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The Terrible Price Of Freedom

May 2024
18min read

The bloodiest day’s fighting in our nation’s history took place on ground that has hardly changed since 1862. Antietam today offers a unique chance to grasp what a great Civil War battle was actually like.

During the recent Third Battle of Manassas—the struggle in northern Virginia between a shopping-mall developer and the Manassas National Battlefield Park—I noticed among the flying brickbats a letter to the Washington Post from a William Heyman. Mr. Heyman wanted to see the shopping mall built on ground where the Second Battle of Manassas was fought for what struck me as a novel bit of reasoning. “Battlefields glorify death,” he wrote. “Shopping malls celebrate life.”


While I would not linger over the second half of that statement, I do think the question of what a battlefield glorifies, or signifies, is worth a second thought. A better place even than Manassas to seek the answer to that question is some forty miles north and a little west, at the small town of Sharpsburg, Maryland. It is a better place simply because a visitor to the Antietam National Battlefield at Sharpsburg can come closer to visualizing what a great Civil War battle was actually like than at any other site. Antietam was a unique battle, and today it is unique among the battlefields preserved from that war.

Antietam was fought on the seventeenth of September, 1862, eighteen days after Second Manassas, and proved to be a day of violence never surpassed in this nation. More Americans were killed, wounded, and counted as missing on that one day—22,719—than on any other day of that or any other American war. To give some perspective to that grim statistic, American casualties on June 6, 1944—D-day, the famous “longest day” of World War II —were about one-quarter as great. Indeed, the total casualties on D-day, Allied and Axis, did not exceed three-quarters of the Antietam toll. Its cost in human life is certainly one measure of Antietam’s uniqueness.

Another is its consequences. Antietam was a turning point, a battle that altered the course of the war. It saw Lee’s invasion of the North halted and his bold effort to win independence for the Confederacy frustrated. Its outcome enabled Lincoln to expand the war’s objectives to include the abolition of slavery, and that in turn made it impossible for England or France to intervene on behalf of a Southern nation committed to the defense of human bondage. History was made, and changed, on this battlefield.

Finally, there is the field itself. It is remarkably easy to step back in time at Antietam. There is scarcely a trace here of the commercial exploitation that envelops Gettysburg, with its myriad tourist attractions and its grotesque three-hundred-foot-high observation tower looming over the battlefield. Sharpsburg, by contrast, looks remarkably as it did in 1862 when the armies came; if anything, fewer people live there today. It is a rural area largely unmarked by development. Gen. Jacob D. Cox, who fought in the battle, described the terrain as he first saw it this way: “The scene was closed in by wooded ridges with open farm lands between, the whole making as pleasing and prosperous a landscape as can easily be imagined.” That description stands up well a century and a quarter later. Much of the land is still farmed, and many of the landmarks and farmsteads of 1862 have survived.

A particular feature of this battlefield, beyond the fact that it is largely unspoiled, is the special nature of the terrain. It is uncommonly easy, simply by looking at it, to understand how the Battle of Antietam took shape, how it progressed, and how it turned out as it did. The actions of some of the generals who commanded here may be puzzling, but there can be no mistaking how the battlefield itself shaped the course of events that September 17.

It is uncommonly easy to see how the Battle of Antietam took form and progressed. The battlefield itself shaped the course of events that day.

I favor approaching Sharpsburg along the same route the armies followed in 1862, seeing it as they first saw it. Early that September, after his victory at Second Manassas, Lee led the Army of Northern Virginia across the Potomac to Frederick, Maryland, where he rested his men and calculated his next move. Lincoln meanwhile called on Gen. George B. McClellan to pick up the pieces left by John Pope’s Manassas defeat. The Army of the Potomac was returned to him, along with Pope’s army. Reorganizing these forces as he went, McClellan moved slowly into Maryland after the invaders.

By Lee’s reckoning, the Yankees were demoralized by defeat and their general was timid and ripe for a beating, and he sought to draw them after him to the north and west and force a battle somewhere in the Cumberland Valley of Maryland and Pennsylvania. First, however, he had to free his supply line from the threat of the Federal garrison at Harpers Ferry, at the mouth of Virginia’s Shenandoah River. He devised a complex plan to force the garrison’s surrender, and on September 10 the Rebels moved out of Frederick, scattering in all directions to carry out their assignments. Left behind was a copy of Lee’s operational plan, dropped in one of the encampments by a careless courier. Three days later the Union army entered Frederick and an Indiana soldier stumbled on what would become famous as the Lost Order. Soon it was in McClellan’s hands. He now knew his opponent’s intentions, where his forces were, and his timetable. It was the sort of opportunity generals dream of.

Even this spectacular good fortune did not stir McClellan out of his cautious habits, however, and he advanced too late to overwhelm any of the scattered parts of Lee’s army. On September 14 the Confederates fought delaying actions at Crampton’s Gap and Turner’s Gap on South Mountain, behind which they had been maneuvering since leaving Frederick. The two armies followed the historic National Road, the nation’s first federal highway, which ran through Frederick and Turner’s Gap and on toward the Ohio Valley; today it is called Alternate U.S. 40. On Alternate 40 three miles west of the village of Middletown, at the intersection of Bolivar Road, the Union forces divided left and right to launch flank attacks on Turner’s Gap. The fighting that raged that day on South Mountain can be traced, but a good guidebook, such as The U.S. Army War College Guide to the Battle of Antietam, by Jay Luvaas and Harold W. Nelson, is essential. The maneuvering was complex, and historical markers are not always to be found.

Alternate 40 climbs up the mountain and across the rocky crest at Turner’s Gap, from which, in the small hours of September 15, Lee pulled back down the western face of the range to Boonsboro. Taking a left turning on the Boonsboro turnpike (today’s Maryland Route 34), he set his forces for Sharpsburg. Expecting the enemy to fall back across the Potomac, McClellan announced that Maryland and Pennsylvania were delivered from peril. But at midday word reached him that the Rebels were no longer retreating. Instead they were formed in line of battle behind Antietam Creek and in front of Sharpsburg. Capt. George Armstrong Custer, beginning his military career on McClellan’s staff, reported the sighting: “They are in full view. Their line is a perfect one about a mile and a half long. … We can employ all the troops you can send us.”

Soon Federal troops in the thousands began massing along the east bank of Antietam Creek, swinging off the Boonsboro pike to high ground overlooking the shallow valley of the Antietam. All this ground, with the exception of the Pry house, McClellan’s field headquarters, remains privately owned today. The wooded bluff to the left (south) of Route 34 was open and under cultivation in 1862, and from this commanding spot General McClellan first glimpsed the battlefield. During the fighting on the seventeenth he left the Pry house and returned here for a better view of the action.

What he saw on that afternoon of September 15 was a Confederate battle line that stretched across a patchwork of farm fields, meadows, orchards, and woodlots. Beyond the creek the ground slopes upward to a north-south ridgeline bisecting the land between the Antietam and the Potomac a few miles distant. All that could be seen of Sharpsburg, behind the ridgeline, was its church steeples. Militarily it was a concealing landscape, the ground marked by little rises and hollows, the trees in full foliage, the crops in many of the fields not yet harvested and standing at full growth.


Although McClellan knew from the Lost Order that he was facing no more than half the Confederate army, he had so inflated the enemy’s numbers that he credited Lee with 50,000 men that day. He did not suspect that he was being bluffed by hardly 15,000, and by day’s end he further deluded himself into thinking the other half of the Rebel army had reached the field as well. In fact, Lee’s six divisions still at Harpers Ferry would only begin to reach Sharpsburg the next afternoon.

Committed to his delusion, McClellan allowed September 16 to pass while he worked out a plan to fight the 100,000 Rebels he expected to face. Against this host he could bring 75,000 men to the firing line. Lee used the gift of time to collect his forces. Even when his army was reunited—not to be fully accomplished until the afternoon of September 17—he would have hardly 38,000 men of all arms. The Army of Northern Virginia would not again be so diminished until it surrendered at Appomattox. The prudent course for Lee was to withdraw across the Potomac, content with the 11,500 Yankee soldiers and substantial armaments captured at Harpers Ferry. Yet that would signal an end to his larger ambitions for the campaign. Lee deliberately chose this good defensive ground and took his stand, confident in the fighting ability of his men and in his own ability to out-general George McClellan.

McClellan’s “design,” as he termed it, was a double envelopment of the enemy flanks, the heavier attack to fall on the better fighting ground along Lee’s left (northern) flank. The plan is made clear in displays at the Visitor Center, reached by turning off Route 34 to State Route 65 in Sharpsburg. Before one sets out to tour the battlefield, however, I commend the overview offered by Antietam’s observation tower. This modest stone structure, erected at the turn of the century, is on Richardson Avenue, at the center of the battlefield. The view from the tower reveals the compass-like symmetry of the field.

Lee deliberately chose this good defensive ground to take his stand, confident in his fighting men and in his ability to outgeneral McClellan.

Lee ran his line in a generally north-south direction, paralleling the bisecting ridgeline on which ran the turnpike to Hagerstown. This is today’s Route 65, although the modern road follows a bypass around the section of the old turnpike running through the battlefield. Three woodlots prominent in the fighting along this line are appropriately named the North Woods, the East Woods, and the West Woods. Antietam Creek has a north-south axis as well, and it served McClellan as a defensive moat behind which he husbanded his forces, sending his columns one at a time forward (westward) across the creek to give battle.

The fighting progressed in three distinct stages, like acts in a play, starting in early morning and lasting until dark and moving from the northern end of the Confederate line to the center and finally to the southern end. This is not to suggest that the Battle of Antietam had no confusing moments or that at times the fighting did not shift around to every point on the compass. Yet its essential features are easily seen. It is perhaps the single virtue of McClellan’s generalship on September 17 that his disjointed actions provide historians with a convenient framework for narrating the battle.

“Fighting Joe” Hooker opened the contest at first light on the seventeenth from a point on the battlefield’s Mansfield Avenue, site of the North Woods. McClellan considered Hooker one of his best combat generals, and he gave his I Corps the honor of leading the attack on Lee’s northern flank. Hooker had crossed the Antietam the afternoon before to take up this flanking position, and now he began the assault by driving due south, along the axis of the Hagerstown turnpike. His objective was the open plateau where the Visitor Center now stands, which was crowded with Confederate artillery. Off to the west beyond Route 65 can be seen the modest high ground called Nicodemus Heights, where Jeb Stuart directed additional artillery fire at the Federals all morning long, beginning with Hooker’s men.

In a matter of four hours that morning the Federals launched three successive offensives—by the I, XII, and II corps—over this same ground, which measures hardly a mile on a side. Each one was opened along a different axis. Represented on a clock face with 12:00 as north, the I Corps came in from 12:00, the XII from 1:30, and the II from 3:00. The sustained intensity of the fighting here was unmatched in the Civil War. For me the strongest impression of these savage hours is gained by tracing the successive movements, although this sometimes means going against the grain of the battlefield tour directions.

Heading southward from Mansfield Avenue along the old Hagerstown pike for a quarter of a mile brings the visitor (as it did Hooker’s men) to the David Miller farm. This is a working farm, and corn is still grown where in 1862 Mr. Miller’s thirty-acre cornfield earned a terrible distinction as simply “the Cornfield.” Hooker’s advance, stretching from the West Woods west of the turnpike through the Miller farm to the East Woods, smashed against a line Stonewall Jackson had drawn like a crossbar on a T to meet this flank attack.

Continuing southward along the turnpike, you pass two cannons on the right, marking the position of Battery B, 4th U.S. Artillery, which advanced to support Hooker’s assault. Turning left (east) on Cornfield Avenue takes you into what was that morning a maelstrom of unbelievable violence and noise. Hooker’s men, crashing out of the Cornfield a few yards north of the present avenue, were met by a hail of fire from a Confederate battle line in the meadow to the south. “Men, I can not say fell; they were knocked out of the ranks by dozens,” a Federal soldier wrote. “But we jumped over the fence, and pushed on, loading, firing, and shouting as we advanced.” Attack and counterattack surged back and forth over this ground. Rock ledges and piles of fence rails served some as cover, but for the most part the battle lines stood and faced each other in the smoky din two hundred yards or a hundred or even fifty yards apart. A war correspondent compared the volleys of musketry to “the rolling of a thousand distant drums.”

The sustained intensity of the morning’s fighting was unmatched in the war. The Cornfield was a maelstrom of unbelievable violence and noise.

At a critical moment John B. Hood’s reinforcing division came storming out of the West Woods and slanted across the meadow to form an attacking line that drove the Yankees back into the Cornfield. The 1st Texas Regiment pursued recklessly and was torn apart by George G. Meade’s Pennsylvania division posted in reserve along the northern edge of the corn. In twenty minutes the 1st Texas lost 82 percent of its men, including eight color bearers shot down in rapid succession.

At the same time, on the western edge of the Cornfield along the post-and-rail fence bordering the Hagerstown turnpike, there was a furious melee between Hood’s men and the Yankees who had gained a foothold in the West Woods. Battery B poured a killing fire of canisters—containers of cast-iron balls that produced the effect of huge shotgun blasts—into the Rebel attackers. In turn so many of the gunners were shot down that infantry volunteers had to serve the cannon. Finally the momentum of Hood’s counterattack was stemmed. “Whole ranks went down, and after we got possession of the field, dead men were found piled on top of each other,” a Union officer recalled. Hooker’s men and Jackson’s had shot each other to pieces to produce a stalemate.

Continuing eastward along Cornfield Avenue and then left (north) on the Smoketown road brings the visitor into the East Woods. In 1862 this woodlot was considerably larger than it is now, extending east of the Smoketown road and north to Mansfield Avenue. For a time Hood’s men held on in here, sniping Indian-style from behind trees and piles of cordwood. The Mansfield monument, at the intersection of the Smoketown and Monument roads, marks the approximate spot where Maj. Gen. Joseph K. F. Mansfield, commander of the XII Corps, was mortally wounded. Mansfield had long sought a combat command and had arrived only two days before to take over the XII Corps. His corps contained a number of raw new regiments, with their equally raw officers, and the generals literally had to lead them to battle and show them how to form up. As one general wrote, he was lucky enough to find a fence at the spot where the regiment was supposed to go, and he simply told the rookies to line up behind it. Mansfield was doing this sort of subaltern’s work when he took a bullet through the chest. He was one of eighteen Union and Confederate general officers hit that day, six of them fatally.

The XII Corps came onto the field too late to strengthen the attack of the I Corps but in time to patch the holes Hood’s counterattack had punched in it. There was renewed heavy fighting all across the Miller farm. A division of the XII Corps, starting from about the spot where General Mansfield fell, broke through and drove for the West Woods, setting the white Dunker church as its target. This offensive is traced by turning around and following the Smoketown road to its intersection with the Hagerstown turnpike.

The Dunker church is one of Antietam’s best-known landmarks. (The original church was wrecked by a storm in 1921, and the present building is a reconstruction using what materials could be salvaged.) The German Baptist Brethren, called Dunkers for their practice of baptism by total immersion, regarded steeples as one of the vanities of man, and consequently most of Antietam’s soldiers mistook their church for a schoolhouse. One of the new regiments of the XII Corps, the 125th Pennsylvania, rushed into the West Woods around the Dunker church, reaching the high-water mark of this Federal offensive.

Continuing to command by fits and starts, McClellan had delayed committing his powerful II Corps, and only now did it begin to appear on the field. John Sedgwick’s division, led personally by the corps commander, Edwin V. Sumner, crossed the Antietam and marched due west (from the three o’clock position) through the East Woods and the Cornfield and across the Hagerstown pike north of the Dunker church. Sumner mistakenly believed he was well beyond the Confederate flank and so advanced into the West Woods in three closely spaced quarter-mile-wide lines, intending to left-face beyond the woods and sweep down behind the enemy positions. Half an hour earlier he might have succeeded. Now, instead, the entire division was wrecked by a surprise flank attack by Stonewall Jackson, using reinforcements that Lee had rushed to him.

The Confederates bowled past the Dunker church, pouring out a terrible fire, and the Yankees lost twenty-three hundred men in fifteen minutes.

Jackson’s assault was a classic example of how devastating such a flank attack could be. The ground over which it took place is reached by going north on the Hagerstown turnpike and then taking the two left turnings off the pike, first the road to the Philadelphia monument and then Starke Avenue. There was no way the Federal regiments, aligned as they were and hit “end on,” could wheel to face the assault without overlapping. Some panicked units fired into neighboring units; others were decimated without being able to return fire at all. The Confederates bowled northward through the West Woods past the Dunker church, sending the rookie soldiers of the 125th Pennsylvania flying before them, and poured a terrible fire into Sedgwick’s division from three sides. The Yankees lost twenty-three hundred men in less than fifteen minutes. The survivors fled all the way to present-day Mansfield Avenue, from which Joe Hooker (and today’s visitor) had set out earlier.

Although there would be another, later outburst of action around the Dunker church, the repulse of Sedgwick’s division essentially marked the end of the fighting on the northern flank and closed the first act of the Antietam drama. Act Two opened by misdirection and accident. The second of the II Corps divisions, under William H. French, was late in crossing the Antietam and lost track of where Sedgwick’s division had gone, and French decided to turn off to the left, or south. Soon he stumbled into the Confederates defending the center of Lee’s line at what would be called the Sunken Road or, more descriptively, Bloody Lane.

The Sunken Road, reached now by Richardson Avenue, was a farm lane leading to a local gristmill that over the decades had been worn down by heavily loaded wagons and erosion until its surface was several feet below the fields on either side. It was a natural trench that faced the Federals in the shape of a shallow V, made even stronger defensively by a low ridge running along in front of it.

French’s men, later reinforced by Israel B. Richardson’s division, had to cross this ridge before they could even see their target, fifty to eighty yards away. As one stands today in this grassy depression, with its neat bordering fences, the images of that September day become almost overwhelming. Clearly, it was virtually impossible for the Rebels in this spot to miss the figures of the charging Yankees silhouetted against the skyline. Most of the soldiers at Antietam were farm boys, and they came easily on a figure of speech to describe what they saw at Bloody Lane. His regiment took careful aim and fired a volley, one Confederate wrote, “which brought down the enemy as grain falls before a reaper.”

The slaughter was repeated as French and then Richardson threw brigade after brigade against the impregnable position. Suddenly, by yet another mischance, the Bloody Lane fighting took a new turn. A young Confederate officer, misunderstanding his instructions, ordered part of the line abandoned. A similar misunderstanding sent other defenders scrambling for the rear. The Federals at the point of the V crowded forward to deliver a murderous fire left and right down the length of the enemy lines. Now it was their targets that were impossible to miss. “In this road there lay so many dead rebels that they formed a line which one might have walked upon as far as I could see,” a New Hampshire soldier recalled. The Confederates fell back through the Henry Piper farmstead behind the Sunken Road. Lee’s last reserves were already committed. He and his lieutenants worked desperately to form a last-ditch line of artillery on the Piper farm and along the Hagerstown turnpike.

McClellan was called on for reinforcements and artillery to press the newly won advantage. None were available. He was hoarding all his reserves of men and guns to meet the counterattack he expected any moment from the massive Rebel army. His troops in front of Bloody Lane were told only to hold their positions. The chance to cut Lee’s army in two was wasted. One-third of the Army of the Potomac would not fire a shot on September 17, and one leaves this spot, so terrible in its silent eloquence, in wonder at the obtuseness of George McClellan.

A final act remained to be played out. Any Antietam battlefield tour includes the famous and picturesque Burnside Bridge, on Lee’s right (southern) flank. By McClellan’s design Ambrose E. Burnside’s IX Corps was supposed to envelop Lee’s right while Hooker and his supporting forces enveloped his left, but this never happened. McClellan held off ordering Burnside to attack until fresh troops arrived to swell his defensive reserves, and then the fumbling Burnside could not discover any way to get quickly across Antietam Creek.


In 1862 a road from Sharpsburg ran down to the Antietam, crossed the stream on what in that day was called the Rohrbach Bridge, and then ran southward close to the bank. Today the road has been rerouted and the site is reached on foot. When one crosses the bridge and looks at the scene from the Federal (east) side of the creek, it is immediately obvious why General Burnside, in his insistence on forcing a crossing at the bridge, encountered so many problems. He had 12,500 men in the IX Corps; but the bridge is only twelve feet wide, and the Confederates in their hillside positions could not have asked for better defensive ground. They were also supported by artillery firing from the high ground to the rear, including the site where the Antietam National Cemetery is now located.

The first troops Burnside put into action became lost in the woods and never found the bridge. The second attack, made along the creekside road leading to the bridge, was shot to pieces. An attempt to wade the creek nearby met the same fate. A flanking column wasted several hours hunting downstream for a usable ford. At last, at about 1:00 P.M., as the battle for Bloody Lane was ending, two Union regiments stormed straight down the hill facing the bridge and, as the enemy fire slackened, sprinted across the span. Even then, Burnside required two more hours to reassemble his corps and resupply it with ammunition. Lee had meanwhile taken troops from his right flank to fight off the Federals threatening his left.

It was midafternoon before the IX Corps started forward, and the battlefield’s Branch Avenue offers a clear view of how difficult it was for Burnside’s men to make rapid headway. This broken ground—”compartmentalized terrain,” in military terminology—was ideal for defense, and it explains why the small force of defenders under David R. Jones gave such a good account of itself. Nevertheless, the Federals pressed doggedly ahead, seeking to drive the Rebels out of Sharpsburg and cut their escape route to the Potomac crossing.

From the bridge, it is immediately obvious why General Burnside, in his insistence on forcing a crossing there, encountered so many problems.

They came within a hairsbreadth of succeeding. Along the Harpers Ferry road (today’s Route 65), which enters Sharpsburg from the south, what remained of General Jones’s troops made their last stand behind a stone and post-and-rail fence. Burnside’s men charged this line and, after hand-to-hand fighting, broke it. As Lee’s right flank collapsed, Sharpsburg was filled with retreating troops and batteries, all under fire by long-range Federal artillery. Yankee skirmishers dodged from house to house in the outlying streets.

Then, in what can only be described as a stroke of pure melodrama, A. P. Hill’s Confederate Light Division, after a rapid seventeen-mile march from Harpers Ferry, arrived on the field and launched a surprise flanking attack against Burnside’s advance. The IX Corps had been delayed—both by the Federal high command and by the Confederate defenders—exactly long enough for Lee to finally reunite his army. The Yankees broke under the assault and retreated back to the high ground overlooking the Burnside Bridge. Darkness fell, and the firing sputtered out, and the bloodiest day in our national history was over at last.

When September 18 dawned, Lee was still standing defiantly in his lines, inviting his opponent to renew the attack. McClellan refused the challenge. Satisfied that, outnumbered as he was, he had escaped defeat on September 17, he would take no further risk to win victory. That night Lee withdrew his army across the Potomac. He had inflicted one-fifth more casualties than he had suffered at Antietam, and for the campaign as a whole Union losses (including prisoners) were twice those of the Confederates. Yet Lee had failed in his goal of gaining a decisive victory on Northern soil. McClellan took that as the measure of his own triumph.

The Antietam National Cemetery, on the eastern outskirts of Sharpsburg, seems the natural place to reflect finally on what this day of battle signifies. If the setting of this high ground shaded by its great trees has meaning, the dead here must lie peacefully. They are all Union soldiers— the Confederate dead are interred elsewhere—and as affecting as anything else are the small white stones bearing the single word unknown over 1,836 of the bodies. These dead are honored in this place, but not glorified. Nor was there anything for Antietam’s survivors to celebrate afterward beyond their survival. About one in every four men who saw any action at all on September 17 was hit, and, of course, in the places where the fighting was the most intense the odds of survival had been at best even and often worse. On this field—on any Civil War field—it is entirely proper to cherish the courage and dedication that brought men to endure these awful moments of combat, but certainly there is nothing about this battlefield that glorifies its toll.

It was this very question that engaged Abraham Lincoln when he was invited the following year to deliver his “few appropriate remarks” at the dedication ceremonies at Gettysburg. That battlefield, and by extension all the battlefields of this great civil war, he said, were consecrated and hallowed by the actions of the men who fought there. What was glorified there was the testing of freedom for all Americans—which, as a result of the Battle of Antietam, meant freedom for the slaves as well. It is this that gives meaning to the fighting at the Cornfield and the Sunken Road and at Burnside Bridge and along the Harpers Ferry road. To visit this battlefield, and to preserve it, is to recognize what we owe for our new birth of freedom.



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