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The Maryland Campaign, or the Antietam Campaign, was a series of battles fought in September, 1862—Robert E. Lee's first invasion of the North—during the American Civil War. Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan, commanding the Army of the Potomac, moved to intercept Lee and eventually attacked him near Sharpsburg, Maryland. The resulting Battle of Antietam, the bloodiest single day in American history, was tactically inconclusive, but represented a strategic victory for the United States.
Background and initial movements
The year of 1862 started out well for the United States in the Eastern Theater. George B. McClellan had invaded the Virginia Peninsula in the Peninsula Campaign and by June stood only a few miles outside the Confederate capital of Richmond. But when Robert E. Lee assumed command of the Army of Northern Virginia on June 1, 1862, fortunes reversed. Lee defeated McClellan in the Seven Days Battles and drove him back to a defensive position miles from Richmond. He followed that victory in August, 1862, by conducting the Northern Virginia Campaign, in which he out-maneuvered and defeated John Pope and his Army of Virginia, most significantly at the major Second Battle of Bull Run. Lee's Maryland Campaign can be considered the concluding part of a logically connected, three-campaign summer offensive blitz against the Union.
Lee had suffered significant losses in the two preceding campaigns. Nevertheless, he decided his army was ready for a great challenge, an invasion of the North. There were two primary objectives. First, Lee needed to supply his army and knew that the farms of Maryland had been untouched by war, unlike those in Virginia. Moving the war north would relieve pressure on Virginia. Second, but most important, was Northern morale. Lee knew that the Confederacy did not have to win the war by defeating the North militarily; it merely needed to make the Northern populace and government unwilling to continue the fight. (A tie was as good as a win.) With the congressional elections of 1862 coming up in November, Lee believed that an invading army playing havoc inside the North could tip the balance of Congress to the Democratic Party, which might force Abraham Lincoln to negotiate an end to the war. There was also the possibility that he could incite a revolt in Maryland, given that it was a slave-holding state. (Some have speculated that Lee sought to influence foreign governments to intervene, but there is evidence that he believed the South would not be able to rely on outside help.)
On September 4, just three days after the Battle of Chantilly, advance elements of the Army of Northern Virginia crossed the Potomac River near Leesburg, Virginia. The main body of the army followed and advanced into Frederick, Maryland, on September 7. Lee's specific goals were thought to be an advance towards Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, cutting the east-west railroad links to the Northeast, followed by operations against one of the major eastern cities, such as Philadelphia.
News of the invasion caused panic in the North and Lincoln was forced to take quick action. George B. McClellan had been in military limbo since returning from the Peninsula, but Lincoln restored him to command of all forces around Washington and directed him to deal with Lee.
Lee divided his army. James Longstreet was sent to Boonsboro, Maryland, and then on to Hagerstown, while Thomas J. "Stonewall" Jackson was ordered to seize the Union arsenal at Harpers Ferry (now in the state of West Virginia). The reason that Lee chose the risky strategy of splitting his army to capture Harpers Ferry is lost to history. One possibility is that he felt it commanded his supply lines through the Shenandoah Valley; another is that it was a tempting target, virtually indefensible. McClellan requested permission from Washington to evacuate Harpers Ferry and join its soldiers in with his army, but he was refused.
Lee's invasion had difficulties early on. The army suffered massive problems with straggling and desertion. Some soldiers were sick or physically exhausted and lacked necessary equipment, such as shoes; the hard-surfaced Northern roads were an obstacle for them and their horses. Others were unwilling to march out of their home state, changing from defense to offense. And there was no uprising of popular support from Maryland residents.
McClellan moved out of Washington with his 87,000-man army slowly in pursuit, reaching Frederick on September 13. There, he received a miraculous break: Union soldiers discovered a mislaid copy of the detailed battle plans of Lee's army—General Order number 191—wrapped around three cigars. The order indicated that Lee had divided his army and dispersed portions geographically, thus making each subject to isolation and defeat in detail if McClellan could move quickly enough. McClellan waited about 18 hours before deciding to take advantage of this intelligence and position his forces based on it, thus endangering a golden opportunity to defeat Lee decisively. On the night of September 13, the Army of the Potomac moved out towards South Mountain, with Ambrose Burnside's corps directed to Turner's Gap, William B. Franklin's to Crampton's Gap.
Lee, seeing the new-found decisiveness on McClellan's part, and learning through a Confederate sympathizer that his order had been compromised, frantically moved to concentrate his army. He chose not to abandon his invasion and return to Virginia yet because Jackson had not completed the capture of Harpers Ferry. Instead, he chose the little western Maryland town of Sharpsburg to make a stand while some of his forces resisted McClellan's advance through the South Mountain passes.
The battles fought during the Maryland Campaign were:
- Battle of Harpers Ferry (September 12–15, 1862) — Learning that the garrison at Harpers Ferry had not retreated after his incursion into Maryland, Lee decided to surround the force and capture it. He divided his army into four columns, three of which, under Jackson's command, converged upon and invested Harpers Ferry. On September 15, after Confederate artillery was placed on the heights overlooking the town, Union commander Col. Dixon S. Miles surrendered the garrison of more than 12,000 men. Miles was mortally wounded by a last salvo fired from a battery on Loudoun Heights. Jackson took possession of Harpers Ferry, then led most of his soldiers to join with Lee at Sharpsburg, leaving A.P. Hill's division to wrap things up.
- Battle of South Mountain (September 14, 1862) — Pitched battles were fought for possession of the South Mountain passes: Crampton's, Turner's, and Fox's Gaps. D.H. Hill and Longstreet defended Turner's against Burnside. To the south, Lafayette McLaws defended Crampton's against Franklin. By dusk the Confederate defenders were driven back, suffering severe casualties, and McClellan was in position to destroy Lee's army before it could concentrate. McClellan's limited activity on September 15 after his victory at South Mountain, however, condemned the garrison at Harpers Ferry to capture and gave Lee time to unite his scattered divisions at Sharpsburg. Union general Jesse Reno and Confederate general Samuel Garland, Jr., were killed at South Mountain.
- Battle of Antietam (September 16–18, 1862) — On September 16, McClellan confronted Lee near Sharpsburg, defending a line to the west of Antietam Creek. At dawn September 17, Joseph Hooker's corps mounted a powerful assault on Lee's left flank that began the single bloodiest day in American military history (about 23,000 casualties). Attacks and counterattacks swept across the Cornfield and the woods near the Dunker Church. Union assaults against the Sunken Road ("Bloody Lane") eventually pierced the Confederate center, but the Federal advantage was not followed up. In the afternoon, Burnside's corps crossed a stone bridge over Antietam Creek and rolled up the Confederate right. At a crucial moment, A.P. Hill's division arrived from Harpers Ferry and counterattacked, driving back Burnside and saving Lee's army from destruction. Although outnumbered two-to-one, Lee committed his entire force, while McClellan sent in less than three-quarters of his army, enabling Lee to fight the Federals to a standstill. During the night, both armies consolidated their lines. In spite of crippling casualties, Lee continued to skirmish with McClellan throughout September 18, while removing his wounded south of the river. McClellan did not renew the assaults. After dark, Lee ordered the battered Army of Northern Virginia to withdraw across the Potomac into the Shenandoah Valley.
- Battle of Shepherdstown (September 19–20, 1862) — On September 19, a detachment of Fitz-John Porter 's V Corps pushed across the river at Boteler's Ford, attacked the Confederate rearguard commanded by Brig. Gen. William Pendleton , and captured four guns. Early on September 20, Porter pushed elements of two divisions across the Potomac to establish a bridgehead. Hill's division counterattacked while many of the Federals were crossing and nearly annihilated the 118th Pennsylvania (the "Corn Exchange" Regiment), inflicting 269 casualties. This rearguard action discouraged Federal pursuit.
Lee successfully withdrew across the Potomac, ending the Maryland Campaign and his summer of offensive action. The Eastern Theater was quiet until December (Battle of Fredericksburg).
Although a tactical draw, the Battle of Antietam is considered a strategic Union victory and a turning point of the war because it forced the end of Lee's invasion of the North and it allowed President Lincoln to issue the Emancipation Proclamation, taking effect on January 1, 1863. Although Lincoln had intended to do so earlier, he was advised by his Cabinet to make this announcement after a Union victory to avoid the perception that it was issued out of desperation. The winning of the Battle of Antietam also may have dissuaded the governments of France and Great Britain from recognizing the Confederacy; some suspected they were planning to do so in the aftermath of another Union defeat.
On November 7, President Lincoln relieved McClellan of command because of his failure to pursue and defeat Lee's retreating army. Maj. Gen. Ambrose E. Burnside rose to command the Army of the Potomac.
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