Massachusetts’ Staggering Losses in the 1862 Battle of Antietam
The bloodiest day in American combat history occurred on September 17, 1862 – 160 years ago. That's when 23,000 Union and Confederate soldiers were killed, wounded, or missing after just 12 hours of intense warfare. It was the Battle of Antietam, also known as the Battle of Sharpsburg.
Massachusetts paid a heavy price that day in its defense of the Union.
The Battle of Antietam, fought in the cornfields and woods near Sharpsburg, Maryland, along the Antietam Creek, was an important battle of the U.S. Civil War. It was not a decisive battle in determining the outcome of the conflict, but it was a turning point for many reasons.
Confederate General Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia and Union General George McClellan's Army of the Potomac fought to what most historians say was a draw that day. It was Lee's first foray into Maryland, but McClellan forced him back into Virginia.
McClellan failed to route Lee's army, allowing Lee's men to live to fight another day. His inaction cost McClelland his command.
The Maryland Campaign was successful enough that Union President Abraham Lincoln issued his Emancipation Proclamation freeing slaves still held within enemy territory. The proclamation changed the focus of the war from reunification to emancipation.
The exact number of Massachusetts casualties at Antietam is uncertain, but the 12th Massachusetts Infantry, under the leadership of Major General Joseph Hooker, suffered staggering losses. Of the 334 soldiers led into combat by Hooker, 224, or 67 percent, were killed, wounded, or missing – the worst casualty rate of any federal unit on the battlefield that day.
A monument was erected at Antietam in 1913 to the hundreds of Massachusetts soldiers who perished there. Unlike other states which placed state-sponsored Civil War memorials at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, the Massachusetts State Monument at Antietam is in Sharpsburg, where most Massachusetts Civil War casualties occurred.
Like other Civil War battlefields, Antietam is a solemn, sacred place that all Americans should try to visit.
To learn more about the Battle of Antietam and the involvement of Massachusetts soldiers, I recommend Landscape Turned Red: The Battle of Antietam by Stephen W. Sears.