At Antietam, The Enemy Remains; Catching Up with the West

September 18, 1862 (Thursday)

Confederate dead along the Hagerstown Pike

When Confederate General John Bell Hood looked across the fields of Antietam, he saw that the enemy was still there. He, as well as Stonewall Jackson, wished they had retreated. The result of the previous day’s battle – the bloodiest single-day of fighting in the war – was inconclusive. The Federal attacks were met and repulsed in many places. There was even the daring last minute arrival by A.P. Hill’s Division to throw back the final Union assault. But if both sides were still in position, there was no winner, and perhaps the battle was not yet over.

General Robert E. Lee had called together his officers following the last repulse to come to some conclusion over what to do. Attack? Hold? Retreat? Though Stonewall Jackson wanted to attack, it was impossible. One-third of the Army of Northern Virginia was dead or wounded. Retreat, however, was hardly an option. The army was small, but Lee knew that it could hold out against whatever the Federals threw at it.

Dead Confederate Soldier

Union General George McClellan was hoping to rise at dawn to see the enemy crossing the Potomac back to Virginia. His hopes dashed, he shot off a message to Washington, expecting the battle to be renewed. What he neglected to mention was just how that might happen.

His own men, thought the General, were too exhausted to fight. As he ticked down from one corps to the next, he ticked down a list of excuses as to why they could not go into battle. He did, however, have two corps (the Fifth and Sixth – roughly 23,000 men) who were relatively fresh. Another 12,000 were on their way and would arrive in the late morning. By noon, McClellan had 35,000 troops, mostly veterans, who had seen no fighting the previous day. McClellan’s reinforcements alone outnumbered General Lee’s entire standing army.

By the early afternoon, it was clear that neither McClellan nor Lee planned to attack, and a truce was established over the battlefield so that the wounded could be cared for and the dead could be buried.

Confederate Dead

As the truce wore on, General Lee issued the order that his army would retreat across the Potomac. After darkness came, Lee’s army began their withdrawal. They left behind their dead and their unmovable wounded as they marched through a torrent of rain towards the dividing river.

But Lee was hardly finished. Though he was leaving the field to the enemy, he was not beaten.1


Rebels Capture Federal Garrison in Kentucky

As both nations focused upon the campaigns in Northern Virginia and Maryland, the Confederates in the West were on the move. On the same day as Lee and McClellan fought the Battle of Antietam, Confederate General Braxton Bragg captured the Federal garrison at Munfordville, Kentucky.

Approximate map.

Bragg had never wanted to deal with the 4,000 Union troops in Munfordville, but owing to the enthusiasm of one of his subordinates, he was forced to move upon it. Without a fight, it was his, but the surrender was a strange one. The Union commander, Col. John Wilder, asked to parlay with Simon Buckner, a Confederate commander whom he had heard was a gentleman. Their meeting consisted of Wilder asking Buckner’s advice and whether the Confederates really had 27,000 men. Buckner assured him that the number was right, but when Wilder decided to surrender, Buckner, gentleman that he was, tried to pursued him not to. He reminded Wilder that if his force could hold out until reinforcements arrived, it was his duty to do so.

Wilder didn’t take long to wave off that odd bit of advice. He would surrender. On this date, his force marched out of Munfordville with their colors flying. Following the surrender, Bragg set aside this day as one of thanksgiving. His plans, however, were still the same.

He wanted to unite with Kirby Smith’s 10,000 or so troops near Lexington for an attack upon Louisville. There was, however, a problem. Opposing Bragg’s Rebel army was the Union Army of the Ohio, under General Don Carlos Buell. They had followed Bragg north from Chattanooga, but had stopped at Bowling Green while Bragg captured Munfordville. For some reason, Bragg assumed Buell would stay put. The Federal commander did not.

Buell assumed that Bragg was heading to Louisville and was about to step off to beat him there in hopes of saving the city. But Bragg had no real intention of going to Louisville.2


Grant Aims to Hit Price

Bragg’s command encompassed not only the Confederate forces in Kentucky, but those in Mississippi as well. There, two armies, one under Sterling Price, the other under Earl Van Dorn, were also on the move. What Bragg actually wanted was for Price and Van Dorn to join forces and plunge into Middle Tennessee. The idea was to keep Union reinforcements from Corinth and Memphis from adding to Buell’s numbers.

At first, Van Dorn didn’t like the plan, and wrote to President Davis complaining about it. He asked to be the commander in Mississippi and got it. After trying to convince Price that moving north from Tupelo to Iuka in order to attack Corinth was a bad idea, he realized that Price was right.

As Price moved his army into Iuka, he began to fear attacks from Federals under General Ulysses Grant and William Rosecrans. His fears were soon realized.

On the 17th and 18th, reports had come in that troops under Generals Ord and Rosecrans were descending upon Iuka. But now Van Dorn was urging Price to join him near Rienzi, ten miles south of Corinth, to begin a joint attack against the town. Price was game, but he knew an attack was coming from the northwest. Perhaps if he hurried, his slide to the southwest would save him from a fight.

General Grant had orchestrated a two-pronged attack against Price at Iuka. From the northwest, General Ord would move along the Memphis & Charleston Railroad, while General Rosecrans moved around Price’s left flank to hit him from the southwest.

Rosecrans, however, was behind schedule. Ord would have to hold off on his dawn attack until the second prong got into place – hopefully before nightfall on the 19th.3

  1. Cobbled together from Stonewall Jackson by James I. Robertson; Landscape Turned Red by Stephen W. Sears; The Civil War Papers of George B. McClellan edited by Stephen W. Sears. []
  2. All for the Union by Gerald Prokopowicz; Army of the Heartland by Thomas Lawrence Connelly; War in Kentucky by James Lee McDonough. []
  3. Grant Rises in the West by Kenneth P.Williams; The Darkest Days of the War by Peter Cozzens. []
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At Antietam, The Enemy Remains; Catching Up with the West by CW DG is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 4.0 International


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