As you know from yesterday’s article I am taking an extended weekend in the D.C. area and yesterday I took a trip up to the Antietam Battlefield which surrounds much of Sharpsburg, Maryland. It was a time of quiet reflection on a battle, on the lives of soldiers, and on our country. The Battle of Antietam was the bloodiest day in American military history, more Americans were killed and wounded on that day than any other single day. While the battle was a draw from a military point of view it was singularly important in that it stopped Robert E. Lee’s invasion of the North and gave Abraham Lincoln enough of a victory to announce the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation. The announcement of that, and creative Union diplomacy helped turn the tide of the war by helping to keep England and France from recognizing the Confederacy.
It was my intention to walk as much of the battlefield as I could and I did. The weather was good but a bit warmer and sunnier than what the soldiers who fought there experienced on September 17th 1862. Even so it is my opinion that walking battlefields, be it on a staff ride, reenactment, or simply doing what I did yesterday helps one put the battle into a human context especially if one has a fair amount of historical knowledge and familiarity with a given battle. Being hot, sweaty, feeling ones legs, feet, and back hurt, dealing with waterlogged shoes, being assaulted by swarms of insects, and fighting your way through thrushes, reeds, and high grass along the banks of a creek or river, and drinking the bare minimum of water, and getting a little bit sunburned, is a good way to get a feel for what the soldiers experienced at Antietam or other Civil War battles. I am just glad that I was not wearing a wool uniform, carrying a heavy rifle, 60 rounds of ammunition and cartridges, and all my kit wearing what we would no call substandard shoes, if like the Union soldiers did we even had them. If you were a Confederate soldier at Antietam you might have been barefoot. Since I have been to war and lugged heavy amounts of gear around Iraq I can imagine that, even though I never had to walk as far there as I did today. That’s a good thing.
“Too many people learn about war with no inconvenience to themselves. They read about Verdun or Stalingrad without comprehension, sitting in a comfortable armchair, with their feet beside the fire, preparing to go about their business the next day, as usual…One should read about war standing up, late at night, when one is tired, as I am writing about it now, at dawn, while my asthma attack wears off. And even now, in my sleepless exhaustion, how gentle and easy peace seems!”
I am sure that many a Civil War soldier would agree with him. The fact is that reading the history of various wars is important, but whenever possible it is good to experience some of the discomfort of those who fought the battle. When I finished the last part of my battlefield experience my feet hurt and when I took off my shoes they looked pretty bad, but much of that was from the dirt, grass, and moisture that had found its way into my shoes. But unlike the soldiers at Antietam I could return to a safe and dry place and care for my feet, they couldn’t.
We are fortunate along much of the east and central parts of the United States to have many well preserved battlefields. I highly recommend those who have not gotten out to see them, walk them, and to remember those who were killed, wounded, or emotionally scarred for life. Walking the Antietam battlefield for the first time since 2001 I was able to sense the terrible reality that that battlefield was the bloodiest single day of fighting in American history. Depending on the estimate some 22,000 to 27,000 Union and Confederate soldiers were killed or wounded on that one day. As I walked through the Cornfield and the West Woods I tried to imagine how over 13,000 troops were killed or wounded in that part of the battlefield alone. I felt the same way along the Bloody Lane, near the Dunker Church, at the Burnside Bridge, and along the furthest point of the Union advance. Of course this is hallowed ground and the National Cemetery has in it the remains of over 5,000 Union soldiers.
The remains of nearly 3,000 Confederates were interred in a new cemetery on the outskirts of Hagerstown which was dedicated in 1877 as well as two other cemeteries. This is interesting to me because at Gettysburg the Confederate dead were exhumed and taken back to the south with many buried in Richmond’s Hollywood Cemetery.
The National Cemetery is guarded by Old Simon a massive granite statue of a representative Union soldier. The monument is 44 feet tall, and Old Simon, designed and sculpted by James Batterson is 21 1/2 feet tall and weighs 30 tons. The inscription is appropriate. It simply reads: Not for themselves but for their country, September 17, 1862.
The graves of the soldiers are laid out around the statue grouped in the states from where they came. There are a few individual monuments and a monument erected by the survivors of the 20th New York, a unit primarily composed of German immigrants that also has a monument not far from the Dunker Church. The inscription on one side has in German the words Zum Andenken an unsere Gefallenen Kameraden, errichtet von dem Ueberlebenden des Regts. (Erected to our fallen comrades by the survivors of the regiment)
As far as battlefield monuments are concerned there are comparatively few, just 96 as compared to Gettysburg which has some 1,300 of all types. Almost all of the monuments at Antietam, with the exception of the ubiquitous bronze markers that show the positions of units and describe their actions, are dedicated to units of the Army of the Potomac. These were erected by states, communities that contributed troops and veteran associations. There are only six monuments specifically honoring Confederates with Maryland having a monument to its soldiers of both sides.
Of the Confederate monuments most are of fairly recent import. Georgia and Texas have monuments to all of their soldiers, while Mississippi has one dedicated to the 11thMississippi Infantry. All three of these stand within a hundred yards of each other on the southern edge of the Cornfield.
There is a monument to Robert E. Lee near the new Burnside bridge off Maryland Highway 34 as you cross Antietam Creek. It too is a rather new addition, being funded by William F. Chaney and dedicated in June 2003. Chaney had noted that he just wanted “even things up a bit.” The inscription on it furthers the Lee myth promoted by the purveyors of the Lost Cause and the Noble South saying “Although hoping for a decisive victory Lee had to settle for a military draw, Robert E. Lee was personally against secession and slavery, but decided his duty was to fight for his home and the universal right of every people to self-determination.”
A monument on the northern edge of the Cornfield is dedicated to Clara Barton who along with other nurses helped to care for the wounded of the battle and one near the Burnside Bridge to President William McKinley who was a Sergeant in the 23rd Ohio Infantry. Six monuments each with a cannon placed upside down into a stone, these are mortuary markers noting where six Generals were killed or mortally wounded. They include Union Generals Joseph Mansfield, commander of XII Corps, and division commanders Israel Richardson and Isaac Rodman. Three Confederate brigade commanders, George Anderson, William Starke, and Lawrence O’Brien Branch are marked by identical monuments.
There was an eerie pristine feeling when I walked the battlefield yesterday. There were not many people on it, especially compared to Gettysburg. This led to a rather solitary experience amid the quite, only punctuated by the calls of birds, the chattering of squirrels, and the assorted buzzing, chirping, and humming of insects. As I walked the Cornfield, the West Woods, the Sunken Road and Bloody Lane, crossed the Burnside Bridge, made my way to the furthest point of the Union advance, and paused in the cemetery I was continually reminded of Walt Whitman’s poem, Ashes of Dead Soldiers:
“Ashes of soldiers South or North, As I muse retrospective murmuring a chant in thought, The war resumes, again to my sense your shapes, And again the advance of the armies. Noiseless as mists and vapors, From their graves in the trenches ascending, From cemeteries all through Virginia and Tennessee, From every point of the compass out of the countless graves, In wafted clouds, in myriads large, or squads of twos or threes or single ones they come, And silently gather round me…”