Antietam National Battlefield: A Leadership Perspective

I had the extraordinary opportunity to tour Antietam National Battlefield Park from a leadership perspective. We examined the different leadership styles of the generals and how that impacted the outcome of that particular battle.

Known as the bloodiest day in American history, the Battle of Antietam occurred on September 17, 1862. Historians believe the battle was a pivotal moment in the American Civil War. Of course, the Battle of Antietam ended the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia’s first invasion into the North. And afterward, U.S. President Abraham Lincoln issued the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation.

But did you know that the Battle of Antietam also introduced significant medical innovations? And photographers who descended on the battlefield after the fighting ended inadvertently invented photo journalism?

In the peace of an early spring afternoon, it’s hard to imagine the scene. The fighting killed, wounded or blew to bits more than 23 thousand soldiers after 12 hours of savage combat. But try to imagine the carnage. And as you explore the progress of the battle, consider the different leadership styles and how these inevitably led to the scene on the battlefield. U.S. Maj. Gen George B. McClellan’s more formal, incredibly organized but distant approach. His dependency on flawed intelligence. Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee’s hands on leadership and his ability to garner accurate intelligence not just from his own monitoring of the battle, but also from key individuals.

The generals’ personalities, their character flaws and genius all played a part in the battle’s outcome. Their leadership styles provide a glimpse into the WHY behind what they did or didn’t do as the battle unfolded. Understanding the generals’ leadership styles help us understand the battle’s outcome.

The Role of Intelligence

The intelligence McClellan and Lee had access to, and how they received, processed and reacted to the battle diverged significantly. Lee sought real time intelligence, often riding onto or close to the field of battle. Since he’d recently been injured and couldn’t “steer” his horse himself, especially challenging because he needed another horse rider guide his horse for him. McClellan, in contrast, surveyed the battle from a bluff at Pry House. He depended on messengers from the battlefield to provide information and deliver orders. U.S. signal stations such as the one atop Washington Monument on South Mountain sent situation reports south to Washington DC.

And the contrast couldn’t have been greater between Lee and McClellan regarding their knowledge of their adversary’s strength. Lee depended on J.E.B. Stuart and his cavalry to accurate probe and report on the location and strength of U.S. troops — a strength during Antietam but ironically, a weakness a year later in Gettysburg. McClellan depended on Pinkerton’s inflated reports of the southern army strength.

A Controversial Leader

McClellan, in fact, was a controversial leader. Even during the Civil War, bad press plagued his reputation. But nevertheless, his Army loved him. Why? Because he was organized and they could count on him to take care of them. McClellan genuinely cared about his troops. But his tendency to believe those inflated reports of the enemy’s strength was an intelligence fail that negatively impacted his decisions. No amount of his organizational genius could overcome that weakness.

McClellan also was a bit of a jerk to Lincoln — he didn’t respect Lincoln and it showed. Lincoln, on the other hand, deliberately overlooked McClellan’s insubordination because McClellan was the general Lincoln needed to get the Arm of the Potomac into shape. The U.S. army was in shambles after the First Battle of Bull Run and then again after a particularly bad run of poor leadership by U.S. Gen. John Pope.

An Innovating General

Despite being a controversial jerk, McClellan was a genius organizer. Thus, he charged Dr. John Letterman to organize and prepare for the immediate aftermath of the battle. And that’s why Letterman, in the few days before the battle and working from McClellan’s headquarters, established post-battle triage stations to care for the wounded — a first. Letterman also established more substantial temporary hospitals in nearby houses and barns, including the barn at Pry House, the very beginnings of the military medical system.

Leadership Lessons

There are so many leadership lessons we can derive from the events during the Battle of Antietam.

Pick the right person for the job, and not just someone you like. Despite all his failings, McClellan was a master organizer, and initially, that’s what Lincoln needed for his army.

Organization is key. Don’t let phantoms derail your plans. Take care of your people. From McClellan we learned to not let phantom Confederates derail your plans, but also to take care of the people who get the job done. Also, from McClellan, get properly organized so you can complete the mission.

Consider your audience, prepare for the unexpected. Lee taught us to know your opponents — he understood McClellan and his over-cautious approach. Also from Lee, we learn to take advantage of the terrain, and most especially, to understand the problem before there’s actually a problem.

See someone who needs help? Step up. U.S. Gen. Edwin Voss Sumner risked the lives of his troops to cover the flank of another general. His actions, just in the nick of time, helped the U.S. If you see something that needs doing, then go do it.

Do the job you’re assigned with pride and courage. I was particularly struck by one monument, near Burnside Bridge. Future POTUS William McKinley was courageous and timely when he was on the battlefield as a humble sergeant in charge of feeding his troops. Near the end of the battle, McKinley saw that his troops were pinned down and hungry. Under fire, he fed them. From McKinley we learn the importance of doing the job you’re assigned with pride and courage.

Know Before You Go

If you go to Antietam National Battlefield Park, then also try to stop by Pry House, now run as part of the Civil War Medicine Museum. Pry House was the site of McClellan’s headquarters during the battle. We also visited key locations of the battle, including the Cornfield, the West Woods, the Sunken Road and of course, Burnside Bridge.

When you go explore the Antietam Battlefield, prepare for the weather. Bring water, bug spray, hats, wear appropriate shoes and clothing if you plan to hike around the battlefield (recommended).

Getting there: 5831 Dunker Church Road, Sharpsburg, MD 21782
Hours: The Visitor Center is open daily from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.; park grounds are open during daylight.  Closed Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Years Day.
Website: national battlefield park

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