17 September, 2012
Today is the sesquicentennial anniversary of the Battle of Antietam
Today is the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Antietam (Sharpsburg, Md.), which ended in a tactical draw but a strategic victory for the North and Gen. George McClellan.
The Union commander gained access to Robert E.Lee's battle plans when a copy of them was left behind, wrapped around a handful of cigars, by a Confederate officer and later found by a Union sergeant. The dean of alternate history authors, Harry Turtledove, has the Confederate find his cigars and the orders wrapped around them before breaking camp, leading to a Confederate victory- and a superb, if lengthly, series of books about a history in which the South won the Civil War, and eventually fights on the opposite side from the United States in both of the World Wars.
The victory ended Lee's first invasion of the North, just as Gettysburg ended his second. The bloodiest single day of the war, Antietam provided Abraham Lincoln with the opportunity he'd been waiting for to issue the Emancipation Proclamation without it looking like he was acting out of desperation. If Gettysburg was the war's decisive battle, Antietam was its turning point.
Gen. Ambrose Burnside, who later vainly begged Lincoln not to put him in command of the Army of the Potomac (an excellent staff officer but an inept commander, he knew his own limitations) is often seen as the "goat" of Antietam even in victory for failing to move the troops under his command across the Burnside Bridge (above, right) in a timely manner. While Burnside later did many things for which he richly deserved criticism (the bloodbath at Fredricksburg was his doing), in my opinion he gets a bum rap for his part in the Battle of Antietam. I've looked down from the spot where the Confederate riflemen who were covering the bridge were stationed, and I don't see how anything could have gotten across that bridge alive.
The Battle of Antietam is named for the creek the Burnside Bridge spans, and follows the Northern convention of naming battles afer geographical features on the battlefield. In the South, it's generally known as the Battle of Sharpsburg, following the Southern custom of naming battles after the nearest town or city.