Antietam photos offered first honest view of war

Death: Tomorrow is the 139th anniversary of the Civil War battle near Sharpsburg in which 4,000 men died

September 16, 2001|By Michael Hill | Michael Hill,SUN STAFF

SHARPSBURG - The last time such destruction was seen on these shores, it happened in places like this, set amid serene farms and rolling hills where Americans fought each other and died.

The battle of Antietam nearly devastated the two armies that fought it and forever changed the community that was its accidental host. And photography, then an emerging medium, dramatically increased its impact on the country, in a way not altogether different from today's images of American lives lost to terrorism.

The wars in Europe that claimed so many in the 20th century were thousands of miles away; the conflicts in Korea and Vietnam even further. The attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon have been compared to Pearl Harbor, but in 1941, that was an outpost on a distant island - a small colonial territory, not a state - its bombing leaving America feeling more victimized than vulnerable.

Once, though, armies marched through this very land, bent on destroying each other with the explosive fury of those fuel-laden hijacked airplanes.

"One of my rangers came up to me on Tuesday," says David Howard, superintendent of Antietam National Battlefield in Washington County. "He said we had always called this battle the bloodiest day in the history of this country. But that might not be true anymore."

Four thousand people were killed here - another 19,000 left wounded or missing - in the one-day battle that occurred 139 years ago tomorrow. That's twice as many American deaths as on D-Day. No one can say for certain if it is more than died Tuesday.

There are 4,776 Union dead buried in Antietam National Cemetery - from this and other battles fought in Maryland - 1,836 of them unknown. Another 200 veterans of subsequent wars were buried here before the cemetery was closed in 1953. It was reopened this year to accept the body of Patrick Howard Roy, a 19-year-old sailor from nearby Keedysville who died in the terrorist attack on the USS Cole.

Many of the dead of Antietam lay on the battlefield for days, their corpses captured by the cameras of Alexander Gardner and James E. Gibson, assistants of Mathew Brady. A few weeks later, Brady opened an exhibition in his studio at 10th Street and Broadway in New York, not far from what would be the site of the World Trade Center. No one had ever seen anything like "The Dead of Antietam." These pictures were seared into the minds of those who saw them as deeply as the image of the jetliner slicing into the World Trade Center is now etched into ours.

"Prior to this, the war was rendered in romantic paintings that depicted men in spotless uniforms," says Ted Alexander, senior historian at Antietam battlefield. "Now the Brady studio displays photographs of bloated corpses, some in its storefront so people walking down Broadway could see them.

"It was the first media wake-up call," he says. "It made people realize this was serious business."

Oliver Wendell Holmes, who had gone to the Antietam battlefield to find his wounded son after the battle, saw the Brady exhibition.

"Let him who wishes to know what war is look at this series of illustrations," he wrote. "It is so nearly like visiting the battlefield to look over these views that all the emotions excited by the actual sight of the stained and sordid scene, stewed with rags and wrecks, come back to us, and we buried them in the recesses of our cabinet as we would have buried the mutilated remains of the dead they too vividly represented. The sight of these pictures is a commentary on civilization such as the savage might well triumph to show its missionaries."

A mural-size photograph from that exhibition of dead laid out in front of Dunker Church confronts those who enter the visitors center at Antietam. Howard says that many pause before it, almost all noting the pair of shoes that sit eloquently in one corner.

For many in the North particularly, the Civil War had been a distant fight, and unless the casualty lists contained the name of a husband, brother, son or friend, it remained an abstraction. The photographs changed that, just as the pictures of the icons of New York and Washington falling to the terrorist assault Tuesday changed our view of our vulnerability.

Ken Burns, who produced the acclaimed documentary The Civil War a decade ago, says that among his first thoughts when he saw the destruction of the World Trade Center were words Abraham Lincoln said in 1838.

Burns can recite them - "Shall we accept some trans-Atlantic military giant to step the ocean and crush us at a blow? Never! All the armies of Europe, Asia and Africa combined, with all the treasure of the earth ... could not by force take a drink from the Ohio or make a track on the Blue Ridge."

"I committed that to memory 12 years ago," Burns says over the phone from New Hampshire. "I've used it to explain our special protections, bordered by two oceans with friendly neighbors to the north and south. But that's no more. In some ways we have to re-set and everything begins anew."

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