Antietam. It is a generic Algonquin Indian word for “swift water.” But to the Americans that met at the creek by that name in Sharpsburg Maryland in Septemer of 1862 it meant horror and more deaths in one day than any battle in any war ever fought by this country. It was also the end of the “Maryland Campaign” of General Lee, the practical end of a career for General George McClellan, USA, the only battlefield that Lincoln ever visited, the momentary high he used to issue the Emancipation Proclamation, the beginning of political “spin,” and a missed opportunity to end the Civil War three years earlier than it did.
What it was assuredly not was a “great victory” by the Union Army although portrayed that way by the Generals, Lincoln, and his advisors. Lincoln called it that. because he desperately needed a victory after McClellan had lost both battles at Manassas. McClellan thought his strategy beyond question. Certainly beyond the question of that rube lawyer in the White House. That he let Lee and the Army of Virginia to slip away across the Potomac, even in the shape it was in, meant that the war would go on while he rested and resupplied is troops. When asked why he was not in pursuit of Lee, he replied that his horses were tired and he was foraging for replacements. Lincoln’s tart reply was to ask what they had been doing since the battle that could possibly make them tired.
Today it is a large peaceful place in the Maryland countryside with monuments to those who fought here, a cemetery where the Union dead are buried, and a battlefield well preserved that makes you shake your head at the stupidity of it all. In the early morning of September 17, 1862, one hundred thousand soldiers entered a battle that would end at six that evening. By then, 23,000 of them would be dead, wounded or missing. Some units lost sixty percent of their force. Yet McClellan held 30,000 soldiers in reserve and the lines of each Army had moved only five miles south than before it all started in the early morning light.
Reading the history of the battle tells of many firsts here. Clara Barton “The Angel of the Battlefield,” who founded the Red Cross treated the wounded of both armies here. Dr. Jonathan Letterman, Chief Surgeon of the Army of the Potomac established an ambulance system and the beginnings of the triage system to care for the worst first.
While it can be argued that because Lee had to abandon his campaign in Maryland, that the Union “won,” the fact is that his Army survived due to a lack of courage at the upper levels of the field Army. George McClellan was convinced he won because he repulsed the Confederates and sent them back across the Potomac River. The Southern leaders argued in France and England in the hope of help in their efforts to remain independent that they hadn’t “lost” since Lee and his Army survived. Lincoln and his advisors argued that this was the first great victory in the Eastern Campaign in a state which had mixed loyalties and used it as an opportunity to recruit, advance the Conscription Act, and used the favorable sentiment in the country to “free” the slaves in the secession states. Politics had entered the War.
Each side looked at it and found a reason to find “victory”. Sadly, except perhaps for the slaves who were no longer owned, it was not. There would be three more years of war in places with names we would have learned in a geography class had the battle been fought well here. Names like Gettysburg, New Market, Vicksburg, Petersburg, Atlanta, Richmond, The Wilderness, and Appomattox. Names that, had the Army of the Potomac been better led, might have never appeared in our history books.