Last weekend, on a fiercely hot Sunday, my wife and I visited the Antietam Battlefield, located near Sharpsburg, MD. It’s quite easy to get to it from DC. You take 270-N to 70-W, then keep going on 70-W until you see the signs for Antietam. Once off the highway, you’ve got another 8 miles or so till you get there. You can’t miss it. There’s a big National Park Service sign by the side of the road. All in all, it’s about a 1 hour and 30 minute drive, give or take 15 minutes, and the history lesson is priceless.
Antietam is “the bloodiest one day battle in American History”, according to the official NPS website. In 12 hours of “savage combat”, over 23,000 soldiers were killed, wounded or missing. Six generals were killed during this battle. The human price of this battle was driven home by a photographer: Alexander Gardner. His haunting photographs of the dead at Antietam were said to have brought them “to our doorsteps” by the New York Times. And it’s true. It’s one thing to sing of battles won and of bravery on the battlefield, and it’s quite another to stare at the dead in front of you and see the horrible price of that thing you call victory.
What always strikes me when I look at war is how senseless it all is. Even when I’m far removed from it, by a century and more, I can’t help shivers from running down my spine when I think the ground I stand on is the same ground where countless men lost their lives.
Why? How many more people need to die horribly until humanity as a whole realizes war is bad? Forget humanity as a whole, how about the United States alone? When will we get it? Ever? At the first sign of trouble somewhere (preferably in the Middle East), we’re more than happy to send our soldiers in there to die for some trumped up cause, and to spend trillions of dollars and bankrupt our economy as well. At least the Civil War had a good reason. The country needed to be kept together, and slavery abolished. Still, in spite of those good reasons, far too many people died during that dark time in American history: around 360,000 lost their lives, and countless more were injured or maimed for life.
I’m going to show you how Antietam looks today. But I want you to have a look at the way it was back then, too, especially through Gardner’s eyes. Never mind the fact that the dead bodies may have been arranged in a photo or two. Death is still death, and it’s still just as grim and nasty regardless of the pose.
First, the Library of Congress has a LOT of scanned negatives from the Civil War — an amazing resource. Here is their collection of Civil War photographs. That’s where I got the few photos shown below (taken by Alexander Gardner). Most of the photos are in the public domain, which means they can be used freely, although it would be nice to give the LoC credit for their work in scanning, archiving and curating the photographs. It’s also worth looking at the October 1862 issue of Harper’s Weekly, which features illustrations and reports by eyewitnesses to the battle.
This is Abraham Lincoln at Antietam, after the battle ended.
Assorted photos of dead soldiers, in the aftermath of the battle.
Gardner’s notable photographs from the battlefield are listed in an album on the NPS website. Have a look at them, and even download them, should you want to have your own archive.
What does it look like today?
Dunker Church is the spot where truce was called at the end of the battle. If you’re interested, there’s a nice historical summary available.
The church is visible in this photo taken by Gardner as well.
The approximate spot where those soldiers died is now the site for a war monument. I hope you won’t find me irreverent, but I find war monuments woefully inadequate at paying back the men that gave their lives in battle. They’re pretty much useless at teaching people lessons against war as well, since they usually depict some victory symbol, or men charging, or some other idiotic thing like that.
What is that supposed to mean?! Tens of thousands of men died here, and we have an eagle on a column? Whoopee…
You know the expression “war on the doorstep”? Well, the people who had farms at Antietam got to know it full well during that battle.
Just remember, the next time a politician makes the case for war, this is really what he or she means. Those are going to be your sons and daughters.
Historical photographs courtesy of the Library of Congress. Photographer: Alexander Gardner. The recent photographs are naturally, my own.