Today marks the 145th anniversary of the bloodiest day in American history.
Robert E. Lee crossed the Potomac and entered Maryland with high hopes. If he was successful, he thought the state might join the Confederacy. A major victory might even convince the European powers to formally recognize the Confederate government. Maybe, just maybe, Lee’s raid into Maryland would bring and end to the war, and with it, Confederate independence.
But it didn’t work out that way.
Two armies clashed near Antietam Creek just outside Sharpsburg, Maryland. The battle claimed about 23,000 casualties, including somewhere between 6,300 and 6,5000 killed or mortally wounded.
But really, what does that mean? Historian James McPherson puts those numbers in perspective:
Despite the ghastly events of September 11, 2001, another September day 139 years earlier remains the bloodiest single day in American history. The 6,300 to 6,500 Union and Confederate soldiers killed and mortally wounded near the Maryland village of Sharpsburg on September 17, 1862, were more than twice the number of fatalities suffered in the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on September 11, 2001. Another 15,000 men wounded in the battle of Antietam would recover, but many of them would never again walk on two legs or work with two arms. The number of casualties at Antietam was four times greater than American casualties at the Normandy beaches on June 6, 1944. More American soldiers died at Sharspburg (The Confederate name for the battle) than died in combat in all the other wars fought by this country in the nineteenth century combined: the War of 1812, the Mexcian-American War, the Spanish-American War, and the Indian wars.
First person accounts are another way to find perspective amongst massive numbers. One Union lieutenant colonel offered a vivid account of the battlefield just after the guns drew quiet. “In the road the dead covered the ground,” he wrote. “It seemed, as I rode along, that it was the Valley of Death. I think that in the space of less than ten acres, lay the bodies of a thousand dead men and as many more wounded.” Another soldier had the unenviable task of burying dead Confederates. “Today I was given detaile to burry the Dead Rebels, just where I captured the flag at 2:00 PM of the 17th. 12 lengths of fence being counted off for my station & in 10 rods [55 yards] we have piled and buried 264…& 4 Detailes has been obliged to do likewise, it was a Sight I never want to encounter again.”
Photographer Alexander Gardner and his assistant James F. Gibson reached the battlefield a day after the battle ended. Within hours of learning that the Rebel army had withdrawn from the area, Gardner and Gibson began to photograph the devastation. No other American battlefield had been photographed so soon after a battle.
They took at least 95 photos of the battlefield. Gardner brought the horrors of war to New York City during the third week of October.
Matthew Brady displayed the Gardner photos in his gallery. The New York Times praised the exhibit. “Mr Brady has done something to bring home to us the terrible reality and earnestness of war. If he has not brought bodies and laid them in our door-yardds and along streets, he has done something very like it,” wrote the reporter; however, “there is one side of the picture that…has escaped photographic skill. It is the background of widows and orphans…Homes have been made desolate, and the light of life in thousands of hearts has been quenched forever. All of this desolation imagination must paint—broken hearts cannot be photographed.”
Wise words from a reporter who understood some of what Walt Whitman said would never get into the books.