When it comes to pivotal battles of the Civil War, Gettysburg gets most of the press. But before Gettysburg, there was Sharpsburg.
That’s if you’re from the South–which I am. If you’re from the North, it’s Antietam. (Confederate General D. H. Hill once suggested that Confederate farmer boys tended to be impressed by towns and other human-made things; Union city boys, by some natural landmark. For whatever reason, well over a dozen Civil War battles have dual names. This battle was fought just east of Sharpsburg, Maryland, by Antietam Creek.)
Monday was the 150th anniversary of the battle. Over 23,000 men were killed or wounded in twelve hours on September 17th, 1862, making it the bloodiest day in American history.
By comparison, scholars estimate between 2,500 and 5,000 Americans died on D-Day.
Bodies were piled so thick in places that it was impossible to walk on the ground. There was so much blood on one local road that the dirt turned to mud, and Sunken Road became known as Bloody Lane.
Most of the fighting was at close range–the length of a football field or less. The Union gained about 100 yards of ground over the course of the day.
Lee’s army slipped away across the Potomac the next day and cautious McClellan didn’t follow. The bloody draw effectively stopped Lee’s first invasion of the Union. (You can read or listen to NPR’s account of the battle here.)
The fact that McClellan ended up in possession of the field–which had no tactical significance, but just happened to be where the two armies ran into each other–allowed President Lincoln to call it a Union victory. There hadn’t been many of those, so he jumped on it.
Sharpsburg and civil rights
Five days later, on September 22nd, he issued a preliminary proclamation (read the original here) announcing that he would order the freeing of slaves in Confederate States that didn’t return to the Union by January 1st. None did, of course, and on January 1st, he followed it up with what we now know as the Emancipation Proclamation.
For the Union, it fundamentally changed the nature of the war. It went from being just about preserving the Union to being about liberating, first the three million slaves in the Confederacy and ultimately another million in the Union.
The American civil rights movement could be said to have begun on September 17, 1862, in the mud of Bloody Lane.
Sharpsburg and free speech
Three weeks after the battle, photographer Matthew Brady stuck a sign up on the door of his New York City studio. It said simply, “The Dead of Antietam.” Inside were black-and-white photographs taken by his assistant, Alexander Gardner, after the battle. One of them is at the top of the page; some others are here at Time’s LightBox.
The endless piles of dead bodies, some in grotesque positions, were the first images of battle most viewers had ever seen. And lots of people saw them.
The controversy that erupted is still going on. Every time we argue over whether an image from Afghanistan is appropriate for publication, we’re continuing the discussion begun by Alexander Gardner after the Battle of Sharpsburg.
Sharpsburg and battlefield medicine
USA Today has a fascinating article on the origins of modern battlefield medicine and their ties to Sharpsburg. Today, doctors study bones from men injured or killed at Sharpsburg. The wounds from cannon fire at Sharpsburg are very similar to the wounds from IEDs in Iraq and Afghanistan. Says USA Today:
Antietam has become more than just the memory of a single day. Techniques first applied here by Jonathan Letterman, the Union Army’s medical director, were the basis of modern battlefield medicine and a blueprint for today’s civilian emergency response system.
At Antietam, Letterman first tried a coordinated, progressive system of trained first responders, triage stations, surgical field units and permanent hospitals. For civilians today, that’s ambulances with EMTs, emergency rooms, operating rooms and hospital room convalescence.
“Every time you see an ambulance run down the road as a result of a 911 call, that is the Battle of Antietam going down the road in front of you,” says George Wunderlich, executive director of the National Museum of Civil War Medicine in nearby Frederick, Md.
Sharpsburg: What are we willing to die for?
We’ve lost just over 2,000 soldiers in 12 years in Afghanistan, most of those in the last four years. We wouldn’t tolerate the casualty levels of Sharpsburg today.
Is that because we value human life more highly than we did 150 years ago? Is it because we no longer have anything we value enough to die for–anything, in other words, that we think is bigger than us?
I don’t know the answer. But, as we look back on carnage so deadly few of us can really even grasp it, I think it’s worth asking the question.