A Day at Antietam

Jun 17, 2021 by Jason Baker

I don’t blog very often, especially with the ability to offer thoughts and stories on Twitter and Facebook, but on Wednesday I did a staff ride at Antietam Battlefield and knew I’d want to offer some thoughts.

Staff rides were a concept developed by the army designed to include pre-study, a visit to the site itself, and then an after-action integration of lessons learned. In fact, the army built an observation tower at Antietam in 1896 to give members the ability to see the whole battlefield. Over the years, all the branches of service have used staff rides to learn about the history of the U.S. military, but mainly, to put yourselves in the shoes of leaders making tough life or death decisions.

When I first found out I was going, I envisioned a grand blog post detailing the lead up to the battle, sprinkle little known historical facts throughout it, fill it with citations, and make grand statements about the leadership lessons I learned.

I even had a brilliant line in mind about how our bus was a little late leaving Washington D.C. and we were behind schedule to Maryland…but that was ok because we were just being historically accurate. (My apologies if you are one of the handful of General McClellan supporters reading this.)

But I forgot all that after spending the day there. If a battlefield like Gettysburg wows you with its overwhelming scale, and never-ending monuments to the great American battle, Antietam grabs you by the collar, points you towards the field and demands that you look…demands that you take notice of how awful the American Civil War was.

Oh to be sure, the Army of the Potomac stopping Lee’s first invasion of the North was very important. There was courage and bravery on full display, with many tactical lessons learned. The rebel momentum of the summer of 1862 was halted and Lincoln had the strategic victory he needed to give the Emancipation Proclamation and give new meaning to the freedom that a preservation of the Union would have.

But it was also the bloodiest day in United States military history—not by hyperbole—but by the numbers. 7,650 American citizens were killed in roughly 12 hours of fighting—over 5,000 more than D-Day. 2,108 U.S. Army soldiers lost their lives, with 3,281 deaths on the Confederate side. At the end of the battle, 22,217 men were dead, wounded or missing; split almost evenly between the two sides.

I had been to the battlefield once previously, albeit a quick trip with a year and a half old—so you can imagine how that went. Walking the ground and standing where offensives began or defenses positions were is something I will never forget. The constantly rolling and sloping terrain of Antietam is something you have to see with your own eyes. Cannon are visible one moment and completely disappear walking 50 to 100 yards. Time after time I envisioned watching an advancing line that must have looked like a teeter-totter—one side or the other periodically disappearing from view.

Aim for the Dunker Church? I can’t see it anymore.

Bayonets reflecting in the sun, just above tall September corn.

Enter on the left or right of a brigade? Where are they?

The Confederate center? All I see is a rolling farm field.

Take the bridge? Where will it be when we emerge from the woods?

All of it during the relentless, never ending, deafening artillery fire on the various pieces of high ground throughout the field. 500 pieces attacking each other, and the infantry, from sunup until the battle closed at sun-down. Rifle fire you couldn’t see from high ground, ground below you and ripping apart corn stalks.

I could better envision all of it, more than I almost cared to. This was most notable when walking—climbing—the route of attack taken by Union soldiers against the Confederate center in a sunken farm lane. They wouldn’t have seen each other until U.S. soldiers were almost, literally, right on top of the rebel defenders in their natural made trench. The brutal initial volleys only outdone by U.S. soldiers realizing the right flank of the lane was in the air, and bringing in a devastating attack that led to the famous photographs and the horrifically descriptive moniker Bloody Lane.

If you are a leader in the military, or honestly in any capacity, the learning points are never ending. Do you know the ground? The situation? Where your enemy is? What obstacles will you face, how will you communicate and adapt? Does the man or woman below you, and below them, know your job? Are your people taken care of? What shortfalls do they have, and how will you compensate? What shortfalls do you have? What’s plan A, B, C…D?

Even if you are not a leader, there is no replacement for walking the ground. Every book I’ve read about Antietam makes a lot more sense, and the myriad of decisions I’ve analyzed are now done in a different light.

And without question, and for me above all, you update what you think about our Civil War. One can not visit Antietam and not think about what led to it, what happened there that day, and came of it afterwards. In my own humble opinion, it was the most important battle of the war even though the fighting would continue for another 2.5 years. Momentum that might have led to Confederate recognition by the Europeans was reversed, huge lessons were learned by the U.S. military, leadership changes were set in motion, and of course—a new direction was given to the war.

If you are interested in reading all about Antietam, my favorite two books are Landscape Turned Red: The Battle of Antietam, by Stephen Sears; and The Crossroads of Freedom: Antietam: The Battle that Changed the Course of the Civil War, by James McPherson.

Since you’re reading this blog post, it’s also as good a time as any to share that my book now has a title: Chicago to Appomattox: The 39th Illinois Infantry in the Civil War. Things still seem on track for a fall release, pending the completion of editing, and my approval of proofs and creating the index. Details are on the website, and if you want to be notified of a release date and any promotions, sign up here!

While the 39th didn’t fight at Antietam—they were split off from the Army of the Potomac when McClellan was ordered off the Peninsula just prior to the battle—the rest of their war experience would very much be shaped by what happened there. They saw more and more enslaved people escape to their lines, and soon found themselves near Charleston where they would witness one of the most dramatic instances of Black soldiers fighting for the Union.

Thanks for reading.

With my regards,



As always, the thoughts and opinions expressed in my writing are wholly mine in my personal capacity, and do not reflect those of the U.S. Department of Defense or the Air Force.