The Battle Of Antietam Re-enacted September 17
The Battle Of Antietam Re-enacted September 17
(By Ray C. Thompson)
Nearly four score years ago the history of a nation was changed ... the bloodiest single day's battle ever fought on the American Continent, with nearly 5,000 casualties, of a day's total of more than 23,000, falling in less than 30 minutes ... the result of a scrap of paper, wrapped around three cigars and tied with a bit of string.
Such is the background of the seventy-fifth anniversary and celebration of the Battle of Antietam, coming September 17 at Sharpsburg, Md., near Hagerstown, when President Roosevelt and a quarter million people are expected to witness this first re-enactment of the battle that gave Abraham Lincoln the courage to issue the Emancipation, September 22, 1862, just four days after the battle. For history records that the world-renowned Robert E. Lee, of Virginia, commanding the Army of Northern Virginia had decisively defeated the Federals throughout Virginia under McClellan and Pope in the Peninsula and Manassas campaigns and on September 4th Lee had begun his first Northern invasion through Maryland.
The scrap of paper, found lying by the dusty road at Frederick, Md., September 13, 1862, by McClellan's Federal forces, was "Order No. 191", by General Robert E. Lee, separating his Army into four hazardous districts, separated by mountains and streams. It brought on the Battle of Antietam, at Sharpsburg, Md., which historians term was fought to a draw at the high tide of the Confederacy — the turning point of the War Between the States. Many describe this struggle between Lee's 35,000, who were famished and footsore, against Federal forces 87,000 strong, well-fed and finely equipped for war, as one of the decisive battles of the world. It was at Sharpsburg that the troops the Old Dominion and "the mother of Presidents" immortalized themselves in the most decisive victory of the Civil War. "Stonewall Jackson", with Virginia's Generals Jubal A. Early, Paul J. Semmes, General Fitzhugh Lee, and Col. J. W. Jackson, made history in winning the Dunkard Church and West Woods section, the first of three major phases of the Battle of Antietam, September 17, 1862, on the left wing of D. H. Hill's "Bloody Lane" sector.
Here 26 regiments of Virginia included the 1st, 3d, 4th, 5th, 9th Virginia Cavalry; the 2nd, 4th, 5th, 10th, 13th, 15th, 23d, 25th, 27th, 31st, 32nd, 33d, 37th, 44th, 49th, 52nd, and 58th Virginia Infantry, most of whom participated in the famous ambush of General Sedgwick's close marching Federals in the West Woods, from the front, left flank and rear, where some 2,000 fell within 15 minutes, while the entire Virginia Cavalry held the left flank along the Potomac with the famous Generals Fitzhugh Lee and J. E. B. Stuart.
Repulsing wave after wave of Federal onslaught, and against odds more than two to one, Virginia held with the left wing under "Stonewall" Jackson on that fateful day, completely foiling the plans of McClellan's forces to drive Lee's whole army back into the Potomac.
Antietam occupies an unique place in the nation's history in that neither side could claim victory, and that Maryland was the only State among the 30 whose troops participated in the battle, with organized troops on both sides. That, much like little Belgium of the "World War", Maryland was always overrun, with sympathies divided, but never a winner. Fitting it is that today, Maryland is the "Host State", and after two years of preparation has invited the Governors of her 29 sister states to witness the re-enactment of The Battle of Antietam at Sharpsburg, nearby Hagerstown, September 17, 1937, upon it seventy-fifth anniversary.
Alexander in his book of Memoirs, now used as a textbook at West Point, writes: "Antietam Battlefield is unique among the fields of war, in offering all the prizes to the Federals and all the risks to the Confederates. To McClellan it was the opportunity of a lifetime. Lee was fighting with his back to the river which he could not have crossed under fire. McClellan fought with safe retreat assured him in case of disaster by the Antietam Creek in front of him and the powerful artillery on the hills behind it." Douglas Southall Freeman, whose 20 years of research brought forth the most complete history of Robert E. Lee, partially justifies Lee's hazardous separation of his army in view of the rich prizes to be gained, and the speed with which Lee had planned to acquire his ends and reunite his forces again. Supplies and ammunition as well as food, were badly needed. A secondary but vital objective is cited as that of cutting off the supplies and recruits from the West to Federal forces and Washington by destroying the railroad West of Harrisburg, Pa. Roper, perhaps the best informed writer upon the war itself, said: "This decision to stand and fight at Sharpsburg, which General Lee took on the evening of September 14, just after his troops had been driven from the South Mountain passes, is beyond controversy, one of the boldest and most hazardous decisions in his whole military career.” The reports show that this stand was made upon the eve of "Stonewall" Jackson's success on the morning of the 15th in the capture of the "million dollar prize" arsenal and about 12,000 men at Harpers Ferry, the failure of which would have undoubtedly caused General Lee to retreat back into Virginia without battle.
In all of Maryland Lee lost 13,609 in 13 days. He killed and captured 27,767—a number equal to better than half of his whole army, and while General Lee was not pleased at having to leave Maryland, in time he became prouder of Sharpsburg than of any other battle he directed, for he believed that his men there faced the heaviest odds they ever encountered. Freeman's reports show that on the morning of September 17, 1862 he had but 25,000 tired and hungry from recent campaigns in Virginia, to McClellan's 87,000 and that by 3 p. m., with the arrival of the last division from Harper's Ferry under A. P. Hill, his total reached by approximately 35,000. Antietam upon the occasion of its 75th Anniversary, September 17th, in its first re-enactment, brings together in reunion the ever thinning ranks of the Gray and the Blue at Antietam not only for the first but undoubtedly for the last time.
National recognition is accorded the celebration by two recent Acts of Congress: one establishing the U. S. Antietam Celebration Commission; the other, the minting of special half-dollars uniting on the face the likenesses of the most famous General of all time, Robert E. Lee, and his former brilliant student at West Point, General George B. McClellan, and, with Burnside Bridge on the other. They are being sold as souvenirs at the regulation U. S. Mint price of $1.65 by the Washington County Historical Society, Hagerstown, Md.
Two weeks of celebration from September 4 to 17, starting with the date General Lee crossed the Potomac on his first Maryland invasion, will mark the beginning of the 75th anniversary of the Battle of Antietam, by a two-centuries-old community that was once the western frontier of the nation. Washington County—the first named after George Washington - which 150 years ago witnessed the successful demonstration of the first steamboat by James Rumsey on the Potomac between Virginia and Maryland.
Mammoth pageantry of World's Fair proportions will be offered at the Hagerstown Exposition grounds such as these 52 acres never saw before, depicting 32 episodes of 200 years of progress similar to but larger than "The Wings of a Century" at the recent Chicago World's Fair, and this year's "Parade of the Years," and "The Fair of the Iron Horse."
Dr. George Boiling Lee, grandson of Robert E. Lee of New York City, and Col. George B. McClellan, son of the former commander of The Army of the Potomac against General Lee, will be guests of honor at the re-enactment of the Battle of Antietam September 17, 1937.
Ray C. Thompson
Used with permission of the Loudoun Times-Mirror.
Ray Thompson was the chair of the National Publicity Committee of the National Antietam Commemoration.
Western Maryland Room, Washington County Free Library.
Published in the Leesburg Va Times-Mirror
Antietam, Battle of, Md., 1862: Centennial celebrations, etc
Washington County (Md.), 1937.