While other cultural and historical places light up Christmas trees, Antietam lights up a battlefield. Saturday, December 6, 2008 was the 20th Annual Memorial Illumination Ceremony in which 23,110 lighted candles graced Antietam’s battlefield, one candle for each soldier killed, wounded, or missing during battle.
The battle of Antietam on September 17, 1862 was the bloodiest one-day battle during the Civil War, the bloodiest day in America’s history. (Gettysburg was the bloodiest battle but it lasted three days.) The Yankees kicked back the Confederate army south of the Potomac, though President Lincoln wasn’t happy that General George McClellan didn’t follow the retreat and destroy the Confederate army, as Lincoln had instructed. McClellan’s reticence cost him his generalship; following orders could have potentially averted many subsequent deaths during the next three years of the Civil War.
I wasn’t able to visit the illumination this year, but I did drive down to Antietam a couple weeks ago. I grabbed a guide from the visitor’s center and rode my bike along the pathway, while visitors in heated cars looked at me askance. It was cold, but I’d learned at the Gettysburg battlefield that driving a car was a hindrance, since I wanted to get out every fifty yards to read the plaques, monuments, and guideposts. At Antietam, I stared into the West Woods where over 2,200 Union soldiers were killed or wounded during a twenty minute period; I walked along Bloody Lane, a farm lane which had became an open grave after three hours of slaughter. “[The dead] were laying in the road like the ties of a railroad,” one soldier said. When I got home I wrote a poem to organize my thoughts and emotions, as I’d needed to after visiting Gettysburg for the first time.
A while back I heard the documentarist Ken Burns speak. He’s intelligent and engaging, and I listened closely to his presentation, but now I can only remember two things he said: his documentary on the National Parks will come out in fall 2009, and far too many Americans have never heard of Antietam. Burns told about when he went out to lunch with a young professional woman who had grown up in Maryland and worked in Washington DC. When Burns told her he was headed to Antietam after their meeting, she gave him a blank look. When he described the battle and noted the casualties, she was astounded. “That happened here?” she asked. So many men died?
His story only sort of surprised me. I mean, I do have a student who swears the Holocaust is a myth, and when I mentioned Antietam to a couple people in a writing group, one asked if that battle was the end or beginning of the Civil War. After I told them the number of casualties, another asked if we had lost that many in any battle in Iraq. We haven’t suffered many more casualties in the whole Iraq war, I replied. (A comment which wasn’t meant to downplay the number of American casualties in Iraq, only to remind her of the many, often forgotten, Civil War casualties.)
At an Antietam cemetery, as I stood by gravestones on which were written the names of multiple people from the same family who died in the Civil War, I realized that the majority of Americans can’t comprehend the enormous grief which encapsulated families and the entire nation during 1861-1865. If you didn’t have a family member killed or wounded, it was only a matter of time. When placing myself in their shoes, I’m thankful that my immediate family can be together over the holidays, and I sympathize with friends and relatives who have family members fighting on the other side of the world. Antietam’s lights add sobriety to the holiday season, a sobriety which prompts healthy reflection.
photo credit to http://www.lindsayfincher.com