A single day at Antietam took more than 6,000 American lives

On Books

September 08, 2002|By Michael Pakenham

Momentous events etch history. Midmorning, a year minus three days ago, the newsroom of The Sun jangled with a combination of horror, disbelief and intensity of purpose unlike any I had ever known. We watched a dozen television monitors, adding pages to the newspaper and calling in every member of the news staff. We knew we faced weeks of working on the most important story of our lives. We didn't know much else -- or what might happen next.

Television and news wires rattled out wild speculations about the number of victims of the devastation. Ready references told us roughly 10,000 women and men were in the towers at the moment of the first plane's impact. Starkly, I remember one of my colleagues saying, "This could be deadlier than Antietam."

Most of us knew, I suppose, that more Americans -- Federal and Confederate troops -- died violently in that battle on Sept. 17, 1862, than on any other day in history. The total, my friend said, was 6,000. Throughout the day somehow that number stuck in many of our minds. Finally -- much later -- we knew the Sept. 11 toll was far less; today, it is said to be 2,817. Miracles of courage, endeavor and lucky timing saved some 7,000 others.

Now comes, by coincidence that strikes me as eerie, a new account of the slaughter 140 years ago: Crossroads of Freedom: Antietam, The Battle That Changed the Course of the Civil War, by James M. McPherson (Oxford, 203 pages, $26). It is part of Oxford's series "Pivotal Moments in American History" -- which emphasizes "historical contingency," the what-if questions. Princeton scholar McPherson's Battle Cry of Freedom, published in 1988, was an encyclopedic, highly successful history of the Civil War.

Early in the Civil War, throughout 1861, the Confederacy generally had the upper hand in battles -- on all fronts. The next year, the Union gained some ground, but by July, Gen. Robert E. Lee's troops once again were on the offensive.

President Lincoln had serious problems. The war was over secession -- restoring the Union to wholeness -- not over slavery. Many Northern Democrats were very sympathetic to their Southern fellow party members -- eager for a compromise that would leave the Confederate states free to determine their own destinies, including continuation of slavery. Lincoln had not demanded the end of that institution, though he was personally opposed to the practice.

Napoleon III and the British government were marginally sympathetic to the Confederate cause -- and wanted the South's cotton, which was cut off. But both England and France were hesitant to offer aid to the Confederacy unless there was significant indication of the South's potential to prevail.

In July and August of 1862, Confederate forces achieved major victories. The Union suffered a bloody defeat in the Second Battle of Bull Run, at the very end of August. In Washington, political and military leaders were in a state of near panic.

Lee moved his forces across the Potomac into central Maryland, a slave state but not a member of the Confederacy, and toward Pennsylvania. Funds and archives were moved from Philadelphia to New York in fear of invasion.

Lincoln ordered Gen. George B. McClellan to move his army north from around Washington to attack the Confederates. Lee, from Hagerstown, audaciously split his army into four segments, with one taking Harpers Ferry, others spread in the South Mountain chain and elsewhere out of Frederick. A copy of Lee's "General Order 191" -- which outlined his entire strategy -- mysteriously fell into McClellan's hands. "McClellan was granted a windfall," McPherson writes, "such as few generals in history have enjoyed."

McClellan moved immediately. By dawn of Sept. 17, the Union main force and much of Lee's scattered army were in relentless, bloody battle in and around the town of Sharpsburg and the confluence of Antietam Creek and the Potomac River -- 70 miles west of Baltimore and 11 miles north of Harpers Ferry.

McPherson is masterful in his descriptions of the indescribable horror of pitched battle. But perhaps the most evocative passage he relates is from the diary of Major Rufus Dawes of a Wisconsin regiment: "The men are loading and firing with demoniacal fury and shouting and laughing, hysterically, and the whole field before us is covered with rebels fleeing for life, into the woods. Great numbers of them are shot while climbing over the high post and rail fences along the turnpike."

On that single day, 2,108 Union soldiers died, and some number between 1,546 and 2,700 Confederate troops were killed outright. At least 2,000 others died later of wounds suffered on that day. McPherson accepts a total estimate of 6,300 to 6,500. Additionally, there were 17,000 to 21,000 wounded who lived on, many of them missing a limb or limbs. Those casualties were four times greater than those on Normandy beaches on June 6, 1944.

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