Antietam

I admit that I’m not a huge history buff. In fact, I never found history class very interesting in school and I didn’t take any history classes in college. However, I do find certain events in history interesting from time to time. One of my fascinations involves the old canal systems, believe it or not. Having grown up around the Ohio & Erie Canal, I have thought about what it must have been like in the days when the canals were working. The Civil War is also another historical fascination of mine. From the girl who abhors war. Perhaps because it was so close and personal war in which Americans fought Americans. Our country almost broke apart as a result of that war. It’s just one of those turning points in history where the whole course of history could have changed.

I can’t say I retained all the information that was stuffed in my head while exploring this battlefield for about four hours. But I did remember some striking facts. Like the death toll from this battle alone made it the bloodiest single-day battle in American history (including battles fought during the Revolutionary War!) with over 23,000 casualties. The art work displayed in the museum depicts some pretty gruesome scenes of bodies scattered about the battlefield and, in particular, in the trenches of what was referred to as The Sunken Road.

The Sunken Road

It was eerie to stand in the middle of that road with the memory of those paintings etched into my head. I felt like I was walking on people’s graves. If there was ever a spot to be haunted, I’m sure this would be the spot.

The Sunken Road from above (in the observation tower).

It rained the whole time we were exploring the battlefield, switching between drizzle and hard downpour. I think this also added to the atmosphere of our experience there. In the distance, fog hoovered among the hills like watchful wraiths.

The view from the observation tower.

More scenery from the observation tower at Antietam.

The Burnside Bridge was where the last charge of the battle took place. It’s hard to picture the violence of war going on in what today appears as such a tranquil spot–someplace where you’d want to have a picnic with your honey.

Oops... that's not Burnside Bridge. How'd that get in here?

Ahh, here it is: Burnside Bridge

A cannon on the field by Burnside Bridge.

We spent four hours the battlefield and it truly was not enough. There were so many trails off the main road where a person could hike to see various stages of the battle, signs pointing out the key locations where specific events occurred. It’s pretty amazing how much of the battle is still so intricately recorded. You could literally walk in the shoes of a soldier from the start of the battle to the end. I’ve mixed feelings about this level of accuracy… It seems that to study something so intricately, you have to have some sort of fascination with the battle. Which I suppose is good–after all, I have an interest in the Civil War. Yet, some part of me thinks there’s something kind of sick about a fascination with a pretty brutal battle and war. It must be that hunger in us to hear a good, gruesome story. But it’s more than just a good story–it really happened. I have to keep reminding myself of that sometimes. Hearing stories about the war currently being waged in the Middle East certainly doesn’t fascinate me; it disgusts me. I can’t help but wonder if we have an over romanticized view of the past.

Another shot of Burnside Bridge. Which, by the way, was later named in honor of the Union general who led the attack at this location.

There were so many signs and monuments to read and I have to admit that I didn’t read them all. Or even skim many of them. My head was spinning with all these names and dates. Frankly, one of the reasons I never took a history class in college is because I’m horrible at remembering details such as dates and names; I’m a “general idea” kind of girl which is probably why I majored in English. Still, I read enough to get a general feel for this battle. Which ended in a draw after all those dead bodies. But it was apparently enough of a victory to give Abraham Lincoln confidence to announce his famous Emancipation Proclamation. And the rest, as they say, is history.

By the way, an interesting piece of historical information: The Battle of Antietam is known in the south as the Battle of Sharpsburg–the name of the neighboring town outside of which the battle took place (where as Antietam is the name of a nearby creek). As Crow aptly pointed out, “Things were so bad the south and north couldn’t even agree on a name for the battle!”

We stopped by the Antietam National Cemetery before leaving town. As Ohioans, we felt a certain obligation to find the area of the cemetery where the soldiers from Ohio were buried. We even scanned the registry to gape at the number of unknown soldiers listed, some of which were also listed by state (how did they know even that?). Unknown soldiers are the saddest collateral of battle. The thought of someone not getting a proper period of time to be mourned by family and friends seems like the saddest way to die of all. We humans need closure. Without a body or official confirmation of a loved one’s death, I can’t help but think that the family and friends of said soldiers always held out just a little hope for the rest of their lives that their lost loved one would turn up one day. I think that every once in awhile about my husband and I saw his body… It’s just a kind of painful way for someone to live, not knowing like that. My heart goes out to families of soldiers missing in action…

Last stop... Antietam National Cemetery.

Map to the grave sites at Antietam National Cemetery.

The registry lists all the known soldiers. If I were into genealogy, I think it would be really neat to be able to find the graves for relatives who fought in the Civil War. I wonder if any of my own relatives did. I’m thinking not because I’m not sure my family history in the US reaches back that far… I think we’re more recent. (See? I’m obviously not into genealogy!)

The shorter gravestones mark the graves of unknown soldiers. This is area where the soldiers from NY were buried.

The view as you enter Antietam National Cemetery.

It was a sobering experience, but really fascinating. I must admit I’m inspired to see more of my nation’s historical sites, particularly those associated with the Civil War. I’ve always wanted to visit the sites of the Underground Railroad that exist in Ohio; likewise, I’ve always wanted to return to Gettysburg, which I visited at a very young age with my parents, and all I remember from that experience is throwing a tantrum, refusing to put on my seatbelt, and falling out of the open door of our family car while in the cemetery. So I think it’s time to revisit Gettysburg as an adult. I foresee many road trips in my future… And grander adventures by bike!

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