This week marks an important milestone in American military history: the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Antietam. Staged among the rolling cornfields of western Maryland, Antietam remains the bloodiest one-day battle in American history with more than 23,000 men killed, wounded or missing in the skirmish. Antietam was the culmination of Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s first push into Union territory. As Lee remarked two weeks prior to the battle, “The present seems to be the most propitious time since the commencement of the war for the Confederate army to enter Maryland.”
Antietam was also a turning point for the war. Emboldened by victories earlier in 1862, the Army of Northern Virginia crossed the Potomac River into Maryland. Both England and France were on the verge of recognizing the Confederacy as an independent nation. Unknown to many, President Abraham Lincoln had also placed a special symbolic weight on the impending battle.
As Lincoln told his cabinet, “I made the promise to myself that if God gave us the victory in the approaching battle, I would consider it an indication of divine will in favor of emancipation.”
Once across the river, Lee dispatched Gen. Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson to take the Union garrison at Harper’s Ferry. Lee divided the rest of his forces into flanks moving north and west toward South Mountain and Hagerstown, Maryland. Lincoln countered by sending Gen. George McClellan to meet the Confederate forces. Beyond Lee and McClellan, the leaders of the respective armies reads like a Who’s Who of military heroism: Generals Longstreet; Mansfield; Hooker; Burnside; Hill.
The ensuing pitch lasted 12 hours. Blood literally flowed into the wagon furrows of the Maryland countryside. Whether the men involved knew it, this battle held much in its balance. While exacting losses greater than we had ever known, the battle itself was inconclusive. Even so, it obliged Lee to make retreat into Virginia. It also spurred Lincoln to issue the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation. Moreover, it solidified the dual purpose of the war: preservation of the union and putting an end to slavery.
The battlefields of Antietam also play a historically significant part in changing the nation’s perception of bravery. It was decidedly no longer the exclusive purview of men. Dr. James Dunn, an Army surgeon at Antietam, said, “In my feeble estimation, General McClellan, with all his laurels, sinks into insignificance beside the true heroine of the age, the angel of the battlefield.”
He was speaking of Clara Barton. The National Parks Service webpage devoted to Barton reads in part, “Then Miss Barton got down to work. As bullets whizzed overhead and artillery boomed in the distance, Miss Barton cradled the heads of suffering soldiers, prepared food for them in a local farm house, and brought water to the wounded men. As she knelt down to give one man a drink, she felt her sleeve quiver. She looked down, noticed a bullet hole in her sleeve, and then discovered that the bullet had killed the man she was helping.”
This focused, selfless action is idiomatic of Barton’s deeds that day. Her heroic acts of compassion were also observed at other notable battles of 1862: Cedar Mountain, Second Manassas and Fredericksburg. As such, Antietam stands as a place of enduring lessons. It demands we find the courage to do what needs done. It extols the virtues of selflessness and charity. It admonishes that great nations are built upon honor and sacrifice.