Along a creek just 60 miles from Washington DC, the Confederate and Union armies met in what was to be the bloodiest single day in American history. 23,000 men were killed, wounded (many of them maimed), or captured (and sent to horrifying prison camps). This was the battle of Antietam, which took place 150 years ago today near the town of Sharpsburg, Maryland.
It was a one-day battle of surprising ferocity. This was the first advance of General Lee’s army into Union territory. Maryland was a border state–a slave state, but loyal to the Union. Parts of Maryland had had to be subdued through coercion: there were riots in Baltimore, and many people were arrested for their Confederate sympathies and denied the speedy trial usually guaranteed by the writ of habeus corpus. Part of Lee’s hope in crossing the Potomac into Maryland was to swell his ranks with willing Marylanders. Had Maryland fallen to the Confederates, it would have been a major blow to the Union; Washington City was just across the Potomac from secessionist Virginia, but it was surrounded on three sides by Maryland. If Maryland had fallen, Washington City would have been engulfed by Confederate states. The capital would have had to have been evacuated.
General Lee dangerously divided his forces, attempting to outmaneuver the Federals. Stonewall Jackson was sent to Harper’s Ferry and James Longstreet to Hagerstown. But by a stroke of bad luck, Lee’s plans were found wrapped around three cigars. General Order 191 showed exactly how Lee planned to divide his troops. It was a lucky stroke for General McClennan, he of dubious reputation and initiative. Even McClennan couldn’t pass up this opportunity, though he wasn’t as quick as he should have been. McClellan attacked at South Mountain on September 14. The battle was no small affair, but paled in comparison to the battle of September 17. The battle of South Mountain was a Union victory but gave Lee time to condense his forces near the town of Sharpsburg.
As I’m not particularly interested in military maneuverings, I’ll pass over the particulars. You can get a great idea of the military side of things here at the Wikipedia entry if you’re interested.
Suffice it to say that the battle swept across the picturesque, rocky farmland of rural Western Maryland. Places like the Sunken Lane (forever after known as Bloody Lane), Burnside’s Bridge, and the Cornfield became the stuff of legend. The homes of peaceful citizens were burned to the ground. Bodies of men and horses littered the ground for miles around. More men fell that day than fell on any other single day in American history, including on D-Day. The battle began early in the morning and ended by about 5:30. It was twelve hours of ferocious battle.
Lee was outnumbered (estimations of his manpower vary), but near the end of the day, Stonewall Jackson arrived with reinforcements from Harper’s Ferry, Virginia (now West Virginia), which he had taken. The Confederates were able to limp away. Although neither side could claim a true victory, the Confederates were much less able to afford the massive losses of the day. They pulled back south into Virginia, their offensive into Union territory done for now. (Lee would try again a little less than a year later and be repulsed again, this time at a little crossroads called Gettysburg.) McClellan did not pursue Lee south; he said his troops were too weak to attempt it. Had he been willing and able, he might have been able to crush Lee’s wounded army and end the war.
There are always what-ifs. But it’s only fair to ask, what if McClellan had been defeated at Antietam? He did after all, end the Confederate offensive. Had he not, the Confederates likely would have marched into Pennsylvania, through Harrisburg and on to Philadelphia. They might have also made an attempt on Washington City, which–while well-fortified–was a plumb prize. If McClellan had not at least turned Lee back, the war might have ended with the North acceding to the South’s desire to leave the Union. What a very different world it might be today!
The battle, though no great victory, helped bolster Union morale. The army had been defeated and embarrassed repeatedly up to this point. President Lincoln had recently drafted a Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation, which he envisioned as a war measure. He was convinced by his Secretary of State, William Seward, to hold off on issuing the proclamation until there was a Union victory. Antietam was the chance Lincoln needed. Shortly after the battle, the Emancipation Proclamation was issued; on January 1, 1863 all slaves in states that were still in rebellion were henceforth and forever free. Of course, there was no way to enforce this since the Union had no control over the rebellious states. But it was a monumental first step to total and uncompensated emancipation.
The Civil War was in many ways the first “modern” war–rifled guns, devastating artillery, trench warfare, the first iron-clad warships, carnage on an industrial scale (mostly because tactics had not caught up with technology). The most striking difference between this and previous wars was the advent of photography. Although photography had been around for decades, it was first applied to wartime uses during the Civil War. The images that returned from the war were shocking and troubling to Americans who had never seen such images before. Although the bulky equipment and long exposures of the time made it impossible to capture action, it captured the haunting faces of the dead. Alexander Gardner, one of famed photographer Matthew Brady’s assistants, set up his camera on the battlefield of Antietam after the fighting was done. His images of dead men were exhibited in New York City–causing a sensation.
This past weekend, the National Park Service had events surrounding the 150th anniversary of the battle, including reenactments, talks, and guided tours. The events culminate today in commemorations. Living in Northern Virginia, a veritable hop-skip-and-jump away from the battlefield, I decided to visit for the big event. I went yesterday. Having never been there before, I wanted to make the most of the occasion. I went on a short guided walk, listened to two talks, and saw the artillery reenactors set off blanks. Sadly, I wasn’t able to explore as much as I would have liked–I wasn’t feeling well, the site was crowded, and I wasn’t able to get there until after noon. I certainly plan to return and explore the place more thoroughly.
Today, Antietam is a beautifully preserved national military park, run by the National Park Service. Many of the old farmhouses still stand amongst the same rolling farmland as was there in 1861. There are nods to modernity and tourists, such as a paved road paralleling the deadly Bloody Lane, and a modern visitor’s center with a museum and souvenir shop. Otherwise, the land is remarkably untouched by the 20th and 21st centuries. Western Maryland is not a highly-developed area, nestled in the foothills of the Appalachians. The drive to Sharpsburg is a pleasure. There are several charming old towns along the way with pretty wood-frame Victorian houses sitting directly on the main street and church steeples sticking straight into the sky from the middle of town. Sharpsburg, mainly by virtue of its role in this famous battle, is culturally centered around its history. It’s well-preserved and charming.
The old, now unoccupied, houses on the old battlefield are welcoming. They remind you that these were homes, that men and women sat on these porches and peered out of those windows and stored food in the root cellars long before their town was overrun by a major battle. Insects hum louder than visitors and vehicles. The fields are planted with corn and sorghum. Stony outcrops poke out of pastures and paddocks. On a perfect September day, it was one of the most pleasant places you can imagine. It was almost impossible to fathom that thousands of men were killed on that land, and that many were still buried under the ground we walked upon.
Although I only spent about four hours on the site, I took away a lot. Standing on a battlefield, surveying the geography, gives you a much better understanding of what the men who fought there must have faced. When reading a book, it’s difficult to picture the terrain, and equally as difficult to imagine the confusion and disorientation. Looking at the low hills, the fences, the fields, and the many low spots, it becomes much easier to see (literally) how men could get turned around and fire on one another, and how they could be scared out of their wits thinking that the little crest to their right might hide a company of the enemy.
I also took away from the battlefield a new appreciation for the cost of such battles for the civilians who lived (or didn’t) through the battles. The Mumma farm was burned to the ground by Confederates who feared it would make a prime spot for Union sharpshooters. Families in town hunkered down in their basements while shells whistled overhead. Houses were so clogged with the wounded, dying, and dead that the only entry was through the windows. A pregnant mother went out after the battle with her young children to help care for the wounded; shortly after the battle, she and her baby died in childbirth. A young girl, brought home to a house that had been used a hospital, was killed by one of the diseases carried in by the wounded men. Seven hundred soldiers were buried along the sunken road that had once been a quiet country lane. Toes and fingers sprang out of the dirt when rain uncovered the shallow graves. It puts me in mind of part of Abraham Lincoln’s Secend Inaugural:
“Fondly do we hope–fervently do we pray–that this mighty scourge of war may swiftly pass away.”
This is why I find American history so uniquely fascinating. It’s a history–though comparatively short–of ideas, of perpetual attempts to better the condition of all men and women. It’s a history of aspiration and moral evolution. As the inimitable Lincoln pointed out, the idea that all men are created equal is just a “proposition”. It must be perpetually proved and reinforced.
With that said, I offer some photos from my journey to Antietam and some links for further perusal:
The [Martinsburg] Journal. Edward Marshall. “Walk Pays Tribute to Those who Cared for Antietam’s Injured and Dying.” 17 Sept 2012. [Personal note: Yes, Martinsburg, WV is close to Antietam. I got on the road going the wrong way and–about five minutes later– ended up in Martinsburg, in the wrong state!]