Today marks the 150th anniversary of a turning point in the Civil War: the battle of Antietam.
The Maryland battle marked the Confederate army’s first invasion of the north, and it would become the bloodiest day in American history. More than
23,000 soldiers were killed, wounded or reported missing.
Michigan State University historian Roger Rosentreter helps us remember Michigan’s role in the Civil War from time to time. He told WKAR’s Scott Pohl that three Michigan generals were prominent figures at the day-long battle, and each led a separate phase of the fighting.
ROGER ROSENTRETER:Early morning of the 17th, the first phase sees general Alpheus S. Williams. He’s a division commander. He’s from Connecticut. He arrived in Detroit in the late 1830’s, and he was a judge, a banker, a newspaper owner, a postmaster. He was not a military man, even though he’d had some militia experience, but at the outbreak of the war, Governor Blair approached him and said “I appreciate what you can do, and I want you to organize our first troops,” which he did, and then he went off to war. So, by the time we get to the battle of Antietam, he has seen a fair amount of fighting, particularly in the Shenandoah Valley against, in part, a famed Confederate general, Stonewall Jackson.
As a division commander, he’s commanding about 6,000 to 8,000 men. He would later write that the bullets were flying everywhere on that field. It was surprise, he said, that everyone didn’t get hit at some point. Well, he didn’t, but his boss did. His corps commander got killed, so he was elevated to a higher command, and this was the first time for Williams, but in subsequent battles, he would see that. He didn’t win that part of the fight, but he was able to stabilize that part of the line, and by mid-morning, both sides at that part of the field were exhausted.
ANTIETAM’S SECOND PHASE LED BY GEN. RICHARDSON
SCOTT POHL:Then, we enter into a second phase led by Israel Richardson.
ROSENTRETER:Right. Now, Israel Richardson was a Vermonter by birth. He was a West Point graduate, so that’s different than Williams, and he distinguished himself in the Mexican War. In the late 1850’s, he left the army, settled in Pontiac, became a farmer, and got married.
What’s interesting about Richardson is he had quite a reputation. As a matter of fact, contemporaries described him as slouchy, slovenly, absent-minded, and unsocial, but apparently he was quite a powerful leader of men. Again, not a holiday soldier by any sense. He’s not interested in elaborate uniforms or parades or the like. He’d gone off to war early, had seen a fair amount of fighting, and on September 17th, he is, again, a division commander, he’s got two stars, he is really headed for even greater significance in the army of the Potomac. However, his division will attack across an open field, that was very common at this battle, and he will be seriously wounded directing counter battery fire. He’s carried from the field and will not recover from this wound. What happens again at that part is, both sides…this is the bloody lane, the sunken road area, both sides will kind of fight themselves to exhaustion.
And then we move to the last phase of the battle.
SCOTT POHL:And we’re led here by another Michigander, Orlando Willcox.
GEN. WILLCOX LEADS THE THIRD PHASE
ROSENTRETER:Orlando Willcox is a division commander. He’s a native Detroiter, and he’s a West Point graduate as well. He’d gone off to war with the First Michigan Infantry, so he leads our first troops off to the Civil War. He saw a fair amount of action in the first battle, that’s the battle of Bull Run. There, he was wounded, captured, and later awarded the Medal of Honor. He’s released just prior to the battle of Antietam, comes back, and he’s going to lead his division at a place that is called the famed Burnside Bridge. His boss is Ambrose Burnside, and Willcox will lead his division across that bridge, but they had been delayed by stubborn rebels and a fairly unimaginative boss in Burnside.
What’s important there is had they had a little more success, they might very well have been able to rout an exhausted rebel army by the end of that day. But nightfall comes, Confederate reinforcements arrive, and the battle kind of just ends after a long and very bloody day.
While general Richardson was wounded and died, generals Williams and Willcox continued to serve through the remainder of the war. Williams and Willcox were also prolific writers, with notable memoirs published after the Civil War.