|Oil painting of General George Brinton McClellan, from a photograph by Matthew Brady.
With all attention these days on the national political campaign, let’s not forget another big item this month, the 150th anniversary of Antietam, the bloodiest single-day battle in American history. With 23,000 casualties, Antietam marked a turning point in the Civil War, prompting President Abraham Lincoln to move ahead with his Emancipation Proclamation while also ending the military career of the Union’s controversial general, George Brinton McClellan. McClellan’s refusal to chase the enemy, either before or after the battle, finally would led Lincoln to take away his command.
In the new book The Maryland Campaign of 1862:Vol.. II: Antietam, Thomas Clemens brings us a newly edited and annotated version of the original intimate account from Ezra Carman, a Union officer who commanded the 13th New Jersey Volunteers at Antietam and became the country’s leading scholar on the battle. In this excerpt, he focuses on McClellan’s hesitancy the day before the big shootout. (Click here to see the book trailer on YouTube):
During the afternoon and night of the 15th McClellan’s forces moved to the positions assigned them, but it was not until after daybreak of the 16th that the great body of them were in their designated places, some brigades did not get up until noon. Hooker’s (First) Corps was in the forks of the Big and Little Antietam. Sumner’s (Second) Corps was on both sides of the Boonsboro and Sharpsburg road, Richardson’s Division in advance, near the Antietam, on the right of the road. Sykes’ Division was on the left of Richardson’s, and on Sykes’ left and rear was Burnside’s (Ninth) Corps. Mansfield’s (Twelfth) Corps was at Nicodemus Mill or Springvale. Pleasonton’s cavalry division was just west of Keedysville.7
Near midnight of the 15th two companies each of the 61st and 64th New York, under command of Lieutenant Colonel Nelson A. Miles, passed along the rear of Sedgwick’s Division and some distance along the bluff below the “middle bridge”, then turning back reached the bridge just as a party of Union cavalry came riding sharply over it from the south bank. They informed Miles that the enemy had fallen back and that there were none in the immediate front of the bridge. Miles crossed the bridge to the west side of the creek, and marched cautiously west along the highway.
It was then daybreak. A heavy fog prevented vision for more than fifteen or twenty feet; the dust in the road deadened the sound of the footsteps and silence was enjoined. Miles who was in advance, had reached the crest of the ridge about 600 yards beyond the Antietam, and was about to descend into the broad ravine where the Confederates were in position, when he ran upon a Confederate crossing the road, whom he captured and from whom he learned, that he was very near the Confederate line. The command was faced about and moved back with as much silence and celerity as possible, and recrossed the bridge before the fog lifted, but long after daylight of the 16th.
There has been much criticism on the failure of McClellan to attack Lee on the afternoon of the 15th or at least early on the 16th. We have referred to the failure to do so on the 15th. The situation, inviting prompt attack on the morning of the 16th, is well stated by General F. A. Walker in the History of the Second Army Corps:
“If it be admitted to have been impracticable to throw the 35 brigades that had crossed the South Mountain at Turner’s Gap across the Antietam during the 15th, in season and in condition to undertake attack upon Lee’s 14 brigades that day with success, it is difficult to see what excuse can be offered for the failure to fight the impending battle on the 16th, and that early. It is true that Lee’s forces had then been increased by the arrival of Jackson with J. R. Jones and Lawton’s divisions [also Walker’s—inserted by Carman], but those of Anderson, McLaws and A. P. Hill could not be brought up that day. A preemptory recall of Franklin, in the early evening of the 15th, would have placed his three divisions in any part of the line that might be desired. Even without Franklin, the advantages of concentration would have been on the side of McClellan. When both armies were assembled the Union forces were at least nine to six, of the Confederate six only four could possibly have been present on the 16th. Without Franklin the odds would still have been seven to four.”
It is evident that McClellan had no idea of fighting Lee on the 15th. There seems to have been no intention to do it early on the 16th, certainly no orders to that effect were issued, nor did he make any preparations. In fact he expected Lee to retreat during the night of the 15th.
At 9 o’clock on the morning of the 16th, after telegraphing his wife that he had
no doubt “delivered Pennsylvania and Maryland,” McClellan dispatched Halleck:
“The enemy yesterday held a position just in front of Sharpsburg. This morning a heavy fog has thus far prevented us doing more than to ascertain that some of the enemy are still there. Do not know in what force. Will attack as soon as situation of enemy is developed.”
Halleck replied to this dispatch:
”I think however, you will find that the whole force of the enemy in your front has crossed the river. I fear now more than ever that they will recross at Harper’s Ferry or below and turn your left, thus cutting you off from Washington. This has appeared to me to be a part of their plan, and hence my anxiety on the subject.”
When this dispatch was read by McClellan, during the afternoon of the 16th, contempt was written on his face as he remarked, “the idea of Halleck giving me lessons in the art of war.”
When the fog lifted he missed S. D. Lee’s guns, which had been moved to the
left, or, as he reports:
”It was discovered that the enemy had changed the position of his batteries. The masses of his troops, however, were still concealed behind the opposite heights. Their left and center were upon and in front of the Sharpsburg and Hagerstown Turnpike, hidden by woods and irregularities of the ground, their extreme left resting upon a wooded eminence near the cross-roads to the north of Miller’s farm, their left resting upon the Potomac (sic in McClellan’s report.) Their line extended south, the right resting upon the hills to the south of Sharpsburg near Snavely’s farm.” This changed position of the batteries is given by McClellan as one of the reasons for not making the attack before afternoon, for, he says, he was “compelled to spend the morning in reconnoitering the new position taken up by the enemy, examining the ground, finding fords, clearing the approaches, and hurrying up the ammunition and supply trains, which had been delayed by the rapid march of the troops over the few practicable approaches from Frederick. These had been crowded by the masses of infantry, cavalry and artillery pressing on with the hope of overtaking the enemy before he could form to resist an attack. Many of the troops were out of rations on the previous day, and a good deal of their ammunition had been expended in the severe action of the 14th.”
From the time of McClellan’s arrival on the field until Hooker’s advance in the afternoon of the 16th, nothing seems to have been done with a view to an accurate determination of the Confederate position. From the heights east of the Antietam the eye could trace the right and center, but the extreme left could not be definitely located, nor was the character of the country on that flank known. It was upon this flank that McClellan decided to make his attack and one would suppose that his first efforts would be directed to ascertain how that flank could be approached and what it looked like. This was proper work for cavalry, of which he had a good body available for the purpose. Pleasonton’s cavalry division was in good shape and elated with its successful achievements, culminating in the discomfiture of Fitz-Hugh Lee’s Brigade at Boonsboro, the day before, and confident of its capacity for further good work. But it was not used.
As far as we know, not a Union cavalryman crossed the Antietam until Hooker went over in the afternoon of the 16th, when the 3rd Pennsylvania cavalry accompanied him. Nor can we discover that the cavalry did any productive work elsewhere. It did not ascertain that there were good fords below the Burnside Bridge, leading directly to the right-rear of the Confederate line, and we know of no order given for its use, save a suggestion to Franklin, to have his cavalry feel towards Frederick. The part taken by the cavalry this day is very briefly told by Pleasonton, in his report: “On the 16th my cavalry was engaged in reconnaissances, escorts and support to batteries.” If any part of his command, except the 3rdPennsylvania, was engaged in reconnaissances and supporting batteries we do not know of it.
The first movement of the day was to crown the bluff east of the Antietam with
artillery and cover the Middle Bridge. This bluff, which, south of the bridge, almost over-hangs the Antietam, recedes from it north of the bridge for a short distance, then approaches it. It rises 180 feet above the stream and commands nearly the entire battlefield.
The Reserve Artillery, which arrived late in the evening of the 15th, was put in position, early in the morning, by General Henry J. Hunt, chief of artillery. Taft’s New York battery, and the German (New York) batteries of von Kleiser, Langner, and Wever were placed on the bluff north of the Boonsboro road, Taft’s Battery relieving Tidball’s which rejoined the cavalry division. Von Kleiser relieved Pettit’s New York battery. The four New York batteries had 20 pound Parrott guns and were supported by Richardson’s Division. South of the Boonsboro road, and about 9 a. m. Weed’s Battery (I, 5th U.S.) and Benjamin’s Battery (E, 2nd U.S.) were run up the bluff in front of Sykes’ Division. Each battery, as it came into position, opened upon such bodies of Confederate infantry as could be seen, and upon the Washington Artillery and Hood’s Division batteries, on Cemetery Hill, and the batteries on the ridge running north from it, and the reply was prompt and spirited, during which Major Albert Arndt, commanding the German artillery battalion, was mortally wounded.
As the Confederates were short of ammunition and the range too short for their guns, Longstreet ordered them to withdraw under cover of the hill. General D. H. Hill says that the Confederate artillery was badly handled and “could not cope with the superior weight, calibre, range, and number of the Yankee guns. An artillery duel between the Washington Artillery and the Yankee batteries across the Antietam, on the 16th, was the most melancholy farce in the war.” …..
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