Today’s column is a follow-up to one last week about lost cigars wrapped in a hand-written copy of orders from Gen. Robert E. Lee to his generals during a Civil War campaign in western Maryland.
Lee, the Confederate commander, was maneuvering against Gen. George B. McClellan, who was handed a golden opportunity when two of his soldiers found the orders and delivered them to his headquarters. But wars are fought by humans, and humans make bad decisions and mistakes, which McClellan did. Although historians say he did not doubt the orders, he misjudged how many men Lee had under his command, thinking Lee had many more than he had.
A possible reason for McClellan’s misjudgment could be that during Lee’s march through Maryland, his army was masked by the vast South Mountain and McClellan had scant knowledge about his movements. Add to that the fact McClellan was known in the Army as being cautious to a fault, slow to make a decision, and then slow to act.
So you have in the neighborhood of 140,000 men with guns moving toward each other. Elements of the opposing forces began meeting along Antietam Creek. Lee was attempting an invasion of the north, and McClellan’s mission was to halt such an invasion.
When Lee was informed of the lost orders, he readjusted his lines, believing for sure McClellan would immediately attack, which McClellan didn’t. Small forces maneuvered and skirmished for a day or two until Lee’s scattered troops arrived in one place. Then he adjusted his plans when McClellan did not attack.
Finally, when Lee was prepared, McClellan ordered an attack on Sept. 17, 1862, in what became known to history as the Battle of Antietam. It was not one battle in one place, but rather three different battles lumped under one name. One phase was against Gen. Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson’s troops around Dunker Church, another in the West Woods and a third in and around local farmer David Miller’s cornfield.
The battle lasted only one day, beginning at dawn on Sept. 17 and ending by early evening. As Union troops charged, a Confederate survivor said “With flags flying and the long, unfaltering lines rising and falling as they crossed the rolling fields, it looked as though nothing could stop them.”
But a Union survivor later said “The Confederate fire was like a scythe running through our line.”
That’s an interesting perspective from each side.
It took a while to determine the dead, but when it was done, the Battle of Antietam had become, and remains, the deadliest day in U.S. military history. Of some 70,000 Union troops engaged, nearly 13,000 were killed, wounded or missing. Of 40,000 Confederates, the loss was almost as great. One source totaled casualties at almost 23,000 men.
With losses like that, there was no second day of the battle. Although Lee awaited new attacks on Sept. 18, the uber cautious McClellan had withdrawn his troops across the Potomac River. Officially, the battle was listed as a draw, not based on the casualty figures, but on the fact that on Sept. 18, when no further Union attacks came, Lee began to retreat his forces back into Virginia.
Although all agreed the battle was a draw, Lee’s retreat gave President Abraham Lincoln the opportunity to strike a psychological blow by issuing the Emancipation Proclamation on Sept. 22. And it all happened 155 years ago.
John Reichley is a retired Army officer and Department of the Army civilian employee.