A few weeks ago I found myself standing in the middle of a picturesque field where 23,000 people were killed, wounded or missing in one day. Antietam Battlefield in Sharpsburg, MD is the site of the bloodiest single-day battle in American history, September 17th 1862. During the American Civil War Confederate General Robert E. Lee, emboldened by recent victories, decided to move his Army of Northern Virginia into enemy “Northern” territory. He was met near Antietam Creek in Sharpsburg by Union Army Maj. General George McClellan and approximately 75,000 Union soldiers. McClellan had a perfect plan on paper. Attack Lee’s flanks to spread the Confederate Army out then drive through the weakened center with the bulk of Union Forces. Unfortunately for McClellan the plan wasn’t executed as well as it was written. The Union General was a bit trigger shy and failed to commit all of his forces to the battle, giving Lee opportunity to withstand the onslaught. When all was said and done at the end of the day the 12 square miles of battlefield, with such landmarks as The Dunker Church, Burnside’s Bridge, Bloody Lane and Miller’s Cornfield, were littered with bodies and flowing with blood from both sides.
Standing in that field where so many people died almost 150 years earlier I paused and attempted to put it all into context. Even now, as I sit in my air conditioned house typing on my computer with electric lights illuminating the room, I find it impossible to explain or comprehend the difference between what it is like now with what it was like then. I can write all the words I want but can anyone reading this truly feel, experience or understand what those men and women went through? All I can do is simply reflect on a few of the remarkable people from that day:
A bugler, Private Johnny Cook, was awarded The Medal of Honor for his actions at Antietam. He was only 15 years old.
Clara Barton arrived on the battlefield around noon and while bullets whizzed overhead gave comfort and aid to wounded, suffering soldiers. One of them was even shot dead while being cradled in her arms. Nearly 20 years later Miss Barton would be the founder and first president of The American Red Cross. No small feat considering this was 40 years before women could even vote.
At only 19 years old Sergeant William McKinley was in charge of the Commissary Department delivering food and coffee to soldiers on the battlefield. He would later become the 25th President of the United States.
As I struggle to put “life in 1862” into context in my own mind I think about other aspects of the era that I have recently had occasion to come across.
Approximately 22 years before Antietam, Edgar Allan Poe published “The Fall of the House of Usher.” He died only nine years later, just 13 years before the battle. Poe was a longtime resident of Baltimore, Maryland which is only 65 miles from the Antietam Battlefield. I wonder, despite the young age of many of the men and women on the battlefield that day, if they were familiar with Poe’s work? Poe creates a morbid, creepy, scary and strange world in his stories. His tales are fiction but the world that he sets them in is not, though it is one that seems very far removed from The American Civil War battles that took place only 65 miles and 20 years from Poe’s home and age.
I have also recently had the opportunity to tour the Thomaston Opera House in Thomaston, CT. The Thomaston Opera House was built in 1884, just 21 years after the battle at Antietam. Walking through this beautiful, decorative and venerable building seems, again, to be a distant world from the one that existed while 23,000 people died or were wounded in the soil of Sharpsburg, MD. As the ghosts of soldiers wandered the, still fresh, scarred, fields of battle, a different variety of ghosts began striding the planks of the Thomaston Opera House.
My capacity to comprehend the hell of Antietam increased only when I learned that it was the first battlefield in U.S. history to have been photographed before the dead were buried. Alexander Gardner took a number of photos of the battlefield just 2 days after the fighting had ceased. His images shocked and appalled viewers around the country, this was the first time the reality of war would seen by folks who had not participated. Until this point visual renderings of war were usually painted, often glorifying battle or at least, by the very nature of the artistic medium, giving a few degrees of separation from the terrible reality of war. Gardner’s photos really hit home. Today, despite the graphic on screen violence we see every day, these photos still pack a punch. It’s interesting to note that Gardner made use of a new photographic technology called stereography. Two lenses take simultaneous photographs and when the pictures are observed through a special viewer the image appears to be in 3-D.