The flash of musketry fire illuminated the dark landscape around the sleepy town of Sharpsburg while the few visible stars still hovered in the early morning sky. With each passing moment, as the sun rose higher behind the peaks of South Mountain, the tension built. Men far from home, reposed from their few hours of rest, turned their thoughts away from home to what was about to happen. Each man knew, whether Billy Yank or Johnny Reb, the importance of the day–that this day might be like none other, that this day, there was no going back. Soldiers steeled themselves for the coming light, which ushered in America’s bloodiest.
For twelve hours, from David Miller’s cornfield to Henry Piper’s apple orchard, to a stone bridge connecting Sharpsburg and Rohrersville spanning the Antietam Creek, nearly 100,000 Union and Confederate soldiers sacrificed one more day of their lives that they might see their respective nations flourish. By the end of those twelve gruesome hours, 23,000 men lay dead, wounded, or captured, and the peaceful farm fields of Sharpsburg were torn beyond recognition. The attacking Union soldiers battered and bruised their Confederate counterparts and made slight gains, but did not force the Southern army to leave the field. Though the climactic moment of the campaign came and went, the Confederate invasion of the North was not ready to draw its last gasp yet.
Union General George Gordon reflected on the horrible nature of the fighting that epitomized the Battle of Antietam.
From sunrise to sunset the waves of battle ebbed and flowed. Men wrestled with each other in lines of regiments, brigades, and divisions, while regiment, brigade, and division faded away under a terrible fire, leaving long lines of dead to mark where stood the living. Fields of corn were trampled into shreds, forests were battered and scathed, huge limbs sent crashing to the earth, rent by shell or round shot. Grape and canister mingled their hissing scream in this hellish carnival, yet within all this and through it all the patriots of the North wrestled with hearts strong and nerve unshaken–wrestled with the rebel hordes that thronged and pressed upon them as to destruction; never yielding, though sometimes halting to gather up their strength; then with one mighty bound throwing themselves upon their foes, to drive them into their protecting forest beyond. We slept upon the bloody field of our victory.