Clint Johnson on Antietam: A Battle Field Everyone Should See

Our resident Civil War enthusiast Clint Johnson gives us his perspective on the Battle of Antietam and what the 150th anniversary means to him. Clint is the author of 12 books on the American Civil War, including the newest editions of  Touring the Carolinas’ Civil War Sites and Touring Virginia’s and West Virginia’s Civil War Sites. Here, he covers the battle, its significance, and even its ghosts.

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Battle of Antietam / Sharpsburg

The Antietam National Battlefield, better known to Southerners as Sharpsburg, Maryland, is one of those places which can be appreciated by both dedicated Civil War historians and people who have only a casual interest in the war.

It is compact, as opposed to the sprawling landscape of Gettysburg.  It is sobering because 23,000 men were killed or wounded in a single day in an area not much bigger than a large housing development.

The battle itself is also easily understood as it took place in three phrases in three different places at three different times of the day.

It has drama; Robert E. Lee determined to make a stand here once he learned his tactical orders were in the hands of the Federal commander, George McClellan;  Federals and Confederates attacked each other across the Miller corn field again and again; the Tar Heels defended the Sunken Road until their bodies were stacked so thick that Federals walked across them without touching ground; A.P. Hill’s Corps made a forced march of 16 miles from Harpers Ferry, arriving just in the nick of time to save Lee himself from capture or death.

It has historical significance. President Lincoln determined that he would issue the Emancipation Proclamation after the stand-off at Sharpsburg (that he declared a victory) that would help convince the North that the war’s objective should be turned from a war to preserve the Union to a war to free the slaves.  It was after Sharpsburg that an exasperated Lincoln began to think of replacing McClellan who kept thousands of men in reserve rather than use them to crush Lee’s depleted army. Had McClellan acted as most other generals would, the war would have been virtually over barely a year and a half after it began.

It is also spooky. The only ghost story I am convinced really happened to a friend of mine behind Dunker Church, where uncounted numbers of Confederates are buried. About 10 years ago my reenactment unit, the 26th North Carolina, was camped across from the church. A 20-year-old reenactor went to the port-a-john late at night. While he was standing inside with his candle lantern by his side, two heads poked themselves through the plastic to stare him in the eyes from a distance of six inches. One was perfectly formed. The other looked like a department store manikin with no eyes, mouth or nose. The ghost in front of him said just two words: “GET OUT!”  I believe this story because all reenactors want to converse with a ghost while standing picket late at night on a famous battle field – NOT while taking a whiz in a plastic toilet.

Sharpsburg is a place everyone who had ancestors in The Army of the Potomac, or The Army of Northern Virginia should visit. I had at least three there with Lee. All of them survived that day.  With the help of National Park Service rangers, you should be able to find the ground on which your ancestors fought.  At Sharpsburg you can literally walk in their footsteps.

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For details on this weekend’s memorials at the battle field, learn more from the National Park Service or the anniversary reenactment. And pick up your copy of So You Think You Know Antietam? to find your way around the park and learn little-known stories about the men and women who were there on September 17, 1862.

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