The Bloodiest Day in US Military History: Antietam
“A great turning point in the war”
September 17, 1862. One hundred and fifty years later, September 17, 1862 remains the bloodiest day in US military history. General Robert E. Lee and the Confederate Army were stopped at Antietam in Maryland by Union General George McClellan and his numerically superior forces. By nightfall 26,000 men were dead, wounded, or missing. The battle was essentially a draw, but during the night of the 18th, Lee withdrew back to Virginia. Lincoln ordered McClellan to pursue him, but McClellan was reluctant to do so.
The famously arrogant McClellan wrote to his wife on September 19, “I have the satisfaction of knowing that God has, in His mercy, a second time made me the instrument for saving the nation.” (1)
Because at the end of the battle, the Union Army controlled the battlefield, Lincoln could claim it as a victory, a victory that afforded him the opportunity he had been waiting for to announce that he would issue the Emancipation Proclamation.
Antietam was the first American battlefield to be photographed before the dead were buried. A photographer working for Mathew Brady arrived on the battlefield shortly after the battle was over. “A month later the sight of [the] pictures on display in Brady’s New York gallery made a public stir. Said The New York Times, ‘If he [Brady] has not brought the bodies and laid them in our dooryards and along the streets, he has done something very like it. . . .'” (2)
Historian James M. McPherson reminds readers “that the battle of Antietam ‘frustrated Confederate hopes for British recognition and precipitated the Emancipation Proclamation. It was one of the war’s great turning points.’ Historian [Gary W.] Gallagher wrote in similar terms about the impact of the Maryland campaign on Confederate fortunes: “‘Lee went north and fought, avoided a series of lurking disasters, and found refuge in the end along the southern bank of the Potomac River. But the military events of mid-September 1962 bore bitter political and diplomatic fruit for the Confederacy. The nature of the conflict changed because of Lee’s Maryland campaign.’ No longer a contest to restore the status quo ante bellum, ‘the new war would admit of no easy reconciliation because the stakes had been raised to encompass the entire social fabric of the South. The war after Antietam would demand a decisive resolution on the battlefield, and that the Confederacy could not achieve.'” (3)
– Submitted by Peter A. Gilbert, Executive Director, Vermont Humanities Council
1. Charles Phillips and Alan Axelrod, My Brother’s Face, p. 56.
2. Philip B. Kunhardt, Jr., Lincoln, An Illustrated Biography, p. 188.
3. “The Net Result of the Campaign Was in Our Favor: Confederate Reaction to the Maryland Campaign,” by Gary W. Gallagher, in America’s War, Talking About the Civil War and Emancipation on their 150th Anniversaries, Edward L. Ayers, ed., pp. 196-97.
Anitietam National Battlefield, National Park Service
Antietam, Civil War Trust
The Battle of Antietam (Sharpsburg), CivilWarHome.com
Antietam Quiz, Civil War Trust