On the morning of Sept. 17, 1862, the feet of thousands of desperate soldiers hurried across the ancient rock. Some men fell and bled on it. Bullets and shells flew over it. And somewhere nearby toppled the Lone Star flag of the 1st Texas Infantry Regiment.
In this stony cornfield, the doomed 1st Texas lost, along with its flag, 82 percent of its men. Here, the Civil War’s Battle of Antietam exploded in fury, and here, a crucial, bloody step was taken toward the end of slavery in America.
“Of all the days on all the fields where American soldiers have fought, the most terrible by almost any measure” was here at Antietam, historian Stephen W. Sears wrote in his classic 1983 study of the battle.
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In the late summer and fall of 1862, as the Civil War moved through its second year, it had reached frightful new levels of violence, which would grow as the war went on.
But the fight along Antietam Creek, 150 years ago this month, would endure as its bloodiest single-day battle, and its horrors would haunt the soldiers who fought there for years.
Packed into 12 hours of conflict that began under the stars before dawn and that ended around sunset were three different phases — morning, midday and afternoon — and more than five different sub-battles.
Six generals were killed, three on each side. Almost 4,000 men were killed outright and 17,000 more were wounded. Of those, thousands would succumb to their injuries in the following months. Still more were reported missing.
There was at least one suicide, one Union officer who fled from his command in terror, and one dog slain beside its dead master, a Union officer.
A Union regiment, the 15th Massachusetts, lost many of its 606 men to friendly fire.
The more than 23,000 killed, wounded and missing from both sides “were the highest casualties of any one-day battle in our entire nation’s history,” said historian Tom Clemens, a retired professor at Hagerstown Community College and a student of the battle.
About three times as many Americans were casualties outside Sharpsburg as were killed or wounded in the landings in Normandy on D-Day in 1944.
The battle of Antietam, (pronounced an-TEE-tam) took place about 19 miles west of Frederick, just north of where the creek flows into the Potomac River, 54 miles northwest of Washington.
The clash pitted Gen. George B. McClellan’s roughly 86,000-man Union army against Gen. Robert E. Lee’s roughly 40,000 Confederates.
It is considered by many historians to be a tactical draw but a vital, strategic victory for the North.
The battered rebels were forced to retreat back across the Potomac, ending a string of triumphs and their first major incursion into Union territory in the East.