Beautiful mountains and lush forests surround the quiet town of Sharpsburg, Maryland. The tranquility of nature is inviting, like a sublime melody on constant repeat. It is hard for me juxtapose the peacefulness of today with the tragedy of bloodshed and carnage 153 years ago at the Battle of Antietam. It was the bloodiest single-day battle in American history with approximately 23,000 men dead, wounded, or missing.
Confederate General Robert E. Lee had a string of successes in the Summer of 1862 culminating in the spectacular Confederate victory at the Second Battle of Manassas in late August. Lee now had the initiative to march his Army of Northern Virginia into Northern territory. In a letter to Confederate President, Jefferson Davis, in early September, Lee wrote: “…the present seems to be the most propitious time since the commencement of the war for the Confederate Army to enter Maryland…”
Lee began his Maryland Campaign on September 4. However, in a twist of fate, a lost copy of his military plans, known as Special Order 191, was discovered by a Union soldier on September 13. When the intelligence was relayed to Union General McClellan, he declared: “Now I know what to do…here is a paper with which, if I cannot whip Bobby Lee, I will be willing to go home.”
The Union attack began at dawn on September 17 and the fighting lasted about 12 hours. There is an excellent Visitor Center at the Antietam Battlefield with a short film I highly recommend for orientation. Compared to other battlefields, Antietam is very easy to visualize because it happened in 3 distinct phases at equally distinct locations.
Exiting the Visitor Center and we are cattycorner from Dunker Church. The first fighting broke out around here and across Miller’s Cornfield in the same vicinity. The Union’s Army of the Potomac assaulted the Confederate’s left flank, but Confederate General Stonewall Jackson’s army was able to stand firm.
A short drive away and we are at the Sunken Road, also known as Bloody Lane. It is the second location where Confederate and Union soldiers clashed later that morning. The Confederates were entrenched along the depressed road frequented by farmers. As the Union army approached, fighting ensued for almost 4 hours. The famous Irish Brigade fought here and lost approximately 60% of its men in this fight, but their sacrifice helped the Union pierce the Confederate center.
Driving once more, we reach the final engagement that happened in the afternoon at a stone bridge now known as Burnside Bridge. The heroism of about 500 Georgia Confederate soldiers were able to hold off roughly 14,000 Union soldiers for several hours! Though, eventually, the Union, under Ambrose Burnside, captured the bridge to advance against the Confederate’s right flank.
The battle ended when Confederate reinforcements arrived. The outcome was a tactical draw because the Union did not follow up on their advances. The Confederates retreated back into Virginia leaving the town of Sharpsburg forever scarred with an undesired notoriety.