General Robert E. Lee’s first invasion of the North was a huge gamble that held the potential of very great rewards. Lee’s campaign could win Maryland for the Confederacy, earn diplomatic recognition from Britain and France, and perhaps even force the Union to sue for peace. It would also take his troops out of war-ravaged Virginia during harvest time, and enable his troops to live off the enemy’s country for a while. Following his victory at the Second Battle of Bull Run Lee led his ragtag army northward across the Potomac River and into Union territory.
The ensuing battle on September 17 produced the bloodiest day in American combat history with over 23,000 casualties on both sides. More than twice as many Americans were killed or mortally wounded in combat at Antietam that day as in the War of 1812, the Mexican War, and the Spanish-American War combined.
The two armies met in the Maryland farm fields bordering the trickling Antietam Creek near the town of Sharpsburg. The Union named the conflict the Battle of Antietam in honor of the creek while the South called it the Battle of Sharpsburg in honor of the town. From dawn till dark on the 17th the two armies threw frontal attacks at each other, littering the fields with their dead and wounded. “The whole landscape for an instant turned red,” one northern soldier later wrote. Another veteran recalled, “[The cornfield] was so full of bodies that a man could have walked through it without stepping on the ground.” No clear victor emerged and the fighting stopped out of shear exhaustion. Lee withdrew during the night of September 18, and re-crossed the Potomac. Tactically, the battle ended in a draw. Strategically, it was a victory for the Union.
Baptism of Fire at Bloody Lane
Some of the day’s most brutal combat occurred during the late morning along a sunken road held by the Confederates. For two and one half hours Union troops threw themselves at the entrenched Confederates finally dislodging them. The murderous fire from both sides left the battlefield strewn with corpses giving the road the name “Bloody Lane.” Lt. Frederick Hitchcock was a member of the 132d Pennsylvania Volunteers and experienced his first combat that day.
“We…moved, as I thought, rather leisurely for upwards of two miles, crossing Antietam Creek, which our men waded nearly waist deep, emerging, of course, soaked through, our first experience of this kind. It was a hot morning and, therefore, the only ill effect of this wading was the discomfort to the men of marching with soaked feet. It was now quite event that a great battle was in progress. A deafening pandemonium of cannonading, with shrieking and bursting shells, filled the air beyond us, towards which we were marching. An occasional shell whizzed by or over, reminding us that we were rapidly approaching the ‘debatable ground.
"Soon we began to hear a most ominus sound."
Soon we began to hear a most ominous sound which we had never before heard, except in the far distance at South Mountain, namely, the rattle of musketry. It had none of the deafening bluster of the cannonading so terrifying to new troops, but to those who had once experienced its effects, it was infinitely more to be dreaded. These volleys of musketry we were approaching sounded in the distance like the rapid pouring of shot upon a tinpan, or the tearing of heavy canvas, with slight pauses interspersed with single shots, or desultory shooting.
All this presaged fearful work in store for us, with what results to each personally in the future, measured probably by moments, would reveal. How does one feel under such conditions? To tell the truth, I realized the situation most keenly and felt very uncomfortable. Lest there might be some undue manifestation of this feeling on my conduct, I said to myself, this is the duty I undertook to perform for my country, and now I’ll do it, and leave the results with God. My greater fear was not that I might be killed, but that I might be grievously wounded and left a victim suffering on the field. The nervous strain was plainly visible upon all of us. All moved doggedly forward in obedience to orders, in absolute silence so far as talking was concerned. The compressed lip and set teeth showed that nerve and resolution had been summoned to the discharge of duty. A few temporarily fell out, unable to endure the nervous strain.”