Antietam (Sharpsburg) Date: 16-17 September 1862
United States: Army of The Potomac: (MG McClellan, cmdg) Six corps plus army troops (included some augmentations from the Federal Army of Virginia), one cavalry division: about 90,000 in all, of which only about 50,000 see action on 9/17/62.
Confederate States: Army of Northern Virginia: (GEN Lee, cmdg) Two large corps plus army troops organized as “Left” and “Right” “Wings”, one cavalry division and reserve artillery. 45,000 troops.
The Situation: The summer and fall campaign of 1862 was perhaps the most critical of the entire American Civil War, for several reasons:
1. After a year of sustained combat the U.S. forces, and particularly the Army of the Potomac, the champagne formation of the Federal government, appeared plainly struggling with, and possibly even incapable of, defeating the Confederate field forces which were always smaller and usually more poorly armed and equipped.2. Always looking for an opportunity to poke a finger in the eye of the Yanks, the British (and to a lesser extent, the French) government was considering recognizing the CSA as a genuine nation. It is likely that only the CSA’s continued avowal of chattel slavery had prevented recognition by Britain after the Seven Days battles.
3. The U.S. government and the people of the Union itself, which had expected a quick, decisive victory, were increasingly divided and disheartened by the stream of Confederate victories over commander after commander: McDowell at Manassas; McClellan in the Peninsula; Pope, again at Manassas. It seemed to the U.S. public that Lee was a genius who could beat any Union general at will.
The political situation remained unchanged from the moment the first cannon had fired on Fort Sumter: the USA needed to force the CSA to capitulate and rejoin the Union; the CSA needed to bloody the USA long enough and savagely enough to a) draw foreign recognition, investment and military aid (particularly at sea, where the U.S. Navy had effectively closed all Southern ports and isolated the putative nation), and b) weary the Northern public of the war and force a negotiated peace.In pursuit of those political goals, the Union armed forces needed to decisively defeat the Confederate armies, while the Confederate armies took heart from the memory of the Continental Army of what they saw as the “First” American Revolution – they might lose battles but could win the war simply by refusing to be destroyed. An effective Confederate Army in the field meant that Southern independence was still possible.
While the events unfolding that fall and winter in the Western theatre (along and near the Mississippi River) were to prove decisive in the final U.S. victory, most Americans were fixated on the several thousand square miles between Richmond, Virginia, where Lee’s army had begun to trail out from their camps near the recent victory along Bull Run Creek, heading up the roads gray with dust towards Maryland.
The Campaign: Lee’s Maryland campaign had the ostensible goal of winning “hearts and minds” in the border state of Maryland, where many of the residents had been and were slaveowners in fact and “southrons” in thought prior to the outbreak of civil war. In addition, the armory at Harper’s Ferry was a logistical objective, as well as the barns and granaries of Maryland spared the reiving visited on northern Virginia during the preceding eighteen months. The move itself would spare the Virginia harvest, while any tangible rebel gains on northern soil might well aid antiwar factions in Washington D.C. during the offyear elections that fall. And there itched, in some minds in Richmond if not in Lee’s own, the possibility of gaining British aid and comfort if another brilliant victory could show the U.S. to be a star in decline.Lee’s actual plan of campaign was disrupted by the lack of excitement for Confederate glory on the part of Marylanders as well as the intel coup referred to as the "Lost Orders" or “Special Orders 191” so I have a difficult time determining his original ultimate strategic or grand tactical objective; the original plan is supposed to have been something like Napoleon's “Ulm Campaign” of 1805, only this would be an immense right wheel around the Federal capital culminating in the taking of some vital Northern hub such as Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.
As a general comment, this opacity of Lee's - and the Confederate political leadership's - strategic goals is something I see as a recurring problem; it crops up again the following summer. While it was true that Lee’s army had first and foremost to survive, I think that Lee carried this beyond strategic prudence to the point of foiling whatever the Confederate grand strategy was, if there was one other than just "keep fighting".
But as Lincoln and his supporters proved intractable at some point the Confederate leaders needed a military objective beyond battlefield victory. I don't think they ever perceived it. The Staff Ride Guide to Antietam (Ballard, 2006) states that “(a) Confederate movement north of the Potomac River would threaten both Washington and Baltimore and force the Federal government to devote large numbers of troops to defend those cities”.
While this may be so, I find nothing in Lee’s published orders, subsequent statements, or writings that suggests he had an actual objective in mind to accomplish this goal. There's nothing there that reads anything like "our objective was to secure the line Fredrick-Lancaster-Hatboro, dividing the Federal armies and controlling the strategic arteries of the Susquehnna and routes through central Pennsylvania." or "We planned to hold Harrisburg and force a decisive action on the Army of the Potomac near York." It was all very nebulous and, frankly, fairly improbable.
So Lee’s moves in 1862 prove, I think, that he had no grand strategic vision for this campaign, for either of his offensive campaigns, really. Once the promised Maryland Uprising failed,the movements detailed in Order 191 are purely tactical; snatching up supplies here, investing Harper’s Ferry there. Lee’s strategy in the second and third weeks of September, 1862 can be summed up as “march ‘em out and see what happens.” I’ll talk about what I think the greater implication of this is further down the page.
Anyway, Lee’s army had moved from Manassas to Fredrick, Maryland (then called “Fredricktown”) between 9/3/62 and 9/9/62; the Confederate concentration broke up there on the 10th, moving back across the Blue Ridge mountains to the north and west. McClellan had been moving towards Fredrick, cautiously as always, between the 9th and the 13th; his arrival at Lee’s campground that day turned up the lost orders and Little Mac, for once, sent his troops scrambling after the divided Confederate Army that same day.
Two typical Union failings saved Lee over the next three days.The timidity and sluggish pace of McClellan’s corps commanders – particularly MG Franklin with VI Corps at Crampton’s Gap - failed to drive in the rebel blocking forces holding the mountain passes on the 14th.Then, having forced the passes, McClellan reverted to type; he dawdled through the 15th, allowing Lee to pull his army back together near the town of Sharpsburg. Once in place before Lee, McClellan wasted the entire day of September 16th.
This is the first critical error of McClellan and possibly his worst outside the conduct of the battle itself. On the 16th he outnumbered Lee three-to-one; his 60,000 troops should have swarmed under the 18,000 Confederates in arms before him. McClellen was not a fundamentally decisive man, and he had been fed a steady ration of feloniously exaggerated “intelligence” reports from his so-called “Chief of Intelligence”, Allan Pinkerton. While aces at clubbing unarmed striking workingmen, the Pinkertons were utterly clueless at tactical intelligence, commonly inflating Lee’s numbers by factors of two or more. The first shots across the Antietam Creek weren’t fired until just before dark on September 16th
The Engagement: I can't hope to do better than the description of the battle contained in Ballard 2006). It's here, in the "Staff Ride Guide", well written and illustrated along with a plethora of great information about the campaign, the battle, weapons, tactics and people. The Wikipedia entry for Antietam is solid as well, and well worth a look. Let me do try and break the battle down into bullet points, though.
First, though, in his tactical planning McClellan makes his second critical error: he gives his orders to each corps commander as individuals; he does not imbue them with his intent or the overall tactical plan, establish any attempt to coordinate between his subordinates during the engagement itself. He places himself too far from the fighting to recognize and exploit success. His failure to command during the engagement ensures that his attacks are haphazard, and allows Lee to shift an inferior force to meet and defeat these attacks in detail.
1. The Introduction - 5:30-9am, Union attacks on the Confederate Left.
McClellan's I Corps (Hooker) and XII Corps (Mansfield) attack the Left Wing of Jackson.
Vicious fighting around the Dunker Church, in the Cornfield and along the Hagerstown Turnpike, East and West Woods and the sunken road well-named Bloody Lane.
Jackson gives little ground in return for 13,000 casualties.
2. The Crisis - 9am-1pm, Union attacks on the Confederate Center.
Portions of the Union XII Corps (now lead by Williams after Mansfield's mortal wound) and II Corps (Sumner) attack the juncture of Jackson's Left and Longstreet's Right Wings.
Union divisions of Greene, French and Richardson are destroyed while destroying the Confederate divisions of D.H. Hill and Anderson's in still more fighting around and in the Bloody Lane.
Rodes' Confederate division is withdrawn in error, and while Hill stems the Union attack, the rebel center is effectively broken.
In his third critical error McClellan fails to commit Franklin's fresh VI Corps or Porter's V Corps to drive through Lee's broken center. Lee repairs the damage and fights on.
Results: Indecisive, with a possible opening for a Union advantage missed, as the Fat Controller would say, through confusion and delay
3. The Postscript - 10am-4pm, Union attacks on the Confederate Right.
IX Corps (Burnside) attacks Jones division of Longstreet's Right Wing.
In what may be the most farcical attack of the war (excepting the assault at Fredricksburg, which transcends any levity through sheer carnage) Burnside makes three attempts to ram his entire corps across a thirty-foot-wide stone bridge at the base of a high bluff over a stream that is, in most places, less than waist deep. He finally gets his men across, losing 15-20% of his command.
He is forming to drive in the Confederate right when A.P. Hills "Light Division" arrives from Harper's Ferry and takes him in the left flank, driving him back to the west side of Antietam Creek.
Burnside, not for the last time, is panicked and refuses to attack further, and although McClellan still has Porter and Franklin in reserve, he agrees. The battle ends at 5:30pm.
Lee slips southwards that night, and McClellan dithers another day before lazily trailing the Army of Northern Virginia to the Potomac. The Maryland Campaign is over.
Almost 23,000 men have been killed, are injured, been captured or have simply vanished, either fled or mangled so completely that their corpses cannot be recognized as a specific human. Or human at all.Outcome: Tactical draw. Minor strategic U.S. victory: Lee ends the Maryland Campaign and withdraws into the C.S., and the Eastern Theatre is relatively quiet for three months. Geopolitical consequences are significant, however.
Impact: Critical. Several effects of Antietam make it probably, with Vicksburg and Sherman's Southern Campaign, one of the most decisive actions of the war.
1. McClellan was relived.
It is difficult to underestimate how important this was. McClellan WAS the Army of the Potomac until 1862, and his failings; indecision, hesitation, overcaution, defeatism, were writ large in his command. But he had made the Army and it loved him - anything less than a massive failure on Little Mac's part would have made his relief a MacArthur moment for President Lincoln.
The Army of the Potomac couldn't win the war - that was Sherman and the Army of the Tennessee's job. But it could have lost it for the Union, and to keep that from happening it needed U.S. Grant. But before it could get him it had to lose its beloved McClellan. Antietam was the final blow to his reputation, exposing all his flaws, highlighting all his failings.
September, 1862 set in train April, 1865, though the Army of the Potomac first had to suffer the calvary of Burnside and Fredricksburg the coming December.
2. Lee's offensive founders on his shortcomings as a grand strategic and geopolitical leader.. I have always felt that Lee is one of history's most overrated Great Captains. A terrific tactical commander and a worldbeater at the operational art level - mind you, it helps if they match you against fucking bobos like McDowell, Pope, Burnside and Hooker. But Lee failed on a slew of levels above that of Army command.
I love Bobbie Lee; as a man, as a battlefield commander. But this campaign exposes him as just that: a nice man who was hell on wheels when the guns were firing. He couldn't see the Big Picture.
On the highest levels, he failed to work effectively with the C.S. government to match their war aims to Confederate economic and technical capabilities. He failed to appreciate the changes to battlefield tactics necessitated by the rifled musket and to logistics by the interchangeable part and the railroad (he was furious at being dubbed "The King of Spades" for entrenching during the Seven Days Battles in 1861 and didn't use earthworks effectively except by chance until forced into them in 1864). He failed at the very highest level, to force the C.S. to accept that it could not win if it did not accept the end of chattel slavery and make itself less objectionable to European sensibilities.
On the Grand Strategic level, he failed to develop a realistic objective for his offensive campaigns and failed to maintain his strategic focus. While he understood that defense alone couldn't win, his Maryland Campaign was the first of the two offensives - Gettysburg was the other - were he divided his force, allowed (or directed) them to wander about looking for objectives and was nearly defeated in detail by the Army of the Potomac. He is quoted as saying that his objective was always to defend his native state of Virginia, and it is almost as if in crossing the Potomac he would lose his way, falter and fall into questioning his purpose. Certainly his actions at Sharpsburg itself were tactically sound, but he seemed to be more obsessed with procuring shoes for his troops from Harper's Ferry than knocking the Federals out of the war.3. The Emancipation Proclamation changed the nature of the Civil War. I've always been contemptuous of latter-day Confederates or apologists for Southern treason who gabble about "states' rights" and southern independence, and about the nobility of the Lost Cause. Fuck that noise; the "right" the Southern states were fighting to preserve was the right to fucking own human beings like you own your toilet seat or your box of Captain Crunch. But until September 1862 partisans on both sides could pretend otherwise. Lincoln's little ukase was, in many ways, a nasty little bit of cynical politicking: it freed ONLY the slaves in the places in rebellion, and was far from any real attempt to fully deal with "the Negro Problem". It was designed more to incommode the South and embarrass Southern supporters in Britain.But it was a start. It defined our Civil War as more than a factional fight between regions. It forced both sides to face up to the fact that all this bloodletting was going to HAVE to change things if the U.S. won.
It helped change the face of war: it was part of the end of the beginning of white gloves and the romantic uniforms and hoopskirts and the beginning of the end that would lead down that vast devastated swath through Georgia and the Carolinas, from the mountains to the sea, where the clouds of ragged bummers would remain boogeymen for Southern children for two generations, where armed hard men would flee in panic from a shout of "We're Bill Sherman's Raiders - y'all better GIT!!"
"So we made a thoroughfare for Freedom and her train,
Sixty miles in latitude, three hundred to the main,
Treason fled before us, for resistance was in vain,
While we were marching through Georgia!"
Touchline Tattles: I honestly don't have any truly odd or funny trivia about Antietam.
It was a grim day, and even the oddball stories, like the 51st Pennsylvania roaring across the Stone Bridge to earn back the grog ration they'd had stopped earlier for some misbehavior, have a grim edge to them - there must have been a lot of extra whisky to pass round in the 51st's camp that night and a haunted few drinkers to sop it, looking left and right at the empty places beside them. Knowing that "only the dead have seen an end to war."