Antietam or Sharpsburg: A bloody, bloody day in 1862

Antietam's anniversary is September 17, a day of carnage. Photo: Antietam cannons still stand at the ready on the historic battlefield

VIENNA, Va., September 17, 2013 — The biggest battle with a double name has its 151st anniversary today, though a sad day it was and is in many respects to Civil War enthusiasts, scholars and writers. The North named their battles after rivers, creeks or other bodies of water, hence Antietam for the creek, while the South named the battles after the nearest town, hence the little town of Sharpsburg, Md. The two identifying names have for over a century, each side claiming to be the “right one.”

Antietam also claims the prize as the bloodiest one day battle during the four year conflict, and some say that it took many later battles to ever equal the September 17 dismal record of casualties. According to the National Park Service the total casualties were 12,400 Union men and 10,320 Confederates, for a total of 22,720 soldiers in that single battle.

Battle of Antietam/Sharpsburg

To this day when you walk down “Bloody Lane” on the battlefield, there are those who will tell you they feel strange things. A Union lady friend claims that she thinks the dead men are “after her,” while many others try to convince her that after all these years, she has been forgiven.

No Sure Winner

The amazing thing is after all those deaths and all of the bloody carnage, the battle was a draw. Strategically, it was both a Union victory and a Union tragedy.

As the battle wound down, Gen. George “Little Mac” McClellan and his men allowed General Robert E. Lee and his troops to escape out of Maryland and go on to continue the fight another day. Had he stopped Lee right there, the War might have been shortened considerably. As it was, Lee saw first-hand that the troops of the Confederacy could not survive the type of losses the battle had produced and that his planned Maryland Campaign had failed. 

The Union had achieved a sufficient victory that President Abraham Lincoln issued a Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation on September 23, 1862. While this paper did not achieve anything since no slaves were freed, it did warn the slave owners living in states considered “still in Rebellion on January 1, 1863” that their “living property” would be declared “forever free.”

Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee

This was, in a strong sense, a more stern approach than what he had said on the previous August 23, 1862, to editor Horace Greely who had criticized Lincoln for not taking a stronger stance. Lincoln wrote in a letter, three days later:

“…My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or destroy Slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slave, I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves, I would do it; and if I could do it by freeing some and leaving others alone, I would also do that. What I do about Slavery and the colored race, I do believe it helps to save this Union; and what I forbear, I forebear because I do not believe it would help to save the Union….”

Cigars and the Lost Order 191

To a great extent, the noted battle came about through a fluke, which has never been adequately explained. General Lee drew up his Special Order No. 191, which gave in great detail his plan for opening the invasion of the North, via the little creek near Sharpsburg, and distributed copies of it to his main generals.

Gen. Stonewall Jackson copied a set for Gen. Daniel Harvey Hill, but he had already seen the order, so he tossed it aside. On September 13, Union troops arrived and took over the campground that Hill had just left. It was there than a Union private, W. B. Mitchell of the 27th Indiana, found the discarded document addressed to Hill, wrapped around some cigars. It took but a minute for Private Mitchell glanced at it and realized it was a lot more important than cigars and he gave it to his next in command, who sent it to Gen. McClellan.

In McClellan’s eyes, it was a bad plan. Lee would have split his forces into two segments, leaving the center apparently unguarded. Jackson would head for Harpers Ferry, and General James Longstreet would immediately leave for Hagerstown, Md.

Operating under some incorrect information, McClellan thought Lee had more troops than he did and this might be a carefully planned trap. So his troops took up the cudgel and fought through three gaps in South Mountain, which were defended by D.H. Hill’s Confederates, totally out-numbered. However, it gave Lee time to pull his troops together just west of Antietam Creek. And the battle ensued with quick attacks.

Union Gen. George B. McClellan

No Follow-up for McClellan

McClellan’s troops outnumbered the Confederate and were able to drive the Rebels back to the outskirts of Sharpsburg. McClellan could not accept the fact that he was holding all the advantages, and when Lee’s troops began to withdraw, he made no effort to follow them.

As to the impact on the area from Dunkard Church and Farmer Miller’s cornfield to Bloody Lane and Burnside Bridge, the battle impacted the average person of Sharpsburg as nothing before had.

Today the battle area is the site of a wonderful illumination held each December with a marked roadway through the area. While traffic is definitely a hazard, it is well worth the time and trouble to see this sight. The ongoing glow of 23,000 candles around the course, signifying the deaths on that day, bring home to the visitors the terrible toll exacted thus exacted.

Addendum: A Tribute

Today I claim a point of personal privilege to bring to the Civil War world far and near, some sad news. For many years now, enthusiasts over a wide area have sat in a Civil War Chat Room to share with a remarkable gentleman who died September 12 at age 73, Richard “Shotgun” Weeks of Herndon, Va.

And while many may not have met him, they know of his web site called American Civil War Home Page, probably the most extensive collection of information, subject matter, opinion, and lecture material in the U. S. on the subject.

A veteran of two tours in Vietnam, “Shotgun” led numerous “muster groups,” where a large contingent of his readers, near and far, would gather annually at a given battle place, to walk the grounds and experience the conditions of that battle, on which he would lecture, hand out maps, and generally be a walking encyclopedia of knowledge.

Shotgun Weeks

Shotgun was never too busy to answer a question, and while his demeanor could be reliably brusque when a middle or high school student seemed to want him to “just give me a few facts,” which meant “write my paper for me,” he went on to more demanding requests.

Sitting out at Second Manassas on a boiling hot July day, his temper never rose. He was the “coolest” person there, as he lectured on one of his favorite subjects. 

He left a wife, Peggy who just died this past week, a son, Michael, and a daughter, Michele; another son, Richard, Jr., predeceased him. If all opinions are correct, when September 17 arrives, Richard “Shotgun” Weeks will be sitting on a fluffy cloud, asking McClellan why he didn’t complete the chase and fussing at the young Indiana private for picking up those Lost Orders. 

Rest in peace, old friend, may choirs of angels guide you to your rest.

Read more of Martha’s columns at The Civil War at the Communities at the Washington Times. Follow her on Face Book or LinkedIn at Martha Boltz, and by email at   

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Martha M. Boltz

Martha Boltz is a frequent contributor  to the long running Civil War features in The Washington Times America At War feature in the print and online editions. She has been a regular contributor to the original Civil War Page and its successor page since 1994, and is a civil war buff, historian, and writer. "Someone said that if we don't learn about the past, we are condemned to repeat it," she said, "and there are lessons of all sorts inherent in this bloody four-year period of our country's history."  She is a member of several heritage and lineage groups, as well as the Montgomery County Civil War Round Table. Her standing invitation is, "come on down - check the blog - send me your comments and let's have fun with its history and maybe learn something at the same time."


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