The Battle of Antietam, also known as the Battle of Sharpsburg, is a pivotal event in American history that took place on September 17, 1862, during the American Civil War.
Fought near the town of Sharpsburg in Maryland, this brutal engagement marked a turning point in the conflict.
The battle’s significance lay not only in its staggering human cost but also in its profound impact on the war’s course, its influence on international perceptions of the conflict, and the historic proclamation it prompted.
In this article, we delve into the timeline and key events of the Battle of Antietam, exploring the critical moments that defined this monumental battle.
|September 17, 1862
|Dawn: The battle begins with Union forces, commanded by General George B. McClellan, launching attacks on the Confederate army, led by General Robert E. Lee.
|Intense fighting occurs around the Cornfield, the West Woods, and the Dunker Church as Union and Confederate forces clash.
|The Sunken Road (Bloody Lane) becomes a focal point of the battle as Confederate troops hold a strong defensive position there.
|Union General Ambrose Burnside’s men finally capture the Burnside Bridge over Antietam Creek, which allows them to begin crossing and press the Confederate right flank.
|Union forces continue to press the attack along various points of the battlefield, including Bloody Lane.
|Confederate forces under General A.P. Hill arrive on the battlefield after a forced march from Harpers Ferry and reinforce Lee’s army.
|The battle reaches a crescendo as Union forces launch a final assault on the Confederate positions near the Sunken Road. The fighting is fierce and deadly.
|With darkness approaching and both sides suffering heavy casualties, the battle begins to wind down. Lee’s army withdraws across the Potomac River into Virginia, ending the battle.
|Union forces hold the field, but McClellan does not pursue Lee’s retreating army, missing an opportunity to potentially destroy it.
Timeline of the Battle of Antietam
1. Dawn – The Battle Begins:
At the break of dawn on September 17, 1862, the Battle of Antietam commenced. This battle marked a critical moment in the American Civil War, taking place near Sharpsburg, Maryland.
Union forces, commanded by General George B. McClellan, launched a massive assault on the Confederate army, which was led by General Robert E. Lee. The two armies clashed in the fields and woodlands around the small town.
2. Morning – Intense Fighting at Key Locations:
As the morning sun rose higher in the sky, the battle intensified. Fierce combat erupted at several key locations on the battlefield.
One of the bloodiest engagements occurred at the Cornfield, where Union and Confederate troops fought savagely for control of this strategic position. The Cornfield changed hands several times during the morning, with both sides suffering heavy casualties.
Meanwhile, in the West Woods and near the Dunker Church, additional brutal clashes took place. The West Woods, in particular, became a scene of desperate fighting as Confederate forces attempted to hold their ground against the Union onslaught.
3. Mid-morning – Capture of Burnside Bridge:
During the mid-morning hours of the Battle of Antietam, Union General Ambrose Burnside’s forces made a significant advance in the northern part of the battlefield.
Burnside’s objective was to secure the Burnside Bridge, which spanned Antietam Creek. The bridge was a vital crossing point for the Union forces to press the Confederate right flank.
After several attempts, Burnside’s troops managed to capture the bridge, albeit with heavy casualties. This achievement allowed Union forces to begin crossing the creek and apply pressure on the Confederate position.
4. Late Morning – The Sunken Road (Bloody Lane):
As the morning wore on, the focus of the battle shifted to the infamous Sunken Road, also known as Bloody Lane. This sunken road, with its natural depression, provided a formidable defensive position for the Confederate forces.
Confederate troops, under the command of General D.H. Hill, entrenched themselves in the Sunken Road. The road itself acted as a trench, providing cover for the soldiers. Union forces, however, were determined to dislodge them.
For several hours, Union soldiers launched relentless attacks on the Sunken Road, but they were met with stiff resistance. The road earned its name “Bloody Lane” due to the horrific casualties suffered by both sides during these engagements.
5. Early Afternoon – Continuing Union Assault:
As the battle progressed into the early afternoon, Union forces continued their relentless assault on various points of the battlefield.
In the southern sector of the battlefield, the focus remained on the Sunken Road (Bloody Lane), where Confederate troops held a tenacious defensive line.
Union soldiers launched wave after wave of attacks, attempting to dislodge the Confederates from their entrenched position. The fighting in this area remained exceptionally fierce and costly for both sides.
Meanwhile, Burnside’s men, having secured the Burnside Bridge, were making their way across Antietam Creek and preparing to engage the Confederate right flank.
6. Mid-Afternoon – Arrival of Confederate Reinforcements:
By mid-afternoon, a critical development occurred as Confederate reinforcements under General A.P. Hill arrived on the battlefield.
Hill’s troops had undertaken a forced march from Harpers Ferry to reinforce General Robert E. Lee’s army, and their arrival bolstered the Confederate lines.
The arrival of fresh Confederate troops added to the challenges faced by Union forces. The battle continued to rage with intensity, and the fighting extended to different parts of the field.
7. Late Afternoon – Climactic Assault on the Sunken Road:
By late afternoon, the Battle of Antietam had reached a critical juncture. Union forces, particularly those in the southern sector of the battlefield, continued to focus their efforts on breaking through the Confederate defenses at the Sunken Road (Bloody Lane).
Union soldiers launched a final, climactic assault on this position. The fighting was fierce, and the casualties on both sides continued to mount.
Despite the tremendous resistance offered by the Confederate troops entrenched in the Sunken Road, Union forces managed to make headway, gradually pushing the Confederates back.
8. Early Evening – Confederate Withdrawal:
With darkness approaching and the battle still raging, General Robert E. Lee made the difficult decision to withdraw his Confederate army across the Potomac River into Virginia.
Lee’s army had suffered heavy losses throughout the day, and he recognized the need to preserve his forces. The decision to withdraw marked the end of the Battle of Antietam.
Union forces, under General George B. McClellan, held the field. However, McClellan did not pursue Lee’s retreating army aggressively, missing an opportunity to potentially destroy it.
9. Nightfall – Grim Battlefield Scene:
As night fell over the Antietam battlefield, the scene was one of devastation and sorrow. The fields were littered with the dead and wounded from both sides, serving as a grim reminder of the day’s ferocious fighting.
Medical personnel from both armies worked tirelessly to tend to the wounded and provide whatever care they could amidst the darkness and chaos.
10. Aftermath and Significance:
The Battle of Antietam was the single bloodiest day in American history, with an estimated 23,000 casualties, including killed, wounded, and missing.
Despite the high human cost, the battle is considered a tactical draw. However, it was a strategic victory for the Union because it forced Lee’s withdrawal from Maryland.
In the days following the battle, President Abraham Lincoln seized upon the Union Army’s holding of the field to issue the Emancipation Proclamation. This historic document declared that all slaves in Confederate-held territory were to be set free, fundamentally changing the nature and purpose of the Civil War.
General George B. McClellan’s failure to pursue and decisively defeat Lee’s army led to his eventual removal from command of the Army of the Potomac, as many believed he had missed an opportunity to achieve a more decisive victory.