It's a question I get asked a lot at Antietam. "So, no one really won this battle?" It's no surprise that this question is asked frequently. After all, it is the common interpretation of the battle: Somehow, with an army half that as his opponent, General Lee was able to fight McClellan to a bloody stalemate...a Tactical Standstill. Even our 26-minute movie, Lincoln's Antietam Visit, makes it clear that the battle was a tactical stalemate, but a strategic Union victory. This view is backed up the majority of the time with the claim that Lee held his position throughout September 18, 1862, the day following the battle.
Well, let's take a look at the basics of the campaign: Lee launches an invasion onto U.S. soil. His invasion is checked and ultimately turned back at Antietam, where he loses 1/4, or 25% of his troops. After holding his line the following day, Lee reluctantly recrosses the Potomac and heads south, back into Virginia. His campaign, his invasion, lasted just two weeks and his objectives for the campaign were simply not met. President Lincoln is glad to hear of the victory but is frustrated by the fact that his commander, George McClellan, did not pursue Lee, allowing the Army of Northern Virginia to get safely back to Virginia.
This was September 1862. Let's fast forward to June and July 1863: Lee launches an invasion onto U.S. soil. His invasion is checked and ultimately turned back at Gettysburg, where he loses 1/4, or 25% of his troops. After holding his line the day following the battle, Lee reluctantly leads his army south, recrosses the Potomac back into Virginia. His invasion this time lasted six weeks, but again his objectives for the campaign were not met. President Lincoln is glad to hear of the victory, but is frustrated by the fact that his commander, this time George Meade, did not pursue Lee, allowing the Army of Northern Virginia to get safely back to Virginia.
That Gettysburg was a resounding Union victory is seldom denied. But to state that Antietam was a resounding Union victory raises many an eyebrow.
What I am trying to say is that if Antietam is viewed as a tactical draw, but a strategic Union victory, then so too was Gettysburg. Conversely, if Gettysburg was a resounding Union victory, then so too was Antietam.
It's a funny thing. . .how the American Civil War is remembered.
It is my job to remain objective when viewing the events of the past, and, believe me, although I am employed as a Ranger at the Antietam battlefield, I am not biased one way or the other when I say that Antietam was a far, far more significant victory to the U.S. war effort than was Gettysburg. The social, political, and diplomatic consequences of the battle of Antietam, all neatly tied together with President Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation, profoundly changed the nature of the Civil War and averted foreign intervention. For my money, it was not at Gettysburg where the United States of America received its "new birth of freedom." It was, instead, at Antietam.