Antietam: The End of the Overland Campaign…of 1862


An unknown Confederate soldier lies dead next to the recent grave of
Lt. John A. Clark, 7th Michigan Infantry

The Battle of Antietam signaled the end of the Civil War’s first Overland Campaign. That’s an intriguing thought. The first time that notion crossed my mind was while reading Joseph Harsh’s Taken at the Flood. Three military campaigns–the Seven Days’, Second Manassas, and Maryland campaigns–constituted the larger whole. “Each had a distinct aim,” Harsh writes.

Lee did not plan them all in advance at one sitting. He did not plot his move against McClellan on the Chickahominy as the first step toward the Potomac. Nonetheless, Lee’s three operations do connect to make one larger campaign. As events evolved, Lee lifted his eyes from one freed frontier to the next. One campaign grew naturally from the other, and when completed they formed an organic whole. What started as a campaign to relieve Richmond became a campaign to win the war.(1)

While Lee and the Confederate high command did not envision driving the Army of the Potomac away from Richmond and then immediately moving north into Maryland, bringing that state into the folds of the Confederacy was a goal for the southern government. However, Lee took advantage of the opportunities that were presented to him, which led to a three-month-long stretch from the end of June to September 1862 that witnessed nearly–but not entirely–constant marching and fighting.

I was recently thinking about this 1862 Overland Campaign in the context of the state and condition of both the Army of the Potomac and the Army of Northern Virginia at its conclusion. Much is made of the casualty and attrition rates in those same armies during the 1864 Overland Campaign and their impact on the course of the war at that point. As these thoughts carried me further and further down this rabbit hole, it made me wonder: how does the three month stretch in the war’s Eastern Theater from late June to mid-September 1862 stack up against the 1864 Overland Campaign in terms of casualties among the Union and Confederate armies?

Before we read any further into this matter, Civil War casualty figures are rarely accurate. But for this study, I used the most commonly accepted figures. Also, it is important to remember that even though this examines a three-month period, the majority of the casualties sustained during the 1864 Overland Campaign occurred from roughly May 5 to June 3, 1864, just less than a one month span. However, to make the figures congruous, the Overland Campaign casualty statistics also include the early actions in the Petersburg Campaign, which ends with the Battle of the Crater.

Overland and Petersburg Campaigns: 110,675 casualties

1862 Overland Campaign: 92,348 casualties

To further illustrate the 1862 Overland Campaign point and its casualties affecting the performance of both armies, I also discovered that when it comes to the bloodiest three-month spans between the Union and Confederate armies in a single theater of the war, the 1862 Overland Campaign ranked second only to its 1864 counterpart. The stretch from May to the end of July 1863 encompassing the Chancellorsville and Gettysburg campaigns turns up just shy of the 92,348 casualties of late June to mid-September 1862 (that total was 87,067 casualties).

This was a useful exercise that illustrates the ferocity and constancy of the campaigning in the Eastern Theater in the summer of 1862. It is a statistic to keep in mind when thinking about the state of both the Army of the Potomac and the Army of Northern Virginia in the days and weeks after the Battle of Antietam.

1. Harsh, Taken at the Flood, 490.

8 Responses to Antietam: The End of the Overland Campaign…of 1862

  1. I think that the comparison of 1862 with 1864 is contrived. As the quote above state, Lee did not start in June to invade the north. His strategy evolved over the course of the summer. He removed McClellan from the environs of Richmond. He went after Pope first with Jackson only. He did not commit to defeating Pope until McClellan’s withdrawal from the Peninsula commenced. After Second Bull Run (Manassas), he close to invade Maryland because of the fact that Nothern Virginia was unable to sustain his army. He was left with two choices, advance or retreat. He was naturally aggressive so it was advance. Grant’s 1864 campaign was far more cohesive in its strategic goals and was coordinated with a national strategy that 1862 also lacked.

    1. Charles, I appreciate you reading the piece and offering your thoughts. You are absolutely correct that Lee did not envision that by attacking McClellan’s army outside of Richmond that it would be an automatic step closer to the northern banks of the Potomac River. Plenty of other things had to go Lee’s way for that to happen.

      However, invading Maryland was a Confederate war aim since 1861 and Confederate leaders including Jefferson Davis, Lee, and Joseph Johnston discussed the hope of doing so even while the Peninsula Campaign was just commencing. A campaign into Maryland was on the Confederacy’s radar for a long time coming.

  2. This post is a thought provoking analysis of the attrition that both sides faced. We tend to think of battles as stand alone pieces, but the two armies had been through the ringer even before they faced off at Antietam. Another way to look at it is that the Confederates’ assault on Malvern Hill was almost exactly a year before Pickett’s charge. It is incredible that the two armies could trade punches like that for a full year.

    1. Bill, you’re absolutely right. These individual battles and campaigns can rarely be viewed in a vacuum. The punishment units and armies took at one battle carried forward to the next.

  3. Great article Kevin. As you point out, Lee used the circumstances of Union defeats (which he and Stonewall in the Valley were responsible for inflicting) as a basis for attacking north of Virginia in 1862. Grant however, didn’t seem fazed by defeat when he launched the offensive of 1864, and besides the attrition of Lee’s forces, viewed his own army’s actions as taking pressure off of those of other Union forces in motion, like those of Sherman’s. He was going to get at least close to Richmond come Heck or high water. But, you said that better than I ever can. Well done..

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