Battle of Antietam

Antietam Battlefield / Antietam Battle

The Battle of Antietam which is also known as the Battle of Sharpsburg was fought on September 17, 1862. The actual battle took place in Sharpsburg, Maryland at Antietam Creek and put an end to General Robert E. Lee’s first invasion of the north.

Antietam Crossroads of FreedomAntietam: Photographic Legacy of Bloodiest DayAntietam, South Mountain, & Harpers Ferry

Guide to the Battle of AntietamThe Antietam CampaignAntietam: Essays on Campaign

It marked the first major battle on northern soil and it was Lee that pushed the initiative and Union Major General George B. McClellan that pursued him north. McClellan was an overly-cautious commander even though his troop strength almost always outnumbered Lee. On this day however, McClellan would take the fight to the enemy and it would begin the single bloodiest day of the American Civil War with over 23,000 casualties on both sides.

At dawn that morning, Lee’s Confederate army was positioned in defensive positions behind Antietam Creek. Union Major General Joseph Hooker initiated aggressive attacks on Lee’s left flank. Heavy fighting ensued in the 40-acre Miller’s cornfield and around Dunker Church. The devastation was incomprehensible and one Union solider said, "[The cornfield] was so full of bodies that a man could have walked through it without stepping on the ground."

Antietam: The Soldiers BattleLandscape Turned RedThe Maps of Antietam

Battle of Antietam, Antietam Battlefield, Antietam Battle

Map by Hal Jespersen,

The Confederates had taken up defensive positions along the sunken road and some of the bloodies fighting of the day took place there. Union attacks were able to pierce through the defenses but they were not followed up and the Confederates held. McClellan has often been criticized for not committing his entire fighting force that day as Lee was fully committed and the extra numbers could have sealed a Union victory at the Battle of Antietam.

Union Major General Ambrose Burnside mounted a strong attack across a stone bridge that spanned Antietam creek. They took heavy casualties advancing across this choke-point but were finally able to make headway. Just as Burnsides’ men were pushing able to push forward, Confederate Major General A.P. Hill made a daring surprise attack from Harper’s Ferry and was able to drive Burnside back and this effectively ended the battle.

Battle of Antietam, Antietam Battlefield, Antietam Battle

At 23,000 killed, wounded, captured or missing, it would stand as the single bloodiest day of fighting in the American Civil War. Although the Antietam battle was indecisive, it was a strategic victory for the Union.

President Abraham Lincoln decided the result was significant enough to announce his Emancipation Proclamation that would free the slaves, and discourage any European powers from recognizing the Confederacy.

On September 18, Lee withdrew his forces across the Potomac River back to Virginia and this effectively ended his invasion of Maryland in the north. The Battle of Antietam will always be remembered for the tenacious fighting, and today the Antietam battlefield stands well-preserved for generations to come.

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