The West Woods and Bloody Cornfield, Antietam National Battlefield, Maryland (photo by Darin Boville)
If there is a day that needs to be a holiday that day is today. One hundred and fifty years ago Union and Confederate forces faced each other just outside the small town of Sharpsburg, Maryland, and changed the course–and the very cause–of the Civil War. It was the bloodiest day of the entire war, with more casualties than D-Day and 9-11 combined. Yet it is largely forgotten.
In honor of this occasion I’d like to share with you two extended excerpts from my essay, Antietam, written in 2004.
First, the South’s hopes for victory:
Earlier that year, the Union army had been camped within earshot of the Confederate capitol of Richmond, Virginia. Union victory seemed assured. By the Fall, in a stunning reversal, Lee had chased the Union forces all the way back to Washington, DC. Again Lincoln felt assured, but only of the defeat of his party in the upcoming mid-term congressional elections. He talked of ending the war after the election but before the more pro-southern opposition party took office in order to negotiate better terms for the North.
Lee and Jefferson Davis, the President of the Confederate States, had high hopes for Lee’s invasion of northern territory. It would, above all, give the final assurances to England and France that the Northern cause was hopeless and that the only option to avoid a long, pointless, costly, and trade-disrupting war was a settlement separating the two nations and preserving the peculiar institution of slavery in the South. Attack into the north, hit a major trading center like Harrisburg, Pennsylvania or Baltimore, demoralize the North even further and then sue for peace. It probably would have worked.
But, uncharacteristically, the Union army moved on Lee from Washington. George B. McClellan, the leader of the Northern armies, was known to excel in preparing soldiers for battle but lacked a will to actually fight. So the timely movement of his forces was something of a surprise. Lee’s main army was in Frederick, Maryland when McClellan suddenly advanced, but important parts of the Confederate force were scattered at the time, partly in an attack on the Union garrison in the rear at Harper’s Ferry, West Virginia.
So it was that day in mid-September, 1862, Lee’s troops took a stand with their backs to the Antietam Creek, hoping for yet another victory against their larger Union opponent. Hoping to complete their march northward for all the world to see.
Second, Lincoln waits:
Lincoln wrote his Emancipation Proclamation several months before he issued it. This was a dangerous thing, this Proclamation. The North was not unified in its opposition to slavery in the South. For that reason Lincoln had been clear up to that point that the war was a war about reunification, about turning back the clock and putting the country back together again how it was before the war, not about ending slavery. The Emancipation Proclamation would change all that, making it official policy that one of the primary goals of the war was to abolish slavery in all the states. It was no longer possible for the North and South to kiss and make up.
He wrote it and then put it in a drawer, still secret from all but his advisors. Lee was pushing Lincoln’s armies northward. Defeat followed defeat. Despondency set in. Issuing such a bold policy in the face of such losses would look foolish and weak. So Lincoln waited for a victory. And he waited. And then came Antietam.