When the two great armies came to Maryland to fight the great battle, Maryland was a place of grass and grace. It was green and orderly and had definition. Then the two great armies entered Maryland and trampled much of the grass. They were also dirty and put away clean things. The two great armies made loud noises and the earth was corrupted.
– By Don Robertson from By Antietam Creek, a 1960 novel.
SHARPSBURG, Maryland – The leaves turned from green to gold to brown. The battlefield was so quiet you’d swear you could hear leaves kissing the green grass as they drifted from the branches in the gentle autumn breeze.
Now that’s a sentence for no one who wants to say anything.
But that’s all I heard as I approached a place called Dunker Church on the Antietam Battlefield last week.
That’s all I heard as I walked on trails on the ground where about 6,500 Union and Confederate soldiers died in a single day – September 17, 1862.
At least another 15,000 were injured. Who knows how many of them died later. Many of the survivors lost arms, legs and hope.
The few tourists who wandered around spoke only in whispers, many said nothing at all. It was a beautiful autumn afternoon – a colorful celebration of life, as nature seems to know that cold and snow are coming.
I took a trip to Antietam as I drove to Baltimore to watch the Browns lose to the Ravens. It is at least the fifth time that I have been to this remarkable historical site.
I was standing by Dunker Church, a small stone house first built in 1852 by the German Baptist brothers. They were pacifists called “Dunkers” because they believed in full-water baptism – immersing yourself in nearby Antietam Creek as a sign of forgiveness and being cleansed of sins.
During the battle and a few days after, it became a Confederate hospital. Later, the Union used it to embalm their dead soldiers.
Like September 17, 1862, it still overlooks The Cornfield.
WAR COMES TO CHURCH & PASTORAL FIELDS
“Thousands of his troops were barefoot, almost all in tatters, sunburnt dark, looking thin and hungry,” – By Allan Nevins in War for the Union, 1862-1863.
Confederate General Robert E. Lee had brought his troops into Maryland to threaten the north. He believed Maryland—which had declared itself neutral during the war—would rally south. He believed he could invade the north and perhaps force an end to the war. Perhaps a victory would even convince some European countries to go to war on the side of the South.
He was wrong and wrong again.
Lee hoped his hungry troops would find food in fertile Maryland, but the local citizens were not eager to feed an invading army. The night before the battle, many Confederate soldiers ate green apples and corn found in the woods and fields. The smell of the soldiers was rancid and harsh from having slept outside for months, far from their homes and southern headquarters.
I stood by Dunker Church staring at the cornfield, probably near where Confederate General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson looked out at the landscape as battle loomed. The South had claimed the church on a small hill as an observation point.
The stems were long, brown and brittle, just as they probably were on that September day in 1862.
The closest town to the battlefield is Sharpsburg, Virginia, with a population of 560.
It was about 1,200 in 1862, mostly farmers. Suddenly the area was filled with more than 150,000 troops. It is impossible to imagine when you look at the rural fields, the rolling hills and the farms. A few puffy white clouds against a pristine blue sky the day I was there.
The night before the battle it had rained from heaven. A few hours later, it would pour bullets, hailballs, and cannonballs from hell on both sides.
THE GRAIN FIELD OF DEATH
“It came in a gray pearly mist that enveloped the fields and the woods. It came with a blast of muskets, supported by the deeper roar of cannon fire that increased in volume and intensity until it was continuous and the earth beneath the feet of the attackers and defenders shocked.
– By Shelby Foote on Antietam from Civil War: A Narrative.
The battle began just as dawn broke. Soldiers from both armies rushed into the wheatfield, the Confederates let out wolfish cries. The Union men had lost battle after battle to Lee and Jackson in Virginia. But now many felt steel in their spines. Maryland was the north. Maryland was their country.
They wouldn’t flinch.
The soldiers could not see more than a foot ahead because the corn was so thick and high. They used their guns to knock over the stems and grind them under their feet. Both armies emerged from the fog.
The two sides threw men into the wheatfield. Soon most of the stems were gone. Other stalks were on fire, the impact of the guns and cannons blazing away. Men shot their own troops because they couldn’t see through the corn stalks and smoking guns.
“In the four-hour battle that morning nearly 13,000 men were killed or wounded,” historian Stephen W. Sears wrote in The Civil War Battlefield Guide. Other writers have different estimates.
But as Union General Joseph Hooker wrote in his official post-battle report: “At the time I am writing, every corn stalk in the field was cut as closely as with a knife… the slain lay in rows, just as they had joined their ranks a few minutes earlier.”
Some soldiers reported that it was impossible to step into that field without landing on a wounded or dead soldier.
NEVER MORE DEADLY DAY IN AMERICA
“The 6,300 to 6,500 Union and Confederate soldiers who were killed and mortally wounded near the village of Sharpsburg, Maryland, on September 17, 1862, were more than double the number killed in the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on September 11, 2001 … The number of casualties at Antietam was four times greater than the number of American casualties on June 6, 1944.”
– By James McPherson in Antietam: The Struggle That Changed the Course of the Civil War.
The cornfield was just the beginning of the carnage unleashed on that September Wednesday. There was some fighting in other cornfields on different farms. There was a Sunken Road (also called Bloody Alley) where thousands more were killed and injured.
Later in the day was Burnside Bridge, a massacre I wrote about a few years ago. It’s as if the generals of both armies lost their minds and kept attacking each other.
Then the night graciously let down a black curtain and turned out the lights of nature.
Finally it was over.
The nearest town was Hagerstown, Md. Newspapers reported that it had become “one huge hospital”. Men were buried in mass graves. The future founder of the Red Cross, Clara Barton, was there to help the medical people. Future President Rutherford B. Hayes and future Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes were among those injured.
President Abraham Lincoln and many historians believe Union General George McClellan could have ended the war shortly after Antietam chased Lee’s battered army back to Virginia. He had about twice as many soldiers. But McClellan refused. For most of his conscription, he was convinced that Lee outnumbered him.
Lee returned to Virginia to regroup. While still unhappy with McClellan, Lincoln used the battle as a victory as Lee’s invasion was halted. Five months later, Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation to free the slaves.
Lee would come through this area again. Nine months later, they marched close to the battlefield of Antietam. Lee was on his way to what became the Battle of Gettysburg (July 1–3, 1863). Some Antietam veterans suffered from what we now know as post-traumatic stress disorder while walking those dirt roads. It was not uncommon for bones from the dead buried close to the surface to surface.
The war would last three more years after Antietam.
“From that day to the end of the war, nothing was the same, nothing was clean, and nothing grand or ceremonial or glittering or patriotic… Until that Wednesday there were beliefs and norms. Now survival was the only conviction . . . when the two great armies moved away.”
– By Don Robertson from By Antietam Creek
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