The plan of the Commander of the Union Army at the Battle of Antietam was simple: Attack the enemy on both flanks and the center, exploiting any breach in the Confederate lines. Thus it was across from the Confederate left flank at dawn Sept. 17, 1862, that Union troops smashed into "the West Woods" and the 24-acre Miller cornfield toward the Dunker Church.

Confederate artillery had devastating impact upon the advancing Union forces, but the tables were soon turned when rebel bayonets were spotted glistening at the tops of the stalks of the corn growing at the south end of the field, inviting federal canister shot into the rebel stronghold. The cornfield changed hands a dozen times that morning as the great armies collided, withdrew to the surrounding woods, and then collided again, and again. By midday at the north end of the battlefield, the number of dead or wounded already stood at 13,000.


The second phase of the battle began in mid-morning just south of the cornfield. There, Confederate forces were firmly entrenched in the "Sunken Road" at the center of rebel line of defense. A deep ravine had been carved into the dirt by the long use of carts and wagons along a path between two farms, and it made an excellent defensive position, affording cover for the rebels to pour devastating fire upon troops attempting to advance across open ground toward the road. And they did.

Five waves of Union infantrymen were deployed against the Confederate trench. The first four were slaughtered and within an hour, a couple of thousand federal casualties lay in the open field on the slight rise to the Sunken Road. Finally, during the fifth Union wave, Yankees broke through the Confederate right flank on the Sunken Road and began to pummel the rebel line with enfilade fire down the length of the ravine. In the confusion that resulted, the Confederate forces occupying the trench mistakenly abandoned the road. But before the Union Army could fully exploit this break in the center of the Confederate line, a contingent of courageous rebels mounted a blistering response which drove the Yankees to fall back.

By the time the smoke of the gunpowder subsided, nearly 6,000 casualties could be counted from the line of engagement extending a distance of only 800 yards down the Sunken Road. While the walking wounded no longer lay in the ditch now known as "Bloody Lane," that gruesome tally amounts to nearly 8 people for every yard of road. Photographs of the Confederate dead there after the Battle appear to show a mass grave, and onlookers observed that it would have been possible to walk entire lengths of the road without stepping on the ground.

The third and final afternoon phase of the Battle took place along Antietam Creek at the south end of the theater of conflict. There the assault by the Union Army was stalled. For hours, 12,000 troops opposing the Confederate right flank had been unable to cross a narrow stone bridge. Some 500 Confederate sharpshooters occupied the wooded rocky cliffs overlooking the bridge. The approaching road ran parallel to the creek directly in the line of rebel fire, and their aim was true.

As Confederate sharpshooters began to run out of ammunition, they withdrew from the heights overlooking Antietam Creek, but by that time they had already delayed the federal assault by 3 hours, suffering few casualties while delivering many. So by mid-afternoon the Union Army was finally in a position to secure a decisive victory at Antietam by breaking through the Confederate right flank, advancing against it from across Burnside's Bridge.

Rebels were then in full retreat through Sharpsburg. But in the nick of time, and coincidentally at exactly the right place, Confederate soldiers suddenly arrived after an 8-hour march from Harper's Ferry, appearing just in time to muster a surprise counterattack against the Yankees and restore the collapsing Confederate lines. The 3,500 casualties incurred in that final phase of the Battle of Antietam were nominal, but only by contrast to the massive numbers lost at the cornfield and along Bloody Lane.

Five days after the Battle of Antietam, President Lincoln issued his Emancipation Proclamation, changing the entire nature and purpose of the war. It was no longer just to preserve the Union, but to create a new Union truly conceived in liberty.