September 16, 1862 was a gray drizzly day in Sharpsburg Maryland. The air smelled of wet corn and hay. Horses and cattle grazed in the open pastures, and a cool breeze promising an early autumn danced between branches of Ash and Oak. There was another noise however; something unusual. It was a droning cacophony of creaking wagon wheels, clattering supply wagons, shouted orders, and baying horses. It was the sound of two great armies on the move, the Army of the Potomac commanded by General George B. McClellan, and the Army of Northern Virginia commanded by General Robert E. Lee.
The Army of the Potomac, almost eighty five thousand men strong, was arrayed in six corps up and down the East side of Antietam Creek. It was the largest combined army that had ever marched across American soil. The Army of Northern Virginia however, was much smaller. On the 16th of September Lee only had about forty thousand men ready to fight. His many appeals to Marylanders, to “join the cause” had largely fallen on deaf ears, so on 16 September, he had his ragtag army were alone and outnumbered two-to-one.
Regardless of their numbers however, Lee knew that his men were ready to fight. Since he had taken over the Army of Northern Virginia, he had turned around their earlier losses in Virginia, saving Richmond, and pushing McClellan’s forces back up into Washington DC. He knew that the only way to keep the fight out of Virginia and win southern separation was to push north, he also knew that winning at Antietam could break Union resolve and end the war. General McClellan, on the other hand, knew that the Army of the Potomac was the only thing that lay between Lee, Washington DC, and the future of the United States of America. He clearly understood what was at stake, and what he had to do. Both men understood that either a great victory or a stunning defeat would be theirs to claim very soon.
As the troops continued to position throughout the afternoon of 16 September, a few quick but violent skirmishes began to break out around the north end of the battlefield. They were just a glimpse however, of the hell that was about to unleash itself the next morning. It would be a day of death, carnage, and misery heretofore unseen on American soil. By the end of the day on 17 September, over twenty three thousand Union and Confederate troops would either be dead, wounded, or missing in action. Acres of once tall corn would be thrashed to the ground by canister shot, mini-balls, and falling dead. Farms would be burned to the ground, livestock butchered, and thousands of blue and gray clad bodies would cover every corner of the field. This battle would be fought with a ferocity that few had ever seen, and would become known as the single “Bloodiest Day” in American history.
Dead Confederate Troops in the “Bloody Lane”
Witnessing the carnage from his position north of the battlefield, Potomac I Corps Commander, Major General Joseph Hooker stated:
“In the time that I am writing, every stalk of corn in the northern and greater part of the field was cut as closely as could have been done with a knife, and the slain lay in rows precisely as they had stood in their ranks a few moments before. It was never my fortune to witness a more bloody, dismal battlefield.”
Names of places such as The Corn Field, The West Woods, Bloody Lane, and Burnside Bridge are now written into our American history with the blood of the thousands of soldiers who gave their all. But, this post is not about 17 September 1862. If it was, I could fill page after page with stories of heroism, tragedy, and triumph. I could tell you stories about people like Clara Barton, founder of the Red Cross, who became known as the “Angel of the Battlefield,” or a young Union Bugler named John Cook who became one of the youngest recipients of the Congressional Medal of Honor. I could tell you the moving story of Captain Werner Von Bachelle whose body was found on Hagerstown Pike after the battle, still covered by the corpse of his loyal companion, a Newfoundland Sheep Dog, which had apparently protected his master’s body to the death.
Dead on Hagerstown Pike
Bugler John Cook
This post is about those men (and women) who, having a choice, decided to face into the sulfur wind of battle and be counted. They were “citizen soldiers” fighting for the very life of their nation. It is because they stood up, often at their own peril, that our country is what it is today. Because of them, we abolished slavery, saved our Constitution, reunified a broken nation, and built a culture of freedom and prosperity that ushered in the industrial revolution. Make no mistake about it, we are who we are because of the heroes who took their last breath on the bloody fields of Antietam – and others like them. We see their images here in blurry black and white but for many, unfortunately, it is more about our history than our present.
I am writing this because we are at a time in our nation’s history when, once again, we need these people to be among us. Like Antietam, the enemy is once again at our gates. It is not an enemy of flesh and steel this time, but rather one far more insidious – an enemy of ideas. Our country is once again at a crossroads, and the decisions that we make over the next few years could radically redefine who we are. Now, more than at any time since 16 September 1862, we need a new army of citizen soldiers, not to carry rifles but to stand up, speak out, exercise their constitutional rights, and protect our liberty. Whether it is public health care, cap and trade, unchecked government power, the First Amendment, or even life itself – it is now our turn to stand up and be counted. It is our duty as Americans. We should never think for a moment that we are too mighty to be defeated, especially from within. So, it is time for the good fight once again. Not with rifles, but with our collective voice and our vote. If we do not do this, then we may all awaken one gray drizzly day in September and find the battle already lost.