McClellan’s Chance Slips Away

September 16, 1862 (Tuesday)

Sharpsburg, Maryland

As the sun rose behind him, illuminating the thick fog of morning, George McClellan had no real idea what was across the small Antietam Creek near the crossroads of Sharpsburg, Maryland. By his calculations, perhaps as many as 120,000 Rebels were arrayed against the 60,000 troops he had at hand. He knew that Harpers Ferry had fallen, and that Stonewall Jackson’s men had probably reunited with General Lee’s main force.

McClellan had known other things, as well. Four days prior, he had known the Confederate plan of operation from the recovered Special Orders No. 191. He knew that Lee had split his army into four separate columns and that they was a gulf of twenty miles separating the wings.

While the battles of South Mountain on the 14th showed him the Rebels were willing to fight, they also showed his enemy to still be scattered. McClellan, as he did so often, waited. As an entire day slipped by, he pursued the retreating Confederates, but kept a respectful distance.

General Lee needed no ruse, no trickery to convince McClellan not to attack. The Union general did that all on his own. The afternoon and evening of the 15th found McClellan’s 60,000 (20,000 or so were still en route) squared off against 15,000 under Lee. McClellan’s original plan was to find the divided Rebels and destroy each column in detail. This was his chance. But he decided to wait until the next day.

Morning brought the same. Though Stonewall Jackson’s men were closer to Sharpsburg, they had not yet joined the main body. After rising, McClellan, full of confidence and gusto, wrote to his wife that he had “no doubt delivered Penna & Maryland.” And yet, there was no battle.

At the same time that he wrote his wife, he also wrote General-in-Chief Henry Halleck. He could “ascertain that some of the enemy are still there,” but he couldn’t tell how many. As soon as he found out, he assured Halleck, he would attack.

To General William Franklin, commanding the Sixth Corps guarding his left, he divulged even more: “I think the enemy has abandoned the position in front of us, but the fog is so dense that I have not yet been able to determine.” Reports had come in that after the fall of Harpers Ferry, Rebel troops on the Maryland side had crossed to the Virginia side. This was, assumed McClellan, proof that Lee’s entire army was retreating back to Virginia.

Halleck agreed. “I think,” he replied to McClellan, “you will find that the whole force of the enemy in your front has crossed the [Potomac] river. I fear now more than ever that they will recross at Harper’s Ferry or below, and turn your left, thus cutting you off from Washington.”

Middle Bridge across the Antietam

That was certainly possible. “Feigned retreats are secesh tactics,” Halleck had warned in the past. McClellan would probably have been fine with the Rebel army retreating back into Virginia. He might have been seen as the savior of Pennsylvania and Maryland – throwing back the huge Rebel army with only a few minor scrapes at South Mountain. But to be cut off from Washington, that was another story.

As the morning slid by, McClellan learned that the Rebels, or at least their artillery, were still there. As the fog burned away, the gray lines of infantry he saw so plainly the previous evening were gone. He couldn’t send his army against a hidden enemy, and so more reconnoitering was needed. No attack could be made – he needed to examine the ground, clear the roads and approaches, bring up more supplies and ammunition, and find fords to cross the Antietam.

Antietam Creek was not very wide, nor was it very deep. It was, however, wide and deep enough that artillery couldn’t be driven across it. Soldiers may lift up their muskets and hoist their cartridge boxes over their heads to cross water up to their chests, but artillery could not. Fortunately for McClellan, Sharpsburg was served by several roads leading into it and so there were four stone bridges spanning the creek.

Scouts had reported that Rebels controlled the crossings to the south. But the North Bridge was open. And there, if he was going to strike at all, was where he would cross.

By noon, as Stonewall Jackson’s men began to file into the Confederate lines, McClellan divined a plan. Joe Hooker, commanding the First Corps, was to cross the North Bridge and be prepared to strike the left flank of the Rebels. Jacob Cox, now commanding the Ninth Corps, was to force a crossing at the southern-most Rohrbach Bridge simultaneous with Hooker’s attack. In the middle, McClellan would support the vice-like assaults. No orders were written to either Hooker or Cox.

General Ambrose Burnside, commanding the left wing of the army, believed he had been slighted. During the battles at South Mountain, he had command over both the First and Ninth Corps. Now, believed Burnside, Hooker had swindled his way into an independent command, which left Burnside without a corps of his own. Cox, commanding the Ninth Corps, offered to step down and return to his division, handing Burnside the reigns, but the bewhiskered general refused.

Hooker crossed the North Bridge and advanced a mile before any reaching any resistance. The Confederates clearly saw the crossing and two brigades under John Bell Hood were moved to give battle. But there was hardly a fight. Artillery boomed and Hooker’s men skirmished with Hood’s, but no more.

Lower Bridge across the Antietam

McClellan’s plan was for Burnside, commanding the left, to make some sort of demonstration to make the Rebels believe that the Union right (Hooker) was silent. As Hooker advanced, however, McClellan was doing little more than showing Lee his hand. Whatever element of surprise McClellan had folded into this plan was gone.

As night crept over the fields north of Sharpsburg, Lee shifted troops to meet the obvious Union threat. Hooker, who had been trying to turn Lee’s flank, would be faced with the main Confederate line.

The dark had replaced the fog of morning, obscuring lines and men, while covering the ground, the woods and valleys in uncertainty. Here and there, nervous pickets would let loose volleys, or artillery would crush the anxious stillness hovering thick. Troops were moved, though slightly, and positions abandoned. Each army was as near to exhaustion as it was to battle. The sleep, so desperately needed, was lost in anticipation of what the next shrouded dawn would bring.1

  1. I’ve been in complete mental exhaustion because of the Maryland campaign that I thought I’d try to switch up my style a bit. With the exception of the two quotes from the The Civil War Papers of General McClellan, I used Landscape Turned Red by Stephen W. Sears, Mariner Books, 1983; Military Reminiscences of the Civil War, Volume 1 by Jacob Dolson Cox; and Stonewall Jackson by James I Robertson, Macmillan, 1997; George B. McClellan by Stephen W. Sears. Thank you for understanding. []
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2 thoughts on “McClellan’s Chance Slips Away

  1. I read your footnote. This level of detail fulfills the need of a daily blog on the Civil War. In fact, your work has much more than I ever hope in following the CW on a Daily Basis. Please keep up the work as best you can and still enjoy it yourself.


    1. In about a week, maybe less, you’ll probably notice a change. I wrote the stuff that’s posting now about four months ago. Looking back on that, I was extremely mentally exhausted. I nearly stopped writing. It was either that or change.

      I was spending over three hours each day writing 1500 or more words. It was intense. I learned a lot, but it became a part time job.

      And so now I spend about 90 mins a day and the average word count is 900ish. I’m not longer mentally exhausted and I’m pretty sure I can keep going with this project. Hopefully the changes won’t be so great that people decide to stop reading.

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