Friday, December 07, 2012


The immediate aftermath of The Battle Of Antietam, with dead Union and Confederate soldiers lying together on one of many Antietam battlefields.

September 17, 1862, was the bloodiest day in U.S. military history, with 23,000 dead, wounded or missing. The Union suffered a 25% casualty rate at Antietam; the Confederacy suffered a 31% casualty rate at Antietam. Six generals, three on each side, lost their lives, the largest number of generals ever lost by the U.S. in a single battle.

Tactically, The Battle Of Antietam was a draw.

However, at the time, The Battle Of Antietam was viewed by the Union as a defeat. General McClelland—with overwhelming advantages in weaponry and manpower—was seen as too timid and too cautious to deliver a crippling blow to General Lee’s forces. Such view was certainly held by Abraham Lincoln: in early November, Lincoln relieved McClelland of his command of The Army Of The Potomac, a move that ended McClelland’s military career.

Over time, that contemporary view of the battle has changed. Many now view The Battle Of Antietam as a strategic victory for Union forces: it resulted in Lee making a hasty retreat back to Virginia (all the while astonished that Union forces were not bearing down upon his flank), while McClelland stood firm, ready to deal with Confederate forces the next time Lee attempted an invasion of the North.

In that sense, The Battle Of Antietam was a 19th-Century equivalent of The Battle Of Jutland.

During World War I’s only significant naval engagement, neither British nor German forces won an outright victory—but The Royal Navy scared The High Seas Fleet back into port for the remainder of the war, rendering The Battle Of Jutland a strategic British victory.

In 1916, however, the British government and the British people did not see the outcome that way. At the time, Jutland was viewed as a tactical defeat for The Royal Navy—anything less than delivering a knockout blow to the Kaiser’s fleet was interpreted as lack of success. It was not until long after the war that historians adopted the judgment that Britain had won The Battle Of Jutland: after all, it was The Royal Navy that had stood firm, and wanted to continue the fight, while it was The High Seas Fleet that had decided it could not win, and made an unceremonious retreat.

I visited Antietam a few years ago.

When I was in law school, my middle brother would generally come visit me once a semester. On one of his visits, we drove up to Antietam from Washington, and spent a day exploring Antietam National Battlefield.

It was sacred ground we visited that day—so sacred, it was hard for us to utter words.

The building in the photograph is a church.

The church still stands today—and looks exactly as it did in 1862.

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