Bloody Antietam

Today (September 17) is the anniversary of the 1862 battle of Antietam in Maryland. On this single day, Union commander George McClellan lost 2108 killed, 9540 wounded and 753 captured or missing. Robert E. Lee lost 1546 to death, 7752 to injuries and 1018 to capture. Antietam remains the single bloodiest day in American military history.* Many tactical mistakes added to the death toll. The carnage at “Bloody Lane,” “The Cornfield” and “Burnside’s Bridge” still instill a terrible awe in those who know these stories.

The Union began the war with visions of rapid victory, but the cost in life and treasure caused the war to become increasingly unpopular. While Lincoln’s rhetoric in support of the war originally focused on the preservation of the Union, he used the limited success at Antietam to redefine the war. On September 22, Lincoln announced the Emancipation Proclamation, which would go into effect on January 1, 1863. What had been a secondary issue now took center stage. Some, of course, suggested that offering this new reason to fight was an act of desperation.

Lincoln was greatly disappointed in McClellan’s performance at Antietam and shortly thereafter relieved him of command. The president believed McClellan was overly cautious and failed to press his superior numbers and position. The lack of success at both the tactical and strategic levels swelled the ranks of war dissenters in the north. The quagmire persisted for 2 ½ more years, costing hundreds of thousands of lives. McClellan went on to oppose Lincoln for the presidency the in 1864, running on an “end the war now” platform. “Copperheads,” they were called, or “Peace Democrats,” many of whom sympathized with the Southern cause.

In U.S. Grant, Lincoln finally found a general willing to press the attack even though the cost in blood was high. In the Wilderness Campaign of 1864, Grant lost 7,000 Union dead and 55,000 total casualties. The press called Grant a butcher. At Petersburg, the war changed character once again. The war of maneuver transformed into a war of trenches, and the results were equally horrendous. The nine-month siege of Petersburg, however, eventually broke the Confederacy and led to the end of the war in April 1865. The Union was preserved and the scourge of chattel slavery ended in the United States.

The cost for these results was unimaginably high, and the outcome was less than ideal. Post-war reconstruction largely failed and the South endured Jim Crow for nearly another hundred years.

It’s true that war is costly and an imperfect instrument of justice. Without the efforts of Union soldiers, however, the word “master” might still be heard from the lips of men in chains in the streets of Atlanta and Charleston. For all their problems, I prefer the Atlanta and Charleston we’ve got now, so I’m grateful for those who didn’t believe the cost of victory was too high.


* [Note: The attack on Pearl Harbor resulted in more American KIA (2403 military and civilian) than Union dead at Antietam. Total Union casualties, including wounded, were greater at Antietam however. Counting Confederate deaths as “American” raises Antietam’s death toll above that of Pearl Harbor. The 9/11 attacks claimed 2974 dead (and 24 missing), but only 125 of those were service members at the Pentagon.]