Location: Sharpsburg, Maryland
Webpage: National Park Service
General Description: After defeating one Union army surrounding Richmond and a second Union army at the second battle of Manassas, the new Confederate General, Robert E. Lee, had the Union forces racing back to defend Washington D.C. Rather than attacking D.C., General Lee decided to take his 40,000 Confederate forces north into Maryland with the intent of giving the North a defeat in its own territory at Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. This would not only put pressure on the North to end the war, but would also convince European powers, notably France, to recognize the new Confederacy and hopefully send assistance. However, there was still a 12,500 man Union garrison at Harpers Ferry which threatened to cut off supply and communication lines. So, General Lee divided his army into three. Part of General Longstreet’s command went to Hagerstown, Maryland near Pennsylvania, three columns under General “Stonewall” Jackson surrounded Harpers Ferry, and a third force under General Hill guarded South Mountain gaps near Boonsboro, Maryland. Hearing that the Confederates were moving into Maryland rather than attacking D.C., General McClellan led the Army of the Potomac into Frederick, Maryland just as the last of the Confederate soldiers were departing on September 12, 1861. Over the next three days a series of events would draw all these forces together into the bloodiest one day battle of the Civil War. On September 13 a Union soldier found a copy of Lee’s Special Order 191 which gave his plans of operations and McClellan knew it was time to strike. On September 14 Union troops engaged the Confederates under General Hill in gaps on South Mountains driving them from the gaps. After learning that General Jackson had taken Harpers Ferry, General Lee decided to make a stand at Sharpsburg, Maryland along Antietam Creek. On September 15 General Lee positioned his army along a ridge west of Antietam Creek with General Longstreet commanding the center and right, and General Jackson holding the left. On September 15 and 16 General McClellan deployed his forces east of the creek. On September 17 the 12-hour battle began at dawn with fighting throughout the day all along the battle lines. For nearly 3 hours Hooker and Jackson fought back and forth across a 24 acre cornfield and the woods surrounding. The Confederate center was held for 3 hours by 2200 soldiers against nearly 10,000 Union troops at the Sunken Road, later called Bloody Lane due to the number of casualties in the road once the Union forces turned the flank and were able to shoot along the road. The right of the Confederate line was held by a small force of 500 Confederate sharpshooters who held a bluff above the Lower Bridge for almost the entire day. When this position was finally overrun by the Union forces late in the day, General Lee’s army faced the real possibility of being surrounded and was saved by Confederate General Hill’s Light Division that had just returned from Harpers Ferry where they had been dealing with the surrender of the Union forces. General Lee was able to retreat back to Virginia. Or the nearly 100,000 soldiers engaged in the battle, nearly 23,000 were killed, wounded, or missing making this the single most bloodiest day of the Civil War.
1) We had the advantage of arriving just in time for the Ranger’s talk which they conduct in a panoramic room above the Visitor Center. From here the Ranger could point out all the important features of the battlefield including South Mountain, the cornfield, and Bloody Lane. The lower bridge across Antietam Creek, which was the right end of the Confederate lines was not visible from this vantage point, but you could see its approximate location. The Ranger provided excellent background for the battle along with a brief history of each of the major players on both sides. When visiting any National Park, I strongly recommend taking advantage of any Ranger talk as it adds enormously to the experience.
2) Although the NPS continues to plant corn in the “Cornfield” most of the “North Woods” and nearly all of the “East Woods” are gone. The NPS has now planted trees into these areas, so that in about 25-30 years it will look more like that conditions during the battle.
3) The most impressive feature of the battlefield and the one vivid memory that I have from our visit 10 years ago was the Sunken Road (Bloody Lane). Over the many years of traffic this road had eroded down to where it had banks 5 feet and more on either side. Along with the split rail fences this provided a perfect cover for the Confederate soldiers to hold off nearly 5 times the number of Union troops. This was true for about 3 hours until the Union troops were able to turn the right flank of the road and began to shoot down the road. They could hardly missing someone and the Confederates were in a deathtrap! I recommend climbing up the observation tower at the Sunken Road as it provides a very good perspective down along the Sunken Road and to give a better sense of the length of the battlefield since this was the center of the line.
4) The Lower Bridge is notable for two reasons. First, is the bridge itself which is the original stone bridge across the creek and even has a sycamore tree on the east bank that was a young tree during the war (you can see it in the photographs taken just after the battle). Second, the bluff on the west bank that a very small force of Confederate forces held the bridge for just about the entire day. They probably would have held out except they ran low on ammunition causing the Union forces to finally storm across the bridge and drive them from the bluff.