The Union called it Antietam; to the Confederacy it was the Battle of Sharpsburg. It was fought on September 17, 1862, nearly 150 years ago. With more than 6,300 soldiers killed and 15,000 wounded, it was the single bloodiest day in American history. It was a pivotal event in the course of the Civil War. No other battle of that war had “such momentous multiple consequences.”
This column describes this decisive battle, the role of Vermont and New Hampshire troops in the action and the political and military significance of the battle. It draws information from local histories, internet sources, and the books Crossroads of Freedom: Antietam by James M. McPherson and Full Duty by Howard Coffin.
By the fall of 1862, almost 18 months into the war, any idea that the war would be quick and relatively bloodless was completely demolished. The North, with superior numbers of every military and economic factor, except military leadership, was still unable to bring the Confederacy to its knees.
The Federals were committed to reuniting the Union with abolishing slavery only a secondary purpose. Southerners saw the war as an invasion of their homeland and a threat to their way of life.
Southern military reversals during the early months of 1862, was then followed by a series of victories, causing both sides to react strongly. That summer, according to McPherson, was one of “dark and dismal days in the north.”
In early September 1862, Robert E. Lee decided to take his Army of Northern Virginia into the northern territory of western Maryland. His goals were to relieve pressure on Virginia, especially during the crucial harvest period, to gather fresh recruits from among southern sympathizers in Maryland and to bring the war to the North.
Invading rich unspoiled Maryland would also provide much needed supplies for his ragged and hungry army. A dramatic victory on Northern territory might also result in recognition of the Confederacy by European powers and gains in the Northern elections for Peace Democrats.
The Army of the Potomac under the command of General George McClellan moved out of Washington to block the invasion. Just prior to the rendezvous, one of the most extraordinary events of the war occurred.
Lee made the decision to divide his forces, sending a portion under Stonewall Jackson to take nearby Harpers Ferry. A copy of this secret Special Order 191 was then found by Union troops wrapped around three cigars and left under a tree.
McClellan’s subsequent failure to act on this information and decisively destroy the divided army gave Lee an advantage. He had been informed by a spy in the Union camp of the discovery of the lost order.
Meanwhile, Jackson’s forces surrounded the 12,419 Union soldiers at Harpers Ferry. Those men, mostly of new regiments like the 9th Vermont, were under the command of the inept Col. Dixon S. Miles. Despite recommendations from Col. George Stannard of the Vermont regiment, Miles failed to send troops to the heights that surrounded the town, leaving the advantage to the seasoned Confederates with their artillery.
Miles surrendered the garrison; the largest group of American soldiers to surrender until Corregidor in 1942. The troops, including Col. Dudley Andross and Lts John Stearns of Bradford and George Chamberlain of Newbury and local men under their command, were sent on parole to Chicago until they were exchanged in January 1863. One officer in the 9th Vermont wrote later: “No disaster of the war exceeds Harpers Ferry in the folly and incompetence which caused it.”
It was the Harpers Ferry victory that persuaded Lee to take a stand with 25,000 men of his divided army at Sharpsburg along a three-mile stretch of Antietam Creek. The Union army of 55,000 arrived at Antietam on the afternoon of September 15.
McClellan again hesitated, missing an opportunity to destroy the enemy, failing even to send reconnaissance and as a result he continued to overestimate Lee’s strength.
On the morning of September 17 the two armies engaged. In that day’s savage struggle, locations such as the Cornfield, Bloody Lane and Burnside’s Bridge were forever tragically etched into the history of the war.
In the 30-acre Cornfield on the Confederate left flank, fighting surged back and forth during the early part of the battle. In the “meat grinder” of combat, the 12th Massachusetts lost 224 of its 334 men. Among the fighters of that regiment was Topsham-born William Nutt. His regiment had the highest casualty rate of any Federal unit that day. The 1st Texas “lost 82 percent of its men in forty five minutes of fighting.”
It was estimated there were 12,000 casualties “in four hours of the war’s most intensive combat.” The exaggerated claim that the field was so covered with dead and wounded that one could walk across without stepping on the ground, gives some indication of the carnage.
A second Union charge was against the center of the Rebel position at a sunken road known as the Bloody Lane. Among those who entered the Cornfield were local men from the Second Sharpshooters who “helped to fill the bloody lane.”
The 5th New Hampshire Regiment, wearing the war paint made of cartridge power and yelling an Indian war whoop, joined the charge. One of their numbers later wrote “What a bloody place…the dead and wounded were literally piled in there in heaps.” The Confederate center collapsed, but McClellan’s hesitation in sending reinforcements lost the advantage.
According to Howard Coffin, around noon the Vermont Brigade advanced through the Cornfield and came to rest in front of the Bloody Lane but were told to halt and so laid down in sight of the “battered rebel line.” During the rest of the battle they remained there “amid considerable shot and shell, with a man occasionally getting hit, returning fire when a target presented itself.”
While losses were relatively few, 25 killed and wounded, perhaps these Vermonters might have been used more effectively against the weakened enemy before them.
A stone bridge on the Confederate right flank was central to later action. General Ambrose Burnside directed a series of attacks against it. Men from Haverhill, Lyme and Orford were among those who braved concentrated fire and with fixed bayonets, took the bridge and the area beyond.
Among those were Erwin, Henry and Josiah Archer and Joseph Quint all of Orford. Those last names that are still part of that town’s geography.
That successful foray came at the same time Lee was reinforced by troops from Harpers Ferry. McClellan believed that sending reinforcements to his forward lines was not “prudent” and again the advantage was lost. The Union forces withdrew.
Many local men fought at Antietam in infantry regiments from New Hampshire and Vermont in company with others they knew from home. Company rosters indicate that many born locally were credited to other towns and other states.
Osman Taplin, born in Newbury, was a member of the 2nd Wisconsin and died of his wounds. Lorin Vance was from Groton originally. He was serving in the 2nd Massachusetts and was also wounded at Antietam.
Some served in other roles. Morris Vance of Groton was a wagoner in the 3rd Vermont along with Robert Carruth of Newbury, a musician.
Shepard Whitman of Newbury, George Lamprey of Orford and Daniel and Frank Davis two brothers from Fairlee and Orford, were sharpshooters. Orford-born Frederick Edgell was the commander of the 1st NH Light Artillery.
As night fell, surgeons tended to the wounded. They were everywhere, filling every shelter. Working with them was Clara Barton, “the angel of the battlefield.” Hospital stewards Charles Brooks of West Fairlee and Marshall Felch of Piermont care for members of the 4th Vermont. Dr. William Child of Bath tended the wounded of the 5th New Hampshire. The wounded included West Fairlee born Josiah Scott, a member of the 9th NH. Many would die from their wounds. David Winship, a new recruit in the 9th NH, died of his wounds on November 14. Like many, he is buried far from the local area; his headstone monument in Bradford’s Upper Plain cemetery shelters a cenotaph, an empty grave.
A number of local men were discharged or died soon after the battle. It is difficult to determine whether this was the result of wounds received or from disease, which was the most common cause of death among soldiers during the war.
As night fell, it was assumed by many that McClellan would take up the fight the following day. He actually had more men in reserve than Lee had in total. Many of those however, were new recruits with no experience under fire.
McPearson writes: “McClellan believed he had no certainty of success.” This was his pattern of inaction, “no initiative without absolute assurance of success...which rarely, if ever exists in any human endeavor, much less in war.”
That night Lee’s army retreated across the Potomac. McClellan’s chance to completely destroy the severely weakened army had passed. If he had done so, the war might not have gone on for another two and a half years.
But McClellan assumed their retreat meant that the victory was complete. For the next few weeks McClellan remained inactive while Lee had time to repair some of the damage inflicted at Antietam. President Lincoln had had enough of McClellan hesitancy and within two months relieved him of command.
What of the “momentous multiple consequences?” Northern newspapers declared the battle a victory, and the morale of both soldiers and the general public was lifted significantly. One of the most important consequences was Lincoln’s announcement of a proclamation of emancipation on September 22.
Early in the war Lincoln had announced that restoring the union with or without slavery was his most important goal, one he repeated as late as August 22, 1862. Still, he had planned an emancipation proclamation; but was waiting for a success in battle to make it public.
Five days after Antietam he announced that on January 1, 1863 all slaves held in states in rebellion would be free. That significantly added to the war’s goals. It would begin to deny the South the thousands of slaves whose labor released men to fight and would lead to eventual abolition of slavery throughout the nation.
The proclamation coming so soon after the victory at Antietam also had a significant impact on European nations. While it did not completely silence interventionists there, there was no recognition of the Confederacy nor any intervention.
The victory and proclamation also had an impact on the 1862 elections. Peace Democrats denounced the proclamation and the continuing war but lost the advantage they had prior to September 17. Republicans retained control of the Congress and made gains in a number of state contests.
All of these consequences were bought with the blood of Americans from both sides. Those who survived, even if they fought in other great battles of the war, remembered Antietam for its carnage of death and suffering.
In 1882, Antietam veteran Colonel Francis Winthrop Palfrey of Massachusetts wrote, “As the sun sank to rest on the 17th of September, the last sounds of battle along Antietam Creek died away. The cannon could at last grow cool, and unwounded men and horses could enjoy rest and food, but there were thousands sleeping the sleep that knows no waking, and many times as many thousands were suffering all the agonies that attend on wounds.”
“The corn and trees, so fresh and green in the morning were reddened with blood and torn by bullet and shell; and the very earth was furrowed by the incessant impact of lead and iron. The blessed night came, and brought with it sleep and forgetfulness and refreshment to many, but the murmur of the night wind, breathing over fields of wheat and clover, was mingled with the groans of the countless suffering of both armies. Who can tell, who can imagine, the horrors of such a night, while the unconscious stars shone above and the unconscious river rippled by?”
It was the close of the most bloody day.
Burnside’s Bridge. In the afternoon of Sept. 17, Union General Ambrose Burnside directed a series of attack against this stone bridge across Antietam Creek. Men from Haverhill, Lyme and Orford were among those who braved concentrated fire and with fixed bayonets took the bridge and the area beyond.
The Sunken Road at Bloody Lane. Confederate casualties line the site of some of the most savage fighting at Antietam. Local men from the Second Sharpshooters and the 5th NH Regiment were part of that struggle.
The Commanders at Antietam: Lee and McClellan. The Confederate forces led by Robert E. Lee were greatly outnumbered by George B. McClellan’s Union troops. McClellan’s hesitancy made his “victory” less than victorious.
Sharpshooter Monument. The 2nd Vermont Sharpshooters are honored by the 1890 monument at the Antietam National Battlefield. Shepard Whitman of Newbury, George Lamprey of Orford and Daniel and Frank Davis, two brothers from Fairlee and Orford, were sharpshooters.
The Old Vermont Brigade Monument was dedicated in 1900 and is located near the natorious Bloody Lane at Antietam. September 17, 2012 is the 150th anniversary of that blood battle.