Military History Battle of Antietam
by
Susannah J. Ural
  • LAST REVIEWED: 28 April 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 06 February 2012
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791279-0016

Introduction

The Battle of Antietam—or Sharpsburg, as it was known in the Confederacy—took place on 17 September 1862. On this single day, the bloodiest in US history, 23,000 men (10,500 Confederate and 12,500 Union), were killed, wounded, or reported missing. In addition to its tragic human cost, Antietam marked Confederate General Robert E. Lee and his Army of Northern Virginia’s first invasion of the North. While Union forces failed to destroy Lee’s army, they did manage to stop his invasion, which gave US President Abraham Lincoln enough of a victory to announce the Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation five days later. Lincoln’s decision made the abolition of slavery a primary wartime objective for the first time in the conflict, linking emancipation with the preservation of the Union. This, along with Lee’s defeat, also created enough concern in Europe to cause British and French diplomats to pause their plans to recognize the Confederacy. On the home front, the photographs taken in the days that followed the battle would shape civilian understandings of the war and become some of the most famous images in American military history. They captured the destruction wreaked in places that would be immortalized as The Cornfield, Bloody Lane, and Burnside’s Bridge, and underscored the overwhelming task faced by medical officials including then relatively unknown Clara Barton. Recognized by many scholars as one of the greatest turning points in the Civil War, Antietam and the larger Maryland Campaign of 1862 are essential to any understanding of America’s bloodiest conflict.

General Overviews

There are a number of studies that range from an analysis of the entire Maryland Campaign of 1862 to more narrowly focused examinations of the battle itself. Any research into Antietam must begin, though, with the standards by Murfin 2004 and Sears 2003. Interested readers planning to visit the site should consult Luvass and Nelson 1996, as well as Rafuse’s more recent guide (Rafuse 2008). While the Internet provides a wealth of material relating to Antietam, the best overview site is Antietam on the Web. Those hoping to analyze the campaign within a broader context, including its larger historical significance, must consider McPherson 2002.

  • Antietam on the Web.

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    Created and maintained by Brian Downey, this is one of the best sites on the Internet for its exhaustive coverage of Antietam from official reports, to postwar essays by veterans, to maps, photographs, and contemporary discussions on the battle.

  • Luvaas, Jay, and Harold W. Nelson, eds. The U.S. Army War College Guide to the Battle of Antietam: The Maryland Campaign of 1862. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1996.

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    This remains one of the best guides for anyone who wants to walk the ground to study the campaign and battle in detail. Originally published in 1987 (Carlisle, PA: South Mountain).

  • McPherson, James M. Crossroads of Freedom: Antietam. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002.

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    Scholars have been arguing since the mid-1980s that Antietam is more than just a major battle. It is a turning point of the war, perhaps the turning point, due to its lasting social ramifications and its link with the Emancipation Proclamation, which would forever end slavery in the United States. Few scholars explain this so clearly and concisely as McPherson.

  • Murfin, James V. The Gleam of Bayonets: The Battle of Antietam and Robert E. Lee’s Maryland Campaign, September, 1862. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2004.

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    An abiding work of the Maryland campaign. It may be dated, but it is required reading for any serious student of the battle. Originally published in 1965.

  • Rafuse, Ethan S. Antietam, South Mountain, and Harpers Ferry: A Battlefield Guide. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2008.

    E-mail Citation »

    Used along with Luvaas and Nelson 1996, this is an essential guide for anyone who wants to study the campaign in the field.

  • Sears, Stephen. Landscape Turned Red: The Battle of Antietam. New York: Mariner Books, 2003.

    E-mail Citation »

    Along with Murfin’s work (Murfin 2004), this has become the standard study of the campaign for its broad strokes and engaging writing. Originally published in 1983 (Boston: Houghton Mifflin).

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