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Antietam

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Antietam: The Events and the Memory

The Battle of Antietam or Sharpsburg, whichever one prefers, was arguably the most important single battle in the United States Civil War. Often, the depiction of the battle of Antietam is defined solely in terms of the great number of casualties on both sides. Often, the battle plays second or even third fiddle to battles like Gettysburg in terms of its overall significance. Often, the intricacies of the battle are viewed as secondary to the greater themes which underlie its causes and results. The intricacies of the battle of Antietam are what made it a significant one. By examining and analyzing these intricacies a historian is able to comprehend fully the importance of the war. Comparing the historical facts to the writings of a first hand foreign observer of the battle illuminates the more intriguing aspects of such an important battle in the United States Civil War.

One of the greatest battles of all time began Wednesday, September 3, 1862, four days after General Robert E. Lee's Confederate triumph at the second Battle of Bull Run. Lee sent out a letter to the confederate President Jefferson Davis. In his letter Lee declared his intention to carry the fighting onto Union soil for the first time in the Eastern Theater. Lee hoped a decisive confederate victory might encourage England and France to aid the confederacy in winning the war and that invading the north would force the Union to sue for peace. Lee wrote his letter from headquarters in Chantilly, Virginia where his soldiers were taking rest. Lee’s Chantilly headquarters were located less than twenty-five miles from Washington. Lee was tempted to strike directly at Washington, but even the daring and highly successful general knew such an attack would be neither wise nor easy . Lee pondered two other courses of action for the confederate attack. The first was a withdrawal to the south behind Rappahannock River to rest. The second was to remain in Virginia and begin the attack. By invading Maryland, Lee believed he could reach immediate military objectives necessary to the overall Confederate strategy. He knew that he could harass the enemy on their own land while his troops would have access to sufficient amounts of food. Additionally, many Marylanders were pro-confederate so Lee hoped to capitalize on growing opposition of war in the North. (Bailey, 12-14). Lee’s calculations are characteristic of other great generals in the history of warfare. Similar calculations had paid off for Lee in previous battles in the war. From this one could conclude that Lee was highly prepared for the battle and had thoroughly analyzed the important facts available to him.

On the morning of Wednesday September 3, 1862, General Lee and his Confederate troops broke camp and marched in columns in the direction of the shallow fords of the Potomac River, just above Leesburg, Virginia. This spot was twenty-five miles north of Chantilly, Virginia. Lee most likely chose this spot due to the fact that it was not far east from the Blue Ridge Mountains and was only thirty miles up the river from Washington. He calculated that The Union troops would surely respond to this action by compiling their forces on the northern side of the Potomac River. They would think that the movements of the Confederate forces were a direct threat to Baltimore and Washington. This would serve to remove some of the Union pressure from Lee's supply line through Manassas Junction and give confederate troop's who had been left behind time to gather weaponry and deal with their wounded comrades on the battlefields around Bull Run.

Lee moved without gaining consent from Confederate President Davis, but he was certain his Commander in Chief would approve of the attack. Lee's army of Confederate troops was a "rag-tag" bunch, they were unshaved, gaunt, and had torn uniforms. One-fourth of Lee’s army was without any boots and they were all suffering from different degrees of starvation. 15,000 troops from Lee's army abandoned rank and dropped out on the march to the Potomac River. However, three additional infantry divisions joined the group , bringing the total number of troops to 50,000 men. To make the situation even more complicated, Lee suffered a crippling injury during the march. The injury came when he grabbed for his horse’s bridle and fell to the ground. As a result, his hands were splinted, one had been broken, and the other had been badly sprained. Because of the seriousness of the injury, Lee had to ride the rest of the way in an ambulance. One can only imagine the scene of the greatest commander in all of the Confederacy leading his troops to battle from an ambulance. Lee’s troops were already a raggedy bunch of fighting men whose motivation was wearing thin and the loss of their leader could have only made the situation worse.

On September 4, the forefront of Lee's Confederate army arrived at Leesburg. They halted for only enough time to acquire food rations before heading off to the Potomac River. At White's Ford, another crossing along the Potomac River, Lee’s Confederate troops waded through the warm waist high water to the other side. For a period of four days, September 4th through the7th, the Confederates waded their way across the river.

Meanwhile, back in Washington, the news of the Confederates crossing hit with the force of a few large artillery shells. As Lee had hoped and calculated, the Union Authorities suggested and believed that the Confederate forces were going to attempt to march on Washington or Baltimore. At this point, the mass of Union hope rested upon Major General George B. McClellan. The reason for this was that President Abraham Lincoln, just as he had done in July 1861 after the union defeat at Bull Run, gave McClellan command of the capital's defensive unit. Because the Union had been under the impression that Lee would attempt to invade the capital, they were under prepared for the news that the Confederate troops were attempting to ford the Potomac.

McClellan merged his forces with those of General John Pope's Army of Virginia to create the Army of the Potomac. His revived command was comprised of eight corps. Late on Friday September 5, McClellan started marching a large portion of the Army of the Potomac from Virginia and Washington to the northwest into Maryland. He took six of the eight corps with him into Maryland and left two corps behind to assure the safety of Washington. The following day, columns of Union troops marched through the streets of the capital.

On Sunday, September 7, the final few of Lee's columns of troops crossed the Potomac and caught up with the main portion of Lee’s Confederate Army just

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