The Post Impressionist
This really looks like a battle field... Most of them don't, and the result is disenchantment. That monument there, the guide says, is where Gen. Mansfield fell... "Twenty-seven generals were either killed or wounded in this battle."... Well, that’s one for my friends who were in the A. E. F. In 1862, Generals really got in there and bared their breasts.
Antietam saw the bloodiest day's fighting in American history... On the right, beyond that granite shaft, the firing was so intense that the green corn came down as if cut by a gigantic scythe... "There were so many dead you could cross the field by stepping from body to body"... Now the corn is growing again, waving serenely in a field once irrigated by blood.
The guide steers you to Burnside's Bridge, practically unchanged in 75 years. He talks about the scrap here as a Greek might talk about Thermopylae... Leonidas was Gen. Robert Toombs and the Spartans were his 1,200 Georgians, arrayed against a far superior Union force under Burnside… Why was this tiny bridge so important? If Burnside could have taken it in a hurry McClellan could have bent back the Confederate flank, bottled up Lee and thwarted his escape across the Potomac... Antietam then would have marked the end, not Appomattox three years later.
But even in the talk of all this carnage at the bridge there creeps in, unintentionally, a ridiculous note. At the height of the battle a Federal soldier discovered that he could wade across Antietam Creek... So the bridge wasn't so important after all. Too bad for those who died at the bridge.
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Anyway, the delay at the bridge and the timely arrival of Confederate reinforcements from Harpers Ferry halted the flanking movement and Lee executed a magnificent retreat.
Farther on the guide takes you to the top of a lofty stone tower... This must have been the scene of something extraordinary. It was... Down below is "Bloody Lane." In the whole carmine panorama of Antietam, this was the most sanguinary spot of all, a salient that fairly ran with gore... In "Bloody Lane" the Confederate dead lay "two to five deep."... Here is where President Roosevelt will come on September 17 to witness a re-enactment of the battle.
Why do thoughts of Mark Twain come intruding here?... Oh, yes; his great philippic against war... At first "The loud little handful will shout for the war."... "A few fair men on the other side will argue and reason against the war."... They will get a hearing at first, but not for long... "Those others will outshout them."... They will be stoned from the platform and free speech will be strangled by furious men... "Next the statesmen will invent cheap lies," blaming the side that has been attacked, and every man will be glad of the "soothing falsities."... "Thus he will bye and bye convince himself that the war is just, and will thank God for the better sleep he enjoys after process of grotesque self-deception."
What would Mark Twain say today about the Japanese butchery in China? What would he say about the slaughter of women and children behind the lines, about the strafing of a friendly British ambassador - all without as much as a declaration of war?
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But, here, this is Antietam... Everybody up here is an authority on the battle. Not only the guide, but your newspaper friends from nearby Hagerstown talk about the flanking movements, the charges and counter-charges, the enfilade... Do they shudder as they tell you that the dead lay "two to three deep?" No, they don't.
If they like you, they give you a musket ball found on the field of battle and a brass button from a Federal officer's coat. Why? Do they believe in glorifying war? No, that isn't it... Two of them, you learn, were in the World War and came back anything but bloodthirsty. They don't like war.
But you sense that, in their eyes, Antietam was something different, something a bit more sublime... Here men taught "the Romans how to die."... Here men could see their foe, kill or get killed. Here, they must reason, was gallantry in the classic meaning of the word.
Anyway, the scars are all gone now. In Hagerstown, on last Memorial Day, an old warrior in gray and another in blue rode in the parade together... Onlookers applauded and cried... Hagerstown, 12 miles from Antietam, was a 50-50 town in 1861-65, and it still is as it prepares to commemorate the seventy fifth anniversary of the battle... The streets are garlanded with two kinds of flags, the Stars and Stripes of the victor and the Stars and Bars of the vanquished... Lee and McClellan are united on a memorial 50-cent piece... The bands play "Dixie" as well as the national anthem... Hagerstown has even selected a queen for the occasion— Queen Antietam.
Will all wars seem romantic in retrospect?
Is it merely time that has wrought all this? Or, remembering Mark Twain, are there varying degrees of barbarity in war? Perhaps you shouldn't think about Shanghai when you go to the Antietam festival... It would not be good manners in the presence of a tolerant and friendly people. After all, no women and children were killed behind the lines at Antietam.
EDWARD T. FOLLIARD.
Reprinted with permission from Washingtonpost.Newsweek Interactive Company and The Washington Post. Washington Post
Edward T. Folliard
Copyright 1937, Washingtonpost.Newsweek Interactive and The Washington Post. All rights Reserved.
Folliard received the Pulitzer Prize for National Telegraphic Reporting in 1947 and the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1970, among other awards.
Western Maryland Room, Washington County Free Library.
Antietam, Battle of, Md., 1862: Centennial celebrations, etc
Washington County (Md.), 1937.