One hundred and forty years ago this week, on September 17, the Army of the Potomac and the Army of Northern Virginia met on the farm fields and wood lots surrounding the tiny Maryland hamlet of Sharpsburg. When the sun went down on that day, the once peaceful fields awaiting the farmer's harvest had witnessed another type of harvest: the Harvest of Death.
Over 23,000 Americans fell on that day, which began early in the morning at first light and ended with Union troops being pushed back to the heights overlooking the Lower Bridge across The Antietam Creek. The battle that day did more than finish Robert E. Lee's campaign into Maryland. The battle that day encouraged President Abraham Lincoln to sign a Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation on September 22, only five days later. The document, which freed all the slaves in those states in rebellion to the United states (and not those in the states which remained loyal to the Union or areas under Union control) changed the strategic course of the American Civil War. No longer would the War be simply fought to restore the Union; from now on the goal would also be the elimination of slavery. Due to the Emancipation Proclamation, England and France now thought twice about intervening in the conflict.
Dr. James McPherson, author of an award-winning book which examined why the men of both sides fought, recently published a new book about the campaign and battle of Antietam. He joins a growing list of historians who believe the Battle of Antietam, while not a clear victory over the Army of Northern Virginia as was Gettysburg about ten months later, was the true turning point in the War for the Union. At the time, it did not appear to be so. Dr. Joseph Harsh, former Chair of the Department of History at George Mason University in Virginia, wrote a three volume set of books on the Confederacy's strategy during the spring and summer of 1862 culminating with the Battle of Antietam, known in the South as Sharpsburg.
It is interesting that, of all the battles the surviving veterans of the Armies of the Potomac and of Northern Virginia participated in, Antietam/Sharpsburg was the one they compared the others against. Antietam was not only a savage infantryman's fight; it was also given the term of "artillery hell" by Confederate artillerists.
This writer has made the First Maryland Campaign and the Battle of Sharpsburg/Antietam his speciality and has tramped the fields of that bloody ground numerous times. Each time he goes to the field he learns another small piece of the puzzle. And, since the terror attacks of September 11 of last year, many more Americans have been coming to Antietam as well.
Finally, the Antietam National Battlefield Park holds a Candleight Illumination each year at the beginning of December. The field is covered with luminaries placed during the day by volunteers. Your columnist has not yet visited the Memorial Illumination but knows those who have and they have found the sight most moving. Visitors line up for the start of the Illumination tour and do so in silence. They are shocked to see so many, many candles lit in silent testimony to the vast Harvest of Death on that terrible day. Bud Robertson, that incomparable biographer of Stonewall Jackson (who fought there), said once the casualties from that battle would equate to a man going down every second for twelve hours.
The next few articles in this column will examine the overall Confederate campaign and the Federal response to it; the Federal successes at South Mountain, where the Army of the Potomac gave the Army of Northern Virginia its first defeat; and the various interesting segments of the ferociously vicious battle itself.