Memorial Day

by wjw on May 29, 2008

On Memorial Day, I had a couple choices. I could hang around the con hotel and watch Balticon die, or I could get in my rental car and cruise off in search of history.
As you can see, this is not a picture of the con hotel.
We are looking south across the Miller Cornfield. On the left of the picture are the East Woods; the treeline directly ahead is the West Woods.
On the morning of September 17, 1862, the corn in the field would have been taller than anyone walking in the field. Two and a half corps of Union soldiers, 21,500 men, grappled across this field with about 14,500 Confederates in a stand-up fight that lasted about four and a half hours. The Cornfield exchanged hands something like 15 times. Both sides fought to the point of exhaustion: combined casualties were something like 13,000. One Union corps commander was killed, another wounded.
When the fighting over the Cornfield ended at 10am, the battle itself wasn’t over. More Federal units charged into battle against Confederates sheltering in the aptly-named Bloody Lane in a fight that was even more horrendous. And later in the day, Burnside’s command got across the aptly-named Burnside Bridge, broke the Confederate line, and came within an ace of winning the war.
The Battle of Antietam— or Sharpsburg, if you’re unreconstructed— was the single bloodiest day in American history. There were 23,000 casualties altogether, 25% of the Union army and 33% of the Confederate. That’s over seven 9/11s happening in a single day, or eight Pearl Harbors, or three D-Days (counting American casualties only).
There were also a large number of generals killed— though I can’t find an exact total, I presume the largest number of American generals killed on any given day. In those days, generals had to lead their men into the fight personally.
Tactically the battle was a draw. The two armies beat each other to a pulp, and very little ground changed hands. But Robert E. Lee was forced to end his invasion of the North, which allowed the Union to declare a strategic victory, which produced just a large enough of a bump in Yankee morale to allow Abraham Lincoln to issue the Emancipation Proclamation.
Which freed four million slaves, at least on paper. Another 600,000 or so deaths were required to make their freedom an actuality.
The proclamation also kept the British and French out of the war. They were too embarrassed to be seen fighting for slavery.
I wandered around the battlefield— there’s a self-guiding tour— and took pictures. I pretty much knew the broad outlines of the battle going in— if you don’t, I’d recommend hiring one of the guides available to give you a personal tour, because otherwise it’s mostly countryside without a lot of context.
The small size of the Cornfield surprised me. I knew how many people had clashed here: they must have been packed in like sardines, and died much the same way.
Afterwards I stopped by the national cemetery, which is full only of Union dead— the Confederates were repatriated to their home states. About a third of the total are buried there, in rows, with smallish headstones that after a century and a half are just barely legible. Since it was Memorial Day, each grave also bore a flag, very bright and cheerful in the afternoon sun.
I have been trying to think of something profound to say about the experience, but I can’t better what Lincoln said a year later, so I’ll just quote the Emancipator:
“We can not dedicate—we can not consecrate—we can not hallow—this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract.”
Afterwards I drove to Harper’s Ferry, site of John Brown’s raid, just to have a look around. There were huge holiday crowds, no parking, and not a lot of time, but I enjoyed the place, utterly picturesque, completely indefensible, and surrounded by tall, commanding hills. (Or “mountains,” as they seem to be called out East.)
Then I drove to the nearby home of my Taos Toolbox student Oz Whiston, where she, her husband Jason, and her daughter Eloise provided an evening of pleasant company and a lovely dinner, sweet corn, new potatoes, and weisswurst. (They live in the German part of Virginia.)
On my return to Baltimore I found that Balticon had managed to die without my help, and began packing for my return trip. (Which sucked, but that’s for another day.)
tcastleb May 29, 2008 at 5:28 am

Yes, but did you meet the chickens?

And that’s cool about the field.

birdhousefrog May 29, 2008 at 12:24 pm

Most importantly, Walter met Walkabout who strolled into the house as usual looking for a handout. We had the deck and breezes until a shower went through.

As for Antietam, it sounds as if it was well worth the mileage. I’m glad to have shared the history that abounds in this odd little corner of WV, VA, MD.

And yes, those really are mountains. They’re just one heck of a lot older than yours in NM. That’s the Appalachian Trail you’re looking at along that ridgeline from our place. GA to ME.

Thanks for the visit, thanks for the company. I enjoyed sharing my corner of the world in exchange for you sharing yours last summer.

mindseas May 29, 2008 at 12:52 pm

I’m glad you were able to tour the historic places, and meet the historic chicken.


Rebecca S. May 29, 2008 at 2:31 pm

Excellent choice. Glad you got to meet the rambling hen.

My partner, Zach, toured the cornfield some years ago. He had read a lot about the battle ahead of time, and his reaction, too, was: How did they all fit here?

Dave Bishop May 30, 2008 at 4:05 pm

Here’s a gloomy thought (sorry, in advance!). Every so often I meet some optimist who tells me that “you make your own future” or “you are in control of your own destiny” etc., etc. But it occurs to me that if chance should have found you in the midst of the battlefield you describe, or one of the many that came before, or were to come, then you had no control whatsoever. There were only bullets with or without your name on them …

Melinda Snodgrass May 30, 2008 at 5:59 pm

What a lovely and evocative post. And quoting Lincoln was particularly perfect and apt.

Especially now when we find ourselves in a (seemingly) endless war with no clear purpose.

Foxessa May 31, 2008 at 3:59 pm

Embarrassed to support slavery indeed, since they’d given up the trade and the institution quite some decades prior.

The U.S. was the third last of so-called civilized nations to give up slavery as an institution — Cuba and Brasil being the very last, respectively. Many of Cuba’s stages in her long war of independence from Spain were lost because the slaveholders betrayed the independencías, because their slaves would be taken away.

Love, C.

dubjay June 1, 2008 at 6:45 am

Dave, the problem with death in war is that it’s so very random. (Not that it isn’t random at other times, but in war it’s random-a-lot-faster.) There are some common-sense things you can do to tilt the odds a bit more in your favor, but bullets and shells are pretty much random, and if you’re in combat for any length of time you’re going to get hit.

One Confederate general at Antietam was shot seven times. He fell face-down into his hat and was saved from drowning only by virtue of the fact that his hat had a bullet hole in it and the blood drained out.

After World War II the Army came up with a study that showed that the useful life of a combat soldier was something like nine months. Early on the typical soldier gets obsessed about technical issues, because he figures that mastering his craft will help him survive. Then, after he’s seen enough technically proficient soldiers get killed, he becomes extremely superstitious, and figures he’ll survive if he only has all his lucky charms and rituals in place.

After nine months he figures he’s doomed no matter what he does and becomes a sort of walking zombie and a useless soldier, just waiting for the bullet with his name on it. Which is why, in Vietnam, the grunts served only thirteen months. (Guess the army hoped to get a few extra months of service out of their vets.)

Now, with our soldiers doing multiple tours, we’ve probably got a host of new syndromes on top of the old ones.

Dave Bishop June 1, 2008 at 10:47 am

I agree with you, Walter. It’s that randomness that’s scary. When my father died a few years ago I gave the eulogy at his funeral and I gave thanks that he had never had to fight in a battle. At least that meant that he had more scope for choice during his life than some of his conteporaries.

I’m just reading Arkady Babchenko’s, ‘One Soldier’s War in Chechnya’. In that recent war it wasn’t just the enemy’s bullets that a soldier had to be frightened of. As a result of hellish, institutionalised bullying Russian conscripts were often beaten to death by their ‘comrades’ before they even reached the battlefield!

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