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Battle of Antietam
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The Bloodiest One Day Battle in American History
Dawn approached slowly through the fog on September 17, 1862. As soldiers tried to wipe away the
dampness, cannons began to roar and sheets of flame burst forth from hundreds of rifles, opening a
twelve hour tempest that swept across the rolling farm fields in western Maryland. A clash between
North and South that changed the course of the Civil War, helped free over four million Americans,
devastated Sharpsburg, and still ranks as the bloodiest one-day battle in American history.
The Battle of Antietam was the culmination of the Maryland Campaign of 1862, the first invasion of
the North by Confederate General Robert E. Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia. In Kentucky and
Missouri, Southern armies were also advancing as the tide of war flowed north. After Lee’s dramatic
victory at the Second Battle of Manassas during the last two days of August, he wrote to Confederate
President Jefferson Davis that “we cannot afford to be idle.” Lee wanted to keep the offensive and
secure Southern independence through victory in the North; influence the fall mid-term elections;
obtain much needed supplies; move the war out of Virginia, possibly into Pennsylvania; and to liberate
Maryland, a Union state, but a slave-holding border state divided in its sympathies.
After splashing across the Potomac River and arriving in Frederick, Lee boldly divided his army to
capture the Union garrison stationed at Harpers Ferry. Gateway to the Shenandoah Valley, Harpers
Ferry was a vital location on the Confederate lines of supply and communication back to Virginia. The
12,000 Union soldiers at Harpers Ferry threatened Lee’s link south. Gen. Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson
and about half of the army were sent to capture Harpers Ferry. The rest of the Confederates moved
north and west toward South Mountain and Hagerstown, Maryland.
Back in Washington D.C., President Abraham Lincoln turned to Major General George B. McClellan
to protect the capital and respond to the invasion. McClellan quickly reorganized the demoralized
Army of the Potomac and advanced towards Lee. The armies first clashed on South Mountain where
on September 14 the Confederates tried unsuccessfully to block the Federals at three mountain passes
– Turner’s, Fox’s and Crampton’s Gaps.
Following the Confederate retreat from South Mountain, Lee considered returning to Virginia.
However, with word of Jackson’s capture of Harpers Ferry on September 15, Lee decided to make
a stand at Sharpsburg. The Confederate commander gathered his forces on the high ground west
of Antietam Creek with Gen. James Longstreet’s command holding the center and the right while
Stonewall Jackson’s men filled in on the left. The Confederate position was strengthened with the
mobility provided by the Hagerstown Turnpike that ran north and south along Lee’s line; however
there was risk with the Potomac River behind them and only one crossing back to Virginia. Lee and his
men watched the Union army gather on the east side of the Antietam.Thousands of soldiers in blue marched into position throughout the 15th and 16th as McClellan prepared for his attempt to drive Lee from Maryland. McClellan’s plan was, in his words, to “attack the enemy’s left,” and when “matters looked favorably,” attack the Confederate right, and “whenever either of those flank movements should be successful to advance our center.” As the opposing forces moved into position during the rainy night of September 16, one Pennsylvanian remembered, “…all realized that there was ugly business and plenty of it just ahead.” The twelve hour battle began at dawn on the 17th. For the next seven hours there were three major Union attacks on the Confederate left, moving from north to south. Gen. Joseph Hooker’s command led the first Union assault. Then Gen. Joseph Mansfield’s soldiers attacked, followed by Gen. Edwin Sumner’s men as McClellan’s plan broke down into a series of uncoordinated Union advances. Savage, incomparable combat raged across the Cornfield, East Woods, West Woods and the Sunken Road as Lee shifted his men to withstand each of the Union thrusts. After clashing for over eight hours, the Confederates were pushed back but not broken, however over 15,000 soldiers were killed or wounded. While the Union assaults were being made on the Sunken Road, a mile-and-a-half farther south Union Gen. Ambrose Burnside opened the attack on the Confederate right. His first task would be to capture the bridge that would later bear his name. A small Confederate force, positioned on higher ground, was able to delay Burnside for three hours. After taking the bridge at about 1:00 p.m., Burnside reorganized for two hours before moving forward across the arduous terrain—a critical delay. Finally the advance started only to be turned back by Confederate General A.P. Hill’s reinforcements that arrived in the late afternoon from Harpers Ferry. Neither flank of the Confederate army collapsed far enough for McClellan to advance his center attack, leaving a sizable Union force that never entered the battle. Despite over 23,000 casualties of the nearly 100,000 engaged, both armies stubbornly held their ground as the sun set on the devastated landscape. The next day, September 18, the opposing armies gathered their wounded and buried their dead. That night Lee’s army withdrew back across the Potomac to Virginia, ending Lee’s first invasion into the North. Lee’s retreat to Virginia provided President Lincoln the opportunity he had been waiting for to issue the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation. Now the war had a dual purpose of preserving the Union and ending slavery
90th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry Regiment
Colonel Peter Lyle commanded the 90th Pennsylvania at the Battle of Antietam until he took over brigade command. Lieutenant Colonel William Leech then took over the regiment.
Two members of the regiment were awarded the Medal of Honor for their actions at Antietam. Lieutenant Hillary Beyer of Company H remained with the wounded when the rest of his company was forced to fall back, caring for them and carrying one to safety. Private William H. Paul of Company E picked up the flag when the color bearer and two members of the color guard were killed, and carried it through the rest of the battle.
From the monument:
Here fought the 90th Penna. (Phila)
Sept. 17, 1862
A Hot Place
This monument is a reconstruction of the original that was created by the veterans of the regiment. It was made from three actual Civil War rifles, and was dismantled around 1930 due to its state of deterioration and fears of theft.
Gary Casteel of Four Winds Studio designed and sculpted the new monument, which was planned and funded by Descendants of the 90th Pennsylvania Volunteers. It was dedicated on the 142nd anniversary of the battle, September 17, 2004.
The 90th is also honored by three monuments on the Gettysburg battlefield.
9th New York Infantry Regiment "Hawkins' Zouaves"
The Ninth New York was commanded at Antietam by Lieutenant Colonel Edgar A. Kimball. It brought 373 men to the field It in eight companies of infantry, with Company F detached in North Carolina and Company K operating as Whiting's Battery of Artillery. It lost 45 men killed, 176 wounded and 14 missing in the attack from Antietam Creek up the slopes to the town of Sharpsburg.
Captain Adolphe Libaire of Company E received the Medal of Honor for his actions at Antietam. Libaire picked up the regiment's colors after the color bearers had been killed or wounded and led the charge up the hill.
The 9th New York was attached to the First Brigade of the Third Division of the Ninth Army Corps.
From the west side of the monument:
Erected by the State of New
York to the memory of the 9th
New York Infantry - Hawkins'
Zouaves - who fought on
this Field, Sept. 17, 1862.
From the north side:
Members present for duty in
action 373, killed 54, wounded 158,
missing 28, total loss 240.
Two Companies were detailed
and engaged elsewhere and did not
participate in the advance.
From the south side:
The greatest mortality occurred
near this position, where the Regi-
ment contended with a superior
force of infantry and artillery.
From the east side:
About 2 P.M. having forded the Antietam
Creek, the regiment meeting with
desperate resistance, advanced to
this position and held it until
New-York Tribune, 19 September 1862,
The Davenport Daily Gazette, 20 September 1862, Page 1
44th Alabama Infantry (Probable). This flag is a second wool bunting issue Army of Northern Virginia battle flag. It was manufactured at the Richmond Clothing Depot in June, 1862. The flag was captured at the “Sunken Lane” during the Battle of Antietam (Sharpsburg) on September 17, 1862 by 2nd Lt. Theodore W. Grieg, Co. C, 61st New York Volunteer Infantry. Grieg was later recommended for and finally received the Congressional Medal of Honor on February 10, 1887.
Medal of Honor awarded to Private Samuel C. Wright, 29th Massachusetts Regiment, donated to Antietam Battlefield
13th Alabama Flag
This flag is an Army of Northern Virginia, 2nd wool bunting issue. It was manufactured at the Richmond Clothing Depot in June, 1862. The flag was captured on September 17, 1862 during the Battle of Antietam (Sharpsburg) by Private John P. Murphy, Co. K, 5th Ohio Infantry. Private Murphy was recommended for and received the Congressional Medal of Honor. The flag was eventually forwarded to the U.S. War Department where it was assigned Capture Number 521. It was returned to the State of Alabama effective April 26, 1905.
Capt Abram M Feltus, Jr's Official Report Report of September 22, 1862
Colonel C. POSEY,
Commanding Featherston's Brigade.
COLONEL: I herewith submit a report of the part taken by the Sixteenth Mississippi Regiment in the action of 17th instant, near Sharpsburg, Md.:
The regiment was on the left of the brigade. About 10 a. m., being ordered to advance in the direction of the enemy, did so in good order. We advanced in line of battle, having the brigade of General Pryor in our front. Passing by a large barn, we proceeded, under a heavy fire of artillery and small-arms, several hundred yards farther, and came on General Pryor's brigade and a brigade of North Carolina troops lying down in a road beyond the first corn-field after passing the barn. The regiment, as did the brigade, passed over these troops and confronted the enemy in line of battle, who were drawn up some 300 yards from the road, pouring a destructive fire in our ranks. During this time the losses in the regiment had been heavy. A murderous fire of grape, canister, shell, and small-arms played on us. Notwithstanding, this regiment gallantly held its position until ordered to retire, which it did in as good order as could be expected from its thinned ranks. When we retired as far as the road, a scene of great confusion ensued from the mingling together of different brigades. We continued to fall back until we reached the barn, where the remnant of the regiment was rallied in its position on the left of the brigade. In this position we advanced again upon the enemy, and met them in the corn-field beyond the barn. Here, after a desperate fight, we fell back, by orders, to our original position, on account of the terrific cross-fire of the enemy's batteries. We remained in this position, under a heavy fire of shell and solid shot, for about an hour, when the enemy advanced upon us in line of battle. This was about 4 or 5 o'clock in the afternoon. The remnant of the regiment, in its proper position in the brigade, moved forward and met the enemy in the orchard by the barn and drove them back. After this, night ensued and the fight ended.
The number of men carried into the action was 228; of them, 144 were killed or wounded, leaving only 84 men.
The officers and men acted with laudable gallantry during the entire engagement.
A. M. FELTUS,
Captain, Commanding Sixteenth Mississippi Regiment.
Pocket Knife and Case
This knife and case was probably used by Clara Barton and her staff at Glen Echo. Earlier, during the Battle of Antietam, September 17, 1862, Barton performed her first field surgery. She extracted a bullet from the face of a wounded soldier using a similar pocket knife and another wounded man to hold the patient still. She later stated, “I do not think a surgeon would have pronounced it a scientific operation, but that it was successful I dared to hope from the gratitude of the patient.”