The Regional Review

Volume VI - Nos. 3 & 4

March-April, 1941

Interpretative Statement : IV

This is the fourth of a series of interpretative statements which have been prepared by the Branch of Historic Sites designed to explain concisely the broader significance of those national areas which have been set aside because of their historical importance. Each statement is intended to keynote an essential individual theme which will serve both as a guide post for those who develop an area and as orientation for those who visit it.

General Alexander called the battle of Antietam "The bloodiest battle ever fought upon this continent," and John Codman Ropes wrote, "It is likely that more men were killed and wounded on the 17th of September than on any other single day in the whole war."

Burnside Bridge
Burnside Bridge

Tactically, Antietam was a drawn battle, but in the larger sense its result was decisively in favor of the Union. After it, Lee retreated, while McClellan advanced, into Virginia. This alone was enough to raise the morale of the North, when contrasted with the failures and defeats of the preceding summer. Its favorable issue gave President Lincoln, five days after the battle, the opportunity which he had been awaiting for months to issue the Emancipation Proclamation.

On the other hand, the Confederate Government was disappointed in its hopes that the presence of a Confederate Army in Maryland would arouse the people of that State to break from the Union and join the Confederates, and that a Confederate victory there would increase the large number of people in the North who were opposed to the war and enable them to force its termination.

More important than all, it deterred England and France from according to the Confederates the recognition which the governments of those countries had been contemplating ever since the beginning of the war. The diplomatic history of the period makes it evident that in the autumn of 1862 those two great powers were more inclined than at any other time earlier or later, to pronounce the Confederacy an established nation. Three days before the battle of Antietam, the Prime Minister of England, Lord Palmerston, stated in a note: "It is evident that a great conflict is now taking place to the northwest of Washington and its issue must have a great effect on the state of affairs. If the Federalists sustain a great defeat, they may be at once ready for mediation, and the iron should be struck while it is hot. If on the other hand, they should have the best of it, we may wait a while and see."

Lee's failure to carry the war deeply or effectively into the northern states or even to maintain himself in Maryland, coupled with the almost simultaneous repulse of Bragg's invasion of Kentucky, which was turned back at the Battle of Perryville on October 8, 1862, caused Great Britain to "wait and see". No later occasion arose which seemed favorable to the British Government. Probably the greatest significance of Antietam in our national history, therefore, lies in the fact that if Lee had won that battle it very likely would have foreshadowed the final independence of the Confederacy. But when he turned back to Virginia, the most promising, if not the last, opportunity of foreign intervention vanished.

Prior to Lincoln's preliminary proclamation of September 23, 1862, which warned the South that on January 1, 1863, he would declare free all slaves in territory still resisting the Union, and the Emancipation Proclamation itself on New Year's Day, 1863, the avowed purpose of the war on the part of the Government was to preserve the Union. Henceforth, the purpose of the war broadened. It now had two purposes; to preserve the Union and to end slavery.

Thus, in its effect on the outcome of the conflict, in relation both to its foreign and internal consequences, the Battle of Antietam was unique and without parallel during the entire course of the war.


<<< Previous
> Contents <
Next >>>
Date: 04-Jul-2002