- The Washington Times - Friday, September 16, 2005

It is difficult — if not impossible — for an American in today’s world to get his mind around the slaughterhouse that was a Civil War battle. In contemplating the Battle of Sharpsburg — or Antietam, as it is known in the North — it is especially difficult.

Today is the anniversary of the bloodiest single day in American military history. And the carnage of Sept. 17, 1862, is unimaginable. Let’s look at a few figures:

The Union dead came to 2,100, the Confederate 1,550; Northern wounded 9,550, Southern 7,750; missing or captured Yankees 750, Rebels 1,020. Casualties for the two sides totaled 22,720. These figures are best estimates.

No one knows the real number of men who would later die of their wounds or the missing who had been killed. With conservative estimates of 20 percent of the wounded dying later and 30 percent of the missing killed, the number of soldiers that died from fighting in this battle comes to 7,640.

That is more Americans who died from about 10 hours of combat in a few farm fields in Western Maryland than died in five of our wars — the Revolutionary War, the War of 1812, the Spanish-American War, the Persian Gulf war and so far in the 2-1/2 years of the current imbroglio in Iraq. More soldiers were killed and wounded at the Battle of Antietam than the deaths of all Americans in the Revolutionary War, War of 1812, Mexican War and the Spanish-American War combined.

Antietam was the climax of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee’s first effort to take the war to the North. As is the case in many battles, the two armies arrived on the field through a series of muddles and mistakes.

Despite being badly outnumbered — on the day of the battle, Lee had 45,000 troops to face Union Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan’s 87,000 — the Southern leader divided his forces, sending about half his men under Stonewall Jackson to capture the Federal arsenal at Harper’s Ferry while he himself faced the North’s Army of the Potomac with the rest. Lee was counting on McClellan’s normal caution and tendency to count each Southern soldier as two men to give him time to roam at will.

However, through rare and still unexplained good fortune, Lee’s Special Order No. 191 with the details of the deployment of the Army of Northern Virginia fell into McClellan’s hands, stirring him into unusual boldness.

McClellan forced his way through the South Mountain gaps, and by the afternoon of Sept. 15 the two armies faced each other across Antietam Creek. Then McClellan’s caution returned.

On Sept. 16, after receiving the surrender of Harper’s Ferry, Jackson force-marched the bulk of his troops to join Lee, leaving A.P. Hill and his division to finish dealing with the prisoners and material captured at the arsenal.

At dawn the next day, the battle began with Joseph Hooker’s corps attacking Jackson’s positions on the left of Lee’s lines. The bloodletting continued until about 4 p.m., when Hill’s troops arrived from Harper’s Ferry and immediately attacked Ambrose Burnside’s corps, which was threatening to break through on Lee’s right.

After Burnside’s repulse, the combat faded away. Stubbornly, Lee held his ground all the next day, daring McClellan to attack. That night, the rain came, and Lee began retreating across the Potomac and back into Virginia.

Nearby Shepherdstown, W.Va., which then considered itself part of Virginia, had done its best to feed the ragged troops of Lee’s army on their way to battle. While the cannons’ roar echoed through the streets, the town turned itself into one vast hospital for Confederate wounded, with virtually every woman and girl acting as nurses and the men too old or too young to be in one army or the other serving as orderlies.

As McClellan’s artillery fired on the retreating Confederates, which meant firing on Shepherdstown, one of the women there noted: “It is curious how much louder guns sound when they are pointed at you than when turned the other way.”

And that is how Lee’s first attempt to invade the North ended.

Why should we revisit such a day of havoc — in which each of the armies suffered more casualties than U.S. forces suffered on D-Day and the invasion of Europe in World War II?

Well, heroism should never be forgotten. The soldiers of both North and South showed such immense courage, it is a legacy we should hold onto as tightly as possible. The heroism on that bloody field and all the other tragic Civil War battlefields gave birth to the United States we know today.

There is something else to remember now in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, whose area of devastation is generally given as 90,000 square miles. As a comparison, the area of the United Kingdom (England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland) is 94,525 square miles.

Much of the South, including the area ravaged by Katrina, did not begin to recover from the Civil War until the Tennessee Valley Authority and other New Deal programs of the 1930s.

It will take that type of national effort and commitment, plus the imagination and commitment that produced the Marshall Plan to help Western Europe revive after World War II, to bring back the Katrina-wasted areas.

One wonders if an administration that initially reacted to the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks by urging Americans to go on a gigantic shopping spree and then demanding tax cuts to benefit primarily the wealthiest among us is capable of the effort, the commitment and the imagination necessary to carry out such a massive undertaking.

Stroube Smith, a former copy editor for The Washington Times, is a free-lance writer.

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