Civil War Trails: The Antietam Campaign
By Thomas J. Straka
Photography by Patricia A. Straka
Yes, this is an article about the Civil War battle at
Antietam, or Sharpsburg to a Southerner. The North named battles after the
nearest body of water, while the South used the nearest settlement. But it
is not about the battlefield. Rather, it is about the campaign routes Lee
used to get from Virginia to Antietam and back. The trail that Robert E.
Lee's troops took to get to Antietam can be just as interesting as the
The Best Farm.
General Lee's Headquarters south of Frederick. This is where
Special Order Number 191 was lost, greatly impacting the battle.
For example, Lee's �lost order number 191
played a large role in the battle. Lee issued Special Order 191 to detail
troop movements in Maryland. A copy was found wrapped around several cigars
by Union soldiers at the Best Farm south of Frederick. It provided the Union
Army of the Potomac with detailed troop movement plans. Union General
McClellan remarked, �Here is a paper with which, if I cannot whip Bobby Lee,
I will be willing to go home.� The Best Farm is well-preserved and part of
the nearby Monocacy National Battlefield. The campaign trail gives a
splendid overview of events that led up to the battle at Antietam. How would
the battle have gone if those orders did not reach Union hands? For those
interested in the campaign, the states of Maryland and Virginia have
provided trail markers and historical information plaques along the route.
After the southern victory at the Second Battle of Bull
Run (Manassas) in late August 1862, Lee decided to take the offensive and
relieve pressure on Virginia by marching his troops north to threaten
Washington, D.C. Lee and most of his troops (including the �Stonewall
Division,� Jeb Stuart's Calvary, and Longstreet's command) crossed the
Potomac at White's Ford and moved north toward Frederick. His troops sang
�Maryland, my Maryland� as they marched into Maryland, fully expecting
strong support from the slave-holding state. This part of Maryland showed
itself to be mainly pro-Union. Headquarters was south of Frederick, where
the special orders were lost.
|Map of the Antietam Campaign.
(Source: Civil War Trails.)
Lee divided his troops into three wings at
first. The invasion of Maryland was expected to cause Union forces to
abandon Harpers Ferry (to the south). When this did not happen, Lee felt
compelled to divide his forces (using special order no. 191) and send
Stonewall Jackson to clear the federals out of Harpers Ferry. (See the
Spring 2012 issue for an article on Harpers Ferry at
http://www.americanroads.net/spring-12-western_trails.htm ). The rest of
the troops moved across South Mountain (the northern extension of the Blue
Ridge Mountains) west to Hagerstown and then north into Pennsylvania as
objectives. Severing the Pennsylvania Railroad Bridge at Harrisburg would
disrupt Union supplies and Lee's army could live off the land in
Pennsylvania while threatening Washington, Baltimore, and Philadelphia. Jeb
Stuart was to guard the passes on South Mountain to keep the Union forces at
bay. McClellan moved rapidly and forcibly and Lee concentrated his troops
near Sharpsburg, while ordering Stonewall Jackson to quickly return from
Harpers Ferry. Lee chose to fight near Antietam Creek and that is where the
battle took place.
We included a few battlefield photographs, but the
campaign is our subject. The main battle was fought on September 17, 1862.
It was the bloodiest day in American military history, with over 22,000
causalities. Lee was forced to withdraw south and his troops crossed the
Potomac at Blackford's Ford and then moved into the Shenandoah Valley. A
rear action at Shepardstown on the river was the battle of the campaign.
Lincoln relieved McClellan of his command for not pursuing Lee after the
White's Ferry. The
modern way to cross the Potomac. The ferry is named after a
Confederate General who fought in Northern Virginia.
White's Ford, about 2 miles upriver
from the ferry. The river is waist deep in most places here if the
season is right.
Lee began this campaign in Leesburg, Virginia. The
first interpretative marker is at the Loudoun County Museum near Lee's
Headquarters at the start of the campaign. A second Virginia marker is
just north of Leesburg at Mile Hill, a small cavalry action that cleared
the way for Lee's infantry to cross the Potomac. Most of Lee's troops
crossed the Potomac at White's Ford. The modern traveler will use White's
Ferry about two miles downstream. There is a marker at the ferry and
upstream at the actual ford.
| Monocacy Aqueduct. Where the
Chesapeake and Ohio Canal flowed across the Monocacy River.
Lots of minor military actions are marked
south of Frederick (Lee's first objective). One of the more interesting ones
is the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal Aqueduct that crossed the Monocacy River just
before it empties into the Potomac a few miles upriver from White's Ford.
Some of Lee's troops forded further upriver and cleared that area of federal
They also attempted to destroy the C&O Canal and
managed to breach and drain it. Destruction of the Monocacy Aqueduct
proved futile due to its �extreme solidity and massiveness.� Markers will
identify about a half dozen cavalry skirmishes along Lee's route to
Frederick. Much of the route must be close to what Lee's troops saw: stone
and snake or worm rail fences and crops, mostly corn. Sugarloaf Mountain
dominates this part of Maryland and signalmen from both sides used it for
observation. It has its own marker.
General Jeb Stuart's Headquarters was near here. The �Sabers and
Roses Ball� was held here.
South of Frederick is Best's Farm, Lee's
Headquarters prior to moving west to Sharpsburg. Here is where Special
Order 191 was lost. Nearby General J.E.B. Stuart occupied Urbanna and
held a ball at Landon House that was interrupted by reports of federal
cavalry. It has become known as the �Sabers and Roses Ball.� About a
half dozen cavalry skirmishes are marked on the route between the
river and Frederick. From Frederick, Lee moved west to put South
Mountain between him and the Federal Troops; the skirmishes on this
route area also marked. Southern troops protected all the gaps on
South Mountain and Federal efforts to break through these gaps are
Dunkard (or Dunker)
Church. A landmark on the battlefield at Antietam. Wounded from
both sides cared for in the church and later it was used to embalm
bodies. One of the most iconic photographs of the War shows a
�Wrecked Battery at Dunker Church.� The wrecked battery with
scattered causalities sits near the church.
| The Burnside Bridge on
Bloody Lane on
High atop South Mountain is the first
monument to George Washington. It is a tower with grand views that both
sides used for observation and signaling. Once across the mountain there are
a few more skirmishes marked, but the battlefield is close. The trail gives
an appreciation of what the troops saw, the terrain, roads, and countryside.
Not much has changed in places. The southern troops got sick from eating
green corn and bloodied their shoeless feet on the hardened Maryland roads.
They were used to sandy Virginia roads. Those same cornfields and roads are
still there if you look for them. The advantage of the trail is that it
gives a feel for what the troops went through and prepares you for the
Some of the most iconic photographs of the Civil War
were taken at the Antietam Battlefield. We included a few to give the
trail perspective. The Civil War Trail is a way to give the battlefield
Authors: Tom Straka is a forestry professor at Clemson
University in South Carolina. His wife, Pat, is a consulting forester.
Both have a keen interest in history.
For more info:
Maryland Civil War Trails: The Antietam Campaign.
Maryland's Civil War: Frederick, Monocacy and South Mountain.
Maryland's Civil War: Antietam Battlefield, Hagerstown, Sharpsburg,
Civil War Trust: General Robert E. Lee's �Lost Order� No. 191.
Antietam on the Web:
White's Ford Potomac River Crossing.
Antietam National Battlefield, National Park Service
National Park Service, Antietam Battlefield Site Historical Handbook
National Park Service, Maryland Campaign
Sabers and Roses Ball at Landon House