By Jay Oliver
ON September 14 part of the Battle of Antietam will be reenacted at Sharpsburg, Md., in celebration of the 75th anniversary of the battle. Most of us have read in our history books something about the Battle of Antietam (also known as the Battle of Sharpsburg) but perhaps some of us have forgotten that it was one of the greatest battles of the war and of all time.
Battles are not usually pleasant things to talk about, but it may be that some of those who read this would like to journey across the Potomac to see the spectacle, and it might be well to have in mind in advance why such large numbers were engaged, why the battle took place there instead of some other place and what was the result.
Following the Second Battle of Bull Run, often called Second Manassas, on August 30, 1862, and the Battle of Chantilly on September 1, the Federal forces, with General McClellan in command, retreated within the lines of defence which protected Washington.
General Robert E. Lee, in command of the Confederate forces which had been pushing the Federals northward in Virginia, believed that if he could carry the war into Maryland and Pennsylvania he would create in the North opposition to a continuation of the struggle. The Federal forces had suffered severely in recent engagements and Lee felt that the time was ripe for his plan.
On September 5 with about 50,000 fighting men he crossed the Potomac near Poolesville, Md., and occupied Frederick on the following day.
McClellan's army reorganized, left the vicinity of Washington on the night of September 6, going north and west by way of Rockville, reaching the neighborhood of Frederick on September 12.
By a trick of fate, the Federal commanders soon came into possession of Lee's exact plans. A Confederate officer had lost an official order and it was found, near Frederick, by a Federal soldier who passed it along to his superiors.
On Sept. 14 the opposing forces engaged in preliminary fighting at South Mountain, west of Frederick. Late that evening the Federals won their way to the highest part of the mountain, and in the darkness the Confederates abandoned their position on the western slope.
On the morning of the 16th the Federals were in the neighborhood of Boonsboro, and there was fighting all day by batteries of field guns on the heights near Antietam Creek, with infantry in line of battle. Darkness fell, and the regiments were marched to new positions. The soldiers suffered much from thirst, but guards had been placed at the wells— to keep the water for the wounded that were to be on the morrow.
By midnight the Federals and the Confederates were in place on Antietam Battlefield — a field to be baptized on the following day in the blood of thousands of Americans, some in blue and some in gray.
As soon as there was light enough to see objects at close range the battle began. Musketry, cannon thunder, cheers, the rebel yell. Hell had let loose.
The area of the battle was gradually extended; fighting was taking place on country roads, around farm buildings, in corn fields, in the woods, on the banks of the creek, and at the bridges. Death on a grand scale had suddenly invaded a peaceful countryside. And in the midst of all this blood and thunder was the little village of Sharpsburg.
Only a military man would be able to give or understand a detailed description of the position of the many units engaged, and their movements forward and back with the tide of battle, but old soldiers have told of little incidents which anybody can understand.
There's the story of the bloody cornfield, for instance. A heavy force of Confederates was concealed in a thirty-acre field of corn. The presence of the soldiers was betrayed by the rays of the sun reflected from shining bayonets. Orders were given by the Federal officers to open fire with canister and to turn all available guns on this field. In less than half an hour there was not a stalk of the corn standing and the Confederates lay in rows as they had stood in ranks.
All day long the fight continued and the soldiers on both sides who were still living were so weary they could hardly stand. The sun went down like a great ball of fire and less descended on a scene of blood and havoc and destruction, smoking ruins of farm buildings, trampled crops, broken trees, wounded and dead men and horses, and living men and boys in blue and gray who were tired, hungry, thirsty and sad at heart. Little were they thinking of glory. Water was what they wanted and sleep.
On the next day there was no artillery firing or general fighting; both armies were prostrated. There was some exchange of dead under flags of truce, and there was distribution of food and ammunition, and a general checking up, the officers trying to bring some order out of the confusion and many men trying to find the commands from which they had been separated.
That night the Confederates retreated across the Potomac, and covered their retreat with batteries placed on the bluffs on the Virginia side. The main force of the Federals did not cross the river until late in the following month, after it had received orders from Washington to do so.
The failure of Lee to defeat his opponents saved Washington; the failure of McClellan to win a decisive victory resulted in prolonging the war. Twenty-five thousand men dead and dying—for what?
Once more the sun shines warm and bright over the green fields of Western Maryland; once more the birds sing and the villagers at Sharpsburg go about their daily affairs. The area today is a battlefield park, and over the countryside has sprung up a crop of monuments and markers. As the visitors stand there in the sunshine, surrounded by green grass and trees, it is hard to believe that the things took place which are recorded on those shafts of stone and plates of iron.
Part of the battlefield is occupied by Antietam National Cemetery, in which rest 4,700 Union soldiers.
Good roads have been constructed all through the park area and a high tower has been erected from which one may get a good general view. During the anniversary week part of the battle will be reenacted on the spot, with the cooperation of the Maryland National Guard and other military units.
Used with permission of the Arlington Sun Gazette, Virginia
Western Maryland Room, Washington County Free Library.
Published by the Arlington Sun
Antietam, Battle of, Md., 1862: Centennial celebrations, etc
Washington County (Md.), 1937.