Wednesday, May 28, 2008
On Memorial Day, I had a couple choices. I could hang around the con hotel and watch Balticon die, or I could get in my rental car and cruise off in search of history.
As you can see, this is not a picture of the con hotel.
We are looking south across the Miller Cornfield. On the left of the picture are the East Woods; the treeline directly ahead is the West Woods.
On the morning of September 17, 1862, the corn in the field would have been taller than anyone walking in the field. Two and a half corps of Union soldiers, 21,500 men, grappled across this field with about 14,500 Confederates in a stand-up fight that lasted about four and a half hours. The Cornfield exchanged hands something like 15 times. Both sides fought to the point of exhaustion: combined casualties were something like 13,000. One Union corps commander was killed, another wounded.
When the fighting over the Cornfield ended at 10am, the battle itself wasn't over. More Federal units charged into battle against Confederates sheltering in the aptly-named Bloody Lane in a fight that was even more horrendous. And later in the day, Burnside's command got across the aptly-named Burnside Bridge, broke the Confederate line, and came within an ace of winning the war.
The Battle of Antietam--- or Sharpsburg, if you're unreconstructed--- was the single bloodiest day in American history. There were 23,000 casualties altogether, 25% of the Union army and 33% of the Confederate. That's over seven 9/11s happening in a single day, or eight Pearl Harbors, or three D-Days (counting American casualties only).
There were also a large number of generals killed--- though I can't find an exact total, I presume the largest number of American generals killed on any given day. In those days, generals had to lead their men into the fight personally.
Tactically the battle was a draw. The two armies beat each other to a pulp, and very little ground changed hands. But Robert E. Lee was forced to end his invasion of the North, which allowed the Union to declare a strategic victory, which produced just a large enough of a bump in Yankee morale to allow Abraham Lincoln to issue the Emancipation Proclamation.
Which freed four million slaves, at least on paper. Another 600,000 or so deaths were required to make their freedom an actuality.
The proclamation also kept the British and French out of the war. They were too embarrassed to be seen fighting for slavery.
I wandered around the battlefield--- there's a self-guiding tour--- and took pictures. I pretty much knew the broad outlines of the battle going in--- if you don't, I'd recommend hiring one of the guides available to give you a personal tour, because otherwise it's mostly countryside without a lot of context.
The small size of the Cornfield surprised me. I knew how many people had clashed here: they must have been packed in like sardines, and died much the same way.
Afterwards I stopped by the national cemetery, which is full only of Union dead--- the Confederates were repatriated to their home states. About a third of the total are buried there, in rows, with smallish headstones that after a century and a half are just barely legible. Since it was Memorial Day, each grave also bore a flag, very bright and cheerful in the afternoon sun.
I have been trying to think of something profound to say about the experience, but I can't better what Lincoln said a year later, so I'll just quote the Emancipator:
"We can not dedicate—we can not consecrate—we can not hallow—this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract."
Afterwards I drove to Harper's Ferry, site of John Brown's raid, just to have a look around. There were huge holiday crowds, no parking, and not a lot of time, but I enjoyed the place, utterly picturesque, completely indefensible, and surrounded by tall, commanding hills. (Or "mountains," as they seem to be called out East.)
Then I drove to the nearby home of my Taos Toolbox student Oz Whiston, where she, her husband Jason, and her daughter Eloise provided an evening of pleasant company and a lovely dinner, sweet corn, new potatoes, and weisswurst. (They live in the German part of Virginia.)
On my return to Baltimore I found that Balticon had managed to die without my help, and began packing for my return trip. (Which sucked, but that's for another day.)