[Excerpt from my essay, Antietam. Images printed (at last) in 2013.]
Earlier that year, the Union army had been camped within earshot of the Confederate capitol of Richmond, Virginia. Union victory seemed assured. By the Fall, in a stunning reversal, Lee had chased the Union forces all the way back to Washington, DC. Again Lincoln felt assured, but only of the defeat of his party in the upcoming mid-term congressional elections. He talked of ending the war after the election but before the more pro-southern opposition party took office in order to negotiate better terms for the North.
Lee and Jefferson Davis, the President of the Confederate States, had high hopes for Lee’s invasion of northern territory. It would, above all, give the final assurances to England and France that the Northern cause was hopeless and that the only option to avoid a long, pointless, costly, and trade-disrupting war was a settlement separating the two nations and preserving the peculiar institution of slavery in the South. Attack into the north, hit a major trading center like Harrisburg, Pennsylvania or Baltimore, demoralize the North even further and then sue for peace. It probably would have worked.
But, uncharacteristically, the Union army moved on Lee from Washington. George B. McClellan, the leader of the Northern armies, was known to excel in preparing soldiers for battle but lacked a will to actually fight. So the timely movement of his forces was something of a surprise. Lee’s main army was in Frederick, Maryland when McClellan suddenly advanced, but important parts of the Confederate force were scattered at the time, partly in an attack on the Union garrison in the rear at Harper’s Ferry, West Virginia.
So it was that day in mid-September, 1862, Lee’s troops took a stand with their backs to the Antietam Creek, hoping for yet another victory against their larger Union opponent. Hoping to complete their march northward for all the world to see.