Two Days of Missed Opportunities: Antietam

As we commemorate the 157th anniversary of the Battle of Antietam on September 17, we shouldn’t forget that on both the 16th and the 18th a Union attack of any size would have decimated Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia.  On the 16th almost half of his forces were not in place in Sharpsburg, but McClellan let the fog and indecisiveness stop him from attacking.  On the 18th Lee’s forces were bloodied, unbowed, but ready to be overwhelmed because of the massive casualties of the previous days.  McClellan, with major reinforcements on the way and many troops still fresh (not active the day before), instead did nothing and let Lee escape.

Had McClellan attacked in force either day, Antietam could have been THE turning point of the war as Lee and his men would have been overwhelmed.  Instead we had two more years of death and destruction.

Yes, “what if” is always an interesting discussion.  In fact, that’s why I wrote my second book about just such a scenario.  But it describes a Union victory on the 17th.  Victory on the 16th and 18th, in k20-20 hindsight, admittedly, were there for the asking.

Copy of Lincoln, Antietam (4)



Author: geneofva

Author of "Citizen-General: Jacob Dolson Cox and the Civil War Era," and of seven more Civil War books -- with more to come!!

4 thoughts on “Two Days of Missed Opportunities: Antietam”

  1. Mac had good reason to believe Lee had over 100K men, and no Cavalry capable of assertaining the his true strength with Stuart on the field. The fault lies with Lincoln’s shoddy Intelligence service, not Mac. Every time Mac was removed the AoP suffered a terrible defeat, but Stanton was jealous of his authority. Lee thought Mac his most capable opponent, which he was.


    1. Karl, We can go on and on about this, but let me comment about your comments: 1) Mac no good reason to believe Lee had 100K men, especially after Lee had been campaigning for so long. 2) the cavalry was never used to assess Lee’s strength — this despite McClellan’s authorship of the cavalry manual; 3) I think Grant was by far his most capable opponent, which he proved on the battlefield. Finally, if McClellan really believed his opponent had 100K men, while he had about 85K(and many of them rookies),. it made an attack such as he made on September 17, 1862 madness, because he would have not had a chance. In fact, he came within seconds/minutes of destroying Lee, if only he had had the nerve to continue the attack or send in his reserves. In sum, I stand by my comments — attacking on either the 16th or 18th would have destroyed Lee’s army. Thanks for commenting.


  2. Everything is very open with a very clear description of the issues.
    It was definitely informative. Your site is useful.

    Thanks for sharing!


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