Sharpsburg

17-07-2009   Brooklyn, NY

It has not unfrequently been seen that two powerful men would wrestle together and one bring the other down with a heavy fall. The two would quickly rise again, but instead of renewing the struggle, one would turn away in silence from the ring. To the eye it might seem at the moment that no hurt was done, but that a like contest might any day be renewed between them.

All a mistake, it has often proved. Follow the retiring contestant and learn perhaps his singular and unexplained withdrawal from the struggle was his involuntary obedience to the summons of death – that the shock of the fall had ruptured a vital blood-vessel, or stunned the brain with a death-blow; and he was moving off literally a dead man, in sole and silent procession to his fore-doomed funeral.

We believe it is such a case we witness on the Upper Potomac to-day. It was a battle of the giants we had there on Wednesday last. The victorious heroes of Fair Oaks and Malvern Hill, where the Union cause was baptized in fire and blood, met the battle-tired hosts that carried Gaines Hill by storm, and twice sowed with out dead the plains of Manassas. Each army had its best loved leaders, each had its ranks full, each felt that the world watched the struggle, and that all mankind had an interest in the result. Never in all history was a more honorable battle fought. No stragglers limped or crept to the rear. No column gave way save when blown back by the whirlwind of flame from the cannon’s mouth. No regiment, however stript by leaden hail of its officers, was left without a man still worthy to lead it, and no officer was left alone in the field to deplore that he had led cowards to the fight. From sunrise to sunsetting, with encroachment at each end of the day on darkness, the earth shook under the mighty battle, and at night the panting combatants rested on the field. The day after, the Union heroes were the declared victors; and in the shades of evening, the vanquished rebels retired from the ground whereon they had provoked the contest, and which they had advertised their own people and the world they meant permanently to hold!

The retreat of the revel army is not its defeat only: it is its demoralization and its death-blow. It marches away as the doomed wrestler does – not to study a renewal of his grapple, but because his heart is sick of the arena from which death summons him; he would “turn his face to the wall” and die! How can the flower of Southern chivalry – the aggregation of Southern strength – the personification of its enthusiasm and daring – meet its appalled Government and people, in its retreat from its supposed victorious invasion? What “spring” is there in all the Southern resources for war to “take up the recoil” of this terrible disaster? An advancing army may gather food and forage from an extended agricultural district, for it commands its own time and rate of progress. A beaten and retreating army can do no such thing; for its movements are compulsory. The goading of artillery in pursuit gives no rest; it has no regard to hunger of horses or men; its order is that of a cruel master, “Onward – onward – to the death!”

We have citizens who bewailed the war for freedom as almost lost, a short time ago, so much did they distrust the skill and power of our armed resistance to rebellion. Some of them revived but little when the news of Wednesday stirred the hearts of patriots with confidence and joy. When Thursday night found the enemy defeated and flying, the doubters became suddenly fierce to desperation. They demanded, in the name of an outraged country, why the fruits of the grandest victory of modern wars had not been reaped in the capture of 150,000 prisoners, with arms in their hands!

We shall now argue this matter. We have the confidence to declare the battle of Antietam one of the greatest ever fought – its victory substantial and its fruits imperishable. Its effects will be seen and felt in the destinies of the Nation for centuries to come. 

~Anonymous Editorial; NY Times; September 21, 1862

I often think about what life would be like as a soldier during the civil war. Marching twenty miles or more each day, subsiding on meager rations of stale biscuits and gruel, constantly waiting for the next battle. I imagine what the battlefields must have looked like, with such devastation contrasted against the beautiful backdrop of an American landscape. 

Most men who fought weren’t trained soldiers, but they fought with amazing voracity. During battles, traditional English methods of fighting were often used even though artillery had evolved over time. The rifles used during the war between the states had become more accurate, so when two lines of soldiers faced off each volley produced disastrous results.

Men made these suicidal sacrifices using their profound belief in a heavenly paradise that awaited them in the afterlife. There was a notion of a Good Death, or ars Moriendi, that was instilled amongst both Union and Confederate armies. As death was so prevalent, faith and repentance became a strong part of civil war culture, both on the battlefield and within the families of soldiers that had passed on.

The concept of ars Moriendi was never more prevalent than when Robert E. Lee’s Confederate Army of 51,800 men entered the 13th day of its Maryland campaign. It was the rebels’ first advance into Northern territory, and when it was over the Confederate army would never fully regain its power. Upon hearing of the Northern invasion, president Lincoln sent General George B. McLellan and his Union army of 87,100 to repulse Lee’s advances. The two armies clashed near Antietam creek in the small town of Sharpsburg, Maryland on September 17th.

For over twelve hours, the battle roared. It was so fierce at one point that a Union general complained he could not hear shouted orders. Another said his soldiers gave and received ”the most deadly fire it has ever been my lot to witness.” A Confederate general said that ”this fearful storm raged a few feet above their heads, tearing the trees asunder, lopping off huge branches, and filling the air with shrieks and explosions.”

The fighting (which was actually three battles rolled into one day) went on from before dusk until after dawn. When it was over, 22,807 casualties would be recorded on both sides – almost four times the amount on D-Day. That Wednesday remains the bloodiest day in American history. A correspondent who visited the field after battle described the scene:

Mangled humanity in all its ghastly forms could be seen on this field; to the left, to the right, behind and before, on every hand the eye beheld the horrors of the field. Mingled with the dead came up to the ear groans of those whose breasts there yet remained a spark of vitality, but whose lamp had nearly expired; the hopeful cases, so far as possible, were removed for medical assistance before midnight of Wednesday; the hopeless cases were allowed to remain upon the field. Some in a perfectly conscious, other in a half conscious state, while more were insensible to all worldly affairs. One of the latter class – a rebel soldier – while we were walking over the field at night, vainly attempted to rise; he had received a wound upon the temple from which the brain protruded; he clutched at the air and a helping hand was extended to him and words of sympathy were spoken, but no sign of recognition followed, and in a moment more the helpless victim fell over upon his face and was numbered with the dead. God grant that we may never witness another such a scene.

As terrible as it was, the carnage inflicted that day was not done in vain. To capitalize on the victory, Lincoln decided to issue the emancipation proclamation as a strategic move. The French and British were considering an offer of support for the rebels as their textile businesses were suffering due to the lack of exported cotton. As outspoken abolitionists, the two countries couldn’t ally themselves with the rebel cause after the proclamation was issued (the issuance essentially differentiated the North as abolitionists as well). This was essentially the “death blow” that crippled the confederacy.

In light of all this, September 17th, 1862 is one of the most important and underrated days in American history. Hopefully we can raise a glass to all of the Union soldiers who gave their lives that day on the battle’s 147th anniversary this year.

2 Responses to “Sharpsburg”

  1. You would have made a great soldier if you weren’t such a social deviant.

  2. why no posts lately?

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