For the past few days I walked the battlefields at Antietam and Gettysburg. I have studied these battles for many years. I have seen movies about them. I have read novels about them. But these battles cannot fully understood until one walks these sites.
Visiting the battle sites today, one sees only pleasant vistas. The names seem quaint– Antietam: The Dunker Church, the Sunken Road, Burnside’s Bridge. Gettysburg: The Peach Orchard, the Round Tops, the Copse of Trees, the Devil’s Den. Yet, only the last name seems to reveal the horrors that happened so long ago.
These two sites are especially poignant; they represent General Robert E. Lee’s two attempts, in September 1862 and July 1863, to invade the northern states and thereby force a military or political solution to the war. They also represent two of Lee greatest failures. For the North, Antietam would allow Lincoln to issue The Emancipation Proclamation and Gettysburg would ensure the ultimate victory of the Union, but the costs were high.
The two battles raised high the bar for carnage. At Antietam more than 22,000 died or were wounded in one day; at Gettysburg about 51,000 were casualties and more than 5,000 horses died in the three-day battle. These are staggering numbers.
To me they are very special for my great grandfather and five of his brothers fought in the war and survived. Four of them were at Gettysburg and one who was at Gettysburg was also at Antietam.
At Antietam one of the bloodiest episodes of the battle occurred at the Burnside Bridge. To read of the battle is to not fully grasp how it played out. Most accounts talk of the Confederate forces on the heights above the bridge where the Union attempted to cross in wave after wave. It was like “Shooting fish in a barrel.” From high on the heights above Confederate soldiers held off the advancing Union forces and turned the water of Antietam creek to blood red.
At Gettysburg, an open field stretches across to the distant “copse” of trees where the men of Pickett’s Charge moved –17,000 strong — to their death.
On those long ago days the fields and streams of Antietam and Gettysburg ran red with blood. Yet to see them now you would not know that this had happened except in your mind’s eye.
In his Gettysburg Address, Lincoln wrote so eloquently “… we can not consecrate — we can not hallow — this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here.”
So I walked the battlefields and thought about it all, and the price they paid that we should never forget.