This Week in The Civil War, for week of Sunday, Sept. 2: Robert E. Lee heads northward.
Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee, victorious at the Second Battle of Bull Run, or Manassas, Va., begins sending his Army of Northern Virginia northward toward Maryland in the first week of September 1862. His bold plan: to strike a heavy blow directly at the North even as the federal government is reeling from defeat at Bull Run and a failed attempt earlier in 1862 to capture Richmond, Va., seat of the Confederacy. The Confederates number about 70,000 overall but are ragtag, often hungry and wearing ill-fitting uniforms. Moving from Leesburg, Va., they are intent on entering Maryland in the shadow of its western mountains. On Sept. 5, 1862, the first advance forces splash across the Potomac River into Maryland. Just ahead is one of the most fearsome appointments of the war: Antietam. The battle of Antietam in Maryland, in mid-September, will constitute the bloodiest single day of combat on American soil. Lee's intent is to bring war to the North by rolling into Union-held Maryland, a slave-holding state pocked by divided sympathies. The rebel incursion prompts a massive federal force to respond to the threat. A Sept. 8, 1862, newspaper dispatch reports from Rockville, Md. — outside Washington — that "To-day matters here are assuming a more warlike appearance." It reported that Union Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan himself had been seen backed by a daunting force of cavalry, artillery and infantry moving into Maryland "in great numbers, and they are still coming." The report added: "McClellan's presence leads many to suppose he is to assume offensive action." On Sept. 17, 1862, the two opposing armies will clash at Antietam at a cost of more than 23,000 dead, wounded or missing — one of the great battles of the war.
This Week in The Civil War, for week of Sunday, Sept. 9: The Fight Before Antietam.
Confederate Robert E. Lee's Army of the Northern Virginia took its fight to Maryland 150 years ago this week in the Civil War. Lee's forces clashed with Union foes on Sept. 14, 1862, at the Battle of South Mountain, Md. Fighting here would be a mere prelude to the monstrous Battle of Antietam in three days' time. Lee's hope was to crush Northern war spirits by taking the fight to Union turf. Lee's troops briefly occupied Frederick, Md., but soon were chased off by the approaching Union forces of Major Gen. George B. McClellan. Because a copy of Lee's battle plan had accidentally fallen into Union hands, McClellan had advance word that Lee would send part of his fighting force to capture Harpers Ferry, in present day West Virginia, while leaving Maryland's South Mountain gaps lightly guarded. In fierce fighting at South Mountain, McClellan sought to crush the Army of Northern Virginia. But it was to no avail. Lee regrouped his far-flung divisions to fight another day. Only days ahead, the two foes would meet at Antietam, turning point in the Civil War. Still, there was little inkling this week of the deathly battle that was near. The Associated Press reported on Sept. 13, 1862, that Union fighters who drove Confederates from Frederick after some skirmishing were cheered when they reached that Maryland city: "The entire city appeared overjoyed to see us again, and the people turned out en masse to welcome our troops ... flags were waved from house-tops and windows and the side walks were thronged with people, including a full representation of ladies." But AP also reported in the same dispatch that there were reports of a huge Confederate force numbering more than 100,000-strong still out and about in the countryside.
This Week in The Civil War, for week of Sunday, Sept. 16: Battle of Antietam.
It remains the single bloodiest day of fighting on American soil and it was fought 150 years ago this week in the Civil War: The Battle of Antietam began on Sept. 17, 1862, when Union forces led by Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan clashed with Confederates under the command of Gen. Robert E. Lee in a cornfield at Sharpsburg, Md., or Antietam. The bitter battle raged around such spots now burned into the American history books as Dunker Church and the Sunken Road. Marked by attacks and counterattacks, the pitched 12 hours of fighting claimed at least 23, 000 wounded, missing and disappeared. When the roar of combat was over, Lee's limping Army of Northern Virginia was forced to withdraw on Sept. 18 amid last skirmishing to cross the Potomac River southward to the safety of Virginia's Shenandoah Valley. Neither side could claim this as an outright tactical victory. Yet Antietam was, nonetheless, a turning point in the Civil War and quickly was seized upon as a strategic victory for the Union. The federal forces, though they failed to pursue Lee's retreating army, had shown they could stop the savvy Confederate commander's opening invasion of the North. Historically, the battle's aftermath gave President Abraham Lincoln the opening he needed to announce his preliminary Emancipation Proclamation. Within days, Lincoln would declare the Civil War had the double aim of both keeping the Union intact and abolishing slavery. The Associated Press, reporting on the fighting soon after the shooting subsided, said hundreds of civilians watched from surrounding hills. "The sharp rattle of 50,000 muskets and the thunder of a hundred pieces of artillery is not often witnessed," AP's correspondent wrote. "It is impossible at this writing to form any correct idea of our losses or that of the enemy. It is heavy on both sides." AP added that so fierce was the fighting that the dead were "thickly strewn over the field and in many places lying in heaps."
This week in the Civil War for week of Sunday, Sept. 23: Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation.
President Abraham Lincoln has just announced his preliminary Emancipation Proclamation on Sept. 22, 1862. This week 150 years ago in the Civil War, a nation divided is just beginning to absorb the blunt message that Lincoln's war will now be a war against slavery in addition to a fight to reunite North and South. Lincoln declares that if the rebels do not end their fight and rejoin the Union by Jan. 1, 1862, all slaves in the rebellious states would be deemed "forever free" from that time forward. His move comes a week after the bloody fighting at Antietam. After the battle, The Associated Press reported on Sept. 20, 1862, that hundreds of Confederate stragglers were captured as Robert E. Lee's battered Army of Northern Virginia retreated southward from Maryland across the Potomac River. It added: "The Confederate army has succeeded in making its escape from Maryland." AP's account of the fighting in Maryland gives new details of the harrowing ordeal for local residents, many of whom hid in their cellars to escape heavy shelling. AP also reports the Antietam losses for the rebels in dead and wounded "will not come far from 18,000 to 20,000" casualties. Modern-day estimates of the battle have put the overall casualty count at 23,100 dead, missing and wounded. Elsewhere, Confederates who encroached on Kentucky in the summer of 1862 have skirmished with Union forces. But those engagements are overshadowed by the enormity of the Battle of Antietam. Even so, Union soldiers will eventually force the Confederates in Kentucky to withdraw to Lexington and ultimately leave the state for the most part in October 1862.
This series marking the 150th anniversary of the Civil War draws primarily from wartime dispatches credited to The Associated Press or other accounts distributed through the AP and other historical sources.