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Bloody Antietam

In August 1862, a Confederate army invaded Kentucky from Tennessee. Robert E. Lee’s army of Northern Virginia had defeated the Union Army again at the Second Battle of Bull Run.

Lee and Jefferson Davis believed that one more successful campaign might bring British and French recognition of the Confederacy. Britain and France saw advantages of a split United States, but neither was willing to support the Confederacy without being convinced that the South could win.

Lee wanted to attack the North on its own territory. His target was the federal rail center at Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, but the Union General George McClellan was pursuing him. Lee decided to stop and confront the Union army at Sharpsburg, Maryland, in front of a little creek called Antietam.

On September 15, Lee deployed his 30,000 soldiers on some four miles of rising ground behind Antietam Creek. He utilized the cover of rock outcroppings, rolling farmland, stone walls, fields of standing corn, and a sunken road in the center of his line.

Two days earlier, a Union corporal had found a copy of Lee’s special orders wrapped around three cigars. McClellan refused to act because he thought Lee’s troops outnumbered his. When McClellan started deploying his troops on September 16, he had 60,000 active soldiers and 15,000 in reserve. The battle began in the early morning of September 17 when Union troops under the command of General Joseph Hooker attacked the forces of Stonewall Jackson. The battle surged back and forth and cost each side nine generals. Within five hours 12,000 soldiers lay dead or wounded.

Finally, Union attackers assumed a position from which they could shoot down on the Confederate soldiers occupying the road. The road was quickly filled with the dead and dying, thus earning the name Bloody Lane. The Confederates fell back, and McClellan again had the opportunity to cut Lee's army in two, but he did not follow through and the battlefield fell silent. Over 22,000 soldiers were killed, wounded or missing—more casualties than during the entire American Revolution. Lee lost a quarter of his army.

The horror of Antietam proved to be one of the war’s critical events. Lee and Davis failed to get their victory and neither Britain nor France was ready to recognize the Confederacy. Lincoln, upset with McClellan's hesitancy, relieved him of command, and replaced him with General Ambrose Burnside.


Source: Bloody Antietam
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