I went to the battlefield yesterday with a friend. I have been there many times. It is about two hours from my house. It was a beautiful, not too warm day. The national park was being heavily visited, a good thing. We went there to remember the ground, the topography itself. It is a remarkable piece of ground, chosen with a 19th Century Engineer's eye.
In the Autumn of 1862 Robert Edward Lee was seeking a decisive engagement with a big Union army. He wanted a victory somewhere in the North, a victory that would shake the capitals of Europe and perhaps bring on European mediation of the quarrel. The North had not yet abolished slavery as an institution and so the struggle could more easily be seen as a sectional struggle than would later be the case. Lee had wanted to fight his battle near Harrisburg, Pennsylvania or perhaps near Baltimore, Maryland, but circumstances made that impossible and he decided to fight a defensive battle on the ground just north of the Potomac River and south of Antietam Creek. There, the ground rises from the creek in a series of small ridges that seem almost to be stairs, each twenty or thirty feet high. What needs to be known is that the advancing Union infantry could not see over each successive little ridge.
With his army spread all over that part of present West Virginia and Maryland Lee decided to wait for George McClellan and the Army of the Potomac on that open ground just south of Antietam Creek. He waited there with about thirty thousand men, having sent couriers to Stonewall Jackson seventeen miles away at Harper's Ferry. "Come quickly" was the message.
This was a remarkable decision. Lee knew that even when Jackson arrived McClellan would outnumber him by two to one. He knew that there was no bridge across the Potomac to his rear. The only way back to Virginia was across a rocky ford twelve miles behind his right flank. This did not seem to bother him very much. He knew George McClellan well. "Little Mac" was a fellow Engineer Corps officer. McClellan had worked for Lee in Mexico when they were on Winfield Scott's staff. He knew how timid McClellan really was. Lee also knew that McClellan had a copy of one of Lee's orders, an order that described how spread out Lee's forces really were. Some fool had lost this document and it had been found wrapped around two cigars. In spite of this, Lee waited on his stony ridges for several days until the blue army arrived. By that time Jackson had also arrived over that distant ford. He had left one division behind at Harper's Ferry. They were processing Union prisoners of war (disarming and paroling). Their commander was Ambrose Hill.
McClellan finally attacked on the morning of the 17th of September, 1862. He attacked "en echelon" by army corps from right to left (north to south) the idea being to draw your opponent's reserves to the south and then attack in crushing strength with your own reserve straight through the center cutting the enemy's force in half. It was a good plan. It was pure Napoleon. All these West Pointers on both sides had had their heads filled with old "Bony" at West Point by Dennis Hart Mahan. Lee used the same plan the next year on the second day at Gettysburg.
The battle developed according to plan, but many Union leaders were wounded or killed, and Confederate ferocity was incredible. Their resistance and counter-attacks blunted the "art" in the plan and turned the day into a swirling, roiling mass of local fights and "systematic killing." Nevertheless the action moved steadily south, away from the center of Lee's line of battle. By late afternoon the federals had pushed Lee's weak right flank back across the complex stair step ridges almost to the road that ran south from Sharpsburg to the ford across the Potomac. Confederate attention was altogether focused on this crisis.
Across from Lee's center waited the fresh, powerful, Sixth US Army Corps with twenty thousand men. They were waiting for the order to smash through the hollow shell and drive straight forward half a mile into the center of Sharpsburg. One of my great-grandfathers waited with them. The order never came. McClellan evidently "funked it,' overcome by "the horror, the horror."
While he dithered, AP Hill finally arrived from Harper's Ferry and Lee was able to stabilize the situation.
Actually, Lee, incredibly, then wanted to attack on his left where the wreckage of Jackson's Corps stood. Jackson pondered this and then asked his chief of artillery, Porter Alexander, about the state of his ammunition supply. He received the answer he wanted. The battle was over.
Lee waited all the next day to see if McClellan would try again. He waited on that blood soaked field covered with dead men and animals and others who had not died yet. Thre was a 'truce" to collect dead and wounded, What a farce, my great grandfather told my father that all they wanted was to get their hands around the others' throats. McClellan had no stomach for more and during the following night Lee and his men slipped away over the ford and back into (West) Virginia.
There were about five thousand dead, and over twenty thousand wounded.
McClellan could have destroyed Lee that afternoon and failed to do so. He did not even pursue. Lincoln rightly relieved him for that. A chance to end the war had been missed.
Lee? The level of his recklessness is hard to express, but it is the stuff of legend. Incredible.
We are not the men our fathers were. plhttp://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battle_of_Antietam