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.