The Importance of the Battle of Antietam

Depiction of the Battle of Antietam


Gettysburg, perhaps the most renowned battle of the American Civil War, was the second incursion of Confederate troops onto Union soil. The first offensive in the North taken by General Robert E. Lee and his Army of Northern Virginia resulted in the Battle of Antietam. On September 17, 1862, Lee’s troops met Union forces, under the command of General George B. McClellan, in Sharpsburg, Maryland. In this one poignant moment in time, American history was forever altered. If Gettysburg was the most significant battle in terms of scope, Antietam (Sharpsburg to Southerners) was the most pivotal with respect to the aims of the war.

This battle changed the formally stated purpose of the war from one of the states’ rights vs unification to one of the questions of slavery. Although the “states’ rights” in question were the rights of each state to determine their positions on slavery, this was not officially recognized in the Confederate charter. In the North, a political game was afoot. Abolitionists, of course, fought adamantly to end the “peculiar institution,” while politicians cautioned of the ramifications of such a drastic step. One day in Maryland provided the catalyst needed to end the debate. The Battle of Antietam was the most pivotal event of the Civil War as it erased the threat of European recognition of the Confederate States of America (CSA) and was the impetus needed for the issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation.

May 1861 saw the establishment of a functioning Confederate government in Richmond, Virginia. CSA President Jefferson Davis and his armies were in control of nearly all of the 750,000 acres that were deemed CSA territory.[1] After the first shots of the war were fired a month prior in South Carolina, the Confederates became defenders. They simply needed to retain what they already possessed in order to prove victorious over the “invading” Yanks. Conversely, President Lincoln and the Union forces were tasked with subduing the Southern rebellion, controlling CSA lands, and reuniting the nation. This arduous endeavor seemed beyond the scope of McClellan and the Army of the Potomac in the eastern theater of the war.

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