On the 150th Anniversary of Antietam, the Horror of America’s Deadliest Day

Then, again.
Sept. 17 2012 11:52 AM

The Horror of Antietam

America’s deadliest day, as witnessed by Oliver Wendell Holmes, William McKinley, Rutherford B. Hayes, and Clara Barton.

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Exhausted, both sides fell silent and glared at one another across the blood-soaked center. But even as the clamor subsided in that sector, the distant barking of musketry and the rumble of artillery boiled up from the south, where Burnside’s men had won the bridge—since known as Burnside’s Bridge—and begun clawing their way to Sharpsburg, uphill all the way.

That end of the Confederate line, stripped to the bone earlier in the day to defend the Dunker Church and Bloody Lane, was down to nothing, with no reserves in sight. Bluecoats converged on the town, threatening the Rebels’ path home. Lee, drawn up on a knoll at the other end of Sharpsburg, could see disaster brewing. But then he noticed a cloud of dust building over the Potomac River crossing and a mass of men tromping toward Sharpsburg.

“Whose troops are those?” he asked, turning to a lieutenant. The lieutenant raised a telescope, peered at the column and announced: “They are flying the Virginia and Confederate flags, sir.”

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One of Lee’s boldest commanders, Maj. Gen. A. P. Hill, conspicuous in his red battle shirt, was rushing from Harper’s Ferry to the Antietam fight with more than 3,000 men behind him. It was after 3:30 p.m. when Hill’s troops hurled into the flank of Burnside’s 9th Corps. The Union lines gave way grudgingly, falling back over ground won just hours before. Some Federals were bewildered to see that many of their attackers wore the Union blue, which Confederates had exchanged for their ragged uniforms on the way out of Harper’s Ferry. “Don’t fire on your own men!” cried one of the Rebels, swooping down on unsuspecting soldiers from an Ohio regiment.

As the fighting swirled around Sharpsburg, a Union commissary sergeant named William McKinley came flying across the hills, driving a wagon loaded with food and coffee for comrades of the 23rd Ohio Regiment. They recharged themselves and gave thanks to Sgt. McKinley, who was promoted by his commanding officer, Col. Rutherford B. Hayes, for his bravery that day. In time both men would become president of the United States and strong advocates of reunion between North and South.

When the sun went down on Sept. 17, neither side occupied new ground. The battle left almost 23,000 dead, wounded, captured, or missing, a record of loss unmatched in American history. The death toll was more than 3,600 for both sides, even greater than the 2,500 who died in the D-Day invasion more than eight decades later. McClellan suffered more casualties, 12,400 to Lee’s 10,300, but the proportional loss was greater for Lee’s smaller army. Even so, the Southern leader audaciously kept his own shattered force on the field after the great battle, reforming his lines and taunting the Yankees.

Both sides had won, both had lost: Lee had invaded hostile country and held the field. But his plans for a Maryland campaign were in tatters, his command reeling from deaths and injuries through the ranks. Britain, which had been on the point of recognizing the Confederacy before Antietam, refrained from doing so afterward. Lee stole away in the dark on Sept. 18, leading the Army of Northern Virginia home to recuperate. McClellan let him go largely unmolested, relieved that Lee had been deflected from Pennsylvania and ejected from Maryland. Washington, D.C., was safe.

Along Antietam Creek, soldiers sorted through the wreckage and tallied the grim cost of Sept. 17. “The excitement of battle comes in the day of it, but the horrors of it two or three days after,” wrote Capt. Samuel Fiske of the 14th Connecticut. He told of bloated bodies and “hundreds of horses too, all mangled and putrefying, scattered everywhere! Then there are the broken gun-carriages, the wagons and thousands of muskets, and all sorts of equipments, and clothing all torn and bloody ... the trees torn with shot and scarred with bullets, the farm-houses and barns knocked to pieces and burned down, the crops trampled ... the whole country forlorn and desolate.”

To read of such scenes was sobering; to see them, transformative. Within days of the fighting, just as burial parties began to harvest the dead, the impresario Mathew Brady dispatched Alexander Gardner and James F. Gibson to record scenes from the battlefield.* Their photographs, documenting the devastation of the cornfield, the Bloody Lane, and elsewhere, were displayed in Brady’s New York studio, where many Americans faced the horrors of war for the first time.

“The dead of the battle-field come up to us very rarely, even in dreams,” a reporter for the New York Times wrote after a visit to Brady’s studio. “Mr. Brady has done something to bring home to us the terrible reality and earnestness of war. If he has not brought bodies and laid them in our door-yards and along streets, he has done something very like it.”

In that and a thousand other ways, nothing would be the same after Antietam. 

Correction, Sept. 17, 2012: This article originally misspelled Mathew Brady’s first name. (Return.)

Robert M. Poole, former executive editor of National Geographic, is the author of On Hallowed Ground: The Story of Arlington National Cemetery.

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