This Memorial Day weekend we honor and remember those who gave their lives to preserve American liberty and independence. In accordance with the spirit of the holiday, Yet, Freedom! offers this on-the-scene report from Antietam battlefield in Maryland.
The Battle of Antietam was fought on a single day, September 17, 1862, perhaps the bloodiest day of combat in the history of the Western Hemisphere. The fighting commenced at 5:30 in the morning; by 9 a.m., some 12,000 men lay dead or wounded, an average of one casualty per second over three-and-a-half hours. But some of the bloodiest fighting still lay ahead, during the afternoon.
Much of the fighting in the morning swirled around the Dunkard Church, a tiny whitewashed structure belonging to a German sect of baptists. Near the church, Union Brigadier Mansfield’s division succeeded in outflanking the confederates, and might have been able to carry the day, but they did not receive the needed reinforcements.
Antietam was the first battle in which the dead were photographed on the battlefield before burial. Photographer Alexander Gardner captured this famous photo of dead confederate troops near the Dunkard Church.
The original Dunkard Church collapsed in a wind storm in 1921. The church visible on the battlefield today is a replica built in 1962 for the 100th anniversary of the battle.
One of the significant landmarks on the battlefield is the sunken road, a place of savage fighting that became known to history as ‘bloody lane.’ Along the road, the confederates constructed defensive positions by stacking wooden fence rails.
Under fire from sharpshooters and artillery, the first of French’s brigades crested a little rise; less than 100 yards below them in a sunken farm road were three Confederate brigades of Maj. Gen. Daniel Harvey Hill’s division. A sheet of flame erupted from the sunken road and the crest of the ridge was covered with a blue blanket of dead or wounded Union soldiers. The brigade fell back; another took its place, with the same result. Brigadier General Nathan Kimball was then ordered forward with his brigade of four regiments. These men, many of them veterans of the Shenandoah Valley and the Virginia Peninsula campaigns, did not fall back. Lying on the downside of the slope and rolling onto their sides to reload, they poured fire into the ranks of the Confederates below, who responded in kind. Blood turned the dirt in the road to mud, giving the sunken road the sobriquet Bloody Lane. Sumner declared that Kimball’s brigade had held “like the Rock of Gibraltar” after two other Union brigades had fled. The unit thereafter was known as the Gibraltar Brigade.
In the afternoon, focus shifted to a narrow stone bridge spanning Antietam Creek. The bridge later became known to history as Burnside’s Bridge. Six hundred confederate infantry held a position on a steep bluff behind the bridge. Union troops tried and failed twice to take the bridge. At one point during the stalemate at the bridge, however, the union enlisted men sensed that confederate resistance was finally weakening. The enlisted men, on their own initiative and without orders from their officers, made a dash and succeeded in crossing the bridge. Now the confederates were in trouble, and soon found themselves in headlong retreat. Lee’s army was on the verge of being routed, and the war perhaps brought to an end in 1862.
But in a dramatic turn of events, almost like something out of a Hollywood movie, the confederates at the last moment were saved.
At the crucial moment, Maj. Gen. A. P. Hill, wearing his red battle shirt, arrived from Harpers Ferry with the Light Division. Hill had driven his men—many of them wearing Union uniforms taken at Harpers Ferry—northward mercilessly, sometimes beating them with the flat of his sword to keep them moving at the double-quick.
The Light Division fell upon Burnside’s flank, disordering his men and convincing the cautious Union officer that he’d done enough for one day. The Battle of Antietam was, for all intents and purposes, over.
Here is Alexander Gardner’s photo of Burnside’s Bridge, and our own photo of the bridge as it appears today.
And here is Antietam Creek as seen from the bridge.
By the end of the battle, nearly 23,000 men had been killed or wounded. While visiting the battlefield, I couldn’t help but feel sympathy for all those young men who were thrown into that hellish situation. So many of them lost limbs, or had their lives tragically cut short. Visiting the battlefield is a kind of spiritual experience that would benefit a lot of people. In particular, modern feminists who somehow believe that, back in the day, women were oppressed at home while the men were out having all the fun should visit Antietam.