Antietam: The Fight for the Emancipation Proclamation

No, the battle of Antietam was not fought directly over the issuing of the Emancipation Proclamation, but you will soon see how every moment of the battle led up to President Lincoln’s delivering the Emancipation Proclamation. On the morning of September 17, 1862, Union Major General George B. McClellan began an assault on Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s outnumbered forces near Antietam Creek in Sharpsburg, Maryland. Sharpsburg is around 60 miles northwest of Washington D.C., and Washington’s famous Potomac river runs up northwest through Sharpsburg. The day of September 17 entailed the Union sending roughly 87,000 troops into Sharpsburg, and  the Confederacy only sending about half that, around 45,000.

Lee’s army had only to hold their ground, giving them an advantage and allowing their smaller force to suffice. Confederate General Stonewall Jackson was leading troops stationed at Dunker Church, the Confederacy’s key defensive hold. McClellan spent most of the day trying to take the Sunken Road, a path heavily fortified by the Confederacy that would cut straight though their defenses and was a bit south of Dunker Church. The Union pushed through to the road, but did not capitalize on their gain. Farther south, Major General Burnside of the Union (who is kind of a big deal, considering he has facial hair  NAMED AFTER HIM) tried to advance his troops across the bridge over Antietam Creek, but was met with Confederate reinforcements from Harper’s Ferry who kept them back.

If it isn’t clear yet, the battle of Antietam had very little movement, which is definitely part of why it is the bloodiest day of fighting in American military history. The total number of casualties is estimated to be 22,717. For scale, that is well over the maximum seating capacity of the United Center. Lee put out 100% of his forces, while McClellan only exhausted about three quarters of his. On the other hand, the Union sustained about 2,000 more casualties than the Confederacy, but the winner is all based on how you look at it. The Union may have lost more soldiers, but compared to the number of troops they had initially, it is a much smaller percentage lost. After a full day of fighting, Lee eventually moved his troops back to tend to the wounded, while McClellan did the same.

Lincoln was able to see their lower casualty percentage as enough of a victory to serve as backing for delivering his Emancipation Proclamation. Lincoln needed political cover to deliver his speech. Had the Union been supplied with less troops, the percent of lost soldiers during the Battle of Antietam could have been substantially higher. Any number of minor changes could have prevented a Union “victory.” But if nothing else, take away that the only thing making 22,000 dead Americans seem less abhorrent is the fact that without their sacrifice, we could never have made a tremendous symbolic step towards the end of slavery, and thus the war.


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4 thoughts on “Antietam: The Fight for the Emancipation Proclamation

  1. I enjoyed the reference to General Burnside. Very interesting to learn the origin of sideburns. The rest of the piece was great as well, as you provided an in depth explanation of the importance of the war’s bloodiest day.

  2. Interesting report on a battle. I, like Ethan, liked to learn the of the origins of the name of sideburns, considering that that fact will forever be stuck in my head, I suppose that I will also remember the battle of Antietam too. Good job on the info and statistics.

  3. This post shines a light on the Union strategy of grinding the south into submission by sacrificing soldiers. I think that this strategy was overall a bad way to go about it. There doesn’t seem to have been another way to do it, but the whole idea seems inelegant and wasteful of human lives. Any other strategy that resulted in the defeat of the south would have been better than just killing their soldiers until there are none left.

  4. You really wrote a military strategy heavy blog post which we don’t see that often. I really like how you were informative to the point and not all over the place you did an excellent job in retelling what when on at Antietam also you were able to tie it to the Emancipation Proclamation.

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