The Bloodiest Day

Dead soldiers litter the ground in front of the Dunker Church on the Antietam battlefield.

I’m writing this on the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Antietam, now (and hopefully forever) the record holder as America’s bloodiest day. The casualties on September 17, 1862, were staggering. The Union had lost 2,100 dead, 9,550 wounded and 750 missing, for a total of 12,400. Confederate losses were 1,550 dead, 7,750 wounded and 1,020 missing, for a total of 10,320. The field of battle looked like a landscape from hell, with shattered guns, abandoned equipment, severed limbs and dead bodies scattered about in heaps. One soldier recalled passing a spot where a soldier had lost a leg. “It was laying there with shoe and stocking on the foot, the bloody and ragged end of the thigh showing the terrible force of the missile,” he wrote.

Meade was at Antietam, of course. In fact, by the battle’s end he had taken over command of the I Corps. One soldier who observed Meade during the battle wrote, “General Meade, who succeeded to the command of our corps after General Hooker was wounded, rode up to the crest where we were stationed, and reconnoitred the position of the enemy’s batteries as coolly as if at a review. Already decorated with a bullet-hole in his cap as a trophy of today’s battle, his almost nonchalant manner, and the quiet way in which, amid the tornado of rebel wrath, he gave his orders to make ready for the storm, greatly impressed me.”

A marker on the Antietam battlefield.

Still, there’s not much about Meade on the battlefield today. At the start of the battle he was only a division commander and even though he was in command of the I Corps by the fighting’s end it was only a temporary assignment. It looked good on his resume, though. Meade continued to prove himself as a steady presence and a fighter.

In the book I include one eyewitness account from a soldier who watched Meade in action. He was a little less calm and collected here. Frank Holsinger was at Antietam with the 8th Pennsylvania Reserves and years later he recalled watching one of his comrades trying to hide behind a tree. “Get that man in the ranks!” Meade ordered a sergeant. Still the man refused. Holsinger watched as Meade pulled out his sword. “I’ll move him!” he cried and struck at the cowering soldier, who fell to the ground. “[W]ho he was I do not know,” Holsinger wrote. “The general has no time to tarry or make inquiries. A lesson to those witnessing the scene. . . . I felt at the time the action was cruel and needless on the part of the general. I changed my mind when I became an officer, when with sword and pistol drawn to enforce discipline by keeping my men in place when going into the conflict.” As another soldier recalled after the Battle of Fredericksburg, “Meade is a rough customer when under fire.”

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