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In the meantime, President Lincoln had removed the failed General John Pope from command and shipped him out to Minnesota to fight Native Americans. Pope never led another army against the South. On September 2, Lincoln placed Mc-Clellan back in command of the Army of the Potomac. Learning that Lee had entered Union territory, McClellan took up his army and began marching toward the enemy on September 7, keeping his forces between Lee and Washington, D.C.

As Lee entered Maryland, he sent Stonewall Jackson and his forces to Harpers Ferry in western Virginia (today, this territory is the state of West Virginia). The Union had 10,000 soldiers stationed there with the ability to threaten Lee's supply lines. To send Jackson's army to Harpers Ferry, Lee had to divide his army. This would put him in a weaker position in the case of a Union attack. The Confederate general hoped the troops at the Union military post at Harpers Ferry might retreat, or that McClellan might be slow in pursuing the Southern forces. Neither proved true. In fact, on September 13, two Union soldiers discovered a piece of paper wrapped around three cigars at an abandoned Confederate camp outside Frederick, Maryland. It was a lucky find for McClellan: The paper was a copy of Lee's Special Orders No. 191, which revealed that Lee had split his army. Armed with this information, McClellan knew he must get to Lee and attack before Jackson had an opportunity to reunite with Lee.

Although McClellan did move his forces faster toward Lee, he did not move quickly enough. A friendly Marylander informed Lee of McClellan's newly discovered information, and the Confederate general quickly sent messengers to instruct Jackson to rejoin Lee's forces as soon as possible. By September 15, the Union post at Harpers Ferry surrendered, and Jackson set out to catch up with Lee. The following day, with the Federals approaching, Lee drew up his men outside Sharpsburg, Maryland, along the west bank of Antietam Creek, and prepared to fight. It was a questionable choice of location that Lee had made. He had the Potomac River to his back, which would cut off any necessary retreat, just as Grant had fought at Shiloh with the Tennessee River to his rear. Lee hoped that McClellan would command his men badly, as he had during the Seven Days, the

September 17, 1862, marked the start of the Battle of Antietam (above) and the bloodiest day of the Civil War. General Robert E. Lee had hoped to win the battle to further his army's advance into Northern territory, but the Union gained a critical advantage when they discovered Lee had divided his army to cover more ground. When the fighting was over, Lee had lost approximately one-quarter of his army to death and injury.

September 17, 1862, marked the start of the Battle of Antietam (above) and the bloodiest day of the Civil War. General Robert E. Lee had hoped to win the battle to further his army's advance into Northern territory, but the Union gained a critical advantage when they discovered Lee had divided his army to cover more ground. When the fighting was over, Lee had lost approximately one-quarter of his army to death and injury.

only previous time McClellan and Lee had fought one another as commanders.

On September 16, McClellan's advance guard reached Lee's lines, but the Union commander only poked at Lee's army, failing to attack with full force. McClellan's timid actions would not serve him well. By the following day, all of Lee's men, minus one division, had reached the fields west of Antietam and were ready to fight. Before their arrival, Lee had only three divisions manning his line. On the morning of September 16, McClellan had 60,000 men available for an attack against Lee and 15,000 more within 6 miles (10 km) of Antietam Creek. By comparison, Lee had only 25,000 or 30,000 men in position. Had McClellan attacked in full a day or two earlier, he might have crushed Lee's army completely. But he had not.

At 5:30 in the morning on September 17, Union general Joseph Hooker, organized on McClellan's right, did move forward. The Battle of Antietam had begun.


Southerners would give the fight at Antietam the name "Sharpsburg." The battle was unique, according to historian James McPherson, because it "was one of the few battles of the war in which both commanders deliberately chose the field and planned their tactics beforehand." Neither side had time to dig into trenches, as Confederates took positions in tree groves, behind rocks and stone walls, and along a sunken road located at the Rebels' center. Along Lee's right stood a stone bridge that crossed Antietam Creek, which the Confederates fought desperately that day to hold.

McClellan sent three corps of men to the Union right, where the battle opened, and he sent General Ambrose Burnside toward the bridge on the Federal left flank. McClellan meant to catch Lee's attention so he would not station many troops on his left, where McClellan was concentrating his own men. In the meantime, the Union commander held back four additional divisions and much of his cavalry, planning to throw them into the fight if an opening exposed itself on his right flank or the center of his line. He also anticipated that Burnside would lead his men across the bridge and creek and crush Lee's right. The plan was a good one, but the battle did not unfold exactly according to plan.

Much of the blame for the plan's failure falls on McClel-lan and Burnside. McClellan did not coordinate his attacks well enough, which meant the battle unfolded in three stages, beginning on the Union right, then center, and finally on his left. This provided Lee the opportunity to shift his men during the battle in reaction to the series of three assaults that should have taken place more in unison than they did. In addition, Burnside wasted much of the day of the battle concentrating on capturing the bridge. He focused on this all morning and for much of the afternoon, even though his men could have simply waded across the creek against little Confederate opposition. Again, Lee was able to move a division that morning from his right to his left when the battle was most intense at that location, and then move them again back to his right when most of the fighting shifted in that direction. Lee simply outgeneraled McClellan that day. But the day would not end entirely in Lee's favor.


On the early morning of September 17, Hooker and his Union forces stepped forward, marching quickly down the Hagerstown Pike from the north, and soon engaged the enemy. Hooker was a veteran of the Mexican-American War, a hard-fighting general who liked to take the offensive and whose ego was legendary. He had gained his nickname, "Fighting Joe," from the Seven Days fighting. Hooker longed to command the Army of the Potomac some day, a desire he would live to see fulfilled.

Fighting on McClellan's right, Hooker's men pushed against the Rebel left, which was under the command of the newly arrived Stonewall Jackson. Much of the fight took place in the East Woods and across ground remembered later as "the Cornfield." Just north of the field was a whitewashed church of the German Dunkard sect, whose members were, ironically, pacifists. The corn was ripe and ready for harvest on that fall day, yet the rows of corn were cut to shreds by the intense level of musket fire from both sides.

At one point, Hooker's men appeared ready to roll back Jackson's men, but then the Rebels were reinforced. Lee sent

General D.H. Hill's division from the battlefield line's center and troops under General Longstreet's command from the Rebel right. It was the South's turn to push as Hooker's line fell back. Then, the Union 12th Corps carried out another assault, which broke the Confederates' line near the Dunkard church. This was followed closely by another Rebel challenge, which, once again, returned the Cornfield to Confederate control. It was again the Union's turn to take the field, which they did when General Edwin Vose "Bull" Sumner's 2nd Corps struck against the Rebels in the West Woods. The Rebels then returned the favor, countering with yet another charge through the woods and corn. This time the charge had more troops whom Lee had removed from his right, including some of Jackson's men who had only reached the battlefield that morning from Harpers Ferry.

The battle raged back and forth for five hours through the East Woods, the West Woods, and the Cornfield. In all, this part of the battle included five divisions on each side. Eventually, both sides, bloodied and badly damaged, broke off the fighting as cleanly as if their commanders had first sat down and made the decision together. The Confederate left had held. As for Hooker, he was removed from the battlefield, wounded. The musket fire through the field had been so intense that almost none of the cornstalks were left standing.


Then, the battle shifted to the center of the line for both sides. General Sumner had made the first clear move in that direction, directing two of his divisions there before Confederates could approach his men from the left. The midday sun was high over the battlefield, and the battle's second phase began.

At this point on the battlefield, the action was centered along a portion of a sunken road. The Rebels had occupied this road before the battle, allowing them to use the low ground as a shallow-based trench of sorts and providing them with some real cover. The fighting went on for hours, with many casualties on both sides. Eventually, Northern forces managed to get the Confederates out of their positions on the sunken road. By then, the road was littered with the bodies of dead Rebel troops, which gave the battle site the name "Bloody Lane." With this break in the Confederate line, the Union men appeared to have an opportunity to destroy Lee's position.

The Virginia general scrambled for reinforcements, drawing them from other parts of the battlefield. Lee's decision was desperate, since moving men around left other parts of the fighting ground weakened. Fortunately for the Confederates, the reinforcements he shifted to his center saved his army from being destroyed. The fighting along the sunken road was just as ferocious as across the Cornfield. A Northern newspaper reporter was on the scene immediately after Union men pushed the Confederates back to the outskirts of Sharpsburg. He was stunned by what he saw, later writing, as noted by historian James McPherson, that the "Confederates had gone down as the grass falls before the scythe."

If McClellan had then sent some of his saved units toward the remains of the Confederate center, they would have found a clear path and extremely weakened Rebels. McPherson quotes one Rebel officer as writing later that "there was no body of Confederate infantry in this part of the field that could have resisted a serious advance." Another Confederate agreed, his words remembered by historian Frederick Tilbert: "Lee's army was ruined and the end of the Confederacy was in sight."

Given his opportunity, it is incredible that McClellan did not order another assault on the Confederate center. On the other hand, the commander of the Union's 6th Corps, General William B. Franklin, was eager to enter the fight. But with three Union corps exhausted after the fighting that morning, Mc-Clellan could not bring himself to order one more attack. He was also certain that Lee still had masses of troops saved up for a grand counterattack. McClellan ordered Franklin to stand down, saying, "it would not be prudent to make the attack," McPherson notes.

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