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Union troops discover Rebels’ Antietam battle plan

Union troops discover Rebels’ Antietam battle plan

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Union soldiers find a copy of Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s orders detailing the Confederates’ plan for the Antietam campaign near Frederick, Maryland. But Union General George B. McClellan was slow to act, and the advantage the intelligence provided was lost.

On the morning of September 13, the 27th Indiana rested in a meadow outside of Frederick, Maryland, which had served as the site of a Confederate camp a few days before. Sergeant John Bloss and Corporal Barton W. Mitchell found a piece of paper wrapped around three cigars. The paper was addressed to Confederate General D.H. Hill. Its title read, “Special Order No. 191, Headquarters, Army of Northern Virginia.” Realizing that they had discovered a copy of the Confederate operation plan, Bloss and Mitchell quickly passed it up the chain of command. By chance, the division adjutant general, Samuel Pittman, recognized the handwriting on the orders as that of a colleague from the prewar army, Robert Chilton, who was the adjutant general to Robert E. Lee.

Pittman took the order to McClellan. The Union commander had spent the previous week mystified by Lee’s operations, but now the Confederate plan was clear. He reportedly gloated, “Here is a paper with which if I cannot whip Bobbie Lee, I will be willing to go home.” McClellan now knew that Lee’s forces were split into five parts and scattered over a 30-mile stretch, with the Potomac River in between. At least eight miles separated each piece of Lee’s army, and McClellan was just a dozen miles from the nearest Confederate unit at South Mountain. Bruce Catton, the noted Civil War historian, observed that no general in the war “was ever given so fair a chance to destroy the opposing army one piece at a time.”

Yet McClellan squandered the opportunity. His initial jubilation was overtaken by his caution. He believed that Lee possessed a far greater number of troops than the Confederates actually had, despite the fact that the Maryland invasion resulted in a high rate of desertion among the Southerners. McClellan was also excruciatingly slow to respond to the information in the so-called Lost Order. He took 18 hours to set his army in motion, marching toward Turner’s Gap and Crampton’s Gap in South Mountain, a 50-mile long ridge that was part of the Blue Ridge Mountains.

Lee, who was alerted to the approaching Federals, sent troops to plug the gaps, allowing him time to gather his scattered units.

Battle of Antietam: Carnage in a Cornfield

On Sunday night, September 14, 1862, Confederate General Robert E. Lee issued orders for his much scattered commands to rally at Sharpsburg, Maryland. His ambitious plans to cut the railroad bridge near Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, had been thwarted by Major General George McClellan’s unusually quick response to his raid into Maryland. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia, thinly spread across south-central Maryland and northeastern Virginia, faced the very real threat of being beaten in detail.

All spring and summer the Confederate Army had stymied its blue-frocked adversaries, first in the Peninsula Campaign, where McClellan’s Army of the Potomac was repulsed before Richmond, and then during the summer at Cedar Mountain and Second Manassas, where Maj. Gen. John Pope’s ill-starred Army of Virginia was routed by the swift-marching Rebels.

Now it was Lee who was caught short. Major Generals James Longstreet and D.H. Hill had barely held the passes on South Mountain two days earlier the heroism of their worn and hungry troops had given Lee time to reunite his army. It was an urgent matter that required Maj. Gen. Thomas J. Jackson to march his command all night from Harpers Ferry. It was a hard march that left stragglers all the way from Harpers Ferry to Sharpsburg–even Stonewall referred to it as’severe.’

The divisions of Longstreet and Hill had arrived first and established their lines on what would be the Confederate right, due west of Antietam Creek and east of Sharpsburg. Major General Lafayette McLaw’s division from Longstreet’s command, assigned to Jackson for the Harpers Ferry siege, had been forced to turn and fight Maj. Gen. William B. Franklin’s VI Corps at Crampton’s Gap as a result his division would be late in arriving. Major General A.P. Hill’s famed ‘Light Division’ had been assigned the responsibility of paroling Federal prisoners taken at Harpers Ferry and shipping captured war materiel south. It seemed doubtful the division would be able to make it up the following day.

On the morning of Tuesday, September 16, McClellan had nearly 60,000 soldiers facing Lee’s 15,000. His heavy 20-pound Parrott rifles were sending case shot across the creek, feeling out the enemy. As Longstreet ordered a vigorous response– more for bluff than effect–Lee realized his one chance for salvation lay with McClellan’s reverting to his old, timid behavior. McClellan did not disappoint him. Across the creek, the commander of the Federal Army rode about on his horse, Dan Webster, taking the salutes of his admiring infantry and superbly equipped artillery. His boys would pay dearly for their general’s indecisiveness.

By noon, Jackson and Brig. Gen. John Walker began to arrive, taking up the Confederate line on the left along the Hagerstown Pike near Dunker Church, north of town, then sweeping southeasterly to a worn farm lane on the Mumma property a mile away. The rest of the afternoon, well into the evening, Confederate stragglers came in. Neither slackers nor deserters, these were the sick and starving who had been unable to keep up with the swift-marching columns.

Lee’s ranks had been thinned by casualties, sickness and large-scale desertions, but he had the advantage of position. He’d selected an excellent defensive field in which to fight. The lay of the land permitted the Rebels the opportunity to transfer troops under cover and allowed them to select the most advantageous artillery positions.

On the left flank, Maj. Gen. J.E.B. (‘Jeb’) Stuart placed Brig. Gen. Fitz Lee’s cavalry brigade with his three batteries of Captain John Pelham’s Horse Artillery and three additional batteries on an unpretentious hillock known locally as Nicodemus Hill. East of the Hagerstown Pike, Brig. Gen. Evander M. Law’s brigade had taken position in the East Woods. Law sent his videttes well to the north and east, keeping a close eye on the Upper Bridge.

By 10 p.m. the artillery fire had nearly ceased, and only intermittent musketry ravaged the night air. Just after midnight it began to rain, a drizzle at first, then a cloudburst that drenched both armies and made everyone miserable. However, the men of Brig. Gen. John Bell Hood’s division were elated they had been given permission to withdraw to the West Woods and cook rations. It would be the first time in nearly three days that the case-hardened soldiers would have the opportunity to eat a warm meal.

Throughout the night, the sudden flash of musketry or the roar of cannon deprived everyone of a decent night’s rest. The opposing soldiers made peace with their God, wrote letters to loved ones, and waited. The battle would be joined in the morning.

Between the two armies lay a cornfield owned by David R. Miller. The cornstalks were turning from green to brown, ready to be harvested, 30 acres of corn fodder for Miller’s cattle, perhaps a cash crop that would provide a few of the essentials for his family. Whatever plans Miller had for his corn were destined to go awry his cornfield would soon be transformed into an altar where men in blue and gray would sacrifice their all for honor, duty, and love of regiment.

Fog shrouded the field the next morning, and artillerists on both sides had to wait until the rising sun had burnt off enough fog to permit sighting. Just after dawn, the Confederate guns at Dunker Church, Nicodemus Hill and the North Woods, and the Federal reserve artillery across Antietam Creek, opened with a cacophonous roar, sounding the knell for America’s bloodiest day.

Brigadier General A.R. Lawton’s division had replaced Hood during the night to his left, Brig. Gen. John R. Jones’ soldiers took up the line sweeping across the cornfield and Hagerstown Pike into the northern tip of the West Woods. Jackson’s nearly 8,000 troops were evenly matched with Union Maj. Gen. Joseph Hooker’s 8,500 effectives–the Confederate advantage lay with their artillery. Pelham’s guns on Nicodemus Hill could take any massed infantry moving south out of the North Woods in a murderous flanking fire. Colonel S.D. Lee’s guns at Dunker Church would be able to strike them head-on, and both positions would easily be able to bracket any troops within the area of the cornfield. Jackson was quick to understand the importance of Nicodemus Hill and ordered Brig. Gen. Jubal Early to move his brigade in support of the artillery.

The rattle of skirmish fire and the thunderous roar of salvos fired by battalion filled the air as the Union I Corps entered the North Woods. Brigadier General Abner Doubleday’s 1st Division followed his 4th Brigade, commanded by Brig. Gen. John Gibbon, moving parallel with the Hagerstown Pike. On his left, Brig. Gen. James B. Rickett’s 2nd Division followed the 1st Brigade, commanded by Brig. Gen. Abram Duryea. Immediately in the rear, Brig. Gen. George Meade’s 3rd Division stood ready to support the advance.

Pelham’s canoneers quickly got the range on Gibbon’s leading regiments. The 6th Wisconsin began taking heavy fire a shell burst among the ranks, killing two men and knocking down 11 others. The regiment never faltered, however, closing ranks and continuing forward. Just south of their position, Hooker had detected the flash of sunlight reflecting off bayonets and ordered up two batteries of Federal artillery. Battery F, 1st Pennsylvania Light Artillery, and the Independent Pennsylvania Battery each boasted four 3-inch rifled guns. Lawton’s and Jones’ skirmish line opened on the cannoneers with galling and accurate musket fire that dropped horses and men with fearful rapidity.

Still, the two Federal batteries threw back the Rebel skirmish line, leaving mangled corpses and wounded scattered throughout the cornfield. The way had been cleared, or so the Federal infantry hoped, for an advance, and the order to go forward was sounded by buglers and drummers. Regimental color companies with their prized battle flags took the lead, while taut-faced infantrymen with their kepis and slouch hats pushed hard against their heads, marched deliberately across Mr. Miller’s clover field toward the cornfield and their destiny.

On the right, Gibbon had maneuvered the 4th Brigade, the famed ‘Iron Brigade,’ into an assault formation, with the 6th and 2nd Wisconsin leading and the 7th and 19th Indiana in close support. On Gibbon’s left, Duryea’s brigade debouched from the North Woods nearly at the same time, moving across the clover field purposefully, taking incoming shells and musketry, but still advancing.

Stonewall Jackson faced the foe with only Hood’s division as reserve. In permitting Hood’s withdrawal from the line during the night, Jackson had secured a promise from the brigadier that his command would come without delay when summoned. East of the Hagerstown Pike, Lawton’s brigade of Georgians, commanded by Colonel Marcellus Douglas, followed by Brig. Gen. Harry Hays’ five Louisiana regiments, swept across the southern section of the cornfield toward the Smoketown Road, where Brig. Gen. Issac Trimble’s brigade, commanded by Colonel James A. Walker, held the line all the way to the Mumma Farm Lane. West of the pike, Colonel A.J. Grigsby’s brigade formed a line running west toward the Potomac River, with Colonel B.T. Johnson’s brigade on their left.

The front ranks of Duryea’s Federal brigade came on steadily through the cornfield, with their muskets leveled at the waist. The rear ranks carried their rifles over their shoulders to prevent injuring those in front. All plodded forward with a determination that impressed their Southern foes. Colonel Walter Phelp’s 1st Brigade was closing fast on Gibbon’s boys and the massed Federal formations were easy targets for the Confederate artillery that had long since bracketed the cornfield. The Union soldiers moved forward, heads bent against the torrent of shells and musketry being poured into them, their regimental flags being shot to pieces and friends and messmates knocked down with every step.

Duryea’s three regiments made for the cornfield’s southern edge, wavering with each incoming volley fired into them by the Rebels. Suddenly, Lawton’s troops rose up en masse and fired point-blank into their thinned ranks. The Federals staggered to the left and made for the fence along the Smoketown Road. But Duryea’s brigade was already used up. In its 20-minute journey through the cornfield, the brigade had lost nearly 300 men.

Lieutenant Colonel Edward Bragg’s 6th Wisconsin straddled the pike, with five companies on the west side of the road and the remainder spread eastward. The two Rebel brigades on their right opened a deadly enfilade fire that swept the ranks of Bragg’s exposed troopers. The Southerners were fighting desperately for control of the cornfield. Confederates, individually and in groups, crept through the bloodstained stubble, fog and battlesmoke, laying ambushes, killing at point-blank range, and escaping into the gray-white mist to repeat their deadly game. The fighting became frenzied, neither side knowing when the enemy might suddenly appear out of the fog.

The heavy, close-in fighting completely halted Gibbon’s advance. Jones’ and Grigsby’s brigades moved left and charged to the west side of the pike fence, firing volleys into the 6th Wisconsin’s exposed flank and the forward position of the 2nd Wisconsin. Across the road, in the northern portion of the West Woods, the 7th Wisconsin and 19th Indiana saw their comrades’ predicament and poured a devastating fire into the Confederates. The gray lines were swept with heavy musket and cannon fire. The two Rebel brigades quickly deteriorated, struck from three sides by musketry and artillery, and the order to withdraw was quickly given and carried out.

First Division commander Abner Doubleday ordered Brig. Gen. Marsena Patrick to move his brigade across the pike and drive into the West Woods. As the movement was being made, Patrick picked up the 7th Wisconsin and 19th Indiana, adding weight to the assault.

Jackson’s left and center were in imminent danger of collapse. At great sacrifice, Doubleday’s 1st Division had punched a salient in Jackson’s line, its epicenter in the southwest corner of the cornfield. While this looked propitious to McClellan and his staff as they watched through binoculars from the Pry House across the creek, the fact remained that the Federal position within the salient had not been solidified, and four Confederate brigades were still putting up a stiff resistance.

The fighting in the southwest corner of the cornfield became desperate. The pockets and cartridge pouches of the dead and wounded were ransacked, and soldiers handed muskets to those with better shots at the enemy. The smoke, heat and roar of battle deluged the senses, obliterating all rational thought. Men laughed and giggled, screamed and cried. All sense of time was lost, and even the desire for survival was set aside. All that mattered now was the regiment and its colors.

Lieutenant Colonel Bragg was hit by musketry and severely wounded. Command of the 6th Wisconsin devolved on Major Rufus Dawes, a native of Marietta, Ohio, and a fighting officer if ever there was one. On Dawes’ left, Duryea’s brigade was pulling back from the fence along Smoketown Road through the cornfield–Gibbon’s flank was in the air. Phelp’s 1st Brigade moved up in close support of Gibbon as the Iron Brigade wheeled through the bloodstained cornfield parallel with Hagerstown Pike and swept the brave remnant of Jones’ and Grigsby’s Confederates with a deadly fire. The hard-hit Rebels broke and ran the Union gauntlet toward sanctuary in the West Woods.

Across Hagerstown Pike, Jackson sat on his horse in perfect Christian peace as bullets and shell fragments whizzed and whined about him. Couriers and staff officers ran to and from their commander as he sat immobile, seemingly immune to human frailties. Hood would have to go in–he was the only reserve available.

Lawton ordered Hays’ brigade into the gap left by Duryea’s withdrawal. Hays’ men plowed through the cornfield and fired an enfilading volley into the thinning ranks of the 2nd and 6th Wisconsin. The combined efforts of Hays’ and Lawton’s infantry halted the Federal advance and stabilized Jackson’s front.

Hays’ Louisiana Brigade had done its usual ferocious fighting in support of Lawton, but their right-wheel maneuver had exposed their right flank and the fighting had depleted their ammunition pouches. The brigade was helpless when Colonel Richard Coulter’s 3rd Brigade came storming out of the corn stubble, too late to help Duryea, but determined to sweep the field of Rebels. The Federals’ opening volley hit Hays’ line, piling corpses one atop the other. One of the casualties was Colonel Henry Strong, commanding the 6th Louisiana, who was killed while mounted on his beautiful horse. An officer running to his assistance was hit twice, and the command was forced to withdraw, leaving the colonel’s body and possessions behind. A Union infantryman commandeered the colonel’s gloves, and following the battle Alexander Gardner, famed Civil War photographer, captured the colonel’s dead horse for posterity.

It was now just before 7 a.m. Doubleday’s 1st Division had been halted on the south end of the cornfield near Hagerstown Pike, while on his left Rickett’s 2nd Division was being fed into the battle piecemeal and taking a terrible pounding from the Confederates who’d been able to rush troops to trouble spots.

Smoke from the artillery and musketry inundated the field. Soldiers in the thick of the fight were covered with the black, greasy stain of burnt powder, which gave a deadly, ghostlike appearance to the participants. The pungent smell of trampled vegetation, sweat, powder and bodies imposed a surrealistic perception that survivors carried with them the rest of their lives.

Above Dunker Church all that was left of Jackson’s line was a remnant of the old, trusted Stonewall Brigade, under the watchful eye of ‘Old Jack’ himself. The division commander, General Jones, was with the brigade, trying desperately to hold when he was wounded by shrapnel, and command of the division devolved on Brig. Gen. William E. Starke. Starke was moving his brigade out of the West Woods in support of Jackson when he was mortally wounded, and command of the division devolved in turn on Colonel Grigsby. The assault of the two Confederate brigades petered out under a hail of shot and ball on the west side of the pike, where the infantrymen formed behind the fence bordering the road. They fell there by the score, and within a short time their position became untenable and they withdrew into the West Woods.

Gibbon’s and Phelp’s men had checked the Rebel thrust into their flank, but had taken severe losses in return. Now they too were low on ammunition and forced to scour the cartridge pouches of the dead and wounded. Doubleday’s entire division was nearly used up, and supports were not at hand.

Deep in the West Woods, Hood’s little division was still busy preparing rations. Normally this wasn’t an unusual act for Civil War soldiers, especially Rebels, but these men were literally starving. Pressed by forced marches and heavy fighting the past few days, the division had long since eaten up all their victuals and were now about as hungry as heavily armed men could get. But Hood had given his word to Jackson to bring up the command as soon as the request was made and now Jackson was calling. Hood gave the order and the two brigades began to re-form. Men threw down half-cooked pones and bacon or shoved the beginnings of greasy fatback biscuits into their mouths as they moved out.

Hood’s 2,300 men swarmed into the field north of their position at Dunker Church. They halted momentarily and volleyed into Gibbon’s line, reloaded and fired again. Hood’s appearance on the field broke the Federals’ back, and they began to withdraw. The bravest gathered up wounded messmates and fallen battle flags and returned fire as best they could. Evander Law’s brigade swept northeastward with its right anchored on Smoketown Road by the 4th Alabama. On Law’s left and rear, Colonel William T. Wofford’s renowned Texas Brigade came on with two regiments, picking off fleeing Yankees while the 18th Georgia, 1st Texas and Hampton’s Legion charged due north, firing into the enemy as they came.

On the east side of the cornfield the two Union brigades were in full retreat. The 12th Massachusetts, which had fought bravely, took a staggering 67 percent casualties in less than 30 minutes. I Corps gains had been swiftly wiped out, and all that stood between it and annihilation was Meade’s 3rd Division.

Hurriedly, Meade got Robert Anderson’s 3rd Brigade formed along a fence north of the cornfield, with its muskets resting on the bottom rail, just as Hood was ordering Colonel P.A. Works’ 1st Texas over to the left to support Hampton’s Legion. Works soon lost control of the 1st Texas as the men outraced the line and charged straight for Anderson’s position. As the Texans cleared the battle smoke, Anderson ordered, ‘Fire!’ and the brigade’s musketry swept the Texans with deadly accuracy, while Union 12-pounders struck them on the flank, halting the charge and driving them to ground.

Meanwhile, north of the cornfield, Major Dawes was busy rallying the survivors of his beloved 6th Wisconsin. The regimental colors were brought up, the line eagerly formed, and the men sent forward on the double-quick. Dawes’ charge cleared the Texans, who had advanced to within 45 feet of the Union guns, and he ordered several to stay and help the artillerists while the 6th moved on toward the pike. Meade got his remaining two brigades, Colonel Thomas Gallagher’s 3rd and Colonel Albert Magilton’s 2nd, in line and pushed them straight for the 1st Texas. A few hundred yards southwest, someone retrieved the four Federal regiments that 30 minutes earlier had sallied into the West Woods, and directed them toward the left flank. The 7th Wisconsin and 19th Indiana led the assault, supported by the 35th and 21st New York. Their combined musketry soon swept the left flank of the 18th Georgia, Hampton’s Legion and the 4th Texas.

On the northwest corner of the cornfield, the 1st Texas lay dying. The regiment’s casualties were fast approaching 50 percent as the Texans rose up and fired, point-blank, into the 9th Pennsylvania Reserves. The entire color guard was shot down, while all along their line Rebel artillery walked salvos of case shot. The Federal line buckled and swayed but somehow kept coming, closing over their dead and wounded, pressed by the screams of those closing up their files. Nearly out of ammunition, Work tried to get permission from Hood to withdraw, but couldn’t reach him.

Work could see that his supports were under attack and withdrawing and that if he was going to get out at all it would have to be now. He gave the order just as the 9th, 11th and 12th Pennsylvania Reserves fired a volley into his decimated line. Of the 226 soldiers he’d led in the assault, 186 had fallen dead or wounded within 45 minutes. South of his position, the 18th Georgia, Hampton’s Legion and the 4th Texas were also quitting the field. The command had given all that they had–of the 858 effectives in the Texas Brigade, 472 would be listed as casualties in what may well have been the grandest charge of the entire war.

The fearless Butternuts of the 6th North Carolina, the famed Bloody Sixth, held the Confederate right, anchored in the northeastern portion of the East Woods. Hidden in the bushes and among the trees, the 6th awaited the fast approaching 8th Pennsylvania Reserves and at a range of 30 feet opened a fusillade that swept the Pennsylvanians’ ranks and knocked down half the regiment. The Federal assault was quickly renewed, and Law’s left was uncovered, rendering his line untenable and forcing his withdrawal. With Law’s retreat the cornfield was ceded to the I Corps.

Both Jackson and Hooker had one brigade left that hadn’t been heavily used–beyond that the flower of their commands lay strewn among the blood-splattered corn stubble, the fields north and south of the cornfield, the Hagerstown Pike and the East Woods. The field of honor had become a sacrificial slaughter pen, with the cornfield as its gory hub.

Major General Joseph K.F. Mansfield had officially taken over command of the Union XII Corps two days earlier. The corps, Maj. Gen. Nathaniel Bank’s old command, had suffered mightily at the hands of Jackson a few months earlier in the Shenandoah Valley, and its losses had been made up with green regiments, some with only 30 days training, and most from Pennsylvania.

While Mansfield slowly maneuvered the corps toward the front, General D.H. Hill, commanding the Confederate center, led Brig. Gen. Roswell Ripley’s brigade into the void created by the withdrawl of Hood’s decimated division. In the East Woods, the Confederates had a hodgepodge collection of regiments waiting in ambush for any unsuspecting Federals who might wander into their field of fire. They didn’t have to wait long.

Brigadier General Alpheus Williams’ 1st Division led the advance, followed by Brig. Gen. George S. Greene’s 2nd Division. Mansfield had the corps marching in columns of division, which allowed for swift movement but left the command practically defenseless in the face of attack. Williams split his division, sending Brig. Gen. Samuel Crawford’s 1st Brigade due south toward the East Woods and Brig. Gen. George Gordon’s 3rd Brigade toward the North Woods.

Crawford’s six regiments pressed toward the East Woods. The 124th New York, one of the ‘raw’ regiments, inadvertently moved westward and lost touch with the rest of the brigade. The 10th Maine, a veteran outfit, held the lead, and though still in column was returning fire on Rebel skirmishers busily harassing their every step. The ubiquitous Joe Hooker came riding up and shouted to Colonel George Beal, commanding the 10th, that they must hold the woods at all costs. Immediately, Beal disobeyed Mansfield’s order to stay in column and ordered the command to advance by ‘regimental front.’

The Rebels challenging Beal’s 10th Maine were from the 21st Georgia, commanded by Captain James Nisbet. Nisbet’s plan was to fire and fall back, drawing the 10th into an ambush. Accordingly, the 10th was drawn into a slight depression when all of the Georgians’ muskets cracked in the sultry morning air, driving the New Englanders into the ground and halting their advance. Meanwhile, the rest of Crawford’s brigade pressed on.

The 46th Pennsylvania and 28th New York debouched from the East Woods just above the fighting and poured into Miller’s field, while the 128th Pennsylvania, yet another green regiment, came up on the right.

Just as the 128th broke through the tree line of the East Woods, the 4th Alabama poured a devastating fire into their ranks, killing their colonel and second-in-command. Leaderless and in combat for the first time, the Pennsylvanians milled aimlessly about the field, taking killing fire.

At the same time, Ripley got his entire brigade into line of battle after they’d moved north of Smoketown Road. They were moving at the double-quick, making for the southern end of the cornfield, when four Union regiments, the 27th Indiana, 2nd Massachusetts, Pennsylvania Zouaves d’Afrique and 3rd Wisconsin, halted on the northern edge of the cornfield and waited for the 128th Pennsylvania to clear their field of fire. Ripley’s left opened first, driving the remnant of the 19th Indiana northward along Hagerstown Pike and killing the regiment’s commander, Lt. Col. Alois Bachman.

Ripley’s assault struck Meade’s Pennsylvanians and initially drove them back. But Ripley’s right was exposed in the attack, and Crawford’s 12th Corps brigade fired coordinated volleys into his exposed flank, splintering and fragmenting the attack. Williams and officers from other regiments finally got the 128th Pennsylvania into a good line, and when the 3rd North Carolina advanced on them the soldiers, just a few weeks from civilian life, opened fire, sweeping the Rebel line with accurate and murderous musketry.

On the 128th’s left, among the trees and bushes of the East Woods, the 10th Maine was making headway. Fighting with an open front, advancing a few feet at a time, the New Englanders were having some success shoving the three Confederate regiments out of the woods. Captain Ike Turner, commanding the 5th Texas, tried unsuccessfully to get reinforcements or else obtain permission to withdraw from the woods, but could not reach Hood. Meanwhile, the 4th Alabama shot off its last rounds and made for the safety of the West Woods, while the 6th North Carolina moved into position to the left of the 21st Georgia, still contesting the Federal advance.

After leading Ripley’s brigade into the cornfield, D.H. Hill returned to the Mumma Farm Lane and ordered Colonel Alfred Colquitt’s brigade into the battle. As Colquitt’s fine brigade, flushed with victory over Gibbon’s Iron Brigade two days earlier at Turner’s Gap, advanced through the cornfield in support of Ripley, Colonel D.K. McRae’s brigade moved northward parallel to the East Woods, firing as it advanced. Just as McRae’s men entered the cornfield, the 28th Pennsylvania emerged from the woods and swept McRae’s line with a devastating enfilading fire. McRae reported that ‘this produced great confusion. . . it [the brigade] commenced to break and a general panic ensued.’

In the meantime, Colquitt’s infantry was fully engaged. Most of Ripley’s brigade had been knocked down or forced from the field. Two regiments, the 1st and 3rd North Carolina, remained intact, supporting Colquitt and allowing him time to prepare the charge. The colonel got his lines dressed under a murderous crossfire and ordered the command forward. The charge swept northwesterly across the cornfield, picking up speed and ferocity as soldiers were cut down by ball and shell. The battle lines closed over the fallen as the colors moved across the bloodstained cornfield.

On Colquitt’s left, the 13th Alabama struck the 124th Pennsylvania, while on his right the 6th Georgia collided with the 5th Ohio. The Ohioans and Georgians piled into each other so swiftly and furiously that after firing off a round they grappled with muskets, knives and fists. The Ohioans prevailed, driving the Georgians out of the East Woods and into the eastern portion of the cornfield. The 7th and 66th Ohio advanced with the 5th as Colquitt’s line passed across their front.

The 2nd Massachusetts and Pennsylvania Zouaves d’Afrique, posted at the Miller Farm, now formed a line just south of Miller’s backyard and went on the double-quick into the smoke-filled cornfield. On their left, the 3rd Wisconsin and 27th Indiana were hit with well-aimed musketry by the 27th Georgia, but held their line and advanced with the Zouaves.

Not only had Colquitt’s charge been broken, but now he was hard pressed on his front. Unsupported, its ranks being thinned every second, Collquitt’s brigade was deprived of choices. The matter became a question solely of survival, and the Southerners broke into small groups and ran the gauntlet in much the same manner as their fellow Confederates had done earlier. Tears of rage and frustration streamed down Colquitt’s cheeks, but to no avail. The rout could not be halted. They had given their all, just as their predecessors had, but the Army of the Potomac had finally seized Mr. Miller’s cornfield.

This article was written by Robert C. Cheeks and originally appeared in the September 1998 issue of America’s Civil War. For more great articles be sure to subscribe to America’s Civil War magazine today!

Union troops discover Rebels’ Antietam battle plan

TSgt Joe C.

Union soldiers find a copy of Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s orders detailing the Confederates’ plan for the Antietam campaign near Frederick, Maryland. But Union General George B. McClellan was slow to act, and the advantage the intelligence provided was lost.

On the morning of September 13, the 27th Indiana rested in a meadow outside of Frederick, Maryland, which had served as the site of a Confederate camp a few days before. Sergeant John Bloss and Corporal Barton W. Mitchell found a piece of paper wrapped around three cigars. The paper was addressed to Confederate General D.H. Hill. Its title read, “Special Order No. 191, Headquarters, Army of Northern Virginia.” Realizing that they had discovered a copy of the Confederate operation plan, Bloss and Mitchell quickly passed it up the chain of command. By chance, the division adjutant general, Samuel Pittman, recognized the handwriting on the orders as that of a colleague from the prewar army, Robert Chilton, who was the adjutant general to Robert E. Lee.

Pittman took the order to McClellan. The Union commander had spent the previous week mystified by Lee’s operations, but now the Confederate plan was clear. He reportedly gloated, “Here is a paper with which if I cannot whip Bobbie Lee, I will be willing to go home.” McClellan now knew that Lee’s forces were split into five parts and scattered over a 30-mile stretch, with the Potomac River in between. At least eight miles separated each piece of Lee’s army, and McClellan was just a dozen miles from the nearest Confederate unit at South Mountain. Bruce Catton, the noted Civil War historian, observed that no general in the war “was ever given so fair a chance to destroy the opposing army one piece at a time.”

Yet McClellan squandered the opportunity. His initial jubilation was overtaken by his caution. He believed that Lee possessed a far greater number of troops than the Confederates actually had, despite the fact that the Maryland invasion resulted in a high rate of desertion among the Southerners. McClellan was also excruciatingly slow to respond to the information in the so-called Lost Order. He took 18 hours to set his army in motion, marching toward Turner’s Gap and Crampton’s Gap in South Mountain, a 50-mile long ridge that was part of the Blue Ridge Mountains.

Lee, who was alerted to the approaching Federals, sent troops to plug the gaps, allowing him time to gather his scattered units.

The Campaign and Battle of Antietam

Lee's first invasion of the North in September 1862 ended with the Battle of Antietam.

Just after dawn on September 17, 1862, the Union Army of the Potomac and the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia collided in the farm fields and wood lots near Sharpsburg, Maryland. By evening, over 25,000 men lay dead or wounded. It remains the bloodiest single day in American military history.

The battle marked the culmination of the Maryland Campaign (September 4-20, 1862), the first of two major efforts by General Robert E. Lee to carry the war onto northern soil. The other would be the Gettysburg Campaign (June 5-July 14, 1863). His rationale for the campaign was basically fourfold: first, to retain the initiative seized during the Seven Days Battles and Second Manassas Campaigns second, to remove the Union army from Virginia soil so that Virginia farmers could harvest their crops without interruption third, to offer Marylanders an opportunity to leave the Union and join the Confederacy and fourth, to fight a decisive battle on Northern soil.

Lee believed that if the Confederacy were to win the war, it must do so quickly. The longer the war continued, the more the North could bring to bear its substantial advantages in materiel and population. Lee also considered Northern public opinion to be fragile. If the Confederate army could achieve decisive victory, especially on Northern soil, Northerners might conclude that the war was unwinnable and make peace.

On September 4, the first elements of his army crossed the Potomac River into Maryland. By September 7, his whole army was across, and concentrating at the market town of Frederick.

Strictly speaking, Lee&rsquos invasion was a raid. That is to say, he had neither the desire nor the ability to occupy Northern soil for any length of time, and his troops and horses drew much of their food and forage from the countryside. However, he still needed some sort of connection with Richmond for purposes of communication and at least limited resupply. He supposed he could get it by way of the Shenandoah Valley, which terminated at Harpers Ferry, Virginia (now West Virginia) at the confluence of the Potomac and Shenandoah Rivers. Some 12,500 Union troops garrisoned Harpers Ferry and nearby Martinsburg, but Lee anticipated that, once he had interposed his army between them and Washington, they would withdraw to the north rather than risk capture. He was wrong. They stayed in place, and on September 9 Lee issued Special Orders No. 191, an elaborate plan to surround and capture them.

The plan called for the division of his army into four parts. Three divisions under Major General Thomas Jonathan &ldquoStonewall&rdquo Jackson would make a wide sweep to the west, re-cross the Potomac, and move toward Harpers Ferry like an encircling arm. A division under Major General John George Walker would also re-cross the Potomac in order to seize Loudoun Heights, a high ridge that overlooked Harpers Ferry. Meanwhile another division under Major General Lafayette McLaws would capture Maryland Heights, the southern terminus of a high ridge that also overlooked Harpers Ferry. The &ldquomain body&rdquo - three remaining divisions under Major General James Longstreet - would cross South Mountain and halt at the village of Boonsboro.

Things did not go as planned. Soon after the operation began on September 10, Lee got word that Union troops were gathering at Greencastle, Pennsylvania, just across the state line. To guard against them, Lee had Longstreet continue his march to Hagerstown, leaving just one division under Major General Daniel Harvey Hill at Boonsboro to function as the army&rsquos rear guard. Lee hoped that Harpers Ferry would be in Confederate hands no later than September 13, but only late on that day did Jackson, Walker, and McLaws even get into position. The Army of Northern Virginia was now divided into five parts, and until Harpers Ferry capitulated it was theoretically in a highly risky posture. If the Federals in Washington conducted a rapid pursuit of Lee, they could strike his army while it was divided and destroy it one piece at a time.

The posture was theoretically risky only because Lee assumed that it would take at least a week for Major General George Brinton McClellan to take the field, that he would advance cautiously, and that he would not know how badly Lee&rsquos army was divided. Lee turned out to be wrong on all counts.

McClellan rapidly consolidated and reorganized the Army of the Potomac, incorporating elements of the now defunct Army of Virginia. He took the field on September 7, the same day the last of Lee&rsquos troops crossed the Potomac, and although his advance was cautious, by September 13 his army had reached Frederick, occupied by Lee&rsquos army until just three days before.

There he learned just how badly Lee&rsquos army was divided from the best possible source: Lee himself. Two Union soldiers discovered a mislaid copy of Special Order 191 and it swiftly made its way into McClellan&rsquos hands. &ldquoI have all the plans of the Rebels,&rdquo McClellan informed President Abraham Lincoln, &ldquoand will catch them in their own trap if my men are equal to the emergency.&rdquo On September 14, McClellan advanced against three key passes through South Mountain: Turner&rsquos Gap, Fox&rsquos Gap, and Crampton&rsquos Gap. The first two would give McClellan access to Boonsboro, the location, according to Special Orders 191, of Lee&rsquos main body. In fact the only Confederate unit at Boonsboro was of course D. H. Hill&rsquos division, and for much of the day Hill defended Turner&rsquos and Fox&rsquos Gaps against the Union II Corps, under Major General Edwin Vose Sumner, and the IX Corps under Major General Jesse Lee Reno (who was killed early in the battle). Reinforcements arrived from Hagerstown during the afternoon and enabled Lee to hang on to these two gaps.

Crampton&rsquos Gap, close to the Potomac River, offered the Federals access to the rear of McLaws&rsquo division, which had reached Maryland Heights and begun to besiege Harpers Ferry. McLaws could spare only a small force to defend the gap. Fortunately for him, Major General William Buell Franklin, commanding the Union VI Corps, took most of the day to approach and attack the gap. The Confederates held off the Federals until nightfall and withdrew to a less formidable position where they girded themselves for a renewal of Franklin&rsquos attack the next morning.

Although the Confederate army had managed to fend off the Union army on the 14th, Lee realized he could not hold the mountain gaps for a second day. And since the Federal garrison of Harpers Ferry had not yet surrendered, his army remained badly divided. Initially Lee concluded that he must abandon the campaign and re-cross Potomac. But when he informed Jackson of this, Jackson responded that he expected Harpers Ferry to capitulate on the 15th. He proved correct. The garrison did indeed surrender, and with it 12,500 Union troops became prisoners of war - The surrender of Harpers Ferry did not mean that the Confederate army could immediately reunite. A large amount of valuable supplies had fallen into their hands at Harpers Ferry it took time to do a quick inventory of these and start them on their journey south. The thousands of Federal prisoners were another problem. Until late 1863 the Union and Confederacy maintained few prison camps but instead had an agreement to exchange prisoners. According to this system, prisoners were released - &ldquoparoled&rdquo - after signing a written pledge not to take arms again until properly exchanged. It took almost three days to process the 12,500 Union captives.

In the meantime, Lee looked for a defensible position on the Maryland side of the Potomac. He found it at Sharpsburg, on the west side of Antietam Creek. His decision to make a stand at that location has long been controversial. Its advantages included the creek itself: although only about waist deep, it had steep banks that made it almost impossible for large numbers of troops to cross under enemy fire. The high ground west of the creek made for a strong position. The terrain also had numerous knolls and ravines that would give the Confederates good concealment, so that the Federals would be unable to get a good look at Confederate dispositions. But the Sharpsburg position had one huge drawback: Lee&rsquos army would have to fight with its back to the Potomac River, with no bridge available in case of defeat and only a single ford.

Since Lee never explained his reasons for selecting Sharpsburg, historians have been left to guess. Some have speculated that for political reasons, he could not afford to abandon the &ldquooppressed&rdquo state of Maryland without a major battle. Some have believed that Lee did not realize the extent of the troops he had lost in combat or from straggling and overestimated the force at his disposal. And some have believed that until Jackson consolidated the Harpers Ferry victory, Sharpsburg placed Lee on the flank of any Union bid to recapture the town. Historians are equally divided about the wisdom of the decision. While some have given Lee the benefit of the doubt, many - probably most - have maintained that in standing at Sharpsburg, Lee made a serious mistake.

Historians have been equally critical of McClellan. The advance elements if his army reached the high ground east of Antietam Creek late on the afternoon of September 15 and on the 16th McClellan had a clear opportunity to strike Lee&rsquos army while much of it was still near Harpers Ferry. McClellan, however, contented himself with shifting his I and XII Corps across the creek to a point north of Lee&rsquos position. He intended these units to attack the Confederate left flank the next morning. The rest of his plan is a bit murky since McClellan offered several after-the-fact rationales, but as events unfolded it took the form of an engagement in which McClellan committed his forces piecemeal. One problem was that this policy was to some extent deliberate. Another was that McClellan&rsquos headquarters, which were at the Pry House east of Antietam Creek, was too remote from the battlefield for McClellan to influence the action. Even a courier riding hard from headquarters usually required the better part of an hour to reach his destination. Further, McClellan intentionally held in reserve the entire V Corps under Major General Fitz John Porter, as an insurance policy against a counterstroke by Lee&rsquos supposedly superior numbers.

McClellan&rsquos I Corps, under Major General Joseph Hooker, opened the attack at 7:30 a.m. on September 17. His forces surged through a large cornfield that was the scene of desperate fighting until a Confederate division under Major General John Bell Hood counterattacked, losing most of its troops but stopping Hooker&rsquos attack in its tracks. The Union XII Corps advanced at about the same time, but only one division made much progress. Brigadier General George Sears Greene&rsquos Division managed to reach a position near the Dunker Church, where it halted and awaited reinforcements. Although no reinforcements were deliberately sent to support Greene, one division of the Union II Corps under Sumner advanced into the West Woods, immediately north of the Dunker Church - only to be shredded by a massive Confederate counterattack that struck it on the flank and rear.

Sumner&rsquos remaining two divisions lost contact with the first and lurched to the southwest, eventually running into Confederate forces posted within a wagon road whose trace had over the years been worn several feet below the surrounding terrain. This &ldquosunken road&rdquo proved to be a natural trench. The two Union divisions fought the single Confederate division with scant success until a Confederate error in communication resulted in an untimely retreat by some of the division&rsquos troops. This gave the two Union divisions the chance to seize the Sunken Road, and by 11:00 a.m. it was in northern hands.

At about that hour, the Union IX Corps under Major General Ambrose Everett Burnside successfully stormed a stone bridge across Antietam Creek, since known as Burnside&rsquos Bridge. This was almost two hours after McClellan instructed him to do so, a delay attributable in part to several failed attempts to secure the bridge. Using the bridge and a ford discovered several hundred yards downstream, Burnside got his entire corps across by early afternoon, but paused for a considerable period and did not launch a major attack until 3:00 p.m. This attack was foiled by a furious counterattack by the division of Major General Ambrose Powell Hill, which arrived on the field in the nick of time after a seventeen-mile forced march from Harpers Ferry. With Hill&rsquos success the battle essentially ended for the day.

That evening Lee conferred with his senior commanders and debated whether to launch an attack of his own the following day. As he eventually realized, this was misplaced aggressiveness, and in fact Lee overestimated the force he had in hand. Most estimates place it at no more than 40,000, of whom at least a third had become casualties. Nonetheless, Lee defiantly held his position for a second day, correctly gambling that McClellan would not renew the offensive. Only then did he withdraw his army back across the Potomac. A sharp rear guard action at Shepherdstown, Virginia (now West Virginia), closed out the campaign for good.

Casualties during the campaign were severe. In addition to 12,500 Union troops captured at Harpers Ferry, the Federals lost 443 killed, 1,807 wounded, 75 missing at South Mountain out of total of 28,000+ troops engaged. Confederate losses at Harpers Ferry were negligible, but at South Mountain they amounted to an estimated 325 killed, 1,560 wounded, 800 missing out of about 18,000 engaged.

Casualties in the battle of Antietam were horrific. The Army of the Potomac suffered 2,010 killed, 9,416 wounded, and 1,043 missing - 12,469 out of about 87,000 troops available. The Army of Northern Virginia lost 2,700 killed, 9,024 wounded, and 2,000 missing - 13,724 out of about 40,000 engaged.

The result of the campaign was a tactical stalemate. Confederates could point to their great success at Harpers Ferry. Federals could point to the fact that they had repelled Lee&rsquos invasion. Tactically the battle was only a marginal success for McClellan, since Lee escaped intact. Strategically, however, it was a major Confederate defeat, and five days after Antietam Lincoln used the marginal victory on that day to issue, from a newly acquired position of strength, the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation.

If you can read only one book:

Sears, Stephen W. Landscape Turned Red. Norwalk, Connecticut: Easton Press, 1988.

The Battle For Freedom: Antietam and the Emancipation Proclamation

Abraham Lincoln spent the late summer of 1862 waiting. Worrying and waiting. He was worrying about the war, which was not going well. And he was waiting for a victory so that he might issue a proclamation of emancipation that would declare most slaves free and help to win the war.

On July 1, the Union won at Malvern Hill, but the victory marked the end of the Seven Days Battles that, taken as a whole, resulted in the failure of the Peninsula Campaign that had begun in March. Richmond was safe from Union forces, and General George B. McClellan withdrew to Harrison&rsquos Landing on the James River.

Union military affairs reached a nadir at the end of August when Major General John Pope was decisively defeated at Second Bull Run. Lincoln was despondent. Attorney-General Edward Bates described him as &ldquowrung by the bitterest anguish&mdashsaid he felt almost ready to hang himself.&rdquo Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles said the president was &ldquosadly perplexed and distressed by events.&rdquo 1

It had been more than a month since Lincoln informed the cabinet of his decision to issue an Emancipation Proclamation. He had made the decision in the aftermath of the failed Peninsula Campaign. According to Gideon Welles, at that meeting on July 22, Secretary of State William Seward said the proclamation should be postponed to a &ldquomore auspicious period&rdquo when it would not be &ldquoreceived and considered as a despairing cry&mdasha shriek from and for the Administration, rather than for freedom.&rdquo Seward&rsquos idea, &ldquosaid the President, &lsquowas that it would be construed our last shriek on the retreat.&rsquo (This was his precise expression.)&rsquo&rdquo 2

Although Lincoln put the document aside, he did not remain still: he wrote letters that hinted at his new policy he met with free blacks to encourage colonization and with a group of Chicago Christians to discuss the pros and cons of an emancipation edict he continued to monitor how the border states might react, going so far as to read the draft Proclamation to James Speed, a unionist state senator in Kentucky as well as older brother of Joshua Speed, Lincoln&rsquos closest friend.

But mostly, the president waited. Visitors described him as tired, careworn, and sad. Union morale was plummeting. And no one, in the aftermath of Second Bull Run, thought that Robert E. Lee would be content to sit still. Indeed, Lee had decided to invade Maryland, and on September 5 the Army of Northern Virginia crossed the Potomac.

On September 9, Lee issued Special Order No. 191, detailing plans for the division of his forces. His objectives included capturing the Union garrison at Harpers Ferry. Remarkably, on September 13, three Union soldiers camping near Frederick, Maryland, found the order wrapped around three cigars in an envelope. McClellan now knew Lee&rsquos plans, yet by waiting some 18 hours to get his troops moving, failed to take full advantage of the intelligence.

Lee&rsquos plan succeeded at Harpers Ferry, but elsewhere, at the battle of South Mountain on September 14 and into the early hours of September 15, Confederate troops faced superior numbers and sustained severe casualties. Preparing to retreat across the Potomac, they moved toward Sharpsburg, a town west of Antietam Creek. Learning that morning of the victory at Harpers Ferry, however, Lee altered his plans and decided to make a stand.

McClellan&rsquos men began to arrive later that day and massed on the east side of the creek. Again the general waited, spending the 16th planning which allowed Lee to unite most of his forces. Everyone seemed to sense the significance of what would occur at dawn on the 17th.

In the morning, &ldquoFighting&rdquo Joe Hooker&rsquos men faced Thomas &ldquoStonewall&rdquo Jackson&rsquos in savage combat along the Hagerstown Pike and onto a 30-acre cornfield as well as into an area known as the West Woods. One South Carolinian wrote, &ldquonever have I seen men fall as fast and thick.&rdquo 3

The Union attacks came serially, not simultaneously. As a result, the chance for a smashing victory by a numerically superior force was compromised and the casualties augmented. At midday, the heaviest action veered southeast, to the Sunken Road, a place soon named the Bloody Lane. Late in the afternoon, Ambrose Burnside, commanding the Union&rsquos left flank, got his men into battle against elements of James Longstreet&rsquos corps. For a time, the hard-pressed Confederate defenders wavered, but the arrival of A.P. Hill&rsquos division after a forced march from Harpers Ferry stabilized the situation. The day&rsquos fighting had ended.

Although his out-numbered army had been badly mauled, the ever-audacious Lee decided not to retreat the night of the 17th he even contemplated going on the offensive the next day. For a time it seemed that McClellan, who was getting reinforcements, would take the fight to the rebels on the 18th, but, ever cautious, he decided not to risk it. Late in the day, Lee began withdrawing his army to Virginia.

The battle of Antietam remains the bloodiest day in American history. Here is James McPherson&rsquos cogent summary:

&ldquoThe 6,300 to 6,500 Union and Confederate soldiers killed and mortally wounded near the Maryland village of Sharpsburg on September 17, 1862, were more than twice the number of fatalities suffered in the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on September 11, 2001. Another 15,000 men wounded in the battle of Antietam would recover, but many of them would never again walk on two legs or work with two arms. The number of casualties at Antietam was four times greater than American casualties at the Normandy beaches on June 6, 1944. More American soldiers died at Sharspburg (the Confederate name for the battle) than died in combat in all the other wars fought by this country in the nineteenth century combined: the War of 1812, the Mexican-American War, the Spanish-American War, and the Indian wars.&rdquo 4

Shortly afterward, a New Hampshire surgeon wrote to his wife, &ldquowhen I think of the battle of Antietam it seems so strange. Who permits it? To see or feel that a power is in existence that can and will hurl masses of men against each other in deadly conflict&mdashslaying each other by the thousands&mdashmangling and deforming their fellow men is almost impossible. But it is so and why we cannot know.&rdquo 5

Two days after the battle, Alexander Gardner and his assistant James Gibson began taking photographs: the bodies piled in the Bloody Lane, the bodies strewn before the shelled Dunker Church, bodies buried and unburied. In October, Matthew Brady displayed the images in his New York Gallery. He called the exhibition &ldquoThe Dead of Antietam.&rdquo Reviewing it, the New York Times wrote &ldquoif he has not brought bodies and laid them in our dooryards and along the streets, he has done something very like it.&rdquo 6

Antietam destroyed the romance of war. Images such as Gardner&rsquos had never before been seen. It was hard to find glory in the mangled, contorted frames of the fallen. If anyone needed reminding, Antietam showed that the conflict was literally one of life and death, for individuals as well as the nation. It proved to unionists that there was indeed a military necessity that justified taking all steps to defeat a resourceful and courageous Confederate army.

Lincoln had the victory for which he was waiting. On September 22, he issued the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation. If the slaves were being forced to aid the Confederate war machine, by working in the fields and hauling armaments and building fortifications, he would act in his capacity as commander-in-chief to liberate that labor. One hundred days later, on January 1, 1863, Lincoln would go further: in the final Emancipation Proclamation, he decided not only to free the slaves outside of Union- controlled areas but also to enlist any black man as a soldier in the Union army.

Antietam and emancipation were linked&mdashdeath and freedom. But many more gruesome battles would have to be fought, and many more strides toward freedom taken, before the war would end and slavery would be abolished. For Lincoln, the worrying was far from over.

Louis P. Masur, Professor of American Studies and History at Rutgers University, is the author of Lincoln&rsquos Hundred Days: The Emancipation Proclamation and the War for the Union (just published by Harvard University Press).

1 Edward Bates quoted in Roy P. Basler, ed., The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, 9 vols. (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1953-55), V: 404 Gideon Welles, Diary of Gideon Welles, ed. by Howard K. Beale, 3 volumes (New York: W.W, Norton & Company, 1960), 1:131.

2 Gideon Welles, &ldquoThe History of Emancipation,&rdquo Galaxy 14 (December 1872), pp. 838-851.

3 Quoted in James M. McPherson, Crossroads of Freedom: Antietam (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002), p. 119.

5 William Child to his wife, nd, in Andrew Carroll, ed., War Letters (New York: Washington Square Press, 2001), p. 76.

Photo, Print, Drawing Ditch on right wing, where a large number of rebels were killed at the Battle of Antietam

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The Horror of Antietam

A misty rain shrouded Antietam Creek as Pvt. David L. Thompson and other footsore soldiers from the 9 th New York Infantry took their places on the Union line and unrolled their blankets. It was Sept. 16, 1862, a night marked by the sputtering fire of nervous pickets, the cursing of men tripping over objects in the dark (including a regimental dog), and waves of panic.

“We sat down and watched for a while the dull glare on the sky of the Confederate campfires behind the hills,” Thompson wrote. “We were hungry, of course, but as no fires were allowed, we could only mix our ground coffee and sugar in our hands and eat them dry. … There was something weirdly impressive yet unreal in the gradual drawing together of those whispering armies under cover of the night—something of awe and dread.”

Two great armies were steeling themselves for what would become the deadliest one-day battle in American history. That 12-hour fight would change the course of the war, determine the fate of 4 million slaves and shock the public. Thanks to some of the first—and still most haunting—battlefield photographs in history, people would see the reality of the fratricide that until then had been a distant abstraction.

North and South fought in the open at close quarters—usually no more than 300 yards apart—with no protective earthworks to soften the blows. Gen. Robert E. Lee, leading thousands of tattered, battle-hardened Confederate troops into enemy territory for the first time, tried for a desperate knockout punch that would bring the two-year-old conflict to a swift conclusion. Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan, charged with fending off the Confederate invasion threatening the capital in Washington, summoned the largest army yet to face Lee’s forces and tried to pin his adversary at Antietam, with the Potomac River at Lee’s back.

The clash was one of the worst days in a long war known for its carnage. Because the literacy rate in both armies was quite high—above 90 percent—the survivors wrote letters and diaries detailing their experiences, and we have an excellent record of what transpired at Antietam. Time has softened the horror, but even today the photographs and remembrances of those who were there offer a glimpse of a national tragedy written in smoke and blood.

The morning of Sept. 17 opened with a tremendous crash as opposing batteries traded blows across the creek. Maj. Gen. Joseph “Fighting Joe” Hooker and some 8,600 men of the Union First Corps came boiling out of the woods about 6 a.m. and headed for Dunker Church. The squat white building marked the northern end of the Confederate line, held by Maj. Gen. Stonewall Jackson’s troops. “The Federals in apparent double battle line were moving toward us at charge bayonets, common time,” wrote a veteran of the Stonewall Brigade, “and the sunbeams falling on their well-polished guns and bayonets gave a glamour and a show at once fearful and entrancing.”

To reach the church, Hooker’s troops had to cross open ground, plunge into a thickly planted cornfield and emerge on the far side. But the cornfield erupted in a torrent of fire from Confederates hidden among the stalks.

As the first of Hooker’s troops fell in the corn, others poured in to replace them, scrambling around the dead and driving for the church. “Men, I can not say fell they were knocked out of the ranks by dozens,” wrote Maj. Rufus Dawes of the 6 th Wisconsin Regiment. “But we jumped over the fence, and pushed on, loading, firing and shouting as we advanced. There was, on the part of the men, great hysterical excitement, eagerness to go forward and a reckless disregard of life.” They pursued Jackson’s troops toward Hagerstown Pike, riddling them from behind as the Confederates tried to clamber over the roadside fences.

To stiffen his lines, Jackson summoned Brig. Gen. John Bell Hood’s troops, who were cooking the first hot meal they had eaten in days. Hood’s men put their bread aside, took up muskets, and streaked toward the battle, screeching as they went. “I have never seen a more disgusted bunch of boys and mad as hornets,” a soldier from Hood’s 2,300-man division recalled. The hungry Rebels smashed into Hooker’s forces, mowing down Union troops “like a scythe running through our line,” one Federal survivor wrote. Surging across the cornfield, Hood’s counterattack regained most of the bloody ground lost earlier that morning—with more than 60 percent of his men dead, wounded, or missing. When Hood returned from the front, trailed by a remnant of his command, someone asked where his troops were. “Dead on the field,” he said.

Two other Union corps fed fresh soldiers into the fight as Lee desperately stripped other parts of his line to meet each new thrust. By 10 a.m., the cornfield had changed hands 15 times. “Every stalk of corn in the greater part of the field was cut as closely as could have been done with a knife,” Hooker recalled, “and the slain lay in rows precisely as they had stood in their ranks a few moments before.” Riding among his men on a big gray horse, the general made an easy target. He was shot in the foot and put out of action that morning.

He was one of almost 10,000 casualties from the opening hours of fighting another was a recent Harvard graduate, Capt. Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. of the 20 th Massachusetts, shot through the neck and left for dead on the field. Holmes recovered, finished the war with distinction, and became a Supreme Court justice. But he admitted that after Antietam, “the world never seemed quite right again.”

McClellan planned to dismember Lee’s army piecemeal, first hitting hard on the Confederate left, then breaking Lee’s right to block his escape across the Potomac, then throwing four fresh divisions into the Rebel center for the coup de grace. It was a sound plan, but McClellan’s offensives were poorly coordinated. McClellan stayed well to the rear, keeping some 20,000 of his men in reserve. Had he pressed a lopsided advantage in numbers, he might have broken through and annihilated the Army of Northern Virginia but he held back, convinced by faulty intelligence and vivid imagination that Lee’s forces outnumbered his own. At Antietam, McClellan, known for his caution and blustering talk, cemented his reputation for being the most tentative of generals.

Union Maj. Gen. Ambrose E. Burnside received orders to press Lee’s army below Sharpsburg, where a humpbacked bridge spanned Antietam Creek. Burnside held the advantage of 12,500 troops of his 9 th Corps against some 4,000 Georgians from Maj. Gen. James Longstreet’s command. But the Confederate infantry, backed by two batteries of artillery in steep bluffs west of the creek, picked off hundreds of Union soldiers as they emerged from the trees and tried to cross the bridge, while others were shot or drowned fording the stream. It took Burnside’s troops three hours to cross the creek.

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October 16, 1859

John Brown&rsquos Raid

Harpers Ferry, Virginia (Now WV)

On October 16, 17, and 18, 1859, John Brown and his "Provisional Army of the United States" took possession of the United States Armory and Arsenal at Harpers Ferry. Brown had come to arm an uprising of slaves. Instead, the raid drew militia companies and federal troops from Maryland, Virginia, and the District of Columbia. On the morning of October 18, a storming party of 12 Marines broke down the door of the Armory's fire engine house, taking Brown and the remaining raiders captive. Source: NPS.

33h. Northern Plans to End the War

Only one day after their victory at Gettysburg, Union forces captured Vicksburg, the last Confederate stronghold on the Mississippi River. Lincoln and Union commanders began to make plans for finishing the war.

  1. Fully blockade all Southern coasts. This strategy, known as the Anaconda Plan , would eliminate the possibility of Confederate help from abroad.
  2. Control the Mississippi River. The river was the South's major inland waterway. Also, Northern control of the rivers would separate Texas, Louisiana, and Arkansas from the other Confederate states.
  3. Capture Richmond . Without its capital, the Confederacy's command lines would be disrupted.
  4. Shatter Southern civilian morale by capturing and destroying Atlanta , Savannah , and the heart of Southern secession, South Carolina.
  5. Use the numerical advantage of Northern troops to engage the enemy everywhere to break the spirits of the Confederate Army.

By early 1864, the first two goals had been accomplished. The blockade had successfully prevented any meaningful foreign aid. General Ulysses Grant's success at Vicksburg delivered the Mississippi River to the Union. Lincoln turned to Grant to finish the job and, in the spring of 1864, appointed Grant to command the entire Union Army.

Grant had a plan to end the war by November. He mounted several major simultaneous offensives. General George Meade was to lead the Union's massive Army of the Potomac against Robert E. Lee. Grant would stay with Meade, who commanded the largest Northern army. General James Butler was to advance up the James River in Virginia and attack Richmond, the capital of the Confederacy. General William Tecumseh Sherman was to plunge into the heart of the South, inflicting as much damage as he could against their war resources.

One week after Abraham Lincoln's reelection in 1864, William Tecumseh Sherman (above) began his merciless march through Georgia, leaving nothing behind but civilian sorrow and scorched earth. Both Atlanta and Savannah would fall back to Union control during this campaign.

Meade faced Lee's army in Virginia. Lee's strategy was to use terrain and fortified positions to his advantage, thus decreasing the importance of the Union's superiority in numbers. He hoped to make the cost of trying to force the South back into the Union so high that the Northern public would not stand for it. He almost accomplished this. From May 5 to May 24, the full force of Grant's and Lee's armies fought continually with enormous casualties.

But, unlike the Union commanders of the past, Grant had the determination to press on despite the cost. Twenty-eight thousand soldiers were casualties of the Battle of the Wilderness . A few days later, another 28,000 soldiers were casualties in the battle of Spotsylvania Court House . More than two-thirds of the casualties of these battles were Union soldiers.

At Cold Harbor the following week, Grant lost another 13,000 soldiers &mdash 7,000 of them in half an hour. In the 30 days that Grant had been fighting Lee, he lost 50,000 troops &mdash a number equal to half the size of the Confederate army at the time. As a result, Grant became known as " The Butcher ." Congress was appalled and petitioned for his removal. But Lincoln argued that Grant was winning the battles and refused to grant Congress's request.

William T. Sherman's ruthless march through the South to the sea drove a stake into the heart of the Confederacy. He left nothing in his wake, destroying everything in sight in an attempt to crush the rebellion once and for all.

Butler failed to capture Richmond, and the Confederate capital was temporarily spared. On May 6, one day after Grant and Lee started their confrontation in the Wilderness, Sherman entered Georgia, scorching whatever resources that lay in his path. By late July, he had forced the enemy back to within sight of Atlanta. For a month, he lay siege to the city. Finally, in early September he entered Atlanta &mdash one day after the Confederate army evacuated it.

Sherman waited until seven days after Lincoln's hotly fought reelection before putting Atlanta to the torch and starting his march to the sea . No one stood before him. His soldiers pillaged the countryside and destroyed everything of conceivable military value as they traveled 285 miles to Savannah in a march that became legendary for the misery it created among the civilian population. On December 22, Savannah fell.

Next, Sherman ordered his army to move north into South Carolina. Their intent was to destroy the state where secession began. Exactly a month later, its capital, Columbia, fell to him. On the same day, Union Forces retook Fort Sumter.

Breaking the Confederate Line at Antietam

Which Union regiments fought at Antietam? Who was the Union general who led the attack across the bridge at Antietam on Confederate lines and how many times did he charge before breaking through?


The battle at Antietam Creek on September 17, 1862, ended Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s first invasion of the North. The Confederate Army of Northern Virginia faced Union General George B. McClellan’s Army of the Potomac near Sharpsburg, Maryland by the end of the day, 6,000 Americans lay dead or dying and another 17,000 were wounded. It remains the bloodiest single day in American history.

The Confederate Army fielded two corps (Longstreet’s and Jackson’s), organized into nine infantry divisions and a cavalry division and comprising more than 130 individual regiments, together totaling more than 38,000 men. The Union Army of the Potomac fielded six corps (I, II, V, VI, IX, and XII) organized into 18 infantry divisions and a cavalry division more than 191 individual regiments numbering some 75,000 federal troops fought in the battle at Antietam. (An exhaustive list of every corps, division, brigade and regiment, along with the officers that commanded them—known as the order of battle—can be found in Stephen Sears’ Landscape Turned Red: The Battle of Antietam, pp. 359-372.

Union General Ambrose Burnside’s IX Corps held the left side of the Federal line south of town, where a single bridge spanned Antietam creek. Burnside’s men spent hours attempting to cross the narrow bridge in the hopes of flanking the Confederate line on the western bank. (The flanking maneuver, in which the attacker attempted to get around the side of the defender’s line and attack it at right angles, formed a critical part of Civil War military tactics. Because a flanked line was extremely vulnerable to enemy fire, and because it could not level its own return fire very effectively, Civil War commanders repeatedly tried to flank their opponents while trying to avoid having their own lines flanked.)

Though Antietam creek was shallow enough to be forded at several places, Burnside focused his corps’ attacks on the lone bridge near the Rohrback farm—a bridge that would later bear his name, thanks to his troops’ bloody attempts to cross it. Because the bridge was only twelve feet wide, a relatively small number of Confederate defenders was able to prevent Burnisde’s entire corps from crossing for hours. Beginning at around 10 a.m., two Georgia regiments held off attacks by some 12,500 Union soldiers.

Finally, at around 2 p.m., two Northern regiments hand-picked for their toughness and promised a ration of liquor after capturing the bridge, attempted to cross at a run. The 670 men of those regiments charged down the hill facing the bridge and fanned out behind cover on the eastern banks the Georgian defenders, exhausted and nearly out of ammunition after three hours of fighting, began to withdraw. In a rush, color-bearers led the two units across the bridge and finally secured a foothold on the western shore. More than 500 Federals and 120 Rebels had died in the fighting there. George McClellan, commanding general of the Union forces at Antietam, later received significant criticism for the uncoordinated attacks along the Federal line, for not pushing to cross the creek more quickly, and for failing to exploit the crossing effectively. Most observers judged the battle at Antietam a draw McClellan had ended Lee’s invasion of the North, but the rebel army remained an effective fighting force. Lincoln and others viewed the battle as a lost opportunity to end the war.

Burnside’s ineffective leadership at the bridge during led McClellan to write to his wife little more than a week later describing him as “very slow” and “not fit to command more than a regiment.” McClellan’s evaluation may have been correct nevertheless, McClellan’s own performance at Antietam led to his removal by Abraham Lincoln on November 7, 1862. The Army of the Potomac’s next commander would be none other than Ambrose Burnside, who led the Union forces in the even more disastrous and lopsided defeat at Fredericksburg that December.

For more information

"Order of Battle." Antietam on the Web, 2010.

Kennedy, Frances H., ed. The Civil War Battlefield Guide. 2nd ed. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1998.


Eicher, David J. The Longest Night: A Military History of the Civil War. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2001.

Sears, Stephen. Landscape Turned Red: The Battle of Antietam. New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2003.

Waugh, John. Lincoln and McClellan: The Troubled Partnership between a President and His General. New York: St. Martin's Press, 2010.


The order was drafted on or about September 9, 1862, during the Maryland Campaign. It gave details of the movements of the Army of Northern Virginia during the early days of its invasion of Maryland. Lee divided his army, which he planned to regroup later according to the precise text Major General Stonewall Jackson was to move his command to Martinsburg while McLaws's command and Walker's command "endeavored to capture Harpers Ferry." Major General James Longstreet was to move his command northward to Boonsborough. Major General D. H. Hill's division was to act as rear guard on the march from Frederick.

Lee delineated the routes and roads to be taken and the timing for the investment of Harpers Ferry. Adjutant Robert H. Chilton penned copies of the letter and endorsed them in Lee's name. Staff officers distributed the copies to various Confederate generals. Jackson in turn copied the document for one of his subordinates, D. H. Hill, who was to exercise independent command as the rear guard. Hill said the only copy he received was the one from Jackson. [1]

About noon [2] on September 13, Corporal Barton W. Mitchell of the 27th Indiana Volunteers, part of the Union XII Corps, discovered an envelope with three cigars wrapped in a piece of paper lying in the grass at a campground that Hill had just vacated. Mitchell realized the significance of the document and turned it in to Sergeant John M. Bloss. They went to Captain Peter Kopp, who sent it to regimental commander Colonel Silas Colgrove, who carried it to the corps headquarters. There, an aide to Brigadier General Alpheus S. Williams recognized the signature of R. H. Chilton, the assistant adjutant general who had signed the order. Williams's aide, Colonel Samuel Pittman, recognized Chilton's signature because Pittman frequently paid drafts drawn under Chilton's signature before the war. Pittman worked for a Detroit bank during the period when Chilton was paymaster at a nearby army post. [3] [4] Williams forwarded the dispatch to Major General George B. McClellan, the commander of the Army of the Potomac. McClellan was overcome with glee at learning planned Confederate troop movements and reportedly exclaimed, "Now I know what to do!" He confided to Brigadier General John Gibbon, "Here is a paper with which, if I cannot whip Bobby Lee, I will be willing to go home." [5]

McClellan stopped Lee's invasion at the subsequent Battle of Antietam, but many military historians believe he failed to fully exploit the strategic advantage of the intelligence because he was concerned about a possible trap (posited by Major General Henry W. Halleck) or gross overestimation of the strength of Lee's army.

The hill on the Best Farm where the lost order was discovered is located outside of Frederick, Maryland, and was a key Confederate artillery position in the 1864 Battle of Monocacy. A historical marker on the Monocacy National Battlefield commemorates the finding of Special Order 191 during the Maryland Campaign.

Corporal Mitchell, who found the orders, was subsequently wounded in the leg at Antietam and was discharged in 1864 due to the resulting chronic infection. He died in 1868 at the age of 52.

  1. The citizens of Fredericktown being unwilling while overrun by members of this army, to open their stores, to give them confidence, and to secure to officers and men purchasing supplies for benefit of this command, all officers and men of this army are strictly prohibited from visiting Fredericktown except on business, in which cases they will bear evidence of this in writing from division commanders. The provost-marshal in Fredericktown will see that his guard rigidly enforces this order.
  2. Major Taylor will proceed to Leesburg, Virginia, and arrange for transportation of the sick and those unable to walk to Winchester, securing the transportation of the country for this purpose. The route between this and Culpepper Court-House east of the mountains being unsafe, will no longer be traveled. Those on the way to this army already across the river will move up promptly all others will proceed to Winchester collectively and under command of officers, at which point, being the general depot of this army, its movements will be known and instructions given by commanding officer regulating further movements.
  3. The army will resume its march tomorrow, taking the Hagerstown road. General Jackson's command will form the advance, and, after passing Middletown, with such portion as he may select, take the route toward Sharpsburg, cross the Potomac at the most convenient point, and by Friday morning take possession of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, capture such of them as may be at Martinsburg, and intercept such as may attempt to escape from Harpers Ferry.
  4. General Longstreet's command will pursue the same road as far as Boonsborough, where it will halt, with reserve, supply, and baggage trains of the army.
  5. General McLaws, with his own division and that of General R. H. Anderson, will follow General Longstreet. On reaching Middletown will take the route to Harpers Ferry, and by Friday morning possess himself of the Maryland Heights and endeavor to capture the enemy at Harpers Ferry and vicinity.
  6. General Walker, with his division, after accomplishing the object in which he is now engaged, will cross the Potomac at Cheek's Ford, ascend its right bank to Lovettsville, take possession of Loudoun Heights, if practicable, by Friday morning, Key's Ford on his left, and the road between the end of the mountain and the Potomac on his right. He will, as far as practicable, cooperate with General McLaws and Jackson, and intercept retreat of the enemy.
  7. General D. H. Hill's division will form the rear guard of the army, pursuing the road taken by the main body. The reserve artillery, ordnance, and supply trains, &c., will precede General Hill.
  8. General Stuart will detach a squadron of cavalry to accompany the commands of Generals Longstreet, Jackson, and McLaws, and, with the main body of the cavalry, will cover the route of the army, bringing up all stragglers that may have been left behind.
  9. The commands of Generals Jackson, McLaws, and Walker, after accomplishing the objects for which they have been detached, will join the main body of the army at Boonsborough or Hagerstown.
  10. Each regiment on the march will habitually carry its axes in the regimental ordnance—wagons, for use of the men at their encampments, to procure wood &c.

In Harry Turtledove's Southern Victory Series alternate history novels, the point of divergence with recorded history is that the order is not discovered by Union troops, but is instead recovered by a trailing Confederate soldier, allowing the Confederate army to move faster and win the war. In What If? and What Ifs? of American History, the scenario "If the Lost Order Hadn't Been Lost" by James M. McPherson also has a similar conclusion to Turtledove with Robert E. Lee advancing up to Pennsylvania and winning the decisive victory in an early version of the Battle of Gettysburg.

Union troops not discovering the order is also the point of divergence for the alternate reality superhero comic book series Captain Confederacy.

Bernard Cornwell's novel The Bloody Ground, part of the Starbuck Chronicles, fictionalizes the events and lead-up of Antietam, in which the order is central to the drama in the lead-up to the battle and an explanation is offered for how it ended up discarded in the field.

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