If you're looking for a summer trip during which children can learn some history and adults can honor the military dead, keep in mind that this year is the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Antietam. When 12 hours of battle ended on Sept. 17, 1862, about 23,000 men were dead, wounded, or missing. That day remains the bloodiest one in American military history (including even D-Day in 1944).
Antietam is a Native American word that means "the swift current," but the Union and Confederate armies met there-on good corn-growing land owned by strictly pacifistic German Baptists-because a Southern officer was slow to destroy a copy of Special Order 191, Gen. Robert E. Lee's plan of operations for invading Maryland. A Northern soldier found the order wrapped around cigars, and Union commander George McClellan realized he had an opportunity to destroy a divided Confederate army.
Lee had headed north out of a desire to protect the Shenandoah Valley harvest, give Maryland border state residents "an opportunity of throwing off the oppression to which she is now subject," and influence both voters in the upcoming congressional elections and British leaders who might recognize the Confederacy. British Prime Minister Henry John Temple, known as Lord Palmerston and nicknamed "The Mongoose," was asking whether it was time for England and France to "address the contending parties and recommend an arrangement upon the basis of separation."
Divisions and timidity among Northern leaders also encouraged Lee. Union commander George McClellan characterized President Abraham Lincoln as "an idiot ... a well-meaning baboon." McClellan himself was idiotic when it came to discerning the extent of Confederate power. Although many people told him otherwise, McClellan trusted Chicago private detective Allan Pinkerton, who regularly overestimated Confederate numbers: McClellan told Washington officials that the Confederate army numbered 110,000, more than twice its actual strength.
McClellan also did not recognize the wretched state of Lee's army: His soldiers were "poorly provided with clothes and in thousands of instances are destitute of shoes," Lee complained to Confederate president Jefferson Davis on Sept. 3. Many Southern soldiers were either hungry or sick: They called the invasion of Maryland the "green corn and green apple" campaign because they mostly ate unripened vegetables and fruit, which left many hampered by diarrhea.
If opponents could be slain by smell, though, the Southern soldiers were unbeatable: One Marylander who almost joined them later wrote, "I have never seen a mass of such filthy, strong-smelling men. Three of them in a room would make it unbearable." The appearance of Lee's soldiers was also fierce. One Northern reporter wrote, "They were the roughest set of creatures I ever saw," with "hair and clothing matted with dirt and filth. ... The scratching they kept up gave warrant of vermin in abundance."
The visitors on the day I walked the battlefield all seemed clean and scrubbed, and the pristine grounds can give students of military history a good sense of what happened when neither side succeeded in flanking the other, and the soldiers slugged it out like boxers unwilling to yield. The big battle was really three, rolling (from the visitor center) left to right.
Slugfest No. 1 began with musketry and cannon fire at 5:30 a.m. It ran to 10 a.m. within a 24-acre cornfield and adjacent woods. Neither side was content to play defense: One side would cut to pieces its attackers, advance whooping into the cornfield, and be shot up itself. One regiment, the First Texas Infantry, lost 186 of its 226 men in 30 minutes of cornfield shooting that, as Union Gen. Joe Hooker wrote, left "every stalk ... cut as closely as could have been done with a knife."
The post-battle roll call showed the toll: One soldier from Company A reporting, two in Company C, none in Company F. The regimental flag was on the ground with 13 dead men surrounding it. Dead and wounded lay so thickly that riders found it hard to make it through the field without having their horses step on bodies or disembodied heads and limbs. The land, watered by blood, still yields good corn: If you visit close to harvest time, you can readily imagine what shooting amid the corn was like 150 years ago.
Slugfest No. 2 also lasted about four and a half hours, from 9:30 a.m. to 2 p.m., with the fighting centered on a road sunken through years of erosion and thereafter named Bloody Lane. Walk on the Northern side and you'll see that, because of a ridge crest, Northern soldiers could not see what would face them until they were about 100 yards away. Then they advanced and died: Gen. Max Weber's brigade of German-speaking New Yorkers suffered 450 casualties in five minutes.
The Irish Brigade, made up mostly of New Yorkers, rushed to the field behind its brigade flag: gold harp and shamrock on an emerald background. A priest offered unconditional absolution for all who would die in the battle, as long as they did not display cowardice. The brigade was 30 paces from the Confederate line when the rebels opened fire and cut down more than half of the soldiers in two regiments. When McClellan sent Gen. Edwin Sumner an order that he press the attack with his command, Sumner-at 66 the oldest Civil War field commander-responded with the booming voice that gave him the nickname "Bull," "Go back, young man, and tell Gen. McClellan that I have no command."
Then momentum shifted as some New York soldiers saw a weak point in the Confederate position and seized a knoll from which they sent flanking fire into the Southern line. New Hampshire lieutenant Thomas Livermore wrote that one stretch of Bloody Lane had "so many dead rebels that they formed a line which one may have walked upon as far as I could see." Five bullets hit Southern Col. John B. Gordon, who fell forward unconscious, his face in his cap. He would have suffocated in his own blood but "for the act of some Yankee who, as if to save my life, had at a previous hour during the battle shot a hole through the cap, which let the blood out."
Slugfest No. 3 came in the afternoon along the Union left and the Confederate right. Northern soldiers tried to advance by grabbing a 125-foot arched limestone bridge across the creek that was no more than 50 feet wide and not deep. Historian Shelby Foote writes that it could have been waded "without wetting the armpits of the shortest man" in Gen. Ambrose Burnside's corps. Seizing that bridge and advancing beyond it, though, was like conquering a castle, with the creek acting as a moat. High bluffs over the creek's west bank serving as turrets for 550 Georgian sharpshooters facing more than 20 times as many Northerners.
Burnside was unusually modest among army officers: Lincoln had twice offered Burnside command of the entire Army of the Potomac, but Burnside had pleaded that he "was not competent to command such a large army as this." Foote and others have agreed, but Burnside's deadly emphasis on the bridge wasn't totally dumb. A Connecticut company's attempt to ford the stream failed, with Company A commander John Griswold making it to the west bank but dying there from his wounds.
Finally, Col. Edward Ferrero, who before the war taught West Point cadets how to dance, waltz, and fence, ordered two Union regiments to charge across the bridge. One corporal, Lewis Patterson of Company I, First Pennsylvania, called out, "Will you give us whiskey, colonel, if we take it?"
Ferrero yelled back, "You shall have as much as you want, if you take the bridge." With that, 670 men sprung to the attack, and one out of three died or was wounded in the process-but the Union army was finally across and advancing. The chance for a decisive Northern victory, though, ended when 3,000 additional Confederate soldiers arrived after a 17-mile march from Harper's Ferry: As twilight came they drove the Union troops back to the heights near the creek.
Robert E. Lee expected a Northern attack the next day, but it never came. He withdrew his army across the Potomac. The Union celebrated a victory, and Abraham Lincoln used the opportunity to issue the Emancipation Proclamation. Historian James McPherson argues, "No other campaign and battle in the war had such momentous, multiple consequences as Antietam." Had the South won, foreign recognition and Northern despair could have ended the war, and slavery would have continued.
As it was, many more Americans died, and Lincoln noted at Gettysburg the following year, "We here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain."
By 1890 all Northern states recognized Memorial Day as a time to honor those who did die, and to renew the resolution not to have those deaths be in vain. Southern states came aboard after World War I when Memorial Day began honoring all the Americans who died fighting in any war. Antietam is good ground on which to remember and resolve.