Site Map
Photos of Winnie

Last week we talked about the Battles on South Mountain being a prelude to the carnage at the Battle of Antietam. Last night Tom and I went to a dinner at Antietam hosted by the Civil War Preservation Trust. The torchlight tour was canceled because of rain but the superintendent of the battlefield conducted the tour indoors instead. It was a very poignant talk that stressed the need to save Civil War battlefields because they are our very history and many of the battles fought are still affecting our lives today. When we got home I immediately felt the need to write these tidbits but went to bed to sleep on it. This morning I've made some slight changes but I want to get them to you. With that said let's talk about the Battle of Antietam.

Picture yourself waking, if you were able to sleep at all, on the morning of September 17, 1862. Many of you would have seen dreadful action three days earlier at Fox's, Turner's or Crampton's gaps. And if not there, then possibly at Harper's Ferry. It's early morning and the mist is curling around your feet and muffling the sounds around you. You try to think of things other than the battle that is facing you because you don't know whether this will be your last day to live. It doesn't matter which side you're on because emotions are the same for all human beings.

Now it's 6:00 a.m. and the order comes to move forward. General Jackson, who arrived the day before with his troops, stands ready to defend at all costs the Miller farm cornfield. However, Union troops under General Hooker begin a bombardment that decimates the corn, leveling it even with the ground and leaving soldiers who had been standing there just moments before lying dead where they stood. Union soldiers crossing what was the cornfield force the Confederates back. The fighting here is fierce, this is not going to be an easy battle but then no battle is easy. The Confederates receiving reinforcement successfully drive the enemy back, but in all this imagine the sounds of screaming wounded or the rush of soldiers trying to retreat to safety stumbling over the bodies of their fallen comrades some dead, some mortally wounded begging for help. An hour later, General Mansfield's Confederate troops counterattack and manage to regain some of the lost ground. In an attempt to rout Mansfield's men from the area near the Dunker Church, General Sedgewick and his Union soldiers advance to the West Woods but are outflanked and suffer massive casualties.

Bloody Lane, also known as the Sunken Road, in the fog; photo courtesy of Antietam National Battlefield ParkMeanwhile, General French's division moves forward to support General Sedgwick but turns south into General Hill's Confederates who have taken a stand along an old sunken road. The battle rages for nearly four hours with horrendous numbers lost. General French's men, with orders to overcome the Confederate troops hiding in the trench of the sunken road, move forward in wave after wave of human bodies amidst the smoke of heavy gunfire. Even though the Confederates are outnumbered they stubbornly hold their position, one soldier moving up to take the place of a fallen comrade. Casualties in the trench increase until the bodies lying one on top of another form a mound so high the onrushing Yankees can use it as a means to cross the sunken road. Imagine the numbers of men it would take to fill the trench enabling such a thing. Finally after sheer exhaustion sets in the fighting stops in this section of the field.

period view of Burnside Bridge from the Confederate side; photo courtesy of Antietam National Battlefield ParkThe final phase is at a bridge over Antietam Creek. Beginning at 9:30 a.m., Union General Burnside tries to cross the creek using the bridge, now known as urnside Bridge, and each time is driven back by 400 Georgians. By 1:00 p.m. Burnside's men finally succeed in crossing the bridge but take two hours to reform and advance to the top of the slope. By late afternoon they successfully drive the Georgians back almost to Sharpsburg and threaten to cut off General Lee's line of retreat. But around 4:00 p.m. General Hill's division, arriving from Harpers Ferry, drives General Burnside's troops back to the heights by the bridge they had crossed just hours before.

The Battle of Antietam ends with this last thrust by the Confederates and the next day General Lee's forces retreat across the Potomac River ending for the time being their incursion into the North. But who won? Of the approximate 40,000 Southerners, 19,700 men were lost and of the nearly 87,000 Northerners, 12,410 were lost. This is the most costly single day in the entire Civil War and yet neither side had a decisive victory. Lee's failure to successfully carry the war into the North caused the South to lose England's recognition of the Southern government. The battle on the other hand gave Lincoln the opportunity to issue the Emancipation Proclamation, which, on January 1, 1863 freed all slaves in all states rebellious to the United States. The war now had two purposes, ending slavery and the reuniting of the United States.

Accessed 9/20/2002, available from www.civilwarhome.com/Antietamdescription.htm: Internet

I can try to explain what the battlefield looks like but the Antietam Image Gallery on the official National Park Services website shows you a lot better than I can ever describe. You can see how the battlefield looked in 1862 and then how it looks today.

A map of the battleground is at www.civilwarhome.com/Antietammap.htm and, if like me you have a hard time envisioning just how many an estimated 23,100 men are look at the Luminary held annually the first Saturday in December at Antietam. I was so overwhelmed the first time I saw it all I could do was cry.

This may sound strange but the Civil War battlefields are so quiet in today's world, even beautiful. There's such a tranquillity about them it's hard to picture anything this horrible happening. But if you stand in the hush of them, look around you and listen the quiet tells so much. Don't get me wrong, I'm not talking about ghosts but you can feel the presence of those men who fought so many years ago. You can hear the sounds of the horses pulling the artillery into place, or the clanging of the swords, even the nervous murmurs of the men prior to the fighting trying to prepare themselves for what's to come. But how do you prepare yourself for this? You don't, you just do it. What makes man think war solves problems? How can one human being do such horrible things to another human being?

© 2006 Winifred Ledoux