September 30, 2013

A September Day When Brave Men Died and a Nation Survived

by Donald G. Mashburn

September has produced a number of memorable days of tragedy for this nation. The day of horror on September 11, 2001, is etched in memory and history. It seemed to have no useful purpose other than for evil men to kill innocent people in causes that were as evil as the hearts of the perpetrators.

The loss of life on what we now call “9/11” was such a day. It was the worst terrorist attack in this nation’s history, and was carried out by four teams of terrorists from Arab countries of the Mideast. The evil and crazy acts that day brought immeasurable grief and pain to virtually the entire nation. But as tragic and horrifying as that day was, another day in September brought even greater loss of life to this nation.

That “other” day in September is remembered as this nation’s “Bloodiest Day,” and is better known as the Battle of Antietam, or the Battle of Sharpsburg. That battle that came on Sept. 17, 1862, was a battle that called men to a cause that most of them did not understand and called them to a duty much larger than themselves.

That duty, fulfilled with courage and sacrifice, brought a costly victory and allowed a nation destined for greatness to survive and pursue the greatness events seemed to demand. As with many history-changing causes, the victory came at great price, as courageous men fought and died in close-up, incredibly violent battle and baptized the field of battle with their own blood.

The “Bloodiest Day,” came on Sept. 17, 1862, when Union and Confederate forces met at the Battle of Antietam, also called the Battle of Sharpsburg.

On that terrible day, 3,650 soldiers died, and of the 23,110 total casualties, 12,410 wore Union blue, and 10,700 wore Confederate gray, according to the Civil War Dictionary. Some historians estimate that if later deaths from wounds were included, total lives lost could exceed 7,600.

Yet, despite the terribleness of more than 100,000 men in pitched battle, over a four-mile front, some good came from Antietam. For the blood that stained Antietam Creek, and soaked the ground at the Cornfield, Bloody Lane and other places around Sharpsburg, helped secure the future of the United States.

The Battle of Antietam came after Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee, having out-generaled Union commanders in several battles, invaded Maryland. Under pressure from Union forces, Lee moved west to South Mountain, east of Antietam Creek.

In one of those inexplicable quirks of history, on Sept. 13, a Union soldier found an envelope containing two cigars and Lee’s order to his army, with his plans for the next four days. The “Lost Dispatch” revealed Lee’s plan to divide his forces, sending three divisions, under Gen. “Stonewall” Jackson, to take Harper’s Ferry.

With that information, Gen. George McClellan moved west with his Union forces of more than 87,000 men, to engage Lee’s smaller army, reduced to some 35,000 poorly equipped soldiers.

In deciding to engage McClellan’s forces, Lee risked the destruction of his Army of Northern Virginia, and loss of the war and any hopes for Southern independence.

Unable to hold at South Mountain, Lee took up positions on high ground west of Antietam Creek, which runs roughly a mile east of Sharpsburg. The afternoon of Sept. 16, Gen. Joseph Hooker’s Union forces crossed Antietam Creek and engaged Confederate units.

Heavy fighting began at daylight on Sept. 17, on the Union right, at the cornfield on Roulette’s farm, about two miles north of Sharpsburg. Gen. McClellan described the clash of Hooker’s corps with Confederate forces: “The contest was obstinate, and as the troops advanced, the opposition became more determined.”

Early that morning, Gen. Hooker ordered Major Gen. Joseph Mansfield’s corps into action. Gen. Mansfield was mortally wounded during the deployment. At about mid-morning, Gen Hooker was also wounded, and was replaced by Gen. George G. Meade. Antietam claimed the lives of six generals, three each from the Union and Confederacy.

Confederate Gen. John B. Gordon recounted the seesaw battle between his troops and Hooker’s Union forces: “Again and again, hour after hour, by charges and countercharges, this portion of the field was lost and recovered, until the corn that grew upon it looked as if it had been struck by a storm of bloody hail.”

Intense fighting developed all along the entire four-mile front, at places that became landmarks: the Cornfield, Roulette’s house, the Dunker Church, Piper’s house, Sunken (Bloody) Lane, and Burnside’s Bridge.

Firing ceased the evening of Sept. 17. Gen. Lee maintained his positions all the next day, while McClellan vacillated over whether to pursue the battle. During the night of the eighteenth, Lee and his army retreated across the nearby Potomac.

Gen. John G. Walker said, “At dark on the night of September 18 the rearward movement began; and a little after sunrise the next morning the entire Confederate army had safely recrossed the Potomac.”

The battle was not without its “what if” elements. If Gen. McClellan had pursued his advantage, Lee’s army could have been defeated, sparing the nation nearly three more years of bloody conflict.

McClellan defended his decision, saying, ‘Success of an attack on the eighteenth was not certain. One battle lost, and almost all would have been lost. Lee’s army might then have marched as it pleased on Washington, or New York.”

The costly victory did silence talk in England of supporting the Confederacy. It also persuaded President Abraham Lincoln to issue his Emancipation Proclamation, declaring all slaves in the Confederate states to be free as of January 1, 1863.

Thus the bloodiest day in our history, helped our nation to become “One nation, under God, indivisible….” It also allowed Abraham Lincoln to give meaning to our stated belief, “All men are created equal.”

All men may indeed be created equal, but events on that special, and especially bloody, day near Sharpsburg and Antietam Creek, proclaim that all men don’t die equal. For the blood that soaked the cornfield and the hillsides that September day in 1862 seemed to paint an enduring mural of brave men who died with unequalled courage.