On September 15, 1862, a year and half into the Civil War, Union victory was far from assured. Confederate forces were fighting successfully in the Eastern Theater (compromising operations mainly in Virginia). After his victory at the Second Battle of Manassas (Bull Run), Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee decided to move his army out of war-torn Virginia. On September 4, 1862, he led his over 40,000 Confederates across the Potomac River and through the lush Maryland countryside to Frederick.
Lee’s Maryland Campaign, his first foray onto Union soil, was the most significant in a series of loosely coordinated Confederate incursions along a 1,000-mile front. Lee intended to keep moving north into Pennsylvania, but his line of supply and communication into Virginia was threatened by the 12,500-man Union garrison at Harpers Ferry, Virginia (now West Virginia). Lee therefore divided his army to neutralize this threat. Part of Gen. James Longstreet’s command went to Hagerstown, MD., close to Pennsylvania. Three columns led by Gen. Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson surrounded Harpers Ferry and held Crampton Gap on South Mountain. A third force, Gen D.H. Hill’s command, guarded the South Mountain gaps near Boonsboro, MD.
On September 12, Union Gen. George B. McClellan led the Army of the Potomac into Frederick, MD, just as the last Confederate soldiers were departing. Over the next few days a chain of events would draw all of these men together for the bloodiest one-day battle of the Civil War.
On September 13, a Union soldier found a copy of Lee’s Special Order 191, his plan of operations for the campaign. This “Lost Order,” as it has become known, was taken to McClellan who realized that this was the time to strike Lee’s divided forces. On September 14, Union soldier engaged Confederates guarding the gaps on South Mountain. The day-long battle ended with the Confederates being forced from the gaps. Lee considered returning to Virginia, but on September 15, after learning that Harpers Ferry had fallen, he reevaluated his plans. He would make a stand at Sharpsburg, MD, a quiet, 100-year old farming community of some 1,200 residents.
Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee positioned his army along a ridge west of Antietam Creek. Confederate Gen. James Longstreet commanded the line’s center and right, and Gen. Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson held its left. Behind them a Potomac River ford allowed retreat to Virginia. On September 15 and 16 Union Gen. George B. McClellan deployed his forces east of the creek. His plan: attack Lee’s left and when “matters looked favorably” attack the Confederate right. Succeeding in either, he hoped to strike Lee’s center. His plan was good but his instructions to commanders ambiguous.
The 12-hour battle began at dawn, September 17. Three morning Union attacks struck the Confederate left, north to south. Gen. Joseph Hooker’s First Corps made the initial assault, followed by Gen. Joseph Mansfield’s Twelfth Corps. Part of Gen. Edwin Sumner’s Second Corps made the final attack. McClellan’s battle plan broke down in uncoordinated advances.
From 6 am until 10 am savage combat raged. By late morning, fighting shifted toward the Confederate center in a three-hour stalemate that left the road (Sunken Road) forever known as “Bloody Lane.” Of nearly 100,000 soldiers engaged in battle, about 23,000 were killed, wounded, or missing. Late on September 18, Lee forded the Potomac to Virginia. The Union Army held the field. With their overwhelming number of troops they could have pursued Lee’s army and trapped him at the river crossing, likely forcing a final battle or surrender, but the conservative McClellan held back his massive reserves and Lee escaped.
For the people of Sharpsburg, the battle and presence of thousands of soldiers caused sickness and death from disease, and great property damage. For some, service to their country ended with the Civil War. For Clara Barton, this was the beginning. Barton, a forty year old teacher, patent clerk and patriot, was frustrated by reports of inadequate relief supplies at battlefields. She gathered needed items and transported them to the front. Seeing the bandages, lanterns, and food Clara Barton brought to his Antietam hospital, Surgeon Charles Dunn christened her “The Angel of the Battlefield.”
At Antietam, Miss Barton followed the sound of artillery and arrived on the battlefield. She delivered bandages and lanterns to field hospitals. Clara Barton and her staff of thirty men prepared gruel (meal mixed with warm water) which they carried out to feed the wounded and dying where they fell. She worked there for three days, providing whatever assistance she could. This is just one of the many battlefields on which Miss Barton worked.
After the war, Barton established the Friends of the Missing Men of the United States Army, an organization which located the graves of missing U.S. soldiers, as immediately after the battle over 3,500 dead were buried in farm fields surrounding Sharpsburg. Eventually Confederate soldiers were moved to three local cemeteries. Union men were re-interred in Antietam National Cemetery, their names (if known) recorded in the cemeteries’ book. She established the American Association of the International Red Cross in 1881, adding civilian disaster relief to its mandate of providing neutral assistance during war, and in 1904, Clara Barton established the American First Aid Association.
The Emancipation Proclamation, released January 1, 1863 reshaped the war, freeing slaves in states in rebellion and giving the Union war effort two goals: preserve the Union and end slavery. Slaves could flee to Union camps and freedom or even join U.S. fighting forces. Lee’s repulse at Antietam enabled the proclamation, and the two events kept Great Britain from intervening for the Confederacy.