Home > G. Thoughts > The Dead at Antietam

The Dead at Antietam

This year marks the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Antietam, fought on September 17, 1862 near the town of Sharpsburg, MD.

Gettysburg is better known, but this battle offered Abraham Lincoln the political strength he wanted to free the slaves of the United States. The battle itself was awful enough, the single bloodiest day of the Civil War (3,654 men killed, 23,100 total casualties), and the appalling death toll may well have spurred Lincoln on to issue the Emancipation Proclamation. But a deeper crisis was at work, one that Lincoln mentions briefly in his Second Inaugural Address, and which will always burden the nation’s conscience:

One eighth of the whole population were colored slaves…

Lincoln was a deliberate man, and early in his administration his first priority was the preservation of the Union–to prevent the Confederacy from forming and lure back the states that had already seceded. He faced a dicey political situation: he had to accommodate both the abolitionists in his own party and the border states that had not seceded. Lincoln himself was not an abolitionist, and he had married the daughter of a wealthy Kentucky slave-owner; nonetheless, he favored gradual, compensated emancipation.

But events were overtaking Lincoln. Though he had prohibited his generals from freeing slaves in captured territories, Gen. John Freemont did so in 1861; Lincoln was forced to replace him with a more conservative man. The New York Tribune published an editorial by Horace Greeley calling for complete emancipation. And then, after his victory at the Second Battle of Bull Run, Confederate General Robert E. Lee invaded Maryland.

Why was Antietam so costly in lives? One reason lay in the importance of a possible Confederate victory: if Lee won, Maryland might secede, Britain and France recognize the Confederacy, and serious damage be done to the Union economy. On the other hand, Lincoln desperately needed a victory that would demonstrate his abilities as a military leader.

Then there were the personalities of the generals leading the fight. The Union commander, George B. McClellan, was disinclined to taking risks, cautious and unaggressive; Lee was exactly the opposite, much more likely to engage and to follow-up on victory. Lee was clearly the better commander; however, McClellan had a two-to-one advantage in manpower. In short, both leaders had substantial advantages that would result in intense fighting and bloodshed.

Finally, there was the nature of the battlefield. While Lee chose a good initial defensive position near Sharpsburg, his disposition had its problems, chief of which was the Potomac River at his rear–to retreat, the river would have to be forded. In addition, fighting was intense around two landmarks in the battlefield: Sunken Lane, a sunken road that was the center of the Confederate line and Burnside Bridge, a narrow stone bridge over Antietam Creek that could be held by a small  force against much greater numbers. Both locations produced an appalling slaughter–Sunken Lane (which became known as Bloody Lane) was held at great cost by the Confederates until the early afternoon; the struggle over Burnside Bridge lasted from the morning into afternoon (and General Burnside has often been criticized for not attempting to ford the creek’s shallows). The Bridge was taken at 1:30 pm, but the Union advance was stymied when fresh Confederate troops arrived.

The whole landscape for an instant turned red.

By 5:30 pm, the battle was over. “The whole landscape for an instant turned red,” one Union soldier reported; another soldier remarked: “[The cornfield] was so full with bodies that a man could have walked through it without stepping on the ground.” Despite the carnage, the battle had been a draw, and the Confederates retreated–unharassed–across the Potomac.

Lincoln inspected the battle’s dead shortly afterwards. One can only speculate–and the decision to issue the Emancipation Proclamation as soon as the Union had won a credible victory had been taken months earlier–but the spectacle of the dead at Antietam lying scattered and heaped across the battlefield surely underlined the situation’s urgency: slavery had to go. The Union needed a higher moral cause for which to fight the war, and nobody could reasonably doubt that “involuntary servitude” had been the principal cause of the South’s secession. The President, along with many other moderate white reformers, was acknowledging that while policy and political expedience had their place, the only goal that could justify bloodshed on this scale was the elimination of a monstrous evil–one in which the North was complicit.

That on the first day of January in the year of our Lord, one thousand eight hundred and sixty-three, all persons held as slaves within any State, or designated part of a State, the people whereof shall then be in rebellion against the United States shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free; and the executive government of the United States, including the military and naval authority thereof, will recognize and maintain the freedom of such persons, and will do no act or acts to repress such persons, or any of them, in any efforts they may make for their actual freedom.  –Emancipation Proclamation, 1862

Photograph: Dead Soldiers at Antietam, A. Gardner, WikiCmns, Public Domain.

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