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When Jackson's troops reached Sharpsburg on September 16th, Harpers Ferry having surrendered the day before, Lee consolidated his position along the low ridge that runs north and south of the town - stretching from the Potomac River on his left to the Antietam Creek on his right. "We will make our stand on these hills," Lee told his officers.
General Robert E. Lee had placed cannon on Nicodemus Heights to his left, the high ground in front of Dunker Church, the ridge just east of Sharpsburg (site of the National Cemetery), and on the heights overlooking the Lower Bridge. Infantry filled in the lines between these points, including a sunken lane less than a half mile long with worm fencing along both sides (later known as Bloody Lane). A handful of Georgia sharpshooters guarded the Lower Bridge (Burnside Bridge).
By the evening of the 16th, Gen. George McClellan had about 60,000 troops ready to attack--double the number available to Lee. The battle opened at a damp, murky dawn on the 17th when Union artillery on the bluffs beyond Antietam Creek began a murderous fire on Jackson's lines near the Dunker Church.
As the Federals marched toward Miller's Cornfield north of town, the Confederates rose up in the cornfield and fired on the advancing lines. McClellan responded by withdrawing his infantry and training cannon on the corn. "In the time I am writing," Hooker reported, "every stalk of corn in the northern and greater part of the field was cut as closely as could have been done with a knife, and the slain lay in rows precisely as they had stood in their ranks a few moments before."
Hooker's troops advanced again, driving the Confederates before them, and Jackson reported that his men were "exposed for near an hour to a terrific storm of shell, canister, and musketry." About 7 a.m. Jackson was reenforced and succeeded in driving the Federals back.
An hour later Union troops under Gen. Joseph Mansfield counterattacked and regained some of the lost ground. Less than 200 yards apart, the opposing lines fired lead into each other for a half hour. "They stood and shot each other, until the lines melted away like wax," reported a New York soldier, Isaac Hall. Fighting continued back and forth over the 20-acre cornfield, with the field changing hands 15 times, according to some accounts.
Then, in an effort to turn the Confederate left flank, Gen. John Sedgwick's division of Gen. Edwin V. Sumner's corps advanced into the West Woods. There Confederate troops arriving from other parts of the field struck Sedgwick's flank, killing or wounding nearly half of his division--about 2,255 men--within a quarter hour of point-blank fire.
During the three hours of battle, the Confederates had stopped two Federal corps and a division from another, totaling about 20,000 men. Approximately 10,000 men from both sides lay dead or wounded.
Meanwhile, Gen. William H. French's division of Sumner's Union corps moved up to support Sedgwick but veered south into the center of the Confederate line, under Gen. D. H. Hill. The Confederates were posted along a ridge in an old sunken road separating the Roulette and Piper farms. The 800-yard-long road had been worn down over the years by heavy wagons taking grain to the nearby mill, making an ideal defensive trench for the Rebels.
At dawn some five brigades of D. H. Hill's troops guarded this lane. Soon three brigades had been pulled out to support Jackson in the East Woods, but they were beaten back by Union Gen. George Greene's attack on that position. By 9:30 a.m. the Confederates were stacking fence rails on the north side of the road to provide additional protection from the Union forces, advancing in paradelike precision across the field.
Firing from behind these improvised breastworks and sheltered in the Sunken Road, the Rebels seemed unassailable. They repelled four different Union charges against the position. "For three hours and thirty minutes," one Union officer wrote, "the battle raged incessantly, without either party giving way."
From 9:30 a.m. to 1 p.m., bitter fighting raged along this deeply cut lane (afterward known as Bloody Lane) as French, supported by Gen. Israel B. Richardson's division, also of Sumner's corps, sought to drive the Southerners back. By 1 p.m. about 5,600 killed and wounded troops from both sides lay along and in front of this 800-yard lane.
Finally, seeing a weak spot in the Confederate line, the 61st and 64th New York regiments penetrated the crest of the hill at the eastern end and began firing volley after volley full length down the sunken line. Then, misinterpreting an order, a Confederate officer pulled his regiment out of the road. The remaining defenders rapidly scrambled out of the lane, over the fence, and fled through the cornfields to the south, some not stopping until they had reached the outskirts of Sharpsburg itself. More than 300 Rebels threw down their arms and surrendered on the spot.
"Lee's army was ruined," one of Lee's officers wrote later. "And the end of the Confederacy was in sight." About 200 Rebel infantry attempted a weak counterattack, while Lee rushed 20 cannon to the Piper farm. An attack through this hole would have crushed the Confederate center, and the remaining divisions could be destroyed piecemeal. Fortunately for the South, however, McClellan decided against a counterattack with his fresh reserves. That fateful decision would allow the Confederacy to fight on for three more years.
Southeast of town, Union Gen. Ambrose E. Burnside's corps of 12,000 men had been trying to cross a 12-foot-wide bridge over Antietam Creek since 9:30 a.m. About 450 Georgian sharpshooters took up positions behind trees and boulders on a steep wooded bluff some 100 feet high and overlooking the Lower Bridge. Greatly outnumbered, the Confederates drove back several Union advances toward the bridge.
Finally, at 1 p.m. the Federals crossed the 125-foot-long bridge (now known as Burnside Bridge) and, after a 2-hour delay to rest and replenish ammunition, continued their advance toward Sharpsburg.
By late afternoon about 8,000 Union troops had driven the Confederates back almost to Sharpsburg, threatening to cut off the line of retreat for Lee's army. By 3:30 p.m. many Rebels jammed the streets of Sharpsburg in retreat. The battle seemed lost to the Southern army.
Then at 3:40 p.m. Gen. A. P. Hill's division, left behind by Jackson at Harpers Ferry to salvage the captured Federal property, arrived on the field after a march of 17 miles in eight hours. Immediately Hill's 3,000 troops entered the fight, attacking the Federals' unprotected left flank. Burnside's troops were driven back to the heights near the bridge they had taken earlier. The attack across the Burnside Bridge and Hill's counterattack in the fields south of Antietam resulted in 3,470 casualties--with twice as many Union casualties (2,350) as Confederate (1,120).
Longstreet later wrote, "We were so badly crushed that at the close of the day ten thousand fresh troops could have come in and taken Lee's army and everything in it." But again McClellan held the 20,000 men of V Corps and VI Corps in reserve--and lost a second opportunity to defeat the entire Confederate army. By 5:30 p.m., the Battle of Antietam was over.
The next day Federal and Confederate leaders struck up an informal truce, so they could begin gathering up the wounded and dying. During the evening of the 18th Lee began withdrawing his army across the Potomac River.
Antietam on September 17, 1862, was the bloodiest one-day battle of the Civil War. Federal losses were 12,410, Confederate losses 10,700. One in four men engaged in battle that day had fallen. Some historians believe that Lee's failure to carry the war effectively into the North caused Great Britain to postpone recognition of the Confederate government. The battle also gave President Abraham Lincoln the opportunity to issue the Emancipation Proclamation which, on January 1, 1863, declared free all slaves in states still in rebellion against the United States. Now the war had a dual purpose: to preserve the Union and to end slavery.
Credit: Antietam National Battlefield (National Park Service)