I recently visited the Antietam National Battleground in Maryland where the bloodiest day in U.S. military history took place on September 17, 1862. And it has a direct connection to our usual British topics.
Antietam National Battleground, Maryland
On a warm and sunny March day, we drove into the foothills of the Maryland mountains to visit Antietam, well run by the National Park Service. Like many U.S. Civil War battlegrounds, this one is so quiet and peaceful today that it is difficult to envision the carnage that took place almost 150 years ago.
The grounds are marked with many cannons and memorials to the various regiments which fought here on the side of the Union and for the Confederacy (in the south, it is known as the Battle of Sharpsburg, a nearby village).
Maryland State Monument, the only one dedicated
to troops from that state who served on both sides
The calm beauty of the area belies it bloody past. After viewing a film presentation on the battle and its aftermath, we purchased a CD for our car which took us on a driving tour of the principal sites. At each one, we could park and listen to the description, then walk around the locale and talk with the very knowledgeable volunteer guides — who spend their weekends telling visitors about the people who fought here and what happened to many of them. Special thanks to Jim, Marty and Dave who told us so many facts and personal stories.
A future U.S President was among the Union troops. William McKinley (1843-1901), 25th President, was later promoted to the officer corps. His mentor in the 23rd Ohio Infantry, Rutherford B. Hayes (1822-1893), to become the 19th U.S. President, had been recently wounded and did not fight at Antietam.
Monument to the 15th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry
Skipping ahead to the outcome of the battle, the Union troops prevailed although the losses on both sides were horrendous and crippling. The appearance of a strategic Union victory, however, was said to have caused Lord Palmerston, British Prime Minister at the time, to abandon his inclination to support the Confederacy. Both the British and the French governments declined to take part in mediating the conflict. Some observers — many as a matter of fact — believe that Palmerston was hoping to teach the upstart United States a lesson.
Lord Palmerston (1784-1865) by Francis Cruikshank, 1855
In addition, the success of the Union troops spurred President Lincoln to issue the Emancipation Proclamation in September, 1862, which freed all slaves living in Confederate states and further contributed to the British decision not to support the Confederacy.
The self-supporting (nail-less) fences
Another noteworthy matter is the role that photography played in popular views of war. For the first time, photographers, foremost among them Matthew Brady, set up their equipment and took photos of the battleground littered with the dead and dying. When these scenes were published, the public was horrified. People were used to seeing engravings (think Currier and Ives) of gallant charges with flags flying, not piles of grotesquely twisted bodies.
Ironically, much of the fighting was done around the Dunker Church, which belonged to a German Christian sect advocating peaceful resolution of all conflicts.
A Napoleon cannon
The American Civil War was fought with weapons very similar to those used in the Napoleonic Wars. The armies had more rifles, thus more accurate shots. And some of the canons, such as the first ones in the second picture of this post, were rifled as well, which improved their accuracy too. Those just above and below were almost exact duplicates of the cannons used in the Peninsular War and at Waterloo.
A “Napoleon” cannon
Monument to the 50th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry
All day the battle raged back and forth among the cornfields, hills and hollows of the area, with each side moving forward and then retreating as the advantage changed from side to side.
In the afternoon, at the beautiful old stone bridge over Antietam Creek now known as Burnside’s Bridge, northern troops led by Major General Ambrose Burnside, gained the upper hand, causing the southerners to withdraw. But more fighting followed as fresh troops arrived on both sides.
Late in the day, there was an undeclared truce as both armies tried to comprehend the extent of their losses. Some units had only a handful of their men remaining unhurt.
But wait, it was not only men that fought. As the above ladies who volunteer at the site told us, there were some women among the troops. They managed to pass as men throughout the war, an amazing feat in itself. No one can come up with the exact number but we have the personal accounts of some who recorded their experiences for posterity.
Fittingly, the final stop on the battlefield tour is at the Union Cemetery where many thousands are buried, including a number still unidentified. The cemetery is watched over by the monumental statue of an infantry private, called Old Simon
And as a final comment, the guides told us that President Lincoln was most unhappy that his commander, General George McClellan was so cautious. McClellan did not pursue Lee’s army back across the Potomac and into Virginia. Perhaps, if he had followed up quickly, the war would have been over in weeks or months instead of three more years of fighting.
More than 3,600 died that day, and many more of the additional 20,000 casualties never recovered. Though the result of the battle was a tactical draw, the South failed to defeat the North in the first battle on Northern territory. The North managed to reverse its previous record of mostly losses. Less than a year later, at Gettysburg, the tide of the
war would change in favor of the North.
New York State Monument
For more details on the battle and the upcoming 150th Anniversary of the Battle of Antietam, click here.