A Brief History
On September 13, 1862, the Army of Northern Virginia and their commander, Robert E. Lee, suffered a catastrophic blunder when Lee’s battle plans for the upcoming Battle of Antietam (Sharpsburg to the Rebels) were found near Frederick, Maryland by Union soldiers.
The orders, known as “Special Order 191” were found wrapped around 3 cigars where they had been lost by a Confederate officer, gave the Union forces under George McClellan a tremendous advantage. As it was, Lee had half the forces that the Union had available, and the battle was fought to a stalemate, something the South could not afford. Even though the Union lost 12,000 men to a loss of 10,000 for the Confederates, the Rebels failed to take Maryland and had to retreat back to Virginia. The battle, fought on September 17, 1862, was the deadliest day in American military history, with over 3600 Americans killed in that one day.
What seems on the surface to be an inconclusive battle, was in fact a tremendous victory for an embattled Union Army struggling to avoid losing the war and a strong signal to European countries that the Union forces were still very much in the game. Had the Rebel forces been successful, it is entirely possible if not probable that Britain and perhaps other European countries might have recognized the Confederacy as a legitimate nation and possibly even supported the efforts of the South to secede.
George McClellan, a miserable general by most assessments, failed to act decisively upon gaining the intelligence provided by the discovery of Lee’s battle plans. His slow reaction cost the Union a chance to defeat the Rebels in detail. Additionally, his reluctance to pursue Lee back to Virginia cost another opportunity to destroy Lee’s army, and thus the potential great victory was greatly modified to a tactical draw, though still a strategic victory. Another blunder by McClellan was failing to commit a fourth of his forces, another factor that cost a more decisive victory.
This Union “victory” emboldened President Abraham Lincoln to issue his Emancipation Proclamation 5 days after the battle, freeing the slaves in the Confederacy, making the War a war of liberation and giving the Union the moral high ground. This development was part of the key to avoiding French and British recognition of the Confederacy.
European countries stayed out of the war (though supplying both sides with arms and trade), and the Union went on to victory. Obviously not the only turning point of the war, it is not unreasonable to consider this battle pivotal to the eventual outcome, all because a careless Rebel dropped a set of battle plans.
Question for students (and subscribers): Was Antietam/Sharpsburg the turning point of the US Civil War? Were those lost and found battle plans the single most important event in the course of that war? Tell us what you think, and if you think otherwise, what was the turning point? Please let us know in the comments section below this article.
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For more information, please see…
Alexander, Ted and Jeffry D. Wert. The Battle of Antietam: The Bloodiest Day (Civil War Series). The History Press, 2011.
Sears, Stephen W. Landscape Turned Red: The Battle of Antietam. Mariner Books, 2015.