One hundred and fifty years ago, Union and Confederate soldiers clashed in a battle in which two out of every three men would die. September 17, 1862, the date on which this horrific event unfolded at Antietam, would be remembered as the bloodiest day in American history.
To remember this tragic day, we’d like to offer you an estimated timeline of the battle, based on So You Think You Know Antietam? by James and Suzanne Gindlesperger. While it is impossible to know exactly what time certain events happened on the battlefield, the following offers an approximate timeline of the day.
(For more Antietam coverage, don’t miss Clint Johnson’s guest blog post on the infamous battle or 10 things you didn’t know about Antietam).
General Joseph Hooker leads the Union’s First Corps on an attack down Hagerstown Turnpike, his eye on Dunker Church. Confederate troops lie in wait in farmer David Miller’s cornfield.
Seeing the glint of Confederate bayonets in the cornfield, Hooker moves four batteries into position and orders them to fire on the Southerners, who fire back in short order. A bloodbath ensues. The lines move forward and back, control of the cornfield changing hands as many as eight times before the skirmishing ends around 9 a.m. Miller’s cornfield is subsequently considered to be the bloodiest patch of land in America.
General Edwin Sumner of the Union army leads a division of more than 5,000 men into battle, intending to move into the West Woods and attack General Robert E. Lee’s left flank. As the Union lines move through the woods, however, they come under Confederate fire from three different directions. In less than 20 minutes, they suffer more than 2,000 casualties.
9:30 a.m. to 1 p.m.
The fighting at Sunken Road, so named because years of travelers and natural erosion have worn its surface down to several feet below its original level, yields about 5,600 casualties, a relative stalemate, and a new name for the road: Bloody Lane.
10 a.m. to 1 p.m.
While the fighting at Sunken Road is going on, Union General Ambrose Burnside is ordered to attack Lee’s right flank. Burnside sends General Isaac Rodman downstream to cross Antietam Creek and attack Confederate troops on the west side of the stream. It takes the Union three attempts to cross Rohrbach’s Bridge, now known as Burnside’s Bridge, the southernmost crossing of the creek.
Having gained control of the bridge, Burnside’s men form a mile-wide battle line, pushing Confederate forces back toward Sharpsburg.
General A. P. Hill’s Confederate reinforcements arrive from Harpers Ferry and immediately engage in a counterattack against the Federal left flank. Burnside’s troops fall back to a position on the west bank of Antietam Creek, where Burnside makes an urgent request for more men. General George McClellan tells him he can spare only one battery, famously saying, “I can do nothing more. I have no infantry.” In fact, nearly a third of McClellan’s army remains in reserve. Burnside’s men therefore spend the rest of the day guarding the bridge they had taken hours earlier.
The battle ends with no clear winner. It is, however, a turning point in the Civil War because it ends Lee’s strategic campaign and allows President Abraham Lincoln to issue the Emancipation Proclamation. Of 23,000 casualties on both sides, 3,600 are dead, making this the bloodiest day in American history.