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The bloodiest day

"The bloodiest day" Continued...

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

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.

Marvin Olasky
Marvin Olasky

Marvin is editor in chief of WORLD News Group and the author of more than 20 books, including The Tragedy of American Compassion. Follow Marvin on Twitter @MarvinOlasky.

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