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The bloodiest day

Memorial Day | The Civil War produced more than 600,000 deaths: Ten percent of all males 20-45 years old in the North, and 30 percent of all white males 18-40 years old in the South. That horror included 23,000 killed in one day at Antietam, and led to the first official Memorial Day observance in 1868 at Arlington National Cemetery

Issue: "The GOP and Hispanics," May 19, 2012

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."

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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.

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