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"Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts."
-- Mark Twain
Innocents Abroad

"Stop worrying about the potholes in the road and celebrate the journey." -- Fitzhugh Mullan

"A good traveler has no fixed plans and is not intent on arriving." -- Lao Tzu

Antietam National Battlefield—Where Bayonets Gleamed Blood-red

©Bert Gildart: Almost 25 years ago, Jim Murfin wrote a much acclaimed book entitled The Gleam of Bayonets. The book was about Antietam National Battlefield, and it was favorably reviewed by such prestigious publications as the New Yorker. Essentially, the book recounts the day in which more men died than in any other American battle.

Subsequent to its publication, Murfin became the Director of Publications for the National Park Service and in that capacity, helped me land several book contracts. Later, he and I collaborated on a travel book that focused on each of the various states. Sadly, Murfin died before the book was completed leaving the project to me. But despite an early demise, his name lives on, specifically at Antietam National Battlefield in Maryland.

Here, there is an observation room that provides a commanding view of the battlefield. It’s the same observatory in which rangers conduct daily lectures, and because of its name, the room is just one of the reminders that Murfin’s impact on Antietam was significant.

Yesterday, on a cool fall day with leaves still blazing red, orange and yellow, Janie and I listened in rapt interest in the James Murfin Observatory as Keith Synder, a park ranger at Antietam National Park in Maryland, detailed a few of the tragic events that occurred because the bayonets of Union and Confederate soldiers had gleamed much too brightly.

According to Synder, nine men dropped every two seconds during a 12-hour period on September 17, 1862. That rate of attrition has never have been reached again in any war, and before the day was out, fighting at Antietam produced more casualties in a single day then any other conflict in the Civil War. When the sun set, over 23,000 men had either been killed or wounded, prompting Synder to conclude at the end of his talk in the Murfin Observation Deck that he for one had to wonder what it was all about.

“When the battle was over, neither side gained any strategic ground and were, in fact, in just about the same place they had been prior to the battle. To me that is one of the saddest things.”

One-hundred and fifty years ago, Dr. William Child, a battlefield surgeon, said much the same thing but in a different way:

“When I think of the battle of Antietam, it seems so strange.

“Who permits it?

“…that a power is in existence that can and will hurl masses of men against each other in deadly conflict… is almost impossible [to comprehend]. But it is so—and why we can not know.”

Philosophically, Dr. Child was a profound man, and Antietam does a satisfactory job of probing the battle’s spiritual rational as well as exploring the more secular questions of the battle between Robert E. Lee and Major General George B. McClellan. Panels explain why Lee was attempting to carry the battle to the north and explains how he almost succeeded with his plan. Graphically, it details the carnage, exhibiting a few of the photographs taken by Alexander Gardner just after the battle. The photographs of the dead were the first such pictures ever published of the dead, and one must presume the impact was as profound in 1862 as it is now.

Battlefields are preserved, of course, to honor the men who gave their all for a cause, in this case to preserve the Union—and certainly that was a noble cause. The philosophies of the warring factions were at odds, and one can only imagine the outcome had not Lincoln prevailed and held the nation together. Throughout the battlefield, one senses Lincoln’s despair over the loss of life, but his determination as well, to bring the war to an end.

A house divided against itself can not stand…

And then, the day after the battle as Lincoln toured a hospital and engaged in conversation with wounded Confederate soldiers:

We are enemies through uncontrollable circumstances, and I bear you no malice.

The circumstances that hurled the two opposing faction against one another is a story in itself, but the upshot is that Lincoln’s Army of the Potomac was confronting one of the best strategist of the time. Lincoln’s army was confronting Confederate General Robert E. Lee, and much of the battlefield’s story is devoted to the way in which Lee uses the country to his advantage. Despite the overwhelming numerical superiority of General McClellan, at times Lee appears to be gaining the upper hand, and his methods remain one of the lessons of the battlefield.

Another lesson, however, is the one recounting the incredible loss of life, and just how it happened—and what has been done to honor the fallen.

The battlefield has been preserved by the will of both surviving Union and Confederate soldiers, and throughout the battlefield monuments and panels are everywhere. Janie and I encountered one such monument immediately upon departing the Murfin Observatory and began touring the battlefield. Six generals died September 17, and the park honors their service (both Union and Confederate) with the orientation of cannons. At the spot each general fell, a cannon has been mounted, but with its muzzle pointed downward. So mounted, they are called “Mortuary Canons.”

But the big picture may be even more compelling, something Janie and I realized as we drove this sprawling park. Certainly the geography remains the same, but managers at Antietam have done everything possible to retain the feel of the battle. Corn still stands where it did on September 17, and if you walk Bloody Lane, it is easy to see how thousands of raw young Union men and boys could be mowed down so easily as they charged out from the security provided from the corn’s late-season’s growth.

The depression is deep, and Confederate soldiers simply fired from the road’s obscurity at the young Union soldiers as the rushed onto the lip of the depression. Throughout the day, historians say that over four million bullets were fired, and certainly, soldiers at Bloody Lane fired their share. The horror of the setting is further revealed from the tower that peers down the cornfield, the picket fence, and the road forming Bloody Lane; it shows the futility of the charge and how mistakes were made.

Perhaps the most poignant recollection is derived from a large interpretive plaque posted at Dunker Church, a five minute walk from the Murfin Observatory. On the day following the battle, surviving men from both sides declared a truce and for a few hours, they peacefully convened. The plaque posts the words penned by Russell Hicks, who gave a voice to the church:

I am the Church of the bloodiest battlefield in all American history… I was pierced with cannon ball and bullets, my rafters studded with metal… my furniture splattered with blood…

I still exist as the little white church of the Antietam Battlefield… I am still the symbol of peace and brotherhood. Antietam was the battle that emaciated the slaves; I am a symbol of spiritual emancipation. I represent… the brotherhood of man…

Like many visitors, we departed the Battlefield with more questions then we arrived. But that is just one of the many functions derived from the preservation of such historic areas. Not only do they commemorate—and honor—the dead, but they help us better appreciate our nation’s history. As well, battlefields help generate a personal philosophy that can strengthen us as individuals and certainly as a nation.

One Response to “Antietam National Battlefield—Where Bayonets Gleamed Blood-red”

  1. Anthony Hyde Says:

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