Looking out over what is now bucolic rolling farmland, it is inconceivable that on September 17, 1862, the bloodiest one-day battle of the Civil War took place here, the Battle of Antietam, near the small town of Sharpsburg, MD.
A discovery made four days earlier set the wheels in motion for this meeting of competing forces. A copy of General Lee’s Special Order 191, outlining his plan of operations for the campaign, was discovered at a campground by a Union soldier. An innocuous envelope containing three cigars wrapped in a note may likely have changed the course of the war. This note became known as the “Lost Order“.
At dawn on this clear autumn day, a 12-hour battle ensued, with counter-attacks sweeping back and forth through Miller’s Cornfield and the West Woods. The Union forces outnumbered the Confederates, but Stonewall Jackson’s men near the Dunker Church, where the battle began, held their ground.
During the second phase of the battle, the Confederate forces felt they had found a natural defensive position, a narrow road used by farm wagons worn by use, known as the Sunken Road. The battle raged for four hours, but in the end, the loss of lives for the Confederacy was great. This stretch of ground later became known as the “Bloody Lane”, where it was said “the blood flowed like a river inside it”.
After 12 hours of fighting Robert E. Lee’s first invasion of the north resulted in a draw. On this one day alone, about 23,000 men were killed, wounded, or listed as missing. Due to the tragic nature of many of the Civil War battles, exact numbers were impossible to calculate. The Confederate retreat later that day gave President Lincoln the “victory” he hungered for before issuing the Emancipation Proclamation.
Antietam, the bloodiest one-day battle of the Civil War, influenced how our nation would memorialize future battlefields. Each December, 23,000 luminaries are lit to honor those killed, wounded, and missing during this fateful conflict.