Two months from today, Kevin Pawlak will be speaking at the Fourth Annual Emerging Civil War Symposium at Stevenson Ridge (Aug. 4-6). His talk, “‘Water to his Front, Water to his Rear’: Robert E. Lee Defends the Confederate High Water Mark at Sharpsburg, September 17, 1862,” is part of our theme, “Great Defenses of the Civil War.”
“And this, I think, will be pronounced by military critics to be the greatest military blunder that Gen. Lee ever made.” That was how E. P. Alexander summed up Robert E. Lee’s decision to stand and fight the Federal army at Sharpsburg, Maryland on September 15, 1862. Since then, historians studying the situation have not been kind to Lee.
He fought outnumbered without entrenching with a river at his back that only had one rocky ford (Boteler’s Ford) which could carry his army back into Virginia and to safety, they say. Alexander called the Potomac River–and the fact that Lee stood backed up against it–the “one feature of [the field] which should have been conclusive against giving battle [at Sharpsburg].” But armchair generals looking back on Lee’s decision get so caught up thinking about what lay three miles behind Lee that they forget what lay directly in front of him–the Antietam Creek.
First and foremost, Robert E. Lee entered Maryland to draw the Federals out of Washington, where Lee could give battle and defeat it. “I intended then to attack McClellan,” Lee said in 1868. Should that happen and victory be achieved, then all of the campaign’s other goals–Confederate independence, European intervention, bringing Maryland into the Confederacy’s fold, giving Virginia farms a respite–would have fallen into place. It did not happen at South Mountain; Lee hoped it might work at Antietam.
Following his defeat at South Mountain, Lee’s army headed westward towards the safety of Virginia. His trek through what would become the Union lines during the Battle of Antietam gave Lee the rare luxury of being able to see what his adversary’s view of the battlefield would be, and Lee liked what he saw. Rolling ridges rose from the Antietam Creek, and the west side of this long defensive position would shield many of his troops from the enemy’s eyes.
Once Lee reached the area where today’s National Cemetery sits, he liked what he saw even more. Forgetting the body of water in his rear, the steep banks of the Antietam and its few, narrow crossing points in his front provided a buffer between his army and that of McClellan. In order for the enemy to get at him, it had to sacrifice numerical superiority while in the process of getting across the creek. Even worse for the attackers in a scenario like this is the fact that one must divide one’s own army when sending it across a stream, creek, or river to attack the enemy. Military theorist Karl von Clausewitz called a river on a battlefield an “important object” for “it always weakens and upsets the offensive.”
When George B. McClellan inevitably divided his army to attack Lee on September 16, 16,000 of his soldiers under Joseph Hooker sat precariously separated from the rest of the army, and dangled in front of Lee like a juicy piece of raw meat in front of a lion. Lee saw this opportunity before him once earlier in the war, and it precipitated the Seven Days’ Battles. The Gray Fox’s fondness for utilizing a river to divide his enemies especially becomes apparent in May 1864 when one looks at his plan of attack along the banks of the North Anna River.
E. P. Alexander believed if Lee had ever before crossed the Potomac River at Boteler’s Ford and seen its rough condition that he never would have offered battle at Sharpsburg. But Lee did personally cross the Antietam. He knew its strengths and the opportunities it offered him and his army to resurrect his campaign and strike a war-ending blow to the United States.
Lee’s efforts to achieve a battlefield victory and Confederate independence did not succeed on September 17, 1862. His men fought one of its greatest battles of the war, no doubt aided by their commanders’ decision to place the Antietam Creek–a number equalizer, of sorts–in front of the Army of Northern Virginia. As Lee told President Jefferson Davis just over one week after the campaign’s conclusion, “History records but few examples of a greater amount of labor and fighting than has been done by this army during the present campaign.”