who exulted at the extraordinary luck. Yet despite procuring crucial intelligence, McClellan failed to act. Perhaps suspecting a trap, McClellan delayed movement for 18 hours allowing Lee to discover that one of his orders had not been delivered.

Lee resolved to concentrate his forces near Sharpsburg, Md., where he took advantage of defensive terrain. By September 16, 1862, as the first Union divisions approached, Lee had only 18,000 men at Sharpsburg. Jackson’s corps was still enroute from Harpers Ferry while Longstreet’s corps was still in Hagerstown. Nevertheless, McClellan was convinced that Lee had 100,000 men at his disposal and eschewed the offensive. His delay allowed Longstreet and the bulk of Jackson’s men to reach Sharpsburg. Lee positioned Jackson to his north in the vicinity of woods and a small Dunker church fronted by a cornfield. Longstreet was positioned to Lee’s right with his line anchoring the southern flank on the Antietam River.

The bloodiest day of the Civil War began at 5:30 a.m. on September 17, 1862. Over the next 12 hours, the Battle of Sharpsburg would proceed in three distinct actions en echelon from North to South.

Farmer Miller’s Field of Corn

The Union 1st Corps moved forward at dawn. Their objective was the Dunker Church, near the center of Jackson’s line. As the Union troops moved into the cornfield they were immediately engaged. Thirteen artillery batteries concentrated fire on the cornfield as the infantry charged and counter charged often reaching bayonet range. More than 2,500 casualties occurred in the cornfield that measured 300 yards by 400 yards.

Fighting swirled for control of the Dunker Church but timely reinforcements held the ground for the Confederates. After five hours of fighting, more than 13,000 men had fallen – including all general officers in the Union 1st and 12th Corps.

The Sunken Road

Near the Confederate center, approximately 2,500 Soldiers had taken strong defensive positions in a sunken road. The Union launched a series of assaults against this formidable position at 9:30 a.m. as the action to the north was abating. Four separate assaults were beaten back but eventually the Union was able to enfilade the position and drive the defenders from the road. Despite the chance to decisively break Lee’s line, McClellan failed to exploit his opportunity. The South held the line. By 1:00 p.m., 5,300 men had become casualties without changing the overall strategic position.

Burnside’s Bridge

In the final engagement, Maj. Gen. Ambrose Burnside’s 9th Corps assaulted the Southern right flank in an attempt to seize a bridge crossing. The bridge, which would be later remembered as Burnside’s Bridge, was guarded by the 2nd and 20th Georgia regiments. Despite overwhelming odds, less than 400 Georgians held the bridge against repeated brigade assaults. Burnside stubbornly wasted men and time attempting to seize a bridge where the water was less than waist deep. The Georgians held Burnside off long enough to prevent envelopment of the flank and allow A. P. Hill’s division to arrive with reinforcements.  

In the ranks of the 23rd Ohio, which participated in Burnside’s attack, were two future presidents:  Lt. Col. Rutherford B. Hayes and Sgt. William McKinley.


Sharpsburg ended in a stalemate despite 23,000 casualties, among them Corporal Mitchell who had found General Order 191 four days earlier. One out of every four Union Soldiers and one third of Confederate Soldiers were casualties. The armies held their positions through September 18. That evening, Lee quietly slipped away. McClellan did not pursue Lee for more than two weeks. Lincoln, enraged, would remove McClellan from command in November 1862. McClellan was replaced by General Burnside whose luxurious facial hair gave us the term “sideburns.”

Despite the inconclusive nature of the battle, Sharpsburg was the closest thing to victory the Union army had achieved in months. Lincoln moved swiftly and announced the emancipation of slaves held in Confederate states. The Emancipation Proclamation had the desired effect. Britain and France remained neutral throughout the war.

Sharpsburg remains an illuminating study of command, both in the effective design of the defense and the ineffective use of concentration and massed effects on the offensive. Though he outnumbered Lee 2 to 1, McClellan committed his forces piecemeal, allowing Lee to shift reinforcements to meet him. Given the opportunity to destroy the Army of Northern Virginia, McClellan demurred, and the best hope of an early end to the war slipped south across the Potomac.

While Lee was in retreat in the East, a Confederate Army was advancing in the West. The next article will examine the Kentucky Campaign and the decisive Battle of Perryville.

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