By Colin Woodward
“A great and a terrible day.”
–From Glory, 1989
On Thursday, I traveled to Sharpsburg, Maryland, to see the Antietam battlefield, scene of the bloodiest day in American history, where Lee and McClellan tore each other’s armies apart for twelve gory hours. The savage fighting in the cornfield, the sunken road, and at Burnside’s Bridge, led to 23,000 killed wounded and captured. The 3,700 men killed at Antietam was more than the deaths on D-Day or 9-11. Other days during the Civil War were almost as horrendous. But the “great and terrible day” (as the actor playing Governor John Andrew says in the movie Glory) at Antietam was the worst.
For all its importance, it’s taken me 41 years to see the Antietam battlefield. When you ask those who have traveled to many Civil War battlefields which is the best to visit, they often say Antietam or Shiloh. One reason for citing Antietam, I suppose, is how well the battlefield has been preserved. Cars can pass through the area, but modern life doesn’t intrude very much.
More important, it doesn’t seem like gas stations or discount stores will clutter the landscape anytime soon. Walk to the high ground by the visitor’s center and you can get a good view of most of the battlefield and the Blue Ridge Mountains to the south. The area seems not to have changed all that much since 1862. The area feels safe from the sprawl of 21st century urban living.
When I first arrived, I went inside the visitor’s center to get a map. To my surprise, I was told that admission to the park was $5. I had never been asked to pay at a battlefield site before. I had no problem paying the fee. Five dollars isn’t that much, and it was going to a good cause. However, if you have no desire to go into the visitor’s center, you can save yourself five dollars by just exploring the battlefield.
I began my self-guided tour in the area of the Dunker/Dunkard Church (the church is not original; it was rebuilt in the 1960s). The area is where Lee’s left flank was, and where Stonewall Jackson’s corps fought off the vicious assaults from the Union right. It was where John Bell Hood’s division halted Joe Hooker’s men, but at a great cost. When asked where his division was after the fighting died down, Hood answered: “dead on the field.”
The battle then shifted toward the center of the line at what has become known as Bloody Lane. Wave after wave of Yankees were mowed down by the Confederates, whose ranks included Brigadier General John B. Gordon, who later commanded a division in Lee’s army. The Rebels made the Union troops pay a heavy price until some northern soldiers figured out how to dislodge the Confederates. The Yankees managed to pour an enfilading fire on the southern line. The Confederate pulled back from the sunken road in order to avoid disaster. For his trouble, General Gordon was wounded several times, including once in the face, and was carried unconscious from the fighting.
Visitors can get a nice view of the battlefield from the tower on Bloody Lane. The steps were steep, but the view was worth it.
Walking through the cornfield and along the sunken road were fairly easy as far as battlefield hikes go. Doing so was much easier than during my travels to Manassas a few weeks before. As the afternoon wore on, I wanted to see the last major portion of the battlefield: Burnside’s Bridge. Turns out it took me almost as long to find the bridge as it did for Burnside to cross it.
To get to the bridge, I walked back to my car and drove along the main road into town. I had a map with me, and eventually found myself on Burnside’s Bridge Road. But I had a heck of a time finding here the bridge was. No signs were telling me how to get there. One road that led to the site was closed. Eventually, I had to park just off the road and walk along the Sherrick Farm Trail. The trail wounded for about a half mile along Antietam Creek, where I eventually found the bridge.
I soon realized why the area was closed off. Workers were on the bridge, and no one was allowed onto it. On the heights above, I could see a tour group that had taken a different route to the bridge area. They were where the Confederates were on the day of the battle. I was where Burnside’s men were. As a New Englander, I’m proud that men such as Burnside, Hooker, and Butler are prominent names in the Civil War literature. None of them, however, were especially great generals.
At the bridge, a few hundred Confederates kept thousands of Yankees at bay, while inflicting horrendous casualties. Burnside kept ordering men over the bridge, even though Antietam Creek at that point was easily fordable. Eventually, northern troops dislodged the Rebels on the high ground and sent them fleeing back into town. But the attack at Burnside’s Bridge, like the attack at Marye’s Heights three months later, would epitomize Union bungling. As usual, a trip to the battlefield put many things in perspective. The lessons one can learn about terrain are important.
Robert E. Lee came close to wrecking his army in Maryland. McClellan attacked the Rebels piecemeal, and he held back tends of thousands of troops that might have used to overwhelm the Army of Northern Virginia. The slaughter at Antietam is unimaginable. And what’s more, it is even more astonishing given the fighting that had happened in the weeks leading up to it. In my previous post, I wrote about the battle of Second Manassas and its 25,000 casualties. Less than three weeks after the fighting at Second Bull Run, Lee fought any bloody battle at Antietam.
In addition to the 9,000 Confederate losses at Second Manassas and the more than 10,000 at Antietam, Lee’s army 2,685 casualties at South Mountain, fought a few days before Antietam. Jackson captured 12,600 men at Harper’s Ferry, but it was not bloodless, costing him 286 men. It is amazing that Lee had any men left when he recrossed the Potomac into Virginia on September 20. Lee inflicted great losses on the Union. But he, too, paid a high butcher’s bill in August and September.
Many Rebels simply chose to fall out of the ranks. Lee complained of stragglers during the Antietam campaign. And some historians have noted the high absentee rate as evidence of loss of will or poor southerners’ rejection of a “rich man’s (planter’s) war.” But Lee drove his men (many of whom lacked shoes) hard after taking command of the Army of Northern Virginia in late June. Gary Gallagher has rightly called Robert E. Lee the bloodiest general in American history. In his first three months as commander, Lee suffered 50,000 casualties. Lee believed he must win the war quickly, regardless of cost to his own army.
Lee won two major and bloody battles at the Seven Days and Second Manassas, then fought a larger Union force to a bloody draw at a third. He had marched his men hundreds of miles and invaded the Union. It is no wonder that many weary men broke down or refused to go further. Even Lee himself had been wounded after suffering a fall from his horse.
The Battle at Antietam, while not decisive, was a turning point. Five days after the guns fell silent, Lincoln issued his Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation. Photographs of the bloody aftermath of September 17 were featured in an exhibit called the “Dead of Antietam.” The war was brought home to Americans in grisly photographs of dead men and horses.
As much as a battlefield visit can put us in the 19th century, 21st century life inevitably intercedes. My GPS thought it would be a good idea to take me through downtown Washington, D.C., during rush hour rather than deal with I-95. The result: it took me five hours to get back to Colonial Beach, Virginia, where I live. Still, it took Lee’s men much longer to return to the safety of central Virginia. And while in Maryland, no one ever shot at me.
Alexander Gardner’s Antietam photos don’t have the impact that they had on Victorian Americans in 1862. Since then, the battle has been depicted, albeit briefly, in the film Glory. But that was 27 years ago. What brought the battle home to me was my visit to Antietam last week.