From His Eloquent Address, Lincoln Forges a Nation

Gettysburg Address

The Hay copy of the Gettsyburg Address

Today is the 150th anniversary of the Gettysburg Address.  Tens of thousands of words have been written analyzing these 272 words from every perspective – contents, language, style, form, historical impact, you name it.  I’d like to share three observations about the address as well as its present-day relevance.

Abraham Lincoln chose to ground his address not in the Constitution which codified the original sin of slavery in its content but in the Declaration of Independence with its promise of equality for all.  “Four score and seven years ago” sets us firmly in 1776 and ties the battle at Gettysburg to the armed conflict of the Revolution.  It speaks to the earlier, more philosophical document as the source of the American proposition, not the flawed and compromised Constitution.

Interestingly, Lincoln does not argue that the great cause of the Civil War is the continued union of the states.    Rather, he takes the existence of a “nation”, not just a union of states, as a given.  Up until that point in history, the United States had been perceived as primarily a union of individual entities without a specific national identity.  The common phraseology of the day was “the United States are”. But Lincoln refuses that characterization and presents the United States as a nation, a single entity. He uses the word nation five times, reinforcing the concept of wholeness and unity as envisioned by the Founding Fathers.  We were conceived as a nation.  It is not to be debated or disputed.  And, following the war, the common usage becomes “the United States is”.

In the final sentence (and there are only 10 sentences in the entire address), Lincoln affirms clearly and unequivocally the great cause of the Civil War, to grant a “new birth of freedom” to a unified nation.  While Lincoln soft-pedaled emancipation as a cause of war at the beginning of the conflict for political reasons and even stepped back from full emancipation in the Emancipation Proclamation (freeing slaves only in those states in rebellion), here he gives full voice to the ultimate cause and purpose of the War.  We need to be “dedicated to the great task remaining before us . . . that this nation . . . shall have a new birth of freedom.”  There it is.  He’s talking about freedom from the horrors and tyranny of slavery.  That is the task remaining before us and the cause for which those at Gettysburg died.  More broadly, I read this as an affirmation that it is a cause worth dying for because it is bigger than any individual.  It is a sacrifice in the service of proving that a government built on freedom for all can endure.

Gettysburg dead

The cemetery at Gettysburg

And how is all that relevant today?  After all, it’s been 150 years.  The Civil War is long over. But is it?

I would suggest on this 150th anniversary that the great cause of the Civil War is one we still must fight for on a daily basis – the new birth of freedom for all of us – because daily we are bombarded by attempts to take away that freedom:  denial of voting access particularly to the poor, elderly and minority populations; denial of choice in basic women’s health care to women in this country, especially the poor; corporate oppression in the form of low wages and insufficient benefits, restricting upward mobility; the control of the 1% over our elections and our elected officials; the very real slavery of human trafficking even in the United States; the invasion of our privacy by out-of-control government agencies.  Every day in dozens of ways, we risk losing a piece of our birthright of freedom. And every day we have the opportunity to fight for freedom, oftentimes not for ourselves but for others who have smaller or weaker voices.  It may not cost us our lives but it does require our sacrifice – our time, talent or treasure.

On this significant anniversary I urge all Americans to take the time to re-read the Gettysburg Address and to “take increased devotion” to the cause of a new birth of freedom for all Americans.

The original text of the Address appears below:

Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate — we can not consecrate — we can not hallow — this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us — that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion — that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain — that this nation, [under God*], shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

*Two of the five copies of the Gettysburg Address in Lincoln’s handdo not include the words “under God”.



The last two weeks have seen a remarkable conjunction of events of historical significance, culminating today, the 237th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence.  With the Supreme Court decisions coming thick and fast, followed by Wendy Davis’s filibuster in the Texas legislature, the 150th commemorations of the battle of Gettysburg and the fall of Vicksburg and now Independence Day, it seemed appropriate to step back and see how all these disparate events intertwine and what they say about us as a people.

Marriage Equality Supreme CourtAt first blush, the Supreme Court rulings against DOMA and Prop 8 seemed like a tremendous victory.  And for those who live in California and the 12 other states and the District of Columbia who enjoy marriage equality, it was.  What about the other 67% of the country’s population? If DOMA was discriminatory, why is it still okay for those other 37 states to continue to discriminate?  If LGBT people are equal to heterosexual people in California today, why should LGBT people in Pennsylvania wait 3, 5, 10 years to become equal?

We’ve seen this movie before.  We tried the same nonsense with women’s suffrage.  Women got the vote in the Wyoming Territory in 1869.  Between then and 1920, when the 19th Amendment became law, 11 more states gave women the right to vote.  Even if you discount Wyoming as a territory at the time of its action, the first state to institute women’s suffrage was Colorado in 1893. If women were equal to men in Colorado in 1893, why weren’t they equal in all 48 states until 1920?

Why? Because we just can’t seem to grasp the full implication of “we hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.”  Now before you go all strict constructionist, I fully understand that, despite all of his Enlightenment principles, it probably didn’t occur to Thomas Jefferson that “men” would be construed to include anything but white men at the time he wrote the Declaration.  But Jefferson’s view of the future was far more inclusive.  He proposed the abolition of slavery in the original Declaration.  And from his own words on his memorial in Washington, “laws and institutions must go hand in hand with the progress of the human mind. As that becomes more developed, more enlightened, as new discoveries are made, new truths disclosed, and manner and opinions change with the change of circumstances, institutions must advance also, and keep pace with the times.”

Gettysburg deadAnd so we come to the commemorations at Gettysburg and Vicksburg. Having dropped the ball on slavery at the time of the Revolution, our Founding Fathers left us with the giant blot of slavery to be erased.  Based on new historical scholarship, almost 750,000 people were killed, wounded or went missing in the conflict to end slavery and save the Union.  And yes, there was all that persiflage about states’ rights and tariffs, but the Southern states themselves explicitly stated they were fighting to retain slavery.  Neither the whole bloody slaughter of the Civil War, nor the Emancipation Proclamation, nor the 13th, 14th, 15th or even 24th Amendment could manage to bring equality to the African-American.  Neither did the Voting Rights Act of 1965, but it made significant progress in the direction of enfranchisement.  Yet just last week, the Supreme Court decided that while equality is still elusive, we’ve made enough progress – for now.  And predictably, many of those same states that had been under the watch of the Voting Rights Act, introduced legislation to resurrect barriers to voting, albeit under the guise of preventing “voter fraud”.

Two steps forward, one step back.

Similarly, women face the same types of attack.  Once proclaimed equal by the 19th Amendment, we now face an onslaught of laws designed to wrest control of our own bodies from us and put it back under the control of the State.  And so we need the strength and commitment of people like Wendy Davis and the packed galleries of the Texas legislature to stand up and say, “Enough!”  Over and over again until we get it right.

The underlying problem is that the United States of America is as much an idea as a nation.  The millions who have immigrated here since the country’s creation in 1776, have, by and large, seen a principle that welcomed them.  All men are created equal, endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights.  We the people, each and every one of us, distinct and whole in his or her own right, do ordain and establish this Constitution.  Not some subset, not some aristocracy, not an oligarchy.  We the people, created equal.

But it’s an idea that evolves and grows.  And along the way it creates change.  Change is a very scary concept to many people and so the ugly, mean-spirited side of “we the people” shows its face in the need to control, in the lust for power, in the fear of “the other” and “the new”.  But the evolution of the idea never stops.  It incorporates “the new” and “the other”.  It fights back against the ugly and the mean-spirited.  The idea can’t be allowed to die.

Every July 4th, we gather around the symbolic communal fire and repeat the words and recite the principles.  And every July 4th, just like Bill Murray trapped in Punxsutawney, we still don’t have it right.  So we have to look at how far we’ve come, share what we’ve learned since last year, and see how far we have to go. We recommit to keeping the idea alive and growing.

Happy Independence Day!  See you next year.4th of July

For more on the subject of the U.S. as an idea more than a nation, the introductory portion of this short film speaks far more eloquently than I could.  It’s followed by a dramatic reading of the Declaration of Independence by a number of well-known actors.  And, yes, that is Mel Gibson immediately following Morgan Freeman. It was made in 2002 before we knew what we know today.  








Yeah, We Saw Your Boobs. So What.

I honestly believe there were two completely different Academy Awards programs telecast on ABC on Sunday, February 24.  That’s the only way I can explain the enormously divergent opinions that have popped up in the blogosphere today.  To be blunt, I think one show was streamed to people who are intelligent, knowledgeable, self-confident and culturally tuned in and a second one that was streamed to people who are as dull as a stump with a poor sense of self, a minimal sense of humor and absolutely no sense of irony.

It’s similar to my concerns about The Colbert Report.  I think it’s a riot but I’m quite convinced that there are people out there who truly believe that Stephen Colbert is an avowed ultra-right-wing conservative and take every word he says at face value.  Apparently a large number of this second group also watched the Oscars and wrote about them today.

I find it interesting that women from both sides of the political spectrum (see Amy Davidson in The New Yorker and Jennifer Rubin in the Washington Post seem to be able to drain all the joy out of what is, to be perfectly honest, a ridiculously silly entertainment event where wildly overpaid and excessively attractive people congratulate themselves for spending ridiculous sums of money that only occasionally produce something that approaches the definition of art.  They make entertainment and they are entertainment.   It’s as simple as that.

But apparently last night there was a deeper, darker, more political agenda at work.  It was, depending on who you read last, sexist, racist, misogynist, obscene, demeaning, humiliating, inappropriately political, hostile, ugly, crude, blah, blah, blah, blah.  Okay, I’ll give you crude, but otherwise I call “Bullshit!”  First, let’s get my credentials out of the way.  I’m a 59-year-old, card-carrying feminist who actually belonged to what were called conscious-raising groups back in the mid-70s (ask your mother what those were).  I encountered and challenged rampant sexism and misogyny in the workplace, in the church, in the community, even in the family.  I know sexism and misogyny when I see it and it wasn’t there last night, certainly not in the hysteria-producing quantities these writers would have you believe.  And these younger writers who have partaken of all the benefits that my generation won for them are not helping our cause or theirs by blowing this all out of proportion.

Let’s take the most obvious example:  “We Saw Your Boobs”.  It was funny; it was just downright funny.  But let’s parse it even deeper to see what we can find.  On the surface, the lyrics were accurate.  We have seen all those actresses’ boobs.  In fact, a measure of how far we’ve come is that they were even allowed to use the word boobs at all on network television.  Trust me, that’s a fairly new development. TV has been so sanitized for so long that even the word “breasts” was considered titillating three decades ago. So now women’s body parts can be not only described but described in the same slang terms as men’s body parts. I don’t see the problem there. If we can say “cock”, we can say “boobs”.

So, the song made true statements in an amusing fashion. Let’s peel another layer from the onion (and don’t worry, I’ll get to The Onion later). Most of those actresses knew before they took the role that it included nudity. I doubt a single one of them was surprised. So they made a deliberate choice to accept that role with that condition. Perhaps they thought it was necessary to the telling of the story. Perhaps they thought it would increase the box office and their earnings from the film. Perhaps they thought it was less important than the fact that they got the part. I don’t know and I don’t care. What I do know is that they chose to do it. Isn’t that their right as women? So why are we offended that someone noticed? I’m pretty sure I’ve seen Jack Nicholson’s dick along with a few others over the years. And that entire, rather unsettling nude scene in “The Master”? I lost count on that one. Should the actors get all huffy if they sing a song about “I Saw Your Cock”?

One more layer – the song was written and sung with a somewhat leering, sly, pubescent school-boy tone. Who does that reflect badly on? The women, who were doing, in many cases, an excellent job of acting, or the men who can’t see anything but a pair of mammary glands? If I were an emotionally stable, mature, intelligent man, I’d take umbrage at the implication that that’s all men can see.

But wait, there’s more (as they say). It was then revealed that the men singing this song were gay. That implies that the erotic fascination of boobs is basically irrelevant. And so we come full circle to the song being nothing more than a statement of fact. We saw your boobs. But the layers upon layers of innuendo and implication make the entire project fairly sophisticated and interesting. In fact, it’s even more layered and nuanced than if a chorus of women had sung the song. And clearly it was designed to provoke and entertain. But, hey, you hired Seth MacFarlane. What did you expect?

Let’s look at the Rihanna/Chris Brown joke. “Django Unchained” is a date movie for them. Pretty much spot on. Here’s a woman who has suffered physical abuse at the hands of a man whom she has left and has now returned to, apparently. On the surface, that seems like a woman making a colossally dumb life choice, in public, for all of us to see. And we’re not supposed to notice or comment? If she were your best friend, would you encourage her in this relationship? Would you suggest she was a good role model for your 14-year-old daughter? Probably not. But the implication from Ms. Davidson is that we need to be supportive and just keep our mouths shut. I hate to tell her, but that’s really how more women die. Because we don’t call out the bad behavior. Because they’re celebrities, we can’t mention it or it doesn’t count. I don’t think so.

Same thing with the joke about Mel Gibson’s old voicemails being the basis of “Django Unchained”. Mel Gibson is a racist. He has been heard to utter the N-word in public in multiple instances. Does ignoring it make it acceptable? His behavior over the years has been despicable. MacFarlane was right to add, “Oh, so now you’re on his side” when the audience reacted negatively to the joke. But of course the female writers didn’t mention that because he’s a man and it’s okay to take pot shots at him.

Here’s the point. Equality means just that, equality. If it’s okay to take shots at men, it’s okay to take shots at women. You can’t demand equality and still expect to be kept on a pedestal. You can’t demand respect as an actress, then show up for an awards ceremony in a gown that reveals everything but your G-spot and get all bent out of shape that we noticed you appeared topless in a movie. If, as a woman, you feel good about your body and choose to display it as you see fit then you buy into the fact that you will cause reactions, good and bad, in others. But you can’t demand that we ignore the fact of what you’re presenting. If you don’t want us to see your boobs, don’t show them to us.

There were lots of things to criticize about last night’s Oscars telecast. It was too long (as always). The opening was interminable and didn’t quite hang together (although I’m delighted it permitted us to see “We Saw Your Boobs” and the sock puppets). Many of MacFarlane’s jokes just weren’t funny. The presenters’ drivel was as drivelly as always. The final number with MacFarlane and Kristin Chenoweth was derivative of Neil Patrick Harris’ ending to the Tony Awards. And more than anything, the sound production was atrocious, ruining the performances of Adele and Norah Jones and seriously handicapping some of the production numbers.

But there were high points. The First Lady showed up to provide the Best Picture award and a touch of real-world elegance, and no, she was not the first of a Presidential couple to do it. Laura Bush, Ronald Reagan, and even FDR participated in Oscar ceremonies in the past. So let’s just drop that right-wing criticism that it was unseemly. Some of the acceptance speeches were touching and/or funny. Jennifer Lawrence was adorable and real, tripping up the steps in that absurdly huge dress. Jennifer Hudson, Shirley Bassey and Barbra Streisand were extraordinary. Seth MacFarlane has some serious singing and dancing chops as do Charlize Theron, Channing Tatum, Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Dan Radcliffe. Daniel Day-Lewis hugging Meryl Streep told you everything you needed to know about the enormous respect for each other our two finest actors share.

So all in all it was a moderately entertaining evening with some great fashion and celebrity-watching. Nothing more; nothing less. If you don’t get that, you need to learn what the truly important things in life are to write about.

Postscript, The Onion:  By now you undoubtedly know that someone from The Onion tweeted a reference about Quvenzhane Wallis, calling the 9-year-old actress a “cunt”. The Onion removed the tweet within an hour and today issued a forthright and humble apology to Ms. Wallis. The apology, in fact, should serve as a model to our politicians of how one writes and delivers an apology. Swiftly, humbly and with no equivocating, no weasel words, no trying to shift blame. We don’t see that often enough.

What I find most appalling about the female writers quoted above is that the Tweet wasn’t their primary focus of anger. If you’re truly concerned about the status of women in this country today, why weren’t you thundering about what kind of culture lets a person think that the word “cunt” and a 9-year-old belong in the same thought, let alone in the same Tweet? Where is your moral outrage over that? Ms. Davidson managed only two lines about it; Ms. Rubin didn’t mention it at all.

Fuzzy Math

I’ve always liked math.  I was in the concentrated math/science track in high school.  I completed a math minor in college (and briefly considered being a math major till 3rd semester calculus convinced me otherwise).  And I took several high-level finance courses on the road to my MBA.  So it’s been bugging me ever since the second Presidential Debate last Tuesday that I can’t seem to understand the basic arithmetic behind Mitt Romney’s tax plan.

Now in the interest of full disclosure, I don’t like Mr. Romney and I don’t believe most of what he says, but I found it astonishing that he would promulgate a plan that seemed so obviously unworkable.  I figured I must be missing something in the excitement of the knock-down, drag-out debate.  So this week I decided to see if I could find the necessary statistics to run the numbers myself – at a 30,000-foot level to be sure, but nevertheless, I would do the math and see if his conclusions were truly so flagrantly dishonest.

The first thing I was startled to discover was how easy it was to find all of the information necessary to make the calculations.  I googled  “US government budget revenue 2012” and ended up at a site called  The site is run by a conservative writer named Chris Chantrill but as best I can tell by tracking down the source material that he used, it’s all sourced from government documents, gathered into one easily accessible website.  And you can slice and dice the information six ways to Sunday, making graphs and charts and tables.  If you stay away from the associated links and the speechifying sidebars, you can get reliable, spin-free statistics.

I also got information on tax expenditures from the Joint Committee on Taxation of the US Congress, here:  “Tax expenditures” is the name for any legal tax deduction or loophole that reduces the amount of tax collectible.  Think of home mortgage deductions, charitable giving deductions, things like that.

Then I took the “givens” that Romney has been spouting:

  1. an across-the-board 20% reduction in taxes for everyone
  2. the wealthy (above $250,000 AGI) will continue to pay the same percentage of total tax collected (currently, according to him, 60% of all personal income tax collected)
  3. $2 trillion increase in military spending (with the assumption that it’s over a 10-year period)
  4. no deductions will be eliminated that will increase the tax bill for those making under $250,000
  5. no one will pay income tax on interest or capital gains
  6. any changes to the tax code will be revenue-neutral, i.e. there will be no more money coming in or less money coming in than today

I think that’s the gist of the argument.

Here are some other facts you need to know:

  • the US Federal budget projects revenue (income) of about $2.5 trillion for 2012
  • the US Federal budget projects expenses of about $3.6 trillion for 2012
  • the difference ($1.1 trillion) equals the deficit (the amount we’re short)for one year – 2012
  • the national debt is about $16.65 trillion – that’s the sum of all the debt accumulated over all the years since the last time the budget was balanced while Bill Clinton was president (pause for a moment of silence for the good old days)

Now I don’t know about you, but talking about things in trillions of dollars gives me the shakes.  First, I’m never sure how many zeroes to put after the number and I worry I’ll be off by a factor of ten or one thousand.  So I took all these gigantic numbers and did all the division necessary so that I can give you an example of how this would work if the US government’s total budget was for $100.  To me, that’s manageable.

So here’s how the budget shapes up today in easy arithmetic equations:

$100    =     $57         +         $43

$100 Total revenue = $57 paid by non-personal-income taxes (Social Security, Medicare, corporate income, etc.) + $43  paid by personal income taxes.

$43     =    $26         +        $17

Of that $43 = $26 comes from the wealthy (60%) + $17  comes from the rest of us (40%).

If we reduce everyone’s tax rate by 20%, here’s what happens:

$43     =    $21        +        $14     +  $8 short 

In other words, of that $43 that we currently collect in personal income tax = $21 will come from the wealthy(reduction of 20%) + $14 will come from the rest of us(reduction of 20%)  + $8 is how much we’ll be short of what we need to keep our revenue where it is today.

So now we’re $8 short of the revenue we need for our $100 budget.  Plus Romney said that he’s not going to tax interest and capital gains.  I couldn’t find those numbers so I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt and we’ll forget about that for now.   It would make the shortfall bigger.

But we’re still short $8 for our $100 budget.  Where’s that going to come from?  Romney says by closing loopholes and deductions only for those making more than $250,000.  With the help of the Joint Committee on Taxation, I found those numbers for people making more than $200,000 in 2008.  By eliminating all the major deductions (tax expenditures as I explained earlier) that are taken by those making more than $200,000, such as mortgage interest, state and local income taxes, sales and personal property taxes, charitable contributions, child care credits, medical, and real estate tax, we get $3 (that’s right, $3) more to add to our revenue.  And remember, these numbers were for people making more than $200,000.  Romney said he’d set the floor at $250,000 which would mean this number would be smaller.  Well, whatever.

Guess what?  We’re still $5 short.

Now let’s tack on the additional spending for the military that he’s proposed.  That works out to another $8 to add to the shortfall, making a total of $13 short on our now-$108 budget.

But wait, as they say on late night TV, there’s more!

Remember that deficit I explained earlier?  We may have a $100 budget, but we actually spend $144 each year.  So in order to just balance the budget each year, we’re now going to be short $57 in order to make it to ZERO!

And that $16+ trillion national debt?  There’s nothing that can go towards that.

So I was right.  What Romney was spewing was solid gold horse-hockey (as Colonel Potter used to say).  He cannot provide a tax cut and make up the difference by closing loopholes and eliminating targeted deductions based on the givens he’s offered.  He can’t pay for a military ramp-up of the magnitude he’s proposing (he actually can’t pay for a military ramp-up of any amount) and he won’t even make a dent in the national debt.  In fact, by these calculations, he will add $1.425 trillion to the national debt each year.

So where do you think the difference will come from?  Well, here’s a scary number.  If you eliminate all those deductions and loopholes for everyone, not just those making over $200,000/year, you find yourself with another $10 in revenue for your budget.  Then maybe you could add in some cuts in Medicare and Medicaid and some tax hikes in Social Security and pretty soon you’re talking real money.

Before you vote, I would suggest that you think long and hard about why Donald Trump, Shel Adelson, the Koch boys, AND Mitt Romney would need a 20% tax cut. Then I’d think about where the money’s going to come from to pay for that tax cut [HINT: Keep your hand firmly on your wallet while you contemplate this.] And then ask yourself why you would vote for a man who is so comfortable assuming that you can’t do third grade math that he would manufacture such a web of lies.

Pondering Antietam

Today marks the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Antietam, also known as the Battle of Sharpsburg.  More than 81,000 soldiers engaged in the battle and, in less than 24 hours, almost 23,000 Americans were killed, wounded or missing, a greater casualty toll than any other day in American military history.  The 3650 who died in battle would be followed in death by an additional 2471 who subsequently died of their wounds.

I chose today to start blogging because I didn’t want the day to pass unremarked.  I can’t say I’ve always been interested in the Civil War. I studied it in high school just like everyone.  I grumped and complained when my father dragged us to the Petersburg battlefield.  I couldn’t figure out why an ex-boyfriend insisted that I see the Battle of Atlanta diorama when I went to visit him.  And frankly, some of those Civil War re-enactors seemed, well, just a bit TOO enthusiastic.

But in 1990, along with 40 million other Americans, I watched Ken Burns’ Civil War on PBS and the magnitude of the horror of those years held me captive, like watching a car wreck that you can’t tear your eyes away from.  Combined with my fascination with Abraham Lincoln, the PBS series lit a passion in me to understand better how our country ever found itself in a civil war and what could possibly drive men to kill their countrymen in wholesale slaughter.

Over the last 22 years, I’ve learned so much more about the Civil War, most particularly how it still affects our national identity today.  But that’s subject matter for another blog.  I also came to realize that in order to fully understand how men could commit such carnage, I really needed to walk the ground that they walked and try to glean some idea of what they felt.

And so I came to Antietam National Battlefield in August.  Antietam is probably the best preserved of our battlefields, Gettysburg included, because so little of the modern world intrudes on it.  The small town of Sharpsburg is still very small.  And there are no chain motels or restaurants just off the main road.  With the reforestation of the North Woods and other National Park Service improvements, the ground looks very much like it did in 1862.

Like Gettysburg, the Battle of Antietam took place in three distinct segments but, unlike Gettysburg, it all happened in one day, not spread over three.  Luckily for me, the Cornfield, site of the first horror of the day, was planted in corn this year.  It’s leased to farmers by the NPS and for soil conservation reasons the crops are rotated, since corn seriously depletes the soil of valuable nutrients after several years.  But this year it was corn, easily 7 feet tall, rustling in the breeze as I tramped through it, trying to imagine how terrifying it must have been to be a Union soldier, marching blindly through that cornfield with no idea of what he would find on the other side.  Of course what he found was a line of Confederate soldiers who mowed down the advancing Union troops  like wheat.  By the end of the back-and-forth battle several hours later, there was not one stalk of corn standing in the entire field.  Not one.  They had been destroyed by artillery fire, bullets and falling, dying men.

The battle moved south, to a sunken farm road that the Confederates used as cover to pick off Union soldiers coming unsuspectingly over a ridge.  They slaughtered hundreds until the Union soldiers got the upper hand and fired along the length of the road, trapping the Confederate soldiers like fish in a barrel.  By the time the battle ended, it was said that you could walk from one end of the road to the other and never touch the ground.  You would be walking only on bodies in what would become known forever as “Bloody Lane”.

Bloody Lane – 1862

Bloody Lane – Antietam

The final encounter occurred further south at the Antietam Bridge over the Antietam Creek.  Union soldiers had tried all day to take the bridge but it crossed the creek at the foot of a steep hill and the Confederates were entrenched at the top. Regiment after regiment tried to cross, only to be decimated by rifle fire.  Finally, late in the afternoon, the Union soldiers took the bridge and drove the Confederates off the heights.  General Ambrose Burnside had commanded the Union troops and the bridge was transformed into the Burnside Bridge for posterity.

And so I walked the battlefield, all three sections of it.  I tried to imagine the sounds, the smells, the pure horror of the day.  On a beautiful August afternoon, it’s hard to visualize the landscape covered in corpses.  But the rustling of the wind in the Cornfield and the huge number of butterflies that hover over the landscape speak of souls departed and whisper of lives destroyed.

Antietam was the first battle recorded by photography.  Alexander Gardner, from Matthew Brady’s studio, arrived on the battlefield within days.  The Union, as the victorious army (but at what price), had buried their own dead, but the Confederate dead were left unburied. Gardner photographed the scenes and, for the first time, Americans saw the direct results of the war that some of them had so devoutly wished for.  What had been the private grief of individual families of dead soldiers now became a very public trauma.

Antietam was, in many ways, the first major turning point of the war. It was the first time the Confederate Army had invaded the North. And it had been resoundingly repulsed.  The Marylanders that Robert E. Lee thought would welcome the Confederate Army with open arms were not so inclined.  The slave-holding section of Maryland was farther to the east.  The local citizens  tended to support the North and in fact a neighboring section of Virginia would soon be spun off as the new state of West Virginia, decidedly in the Northern column.

The Battle of Antietam reinvigorated the Union Army which had suffered a serious of defeats earlier in the year that had left them disheartened and in disarray.  And it reignited popular support for the war in the North, enough so that Abraham Lincoln could publish the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation which he had been holding back until the war news turned more positive.  With the publication of the Proclamation, the war took on a new dimension.  It was no longer only about preserving the Union; it was now also about extending the promise of freedom to America’s slaves.

And so I left Antietam as I left Gettysburg, still no closer to an answer of how men can force themselves to undertake such dreadful work for, in most cases, what?  An idea? Most of these men’s homes were not threatened.  Most of the Southerners didn’t own slaves.  How were they talked into this?  Why didn’t they just go home?  Why couldn’t they have worked it out?

Questions for another day that still ring down the years.  I still wonder, how can people be convinced to fight and die when they’re not directly threatened?  How can they fight for things they don’t ultimately believe in themselves?  They’re questions that will keep me tromping battlefields and looking for answers.