Go to the main Civil War touring page.

'And the Slain Lay in Rows'

It Was the Bloodiest Day in American History. But Few of Us Know Much About the Battle of Antietam, Or How This Sad and Terrible Struggle Shaped the Nation's Future

By Peter Carlson
July 30, 1995
© The Washington Post

There's not much there. It's just a field, really. But people come every day, sometimes from far away, to stand and look.

They park their cars on a road that rises and dips with the rolling hills. They step out and glance around. They bow their heads to read the sign and then straighten up to stare out at the field. There's a split-rail fence and, in the distance, some farm buildings -- a white silo, a fading barn. In between there's hay -- 30 acres of tall green stalks of grass topped with tiny seeds. When the breeze picks up, the stalks begin to quiver, then shake, then sway back and forth like sea grasses caught in gentle waves.

It's beautiful to watch, hypnotic and mesmerizing, but that's not why the people stand there for so long. They're staring at the grass but they're seeing something else, something that hasn't been there for 133 years. They seldom speak. When they do, it's usually in a hush, nothing loud enough to drown out the drone of the crickets.

This field of hay is called "the Cornfield" because that's what it was at dawn on September 17, 1862. By noon, though, the corn was gone, cut to the ground by bullets and cannon shells, and the field was covered with thousands of dead or broken men. It was the bloodiest part of the bloodiest day in this country's history -- the Battle of Antietam. Nearly 23,000 Americans were killed, wounded or missing in action outside Sharpsburg, Md., that day -- nearly four times the American casualties on D-Day. When the sun set and the battle ended, the two opposing armies were still in about the same positions they'd been the previous night. Yet something was won that day, something so profound that George F. Will once called the Battle of Antietam "the second most important day in American history." July 4, 1776, gave us the Declaration of Independence. September 17, 1862, gave us the Emancipation Proclamation.

Today, few Americans know much about Antietam, and even fewer visit the battlefield. More than a million and a half tourists cram into Gettysburg every year and nearly a million visit Manassas, but fewer than 240,000 venture to Antietam. Those who do find that Sharpsburg hasn't changed much since the battle. It has a few inns, a gallery of Civil War art and a tiny museum, but not a single motel or souvenir stand or fast-food joint. Except for a small stone visitors center, a cemetery and some monuments, the battlefield, too, looks about the same as it did before the shooting started. Most of the fields where soldiers fought and died are still farms where families coax crops from the ground.

Antietam is only 70 miles from Washington, but it's off the tourist track, away from the interstates, tucked into the beautiful hills of western Maryland. It's not a place you stumble upon by accident. People tend to come to Antietam in search of something -- a fallen ancestor, a glimpse of history, a place to contemplate their country. They find a field, a sunken dirt road, an old stone bridge, a tiny white church -- all of them haunted by an air of tragedy so palpable that it compels almost everyone to whisper, as if they were visiting a cathedral.

They stand silently, gazing out at the swaying grass of the Cornfield. Ask them what they're thinking and nearly all of them repeat some variation of the same three questions:

How could they have done it?

Could we do it today?

Could I?

"The Union forces in Virginia have suffered three catastrophic defeats in 1862," says Jerry Holsworth. "They have been humiliated by General Stonewall Jackson in the Shenandoah Valley, mauled by Lee in the Seven Days Battle, and again at Manassas. They huddle around Washington, D.C., in a state of very low morale . . ."

Holsworth is a park ranger at the Antietam National Battlefield. He's standing behind the visitors center on a sweltering afternoon, delivering the standard half-hour orientation speech in his own flamboyant style. Spread out in a semicircle around him are two dozen tourists in shorts and sneakers and T-shirts. Holsworth has asked where they're from, and they've replied Colorado, Missouri, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Ohio. Holsworth is from Texas. At 44, he's working his second summer on the Antietam battlefield.

And now he's standing in his Park Service uniform -- gray shirt, green pants, Smokey Bear hat -- telling the story of the battle, enlivening it with dramatic flourishes and plenty of body English. He tells how Robert E. Lee's Confederates have driven the Union army out of Virginia and back to Washington, how Abraham Lincoln is desperate for a victory so he can issue the Emancipation Proclamation, how Lee has seized the initiative by crossing the Potomac and invading Maryland, hoping that a victory on Northern soil will bring aid from England and France.

"Lee's army is suffering, folks," Holsworth says in his Texas drawl. "Half the men are barefoot. They're in rags. They've been fightin' continuously for three or four months without a break. Many of them are livin' on green corn and creek water."

Still, the Rebels easily seized the city of Frederick, and Lee decided to take a dangerous gamble. Knowing that Union Gen. George McClellan was a slow, cautious man, Lee figured that he could divide his already-outnumbered army, send part of it to capture the Union garrison at Harpers Ferry, and then reunite it -- all before McClellan attacked. Lee issued Special Order 191, which detailed his plan. But one of his officers wrapped a copy of the order around three cigars and accidentally dropped it in a field near Frederick, where a Union soldier found it. It was passed up the ranks to McClellan, who instantly realized that he could destroy Lee's divided army piece by piece. He pondered this for 18 hours, then sent his army after Lee.

Holsworth sweeps his hand out in a long horizontal arc, pointing out the ridge that his audience is standing on. "Lee will bring what's left of his army here to Sharpsburg Ridge with the idea of giving up the campaign and skedaddling back to Virginia," he says. He pauses dramatically. "But that night Lee would see the letter that would change his mind. Dear General Lee: Harpers Ferry will surrender in the morning. Signed T.J. Jackson, Major General, Confederate States Army.' "

The next day, as promised, Jackson captured Harpers Ferry. He left Gen. A.P. Hill and a few thousand men to handle the surrender, then marched his troops back here, to the high ground between the Potomac River and Antietam Creek. Reinforced, Lee decided to stand and fight. The Rebels, about 40,000 strong, dug in along Sharpsburg Ridge. The Federals, 80,000 of them, prepared to attack. Everyone on both sides realized that tomorrow would bring a cataclysmic battle. The sun set amid the sound of sniper fire. Rain began to fall.

"The day before the battle, the soldiers came around and said, You all better get out, there's gonna be a hell of a battle here,' " says Earl Roulette. "That was on my great-granddaddy Roulette's farm. He stayed during the battle. A lot of people took their families and went out along the river to a big cave."

Roulette had three great-granddaddies with farms on the battlefield -- a Roulette, a Snavely and a Rohrbach. He lives on a fourth farm, on the other side of town, near the spot where Lee made his headquarters. He farmed it for more than half a century before he retired -- "wheat and corn and barley and hay and cattle, pretty much the same as they did then." In 1976, he sold a big chunk of it to a company that built a development where the streets are named after Confederate generals -- Lee, Longstreet, Jackson, Hill.

"Everybody thinks the Civil War was forever ago," he says. "I'm only 75 and a half, and my grandfather was 12 during the battle. He hid down at Snavely's Ford. I remember my grandpappy talking about it. What I'm saying is: It's just one generation."

He's an old man with a bald head fringed by a few wisps of white hair, but he's still spry enough to hop up from his dining room table to fetch a few mementos. He comes back with an old document encased in plastic. It's a handwritten list of everything his great-grandfather William Roulette lost during the battle -- 8 hogs, 12 sheep, 3 calves, 3 barrels of flour, 155 bushels of potatoes, 220 bushels of apples . . . It goes on for page after page.

"See, this was September," he says. "These farmers were all ready for winter. In those days, you didn't run over to A&P or Food Lion to get your stuff. If you didn't have it in the fall, you did without till spring."

William Roulette filed his list with the federal government, hoping to be compensated for his losses, but his great-grandson doubts that he ever got a nickel. "He had to prove it was taken by the Northern army," he says, "and how the hell could you prove it when both armies were fighting there?"

He points to another item on the list -- "burial ground for 700 soldiers." He smiles wryly. "Can you imagine 700 soldiers buried in your back yard?"

He puts down the list, rummages through a metal tray piled with battle relics he's found on his farm over the years -- bullets, belt buckles, cannonballs. He picks out a dime. It looks almost new, but the date reads 1861. "It lay out there for over a hundred years," he says. "I just found it a couple of years ago."

He digs out a pair of bullets with tooth marks in them. "You've heard the expression biting the bullet'?" he asks. "Well, here's a couple that was bit on." He figures they were bitten by soldiers fighting the pain of getting a wounded arm or leg amputated -- a common operation after the battle. "You don't go around biting bullets unless you got a pretty good reason."

He sorts through the pile and picks out a thin gold ring. He didn't find it on his farm; it was passed down from his grandpa Snavely.

"A soldier died in their house," he says. "I believe it was an officer and not just a plain soldier. Whichever side it was, soldiers from the other side were coming and they had to get rid of him, 'cause if you had an enemy soldier in your house, you were the enemy. Feelings ran a little high along about then. So anyhow, they took him and they dumped him in the creek. And before they threw him in, my grandpa Snavely took this ring off his finger."

He holds the ring gently between his thumb and forefinger. Its circle is broken. There's a piece missing, a section cut or worn away. He raises it up to where it can catch the sunlight that streams through the window, but it's too old and tarnished to glimmer.

"This meant something to somebody," he says.

"Now it's dawn, September 17, 1862," Jerry Holsworth tells the tourists, speaking in the portentous voice of a newsreel narrator, "and out of the north woods emerges the First Corps of the Army of the Potomac under Joseph Hooker." He's pointing north, past the Cornfield to a clump of trees on the horizon. "They move forward into Jackson's line, smash into it! And the Cornfield changes hands! Jackson's line is crushed!"

Hooker's Union troops, about 10,000 strong, were headed for a little whitewashed church built by the German Baptist Brethren, a pacifist sect nicknamed the Dunkards. The church marked the northern flank of Lee's army, and Hooker's orders were to turn that flank and cut off Lee's escape route to the Potomac. As the dawn burned away the early-morning fog, Hooker's artillery pounded the Confederates in the head-high corn, sending cornstalks and mangled bodies skyward. Then his infantry charged, driving the Rebels into the woods near the Dunkard Church.

Thinking they'd won the battle, the Yankees began to cheer, but their celebration proved premature. John B. Hood's Texans, irked at missing what would have been their first hot meal in three days, counterattacked, shooting hundreds of Union soldiers and chasing the rest out of the Cornfield. Seemingly victorious, the Texans moved forward, right into the mouths of hidden Union artillery, which ripped into them at close range. Fresh Yankee troops, led by Gen. Joseph Mansfield, charged and drove the Rebels from the Cornfield again.

In the furious fighting, Mansfield was killed and Hooker was wounded, but the Federals held the advantage. The Confederate line was thin and another attack could break it, perhaps destroying Lee's army. Gen. John Sedgwick made that attack, leading 6,000 fresh Union troops toward the Confederate positions in the woods near the Dunkard Church. Desperate, Lee rounded up a division of Rebels who'd just arrived from Harpers Ferry and rushed them into the woods. They got there just in time to catch the advancing Yankees in an ambush. Within 20 minutes, more than a third of Sedgwick's men lay dead or wounded, and the rest were running for their lives.

Exhausted, both sides pulled back. By mid-morning, the battle for Lee's northern flank had ended in bloody stalemate. The Cornfield, captured and recaptured four times, was strewn with more than 10,000 dead or wounded men. "Pale and bloody faces are everywhere upturned," wrote George Smalley, who covered the battle for the New York Tribune. "They are sad and terrible, but there is nothing which makes one's heart beat so quickly as the imploring look of sorely wounded men who beckon wearily for help . . ."

Answering their calls was a 40-year-old former Patent Office clerk named Clara Barton, who had volunteered to nurse the wounded. When a soldier lying in the Cornfield called to her for a drink, she bent down, lifted his head with her right hand and held a cup of water to his lips. As she did, a bullet passed through her sleeve and into the man's chest, killing him instantly.

Shannon Moore is standing under a shade tree near the Dunkard Church, wearing red sneakers, red shorts, a Minnie Mouse T-shirt and a cardboard sign that identifies her: "Clara Barton."

She watches as the other 35 fifth-graders from Pleasant Valley Elementary School in Knoxville, Md., prepare for battle. Their teachers divide them into Union and Confederate armies, and each kid gets a card that reveals his or her fate. Number ones are head wounds, twos are stomach wounds, threes are leg wounds. It's an exercise designed to demonstrate what medicine was like on the Antietam battlefield. The two little armies spread out on the field next to the Dunkard Church, just behind a metal memorial to Kershaw's Brigade of the South Carolina Infantry, which fought there. "Nearly one half of the officers and men of the brigade," it reads, "were killed and wounded in less than 15 minutes."

Kris McGee, one of the fifth-grade teachers, gives some last-minute instructions: "The theatrics -- we need 'em, but don't overdo it."

"This is not a game," says Mike Weinstein, the park ranger who designed this program. "It's partially a game, but it's serious."

McGee gives the word, and the two armies march slowly toward each other.

"Twos!" McGee yells.

The twos in both armies fall to the ground, victims of fictitious gunfire.

"Ones!"

The ones drop in their tracks, some of them writhing and moaning theatrically.

"Threes!"

They fall, too.

"Okay, that's the end of the battle," McGee says. "Freeze where you are."

Clara Barton and her assistants begin separating out the wounded. They've been instructed in the pitiless art of Civil War triage: Wounded torsos are bandaged, wounded limbs are amputated, wounded heads are given up for dead.

Barton kneels beside a boy wearing a Chicago Bulls T-shirt. She pulls out a bloodstained bandage and wraps it around his midsection, right over the Bulls logo.

Nearby, a wounded girl lies moaning. "Clara Barton, help me," she says. "Clara, help me."

"Okay, nice job," says McGee. "Give yourselves a hand."

They applaud themselves, then file into the Dunkard Church and sit in its austere wooden pews.

"What I would like to hear from you is your reactions -- what you thought and felt," says Weinstein.

"It was kind of weird," says one girl.

"Weird?" says Weinstein. "Why?"

"In the real battle, they didn't call out numbers," she says.

"Would you rather that we shot you?" Weinstein asks. He turns to another girl. "You were one of the last ones taken to the hospital. How did you feel about that?"

"Like I was going to die," she says.

"Who were the number ones?" Weinstein asks. "How were you treated?"

"Left alone," says a boy.

"What was your wound?"

"Head wound."

"We know that there was nothing you could do for a head wound in the Civil War," Weinstein says. "The surgeon had to decide who he could help."

He passes around a photograph of Clara Barton. "She brought supplies to the surgeons on the battlefield," he says. "These were not army supplies. They were her personal supplies. You know what the surgeons were using to dress wounds before Clara Barton got here? Grass. Leaves. Corn husks. How would you feel getting your wounds dressed with corn husks?"

The kids grimace and groan.

"It was very common for legs to be amputated in the Civil War," he continues. "They would take a sharp knife and cut through the skin, then they would take a saw and cut the bone." He distributes photographs of a field hospital set up in a barn. "The surgeons liked barns because they believed that air was good for you. They didn't know about germs."

Now, he prepares to pass around two pictures of bloated, stiffened corpses on the Antietam battlefield. They are famous photographs taken by Alexander Gardner two days after the battle and exhibited a few weeks later in Mathew Brady's Manhattan gallery, inspiring a horrified reviewer to write: "Mr. Brady has done something to bring home to us the terrible reality and earnestness of war. If he has not brought home bodies and laid them in our door-yards and along the streets, he has done something very like it . . ."

"These are pretty strong photographs," Weinstein warns. "The purpose is to show you that this wasn't a game."

Their curiosity whetted, the kids crane their necks to catch a glimpse. But when they see the grisly images, they don't recoil or gasp. In fact, they hardly react at all.

In the 133 years since these photographs shocked New York, even 11-year-old kids have seen far worse countless times, live and in color, right in their living rooms.

"If you turn around, folks, you'll see a road like most of you have in your own home town," says Jerry Holsworth.

He points south, to a sunken dirt road set behind a snake-rail fence about 500 yards from the Dunkard Church. "See, back in the Civil War, folks didn't like to get caught in traffic any more than we do today. So what do you do? Why, you build a bypass, that's what you do. This is the Sharpsburg, Maryland, Civil War bypass. Over the years, it had worn down from heavy use, and folks called it the Sunken Road."

The Confederates were crouched in that Sunken Road. It made a good natural trench -- even better after the Rebels tore down William Roulette's fences and piled the rails in front of them. Dug in, they waited for the Federals to attack.

Just as the battle in the Cornfield died out, the attack came. Gen. William French's division was supposed to follow Sedgwick's troops to the Dunkard Church, but French's men got lost in the smoke and confusion and marched, shoulder to shoulder, right toward the Sunken Road. The Confederates waited silently, watching the Yankees march over the crest of a hill that ran parallel to the road about a hundred yards away -- first the American flags appeared, then their heads and shoulders. Finally, when the Rebels could see the bluecoats' belts, they rose and fired, blasting away 150 men in French's front line.

The Federals retreated, regrouped, then returned. Again the Rebels blew them away. Again they fell back. Again they attacked. Again they were driven back, suffering terrible casualties. Finally, after three hours of fighting and the arrival of reinforcements, the Yankees seized a little hill above the Rebels' right. From there, they could fire down into the Sunken Road, killing Confederates by the score. It was, one Union soldier said, like "shooting sheep in a pen."

The Rebels fled, leaving behind so many dead comrades that, as one Union soldier put it, a man could have walked the road from end to end without ever touching ground. The Sunken Road had earned a new nickname: Bloody Lane.

Now, the Confederate line was broken in its center. With one quick push, McClellan could have cut Lee's army in two, then destroyed it. He had fresh troops ready to go. But he never gave the order to attack.

"It would not be prudent," he explained.

A battered old school bus now painted the color of dried blood bounces into the parking lot and rumbles to a stop at Bloody Lane.

Inside are 20 members of the Civil War Society, a group based in Berryville, Va., that sponsors battlefield tours and seminars. These are hard-core buffs. They've come from Ohio, Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, even Bermuda to ride canoes down Antietam Creek with historian Dennis Frye. Last night, Frye, who grew up near Antietam and has been studying it since was 4 years old, delivered a long, passionate lecture on the battle. This morning, he marched the group across the battlefield so he could explain exactly what happened to Sedgwick's division. Now, he has stopped the bus for a few words about Bloody Lane.

"These attacks were never ordered by McClellan," he says. "They were accidental. They happened because they couldn't see Sedgwick. They were lost."

Frye isn't thrilled to be explaining all this from the bus. "The only way you can understand a battlefield," he likes to say, "is to stand on the battlefield." But he's eager to get his students into canoes for their trip down the creek, so he has to cut this lecture short. He asks if there are any questions.

"How many casualties were there here at Bloody Lane?" asks Lawrence Donohoe.

About 3,000 for the Federals, Frye replies, more than 2,000 for the Confederates.

"In three hours?" Donohoe asks.

"Right," Frye replies.

"Incredible," Donohoe says.

He's a 68-year-old lawyer from Louisiana, a short, portly gentleman with glasses and a gray mustache. This is his second trip with the Civil War Society. He went to Gettysburg last year. His interest was sparked by Ken Burns's Civil War series on PBS. "All those old pictures intrigued me," he says.

Now, as the bus chugs down the road, Donohoe recalls the day some 60 years ago when he met his grandmother's uncle, who had fought for the Rebels at Vicksburg. "He was kind of a scary fellow. He wore dark clothes and had a long gray beard and a walking stick, and he was frightening to a little fella like me."

After the fall of Vicksburg, grandma's uncle got home to Louisiana by grabbing hold of a big log and floating across the Mississippi. Or so the family legend goes.

"I'm intrigued by the fact that: Here I am, alive, and I talked to a fellow who actually fought in that war 130 years ago," Donohoe says. "It's amazing."

"Don't forget your great-great-grandfather," says his son, Tim Donohoe, a psychologist and Civil War buff who has researched the family tree.

"My great-great-grandfather was killed at the Battle of Mansfield," Donohoe says, referring to the fighting along the Red River in Louisiana in 1864. "We tried to find his grave, but we couldn't . . . All we know is that we could trace him to the battle and he never came home. He was a young man who just never came home."

The bus stops at the Pry house, where McClellan made his headquarters during the battle. Frye wants to show the group what McClellan could and could not see from his command post.

Donohoe is talking about a book on Antietam that he tried, and failed, to read. It contained those Alexander Gardner photographs of the battlefield. "I would take a look at that book in bed," he says, "but I found I could not look at it without crying. I'd look at those faces and read the names of these kids 17, 18, 19 years old and I'd get tears in my eyes. I was touched by the fact that so many of these young kids got killed there. It's such a sad thing."

Donohoe shuffles off the bus with the other buffs and starts up the hill to the overlook where McClellan watched the carnage unfold in the valley below.

"This is quite an emotional thing for me right now," he says softly.

"The final phase of the battle concerned the lower bridge -- the Rohrbach Bridge," says Jerry Holsworth. "After this battle, it will be forever known as the Burnside Bridge. Why? Because Ambrose Burnside is ordered to take his Ninth Corps and seize the bridge ! Take Sharpsburg ! The bridge is defended by 400 Georgians -- and they have the best defensive positions on the field!"

Holsworth is really rolling now. Sweat is pouring from under his ranger hat and dripping down his face, but he keeps moving, telling the story of the battle with plenty of gestures and exclamation points.

"Early in the morning, Burnside attacks ! And it fails !

"Early afternoon, he tries again! And fails again!

"The third time, though, he takes the bridge !"

Holsworth pauses, looks at his audience. "Is there anybody here from Georgia? Your guys just ran out of ammunition."

He returns to his storytelling mode. "Burnside brings the entire Ninth Corps -- 9,000 Union soldiers -- across that bridge, forms them in line of battle, and begins to attack Sharpsburg ! Sharpsburg is defended by an under-strength Confederate division -- barely 2,000 men. They're hopelessly outnumbered! They're being pushed back everywhere because Burnside's attack is relentless !

"Take Sharpsburg and Lee's escape will be cut! Lee is watching this disaster from a place pretty close to where our national cemetery is today. There, he's watching the destruction of his army! There, he's watching the end of the war in total defeat ! There, he's watching the lives of every one of his soldiers who has died so far in this war lost in vain ! He has a broken wrist on one hand, the other hand is sprained -- both from a fall off his horse a few days earlier. He can't hold a telescope, so he calls over a staff officer. He points in the direction of Burnside Bridge: Who are those men?' Staff officer comes over, pulls open his telescope" -- Holsworth mimes the action as he describes it -- "looks in the direction of the Burnside Bridge, says, General Lee, they're flying the United States flag.' "

Holsworth stops. "If you remember, don't say a word! But I'll bet most of you forgot."

He resumes his story: "Now, Lee sees dust clouds from another direction! Who are those men?' The staff officer brings forward his telescope, looks in the direction of Harpers Ferry, says, General Lee, they're flying the Confederate and Virginia flags.' Lee turns to the staff officer and very calmly says, It is A.P. Hill from Harpers Ferry.' "

Holsworth pauses dramatically, then proceeds. "Hearing the shots very early in the morning, A.P. Hill has moved his division out! They've marched 17 miles in eight hours! He's brought his whole division across the wide, rock-bottom Potomac River! It's one of the great military miracles in American history -- because now, as Burnside is about to seize Sharpsburg and end the war, A.P. Hill suddenly appears on his left flank! Crashes into it! Throws Burnside back to the bridge! Ends the battle! Saves Lee's army!"

"You don't know what a thrill this is for me," says Edmund Burnside Sr. as his son pulls his white Oldsmobile into the parking lot overlooking the Burnside Bridge.

He's so thrilled that he can barely wait for the people who are climbing into a car with Indiana license plates to hurry up and move out of the way. "Come on, you damn Yankees, get on in!"

Finally, the Indiana Yankees drive off and Burnside's son, Edmund Jr., parks the Olds. They climb out and walk past a group of tourists studying a sign about the battle.

"If these people only knew who was walking by them," says the senior Burnside.

"Calm down, Pop," says his son.

But he can't calm down. Burnside, 71, a retired General Motors manager, is all keyed up. He has come all the way from Georgia to see where his most illustrious relative fought. Gen. Ambrose Burnside was, he says, the nephew of his great-great-grandfather. Growing up in Michigan, Burnside was aware of this connection to history, but he never paid much attention to it. Then, in the '50s, GM transferred him to Georgia, where he learned that many Southerners looked askance at his surname. One day, he was introduced to a man who immediately asked if he was kin to that Yankee general. Burnside proudly answered yes, and the man promptly threw him off his property. "They take it real serious down South," he says.

Curious, he started reading up on his distinguished relative. To his dismay, he found that many historians regard the general as a bumbling incompetent. In fact, quite a few of them blame Gen. Burnside for failing to get his troops across Antietam Creek quickly enough to seize Sharpsburg. "Burnside wasted the morning and part of the afternoon crossing the stubbornly defended bridge," wrote James M. McPherson in his Pulitzer Prize-winning book Battle Cry of Freedom, "when his men could have waded the nearby fords against little opposition." Other historians disagree, however, arguing that the creek was too difficult to ford, and Edmund Burnside Sr. is firmly convinced that they are right. So convinced, in fact, that he once delivered a lecture defending the general to a group of Civil War buffs in Georgia. And now he has come to Antietam to see the place for himself.

"I didn't know his bridge was this big," he says when he catches his first glimpse of the stone span. He lights up a cigar with a white plastic tip and watches the tourists wander by. "I could give these tourists a thrill if I tell 'em who we are," he says. "They want a history lesson? We'll give it to them. Give me a crowd! I'll tell you about this bridge!"

His son doesn't look too happy about that idea. A 28-year-old tree surgeon, the younger Burnside is a Civil War buff, too, but he's more interested in reenacting battles than in rehabilitating the Burnside name. The two men pose for pictures on the bridge, then cross to the other side -- the side that Burnside's troops attacked from -- and look at the scene from the general's perspective.

Not surprisingly, the elder Burnside quickly concludes that it would have been impossible to ford the creek. "If they woulda got across the water, they couldn't crawl across the bank," he says. "You've got a 10-pound rifle and 60 pounds of equipment on your back."

"I'd hate to be in the first dozen or so to get across," says his son.

On the bank, the Burnsides read a Park Service sign quoting Henry Kyd Douglas, a Sharpsburg native who fought with the Confederates at Antietam: "They might have waded it that day without getting their waist belts wet in any place. Why Burnside's Bridge? Is it sarcasm?"

"Stupidity," the senior Burnside mutters in disgust. "This is what the authors like Bruce Catton and all them bastards that wrote books about Burnside -- this is what they write."

A few yards away is a monument to the 51st New York Infantry, the regiment that seized the bridge. In steel letters, its plaque proclaims that the men took the bridge "at the point of a bayonet."

"They didn't use any bayonets here!" Burnside scoffs. "This is the kind of crap that I just blow my stack about! I'm gonna come here with my spray can and say, Burnside says bull!' "

As they walk back across the bridge, though, his spirits improve. "I love it!" he says. "I love walking where he walked!"

He stops, puffs on his cigar, thinks. "Actually, he rode," he says. "His horse's name was Major."

"The next day Lee -- his men down to their last two or three rounds of ammunition -- will stand on this ridge and dare McClellan to attack him again!" says Jerry Holsworth. "George B. McClellan, true to his personality, will not attack. That evening, Lee will take his army back to Virginia, thus ending the battle and the campaign."

And so the bloodiest one-day battle in American history ended in anticlimax. With 30,000 fresh troops that he'd held in reserve, McClellan could almost certainly have crushed Lee's battered army if he'd launched an attack on September 18. But he was, as historian Stephen W. Sears wrote, "so fearful of losing that he would not risk winning." So Lee was permitted to retreat, rebuild his army and fight on for another 2 1/2 horrific years.

Still, the Union army had repulsed the Confederate invasion and driven the Rebels off Northern soil. That was certainly a victory, and Abraham Lincoln, a man with a deep mystical side, had already privately concluded that "if God gave us victory" it would be an indication that "God had decided this question in favor of the slaves." Somewhat less mystically, Lincoln had already concluded that a crusade against slavery would infuse the Union cause with a new moral fervor -- and keep England and France from intervening in support of the Confederacy. On September 22, five days after the battle, he issued a proclamation decreeing that on January 1, 1863, all slaves held in rebellious territories "shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free."

"As a result of this battle -- as a direct result of this battle -- Abraham Lincoln will issue the Emancipation Proclamation that will begin the process that will eventually put an end to slavery in the United States of America," Holsworth says. He has come to the conclusion of his speech. "Today, it doesn't really matter where you're from, folks, or who your ancestors fought for. I'd like to encourage all of you to visit our national cemetery. There, you'll find the final remains of 4,776 Americans who, here on Sharpsburg Ridge on September 17, 1862, gave up all of their tomorrows so that this nation might have a new birth of freedom. Thank you."

His audience applauds. Somebody says, "That was wonderful!" Holsworth takes off his Smokey Bear hat and mops the sweat off his balding pate. Half a dozen people rush up to congratulate him. A couple from Oregon tell him that they've traveled cross-country, stopping in national parks all the way, and his speech was the best they've heard yet. Somebody else tells him he speaks with the cadence and the spirit of an inspired evangelist.

"I grew up in a Baptist church in Dallas, Texas," he says, smiling. "And we are evangelists here. Our religion is this battlefield. We love it more than words can describe."

He pulls out a pack of cigarettes. "Mind if I support the North Carolina economy?"

Nobody minds, so he lights one up, takes a long drag, and starts talking about how he came to work here. He'd spent 13 years teaching history in Dallas, but he got sick of middle school kids and decided to try something new. A Civil War buff since he was 7 years old, he'd been spending a couple of thousand dollars every summer visiting battlefields, so he decided to move to Virginia, where he'd be closer to them. "I was going to spend the rest of my life studying the Civil War," he says.

And he has. First, he started volunteering at Antietam; then, a couple years ago, he got a job as a seasonal ranger. Now, he works summers at Antietam and spends his winters writing freelance newspaper and magazine articles, many of them about the Civil War. These days, he's toying with the idea of writing a novel that would popularize the battle of Antietam the way Michael Shaara's bestselling novel The Killer Angels popularized the Battle of Gettysburg. "We've got so many human interest stories here," he says.

All these activities have the same goal: remembrance. "How do we thank those people who we'll never meet, who did these things 130 years ago?" he asks. "The answer is: We can come here and remember. We make them immortal when we remember."

They climb out of the blue-and-tan pickup truck, leaving the motor running, as if they're only going to take a quick look at the Cornfield and then move along. But they end up lingering for a while.

They look down at a sign titled "Every Stalk of Corn." It's illustrated with a Gardner photograph of dead soldiers lying next to a split-rail fence, and it quotes Union Gen. Joe Hooker's description of the Cornfield after the battle: "In the time I am writing, every stalk of corn in the northern and greater part of the field was cut as closely as could have been done with a knife, and the slain lay in rows precisely as they had stood in their ranks a few moments before. It was never my fortune to witness a more bloody, dismal battlefield."

They read the sign, then stand for a long moment, silently staring out at the field where the tall grass trembles in the gentle breeze.

"I try to envision what they had to go through, what they did and how they did it," says Kevin Master, a 22-year-old college student from Palm, Pa. "I don't think the people of this country will do the things they did anymore. Attitudes change. Government changes. I don't know if people will fight."

"I don't know if people have that respect for the government anymore," says his fiancee, Barbara Decker.

"They're too much involved in material things," Master says, "and not what this country really stands for -- the democratic ideals."

They look at the Cornfield for another few moments, then climb back into the pickup and drive off, headed for Bloody Lane and the Burnside Bridge.

The Cornfield is quiet for a while, and then another car pulls up and two brothers step out. Their great-grandfather fought in a West Virginia regiment that stormed the Sunken Road, and they've come to see the battlefield. They, too, read the sign, and they, too, begin to stare silently out at the field of grass.

"It's just incredible to me the way these people fought," says John Pratt, 40, a corporate investigator from Mount Gilead, Ohio. "I think I wouldn't have done it. I wish I could, but I tend to think I would have looked for a wall somewhere to hide behind."

"I don't believe in war," says his brother Ray, 51, a steelworker from Weirton, W.Va. "I believe it's a waste. But I admire their courage. I don't think the generation we have now would fight that way."

"They kill each other in the street," says John. "They just won't fight for a cause."

"What a waste," Ray says, looking out at the field where 10,000 men once fell. "When you think of the widows and the orphans -- what a waste."

In time, they, too, move on, and the Cornfield is quiet again. Across the rolling country road stands a beige farmhouse with a white satellite dish in the yard and red, green and purple clothes hanging out to dry. Little white butterflies dart playfully past metal plaques erected by the War Department a hundred years ago. Designed to teach military tactics to young soldiers, they are simple, matter-of-fact statements of where a regiment was and what it did. Here at the Cornfield, however, the various plaques end with chilling statistics: "Of the 550 engaged, 323 were killed or wounded," or "226 officers and men, of whom 186 were killed or wounded."

Now, a woman, two boys and a dog walk along the edge of the Cornfield and sit down on the base of a monument to the troops from New Jersey. It's a 20-foot-tall pedestal crowned with a statue of a soldier raising a sword over his head. The two boys -- Kevin Kunkel, 9, and his brother Scott, 10 -- are filling out the Junior Ranger activity booklet they got at the visitors center. Their mother, Debbie Kunkel, 40, is gazing out at the Cornfield.

"I get goose bumps sitting here," she says. "I wonder, when it comes down to it, how many of us could pick up a gun and charge into the lines?"

She and her sons have come from Pennsylvania to camp nearby. They're here because she wants them to to learn about their country's history. "I don't think most Americans really understand the significance of this," she says. "I worry about the generation coming up. We have a really hard problem talking about slavery issues and black-white issues, and they need to be talked about."

She is a slender woman with curly hair. As she talks, she is petting the family sheep dog and looking out at the Cornfield, imagining the battle that was fought there and the soldiers who fought it. "I'm a psychologist," she says, "and I get into wondering what they were feeling. What gave them the courage?"

She thinks a moment, then tries to answer her own question. "You're in a situation where you've got two possibilities -- you win or you die. It's the fight-or-flight thing. I kill this individual or he kills me. There were also those who ran in fear -- more of them than we realize. Men would literally pick each other up and say, Let's go! Let's go!' I think in those days to be a coward was such a disgrace" -- she mimes the act of shooting herself -- "that you may as well do it yourself. I don't think we have as much of that now as we did then -- fighting was a way of life."

Her son Scott has finished his activity book, and she turns to him. "You're a 10-year-old," she says. "Could you pick up a drum and march to war?"

"I wouldn't want to," he says.

"Could you have done it?"

"I don't know."

They move on, heading off to see the rest of the battlefield. Other tourists come and go. Then the sun begins to set and the people stop coming.

To the west, the horizon is splashed with pink. To the south, a half moon hangs in a sky turning a darker shade of blue. There is no breeze at all, and the grass in the Cornfield is perfectly still. There is the sound of crickets and a motor running at a nearby farmhouse. The sky darkens. The motor stops. Far away, a train blows its whistle, then blows it again, then again. The whistle fades as the train moves on. Now the only sound is the chirp of a million crickets. A faint breeze rises. The grass quivers, then sways gently.

It's night now, and the Cornfield -- the bloodiest part of the bloodiest day in American history -- is as peaceful as any place on Earth.

Back to top