May 28, 2018
We went to Antietam National Battlefield this weekend, not once, but twice. It was part family visit, to walk the steps of our ancestor Aretas Culver and the ill-fated Connecticut 16th. It was also the first visit for my 11-year old, and she wanted to go back and see more. Before and after our visits, it seemed a perfect place to observe Memorial Day.
Antietam marked a tectonic shift in the fate of millions of enslaved Americans. Lee's audacious invasion of the north followed three months of demoralizing losses by the Union Army. The battle fought in the fields around the small town of Sharpsburg, Maryland blunted that momentum at a critical time. Both England and France were preparing to recognize the Confederacy and its economy built on free forced labor, waiting for a victory on northern soil before doing so. That victory never happened.
Aretas Culver's untrained and untested unit was certainly a victim of circumstance, a cascade of decisions and events throughout the day that placed them in the full-throated charge of the fiercest southern shock troops where the very fate of Lee's Army and the Confederacy itself hung in the balance. Many were killed and wounded, most of the rest ran for their lives. Lee's army survived to fight another nearly three years. And on the killing fields at Antietam, by day's end nearly 23,000 lay dead, wounded or were never to be found - more than the total dead from the Revolution, War of 1812 and Mexican Wars combined.
They say that generals fight the last war. The rapid advance of weaponry outpaced the military tactics of the early battles of the Civil War in particular, a fact that contributed greatly to the appalling losses of over 600,000 men in four years. Survivors of both armies must have surely been haunted for the remainder of their days by the carnage they witnessed in those Maryland cornfields.
But, five days later Lincoln issued his preliminary Emancipation Proclamation, and irrevocably transformed the mission from preserving the Union to ending slavery. Those who died on the battlefields from that point forward truly were casualties of a titanic test of our American values.
Antietam changed our world in other important ways too. The photographs of the aftermath vividly brought the horrors of war into view far from the battlefield for the first time. Clara Barton's work bringing comfort to the wounded eventually led to the founding of the Red Cross. The lack of European recognition of the Confederacy may well have saved our union. The devastation at Antietam is memorialized both in the National Cemetery as well as the oldest Memorial Day parade in the nation in Sharpsburg. Today I am more keenly aware of how much of our American story is tied up in their sacrifice. Standing firm for those ideals seems terribly difficult in these days, and yet their service, and that of those who've served since, demand it of us now nonetheless.
On this Memorial Day, we remember those sacrifices, and all of our nation's fallen and their families who struggle with their loss and grieve their absence.