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This Day in History: The Battle of Antietam & the Emancipation Proclamation

On this day in 1862, Confederate General Robert E. Lee retreats across the Potomac River after fighting the Battle of Antietam. That Civil War battle has unfortunately proven to be the single bloodiest day in American history.

The only good news for Lee? Union General George McClellan had most likely missed a chance to squash the Confederate army.

The Battle of Antietam, by Kurz & Allison

Following the Second Battle of Bull Run, Lee decided to cross the Potomac and invade Maryland. Once there, he divided his forces, sending several columns toward the garrison at Harper’s Ferry.  The rest of the army would continue on.  Unfortunately, McClellan learned of the plan and set off after Lee.

Fortunately for Lee, McClellan was overly cautious. The two sides briefly clashed on September 14, but then McClellan decided to wait for reinforcements. In the meantime, Confederate forces were rushing from Harper’s Ferry to join Lee.

McClellan finally made his move on the morning of September 17. Union forces snuck through a cornfield and attacked the Confederates. The battle quickly became intense. One participant, historian Paul Boller writes, remembered that the cornfield “was so full of bodies that a man could have walked through it without stepping on the ground.”

A second phase of the fighting occurred on a road that would later become known as Bloody Lane. Confederates became trapped in a portion of a road that was lower than all the land surrounding it.  Thousands were killed or wounded.  

As if that weren’t enough, a final phase of the battle occurred at Antietam Creek, where some Confederates had positioned themselves on a high bluff. They should have been in a great position to hold off attackers. It worked for a while, but Union forces eventually outlasted the Confederates simply by their overwhelming numbers. They were on the verge of winning when the last of the Confederate forces from Harper’s Ferry arrived on the scene. The new arrivals drove the Union forces back. Night fell and both sides retreated for the evening. The battle was effectively at a stalemate. 

The casualties from the day were staggering. According to historian James M. McPherson, the casualties during that single day at Antietam were twice the casualties of the War of 1812, the Mexican War, and the Spanish-American war COMBINED.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, then, Lee eventually retreated back over the Potomac the next day, and McClellan declined to pursue him. Union forces retained the field. Technically, they won.

It was a costly (and bare) victory, but one that Abraham Lincoln was determined to utilize. Five days later, he issued a proclamation. It gave the Confederate states until January 1, 1863, to return to the Union.  Any state that returned by January 1 could keep its slaves.  Any state that failed to return to the Union would be subject to the Emancipation Proclamation that Lincoln intended to issue on that day.

No state returned to the fold. Instead, on January 1, 1863, Lincoln issued his Emancipation Proclamation, a document that freed slaves in the Confederate states, but did not free the slaves in the northern states. (Yes, there were some.)

What if the Confederate states had returned to the Union in late 1862, thus preventing Lincoln from issuing his Emancipation Proclamation? Would we still say that the Civil War was fought over the issue of slavery?

Primary Sources:

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