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“What was the outcome of the Battle of Antietam?”

If you’re looking for a simple, one word answer, you’re not going to get it from me – nor from anyone else for that matter. It’s not that simple.

People with a Southern bias might argue that Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s conduct of the fight on September 17, 1862, is proof positive of his tactical genius. Outnumbered more that two-to-one, General Lee certainly out-generaled his Union counterpart, General George B. McClellan on that day. McClellan’s men took land and gave it back all day long, and when the sun went down there were no significant gains. Lee’s army was in danger of total annihilation all day long, and it might be argued that the outcome of the entire war hung in the balance, and that by averting disaster and saving the army to fight another day, Lee deserves credit for a victory.

In fact, the best history has to offer Lee is a draw.

Lee went into Maryland (the battle was fought in a small Maryland town called Sharpsburg and, in fact, Southerners refer to the fight as the Battle of Sharpsburg) with the hopes of threatening Washington, Philadelphia or Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, and because of the famous “lost dispatch” McClellan discovered his plans and crushed those hopes. For the Confederates then, the Maryland Campaign was a strategic failure. Lee lost twenty-five percent of his army on that day and retreated into Virginia with nothing to show for it.

From the Union perspective Lee’s invasion of the North was repulsed, giving McClellan fans (if there is such a thing) a reason to claim victory. It was however, in the view of many, a lost opportunity. One man who thought this was President Abraham Lincoln who was furious at McClellan for his failure to pursue Lee’s retreating army to finish the job. But Lincoln was desperate for a victory. Following a series of Southern victories, morale in the army and in the nation was low, and the country needed a reason to celebrate. More than that, Lincoln had the Emancipation Proclamation hidden in his desk drawer having been convinced by his closest advisors to keep it secret until such time as he could announce it on the heels of a victory. Antietam, to Lincoln, was close enough. Within days of the Southern retreat, the proclamation was announced which set the nation irreversibly on a path toward outlawing the institution of slavery forever. While both sides may argue, even to this day, over the outcome, for three million slaves, the Battle of Antietam was undoubtedly a “victory.”

The author of To Make Men Free: A Novel of the Battle of Antietam will be happy to help you with your homework assignment. To email him a question, click here.

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