“What was the outcome of the Battle of Antietam?”
If you’re looking for a simple, one word answer, you’re
not going to get it from me – nor from anyone else for that matter.
It’s not that simple.
People with a Southern bias might argue that Confederate General Robert
E. Lee’s conduct of the fight on September 17, 1862, is proof positive
of his tactical genius. Outnumbered more that two-to-one, General Lee
certainly out-generaled his Union counterpart, General George B. McClellan
on that day. McClellan’s men took land and gave it back all day long,
and when the sun went down there were no significant gains. Lee’s army
was in danger of total annihilation all day long, and it might be argued
that the outcome of the entire war hung in the balance, and that by
averting disaster and saving the army to fight another day, Lee deserves
credit for a victory.
In fact, the best history has to offer Lee is a draw.
Lee went into Maryland (the battle was fought in a small Maryland town
called Sharpsburg and, in fact, Southerners refer to the fight as the
Battle of Sharpsburg) with the hopes of threatening Washington, Philadelphia
or Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, and because of the famous “lost dispatch”
McClellan discovered his plans and crushed those hopes. For the Confederates
then, the Maryland Campaign was a strategic failure. Lee lost twenty-five
percent of his army on that day and retreated into Virginia with nothing
to show for it.
From the Union perspective Lee’s invasion of the North was repulsed,
giving McClellan fans (if there is such a thing) a reason to claim victory.
It was however, in the view of many, a lost opportunity. One man who
thought this was President Abraham Lincoln who was furious at McClellan
for his failure to pursue Lee’s retreating army to finish the job. But
Lincoln was desperate for a victory. Following a series of Southern
victories, morale in the army and in the nation was low, and the country
needed a reason to celebrate. More than that, Lincoln had the Emancipation
Proclamation hidden in his desk drawer having been convinced by his
closest advisors to keep it secret until such time as he could announce
it on the heels of a victory. Antietam, to Lincoln, was close enough.
Within days of the Southern retreat, the proclamation was announced
which set the nation irreversibly on a path toward outlawing the institution
of slavery forever. While both sides may argue, even to this day, over
the outcome, for three million slaves, the Battle of Antietam was undoubtedly
The author of To Make Men Free: A Novel of the Battle of Antietam
will be happy to help you with your homework assignment. To email him
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