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At Antietam, George McClellan and his ‘bodyguard’ dawdled throughout a long ‘Fatal Thursday.’

This issue of America’s Civil War takes a close look at the Battle of Antietam on this, the 135th anniversary of the battle. There are feature-length articles on the fighting around Dunker church and Bloody Lane, as well as a “Personality” piece on Mathew Brady, whose photographs of Antietam’s aftermath shocked the nation; a look at the fighting 3rd Wisconsin, which lost nearly 60 percent of its troops at the battle; and an eyewitness account of the battle by New York Tribune reporter George Smalley, who scooped the world with his remarkable “beat.”

Because of the events in the valley between Antietam Creek and the Potomac River on a bright, late-summer day in western Maryland, September 17, 1862, will always be a melancholy date in American history. More Americans–some 23,000–fell that day than on any other single day in the often violent 221-year history of the nation. But though the Battle of Antietam took place on a Wednesday, Northern newspapers were soon referring to “Fatal Thursday” in their editorials. It was a reference not to what had taken place at Antietam, but to what had not taken place–the never-to-be-fought second day of the battle.

By nightfall on September 17, it was apparent to everyone that Antietam had been the most savagely fought battle of the war. Makeshift hospitals in churches, farmhouses, barns and sheds around the crossroads village of Sharpsburg groaned with the thousands of wounded soldiers being brought in from the battlefield by stretcher-bearers. Many others lay beyond reach in the no man’s land between the lines. For miles away in either direction, the unbroken moans of dying men could be faintly heard–almost as though the land itself was crying out.

But despite the shocking losses that day, many observers went to sleep that night believing the battle would be renewed in the morning. The ever-observant Smalley had concluded his account for the Tribune by maintaining that “everything was favorable for a renewal of the fight in the morning. If the plan of the battle is sound, there is every reason why [Maj. Gen. George] McClellan should win it.” At army headquarters, Union Colonel David Strother went to bed fully expecting the battle to resume at dawn. Sometime during the night, however, he heard his commander tell a messenger, “They are to hold the ground they occupy, but are not to attack without further orders.” Strother, “fear[ing] we would thus lose the fruits of a victory already achieved,” did not go back to sleep that night.

Strother may have been overconfident in his belief that the Union forces had already achieved victory at Antietam, but he was correct in his assessment that a renewal of the fighting held great promise for such a victory on the morrow. Every Confederate unit at General Robert E. Lee’s disposal had already been thrown into the terrific struggle, except for two late-arriving brigades on the right. There was no possibility of reinforcement.

Having served with McClellan in the Mexican War and then having fought him for seven full days on the outskirts of Richmond three months before Antietam, Lee correctly guessed that McClellan would not make another attack. During the Peninsula campaign the previous spring, McClellan had flinched from attacking a skeleton Southern force at Yorktown with three times as many men, prompting Confederate General Joseph Johnston–not known for
offensive-minded audacity him-self–to remark, “No one but McClellan could have hesitated to attack.” Lee shared that scornful opinion.

As for McClellan himself, he confidently wrote to his wife on the night of the Battle of Antietam, “Those in whose judgment I rely tell me that I fought the battle splendidly and that it was a masterpiece of art.” McClellan failed to explain why he had committed less than two-thirds of his army in combat that day, or why, with more than 30,000 fresh troops then on hand–more than the entire number of soldiers Lee had left–he would not attack at all the following day.

It all came down to the fact that McClellan was too afraid of losing to risk winning. “One battle lost and all would have been lost,” he explained later. “Lee’s army might then have marched as it pleased on Washington, Baltimore, Philadelphia or New York.”

Such manifest exaggeration was ridiculous, as President Abraham Lincoln understood all too well. After personally visiting McClellan two weeks after the battle, Lincoln told colleagues that he had tried unsuccessfully to convince the general “that he would be a ruined man if he did not move forward, move rapidly and effectively.” Instead of heeding his advice, Lincoln noted ruefully, “he began to argue why he ought not to move.” Looking at the army massed around him in a sea of tents, the exasperated Lincoln asked a companion, “Do you know what this is?” “It is the Army of the Potomac,” the man replied. “So it is called,” the president said, “but that is a mistake. It is only McClellan’s bodyguard.” By failing to renew the Battle of Antietam, McClellan soon lost the use of that “bodyguard” forever.

Roy Morris, Jr., Editor, America’s Civil War