Late in the day, McClellan was still sending regiments, battalions, and even whole divisions bit by bit into the Antietam fight. Then the third phase of the battle opened along the Union left flank near the stone bridge. If McClellan was guilty that day of poor coordination and general bad management in this battle, he was not alone.
The commander of the Union's 9th Corps was Major General Ambrose Burnside. He was given orders to take his men across the Lower Bridge, otherwise known as the Rohrbach Bridge (today it is remembered as Burnside's Bridge). Perhaps the corps commander took his orders too literally. He wasted hours of combat time trying to capture the bridge from its defenders, while a brigade of Georgia boys, hiding in trees and behind a stone wall, pelted Burnside's line with bullets through the entire morning of the fight. General Robert A. Toombs was the commander of those Rebels, and the actions his men took at Antietam near the bridge would be his greatest achievement of the war. (Toombs had longed to be selected as the Confederacy's president, but he lost out to Jefferson Davis. It was a failure he never accepted, and he spent much of the war criticizing Davis.)
By mid-afternoon, a breakthrough came for Burnside. A pair of his best regiments finally made a desperate charge on the bridge and, despite many casualties, succeeded in their goal. Ironically, about that same time, other Union men found some sites to cross the river without the use of the bridge and made it to the other side that way. Soon, three divisions were steadily driving the enemy away from the river, back toward Sharpsburg. The Federals
The Confederacy's failure to occupy Northern territory in the Battle of Antietam boosted Union morale and allowed President Lincoln to issue the Emancipation Proclamation, a document that led to the end of slavery. Antietam became an important turning point in the war. Lincoln visited McClellan in his tent at Antietam (above) after the fighting had ended.
even threatened to cut off the road leading to the only spot the Rebels had for crossing back over the Potomac River to Virginia. The battle had finally turned completely in the North's favor.
Then, in a repeat of his cautious style of decision making on the field, McClellan considered sending in an entire reserve corps, the 5th, to relieve Burnside's men. According to historian Thomas M. Anderson, just as McClellan was about to send them in, their commander, General Fitz John Porter, warned his superior: "Remember, General, I command the last reserve of the last army of the Republic." (Porter later denied these words, although historians question his testimony.) With that, McClel-lan did not send the 5th Corps into the fight.
All along Lee's lines, his men were being driven back. It looked like defeat would be the result of the day of nonstop fighting. Then, he noticed in the distance a mass of men moving in his direction, masked by a whirl of dust. As noted by historian James F. Murfin, Lee was anxious to identify these new arrivals to the field. "Whose troops are those?" asked Lee. One of his officers pointed a telescope at them and finally answered Lee's question: "They are flying the Virginia and Confederate flags, sir." Lee could not have been more relieved. He had suffered throughout the day in the face of superior Union numbers, which allowed the Federals to send in fresh reinforcements repeatedly. Now, he was to have his own reinforcements.
The troops in question were General A.P. Hill's men, the last of those from Harpers Ferry. Hill had remained to work out a surrender with the Union commander and then rushed his men along the road to Sharpsburg. They reached the field of battle, taking on Burnside's men on the Confederate right side late in the day, just as those positions were falling into retreat. Surprised Federals soon turned in retreat. In part, the Union men did not fire on the approaching Confederates since many of Hill's men were wearing blue uniforms they had captured at Harpers Ferry. It is not an exaggeration to give Hill's men the credit for having saved the Army of Northern Virginia.
The day had become a bloodbath. All across the Sharpsburg battlefield, the bodies of 6,000 fighting men from both sides lay scattered in the Cornfield, along the sunken road, and near Rohrbach Bridge. In addition, 17,000 soldiers lay wounded. This number of casualties made Antietam the bloodiest single day of fighting of the entire war. Historian James McPherson notes that "more than twice as many Americans lost their lives in one day at Sharpsburg as fell in combat in the War of 1812, the Mexican War and the Spanish-American war combined!' Several of Lee's brigades lost as many as 50 percent of their men to casualties, leaving only 30,000 Confederates able to fight in a possible second day at Antietam. Lee made no effort to remove them from harm's way. In part, this was because crossing the Potomac with that number of men was impossible. The following day, however, McClellan made no attempt to renew the battle. By evening, Lee ordered the return of his men back across the Potomac. Over the next several days, the Army of Northern Virginia limped back to Southern soil.
General McClellan wasted no time declaring the battle a complete victory for himself. He sent Lincoln a message, claiming, as noted by historian James McPherson, "Maryland is entirely freed from the presence of the enemy, who has been driven across the Potomac. No fears need now be entertained for the safety of Pennsylvania." In a letter to his wife, McClellan shouted his own praises: "Those in whose judgment I rely tell me that I fought the battle splendidly & that it was a masterpiece of art. . . . I feel that I have done all that can be asked in twice saving the country. . . . I feel some little pride in having, with a beaten & demoralized army, defeated Lee so utterly. . . . Well, one of these days history will I trust do me justice."
McClellan was right about one thing: The day was a victory for the Union, which had won the day under his command. Lee's army turned around and retreated from Union soil. In England, British officials had been closely watching the direction of the war and considering whether to enter the conflict by supporting the Confederacy. After the battle, British government officials decided to steer clear of such a commitment. President Lincoln, following the much-needed Union victory, took the opportunity to issue publicly his Emancipation Proclamation, which announced the freeing of slaves in Confederate-controlled territory. For these reasons, the battle would represent an important turning point in the war.
As Lee's men marched back to Virginia, it was his army that was feeling low. Nearly one out of every three Confederate soldiers who had marched into Maryland either did not return to Southern soil or had been wounded in battle. Lee's march into Maryland had proven a disaster. During the retreat across the Potomac, a Rebel regimental band began to play "Maryland, My Maryland." Not surprisingly, those who heard the tune raised a complaint, hissing and groaning. The band quickly selected a more appropriate tune: "Carry Me Back to Old Virginny."
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