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”.
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.