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The Cost of Delay -- the Battle of Sharpsburg (Antietam): September 17, 1862

Robert E. Lee

Lee’s men, said a Maryland woman, were “a most ragged, lean and hungry set of wolves.” Yet, she conceded, “there is a dash about them the northern men lacked.”

“This body of men,” said another woman, moved “along with no order, their guns carried in every fashion, no two dressed alike, their officers hardly distinguishable from the privates . . . Were these the men that had driven back again and again our splendid legions?”

Lee was marching north, but it was not clear where exactly he planned to go. Behind him, following, came the ever-cautious McClellan. He needn’t have been so careful; Lee had divided his army, sending Jackson to Harper’s Ferry to capture the Federal garrison there. McClellan’s army numbered 95,000, while Lee had only 18,000 with him. But McClellan was cautious, even after one of his soldiers found, wrapped around some cigars lying in a meadow where the Confederates had camped, a copy of Lee’s general orders. “Here is a paper with which, if I cannot whip Bobbie Lee,” said McClellan, “I will be willing to go home.” Still, he delayed 18 hours before he ordered an attack.

George McClellan

Lee had taken up his position on a ridge east of Sharpsburg, Maryland, near to where Antietam Creek flowed on its meandering course to the nearby Potomac. Late in the morn­ing of September 15, 1862, McClellan’s force arrived on the heights of the eastern bank of Antietam. The number, wrote Longstreet, “increased, and larger and larger grew the field of blue until it seemed to stretch as far as the eye could see.”

McClellan might have destroyed the southern army that day, or the next — but he hesi­tated, and while he hesitated, Jackson returned, taking up the Confederate right wing, oppo­site Federal general Joseph Hooker. The Federals still outnumbered Lee by about 50,000 men, but it would be harder to defeat him now.

At 6 a.m. on the morning of September 17, 1862, Hooker’s division emerged from the woods and began marching across a wide cornfield. Jackson’s men held a rise on which stood a white-washed Dunker Church. (The Dunkers were a pacifist German sect, so named because they baptized adults by immersion.) Exposed to Confederate fire, Hooker’s men nonetheless began to push Jackson’s men back towards the church. Then came the counter­attack — Texans led by John Bell Hood descended on the Yankees, forcing them back across the cornfield. For hours both sides contended for that cornfield, and by 10 a.m., 8,000 lay dead and wounded.

Confederate and Federal dead before the Dunker church on the Antietam battlefield

In the center of the line, two Confederate brigades under Colonel John B. Gordon held a position on a sunken road that soon became known as Bloody Lane. For hours Federals hurled themselves against the Confederates, only to be brutally cut down, charge after charge. Finally, some New Yorkers found a rise from which they could fire down on the Confederates in the Sunken Road and began “shootin them like sheep in a pen.” Under such blistering fire, the Confederate center broke and retreated. The day could have been McClellan’s, but he, again, hesitated to press his advantage.

On the extreme Confederate right, General Ambrose Burnside with 12,500 Federal troops contended with General Robert A. Toombs for a stone bridge over the Antietam. Though vastly outnumbered, Toombs’ 400 men com­manded a butte overlooking the stone bridge and kept Burnside at bay for three hours. But finally, the Confederate line broke and fled towards Sharpsburg.

Battle at the Stone Bridge

This was the most dangerous moment for Lee, for Burnside’s men could cut off his line of retreat and destroy his army. But then, to the south, Lee espied a cloud of dust. “Whose troops are those?” he asked his attendant, for he feared they might be Federals. Peering through the spyglass, his attendant answered: “they are flying the Virginia and Confederate flags, sir.” A.P. Hill, wearing the bright red shirt he always wore into battle, was leading 3,000 men from Harper’s Ferry. Many of Hill’s men wore captured blue jackets, so Burnside’s men held-off firing on them. Hill’s men crashed into Burnside’s flank. The beleaguered Burnside asked McClellan for reinforce­ments but received the reply, “It would not be prudent.”

Burnside withdrew to the stone bridge, and night fell. With his line of retreat open, Lee withdrew his army across the Potomac. He had lost 10,318 men, one-fourth of his army. The Federal dead and wounded numbered about 13,000.

Two Civil War Songs

The first song, “We’ll Fight for Uncle Sam,” is a version of an Irish folk song. The second, “The Kentucky Confederate Battle Anthem,” is typical of American songs of the time. 

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