My passion for military history has root in my environs. Say what you want about DC suburbia and the Federal Government, the first puts me in close vicinity to Civil War sites that the latter keeps up extremely well. Awaking yesterday morning at 2:45 AM with insomniac tendency, I chose to make an early morning stab at visiting the Battlefield of Antietam (Or Sharpsburg depending on who you ask and whether they have stripes or bars on their preferred flag). I was so successful that I arrived an hour before the visitor center opened, and had to make a slight detour into West Virginia to find a McDonalds, which also was located next to the last operating video rental store in the United States of America.
I’ve been to Antietam many times; often with an array of perverse circumstances. On one occasion the battlefield was under half a foot of snow, another time a relative was hospitalized as I was on the field, and most recently a trip into one of the two bars/restaurants in the tiny town of Sharpsburg (I think it’s more fun if you are left guessing) during a day of touring sent my friend Drew into the Realms of Unrelenting Food Poisoning.
I will say this: Don’t order the Three Little Piggies. It’s not worth the cost in blood and treasure.
But arriving on the field when it opened, I ventured onwards into the Visitor Center where I collected several leaflets and set out to walk the battlefield. Almost no one was there, and a barely saw a soul for the six hours I wandered the countryside. Most people would not voluntarily walk through empty fields up to their laces in frozen mud on a January morning. Also, most people work for a living and are not still on vacation the day after New Years’.
My hikes in the January wind demonstrate why I am not likely going to find a wife who isn’t okay with occasionally facing serious discomfort in the name of history. It was blisteringly cold, showing me with furious avail just how exposed and open the ground was on that September morning. And it wasn’t like there were any bathroom or food facilities close by either. The battlefield is solely dotted with farms, cows, sheep, and occasional stone monuments. Many dedicated on the centenary celebrations, Antietam boasts a respectable number for a battlefield as quiet as it is. Unlike Gettysburg, which is lousy with memorials and always crammed with tourists, Antietam is very somber. By contrast to the fast food expansion of Gettysburg, the town of Sharpsburg remains very small, and it never had many tourist-related operations. The recession killed off the only two that remained from my youth, and now it has two taverns, a gas station, and an ice cream parlor. So while it is great for the solitary young man who wants to march in the steps of armies while his nose hairs freeze, I think anyone who doesn’t find solace in booze, petrol, and ice cream in the winter would avoid it.
I had walked some sections of the 5.078 sq miles before, but I set out to do some I had not previously. Antietam is located in the as-yet-inviolate western Maryland countryside, though the creep of the Washington Metropolitan area from the community of Hagerstown is shrinking the cordon of rurality each time I visit. Gentle rolling hills and agricultural fields dot the battlefield as they did in September of 1862, when the ridgeline overlooking Antietam creek was occupied by General Robert E. Lee’s vastly outnumbered Confederate Army of Northern Virginia. Attacked from 5:30 AM to 6:00 PM, the rebels beat off superior Union forces under General George McClellan, experiencing a few moments of mortal peril that, with the Confederates on unfriendly ground and with a river at their backs, could have ended the war in the east in 1862. However the unwieldy Union army, Confederate tenacity, and the ever-present and obscure frictions and fortunes of war ensured that the southerners would live to fight another day.
The places I walked have taken on a mythic character: Miller’s Cornfield, the Bloody Lane, Burnside’s Bridge. Each saw unbelievably horrific fighting as lines of men attempted to maneuver for frontal attacks under deadly artillery fire. The ground is mostly open, broken only by woodlots, a small country lane in a depression, and the slow ascent to the ridge line from the lazy Antietam. It was a mostly stand up fight; the coordination of attacks and the assaults on ill-defended Confederate positions were dogged by bad communication, breakdowns of command, and a horrific number of casualties for line and field officers. Hence many of the Union attacks went straight ahead against enemy positions, some well prepared, and it led to some 23,000 casualties on both sides. In a single day more men fell than in all previous American wars combined.
My highlight was walking the attack of the 9th corps over the famous Burnside’s Bridge, and then the final attack of the day that almost spelled doom for the Confederacy, only to be magnificently defeated by the Gandolf-at-Helm’s-Deep-like arrival of AP Hill’s Division, which had already marched 14 miles and forded the Potomac. This hike of over three miles brought home to me the horrors of the Civil War’s mix of eighteenth century formations and proto-twentieth century weaponry; the distances at which men slew each other were growing even as the general trend still favored closed rank formations. And as I stood there, shivering from the wind and looking upwards at where the Rebel assailants were besieging the men around me over 151 years ago, I read a quote froma Private Thompson of the 9th NY Volunteers, whose assault on the Confederate positions I followed on foot:
“We heard all through the war that the army was “eager to be led against the enemy.” It must have been so, for truthful correspondents said so, and editors confirmed it. But when you came to hunt for this particular itch, it was always the next regiment that had it. The truth is, when bullets are whacking against tree trunks and solid shot are cracking skulls like egg shells, the consuming passion in the breast of the average man is to get out of the way. Between the physical fear of going forward, and the moral fear of going back, there is a predicament of exceptional awkwardness from which a hidden hole in the ground would be a wonderfully welcome outlet.”
When I got back to my car, I looked back upon the valley of the 9th’s attack, and thought about the humanity involved. Antietam witnessed men against fire, but also men against men, and the costs were terrible when men who did not wish to kill, but could not go back, met each other eye to eye. Earlier I had traced out thirty paces from the Sunken Lane, which the Confederates used as a prepared position like a First World War trench to gun down several frontal assaults before being outflanked and similarly cut to shreds. This thirty paces marked the furthest penetration by the famous 69th New York State Militia, or the “Irish 69th” under the revolutionary-turned-Union General Thomas Francis Meagher. Under withering fire, the 69th lost over 60% of its slightly over 300 men. Standing thirty paces ahead of the Sunken Road, I realized how close and yet how far I would have been from the men firing at me. Close enough to see their eyes, and to see their fear, hatred, desperation, weariness, and regret. There was nowhere to hide on that open ground from the rifled-musket or artillery fire. Before the battle, Father Corby, the Army Priest of the Irish Brigade, had given the 69th a stern warning in his benediction: Any man who shows his back to the enemy will be damned. There was nowhere to go but forward into the fire of the Georgians and Carolinians, crying out their battlecry “Faugh-a-Ballagh!” (Clear the Way!), and were torn to shreds with their fellow regiments. Under their emerald flag, bearing the phrase “Who never fled from the Clash of Spears” in Gaelic, the heroic traditions of legendary Ireland faced lead shot, lethal at 200 yards, just 30 paces away.
I headed home, lucky but for the grace of not being there on that fateful day. As I left, it began to snow.