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Background and Facts
Location: In western Maryland, near Sharpsburg, about 80 miles west of Baltimore just south of Hagerstown.
Date: September 17, 1862
Outcome: Union victory
Casualties: Over 26,000.(12,000 Union and 14,000 Confederate).
Significance: Bloodiest one-day battle ever on American soil. After the Union defeats at First and Second Bull Run, the Union strategic victory at Antietam was a morale booster for the North. It was also the “victory" that Lincoln was looking for to follow with his Emancipation Proclamation. This battle, in effect, changed the course of the Civil War, by redefining Union war aims along two objectives: to preserve the Union and to abolish slavery. Unfortunately, Union General McClellan failed to pursue the retreating Confederate army, and General Lee would fight and win more battles for the beleaguered South.
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Description of the Battle
After his August 1862 victory at Second Bull Run, Confederate General Robert E. Lee convinced President Jefferson Davis that an invasion of the North and another major Confederate victory would force Abraham Lincoln to sue for peace. Flanking Washington, D.C., by marching north to Maryland, Lee hoped to lure General McClellan’s army into a decisive battle. A Confederate victory would place Lee’s army in a position to threaten both Washington or a target of his choice in Pennsylvania. A Southern victory also might achieve the diplomatic recognition by England and France.
The Confederate army of 40,000 met McClellan and his force of 70,000 in the wooded and farming country near Antietam Creek. General McClellan knew Lee’s plans and objectives after a Union soldier found a copy of Lee’s order of battle wrapped around some cigars. (A Confederate courier carelessly dropped this vital document; Union soldiers found it and turned it over to their officers.)
The Battle of Antietam was really three separate battles: One in a cornfield, another at a bridge spanning the creek, and the other at a sunken road. Each engagement was frightfully costly in soldiers’ lives, and the superior numbers of the North prevailed. Lee withdrew to Virginia and left the field to the Yankees.
Union General McClellan, to the agonizing dismay of Lincoln, failed to attack the retreating, but always dangerous, Confederates. Openly disobeying Lincoln’s direct orders again, General McClellan's desultory behavior and constant overestimation of the strength of his foe resulted in another prolongation of the war. McClellan was again relieved of command. McClellan’s successor, Ambrose Burnside, would fare no better, leading failed and bloody campaigns south to Fredericksburg the following November.
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Effects on the North
After humiliating defeats at First and Second Bull Run, the Union victory at Antietam was a morale booster, but at the cost of enormous casualties. Abraham Lincoln took advantage of the outcome to issue the Emancipation Proclamation, freeing slaves in the states currently rebelling against Union authority.
The Battle of Antietam was the latest episode in Lincoln's frustrating search for an effective general to lead the Army of the Potomac against the wily, but outnumbered, Confederates. Following McClellan's failure to take advantage of the Confederate retreat, Lincoln's subsequent choices of commanding generals, Burnside and Hooker, led to the debacles at Fredricksburg and Vicksburg in Virginia. Lincoln would fare somewhat better with the choice of Geroge Meade, who faced the Confederates the following summer at Gettysburg.
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Effects on the South
The Confederates lost about 30 percent of their invading army. These losses were nearly irreplaceable and were manpower assets that the underpopulated South could ill afford. General Lee would have to bring his battered army home, recuperate and remain on the defensive until the summer of 1863 when he marched to another disaster at Gettysburg.
Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation, however, freed not a single slave. The proclamation was aimed at slaves held in non-Union occupied Southern states. Southerners were outraged at the proclamation and vowed to continue resisting. The failure to achieve victory at Antietam, coupled with Lincoln's winning the moral high ground on the slavery issue, for the moment dashed Southern hopes of European recognition.
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Classroom Activity - Letters To and From the Front
♦ Reading Assignment
Nothing communicates the horror and sadness of war like personal letters from those who fight or witnessed the fighting. Here are some resources that can be read and discussed in class:
♦ Writing assignment
◊ After reading and discussing the letters from soldiers at the front, assign the following:
→Divide the class into two groups: (1) soldiers on the Civil War front (2) families at home
→Group (1) will write a one-page letter to a designated student in group (2) talking about the hardships of camp life and the dangers of battle.
→Group (2) will answer the letter talking about, among other things, the hardships at home because of the soldier’s absence, the worry for the soldier’s safety, etc.
In this writing assignment, encourage your students to collaborate closely with their counterparts. Also, encourage consultation with parents for content ideas.
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More Information on the Battle of Antietam
Antietam National Battlefield: Letters and Diaries of Soldiers and Civilians. NPS.gov.
A message to the people of Maryland from Robert E. Lee - Gain some insight on the political aims of Confederate leaders.
The Battle of Antietam: A Lesson Plan for Middle School History
This is a series of articles on U.S. Civil War battles that were pivotal to the eventual Union victory. Read about the battles at Shiloh, Antietam, Gettysburg, Vicksburg and the fall of Atlanta. Each of these battles played a key role in the outcome of our nation's bloody and protracted civil war.