In the time that I am writing every stalk of corn in the northern and greater part of the field was cut as closely as could have been done with a knife, and the slain lay in rows precisely as they had stood in their ranks a few moments before. It was never my fortune to witness a more bloody, dismal battlefield.
—Maj. Gen. Joseph Hooker, Commander, I Corps, Army of the Potomac
The battlefield at Antietam is known among Civil War historians as the site that saw the most American bloodshed in a single day: On September 17,1862, more than 23,000 men were killed, wounded, or missing. Six Brigadier and Major Generals were killed or mortally wounded during the battle—three from the Union army, three from the Confederates—and a number of generals from each side were seriously injured.
Just 18 days after the Confederate victory at Second Manassas in Virginia, General Lee had decided to invade the North, prompting the first major Civil War engagement on northern soil. Lee moved his army into the western Maryland countryside so his hungry soldiers could get food and purchase clothing and shoes from stores in Frederick. The move also allowed southern farmers to harvest their crops without Union armies getting in the way, which meant the Confederate army would eat well in the winter months. Lee also believed that a strong showing on Northern soil might persuade European nations that the Confederacy was a legitimate force, thus prompting them to come to his aid.
But Lee was outmanned. His forces numbered approximately 40,000-50,000. Although his adversary, Major General George McClellan, had 90,000 men at his service, he believed that Lee had 100,000 men. The South saw some success in the early going, as hundreds of Union soldiers perished in an area that would henceforth be known as Bloody Lane. But the Confederates soon took their own losses and might have been routed if reinforcements had not arrived. Lee had the time and the manpower to recover, but he soon ordered a retreat; had the Union’s leaders been bold enough to pursue the Confederates, they quite possibly could have brought a quicker end to the war.
The battle was probably best considered a draw, but it brought an end to southern momentum. The huge losses incurred by both sides paired with the north’s numerical superiority meant that, in many ways, Antietam amounted to a Confederate loss. Lincoln was emboldened to issue a preliminary proclamation freeing rebel-owned slaves, thus widening the war’s purpose beyond merely enduring the sanctity of the union. Most observers believed the battle sealed the fate of the Confederacy.
Successful local, state, and private efforts to protect Antietam’s historic landscape combined with the parkland itself have preserved about 10,000 acres—one of the most pristine Civil War landscapes in the National Park System—but the area remains threatened by inappropriate development including communication towers on nearby land.
—Scott Kirkwood, NPCA
If You Go
The Antietam visitor center features a museum, bookstore, library, and a 26-minute film. Self-guided tours are available by car, bike, or on foot, tracing an 8.5-mile route through 11 tour stops; the bookstore rents or sells audiotapes to accompany the tour. Antietam National Cemetery marks the sacrifice of 5,000 Union soldiers who gave their lives during the battle.