On September 17, we mark the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Antietam (1862), fought in Maryland near Sharpsburg and Antietam Creek between the armies of the Union Major General George B. McClellan and Confederate General Robert E. Lee. With over 23,000 casualties, the Battle of Antietam is still considered the bloodiest single-day battle in American history. It was also the first American battlefield photographed before those casualties were buried.
Found in the papers of George B. McClellan, Jr. (Class of 1886), a Princeton professor and one-time mayor of New York City, are some papers of his father, General George B. McClellan (1826–1885). Photographs comprise the bulk of these papers, including several dozen photos of the Battle of Antietam, many of which depict dead soldiers on the field or the makeshift tents and straw huts housing the wounded. Antietam was the only battle that McClellan fought from beginning to end, and it produced mixed results for him. Despite being a tactical draw—neither force was able to decimate the other, though General Lee retreated back into Virginia—Antietam was considered a turning point of the war for the North, ending Lee’s first attempt to enter Union territory and giving President Abraham Lincoln the confidence to announce a preliminary Emancipation Proclamation on September 22, 1862. Nevertheless, disappointed with McClellan’s failure to destroy Lee’s army, Lincoln removed him from command on November 5, 1862.
The photographs in McClellan’s papers were taken by Alexander Gardner, staff photographer to McClellan and, later, to other Union generals. As photography became more widely available in the 1830s and 1840s, war photography was encouraged in hopes that it would provide a record of historical events, beginning with daguerreotypes documenting the Mexican-American War in 1847. At the time of the Battle of Antietam, Gardner was working for photographer Mathew Brady, whose studio markings are on the back of the photographs; he would leave Brady’s studio shortly thereafter. Gardner’s photographs of Antietam and the Civil War, which were displayed in Brady’s New York gallery, sold as prints, and published as woodcut engravings in newspapers throughout the country, shocked their viewers, many of whom saw these devastating scenes of war for the first time.
Selections from these photographs will be on display in an upcoming exhibition of American history in Firestone’s Main Gallery in Spring 2013. McClellan’s papers are among more than a hundred collections in the Manuscripts Division that relate in whole or part to the Civil War. Other collections include the Civil War Letters of Adam Badeau, John S. Copley Civil War Letters, Roswell Lamson Papers, and American Civil War Collection. Bound manuscripts relating to the Civil War, including diaries, letter books, order books, and drafts of memoirs and histories of the war, can also be found in General Manuscripts collections C0199 and C0938, accessible through the Main Catalog. These are complemented by holdings of other divisions and collections of the Department of Rare Books and Special Collections, as well as the Scheide Library.
Click on each image to see larger photo. Not to be reproduced without permission of the Princeton University Library: