The first significant conflict of the Civil War on Northern Soil occurred 150 years ago today near Sharpsburg, Maryland. The result: An infamous, bloody engagement resulting in over 12,000 total casualties for the Union, and over 10,000 for the Confederacy. This single, bloodiest battle in U.S. history is known as Antietam.
So named for a nearby creek, the Battle of Antietam marks perhaps the most significant turning point of the war outside of the Battle of Gettysburg, though the embattled men of the day would not have known this, as 12 hours of fighting ended with a virtual stalemate and unimaginable physical suffering for many who lived. Little ground was gained by either side.
The suffering of the day and in the days that followed is encapsulated by the many letters written by soldiers on the battlefield, particularly the following portion of a letter by William Child, Major and Surgeon with the 5th Regiment New Hampshire Volunteers – one of the hardest hit units of the day – to his wife:
The days after the battle are a thousand times worse than the day of the battle – and the physical pain is not the greatest pain suffered. How awful it is – you have not can have [sic] until you see it any idea of affairs after a battle. The dead appear sickening but they suffer no pain. But the poor wounded mutilated soldiers that yet have life and sensation make a most horrid picture. I pray God may stop such infernal work – through perhaps he has sent it upon us for our sins. Great indeed must have been our sins if such is our punishment.1
Initially bolstered by his success at the Second Battle of Bull Run at the end of August, General Robert E. Lee escaped with his Army of Northern Virginia the evening of September 17th, crossing the Potomac to escape further losses, though minor clashes continued the following day. This retreat gave George McClellan, commander of the Union’s Army of the Potomac, reason to claim victory – despite his greater number of total casualties, and seeming inability to effectively use all his forces to defeat Lee’s men. This perceived victory gave President Abraham Lincoln the success he had been seeking before issuing the Emancipation Proclamation.
McClellan rebutted Lincoln’s insistence to follow Lee’s forces into Virginia, which resulted in Lincoln relieving McClellan of his duties on November 7th.
Seemingly lost for no reason, the men who gave their lives on September 17th, 1862 – on both sides – actually gave the country much more than they could have ever envisioned – a reason for the British and French to not recognize the Confederacy as a sovereign nation; and, more importantly, by way of the Emancipation Proclamation, the first turning point in the tide of centuries worth of slavery in North America.
1National Park Service: Letters and Diaries of Soldiers and Civilians; http://www.nps.gov/anti/forteachers/upload/Letters%20and%20Diaries%20of%20Soldiers%20and%20Civilians.pdf. Accessed 09/17/2012.