The news from Stonewall Jackson was galvanic for Lee. If Harper’s Ferry was taken on the morning of the 15th, then he need not prematurely end his campaign. He might still throw down the gauntlet north of the Potomac, on Union soil, and offer the decisive battle of the war on ground of his choosing. The rolling terrain around Antietam Creek offered good ground for defense. Although deceptively pastoral and peaceful, Lee’s engineer’s eye saw defensive possibilities in the patches of woods, ridges and hidden swales, limestone outcroppings, sunken roads, and rail fences that crisscrossed the landscape and framed the lovely little town of Sharpsburg. He could make a fight here.
Once again, Lee was taking an enormous gamble. Longstreet’s and Stuart’s combined forces amounted to maybe 18,000 to face down McClellan’s approaching 85,000 until Jackson’s scattered contingents could join them. Not to mention only three miles behind him at Shepherdstown was the only ford across the swollen Potomac River whose twists and turns resembled the coils of a malevolent serpent ready to embrace and squeeze Lee’s army against its banks should it be forced to retreat. But Lee knew McClellan. This sudden aggressive movement of his was out-of-character and the Gray Fox was willing to double down and bet the timid Union commander would revert to his usual caution and give him enough time for Jackson’s 19,000 men to take Harper’s Ferry and then join him at Sharpsburg. Historians often marvel that Lee would take such a risk and fight with a river at his back and outnumbered, even when fully united, two-to-one. What was he trying to prove? Was it a stubborn unwillingness to admit his campaign was based on faulty strategy? Was it to save face? Possibly. Or it could have been the simplest reason of all: Lee honestly believed he could whip George McClellan in battle.
As dawn on the morning of the 15th brought the occupied heights frowning down on Harper’s Ferry into view, Jackson gave the order and the dominating Confederate guns opened fire, sending solid shot careening through the streets and shells bursting over the heads of the exposed garrison. A.P. Hill’s men moved forward from Bolivar Heights, but after a sharp skirmish, Col. Miles, realizing that it was hopeless, sent out a white flag of truce. One by one the Rebel guns fell silent, but not before Miles himself was killed in the bombardment. Accounts vary but the spoils of victory included 11,500 prisoners, 13,000 small arms and 71 field pieces, at the cost of 110 casualties, mostly wounded, from McLaws’ and A.P. Hill’s divisions. As the Confederates entered the town, the Union captives watched Jackson in his dusty cap and weatherworn uniform ride through the streets. “Boys,” said one Union soldier, “he may not be much for looks, but if we had him on our side we wouldn’t be caught in this trap.”
Around the time Harper’s Ferry was surrendering to Jackson, seventeen miles away, Longstreet’s and Stuart’s men filed across the middle bridge spanning Antietam Creek and moved left or right before reaching Sharpsburg to take up positions and await the Federal army’s approach. McClellan, believing he’d just fought the great battle to save the Republic, was no doubt unsettled by Lee’s abrupt about face. This campaign was by no means over.
While McClellan pondered the meaning of this unexpected challenge, Lee set about positioning his 18,000-man force. Stuart’s horse artillery anchored the left by the Potomac along a low rise called Nicodemus Heights. Hood’s division, with brigades from D.R. Jones’ division, held the undulating ground between two patches of woods known as the West Woods and East Woods that bracketed farmer D.R. Miller’s 40-acre cornfield nearing harvest height. D.H. Hill’s men held the Confederate center which followed the winding path of a sunken farm lane, worn down by erosion and wagons into a ready-made trench. Further south, Evans’ independent Brigade and the rest of Jones’ men, along with a detachment of cavalry, held the line from the Boonsboro Road across the Middle Bridge to the Lower Bridge which was at the base of a high bluff overlooking the span. It was a long line, four miles, and thinly defended. The Antietam and Potomac ran at parallel courses here and it was a mere three-and-a-half miles from one bank to the other with the sleepy town of Sharpsburg nestled among the rolling hills midway between them, a dangerously short distance in the event of a retreat. But Lee was betting his that McClellan would oblige him by providing the time needed for Jackson’s reinforcements to arrive.
As the Rebels piled fence rails and officers placed units in the best positions for defense, anxious heads constantly turned eastward. At midday, the pursuing Army of the Potomac came into view. Longstreet remembered: “On the forenoon of the 15th, the blue uniforms of the Federals appeared among the trees that crowned heights on the eastern bank of the Antietam. The number increased, and larger and larger grew the field of blue until it seemed to stretch as far as the eye could see, and from the tops of the mountains to the edges of the stream gathered the great army of McClellan.”
If Lee was concerned by the swelling mass of Yankees across the creek, the courier from Jackson must have assuaged his apprehension. Stonewall’s note announced that Harper’s Ferry was captured. A.P. Hill’s division would remain behind to parole the prisoners and catalogue the booty. The rest of Jackson’s command, five divisions, would soon be on the march to Sharpsburg via whatever routes were the most feasible and the first of them would arrive by the next morning. “This is indeed good news,” said a relieved Lee. “Let it be announced to the troops,” and a cheer soon rose up and down the line.
As the Yankees moved to within range, the Confederates fired random cannon shots across the creek at the enemy. The Union guns responded and a harmless artillery duel rumbled up and down the valley. McClellan himself could be seen riding among the Union troops who waved hats and cheered while Rebel cannoneers tried without success to drop a round in his path. Other than this, there was little activity on the Union side. Even though McClellan had 50,000 men in the immediate vicinity to Lee’s meager 18,000, he opted to wait. Tomorrow would be time enough to save the Republic. The uneventful afternoon of the 15th slipped into evening.
On the morning of the 16th the countryside was shrouded in a thick fog which prompted McClellan to signal that the Confederates may have pulled out during the night. He also assured Lincoln “…will attack as soon as situation of enemy is developed.” But as the rising sun burned away the mist, and it became clear the Rebels were still in their defiant line of battle, there was no aggressive movement from the Federal legions on the eastern side of the Antietam.
At noon clouds rolled in, and with them came Jackson’s and Walker’s columns from Harper’s Ferry. As the Yankees watched there was a great celebration as South Mountain veterans greeted Harper’s Ferry veterans while the bands struck up “Dixie.” The new arrivals moved into position. Lawton’s and John R. Jones’ divisions were placed on the left to shore up Hood, and Walker put on the right to support D.R. Jones. Lee’s army was not yet fully reunited. McLaws’ and Anderson’s divisions, taking a circuitous route from Maryland Heights to avoid Franklin’s VI Corps lingering in Pleasant Valley, would be on the field before daybreak. A.P. Hill’s men were still arranging matters with the surrendered garrison. But now the odds that had been so stacked against the Rebels were lessening with every hour that passed. And still the Young Napoleon waited.
By afternoon of the 16th McClellan had drawn up his battle plan. He would send three corps—Hooker’s First, Sumner’s Second, and XII Corps now under the command of the just arrived 72-year-old Maj. Gen. Joseph Mansfield—against the Confederate left. Although his instructions were unclear he appears to have wanted the IX Corps under Burnside to cross the lower bridge and attack the enemy right. He would hold Porter’s V Corps and Franklin’s summoned VI Corps which would soon be on hand in reserve to deliver a killer blow to the weakened enemy center if the flank attacks showed progress…or stave off defeat should Lee with his enormous numbers go on the offensive. It was a basic Napoleonic plan, although keeping cavalry massed together for an anachronistic charge denied the Union army valuable reconnaissance. As the sun began to sink in the sky, Hooker’s and Mansfield’s two corps splashed across the Antietam and moved into position against Jackson’s left. At dusk elements of I Corps, Meade’s division, and Hood’s division clashed in a sharp firefight but soon darkness arrived and the shooting petered out to random shots. But the Yankees had advertised where the first blow was to fall in the morning. Once again George McClellan was bringing the odds down, and down, and down.
At about 9:00 p.m. it started to rain.
As the dark of night consumed both armies, the tension along the lines was so thick one could scoop it out of the air and swallow it. Having glared at each other for two days, it was clear to the men now bivouacked out in the open under a pelting rain that tomorrow would bring a fierce clash of arms, perhaps the climactic battle of the war. Each man prepared himself for the coming fight, and possible death or ghastly maiming, in his own way. Nerves were on edge. Sporadic picket firing rattled up and down the lines making it difficult to sleep. Those civilians in the area who’d opted to stay in their homes sensed that something momentous and horrible would take place in the morrow. Shepherdstown resident Mary Mitchell remembered: “As night drew nearer, whispers of a great battle to be fought the next day grew louder, and we shuddered at the prospect. For battles had come to mean to us as they never had before, blood, wounds and death.” It was a long wait for the dawn.
During the night, Hood approached Lee and requested his 2,600-man division be pulled back in reserve to cook a hot meal. His men, he said, hadn’t eaten anything substantial in days and were nearing collapse. Lee assented so long as it was okay with Jackson. Jackson agreed, but he extracted a promise from Hood to drop everything and come forward the moment he was called. The men moved back onto ground around the little white church owned by a pacifist sect called the “Dunkers” for their full immersion baptisms. And for whom even a steeple was considered immodest. Ironically, this little chapel built as a place for the faithful to gather in peace would become the epicenter of the most violent day in American history.
Brad Schaeffer is an historian, author, musician, and trader. His eclectic body of writings have appeared in The Wall Street Journal, New York Daily News, and a variety of well-read blogs and news outlets. Of Another Time and Place is his first novel, which takes place in World War II Germany and the deadly skies over the Western Front. You can pre-order his book here: