Part 5- Chapter 4


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 "Duty is the sublimest word in our language."  

 "Human virtue should be equal to human calamity."  LEE. 1876



IV.   The Prelude to Sharpsburg

 General Lee had once more sustained a serious check from the skill and soldiership of the officer who had conducted the successful retreat of the Federal army from the Chickahominy to James River.

The defeat and dispersion of the army of General Pope on the last day of August seemed to have opened Pennsylvania to the Confederates. On the 15th of September, a fortnight afterward, General McClellan, at the head of a new army, raised in large measure by the magic of his name, had pursued the victorious Confederate, checked his further advance, and, forcing him to abandon his designs of invasion, brought him to bay a hundred miles from the capital. This was generalship, it would seem, in the true acceptation of the term, and McClellan, harassed and hampered by the authorities, who looked but coldly upon him, could say, with Coriolanus, "Alone I did it."

Lee was thus compelled to give up his movement in the direction of Pennsylvania, and concentrate his army to receive the assault of General McClellan. Jackson, marching with his customary promptness, joined him with a portion of the detached force on the next day (September 16th), and almost immediately those thunders which prelude the great struggles of history began.

General Lee had drawn up his army on the high ground west of the Antietam, a narrow and winding stream which flows, through fields dotted with homesteads and clumps of fruit and forest trees, to the Potomac. Longstreet's corps was posted on the right of the road from Sharpsburg to Boonsboro, his right flank guarded by the waters of the stream, which here bends westward; on the left of the Boonsboro road D.H. Hill's command was stationed; two brigades under General Hood were drawn up on Hill's left; and when Jackson arrived Lee directed him to post his command on the left of Hood, his right resting on the Hagerstown road, and his left extending backward obliquely toward the Potomac, here making a large bend, where Stuart with his cavalry and horse-artillery occupied the ground to the river's bank.

This arrangement of his troops was extremely judicious, as the sequel proved. It was probable that General McClellan would direct his main attack against the Confederate left, with the view of turning that flank and hemming in the Southern army, or driving it into the river. By retiring Jackson's left, Lee provided for this contingency, and it will be seen that the design attributed by him to his adversary was that determined upon.

General McClellan occupied the ground on the eastern bank of the Antietam. He had evidently massed his forces opposite the Confederate left, but a heavy order of battle stood opposite the centre and right of Lee, where bridges crossed the stream.

The respective numbers of the adversaries can be stated with accuracy. "Our forces at the battle of Antietam," said General McClellan, when before the committee of investigation afterward, "were, total in action, eighty-seven thousand one hundred and sixty-four."

General Lee says in his report: "This great battle was fought by less than forty thousand men on our side."

Colonel Walter H. Taylor, a gentleman of the highest character, and formerly adjutant-general of the army, makes the Confederate numbers somewhat less. In a memorandum before the writer, he says:

Our strength at Sharpsburg. I think this is correct:

  Jackson _(including A.P. Hill_)    10,000

  Longstreet                              12,000

  D.H. Hill and Walker                    7,000                                           ______   Effective infantry                      29,000

  Cavalry and artillery                    8,000                                           ______   Total of all arms                       37,000

This disproportion was very great, amounting, as it did, to more than two for one. But this was unavoidable. The Southern army had been worn out by their long marching and fighting. Portions of the command were scattered all over the roads of Northern Virginia, wearily dragging their half-clothed limbs and shoeless feet toward Winchester, whither they were directed to repair. This was the explanation of the fact that, in spite of the ardent desire of the whole army to participate in the great movement northward, Lee had in line of battle at Sharpsburg "less than forty thousand men."

General McClellan made a demonstration against his adversary on the evening of the 16th, before the day of the main struggle. He threw his right, commanded by General Hooker, across the Antietam at a point out of range of fire from the Confederates, and made a vigorous attack on Jackson's two divisions lying near the Hagerstown road running northward, and thus parallel with Lee's line of battle. A brief engagement took place in the vicinity of the "Dunker Church," in a fringe of woods west of the road, but it was too late to effect any thing of importance; night fell, and the engagement ceased. General Hooker retaining his position on the west side of the stream.

The opposing lines then remained at rest, waiting for the morning which all now saw would witness the commencement of the more serious conflict.



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