On September 17, 1862, two of America’s greatest armies engaged in mortal combat at the Battle of Antietam (or Sharpsburg). Both of these forces were in their infancy. The Army of the Potomac and the Army of Northern Virginia would go on to greater glories on other fields. But perhaps never again would they face so many structural challenges as in the confusing days of September 1862. A comparison of the armies helps to clarify those challenges and identifies the strengths and weaknesses inherent in each command.
General George B. McClellan was the 35-year-old scion of a noted Pennsylvania medical family with roots dating back to colonial New England and Mayflower. McClellan was well schooled in military matters, ranking second in the famous West Point class of 1846. He had experience both in the Mexican War and as an observer of European armies during the Crimean War. Nevertheless, his frequent caution in combat, coupled with a conservative outlook on how the rebellion should be put down, proved to be his undoing as an army commander. Military successes in western Virginia early in the war brought him favor with the Lincoln administration. This led him back to the seat of government and appointment as commander of the Army of the Potomac, and soon the position of general-in-chief.
McClellan’s Peninsula campaign in the spring of 1862 brought the Union army closer to the Confederate capital in Richmond than any other time until Ulysses S. Grant’s Overland campaign two years later. But McClellan failed to capture his objective. This and ongoing disagreement with the administration cost him his command, but only temporarily. The subsequent defeat of Union Maj. Gen. John Pope’s Army of Virginia in the Second Manassas campaign that August opened the door for McClellan once again. As the Army of Northern Virginia prepared to cross the Potomac into Maryland, Abraham Lincoln was faced with his worst crisis since taking office. McClellan was restored to command and charged with protecting the capital and stopping the Confederates. Within days he organized a new Army of the Potomac in the camps outside Washington.
General Robert E. Lee was a Virginia aristocrat whose lineage included some of the great political and military figures of the early days of the republic. But this is where the similarities between the two commanders quickly diverge. Lee was 55 years old at the time of the Maryland campaign. Unlike McClellan, who in the prewar years had left the Army for lucrative work in the railroad industry, Lee had spent more than 30 years in the Army. During this period he was a cavalry commander, engineer on many of the Atlantic coastal fortifications, superintendent at West Point and a staff officer in the Mexican War. It was in the latter position that Lee gained the valuable experience needed to lead armies in the Civil War. While McClellan often quarreled with the Lincoln administration, Lee had the full support of President Jefferson Davis and the Confederate Congress. Promoted to the rank of full general in August 1861, he took field command of General Joseph E. Johnston’s army after that commander was seriously wounded at the Battle of Seven Pines on May 31, 1862. Leading the Army of Northern Virginia, the new commander drove McClellan from the Peninsula and then launched a lightning campaign into northern Virginia that culminated in the destruction and rout of Pope’s army at Second Manassas. By September 4, 1862, the Confederates were crossing the Potomac into Maryland, in a campaign that would be one of the most desperate of the war for this great army.
The two armies that fought at Antietam represented a cross section of the American population. The soldiers were primarily from small towns or rural backgrounds. Union regiments claimed more urban enlistments. Around one-fourth of the Union troops were from New York. Pennsylvania was the next largest group. Nearly 25 percent of Lee’s infantry was from Virginia, with Georgia representing a close second at about 21 percent.
Although the Civil War is generally viewed as a conflict between white Anglo-Saxon Protestants, a close examination reveals an interesting ethnic makeup among Johnny Rebs and Billy Yanks alike. Traditional groups such as the Scots-Irish and “Pennsylvania” Germans could be found on both sides. Many Southern soldiers from both ethnicities in the Shenandoah Valley shared cultural, economic and kinship ties with the same groups in south-central Pennsylvania. The influx of immigrants from Germany and Catholic Ireland was well represented, particularly in the North, with units such as the Irish Brigade and the German 5th Maryland (Union) and 20th New York. All these units acquitted themselves well at Antietam.
The famed Iron Brigade boasted Germans, Norwegians and Métis (men of French Canadian and Indian descent). Indeed, recent research by Iron Brigade scholar Lance Herdegen has uncovered the existence of at least two mulattos who passed for whites and were serving in the ranks. Jews could be found in both armies. The 5th Maryland (Union), made up almost entirely of German immigrants, fought at Bloody Lane. Their commander was Major Leopold Blumenberg, a Jewish immigrant from East Prussia. Among the Confederates opposing the 5th Maryland in the Sunken Road was the 12th Alabama. Captain Adolph Proskauer, another Jewish immigrant from Prussia, served with the 12th and was seriously wounded in the battle.
Even a solid “Anglo” command like the Texas Brigade had its minorities. Captain Decimus et Ultimus Barziza of Company C, 4th Texas, was the son of Italian immigrants. His name in Latin means “the tenth and the last” (apparently his mother had had enough of child rearing when he came along). Both Louisiana brigades in Lee’s army were very cosmopolitan. Besides Louisiana French of both Creole and Acadian (Cajun) descent, the ranks were filled with men from all over the world. One study has shown that at least 24 nationalities were represented in these regiments, including Greeks, Italians, Mexicans, Brazilians and men from Martinique. The 12th South Carolina contained a number of Catawba Indians.
The Army of the Potomac
McClellan’s army was put together in an amazingly short time in early September 1862 at Rockville, Md. But this new Army of the Potomac was an amalgam of a number of different commands. It was certainly not the same force that had nearly captured Richmond in the Peninsula campaign, nor was it the Army of the Potomac that would gain victory and fame at Gettysburg and other places. At Antietam McClellan had the II, V and VI corps of his original Army of the Potomac. Three corps from Pope’s ill-fated Army of Virginia were also in the fold. They became the I, XI and XII corps. While the XI Corps was kept back to guard Washington, the other two played key roles in opening the Battle of Antietam. The IX Corps was comprised of Maj. Gen. Ambrose Burnside’s unattached Carolina Expeditionary Force and the Kanawha Division.
The corps system was a Napoleonic innovation. The great emperor of France devised it as a miniature army containing three infantry divisions, artillery and cavalry. Such an organization provided simplification of command at the army level and flexibility in combat power. It was a major reason for the success of Napoleon Bonaparte’s armies. Up to the time of the Civil War, the U.S. Army had been too small to make the corps system practical. But by 1861-62 the corps had become the building block of the huge forces being raised by both sides.
The quality of command and combat efficiency made the Army of the Potomac, numbering about 86,000, a patchwork force. The average Union regiment at Antietam had 346 men. Many of the new regiments had around 800 men. Such was the case with the 125th Pennsylvania. When the 125th engaged Brig. Gen. Jubal Early’s Confederates in the West Woods, the Rebels thought that they were up against an entire Yankee brigade.
About one-fourth of McClellan’s force was made up of raw recruits. These included “nine-month men” who were raised to cover the shortages caused by the War Department’s premature and overoptimistic closing of recruiting offices that summer. Eighteen of these new regiments, about 15,000 men, became part of the army just prior to the march to Antietam. Another 5,000 new recruits were added to the ranks of existing regiments as replacements. The nine-month regiments, as well as the replacements, lacked training and hindered the army by slowing it down on the march. Their ignorance of drill and firearms proved fatal at the tactical level.
McClellan’s lieutenants were a mixed lot when it came to combat experience and competence. Half of his corps commanders were new to that level of command, including I Corps commander Maj. Gen. Joseph Hooker. “Fighting Joe” was a West Point graduate and one of the most aggressive commanders on the field that day. The I Corps had been part of Pope’s Army of Virginia (as the III Corps) and contained some of the best fighting units in the army, such as the famed Iron Brigade and the Pennsylvania Reserves. Excellent combat commanders could be found here, including Brig. Gen. John Gibbon, commander of the Iron Brigade; Maj. Gen. George G. Meade, later the army commander; and Brig. Gen. George Lucas Hartsuff, a veteran of the Second Seminole War.
At 65, II Corps commander Edwin V. Sumner was the oldest active corps commander in the Civil War. He had 43 years of experience in the Army, including several tours of duty in the West and distinguished service in the Mexican War. He had led the II Corps in the Peninsula campaign, where he was wounded twice. Sumner, an aggressive field commander, had the potential at Antietam to turn Lee’s left flank. But instead the iron dice of war were thrown, and luck was with the Confederates. Sumner led his 2nd Division to destruction in the so-called West Woods Massacre. His command was the largest on the field, with more than 15,000 men. This corps represented the best and the worst of the Army of the Potomac’s combat efficiency. Major General Israel Richardson led the 1st Division. Nicknamed “Fighting Dick,” this veteran of the Seminole and Mexican wars was an aggressive commander. His veteran units, such as the Irish Brigade, made possible the Union breakthrough at the Sunken Road. Richardson remains one of the great “what ifs” of Antietam. He was actively seeking additional troops and artillery to follow up on the breakthrough when an artillery shell mortally wounded him. The 3rd Division was commanded by Brig. Gen. William H. French, whose experience was as a brigade commander. Incredibly, this division had been put together on the march only 16 hours before the battle. Nine out of its 10 regiments had not seen any major combat.
Fitz John Porter, the V Corps commander, had great potential from the start. The New Englander ranked eighth in his West Point class of 1845 and won several brevets for gallantry in the Mexican War. Later he taught artillery at West Point and served as Albert Sidney Johnston’s adjutant in the Utah Expedition. On the Peninsula, Porter led a division of the III Corps and later the V Corps. He had success at Mechanicsville, Gaines’ Mill and Malvern Hill. Upon the withdrawal of the Army of the Potomac from the Peninsula, Porter and his corps were attached to the Army of Virginia just in time for the disastrous Second Manassas campaign. There, he was blamed by Pope for failure to provide proper support and brought up on court-martial charges. Initially relieved of command, he was reinstated through the personal intercession of McClellan with President Lincoln. For more than a century, armchair generals have believed that the V Corps could have been McClellan’s weapon of final destruction against Lee at Antietam. But the two veteran divisions of Porter’s command had suffered severe attrition both on the Peninsula and at Second Manassas. A third division, under Brig. Gen. Andrew Humphreys, was on the march to reinforce Porter, but arrived the day after the battle. Its combat effectiveness was dubious, since the entire division was made up of nine-month regiments.
Like Porter, VI Corps commander Maj. Gen. William Franklin was also up on court-martial charges for disobedience at Second Manassas. Franklin had been trained at West Point as an engineer and graduated first in the class of 1843. As the VI Corps commander, he lacked the aggression needed for combat operations. At Crampton’s Gap on September 14, 1862, his trepidation resulted in the failure to raise the siege of Harpers Ferry. Conversely, at Antietam he would unsuccessfully seek permission from McClellan to launch an attack against the Confederate left in the afternoon. Most of his men would not be engaged in the battle.
The foundation of the Union IX Corps at Antietam was Burnside’s Expeditionary Force, which had successfully conducted amphibious operations in North Carolina during the first half of 1862. This unit returned to Virginia for Second Manassas and was augmented with Brig. Gen. Jacob Cox’s Kanawha Division, which had been operating in the Kanawha Valley of western Virginia. On September 14, McClellan put his old friend Burnside in charge of the right wing of his army, consisting of the I and IX corps, leaving Maj. Gen. Jesse Reno in charge of the latter command. Upon Reno’s death at South Mountain, Cox took over temporary command of the IX Corps.
At Antietam McClellan abruptly abandoned this arrangement, sending Hooker with the I Corps toward the Confederate left flank, independent of Burnside. Thus “Burn,” as he was known to friends, was left with only his old command. This rankled Burnside, and some historians believe it caused him to move sluggishly in his effort to take the stone bridge that now bears his name. The IX Corps contained many combat-seasoned units, but it also had its share of green troops. Accordingly, one of these regiments, the 16th Connecticut, wilted when Confederate Maj. Gen. A.P. Hill’s reinforcements arrived on the field. Their inexperience under fire was a factor in the collapse of Burnside’s final attack late in the afternoon.
The weakest link in McClellan’s chain of command was Brig. Gen. J.K.F. Mansfield. This 59-year-old commander had an impressive military résumé. Ranking second in the West Point class of 1822, he spent his early military career constructing defenses of the Southern coast. In the Mexican War he won several brevets for gallantry and occasionally led troops in combat. In 1853 he was appointed to the staff rank of colonel in the inspector general’s department, a position he held until the beginning of the war. When the fighting broke out, he spent most of his time on garrison duty. He was tapped to command the XII Corps two days before Antietam. This would be one of the few times he would ever lead men in battle, and the corps was the largest combat entity he had ever commanded. Mansfield did not survive his first large command. He was one of six general officers, three from each side, killed or mortally wounded at Antietam.
The XII Corps contained the largest component of nine-month regiments, five of them concentrated mostly in the 1st Brigade of the 1st Division. It was also the smallest corps in the army, fielding less than 8,000 men. These apparent deficiencies were offset by the presence of Brig. Gen. George S. Greene and his division—a seasoned command led by an experienced commander. With around 1,700 men, Greene held a pocket in the Confederate lines near the Dunker Church for more than two hours. Unsupported and low on ammunition, he ultimately was forced to abandon his position.
The Army of Northern Virginia
As opposed to the patchwork quality of the Army of the Potomac, the Army of Northern Virginia was a lean fighting machine. This was an army of combat veterans. Lee’s regiments were all battletested, and more than half had been in three or more major fights. Many of these soldiers had “seen the elephant” back in July 1861 at First Manassas. Twenty-two units had been in five battles. Only around 21 percent of the regiments had fought in just one battle. The Rebels were hardened veterans of First Manassas, Jackson’s Valley campaign, Williamsburg, Seven Pines, the Seven Days’, Cedar Mountain and Second Manassas. Their commanders were hardened veterans too. Lee’s chief lieutenants, Maj. Gens. James Longstreet and Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson, led Lee’s two corps at Sharpsburg, although their commands were not officially designated as corps until after the battle. That would require legislation from the Confederate Congress.
The South Carolina–born Longstreet had a long military career that included combat in Mexico and against the Indians in Texas. He fought in many of the major conflicts of the Eastern theater and was prominent in the Seven Days’ battles, where Lee dubbed him “the staff in my right hand.” At Second Manassas, his troops launched the devastating counterattack that forced the withdrawal of Pope’s army. At Sharpsburg his command held the Confederate center and right.
Lee’s infantry division commanders constituted an impressive array of combat leadership. Here was Maj. Gen. John Bell Hood, a Texan via Kentucky, who was a virtual pit bull in battle. His aggressive leadership played a prominent role in preventing the collapse of the Confederate left on the morning of September 17. Soon after Hood’s attack, the timely arrival of Maj. Gen. Lafayette McLaws’ Division helped wreck Maj. Gen. John Sedgwick’s division of Sumner’s II Corps. Another audacious commander in the campaign, Maj. Gen. D.H. Hill, bought time for Lee at South Mountain, reinforced Jackson’s flank in the East Woods and tenaciously held the Confederate center at the Sunken Road and Piper farm.
Jackson was Lee’s other “wing” commander. This son of the western Virginia mountain region had earned his combat spurs early at First Manassas. His brilliant Valley campaign in the spring of 1862 further solidified his greatness. His sluggishness in the Seven Days’ campaign temporarily marred his reputation. However, he redeemed himself by capturing Harpers Ferry and holding Lee’s left at Sharpsburg.
It is believed that Lee had no more than 40,000 men at Sharpsburg. The months of campaigning and fighting had taken its toll. The average Confederate regiment numbered 166 men. Some had less. The 8th Georgia carried 85 officers and men into battle, while the 8th Virginia had 34 men and the 1st Louisiana Battalion numbered an amazing 17 combatants. At the other end of the spectrum, Longstreet’s regiments averaged around 360 in the ranks, and the 3rd North Carolina, recently augment ed with conscripts, numbered 983.
The average Union soldier at Antietam would have been clothed in the standard dark-blue four-button blouse with light-blue trousers. But within this sea of blue could be found a smattering of other hues and styles. Here was the Iron Brigade in frock coats and tall black hats; the 72nd Pennsylvania wearing short, Zouave-style jackets; a detachment of the 114th Pennsylvania, the “Collis Zouaves,” attached to the 2nd Massachusetts, in the traditional turbans, short jackets and red baggy pants of the Zouaves; and the 1st and 2nd U.S. “Berdan’s” Sharpshooters wearing coats of forest green.
McClellan took great pains to see that his army was reequipped following months of campaigning. This took place at the camps at Rockville and through the establishment of supply depots at Frederick and Hagerstown, Md. Between September 12 and October 25, 1862, the army received more than 100,000 pairs of shoes and boots, 93,000 pairs of trousers, 10,000 blankets and numerous other supplies.
This influx of supplies was not a mere luxury or crass display of Yankee abundance. They were sorely needed after all the hard campaigning that summer. For example, a few weeks after Antietam, the quartermaster of the I Corps was seeking more than 5,000 shoes for the unshod soldiers of that command.
The much-touted “ragged Reb” was in evidence during the Maryland campaign perhaps more than in any other period of the war. Numerous civilian eyewitness accounts bear this out. One Marylander observed that “They were the roughest looking set of creatures I ever saw, their features, hair, and clothing matted with dirt and filth.” Angela Kirkham Davis, a Unionist citizen of Funkstown, Md., near Hagerstown, recalled: “They were tired, dirty, ragged and had no uniforms whatever. Their coats were made out of almost anything that you could imagine, butternut color predominating. Their hats looked worse than those worn by the darkies. Many were barefooted; some with toes sticking out of their shoes and others in their stocking feet. Their blankets were every kind of description, consisting of drugget, rugs, bedclothes, in fact anything they could get, put up in a long roll and tied at the ends, which with their cooking utensils, were slung over their shoulders.”
Sharpsburg resident James Snyder, who was 16 at the time, recalled years after the battle a very poignant example of the Confederates’ condition at Antietam. On the eve of the battle, Snyder fled with his mother to a nearby farm. On September 18, the day after the holocaust, the teenager went back into town against his mother’s wishes. Upon entering his home, he found the place a wreck, with doors and windows open, and drawers and closets ransacked. Heaps of ragged uniforms were on the floor, apparently exchanged for the cleaner clothes of the Snyder family. In one bedroom James found a naked Confederate soldier lying on the bed, his dirty, tattered uniform piled on the floor. Young Snyder boldly challenged the man, asking, “What are you doing in that bed in that condition for?” The soldier replied, “Young man I am here because I am sick, and I didn’t want to soil this clean bed with my dirty clothes, so I took them off.”
A major cause of the ragged appearance of Lee’s men was the inadequate supply system of the Confederate Army. In the late summer of 1862, many Confederate regiments were still operating under the so-called commutation system of clothing supply. This system gave responsibility to each company commander for clothing his troops. The officer was to then seek reimbursement from the government. Individual Confederate states also undertook various measures to clothe their men, while private citizens got in on the act by raising money for uniforms. Meanwhile, the Confederate government was in the process of establishing quartermaster depots. However, it was not until late 1862 and early 1863, too late for Antietam, that Confederate authorities committed themselves to clothe their troops by direct government issue.
Accordingly, a hodgepodge of uniforms was very much evident on the fields around Sharpsburg. Yet despite civilian accounts, the sparse photographic evidence that exists, mainly post-battle images of Confederate dead taken by Alexander Gardner, shows Confederates with short jackets, trousers and blanket rolls or knapsacks. Most of the men in these grim photos have shoes. Could it be that some of these troops, such as the dead Louisiana soldiers of Starke’s Brigade, shared in the booty captured at Harpers Ferry on September 15? Perhaps. Most of these men got nowhere near the captured supplies there, however, since they were rushed to Sharpsburg for the battle. A rare image of Confederates in formation on the march taken by a local photographer in Frederick reveals what appear to be well-equipped soldiers wearing a wide variety of headgear. Historians are not positive whether this photo was taken in September 1862 or in July 1864, during Early’s march on Washington.
Another interesting but inconclusive observation of Confederate uniforms was made by Union surgeon James L. Dunn in a letter to his wife after Antietam. He wrote: “All this stuff about their extreme destitution is all bash….I have yet to find a Rebel even meanly clad or shod. They are as well shod as our own men. They are dressed in gray.”
Whatever the case, months of campaigning in Virginia, climaxed by the invasion of Maryland, left most of Lee’s men in tatters. Two weeks after the battle, Lee’s army regrouped around the lower Shenandoah Valley village of Bunker Hill. One soldier from the 4th North Carolina wrote home: “Pa, I want you to have me a pair of boots made. Those shoes you made for me ripped all to pieces….Our regiment used everything we had. I have no blanket nor any clothes but what I got. I have got the suit on that you sent me. They came in a good time. I like them very well. If I had a pair of shoes I would be the best clothed man in the regiment.”
Throughout the war, the Union infantrymen were usually better armed than their Rebel opponents. Antietam was no exception. The most common shoulder arm of the Yankee foot soldier was the Springfield rifle. This does not mean that there was not some degree of diversity of arms in the Union ranks. For example, some units such as the 7th West Virginia were armed with the British-made Enfield rifled musket. The 20th New York carried the U.S. Model 1841 Mississippi rifle with saber bayonet. The New York regiments of the Irish Brigade were issued the Model 1842 .69-caliber smoothbore musket. This was actually a favored weapon with the commander of the brigade, since it could fire “buck and ball” (a load of buckshot and musket ball) at close range with deadly effect.
Correspondence sent from an ordnance officer in the Army of the Potomac to the chief of ordnance in Washington several weeks after the battle indicates that 5,000 smoothbore muskets were still being carried by elements of McClellan’s army.
The Confederate foot soldiers in Lee’s army fielded a wider variety of weapons. These included several types of rifled muskets, such as the .57-caliber Enfield and the .58-caliber Springfield. Some of the men carried .54-caliber rifled muskets, including the U.S. Model 1855 Harpers Ferry rifle, the U.S. Model 1841 Mississippi rifle and the Austrian Lorenz rifle. Captured weapons, picked up on the battlefields of Virginia, helped alleviate Lee’s deficit in arms. However, one estimate places the number of .69-caliber smoothbore muskets in the Army of Northern Virginia at about 30 percent. Although much is made of this lack of new weaponry, research shows that most of the opposing fire at Antietam was at a distance of around 100 to 200 yards, where smoothbore firearms were reasonably accurate. In the end, supplying the types of ammunition needed for these weapons was a logistical nightmare for the Confederate ordnance department.
Field artillery played a major tactical role at Antietam. Indeed, because of the destruction wrought by the armies’ long arms, Antietam has been aptly nicknamed “Artillery Hell.” The Army of the Potomac had the advantage both in quantity and quality. Reports of the number of Union guns engaged in the battle vary from 286 to 302. The main type of artillery in McClellan’s arsenal was the 12-pounder Napoleon, the workhorse of the army. There were 108 of these guns employed in the fight. Accurate up to one mile, they were also deadly when firing canister at shorter ranges. Napoleons were used en masse with awful effect to break up several Confederate attacks on the north end of the battlefield in the morning phase. A significant portion of the Union artillery consisted of state-of-the-art long-range rifled guns such as the 10- and 20-pounder Parrott. Forty-two of the former and 30 of the latter pieces were brought to bear on the Confederate lines with deadly effect. Fifty-seven Union batteries were fielded on that bloody Wednesday.
Union artillery chief Henry Hunt wrote that, like other parts of McClellan’s army, the artillery arm was “organized on the march” and in the intervals of conflict. In fact, Hunt had to reorganize the artillery just weeks before Antietam. Logistical problems existed, and many batteries were short of men, horses, guns and other equipment. McClellan had suffered losses on the Peninsula, and Pope’s disaster at Second Manassas included the loss of 30 guns captured by the Confederates. Hunt relieved many of these deficiencies within a very short time.
At Antietam he still faced an organizational challenge. The batteries from elements of Pope’s army were assigned to the corps. Conversely, McClellan preferred attaching three or four batteries per division. He redistributed the batteries to the divisions of the I Corps but left the XII Corps with the system previously used under Pope. Essentially, infantry division commanders (and occasionally brigade commanders) had control of the artillery under them. About one-third of the Union batteries at Antietam were commanded by lieutenants. Accordingly, these lower-ranking officers deferred to infantry commanders for the tactical deployment of their cannons. Therefore, it was hard for the Union artillery to be massed at the tactical level, although in some cases this happened at Antietam on an ad hoc basis.
The Confederates had around 246 pieces of field artillery at Sharpsburg. The arsenal consisted of a hodgepodge of different model cannons, including 41 of the obsolete Model 1841 6- pounders. These Mexican War–era pieces were effective only at short range and threw a very weak punch. Lee had only 27 12-pounder Napoleons, and rifled guns were at a premium. In contrast to the Federals, the Confederates had only four 20-pounder Parrott rifles and 36 of the 10-pounders. Compounding Lee’s problems was the fact that of the 59 batteries present, only five were uniform as to gun type. Lee was also bedeviled by inferior ammunition. A large number of fuzes and shells exploded prematurely, or not at all.
Like its Yankee counterpart, Lee’s artillery was also in a state of reorganization. But like the rest of his command, the artillery of the Army of Northern Virginia was better organized for tactical application. Prior to Sharpsburg, Lee had assigned one artillery battalion, generally consisting of five or six batteries, to each of his infantry divisions. Longstreet’s corps had a battalion attached to it. One for Jackson would come later. A reserve of four battalions and miscellaneous batteries was available for the army’s general support. Despite the mixed quality of cannons, poor ammunition and other supply problems, Lee’s artillery, as evidenced by Colonel S.D. Lee’s Battalion near the Dunker Church, was still effective at massing guns and supporting the infantry.
Cavalry played a limited role at Antietam. McClellan’s horsemen were under the command of Brig. Gen. Alfred Pleasonton, a good bureaucrat but a poor field commander. Despite his prewar studies of European cavalry, McClellan also had little grasp of how to properly use his mounted arm. In an 1895 article in The Cavalry Journal, esteemed cavalry leader General Wesley Merritt wrote, “The cavalry under him [McClellan] was decimated instead of being concentrated, and each corps, division, and even brigade commander, was supplied with a force of this expensive arm, which necessarily reduced the available force of cavalry proper.” Indeed, this parceling out of the cavalry diminished its field strength by about 17 percent.
But, even if it had been properly utilized, the Union cavalry would have faced significant challenges. Many units were simply unfit for service. The 1st Massachusetts Cavalry received no rations from September 2 to 20, leaving the troopers to fend for themselves on green corn, apples and the occasional generosity of local farmers. The regiment started the campaign 700 strong, and within a few weeks after Antietam numbered fewer than 300 men, many with uniforms in rags and without boots or stockings. In addition, the regiment did not have any tents. According to the regimental historian, the 3rd Pennsylvania began the march to Antietam as a “skeleton regiment.” Most of the men had been sent to camp dismounted, and the remaining troopers were in a state “almost of destitution as regards clothing.”
Despite deficiencies, by and large McClellan’s horse soldiers were better armed than their Southern opponents. Most of the Union cavalry regiments carried sabers, pistols and carbines, primarily the Model 1859 Sharps Breechloading Carbine. The 3rd Pennsylvania carried many of the new models of cavalry carbines. McClellan chose to use the bulk of Pleasonton’s cavalry to probe the Rebel center while dismounted on the skirmish line. On the north end of the field, units such as the 12th Pennsylvania Cavalry also served as provost guard, rounding up straggling infantry and forcing them back into the fight. Most of the Union cavalry was deployed dismounted, used in a sort of “phony war” throughout the day, probing the Confederate center on the Boonsboro Pike.
In late July 1862, J.E.B. Stuart was promoted to major general and given command of a Confederate cavalry division consisting of three brigades. The Maryland campaign was the first time Stuart had commanded such a large mounted force in the field. Lee’s cavalry was indifferently armed—most troopers carried the standard U.S. Cavalry saber and pistol. A few companies had breechloading carbines, more often than not captured from the Yankees. However, a large portion of Stuart’s troopers carried the short Enfield rifle.
As was typical, particularly for this period of the war, the Confederate cavalry was used more aggressively at the tactical level. Stuart’s cavaliers sparred with advance elements of the Union I Corps the evening before the battle and successfully guarded Lee’s flanks on September 17. That afternoon they were engaged in a failed reconnaissance in force against the Union right.
Supplying and feeding an army has been a daunting task throughout history. And so it was in the Civil War. As would be expected, the Union had a huge edge in this category.
The men of the Army of the Potomac would arrive on the fields of Antietam well fed and well equipped. Soldiers received three pounds of rations per day. To carry food and forage, the army brought along more than 3,000 wagons—each of which carried about a ton. This transportation system included more than 30,000 horses and mules. Even with that support, much food was requisitioned from the local farmers, whether they were cooperative or not. One week after the battle, the Hagerstown Herald and Torchlight editorialized on the foraging by both sides: “The amount of personal property—horses, cattle, hogs, sheep, corn, hay, and other provender—which was taken from the farmers, was enormous, the whole lower portion of our county has been stripped of every description of subsistence, and what our people in that section of the county will do to obtain food for man and beasts during the approaching winter, God alone knows.”
For the Confederates, the supply situation was acute. Lee had only about 16,000 horses of mixed quality and efficiency to pull his wagons. As previously noted, a lack of shoes along with a shortage of rations rendered some soldiers unfit to continue on the march into Maryland. Accordingly, thousands fell behind and did not catch up with the army until several days or even weeks after the battle.
Losses and Medical Care
As the sun set on the hills around Sharpsburg on the evening of September 17, the opposing forces found themselves surrounded by some of the worst carnage ever witnessed on the North American continent. Nearly 4,000 men were killed outright.
The bodies from both armies were generally buried where they fell on the field. It took Union burial parties three or four days to do the job. Even in death, the fallen warriors of these opposing American armies would lie separately. In 1867 the Union dead were reinterred in the Antietam National Cemetery. The Confederate remains would not be removed from the field until 1874. At that time, they were placed in the newly established Washington Confederate Cemetery in nearby Hagerstown.
Around 19,000 men were wounded in the battle. Of these about 12,400 were Union. Thousands would die from their wounds. Some accounts tell of soldiers lying out on the battlefield for two or three days. A revolution in combat medical care had been instituted just a few weeks prior to Antietam to alleviate this problem. Dr. Jonathan Letterman, medical director of the Army of the Potomac, organized an ambulance corps that moved to the front to evacuate the wounded, established field hospitals and created a procedure to prioritize casualties by the severity of their wounds (the triage system that emergency medical teams still use today). The burden of caring for the wounded posed a logistical problem that encompassed an area exceeding a 40-mile radius. One newspaper reported that the area was “one vast hospital.” Approximately 100 area homes and farms were used, caring for anywhere from a few hundred to more than 1,000 wounded soldiers. Research indicates that several thousand wounded Confederates were left behind, to the mercy of the Union surgeons. Meanwhile, hospitals were established for Lee’s army at Winchester and other points in the Shenandoah Valley.
Antietam remains one of the great yet terrible soldiers’ battles of the Civil War. Tradition holds that visitors to the now peaceful Maryland countryside do not see elaborate statues and other memorials to the generals because of their many costly blunders. The limited monuments at Antietam National Battlefield, greatly dwarfed in size and majesty by those at sites such as Gettysburg and Vicksburg, depict the common soldier.
In 1897 General Ezra Carman, a veteran of the battle and the historian for the Antietam Battlefield Board, received a letter from James Dinkins, a Confederate veteran of the battle, concerning troop movements and locations. Carman was preparing the text for the cast iron tablets that are so familiar to visitors. In the letter’s conclusion, Dinkins inadvertently penned a fitting tribute to the men of the two great American armies that fought at Antietam: “Future generations looking at the markers, will swell with pride as they read of the heroic character of their ancestors, and they will also have more appreciation of peace when they learn of the horrors of that war.”
Ted Alexander is a historian at Antietam National Battlefield and the author of numerous Civil War articles.
Originally published in the September 2006 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here.