The Battle of Antietam: The Bloodiest Day

This book by Ted Alexander, who was the Chief Historian at Antietam National Battlefield, comes to us from The History Press’ Civil War Sesquicentennial Series. It’s a short book, able to be read in a single sitting, and provides a fine introduction to the battle. He sets the stage by providing a very short precis of the war up to the point of the Maryland Campaign, and quickly goes over the Battle of South Mountain which preceded Antietam, along with the surrender of Harpers Ferry. “The Battle of South Mountain,” he tells us, “marked the beginning of the end for Lee’s invasion. The Federal pressure brought to bear there forced Lee to concentrate his forces at Sharpsburg, Maryland, near the Potomac, for a quick retreat back to Virginia.” [p. 23] He includes the makeup of the two armies, including a little bit of demographics. “The famed Iron Brigade boasted Germans, Norwegians and Métis (men of French Canadian and Indian descent). Recent research by Iron Brigade scholar Lance Herdegen has uncovered the existence of at least two mulattos who passed for whites and were serving in the ranks. In recent years, the role of African Americans serving in the ranks of the Confederate army has been exaggerated. However, there are accounts of servants taking up arms alongside their masters in combat. And it would appear that a few could be found here and there serving in the Confederate army. For example, Charles Lutz, the son of a white father and a mulatto mother, served in Company F, 8th Louisiana Infantry, and fought at Antietam. Lutz, however, was the exception rather than the rule.” [p. 26]

In speaking of the Union army’s makeup, Alexander wrote, “McClellan’s army was not the same force that had served in the Peninsula Campaign, nor was it the Army of the Potomac that would go on to glory at Gettysburg and other battles. At Antietam, McClellan had the Second, Fifth and Sixth Corps of his original Army of the Potomac. Two corps from Pope’s ill-fated Army of Virginia were also in the fold. They became the First and Twelfth Corps. While the Eleventh Corps was kept back to guard Washington, the other two played key roles in opening the Battle of Antietam. The Ninth Corps comprised Major General Ambrose Burnside’s unattached Carolina Expeditionary Force and the Kanawha Division from western Virginia.” [p. 28] He tells us, “The quality of command and combat efficiency made the Army of the Potomac, numbering about 86,000, a patchwork force. The average Union regiment at Antietam had 346 men. Many of the new regiments had about 800 men. About one-fourth of McClellan’s army was made up of raw recruits. These included ‘nine-month men,’ who were raised to cover the shortages caused by the War Department’s premature and overoptimistic closing of recruiting offices that summer. Eighteen of these new regiments, about fifteen thousand men, became part of the army just prior to the march to Antietam. Another five thousand new recruits were added to the ranks of existing regiments as replacements, lacked training and hindered the army by slowing it down on the march. Their ignorance of drill and firearms often proved fatal at the tactical level.” [p. 29] He also gets into the uneven quality of McClellan’s major subordinate commanders. He does a similar analysis for the confederates, including this about their logistics: “A major cause of the ragged appearance of Lincoln’s men was the inadequate supply system of the Confederate army. In the late summer of 1862, many Confederate regiments were still operating under the so-called commutation system of clothing supply. This system gave responsibility to each company commander for clothing his troops. The officer was to then seek reimbursement from the government. Individual Confederate states also undertook various measures to clothe their men, while private citizens got in on the act by raising money for uniforms. Meanwhile, the Confederate government was in the process of establishing quartermaster depots. However, it was not until late 1862 and early 1863, too late for Antietam, that Confederate authorities committed themselves to clothing their troops by direct government issue.” [p. 34] Alexander next discusses the armaments of the two armies, the cavalry, and more,  on the supply situation.

After a discussion of Sharpsburg and its surrounding area, Alexander gets to the fighting. He talks about Joseph Hooker’s movement across the Antietam Creek on the evening of September 16. “Many historians have criticized McClellan for ‘signaling his punch’ by sending Hooker and Mansfield to this sector on the sixteenth. However, this movement caused Lee to shift a large portion of his army to that part of the field, weakening his center and right flank. Also, Hooker’s blocking of the Hagerstown Pike seriously restricted Lee’s movements and possibly closed the final door of opportunity to move north to Hagerstown and beyond.” [p. 55] He tells us McClellan’s battle plan was complex and confusing, then says, “McClellan’s instructions to his corps commanders were often ambiguous, and he never got them together for a council of war. As a result, from the Union perspective, the Battle of Antietam quickly devolved into a battle of uncoordinated piecemeal assaults, often at the regimental or brigade level. This would allow Lee the opportunity to use his excellent interior lines via the Hagerstown Pike to shift troops back and forth to meet the various Union threats.” [p. 56]

Alexander tells the story of the fighting on September 17 in a mere 41 pages, with excellent maps drawn by Steve Stanley, a noted cartographer. His descriptions are clear, enabling us to understand the movements of the troops and what happened during the battle. He follows this with a discussion of the aftermath of the battle, Lincoln’s issuing the Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation, and how the veterans remembered and commemorated the sacrifices of their comrades.

This book is an excellent introduction to the Battle of Antietam, providing the student a solid framework to understand the battle and to build on with further reading. I can highly recommend it.

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