17 Sep 2018

On this Afternoon in 1862: One Last Confederate Hope at Sharpsburg

On this Afternoon in 1862: One Last Confederate Hope at Sharpsburg

While the battle has been raging west of Antietam Creek, General Ambrose Burnside has waited sullenly on the creek's east side for General George McClellan's permission to enter the fray. Finally, the order arrives, and Burnside sets about getting his men across the water. He plans to force a crossing with most of his troops at a stone bridge and send the remainder to cross at a ford downstream. After two attempts to cross the bridge under close-range enemy fire, the third one succeeds. Now, 10,000 men cross the bottleneck. It takes them 2 hours.

Around 3 p.m., the bulk of Burnside's men are across the creek. Burnside makes strong progress against Lee's right flank until suddenly, seemingly out of nowhere, Confederate General A.P. Hill's "Light Division" emerges on the Union left flank and rear. Hill's men have charged directly into battle after marching 17 miles from Harper's Ferry. At that moment, Burnside is on the cusp of victory; he has the spires of Sharpsburg in his sights, but with his forces in danger, he pulls back to the bridge—a bridge that will forever bear his name. By sunset, some 23,000 men are casualties of this single day of fighting. 3,654 Americans are dead - more than at Pearl Harbor, on D-Day, or on 9/11.

Both armies tend their wounded, consolidate their lines and skirmish through the following day. McClellan writes to his wife, "Those in whose judgment I rely tell me that I fought the battle splendidly & that it was a masterpiece of art." The night of the 18th, Lee's army retreats across the Potomac River to Virginia. While the Battle of Antietam is considered a draw from a military point of view, it gives President Lincoln the "victory" he needs to deliver the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation, setting the United States on the path to "a new birth of freedom."

Antietam Today

If you visit Antietam National Battlefield Park today, you can see the Dunker Church, Burnside's Bridge and the Sunken Road. Thanks to our generous supporters, the American Battlefield Trust has been able to preserve 461 acres of hallowed ground at Antietam. With the help of our local partner, Save Historic Antietam Foundation, much of this land has been fully restored. While many parts of the battlefield have barely changed since they witnessed these brutal events 156 years ago, more preservation work remains to be completed, and the Trust will continue to make Antietam a top priority.

This is part 3 in a 3-part series on Antietam.

Ready to See Antietam for Yourself?

If you're inspired to explore the beautifully preserved Antietam National Battlefield, our one-day itinerary can help you make the most of your time. From the Cornfield to the Dunker Church to Burnside's Bridge and beyond, this tour includes all the most significant and compelling features of these hallowed grounds.

The Full Battle of Antietam - Animated

Want the really short version? The Trust's own Garry Adelman provides an overview of the 1862 Maryland Campaign and the Battle of Antietam - the bloodiest single day of the war - in just a little over two minutes.

Civil War In4 - Emancipation Proclamation

The Emancipation Proclamation would forever change the lives and prospects of millions of slaves. Historian Hari Jones describes the series of events that led President Abraham Lincoln to issue this pivotal document.

McClellan at Antietam
The Union declared victory at Antietam, yet General George McClellan was relieved of his command just seven weeks later. Find out why McClellan succeeded in not losing the battle, but failed to win it, in this article by historian and author Stephen Sears.

American Battlefield Trust

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