Confederacy’s Counteroffensives at Antietam and Perryville


By Gary W. Gallagher, University of Virginia

There were a round of Confederate counteroffensives in the very late summer and autumn of 1862, in stark contrast to the situation when United States’ forces were gaining tremendous success in Tennessee, and George B. McClellan was approaching Richmond with his Army of the Potomac. All seemed so propitious for the United States in early June of 1862 that people thought that the war might end soon.

Soldiers on Battlefield of Antietam
The battle of Antietam was not really a glorious victory for the Union. (Image: Everett Collection/Shutterstock)

Robert E. Lee’s Plans in the East

The situation was very different in the eastern theater, where Robert E. Lee invaded Maryland in September. Lee had a number of goals in the wake of the battle of Second Manassas.

He wanted to provision his army in Maryland and perhaps in Pennsylvania, get it out of war-torn Virginia, and pool supplies from the countryside in Maryland and Pennsylvania. He hoped to affect the northern political situation. The northern off-year elections were coming up in November of 1862, and Lee thought that his army in the North would help the Democrats, and would hurt the Republicans. He thought that Marylanders might rally to the Confederate standard.

Confederacy’s Kentucky Campaign

Confederates thought that most Marylanders and Kentuckians really favored them, and Lee thought that by taking his army into Maryland, he would allow Marylanders to flock to the Confederate colors. Another triumph on the part of Lee and his Army of Northern Virginia might convince leaders in London and Paris that it was time to try to help the Confederacy out.

The campaign got going. In the first week in September, Lee moved across the Potomac River and on deeper into western Maryland. Part of his army under Stonewall Jackson moved over and captured a federal garrison of 12,000 soldiers at Harpers Ferry, making it the largest surrender of United States soldiers until the fall of the Philippines during the early stages of World War II.

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Battle of Sharpsburg or Antietam

George B. McClellan was the Union commander put back in charge by Lincoln, in order to try to pull an army together to deal with whatever Lee might do. McClellan had the good fortune of capturing a copy of Lee’s entire strategic blueprint in the campaign, but he still didn’t move very quickly.

Portrait of General McClellan
George McClellan led the Union army at the battle of Antietam. (Image: Everett Collection/Shutterstock)

The result was that Lee had time to reunite the part of his army under Jackson at Harpers Ferry with the main army, and the two—Lee and McClellan—clashed in western Maryland in the battle of Sharpsburg, or Antietam, on September 17, 1862.

Why Was the Battle of Antietam Important?

It proved to be the bloodiest day in all of United States history, an epic battle with enormous swings of momentum that—at the close of fighting—saw a landscape littered with more than 23,000 casualties.

Lee remained on the battlefield the next day and then retreated back into Virginia. He did so without having accomplished much of what he wanted to accomplish, but it wasn’t seen as a great victory on the part of most in the North.

McClellan had about 80,000 men on the battlefield at Antietam; Lee only about 35,000. His army had suffered enormous losses through desertion and straggling as it marched north, and there had been many casualties in the campaigns earlier that summer.

There was a tremendous lost opportunity for the United States at Antietam.

Confederacy’s Counteroffensive in the West

Out West, the Confederates were also mounting an offensive, this one under Braxton Bragg, which moved through Tennessee into Kentucky, in September and October of 1862. Bragg also hoped to improve his logistical situation, and gather supplies while he was north of Tennessee in Kentucky.

He thought that Kentuckians would rally to his standard. Bragg also hoped to regain a lot of the ground lost in the very early campaigning in Tennessee, when Ulysses S. Grant had had so much success.

Battle of Perryville

Braxton Bragg also had a political motive. He took time while he was in Kentucky to install a Confederate governor of Kentucky in Frankfurt. Bragg’s campaign came to a climax in the battle of Perryville on October 8, 1862. It pitted a portion of Bragg’s army against a portion of a Union army commanded by an officer named Don Carlos Buell.

It was a battle that was really a tactical stalemate, much as the battle of Antietam was. But, it was not nearly as bloody a battle as Antietam, with fewer than 10,000 casualties altogether. At the end of the battle of Perryville, Braxton Bragg decided to retreat from Kentucky, making it very much like Antietam in that regard. Bragg went north; he stayed north for a while on United States soil in Kentucky, and then he withdrew into middle Tennessee—withdrew to a position south of Nashville.

It was the last time that a major Confederate army would pose a threat to Kentucky. Like McClellan in the East, Don Carlos Buell did not try to follow up his victory against Braxton Bragg. He simply allowed Braxton Bragg to withdraw.

Why the Battles of Antietam and Perryville Important?

These two Confederate strikes in the United States territory are militarily significant, as they favored the Union, the Confederates having retreated in both instances. They moved forward and then they fell back. However, the fact that neither McClellan nor Buell tried to exploit his success limits the degree to which these can be reckoned true United States military victories.

There could have been much, much more damage dealt to the Confederates, and not only Lincoln realized this, but many others in the North, and many in the Confederacy as well, didn’t view these battles as disastrous, because their armies were simply allowed to withdraw.

Common Questions about the Battles of Antietam and Perryville

Q: What was the outcome of Robert E. Lee’s Kentucky campaign?

During Lee’s Kentucky campaign, part of his army under Stonewall Jackson moved over and captured a federal garrison of 12,000 soldiers at Harpers Ferry.

Q: When was the battle of Antietam fought?

Robert E. Lee and George B. McClellan clashed in western Maryland in the battle of Sharpsburg, or Antietam, on September 17, 1862.

Q: Who commanded the Union army in the battle of Perryville?

Don Carlos Buell commanded the Union army in the battle of Perryville against the Confederate Braxton Bragg’s army.

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