September 18, 1862 – General Robert E. Lee’s Confederate Army of Northern Virginia defiantly awaited another attack from Major General George B. McClellan’s Federal Army of the Potomac after the Battle of Antietam.
The opposing forces worked out truces the morning after the battle to collect the wounded and bury the dead. Many men saw the terrible carnage the fight had produced for the first time. Nearly 12,000 men were killed or wounded in the Cornfield alone. Bodies were stacked four-high in “Bloody Lane.”
The U.S. Sanitary Commission distributed massive amounts of clothing, foodstuffs, and medical supplies that had been bought by donations from northerners. Even so, many wounded soldiers died of infections due to unsanitary hospital conditions. That night, a wounded sergeant of the 15th Massachusetts wrote in his diary:
“… Another painful night. Oh good a whole line of our skirmishers are coming… By and by our boys come along. What lots of the 15th… Dr. looks at my wound and calls it doubtful case. Get me on ambulance at 3 p.m. but do not get to hospital till nearly dark. Plenty of water which gives us a chance to take down inflammation. Nurses worn out by fatigue. Placed on straw near the barn.”
Besides moving 200 yards inward in the center, Lee’s Confederate line remained as it stood 24 hours before, poised to meet another Federal attack. Lee considered moving around the Federal left, but massed artillery in that sector made such a move impossible.
On the Federal side, McClellan wired General-in-Chief Henry W. Halleck, “The battle will probably be renewed today. Send all the troops you can by the most expeditious route.” McClellan awaited reinforcements despite his overwhelming numerical superiority, which included about 20,000 reserves who did not get into yesterday’s fight. Two divisions arrived later that day, giving McClellan more fresh men than Lee had total men.
But McClellan still would not move, instead writing that “a careful and anxious survey of the condition of my command, and my knowledge of the enemy’s force and position” showed that “the success of an attack was not certain” without more men. Thus, both armies remained stationary.
Lee considered attacking, but his scouts told him the Federal positions were too strong to break. If Lee could not attack, and if McClellan refused to attack, then Lee resolved to go back to Virginia. Around 2 p.m., Lee informed Major General James Longstreet that the army would retire across the Potomac River that night. Commanders issued orders, and after midnight, the men left their campfires burning as Longstreet led the withdrawal. The Confederates left dead and wounded comrades who could not be moved.
This marked the first time that the Army of Northern Virginia had been compelled to retreat, even though the Battle of Antietam had been a tactical stalemate and Lee held his ground for two days before leaving. Despite McClellan’s sluggish combat performance, his army had captured an unprecedented 39 Confederate battle flags in the fights at South Mountain and Antietam.
McClellan boasted to his superiors, “I have the honor to report that Maryland is entirely freed from the presence of the enemy, who has been driven across the Potomac. We may safely claim a complete victory.” He wrote his wife, “Our victory was complete. I feel some little pride in having with a beaten and demoralized army defeated Lee so utterly, & saved the North so completely.” Apparently, McClellan was so emboldened by his “complete victory” that he vowed to make demands on the Lincoln administration:
“I have insisted that (Secretary of War Edwin) Stanton shall be removed and that Halleck shall give way to me as Commander in Chief. I will not serve under him–for he is an incompetent fool–in no way fit for the important place he holds… I have shown that I can fight battles and win them! I think my enemies (in Washington) are pretty effectively killed by this time.”
Yet McClellan did little to follow up his “complete victory,” and he missed a chance to destroy the Confederates as they crossed the Potomac. Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles wrote in his diary, “Nothing from the army, except that, instead of following up the victory, attacking and capturing the Rebels, they… are rapidly escaping across the river… Oh dear!”
McClellan was deeply disturbed to receive an admonition, and not a congratulation, from Halleck for failing to keep Washington more closely informed of what was happening. McClellan angrily responded:
“I regret that you find it necessary to couch every dispatch I have the honor to receive from you, in a spirit of fault finding, and that you have not yet found leisure to say one word in commendation of the recent achievements of this Army, or even to allude to them.”
The last Confederate infantrymen waded across the Potomac near dawn on the 19th. Brigadier General John G. Walker informed Lee that all had crossed unmolested except for an artillery battery and the ambulance wagons. Lee replied, “Thank God!” He directed Brigadier General William N. Pendleton to guard Boteler’s Ford, which the Federals would use to pursue the Confederates across the river, with two brigades and 45 guns.
Federals attacked near dusk on the 19th, driving the Confederates off. Pendleton could not see the action in the dark and hurriedly reported to Lee that the Federals had captured all 45 guns. Lee responded by sending Major General Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson’s Confederates to regain the cannon and drive the Federals back into Maryland.
Jackson deployed General A.P. Hill’s “Light Division” on the morning of the 20th. The Confederates advanced through Federal artillery fire and drove the enemy back across the river. The 118th Pennsylvania, also known as the “Corn Exchange Regiment,” sustained heavy casualties after being pushed over a bluff and then fired upon from above while trying to escape.
The Federals suffered 363 casualties while the Confederates lost 261. Pendleton had been wrong; the Federals captured only four of the Confederates’ 45 guns. He was relegated to desk duty following this engagement. This skirmish secured Lee’s rear and enabled him to complete his withdrawal to Opequon Creek, near Martinsburg in western Virginia, where he could rest and retool his army. He had just 36,418 infantrymen present for duty, many of whom lacked adequate clothing or footwear.
The Federals scored a major victory in the Maryland campaign. They stopped the Confederate incursion and forced Lee to return to Virginia. This in turn discouraged Great Britain from formally recognizing the Confederacy as an independent nation, thus depriving the South of much-needed economic and military aid. However, the Lincoln administration noted that McClellan’s reluctance to pursue Lee and finish the fight may have been a missed opportunity to destroy the Confederate army and end the war.
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