The first of a
three-part series on the Battle of Antietam.
The verdant, rolling hills of Maryland gave way to the mountains of Appalachia in a region occupied by tiny hamlets and large fields, by farmers and families who mostly wanted to straddle the geopolitical fence that had become the line between the North and the South—the Mason-Dixon Line. Like so many people across the divided nation, they were also divided, living in a slave state but not wanting to secede from the Union. And though they tried to avoid the war, in September of 1862 the war came to them.
After his victory at Manassas in late August, Robert E. Lee (right) marched his men north. Lee wanted to take the war out of Virginia, a state that had played host to most of the fighting in the east. He also sought provisions for his men; Maryland and Pennsylvania, he thought, were more likely to yield succor than his strapped homeland.
This Confederate effort had embedded within it political goals as well—there were hopes of shaping the 1862 elections in the North such that a new Congress would sue for peace. The South also sought recognition from England as a sovereign state, and a major victory over the North might hasten that event.
The Army of Northern Virginia under Lee and the Army of the Potomac under General George McClellan once again prepared to do battle, this time in western Maryland, near a small town named Sharpsburg, by a creek called Antietam.
Lee’s plan was complex, as he divided his army and sent it off into several directions. The army had been encamped at Frederick, Maryland, since September 7 and found nothing of assistance to its cause—either volunteers, food, or other supplies.
Special Order 191—one of the most famous orders in American military history—was issued on September 9. Historian Frederick Tilberg writes of that order:
Lee decided to accomplish this mission by boldly dividing his army into four parts. . . . Briefly, it directed Major General James Longstreet and Major General D. H. Hill to proceed across South Mountain toward Boonsboro and Hagerstown. Three columns under Major General Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson were ordered to converge on Harpers Ferry from the northwest, northeast, and east. En route, the column under Jackson’s immediate command was to swing westward and capture any Federals remaining at Martinsburg. Major General Lafayette McLaws, approaching from the northeast, was to occupy Maryland Heights, which overlooks Harpers Ferry from the north side of the Potomac. Brigadier General John Walker, approaching from the east, was to occupy Loudon Heights, across the Shenandoah River from Harpers Ferry. Major General J.E.B. Stuart’s cavalry was to screen these movements from McClellan by remaining east of South Mountain.
And as Tilberg precisely describes the plan, so went Lee’s order—have the army split into four prongs, with three of those groups sweeping into Harpers Ferry from almost every cardinal point. After this, they were to capture the men and supplies at Harpers Ferry and move north to support Longstreet (right) and Hill, who by now would be occupying Hagerstown, just south of the Pennsylvania state line.
It was a good plan; it truly was. And once his forces had been augmented by provisions and reinforcements, there would be battle—battle again with McClellan, a man whose deliberation and tardy approach to war Lee counted on for a mighty southern success in this expedition.
There was, however, one thing that General Lee did not count on.
Robert E. Lee did not count on General George McClellan’s men finding a copy of Special Order 191.
—Warren Perry, Catalog of American Portraits, National Portrait Gallery
James Ewell Brown Stuart / Unidentified artist, copy after: Vannerson & Jones, (Photographer) / Engraving on paper, c. 1861-1865 / National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution
Stonewall Jackson / Adam B. Walter copy after: Nathaniel Routzahn, 1828 - 1908(Photographer) / National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution
Robert Edward Lee / Edward & Henry T. Anthony & Company / Albumen silver print, c. 1861 / National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution
James Longstreet / J. L. Giles / Lithograph with tintstone on pape, c. 1868 / National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution
Antietam (Washington, D.C.: National Park Service Historical Handbook Series, 1960).