Out in the Maryland countryside, close by the Potomac River an hour west of Washington, D.C., lies a drowsy little town called Sharpsburg — population 666. Nobody except its townfolk and nearby farmers would pay much attention to it were it not for a meadow outside town that experienced the bloodiest single day in American history.
On that day in 1862, on pastureland next to a tiny stream called Antietam Creek, as many as 5,000 Americans were killed, and another 18,000 were wounded or went missing, in a single 12-hour battle.
And these were all Americans, be they Yankee northerners or Rebel southerners, fighting a great civil war.
Confederate General Robert E. Lee had won victory after victory on his own soil in Virginia, south of the Potomac. He wanted to move the fighting out of Virginia, where it had wrecked industry and farming. He needed a triumph in northern territory that would persuade France and England to endorse the Confederacy of 12 breakaway southern states and provide it with arms to win the war.
Support for U.S. President Abraham Lincoln’s war to save the Union was shaky at the time, and Lee knew that if he won at Antietam Creek and could march onward and menace the capital city of Washington, the border state of Maryland might join the Rebel cause, and the North lose its appetite for war.
So the two great armies collided on rolling farmland near Sharpsburg, a town that back then was just a tenth of its present size.
In those fields today, you can almost feel and hear the fierce battle that decided it all, especially while walking down a sunken lane that the locals called “Hog Trough Road” because pigs had worn a depression in the earth going to and from a barn.
But the soldiers would soon call the place “Bloody Lane.”
Many years ago, my VOA colleague Ken Reed, a gifted storyteller, walked Bloody Lane and told our audience what happened in the attack by 9,500 Union troops on that trench, held by Confederate General D. H. Hill and 5,000 of his men:
The Southerners stood shoulder to shoulder, protected by a bank of earth, and fired volley after volley at almost point-blank range into succeeding waves of attacking Northern soldiers. From the surrounding hills, batteries of artillery from both sides raked the sunken lane and those attacking it.
The intensity of shot, shrapnel, and bullet, was such, wrote one who was there, that “every stalk in a field of corn through which some of the Federals charged was cut level to the ground as if cut by a knife, and the slain lay in rows precisely as they had stood in their ranks.” In only three hours of fighting, almost 6,000 men fell here at Bloody Lane.
Lee lost one-fourth of his army in that trough and around it, and was forced to pull his forces back into Virginia. The Confederates would invade the North once more the following summer, only to be vanquished again in a decisive battle in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania.
The South’s defeat outside Sharpsburg meant there would be no French and English recognition of the Confederacy, and the Union victory at Antietam gave Lincoln the inspiration — others would say backbone — to issue the Emancipation Proclamation, an important first step toward ending slavery. It carefully declared that slaves in the rebellious southern states “are, and henceforward shall be, free.”
I say “carefully declared,” because Lincoln purposely said nothing about slaves still held in nominally loyal border states such as Maryland and Kentucky and Delaware, which Lincoln did want to drive into the Confederate bosom.
Nor did the proclamation have much practical effect, since the war was still raging, and the Union was in no position to enforce it. Only by sweeping through the South itself and wrenching slaves loose from their masters were Union forces able to assure their freedom.
But from September 17, 1862 — that day of carnage at Bloody Lane — onward, the war had a moral imperative that hastened the ultimate Federal victory.
From that trench at Antietam, Ken Reed offered a footnote:
Every now and then, a tourist or a neighboring farmer finds an old, rusted army belt buckle, a button or two, the bowl of a pipe. And looking at them, you are almost forced to conjure up the sprawled bodies, the yelling and the thunder, and wonder in what unimaginable future will our own buttons and buckles be found.
Antietam today is the most authentically preserved Civil War battlefield in the East. For long stretches along a 14-km (8½-mile) driving route among magnificent statues and monuments, cannon, and split-rail fences, there is nothing to suggest the 21st Century. No housing developments or gas stations. Just rolling farmland like the men at Antietam found almost 150 years ago.
I’ve seen and stood silent at that place, too, and heard the wind whistle through Bloody Lane and the adjacent cornfield, and past little Dunker Church and the three-arched Burnside Bridge so often depicted in illustrations of Civil War battles.
At Antietam National Cemetery, the final resting place of the Union soldiers who fell, one finds a 227-kilogram stone statue of a soldier known only as “Old Simon.”
It was someone like him who told the story of the battle in “The Ballad of Antietam,” a folk song that came along later in the war. “The dead lay all around me,” go the words, “for we had had a fearful fight upon the field that day.”
I thought the boy who shot me had a familiar face
But in the battle’s fury, ’twas difficult to trace.
I thought it was my brother Jay, and him I could but see.
I’d kiss him and forgive him and lay me down to die.
I quickly ran unto him and heard his story o’er.
It was my long-lost brother who lay weld’ring in his gore.
As I spoke of our loved ones left behind
And soothed his fevered brow.
He whispered, “My dear brother,
“I can die happy now.”
It is likely there were many such exchanges on the charnel fields of Antietam, in that brother-against-brother war.
Ted's Wild Words
These are a few words from this posting that you may not know. Each time, I'll tell you a little about them and also place them into a cumulative archive of "Ted's Wild Words" in the right-hand column of the home page. Just click on it there, and if there's another word that you'd like me to explain, just ask!
Charnel. Gruesomely remindful of death. A “charnel house” is a building or large vault in which the bodies or bones of the dead are placed. Grisly murder scenes are also sometimes described as charnel houses.
Imperative. As a noun, this means an obligation or mood that influences future action, as when a nation feels it has a moral imperative to act. As an adjective, it means vital and urgent.