T.S. Eliot wrote that “April is the cruellest month…mixing Memory and desire…” But he never spent a sun-drenched, late summer’s day on Antietam Creek where poignant beauty mixes with memory and blood.
The battle of Antietam, or Sharpsburg (southerners use the nearby town’s name), took place 155 years ago in stunningly lush country in northwestern Maryland on September 17, 1862. It was the single bloodiest day in American history.
A visit to the battlefield, with grandchildren in tow, on the anniversary of the battle, was jarring. The day was so lovely, the locale so beautiful. Yet, one must catch his breath when reflecting on the carnage that occurred at the Cornfield, the Sunken Road (Bloody Lane) and Burnside Bridge amidst the bucolic charm of what may be the best preserved of all the Civil War battlefields in the National Parks system.
The Pulitzer-Prize winning historian, James McPherson writes in his concise, insightful book, Antietam: The Battle That Changed the Course of the Civil War (2002), that “The 6,300 to 6,500 Union and Confederate soldiers killed and mortally wounded… were more than twice the number of fatalities suffered in the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on September 11, 2001.”
“Another 15,000 men wounded in the battle of Antietam would recover, but many of them would never again walk on two legs or work with two arms,” writes McPherson. Indeed, these casualties were four times greater than at the Normandy beaches in 1944. This amounts to more deaths than died in the War of 1812, the Mexican-American War, the Spanish-American War, and all the Indian wars combined.
Robert E. Lee knew the Confederacy could not win a war of attrition with the North. So after his victory at the Second Battle of Bull Run or Manassas, he decided to push his tired army, cross the Potomac, invade Maryland and, presumably, influence public opinion in the upcoming elections by demonstrating that the war was unwinnable by the Union forces. It would also forestall emancipation and encourage British and French recognition of the Confederacy. A negotiated peace might follow with the Confederacy intact.
Lee faced the lackadaisical Union General George D. McClellan and displayed his usual audacity, but the crucial victory he sought did not materialize. While he was able to escape back across the Potomac after the battle, the Emancipation Proclamation followed, the elections broke for Lincoln and Republicans, and Britain and France never recognized the Confederacy as a legitimate government.
While Grant had not yet come East, Antietam saw many of the famous generals of the war fighting each other. Besides Lee and McClellan, there was Jackson, Longstreet, both Hills, Joseph Hooker, Burnside among them.
The great, good fortune for McClellan was the inadvertent discovery of the Confederate battle plans by two Union enlisted men resting in a field. They spied a package, three cigars wrapped in the plans. It was Lee’s Special Orders No. 191 revealing that he was dividing his forces into four parts, the biggest of which, under Stonewall Jackson, was to attack Harpers Ferry and subdue a Union force there before rejoining Lee’s forces.
“Now I know what to do!” exclaimed McClellan when shown the order. “Here is a paper with which if I cannot whip ‘Bobbie Lee,’ I will be willing to go home.” The rest, as they say, is history. As it was, McClellan did not destroy Lee’s army as Lincoln had hoped, and the war dragged on for another two and half years.
Just as at Gettysburg or Fredericksburg, past suffering and sacrifice is palpable in an emotional even spiritual sense. But, even more than these other sacred grounds, much encroached upon by civilization, the sacramental and pastoral beauty of the countryside at Antietam is unsettling in its contrast with the horrible blood-letting that took place so many years ago. RIP.