A quiet tributary flows from its source in southern Pennsylvania, winds its way through Washington County, Maryland, and finally joins the Potomac River just south of Sharpsburg. It is spanned by three picturesque stone arch bridges, foot-worn but well-preserved relics of the farmers’ routes to Sharpsburg markets. The tributary is Antietam Creek; the southernmost bridge is Rohrbach’s Bridge (since renamed Burnside’s Bridge); and, with a total of 22,717 documented casualties, they were the setting of the bloodiest day of fighting in American history, The Battle of Antietam (also known as The Battle of Sharpsburg in the South). Afterward, the Union buried 2, 108 of their soldiers and the Confederacy buried 1,546 of theirs.
The battle began as an invasion, part of General Robert E. Lee’s larger Maryland Campaign, and the first of his attempts to take Northern soil. He was confident after a string of Confederate victories in Virginia and he hoped to further demoralize the Union army, as well as restock his own forces’ scant provisions. He lost the element of surprise, however, when Union General George B McClellan accidentally intercepted his battle orders and moved to repel them. Historians believe the battle could have been a death blow to the Confederacy, given McClellan’s advantage, but he squandered the opportunity. Paranoid, he estimated the opposing army to be composed of 120,000 men (compared to the actual 38,000) and consequently his leadership was fear-driven and defensive against a force the Union outnumbered two to one.
Heavy losses on both sides led to an unspoken stalemate, neither side pressing forward to their original objective. The battle has been considered tactically inconclusive, but nonetheless a major turning point in the war. Stonewall Jackson’s victory at Harper’s Ferry and the Northern retention of Antietam spurred Lincoln to announce the executive order that would become the Emancipation Proclamation, altering the purpose of the war to one of abolition, and thereby eliminating European support of the Confederacy. Abraham Lincoln relieved General McClellan of command, following his ineffective generalship in Antietam and his failure to pursue Lee’s forces afterward. Burnside’s Bridge continues to be one of the Civil War’s most photographed bridges.
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