Sunday, November 11, 2012

"The Fate of the Republic"

The 150th Anniversary of the Battle of Antietam

Antietam's Cornfield is shrouded with fog before sunrise on the anniversary.
I could think of few better ways to commemorate Veterans' Day on this blog than to reflect upon the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Antietam which took place on September 17, 2012.  I had a more than unique opportunity to participate in this remembrance of the 1862 Maryland Campaign as I was working at nearby Harpers Ferry National Historical Park for part of the season.  Luckily, I had September 17 off, thus presenting me the chance to take part in this milestone anniversary.  As faithful readers here know, Antietam was and still remains the single bloodiest day in America's history--with more casualties than D-Day or 9/11.  With Robert E. Lee's invading forces being driven from Union soil as a result, the clash offered Abraham Lincoln the political leverage needed to release a preliminary version of the Emancipation Proclamation--changing in part the means through which Federal forces were going to wage and win the Civil War.  Sharpsburg marked the beginning of this evolutionary process.

The opening segments of commemoration on the actual morning of the anniversary began early, cold, and dark in the predawn hours of September 17.  Hundreds of visitors gathered in an open pasture on northern outskirts of the Miller Cornfield, where the opening rounds of the battle commenced and lingered on into the morning.  People congregated in hushed tones in respectful anticipation of the special event that was about to begin.

As the September morning sun slowly but surely began to rise from the eastern sky, the landscape came into clearer view despite the dense fog.  As 6:30 a.m. neared, a lone Union drummer began playing the long roll--the call to battle that soldiers had heard on that same ground a century and a half earlier.  The beats eerily echoed throughout the serene farm fields as more visitors began to assemble for their trek through history.

Awaiting them was a team of top-notch park rangers who were not going to offer the traditional battlewalk Civil War enthusiasts crave, but an early morning hike composed of nothing but first-hand accounts and quotations regarding the battle.  They discussed the tension and foreboding soldiers felt in the hours leading up to this cataclysmic engagement.  One newspaper correspondent embedded with the Army of the Potomac noted the evening before: "We are through for the night . . . but tomorrow we fight the battle that will determine the fate of the Republic."  And indeed, many saw the situation that way.

Union General Alpheus Williams also shared apprehension that night.  "[S]o dark, so obscure, so mysterious, so uncertain," he said, "there was a half-dreamy sensation about it all; but with a certain impression that the morrow was to be great with the future fate of our country."  In the next dawn's early light, his men fought with perhaps similar conviction as they advanced southward into David R. Miller's thirty acre field of corn ready for harvesting.  Hearing the words of such soldiers, our group moved in their same direction as we made our own push into the crops.  In the background, the crackle of musketry and black powder smoke hovered above the pastures as Confederate living historians recreated the deathly sounds of warfare.

Two of my fine colleagues, Chris Gwinn and John Hoptak were amongst the rangers delivering excerpts.  Benjamin Cook of the 12 Massachusetts wrote of the carnage in this area: "“Rifles are shot to pieces in the hands of the soldiers, canteens and haversacks are riddled by bullets, the dead and wounded go down in scores.  The smoke and fog lift; and almost at our feet, concealed in a hollow behind a demolished fence, lies a rebel brigade pouring into our ranks the most deadly fire of the war."

As we reached the opposite end of the Cornfield, the sun at last peaked above the mountains in the far distance.  Confederate soldier D. L. Lowe recalled: “There was no halt made until we reached the northern boundary of the corn, and there for the first time that day I saw the enemy. He had a battery on top of the hill and was shooting over us. Our line silenced the guns, but did not capture them. A quiet of a few minutes followed, then an infantry line appeared on the crest and engaged our line. The flag of the regiment opposing the 11th Miss. was shot down (or lowered) at least a half dozen times before it disappeared behind the hill. Our line did not advance any farther, but kept its same position. The next move in our immediate front was an attempt to get a gun in position to bear on us. It came up in a gallop but the horses were nearly all killed or wounded, the artillerymen disappeared and the effort failed.”

Two Confederate reenactors emerge from the woodlot near the Cornfield as the bright autumn sun illuminates the morning sky.  Near here and with a similar view, Major Rufus Dawes of the 6th Wisconsin said, "The men are loading and firing with demoniacal fury and shouting and laughing hysterically, and the whole field before us is covered with rebels fleeing for life, into the woods.  Great numbers of them are shot while climbing over the high post rail fences along the Turnpike."

"It was never my fortune to witness a more bloody, dismal battle," wrote Union General Joseph Hooker.  For this reason and more, attendees of this rather ceremonial hike were transfixed in a way I have rarely seen.  The words of these Civil War soldiers spoke to them in a highly vivid and emotional way.  To hear such rhetoric is one thing.  To be standing in the same spot their writings describe is quite something else.  This is my favorite photograph of that day.

By 7:30 that morning in 1862, the Federal brigades of Joseph Hooker and the Confederates of "Stonewall" Jackson had mauled each other into near-submission.  At this time, the men under Joseph Mansfield's 12th Corps rolled into the fight as well, breathing new life into an already catastrophic feud.  Ultimately, the Cornfield changed hands at least six times throughout the course of that morning.  Above, southern reenactors tromp the same terrain some of their ancestors had that same day in 1862.

Among those reenactors was Philip Brown, portraying a member of the 1st Texas Infantry--a unit which lost over 80% of its men in less than an hour's fighting time in and around the Cornfield.  But this intensity did not soften the resolve of many.  W. D. Pritchard of that regiment noted, "The command to forward dispels all fear, and from the first volley all traces of that fear and dread are gone, all is lost in the excitement.  Men who five minutes before were trembling and praying are now cool, collected and more than apt to be cursing."
At the Texas Monument outside the Cornfield, passersby left ears of corn, Confederate flags, and a Lone Star flag as tokens of affection.  When all was said and done of the fighting here, art correspondent Frank Schell of Frank Leslie's Illustrated commented, "I made my way through where yesterday had stood trim rows of stately cornstalks. . . . Now, but for a few stalks defiantly standing there was one a maze of broken, tangled fragments or debris trampled into the earth by virile foemen, whose bloody remains lay in all phases of contortion and dismemberment."  Like the cornstalks themselves, the men marching through them had been cut away.

On every hour throughout the day, several pieces of Civil War artillery fired a volley from the New York State Monument.  This added yet another immersive quality to the whole event.  Bronze Napoleons thundered through the predawn fog at the day's beginning, creating a reverberation that dramatically broke the typical rural silence of the battlefield.  Later on, I was a half-mile down range from these guns as they fired--seeing the flash of the guns seconds before hearing their roar.  It was a formidable sight even though the guns were not loaded with ordnance.

I captured this photograph later on that morning as the sun was breaking through some haze.  This image was taken from the eastern slope of the visitor center's viewing platform.  In the far distance can be seen the battlefield observation town that was constructed by the War Department (predecessor guardians to the National Park Service) constructed in 1897 along the Sunken Road.

Somewhere around 700 people attended the first half of an all-day battlefield hike conducted by four Antietam park rangers.  As they do every anniversary, the rangers take a group shot of their tour.  This year, the task proved more difficult than usual.  (Photo courtesy of NPS.)

This photograph offers an even truer perspective on the size of the crowd.  The experience was something like marching with a brigade of infantrymen!  The scale of the tour also revealed how difficult moving large bodies of troops through terrain was.  (At one point, we were forced to walk single file through a farmer's field so as not to disturb the crops.  This feat alone took a half hour.)

As usual, John Hoptak delivered excellent insight and interpretive thunder as he helped lead this massive column across the entire expanse of Antietam National Battlefield.

The first half of the all-day tour concluded at the Sunken Lane, where the masses sought refuge from the sun in the shade of the large trees covering the old country road.  The scenic beauty of the site was not as such 150 years earlier.  One reporter noted of this location: "The Confederates had gone down as grass falls before the scythe.  They were lying in rows like the ties of a railroad, in heaps, like cord-wood mingled with the splintered and shattered fence rails.  Words are inadequate to portray the scene."

After taking a number of photos throughout the day, I realized I didn't have any of myself on that anniversary day.  Here was the remedy to that.

The beautiful thing about the whole commemoration was that there was no shortage of things to do.  Yes, there was a seven hour battlewalk (in two parts) you could go on, but there were also countless smaller programs you could attend throughout the day.  Wanting to see the diversity of things to do, I opted to attend these other programs.  Topics and locations varied, with most talks being a half hour in length.  These were ideal for the general visitor or large families.  The programs were short, concise, but still informative.  Above, Ranger Chris Gwinn discusses the tribulations of 9th Corps Federals pushing their way across Burnside Bridge over Antietam Creek.

And at the Samuel Mumma Farm, Ranger Emmanual Dabney discussed Maryland civilians trapped in the maelstrom.  The Mummas were also slave owners, making the farm an ideal location to present the larger moral and political dilemmas of slavery and how it shaped the war.  Such worries were not among Mumma's concerns in 1862, however.  His farm was burned amidst the chaos of battle.  One soldier in the 83rd New York reflected, "Just in front of us a house [the Mumma's] was burning, and the fire and smoke, flashing of muskets and whizzing of bullets, yells of men, etc., were perfectly horrible."

Ranger John Rudy also contextualized Antietam inside the famous Dunker Church, where he discussed Maryland as a Border State with split goals and divided allegiances.  In addition, the Civil War was a theological crisis for the deeply devout Americans of the 1860s. 

Perhaps one of the most rewarding aspects of the commemorative events was occurring in the battlefield's National Cemetery.  From the site's brick rostrum, visitors had the opportunity to read names of soldiers buried there.  I read the names of ten Ohioans who rest there.  This is participatory history in the truest sense, and an event that none of the participants will soon forget.

Framing the main walkway within the National Cemetery fluttered the flags of all states which fought there, both Union and Confederate, even though the burial ground is composed entirely of U.S. troops--over 4,700 of them.  In the far distance stands the domineering statue of a Union soldier affectionately nicknamed "Old Simon," a popular children's book character who shared a resemblance to the statue.  But more evocative is the quote etched on the memorial: "Not for themselves, but for their country."  150 years after Antietam, we can ask ourselves: How can we give of ourselves to better our nation?  As long as this question remains, the legacies of the Civil War will continue to linger throughout our society.

1 comment:

  1. Great post Jared. Brings back a lot of great memories of that weekend. Warm Regards Jim Rosebrock