Prodded by Lincoln to be on the offensive in early September 1862, the north’s early savior Gen. George McClellan began his pursuit of Gen. Robert E. Lee’s army into Maryland. Though his army was numerically inferior, Lee audaciously scattered his forces into strong positions, invited costly enemy assaults and then concentrated all for his opponent to fruitlessly assault. McClellan declined the bait and to Lincoln’s chagrin, retreated. After the carnage and burials, Lincoln demanded yet more troops to continue the invasion.
The Slaughter of Lincoln’s War
“Except for a belch of musketry here and there, the roar of battle at Sharpsburg subsided all along the lines as day turned to dusk. When men’s ears stopped ringing, they began to perceive the agonized groans of the wounded, piercing and plaintive nearer by but rolling like the rumble of distant thunder over the rest of the battlefield. Nearly four thousand Americans had died that day, and close to twenty thousand had been wounded – some of them horribly and many fatally – but the road still lay open to Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia.
“We do not boast a victory,” wrote one of Lee’s personal staff two days after the return to Virginia; “it was not sufficiently decisive for that. The Yankees would have claimed a glorious victory had they been on our side & they no doubt claim it anyhow.”
Certainly, McClellan counted it a “complete” victory for he had rid Maryland of the invader and had hurt him more than a little in the process. What he had not done, as Abraham Lincoln observed with great disappointment, was to prevent Lee’s escape and compel his surrender.
A short truce on the day after the battle allowed for the retrieval of some of the wounded and burial of a few of the dead. The work demonstrated how abrupt a transformation overcame good men who had become heartless killers in the tumult of battle. A young northern lieutenant from western Virginia suddenly recoiled at the bloodshed between men who spoke the same dialect. “The thought struck me,” he wrote his family, “this is unnatural.” Seeking respite from the slaughter, the lieutenant tried to resign soon after the battle.
The sheer devastation of Sharpsburg contributed substantially to a new epidemic of resignations from the northern army. The colonel of the 107th New York promptly departed in the wake of their brutal initiation, while one of their freshly-commissioned captains – whose company was criticized for faltering under fire – spend the next five weeks conniving for a safe home-front assignment as a drillmaster or clerk. A New Hampshire sergeant who had made the charge against Burnside’s Bridge damned Republicans up and down as he toured the battlefield; he supposed that if they could see such carnage, even they might change their minds and demand a settlement “in the name of God.”
Southern prisoners elicited abundant comment, particularly among recruits who had never seen their enemies at a speaking distance. “They are naturally more lithe & active that we”; and much more serious in defense of their homeland than the northern soldiers who had enlisted to stifle the South’s desire for political independence. “There is,” he added,” “a look of savageness in their eyes not observable in the good-natured countenance of our men.”
A romantic, reflective sergeant who had left his New Hampshire home less than a month before watched a mass burial of his fellow soldiers that Friday. He supposed that decay alone would dissuade most families from retrieving their loved ones’ remains, and reflected that no mothers, sisters, daughters, or wives would ever weep over these men folks’ graves at twilight or cast flowers on them as anniversaries passed. Only “the sighing wind shall be their funeral dirge.”
(Lincoln’s Darkest Year: The War in 1862. William Marvel. Houghton-Mifflin, 2008, pp. 217-226)