One of the great privileges of living in Washington, D.C., is having ready access to many of the important places in American history. From Mount Vernon to Fort McHenry, our past is everywhere.
I was reminded of this near the end of the summer when I took what was supposed to be a fishing trip. It turned into a pilgrimage.
If someone asked you to name the bloodiest single day in American military history, you might guess D-Day, when the troops invaded the Normandy beaches in World War II, a desperate and brutal assault stunningly portrayed by Steven Spielberg in Saving Private Ryan. Or perhaps you would think of Okinawa, the last island taken by the Marines on the way to Japan in World War II, a battle in which over 100,000 Japanese and 15,000 Americans died. That battle convinced the U.S. military that an invasion of Japan would likely result in a million U.S. deaths. Or maybe you think of World War I and the flower of Western civilization destroyed in seemingly endless trench warfare, engulfed in clouds of poisonous gas.
If you suspected that the bloodiest day was during the American Civil War, when Americans were dying on both sides, I’d bet you would guess the bloodiest battle was Gettysburg, which broke the back of the Confederate Army on Seminary Ridge and Little Roundtop.
But the truth is that Antietam was the worst of all. At Antietam, in one day, 3600 soldiers were killed and 17,000 were wounded. That is one person killed or wounded every two seconds for twelve straight hours.
The battle unfolded in three parts. To the south, there was a day-long battle for what became known as “Burnside’s Bridge,” named after the Union general in charge, Ambrose Burnside (he of the famous “sideburns”). The Confederates held the heights on the other side of the bridge, and stopped one Union effort after another to take the bridge. Finally, when an officer ordered his men to storm the bridge, they asked the officer, who was a teetotaler and who had denied them their traditional whisky ration, if the ration would be restored if they took the bridge. He said yes, and they took it.
To the north was the Cornfield – a real cornfield, which was ripe for the harvest when I was there, through which Union and Confederates charged and countercharged all day long.
In the middle of the field was a sunken road. It was held by the Confederates, and the Union sent charge after charge to take it. They were repulsed time and again. The bodies piled up in the sunken lane, which took a new name: “Bloody Lane.” The cumulative carnage is memorialized in a haunting photograph, taken before the bodies were buried, as they lay dead, piled upon one another.
It was at Bloody Lane that the Irish Brigade was pressed into service. I do not know if all the men were Catholics, but many were (a little-known fact of American Catholic history). And many died. The Irish Brigade was well served by a priest, Father William Corby, who rode up and down the line, giving the men general absolution before they died. Father Corby later served twice as president of Notre Dame.
The Irish Brigade has a memorial by Bloody Lane – a copy of Corby’s statue is next to the priests’ residence in South Bend. It is very moving to stand on that battlefield and to see how beautifully it’s been preserved by the National Park Service.
Antietam was fought on September 17, 1862, early in the war. This was Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s first attempt to take the army to the north, to relieve the pressure on the south, and to threaten Washington in the hope of bringing European aid to the Confederate cause. He crossed the Potomac into Maryland and met the Union forces at Antietam. When the battle was over, both sides claimed victory. The Confederates were not driven from the field, though outnumbered two to one. But their advance into the north had been checked. Lee retreated that night back into Virginia.
The armies ended the day largely where they began it, but the battle was far from senseless. Abraham Lincoln, who visited the battlefield the next day and comforted the wounded, southern as well as northern, made something great out of the slaughter. Two days afterwards he issued the Emancipation Proclamation, freeing the slaves.
I could never have guessed, when I diverted my fishing trip to visit Antietam battlefield, what a profoundly moving experience lay ahead of me. As Catholics, we remember (and pray for) the dead, as the dead remember (and pray for) us. Our links to them forms what G. K. Chesterton called the “democracy of the dead,” that is, we are all connected in a great chain in this civilization, which the dead have built and we build upon. As Americans alive today, we owe a debt of gratitude to those who went before us. Their courage and dedication to American ideals helped to build the constitutional democracy in which we live. We must never forget them and their sacrifice.
Antietam battlefield is not a glorification of war. Rather, it is a moving reminder of the cost of a just peace. I hope you will visit Antietam one day.