Twelve hours. That’s all it took for Antietam (pronounced an-TEE-a-tam) to become the bloodiest one-day battle in the Civil War and in American history. On this field, on September 17, 1862, nearly 100,000 soldiers joined in battle, with 22,717 of them killed, wounded, or missing by end of day.
At Sharpsburg, Maryland, Lee brought more than 50,000 men from the Army of Northern Virginia, along with Generals Stonewall Jackson and James Longstreet. Union General George McClellan had more than 87,000 men under his command. This, then, was the first major field-army engagement on Union soil.
The battle raged from dawn until just before sunset. 2,108 Union soldiers and 3,281 Confederate soldiers were killed in action. 9, 548 Union soldiers and 7,752 Confederate soldiers were wounded. A total of more than 1800 men were captured or missing by the end of the day.
The next morning, the Confederate Army prepared for a new Union assault, which never came. That evening, Lee’s army retreated across the Potomac and it was over. The Union had held Sharpsburg.
One footnote to the battle is that Clara Barton brought bandages, lanterns, and food to the Union Army’s field hospital. It was here that she was christened “The Angel of the Battlefield.”
Antietam National Cemetery
Dedicated five years after the battle at Antietam, the National Cemetery is located a short distance from the visitor center. 4,776 Union soldiers are buried here, with a staggering 38% of them (1,836) unknown.
The smaller square gravestones mark the unknown soldiers. Section 3 is simply marked “unknown soldiers” on the map of the cemetery, surrounded by Sections 2 and 4, marked “unknown Union soldiers.” Think about that for a while. So ruined in the fighting they couldn’t tell Union from Confederate. But still laid to rest with a marker, to recognize the lives lost, regardless of army affiliation.
Every time I walk through a national cemetery, it is a solemn experience. I feel the ghosts of the past close by, as if they are trying to haunt our collective memory to remember them, to remember the battles, the causes, and the costs.
My father was a WWII (non-combatant) veteran and he and my mother are buried at Riverside National Cemetery in California. That one is an active cemetery, and every time I visit, there is at least one burial with full military honors in progress. I drive by quietly, my heart aching for the families wracked by fresh loss and new grief, and I give all respect to the one being laid to rest.
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The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battle-field, and patriot grave, to every living heart and hearth-stone, all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.