- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 17, 2008


Just outside a small town in Western Maryland along the banks of an obscure stream running into the Potomac River, two American armies furiously slaughtered men in the opposing ranks in a daylong battle almost a century and a half ago today.

The Battle of Antietam, or Sharpsburg as it is known in the South, is the bloodiest day in U.S. military history. On Sept. 17, 1862, the Union dead totaled 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 added up to almost 28,000. The figures, of course, are best estimates. No one knows for sure the number of men who later died from their wounds or who were already dead but counted as missing. With conservative estimates of 20 percent of the wounded dying later and 30 percent of the missing killed, the number of soldiers who died from fighting in this battle came to more than 7,600.

As a contrast, the June 6, 1944, D-Day landings in Normandy of World War II came to 5,200, about a third of them killed in action. Each American army at Antietam suffered greater losses. The U.S. casualty rate on D-Day was about 5 percent. The Union’s Army of the Potomac had a 25 percent casualty rate and the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia a 31 percent rate.

This is not to belittle any generation of soldiers’ courage and heroism. Each age has its own measure of bravery and resolution.

What is hard to grasp in today’s world, though, is the slaughterhouse that was a Civil War battlefield. In the case of Antietam, the rows upon rows of dead - memorialized in harrowing Matthew Brady photographs - took only about 10 hours to be stacked up like cords of wood on a few farm fields.

The battle was the culmination of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee’s campaign to take the war into the North, but it came about more by accident than design.

Lee was badly outnumbered. On the day of the battle, he had 45,000 men - and about 10,000 of those arrived in the closing hours of the fight - to face Union Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan’s 87,000.

Despite this, the Southern leader divided his forces, sending about half his troops under Stonewall Jackson to seize the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry, while he kept an eye on McClellan’s army with the rest. Lee was counting on McClellan’s usual caution to give him time to maneuver at will. Through unexplained fortune, however, Lee’s Special Order No. 191 with the details of his deployment, fell into McClellan’s hands, stirring him into rare boldness.

McClellan pushed through the South Mountain gaps, and by the afternoon of Sept. 15 the two armies faced each other across Antietam Creek.

Then caution again struck McClellan. On Sept. 16, Jackson received the surrender of Harpers Ferry garrison, and force-marched the bulk of his troops to join Lee, leaving A.P. Hill and his division to deal with the prisoners and materiel taken at the arsenal.

At dawn the next day, Joseph Hooker’s corps kicked off the battle with an attack on Jackson’s lines on the left of Lee’s position. The bloodletting continued through the day moving from Lee’s left to the center and then Lee’s right, when Ambrose Burnside’s corps finally crossed a bridge and began to turn Lee’s flank - only to be attacked in turn at about 4 o’clock by Hill’s newly arriving troops. After that, the fighting sputtered out, but not the suffering.

John G. Walker, one of Jackson’s division commanders, wrote after the war of riding with another general over the area where his men had fought to see that none of the wounded had been overlooked. A feeble voice almost under his horse’s hoofs caught his ear: “Don’t let your horses tread on me.”

Pulling up, Walker asked who he was. The reply “20th Massachusetts. I think my back is broken” Walker sent for an ambulance to help the man. Walker noted that the ambulance corps of both armies worked through the night, their lanterns passing each other as they aided friend and foe alike.

A stubborn Lee held his ground all the next day, daring McClellan to attack again. Finally recognizing that his drive into the North had been stopped, Lee that night began his retreat across the Potomac amid a driving rainstorm. McClellan watched him go.

In those 10 hours of combat, more Americans died than in four of our wars combined - the Revolutionary War, the War of 1812, the Mexican War and the Spanish-American War.

A reasonable question is: Why should we revisit such a day and such a scene of carnage?

Well, heroism such as that displayed by the Americans of both the North and the South should be kept fresh in all our minds, as should the heroism of those who fought on the beaches of Normandy and those now serving in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Perhaps another lesson is that we are never more deadly than when we are fighting each other.

Stroube Smith, a former copy editor for The Washington Times, is a freelance writer.

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