Mourning the dead I didn’t know at Antietam

As I clean out my desk and files to leave for a new job, I found what I wrote after a visit to Antietam National Battlefield. It was a work trip, but this is a completely personal reaction, one I’m posting as a citizen, not a professional. It is about getting punched in the gut by history, and how I wish that mattered.

November 29 was a wet gray day, and as the rain beat the last of the yellow leaves off the trees, fall was ending. With its dormant winter fields and empty historic houses, Antietam National Battlefield felt at rest, with only crows awake, rising suddenly from the fields in flocks. My colleagues and I drove around the D.R. Miller Farm’s perimeter for a survey of the landscape’s condition. We stopped briefly at every plaque, sign, and monument to photograph and record its continued existence, and I caught as many snippets of the battle’s history as I could.

I’ve never understood why people get so interested in the minutia of battles. Tactics have never held my attention. It’s the twenty first century, our conflicts and technology are totally different, so what use is it to know which general led which regiment around another unit’s flank? Why did every state have to make their own memorial, or more than one? Circling Antietam’s Bloody Cornfield, the amount of this detail is overwhelming. I read first lines of paragraphs and summaries, skimming and skipping names and numbers.

All that I took in on the drive was the beauty and quiet of the farmland, and how different it must have been when tens of thousands of men were running and shooting each other. I’ve read enough history to know that Antietam is still the “bloodiest one-day battle in American history.” I knew that residents of the farms fled or hid in their basements, waiting for the conflict to end, and that some of their homes and churches were made into field hospitals to treat the wounded and dead afterward. I knew that the next spring did not bring cleanliness and a fresh start, as plowing turned up bones and bodies for years afterward. I wondered at these paradoxes as I took in the peaceful view, where the war was long ago and no one, not even other visitors, shared the scene.

After we finished the survey and documentation, Daniel and I ducked into the Visitor Center on the way out, since neither of us had been there before. Built in the 1960s on elevated ground, it has an observation deck where you can look out over the whole battlefield. It also has a theater with an educational video on the day of the battle. That’s what got me. There was swelling, dramatic music and voice-overs relating the details of generals, units, and military strategy. At times, I felt like the video was glorifying the war. There was no real blood in the colorful tableaus of reenactors lining up to shoot each other. Though it interspersed black-and-white historic images of dead and dying soldiers, it was hard to see their faces or even tease apart their limbs at times.

But the attacks, the charges, and the numbers kept on going, and going, and going. And I kept thinking, “These were kids. Boys younger than me, younger than my siblings, way too young to be hurt and die. And their families didn’t know where they were, didn’t know how to find them, couldn’t get their bodies. They just kept running straight into bullets and bayonets when their superiors told them to. Is this what our government and our nation mean? That kids run to their deaths because the adults couldn’t figure out how to fix things?”

The signs and memorials around the battlefield made more sense then. If I had lost my friend, my brother, or my son, and his body had been left to decay in a cornfield, I wouldn’t want to team up with others and be part of a national memorial. I wouldn’t want him to be just a number. I’d want to remember him alone, remember where he was from, visit where he died.

Back at the office, I came across a published paper with a photograph of just one young soldier lying dead in front of a tree. I could see his face, and he was lying in the same position as my own child in his crib every night. Just thinking of the picture a week later, I’m crying again. How could we do this?

I’m not saying that the Civil War wasn’t worth fighting. We had almost a century after the nation’s founding to end slavery peacefully, and we couldn’t do it. There was too much money on the line. Millions of Black people saw their children ripped away, suffered, died, and never knew where to find the bodies of their families – that war started long, long before 1861.. Black lives matter. The lives of the 200,000 Black soldiers who fought for the Union mattered. The lives of the 4 million people who were emancipated mattered.

But a trick of psychology is that personal connections affect us more than numbers can. That’s why Frederick Douglass, Harriet Jacobs, and other Black abolitionists wrote memoirs to bring home the horrors of slavery. Thinking of the soldier under the tree breaks my heart in that particular, human way. Being at Antietam gave me a visceral sense of the wrongness of war that I can’t shake.

In writing this, I’m looking for a way to make sense of this, to say “let’s remember together so we don’t make the same mistakes, so we don’t sacrifice children any more.” I’m looking for absolution through commemoration. In a personal way and a national one, I want the sadness and shock of Antietam to be transformative, to bring us through the hard stuff to a more enlightened place and into a better world.

But commemoration alone can’t absolve us or to protect us. The U.S. Army fought American Indians across the west in between the end of the Civil War and the beginning of memorials at Antietam under the War Department’s supervision in the 1890s. At Wounded Knee, Indian men, women, and children were buried in a mass grave, not unlike the fields of Antietam. We entered the Spanish American War later in the 1890s, fought four major wars in the 20th century, and still have troops on the ground in the Middle East. We didn’t come out of Antietam to a safe place. We’re not “good” now just because we remembered. Some of us were just lucky to be born at a different time. And some of us, adults and children, are not so lucky in this time either.

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