Monday, August 11, 2014

A History Teacher Visits Antietam

In my day job (when I am not thinking about professional wrestling, or guitars, or rock music, or movies, or other distractions) I am a history teacher and college counselor at Wyoming Seminary, a boarding school in Northeastern Pennsylvania. I have previously written about my teaching, and with the 2014-15 school year right around the corner, the time seemed right to do so again.  Last week my wife Courtney and I took a trip to the Antietam National Battlefield in Maryland.  It was extremely educational and quite thought provoking. It really showed me that reading about someplace for years doesn't prepare me for (or replace) visiting it in person. What follows are some impressions and pictures. 

The Battle of Antietam was one of the most significant events in the first century of our country. It put a stop to Robert E. Lee's first attempted invasion of the northern states, guaranteeing that the Civil War (then about a year and a half old) would continue on. It was the single bloodiest day in American history; more men were killed, wounded, captured or went missing on September 17, 1862 than in all of the United States' previous wars combined. It is also fitting that a battle that took place 73 years to the day after the ratification of the Constitution (during a war to preserve the Constitution) led to the most important amendments to the Constitution (the 13th, 14th and 15th, also known as the Civil Rights Amendments or the Reconstruction Amendments). The Confederate retreat at Antietam gave Abraham Lincoln the political support to issue the seceded states an ultimatum: return to the Union status quo ante by January 1, 1863 or have their slaves become "forever free". The Emancipation Proclamation was momentous in the short term (by making the war explicitly one to free the slaves, European countries like France and Britain were no longer willing to intercede on behalf, or even officially recognize the existence of the Confederacy) and in the long term.  As Civil War historian Bruce Catton wrote in 1958:
"What America is and hopes to be dates from the fight along Antietam Creek. The fight cost an enormous number of lives, and inflicted pain and disability on many thousands more; but in the infinite economy of the advance of the human race it may have been worth what it cost." 
I've occasionally used this battle as a jumping off point for a group project in my history classes; having had the chance to see the battlefield in person I know that I will do so again this year. 

The battlefield and cemetery are run by the National Park Service, and they do a fantastic job. The Visitor Center is located atop a hill that provides panoramic views of the surrounding fields, which the Park Service leases to local farmers to maintain it in a fashion similar to what it was 152 years ago.  

Photo by Courtney Lewis 2014
The Visitor Center has a museum, a lecture hall, a movie theatre and a gift shop. The movie theatre shows a 26 minute movie (© 2010) narrated by James Earl Jones in full "Darth Vader" voice that does a truly excellent job of explaining the battle from military, political and historical perspectives.  It has very good production values, showing Civil War re-enactors on the actual battlefield, with explosions and popping blood capsules to add to the verisimilitude. The store has a great selection of inexpensive books (we bought a dozen for the school library) as well as some rather tasteless apparel, such as an Abraham Lincoln beard and sweatshirts commemorating the battle. When we were there the lecture hall hosted a very interesting talk about the life of Clara Barton (the founder of the American Red Cross assuaged the wounded at Antietam). I'm a history teacher and Courtney worked for the Red Cross for several years but we both learned some things from the lecture. The audience seemed made up of "Civil War buffs"; I saw one lady nodding enthusiastically whenever familiar names were mentioned, and a man was very put out when the speaker referred to "coming back from Antietam" (under his breath he huffed "or Sharpsburg!").

After the lecture we wandered about on foot for a bit.  A few hundred yards away were the cornfields through which Union and Confederate soldiers marched and died when the battle began at 5:30am. We went on August 10th, so the sight must have been pretty similar to what they saw on September 17th; the corn was high and would have hidden the movement of the men pretty well.  Here are a couple of more pictures:

Cannon facing the cornfields. Photo by Courtney Lewis 2014
View from the cannon. Photo by Courtney Lewis 2014

It was rather spooky looking at the cornfield having just seen the movie version of the slaughter that took place on the site so long ago. I am not a believer in the supernatural, but I felt conscious of a certain weightiness there.  Over 40,000 men were part of the battle (along with unnumbered horses and other beasts of burden). All around the battlefield are plaques explaining which soldiers camped or were stationed at various sites. To think of these men marching in on the 16th, knowing (at least generally) what was in store the following day; trying to imagine how hard it must have been to sleep that night, to wake up before dawn to muster and begin the march through the corn was very heavy indeed. 

The cornfield also made me think of "The Veteran in a New Field", a powerful painting by Winslow Homer from 1865.  I use this painting in my class when I teach students how to interpret visual images. Part of the meaning of the painting is that the former soldier, who was recently reaping a different, bloody harvest in other fields has returned home to resume his life as a family, wading away from his past, leaving his army canteen (and the bad memories of the war) behind him. 

Photo by Courtney Lewis 2014

After the cornfield we moved to the Sunken Road, which became known as the "Bloody Lane" as it filled up with piles of dead men, first the Union forces who approached it from above (and were sitting ducks) and later Confederate soldiers after being outflanked. In three hours 5,500 men were killed or wounded, the road incarnadined from their blood. At the suggestion of one of the park rangers we walked along the path to be able to better picture the sight lines that the soldiers would have seen.  It is hard to imagine the terror that people on both sides must have experienced here. Whether the Union soldiers charging pell-mell toward an entrenched force with comrades falling left and right or the Confederates watching hundreds of armed men charging with violent intent while armed with a single shot rifle, it must have been horrible. Here are some pictures, first some historical ones (thanks to the NPS website) followed by some from our visit:

This is a sketch of the Sunken Road that appeared in contemporary magazines.

Alexander Gardner took this photo of dead Confederates in the Sunken Road days after the battle.
Photo by Courtney Lewis 2014

Photo by Courtney Lewis 2014
After the Sunken Road we got in our car and drove to other significant landmarks.  The Park Service has installed very unobtrusive (yet clear) directional signs telling drivers where to turn, keyed to a map that shows where everything is.  We also bought a CD and book that narrates each of the sites; I highly recommend it. One of our next stops was an observation tower.  It is located on a hill, and to reach the top requires climbing 71 winding steps.  But the views are quite breathtaking (climbing 71 steps is breathtaking too, but in a different way):

Photo by Ethan Lewis 2014

Photo by Ethan Lewis 2014

Photo by Ethan Lewis 2014

After climbing down from the tower we drove to the Burnside Bridge. 500 Confederate soldiers repulsed several attacks from 5000 Union soldiers at great cost here (the Federals were led by Gen. Ambrose Burnside, whose unique facial hair gave us the word "sideburns").  It is an exceptionally bucolic place. I couldn't help but be struck by the conflict between the glories of nature's beauty and the ugliness of human brutality. As before, some historical images followed by one of Courtney's pictures:

A sketch from a contemporary magazine

The bridge from the Confederate side by Alexander Gardner 1862

The bridge from the Confederate side by Courtney Lewis 2014
There is much more to see; we were at the park for several hours but it deserves more time. The park is open every day (except Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year's or during a government shutdown) but as I mentioned before, I think that a visit in August or September would give the best impression.  Having seen the excellent preservation of Antietam I would like to go to other Civil War battlefields--Gettysburg is relatively close, I'll probably go there next.  

The park is beautiful, but there is a sadness permeating the area. It has made me think a lot about the war and its impact on the people who lived through it. Just a couple of days before our visit I read an article that summarized a recent study showing that American veterans of the Vietnam War who suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) still experienced the symptoms 40 years later, and that they had a higher than average death rate compared to their age group. As I tell my students, even though "psychology" as we know it wasn't invented yet, people in olden days still experienced (and reacted to) events the way we do today. It is hard to imagine living in the America of the decades following the 1860's.  Millions of Civil War veterans (many suffering from wounds and illness), millions of former slaves (victims of unspeakable violence and exploitation) and millions of people mourning the loss of loved ones all had to deal with the psychological aftermath of the conflict. Yet despite this, in many cases efforts were made to heal these wounds (though often at the expense of black American freedom) in the following decade. By the early years of the 20th century, former Confederates and former Union soldiers met on the battlefields of their youths, as you can can see in the following video:

It occurs to me that America's relatively easy recovery following the Civil War (restoration of essentially the same political system; rapid growth into a world economic power, and peace between the North and South for a century before the upheaval of the Civil Rights era) may have to do with the nature of the war.  At least at some level it was a political war for most of the participants. Contrast that with the violent upheaval going on in the world today, so many of which are religious or cultural. I think that those kind of divisions and hatreds are harder to overcome.  I can't easily imagine a park ranger in Fallujah in 150 years saying (to paraphrase our ranger at Antietam): "those Shiite boys and the Sunni boys sure fought hard here". 

I am very glad that I had the chance to visit Antietam.  If you have been there, or to a similar historic location, I'd love to read your comments.