They say a picture is worth a thousand words, but what if the picture leaves you with no words, just feelings of shock and despair?
In April, I took a quick, weekend trip to DC with Lacey. She was shooting a wedding, and we touristed it up for a day before coming back home. On our way back, we exited the highway looking specifically for a Sheetz travel center – which we did not find – but we did see a sign for Antietam Battlefield. It was close, only about 15 minutes off the highway, so we decided to break up the drive with some sightseeing.
I wasn’t sure which war this battlefield was part of until we got there; years of memorizing places and dates in school just left me with a jumbled set of facts in my head. Thanks to a half-hour video narrated by James Earl Jones, we got a crash course on the bloodiest one day of battle in American history. It was a lesson in just how terrible human beings can be.
On September 17, 1862, Union and Confederate troops met at Antietam Creek. After 12 hours of battle, nearly 23,000 soldiers were either dead, wounded or missing. The worst part of this enormous number is that it is approximate. Because the losses were so huge, no one was able to get an accurate count.
Think about that for a minute: So many lives were lost – in less than a day – no completely accurate count exists.
At the time, Lincoln was looking for some kind of decisive victory to give him a wave of support on which to ride while he delivered the Emancipation Proclamation. Meanwhile, the Confederate Army was trying to get a victory of its own – by taking a piece of Northern territory.
After 12 hours of bloody battle, the Confederate force withdrew to Southern-held Virginia, technically making the battle a Union victory. But no one really won. The Union forces didn’t chase them back to Virginia, they just let them go.
After the battle, photographers came onto the scene and captured the first images of a battlefield before the dead were buried. The Civil War was where photojournalism was born, but no one had seen images like this before. The scenes were haunting: Men and boys, someone’s father or brother or son, still lying on the ground, piled up next to half dug-graves.
Today when you drive through Antietam, it’s hard to imagine it as the site of a terrible battle. The hills are peaceful, broken up by rocks jutting from the ground. These may have given precious little shelter from gunfire to the men and boys fighting around them. Trees cover many of the hills and green grasses wave in the wind, just as I’m sure they did before the first boots landed 153 years ago. By the time the battle was done, the trampled ground was soaked in blood.
Even if you don’t have an itch to visit a Civil War battlefield, this is still a nice place to check out if you just want to take in some fresh air and sunshine. The driving tour gives you beautiful landscapes to see, and a network of five trails crossing the battlefield covers about 7.4 miles. I didn’t hike these – my blisters were still howling from walking all over the National Mall. From what I saw of them from the road, they looked like smooth, wide, easy-to-follow trails, but the terrain at Antietam is not flat, so expect some inclines.
What we did get out of the car for included the Dunker Church, which was one of the focal points of the battle, and was used as a temporary field hospital and later an embalming station before it was restored and returned to the faithful for services until the turn of the century, according to the NPS website.
We also stopped at Burnside Bridge, named for the Union general who captured it from Confederate forces during the battle. If you’re allergic to bee stings, send ahead a spotter or take an EpiPen. When we went through there was a horde of bumblebees dancing around one end of the bridge.