Determined to maintain momentum after the Confederate Army’s victory in the Second Battle of Manassas, Va., in August 1862, General Robert E. Lee wrote to Confederate President Jefferson Davis just one month later, “We cannot afford to be idle.” The objectives of Lee’s plan were multifaceted: secure supplies; influence the fall midterm elections; and move the war out of the southern state of Virginia into Maryland, a Union state with divided loyalties.
Lee split his Army of Northern Virginia, sending some troops to Harpers Ferry, the gateway to the Shenandoah Valley, and ordering the rest to head north and west to Maryland. The resulting incursion dramatically affected the course of the Civil War and, in turn, the nation. To this day, the Battle of Antietam ranks as the bloodiest one-day battle in American history.
Fog shrouded the farm fields of western Maryland at dawn on September 17, 1862. The early morning silence was shattered by cannon fire, beginning a battle that would last for 12 hours, would involve nearly 100,000 troops and leave more than 23,000 soldiers dead. Lee’s eventual retreat to Virginia provided President Abraham Lincoln with the impetus to deliver the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation, which ultimately helped free more than 4 million Americans.
Today, visitors to Antietam National Battlefield learn the intricacies of this vicious battle, including the strategies used by the Union and the Confederate armies, as well as the names of the six generals who lost their lives as a result of those 12 bloody hours.
Visitors can choose which of the battlefield’s features they most want to explore, but Civil War buffs will likely want to watch the 26-minute introductory film, listen to a battlefield talk by a park ranger, study the exhibits in the museum and take the 8.5-mile self-guided auto tour. True aficionados can even immerse themselves more thoroughly in the battle by pursuing the more detailed vehicle tour and the ranger talks, and by taking a self-guided hike through the famous battlegrounds such as the Union Advance Trail, Final Attack Trail and Cornfield Trail among more.
Antietam National Battlefield