As dawn broke on September 18, General Robert E. Lee’s Confederate Army of Northern Virginia still held its line at Sharpsburg, facing Major General George B. McClellan’s Federal Army of the Potomac. Both armies were battered and exhausted following the horrific Battle of Antietam. According to Confederate Major General James Longstreet, “A few shots were exchanged early on the 18th, but a kindly feeling seemed to take possession of the troops, as they were not ordered into action, and excuses were passed between the lines for looking after wounded comrades, which resulted in a quasi-truce for the day.”
The opposing forces agreed not to shoot at each other while they collected the wounded and buried the dead. Many saw for the first time the terrible carnage the fight had produced. Nearly 12,000 men were killed or wounded in the Cornfield alone. Bodies were stacked four-high in “Bloody Lane,” where a Federal officer counted 200 corpses in just one 500-foot stretch. Corpses hung on the rail fences along the Hagerstown pike.
Soldiers did their best to plant wooden markers on the makeshift grave, and bonfires were built to burn the thousands of horse carcasses. The U.S. Sanitary Commission distributed massive amounts of clothing, foodstuffs, and medical supplies that had been bought by northern donations. Even so, many wounded soldiers died from 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.”
It was not yet clear if there had been a winner in the battle of the 17th, since neither army had withdrawn. Besides moving 200 yards inward in the center, the Confederate line remained as it stood 24 hours before, poised to meet another Federal attack. Lee briefly considered moving around the Federal left (south), but massed artillery in that sector made such a move impossible. He also considered attacking to the north, but Major General Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson, the Confederate commander in that sector, reported that he no longer had the manpower for such a move.
Around 8 a.m., McClellan wired General-in-Chief Henry W. Halleck, “We held all we gained except a portion of the extreme left… Our losses are very heavy, especially in General officers. The battle will probably be renewed today. Send all the troops you can by the most expeditious route.” McClellan was asking for reinforcements when he had 32,000 men in two corps who had scarcely seen combat.
Despite his numerical advantage, McClellan wrote 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. Two more divisions arrived later in the day, giving McClellan more fresh men than Lee had total men. Had McClellan ordered one final push with all his available forces, he could have destroyed the much-thinned Confederate army. But he decided to wait until the next day to renew the assault.
McClellan proudly wrote his wife Ellen, “The spectacle yesterday was the grandest I could conceive of–nothing could be more sublime. Those in whose judgment I rely tell me that I fought the battle splendidly & that it was a masterpiece of art.” But many thought otherwise. McClellan had only committed 11 of his 17 divisions to combat, and he had not deployed his cavalry at all, thus depriving himself of information on enemy positions and strength that horse troopers provide. The men had fought harder than ever before, but they were never committed to one massive push. As such, the Confederate army escaped destruction.
Since Lee could not attack, and McClellan would not attack, then Lee decided to take his army back to Virginia. As Longstreet recalled, “In the afternoon General Lee was advised of new arrivals in General McClellan’s army, and, thinking the few stragglers who came up to swell his own ranks were not sufficient to justify him in renewing the battle on the 19th, ordered his trains back, and after night marched his troops across the Potomac at the ford near Shepherdstown.” After midnight, the men left their campfires burning as Longstreet led the withdrawal. The Confederates left their dead and wounded comrades who could not be moved.
Lee’s initial plan was to return to Virginia, then recross the Potomac River and force McClellan to chase him through Maryland again. But because his army was so depleted, Lee went back to Virginia and stayed there. 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.
The Maryland campaign was a major Federal victory. Forcing Lee back to Virginia discouraged Great Britain from formally recognizing the Confederacy as an independent nation. This deprived the South of much-needed economic and military aid. However, many noted that McClellan’s reluctance to finish the fight may have been a missed opportunity to destroy the Confederate army and end the war.
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