America’s Bloodiest Day

America’s Bloodiest Day
by Joe Girard

Here is a sober question: On what day in our nation’s history were more lives lost to violence than any other?  December 7th, 1941 – Pearl Harbor Day?  D-Day, June 6th, 1944 on the beaches of Normandy?  Perhaps September 11, 2001?  Would it surprise you to know that it is September 17, 1862?


Travel back with me now to that day, to northern Maryland.  The eastern sky is brightening, but the sun is not quite up yet.  What a vista from our little ridge!
Eerie patches of fog rise up from the moist ground into the crisp morning air, an ominous portend of the day ahead.  Yet the air is clear and we can see rolling hills covered with acres of cornfields, a peach orchard; thick woods surround the cornfields.   We see a little church on our ridge, and a few roads leading away.


To the east, perhaps a half-mile away we see a farmhouse with a family cemetery; to the south and west we have a view of the nearby small town of Sharpsburg, and just beyond town is the Potomac River.  To the east the land falls away; we can barely make out the form of a winding creek.  We can see two of the three bridges that cross it within a span of perhaps two miles.  The locals call it Antietam Creek.


Looking around our ridge we can see that the Confederate Army has taken a good defensive position; across the fields and toward the creek a numerically superior Union Army takes up the challenge, and begins to engage.


Until now, the Confederate Army has enjoyed a string of tactical, yet non-decisive, victories in Virginia for over a year.  Their victories had yet to give them a real advantage.  So they have taken the battle from Virginia in the south, across the Potomac River, here into Maryland.  It is here, they hope, that their victories will blossom into support of new recruits and supplies from this neutral slave state; from here, perhaps, they can take the battle to Pennsylvania.  And it is from here, they believe, they can land a decisive punch, leading to an ultimate, fatal blow.


Soon after the sun breaches the eastern horizon Union soldiers attempt to storm the ridge from the north, closing a distance of perhaps a few hundred yards up a road, trying to force the Rebels from their position.  This exposes the charging troops to deadly fire from the ridge, as well as from the woods on their right flank.  In a mere 20 minutes their casualties mount to over 2,000 – a staggering 1.7 per second – as torn flesh piles up and successive waves must weave around prone bodies as much as dodge bullets.  By late morning, the assault is turned away.


Just below us, to the south and east, a line of Confederates lies in a low area, called Sunken Road, from where they can easily fire upon Union troops attempting to surge over a small rise. After several hours and thousands of casualties, this Union thrust breaks through in early afternoon, through the south end of the line, and turns upon them.  Now the easily defended Confederate position is completely compromised, transforming them into easy targets.  The road would be renamed “Bloody Lane”.   An aggressive push from this new advantage would reduce the Confederate position to either surrender or an ungainly retreat.  However, the Union Army hesitates; Confederate reinforcements, no longer needed to defend against the morning attack, arrive to deflate the Union opportunity, and no significant leverage is gained from this costly breakthrough.


All day long a Union force has been attempting to cross Lower Bridge, far to the south – just out of view from our ridge.  The bodies pile up on the bridge as Confederates, lying hidden in the rocks across the creek, pick off the Bluejackets.  Finally, in the late afternoon, the Union thrust breaks across the bridge.  From here they can race to Sharpsburg and cut off what remains of a somewhat disconnected Confederate force, trapping them right here on our ridge between the town and the creek.   As the sun approaches the western horizon the Confederates catch a huge break; the rest of their army, arriving quite a bit late from Harpers Ferry south of here, surprises the Union on their left flank.   The Confederate Army is saved – barely.


The sun and the armies retire.  The hostilities cease.  Some wounded are exchanged.  The next day, the Confederate Army retreats across the Potomac.


The Confederate thrust into Maryland was unsuccessful.   They were fully driven back. They gained no new sympathies, recruits or supplies.   At great cost of life and limb the Union Army had forced the Confederate Army to return to Virginia.  After a string of victories that had given hope to the causes of Slavery and States’ Rights – victories that had enticed England to consider intervening on the Confederate side – the momentum had left the Confederacy, never to return.


This brings us to the question.  Was it worth it?  Was that price necessary?


Nearly every United States history class, in every High School and College campus across our country, has addressed the dual Civil War questions: Was the civil war about slavery? Was it necessary?


I submit that the answer to each question is a certain “Yes”.  Sure there were other reasons: disagreements on tariffs, trade and taxation; when States’ Rights apply and when it doesn’t; strong vs. weak central government; funding of infrastructure.  Don’t get distracted by this discussion.  Read closely the following quotes.


“The Confederacy’s foundation and cornerstone rests upon the great truth that the Negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery – subordination to the superior race – is the natural condition of blacks” — Alexander Stephens, Vice President, Confederate States of America


“Slavery was established by decree of Almighty God” — Jefferson Davis, President, Confederate States of America


These statements lay out a Confederate pro-slavery position with absolute clarity; a position that cannot be turned about with nice talk and polite negotiations.  For the Confederacy, it was indeed ultimately about slavery.


The Crittenden-Johnson Resolution stated an official Union position that the war was to preserve the Union. But make no mistake: for the Confederate States it was about slavery.  And it was about slavery for the North as well.


The prescient Thomas Jefferson commented on his concerns.  His original draft of the Declaration of Independence included among its list of complaints an observation that it was the English who had forced slavery upon us.  When this complaint was excised to placate southern representatives he wrote bitterly: “The sentiments of men are known, not only by what they receive, but what they reject also.”   He predicted that this lack of a resolution on the issue – a resolution for freedom – would lead to violence.


Indeed, it was first seven – then eleven – slave states that seceded from the Union, not the other way around.  It was the army of the CFA that opened fire on Fort Sumter, not the other way around.  The prospect of a President intent on limiting the expansion of slavery, but not intent on ending slavery, was sufficient reason to leave the Union and start a war.


And surely the South felt antagonized by the North’s reaction to The Fugitive Slave Law, pushed through by southern interests in 1850, which recognized the property status of slaves even if they managed to reach a free-soil state.  Northern courts largely did not enforce it.  In fact, the Wisconsin Supreme Court declared it unconstitutional. Consequently, the efforts and numbers of Abolitionists soared.  The South felt provoked into war, and war it would have.


On September 17, 1862 more American lives were lost (3,700) than on D-Day, more than on Pearl Harbor Day, and more than on September 11, 2001, more than on any day on any island and any ship in the Pacific in 1943-45.  The casualty rate for the Union forces was an astonishing 25%.   The total casualties were nearly 23,000.


Huge sacrifices were made.  Terrific prices were paid.  Horrible deaths were experienced.


And yet, because of the outcome of the Battle of Antietam President Lincoln had the confidence to issue the Proclamation Emancipation a mere five days later – formally committing the north to ending slavery.


You bet, yes sir, it was about slavery.  It was a high price to pay.  Yes, it was necessary. And yes, it was the right thing to do.


“And this you can know – fear the time when Manself will not suffer and die for a concept; for this one quality is the foundation of Manself, and this one quality is Man, distinctive in the universe.”

– John Steinbeck (in Grapes of Wrath)

Figure 1.  The Lower Bridge, which is now called Burnside Bridge.  Named for General Ambrose Burnside, whose IX Corps took the bridge, at great loss of life.

Figure 2.  General Ambrose Burnside.  The name for side whiskers “side burns” is a corruption of his name; now they are called “side burns”.  


Joe Girard (c)



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Inspired by a day spent at Antietam in August, 2008 with my friends and co-workers Jon and Drew.

A big “Thank You” to my son for suggestions on structure and format