Soldiers' blood is penance paid for sin of slavery

September 17, 2002|By Raymond Daniel Burke

WHILE THE concept of reparations for American chattel slavery remains a subject of divisive debate, I cannot help but be mindful of those, who, 140 years ago, in the fields of western Maryland, made the ultimate sacrifice in the struggle for a United States free from the stain of human bondage.

Sept. 17, 1862, was the bloodiest day in American history, even following two world wars, Korea, Vietnam and the horrors of Sept. 11. There were 23,000 American casualties at Antietam Creek.

A firestorm raged in early America over slavery. It was debated in the context of declaring the independence of people who were self-proclaimed to have been created equal, and it deeply divided the convention that established a government for the new nation. From the Missouri Compromise to bleeding Kansas, it loomed over America's vision of itself and its place in the eyes of the world.

While some continually describe the Civil War as a conflict caused by and fought over the issue of states' rights, it's clear that the states' right at issue was the right to maintain the slave system to which the Southern states had become so economically beholden. Those who answered the call to duty for preservation of the Union, and those who fought to preserve the Southern way of life, became combatants in the greater battle for the moral soul of the people of the United States.

When several early Confederate victories laid the groundwork for Gen. Robert E. Lee's decision to lead his army into Maryland, the future of the nation was very much in doubt. A successful invasion of a border state, coupled with the potential for surrounding Washington, would be of devastating consequence to the Union cause.

With the survival of the republic at stake, Gen. George McClellan's Army of the Potomac and Lee's Army of Northern Virginia faced each other in the fields near Sharpsburg. An early morning engagement in the cornfield, woods and orchard resulted in 8,000 casualties. Late morning and midday fighting turned what was known as the Sunken Road into Bloody Lane, with 5,600 more casualties. The remaining losses would come by late afternoon in the battle for the lower bridge across the Antietam, the dead and the dying seemingly spread everywhere across a hideous landscape.

Mathew Brady's photographs of the appalling carnage would bring the reality of the war to the North in much the way television brought Vietnam into American living rooms. Nearly 3,700 soldiers had been killed initially, but a great many of the more than 17,000 wounded would die of their injuries, and many of the nearly 1,800 missing were dead. Of this staggering total, more than 12,000 had suffered their fate in service to the Union.

While the horrific battle had essentially ended in a draw, it compelled Lee to fall back into Virginia. The repulsion of the invasion was victory enough for President Lincoln to seize the opportunity to issue his Emancipation Proclamation. That act reinvented the federal cause and instilled it with a moral rectitude that would preclude the European powers from recognizing the Confederacy, carry the Union to ultimate victory and eradicate slavery in America forever.

The dead and wounded at Antietam were joined by nearly 400,000 federal soldiers who died during our four-year Civil War, and another 275,000 who were wounded. The Navy suffered an additional 7,000 killed for a total of about 650,000 federal military personnel who died or were wounded during the frightful struggle.

This country tore itself apart to finally rid itself of the dark legacy of having practiced race-based human bondage. It was a rite of passage that called on a people to unselfishly render duty and devotion. The sacrifices made and the losses suffered by those who carried the burden of that process are of unimaginable dimension.

In considering the concept of reparations, everyone should look at Brady's photographs of Antietam, at the agonized faces and contorted bodies of the dead, at a pastoral countryside turned into a hellish graveyard of lost lives and ended dreams, at the fathers and sons sacrificed on the altar of freedom. Surely they are at least entitled to credit for the ultimate penance they offered to absolve America's original sin. Surely we are all, collectively, in their debt.

Those who would promote slavery reparations must also acknowledge an enormous down payment having already been made - a down payment in blood.

Raymond Daniel Burke is a partner in a Baltimore City law firm.

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