Antietam was bloody turning point
A year after the Civil War had begun, Minnesota soldiers had seen plenty of fighting, at places with names such as Bull Run, Ball's Bluff and Mill Springs, Savage Station and White Oak Swamp.
But nothing prepared them for what happened on Sept. 17, 1862, at a place that virtually none had ever heard of before: Antietam.
Antietam Creek is a 42-mile-long creek that flows into the Potomac River near Sharpsburg, Md. It was along that creek not far north of Harper's Ferry that a huge army led by Union Gen. George McClellan met the smaller Army of Northern Virginia led by Gen. Robert E. Lee, in what almost inadvertently became the bloodiest single day of war in American history.
Nearly 3,700 men were killed that day, with another 19,000 wounded or missing. The 1st Minnesota Infantry, which was later to become Minnesota's most famous fighting force because of its heroism at Gettysburg, was in the thick of it that day as well.
The battle of Antietam, called the battle of Sharpsburg in the South, was the first major fight on the Union side of the line, with Lee leading his army into the heart of a border state that was profoundly divided about the war. The city of Baltimore was all but pro-Confederacy; only a year earlier, President-elect Lincoln had to move secretly through the city en route to his inauguration in Washington.
A Confederate victory on Union soil could have turned fragile public opinion against the war -- it was an election year, after all, with Lincoln and Republican leadership of the war on the line. It could have drawn in European powers who were closely watching events and ready to support the Southern cause if the moment was right.
If Maryland were to be lost, Washington itself would be impossible to hold, surrounded by states in rebellion.
"No other campaign and battle in the war had such momentous, multiple consequences as Antietam," historian James McPherson has written.
Lee's army of about 55,000 men marched into Maryland on Sept. 3 after their resounding victory a few days earlier at Bull Run, near Manassas, Va. It was the second battle at Bull Run, and Lee convincingly routed the Union forces the second time around, then continued north, just as Confederate armies were crossing into Kentucky, another Union state that Lincoln desperately needed to hold.
McClellan moved his army of about 75,000 men into position near Antietam on Sept. 15, and the battle on the 17th began at dawn. McClellan held back thousands of soldiers, which reduced his advantage, and Lee let slip a copy of his orders, which affected his own advantage.
The day ended with the Union army reduced by about a quarter, and Lee's army by a third. Not even at Gettysburg was the bloodbath so intense from dawn to dusk in one day.
About 120 men in the 1st Minnesota Infantry alone were killed or wounded that day, of a total of 435 men who fought. The regiment was part of an assault on the West Woods that failed, but the Minnesotans fought with distinction, according to historians. All the casualties from the 1st Minnesota are listed online at Firstminnesota.net.
Among the casualties was a Norwegian immigrant, Halvor Quie, a sharpshooter attached to the 1st Minnesota. Quie was critically injured and battlefield surgeons wanted to amputate his leg. He refused, kept his leg and survived.
His grandson, Al Quie, became governor of Minnesota about 120 years later. Quie was involved in a ceremonial sendoff for a re-enactment group that headed to the Antietam battlefield earlier this month. The re-enactment group also was to place memorial flags on the graves of some of those Minnesota men who fell at Antietam.
The leaders of the 1st Minnesota at Antietam included Col. Alfred Sully , who a year later was back in Minnesota and led one of the "punitive expeditions" in Dakota Territory against the Indians who fled Minnesota after the uprising the previous fall.
Skirmishes continued at Antietam on Sept. 18, but Lee's army began an orderly retreat across the Potomac, back into Virginia. McClellan failed to aggressively pursue him, which Lincoln believed -- and generations of historians have agreed -- was a colossal error. But the Union victory was enough to give Lincoln the right moment to do what he'd wanted to do for months -- free the slaves in the Confederacy. On Sept. 22, he issued the Emancipation Proclamation, effective on Jan. 1, 1863.
That turned the war from an effort to preserve the Union as it existed prior to the war into a nation conceived in liberty but receiving a new birth of freedom for all citizens.
For those who carried the battle, though, that historical moment was lost in the ghastly experience of Antietam. As a Minnesota soldier, Charley Goddard, wrote soon after, "If the horrors of war cannot be seen on this battlefield, they cannot be seen anywhere.
"The rebels fought well -- I will give them credit for that."