September 17, 1862 dawned with two armies poised for battle near the small Maryland town of Sharpsburg, near Antietam Creek. The combatants, Americans all, would fight and die en masse. Before the sun set more American soldiers would die there than on any other day in any other place in the nation's history.
Such are the consequences when neighbors, friends, and relatives divide in a great civil war.
In 1860 the American republic was less than a century old. It had been born in war, a violent revolt against Great Britain, the colonies' mother country. The new Americans expanded across the continent, exterminating Native American tribes and grabbing half of decrepit Mexico.
The United States was growing into a significant international power. Americans shared the same history, worshipped the same God, and lauded the same Constitution. They prospered in business, building a commercial republic.
However, southern society was based on the "peculiar institution" of African slavery. It was impossible to justify, despite the extraordinary efforts of southern apologists. Kidnapping people on another continent, transporting them across an ocean in horrendous conditions, and selling them to the highest bidder was inconsistent with a Declaration of Independence based on liberty. In time the internal contradictions became too great.
Nevertheless, it was one thing for Americans to separate. It was quite another to fight and kill one another. But fight and kill one another they did. After four years of extraordinary blood-letting, some 620,000 Americans had died, more than during World Wars I and II combined.
No one expected such a result. Southerners didn't think "Yankee shopkeepers" would fight. Northerners didn't believe the faux cavaliers opposing them were serious. The first battle of Manassas, or Bull Run, in 1861 was a modest affair but still shocked most Americans, who had expected easy, bloodless victory for their respective sides.
Alas, that contest was but a prelude to much more fighting and killing. A once peaceful country was soon drenched in blood.
On June 1, 1862 Gen. Robert E. Lee took over command of the Army of Northern Virginia. An opponent of secession, Lee nevertheless believed his first loyalty to be to his state of Virginia and he turned down Abraham Lincoln's offer of command of the northern forces. Had he accepted, history likely would have turned out very differently — with a speedy northern victory, reunification and, ironically, survival of slavery.
As Confederate commander Lee's first task was to push the invading force of Gen. George B. McClellan from the outskirts of Richmond in the Seven Days campaign. Lee then mauled a second northern army, commanded by Gen. John Pope at the battle of Second Manassas. In early September Lee invaded Maryland. Taking the war to the North could achieve several ends, including sharing the cost of battle with the northern people and encouraging foreign nations to recognize the Confederacy.
McClellan was competent, but deliberate, and bedeviled by the fantasy that he was grievously outnumbered. Lee well understood his foe and divided his army into four parts to simultaneously capture the armory in Harper's Ferry, West Virginia and advance into western Maryland. Under normal circumstances Lee might have gotten away with this dangerous maneuver, but one of his commanders lost a copy of Special Order 191, detailing his dispositions. Two Union soldiers found it, wrapped around three cigars. McClellan still waited 18 hours after receiving the intelligence windfall before deciding to act. Once he moved he was well-positioned to use his larger force to destroy Lee's divided and outnumbered force.
Lee responded with perhaps his most risky, even reckless, move of the war. Rather than retreat, the only sensible course, he determined to give battle north of the Potomac River near the small town of Sharpsburg. When Lee deployed his forces on the evening of September 15 he had just 18,000 men present, less than a third of McClellan's available forces. But Lee knew his opponent would not hurry into battle, and he was right: another day passed as both sides collected troops.
Nevertheless, McClellan still enjoyed a two-to-one advantage when battle dawned on September 17. A general attack, or a heavier, more concentrated assault on any point in Lee's line could have won the day. Instead, McClellan launched a series of uncoordinated attacks which Lee adeptly countered by shifting units from peaceful sectors of his line.
McClellan's blundering enhanced the savagery of the fighting. The famed "Cornfield" to the north changed hands 15 times. The result was as many casualties as stalks of corn. Action shifted to what became known as Bloody Lane in the center of Lee's position. Northerners finally breached that line, but were driven back as McClellan refused to commit his sizeable reserve.
Gen Ambrose Burnside's desultory attempt to turn Lee's right, highlighted by a series of frustrated assaults on a narrow bridge now named after Burnside, went on much of the day. After Lee had drawn away most of the defenders to fight elsewhere, Burnside's forces finally broke through. Around 3:00 the union troops were on the move, preparing to sever Lee's access to the only nearby ford which would allow his troops to escape across the Potomac. Then, in one of the most dramatic moments of a war filled with drama, Gen. A.P. Hill arrived and launched his division, which had presided over the Union surrender at Harper's Ferry, into Burnside's unprepared forces. Many of Hill's men failed to keep up in a desperate forced march to Sharpsburg, but enough remained in line to push back Burnside.
By 5:30 it was over, with rough 23,000 casualties, of whom more than 3,600 were dead. Lee held his position the next day, confident that McClellan would not attack. Then the Army of Northern Virginia crossed back to Confederate territory. A tactical draw, the battle nevertheless failed to achieve the South's objectives. President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation shortly soon afterwards and later relieved McClellan of command. But Lincoln would cycle through Burnside and Hooker as commanders of the Army of the Potomac before finding men capable of contending with Lee. Even so, the war would continue for more than two years, with longer and bloodier battles to follow.
A century and a half later the countryside around Sharpsburg is peaceful. Corn is still grown in The Cornfield. The Bloody Lane looks like any other country road. It takes only a couple minutes to cross Burnside's Bridge. But the memory of slaughter and death hangs over the land.
History buffs love to debate "what-ifs." What if there had been no Lost Order? What if Lee had retreated rather than fought? What if McClellan had moved more quickly? What if the latter had risked his reserve?
But the more fundamental what-if is: What if there had been no war? Whether the South had constitutional warrant to secede or not, it was wrong for the federal government to maintain the Union by force. What kind of republic preserves itself by killing those in opposition? Today the U.S. routinely criticizes other governments which kill to preserve national unity — look at Yugoslavia. The America of 1861 should have been no different.
Unionist Horace Greeley declared in the New York Tribune: "We hope never to live in a republic whereof one section is pinned to the residue by bayonets." Then-Col. Robert E. Lee voiced similar sentiments as his state separated from his nation: "I can anticipate no greater calamity for the country than a dissolution of the Union. ... Still, a Union that can only be maintained by swords and bayonets, and in which strife and civil war are to take the place of brotherly love and kindness, has no charm for me."
However, President Lincoln was committed to the nationalist dream of America as a great continental power. Although the elimination of slavery offered a far more just moral cause, that was not his purpose for invading the South. Fighting a war against slavery would destroy unity in the North, which was committed to union more than freedom. As Lincoln explained to Greeley: "My paramount object in the struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or to destroy slavery." Had the war ended quickly, Lincoln would have left "the peculiar institution" undisturbed.
Indeed, while the seven core southern states seceded over slavery, the outer four did not. Arkansas, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Virginia separated only after President Lincoln demanded their assistance to invade their neighbors. Even southern unionists rejected coercion: the response essentially was "We're all Confederates now."
It wasn't until after the battle of Antietam that Lincoln adopted emancipation in the unoccupied portions of the South, where his writ did not actually run, as a war measure. Even then the move was controversial in the North, which left slavery undisturbed in the four slave states which formally remained in the Union. Thankfully, northern attitudes hardened during the war and the institution was irrevocably ended through the 13th Amendment after the conflict's end. But that was a consequence, not objective, of the war.
Knowing this — and the fact that everywhere else in the world, other than Haiti, slavery was ended peacefully — the Civil War looks horribly misguided. Few imagined the costs that would result. Even some of those most committed to the Union admitted their mistake.
Lee's most successful campaign may have been his dogged defense against Gen. Ulysses Grant during the summer of 1864. The Wilderness Campaign cost the latter upwards of 60,000 casualties, roughly the size of Lee's entire force. The carnage filled northern newspapers with the names of the dead and wounded. In response, observed a much-chastened Sen. Henry Wilson of Massachusetts: "If that scene could have been presented to me before the war, anxious as I was for the preservation of the Union, I should have said: 'The cost is too great; erring sisters, go in peace'."
On September 17, 1862 Sharpsburg was a "landscape turned red," in the words of historian Stephen W. Sears. It was slaughter most grievous. And it was unnecessary. It offers a stark reminder of why today Americans should pause before they rush into the abyss of war. A landscape turned red is the usual result.