The Battle of Antietam

Published: 2019-01-31 09:48:17
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The America Civil War

From archives at the Civil War Trust, (2017) the America Civil War was fought between 1861 and 1865. Starting out as a struggle between the seceding South and the North who wanted to preserve the Union, it quickly turned in a fight for civil rights in 1862. The Battle of Antietam was the turning point of the war, having far-reaching impacts both on the battlefield and in the history of America. On the 16th of September 1862, the Union forces attacked the Confederacy at Sharpsburg in North Virginia. The attacks came at a time when the Confederates were gaining in on the Capital and the Union forces were under pressure to overturn the gains made by the Confederate army. On 17th September 1862, Major General Joseph Hooker launched an early dawn attack on Lee's forces at Antietam, beginning the day on a bloody note. For the rest of the day, attacks and counter-attacks were launched from both sides, at the end of which the Union had gained some ground on the Confederacy. The attacks were concentrated in three localities at Antietam, namely Miller's Cornfield, Dunker Church, the West Woods and the Sunken Road, where casualties were at the highest. After a day of hard fighting with heavy casualties on both sides, the Union had pushed the Confederates about a mile from the stone bridge at Antietam Creek, but the arrival of backups for the Confederation turned the tide against the worn out Unionists and drove them back.

The battle of Antietam was extremely critical to the outcome of the war due to the events that followed right afterwards. First off, President Lincoln retired General McClellan for his decision not to pursue the retreating Confederate forces, whom he outnumbered two to one and could have overrun without much effort. With the Union claiming the victory, the president also released the proclamation of emancipation, which led to the freeing of slaves held in the South, (Civil War Trust, 2017) and was the prelude to the Civil Rights movement of later years. With total casualties of over 20,000, the Battle of Antietam remains as the bloodiest day in the history of America, surpassing the 9/11 attack and Pearl Harbor attack. More than 3 million US citizens took part in the civil war, of which 750,000 lost their lives. The insight into the lives of the men and women who were touched by the war presents an important look into historical events and how the media shapes the truth about events.

Apart from official reports of wars in newspapers and magazines, as well as government records, the best source of information into the Civil War is the correspondence that was widely exchanged between soldiers and their families. Evaluations of the letters indicate that the image of the war painted in the public is rather different from the one that the servicemen experienced in the battlegrounds. Writing home to his wife days after the battle, William Child (22nd September 1862), a military soldier, narrates how the days after the battle are worse than the battles themselves, as he got to tend to men who had been torn apart by shrapnel and shells. The psychological pain far exceeded the physical pain, and he wonders if the suffering was sent to by God to punish them for their sins, remarking that their sins must be great indeed to warrant the amount of suffering they were enduring. Johnson Ole, (19th Sept. 1862) wrote to his brother that it was important to fight the war to protect their God-given liberties, and states that they must be ready and eager to got through pain and make sacrifices for the cause of the war.

People, who got to serve in the war, on both sides, were men who were dedicated to preserving their way of life from aggression. While the Confederates were more passionate about their right to live as they choose- refusing the imposition of the North to stop them from owning slaves, the Union soldiers were equally determined to preserve a united America. The Civil War was thus a war of principle, with extremely opinionated and determined leaders at the hem, as well as the fighters on the ground. Above all, the soldiers recognized that it was important to finish the way and return back to the peaceful days, and they most of them showed a willingness to die for their convictions- a good many of them did die.

Interestingly, the family was a very integral part of the war. A majority of the correspondence exchanged during the war was between family members, the rest was between friends. Despite languishing in war, soldiers were quite dedicated to their letter writing and reading. Just two days after the battle, Henry (19th September 1862) writes to his family and says that, we're in good spirits, and just had a big battle the day before yesterday. Having a prior knowledge of the battle and its high casualty, it is unlikely that the family of this soldier shared his good spirits, but for him, just getting in touch with them was enough to make him forget the horrors of the battle. Keeping the family members informed on the progress of the battle was a key element of the widespread exchange of letters, with soldiers narrating the places they have been in the war, the battles they have fought in and the places they thought they might be headed next. Asking after family and friends, the soldiers exhibited a burning desire to get home after the end of the battle. Talking to his wife, William Child inquires about his flourishing business back home that he had left to serve in the Union forces. No indication whatsoever is given of being against the war or being tired of it, rather, the soldiers expressed their exhaustion with all the killing and the suffering.

During the start of the war, a draft was announced by the president. All men of good heath and suitable age to serve in the army were enlisted and sent into battle. No indication of resentment can be found in the letters that were sent from the battleground. The chief concern was survival for many of the soldiers, even when friends were perishing and disappearing- captives of war- soldiers expressed their willingness to fight on. It is evident that serving amidst all the death and suffering made people realize the value of life and family even more. After marching for days trough unfriendly areas to his destination, Ole expresses great satisfaction in finally visiting the final resting place of his brother who had died in battle before. Family and friends were the two reasons why soldiers continued to exert themselves to fight, even more than principles and convictions that had probably made them join in the first place.

 

With such peril surrounding them, it is very remarkable that soldiers were increasingly concerned with matters that would appear to be quite trivial. Many of the things soldiers expressed concern for held great sentimental value, even when the objects themselves were of little material value. George (September 21, 1862) writes to his wife and recounts the numerous casualties suffered in the Battle of Antietam five days previously. He paints a picture of whizzing bullets and exploding shells all over the corn fields, in the woods and the outlying hills. The bridge is said to have been covered cartridges from the fierce exchange that took place there. Yet the one thing he expresses the greatest resentment towards is the loss of a needle book containing a lock of hair from his wife. He then proceeds to request for an immediate replacement and also takes the time to ask his wife to send a photograph along with the lock of hair. An unnamed soldier, going into the field for the second time during the day of battle, notices his father lying dead at the side of the track. A comrade indicates to him that his father is in a good place and the soldier proceeds to the battleground and engages the enemy for hours. Afterward, he gets some friends to help him dig a grave where he buries his father. He then retains, out of all of his father's possessions, a Bible that had been given to his father in the days of his youth.

It is understandable that during this time of death, blood spill and widespread suffering, the reserves of strength would be paced deep in the heart. In the face of possible death, the things that matter most to us change phenomenally from material to sentiment. Having articles of sentimental value such as the lock of hair from the wife, or the Bible form a slain father, the soldier can keep physical baggage to a minimum and reach within to find the strength to battle on. At the end of the day, behind the strategy and the gun-totting and following of commands given, the major concern expressed by servicemen was not victory or success, but family, friends, and love.

Reporting about the battle, papers were clearly prejudiced and propagandist in their reporting. While the Leslie's Weekly, (September 17, 1862) gave an admirably objective report of the events of the battle, other papers, even those with a wider audience, were not so much inclined to the truth. While observers on the ground reported casualty levels that were mostly balanced, with the Union coming out with slightly more wounded and dead soldiers, the New York Times, (September 18, 1862) reported quite a different version of the battle. According to their correspondents, the battle of Antietam was a resounding beating to the Confederates, with rebel losses estimated as high as thirty thousand.t The paper continued to give a cheesy account of the battle for the Union forces, whereby it vindicated their cause and afforded their campaign huge gains in the war. The attitude adopted by newspapers depended largely on the side of the war the papers supported. Incidentally, papers and published accounts of the battle are careful to tout their chosen side of the conflict as the winner in the conflict, somewhat diminishing the gains of the other party in order to claim the victory.

The New York Times

In the case of The New York Times, their opinion was that the battle was brilliantly fought by the Union, and great progress had been made that day. The real case, however, is that the Union lost an opportunity to capitalize on their superiority in numbers and deliver a decisive victory by failing to pursue the fleeing Confederate army. To its credit, the paper predicted that the battle would be a turning point for the war, and would turn out to be a critical event in the history of the country. With the proclamation of emancipation following shortly after, the Battle of Antietam is indeed an important beacon in US history. However, the newspaper was unable to retain objectivity in its repartee, being a Northern paper, propaganda ultimately got in the way of dependable journalism. No doubt many people in the North were reassured after reading the account of the war, but the tarnish that the misrepresentation of facts could have on history is fatal.

The reason for this perceived lack of objectivity in reporting in the published accounts of the battle is not much of a surprise. Propaganda has been cited time and time again as the most important battleground in which battles are fought- in public opinion. With family and friends who were anxious about the fate of their sons, fathers, brothers or friends in the war, the morale and support for the war could only be sustained by the knowledge that success was forthcoming. By reporting fact-shy accounts of the events that painted a more positive picture of the war for the Union, the New York Times lifted the morale of the rest of the country and ensured that support for the war remained high.

The government itself is not known for being strictly truthful in reporting for war. There is an aspect of prejudice that is inseparable from wartime reporting that can always be expected from government. Winning a war is a combination of great strategy, able soldiers and a good dose of propaganda warfare, and Antietam was no different.

The destiny of the free world

Something about reading the eyewitness accounts of the soldiers who fought at Antietam makes it develop a greater sense of reality. Interacting with them and their experiences through their written accounts of the battle gives crucial insight into the Civil War -and war in general- that cannot be derived elsewhere. At a time when their life was at risk, and their possibility of meeting death was big due to the high casualty figures of the time, the soldiers were able to face a new day the knowledge that their families and friends back at home were safe and sound. It is quite challenging to discover that the things that we might underrate and think so little of -the little sentimental objects that remind us of the people we love and treasure- could at the most hazardous moments of our lives become our strength and power to continue going. On the whole, the correspondence exchanged between soldiers and their families is a testament to the power of family and friends, and what man is capable of doing with the right support mechanism at home and from friends. Robert Kellogg (September 17, 1862) shows us that when faced with possible death, men are often made to face the reality of their existence, getting closer to God and becoming quite religious.

Exhausted, exposed to enemy fire, having lost his toolbox in the course of his duty as a military surgeon, George is most concerned with the lock of hair his wife had sent him before that got lost together with the other articles. He is most saddened by this loss and asks for an immediate replacement. Kellogg, after a hard day of battle, and under bombardment from artillery from the rebels, finds strength in reading his Bible and praying. The unidentified soldier retains his father's Bible as his inheritance, moments after leaving the battlefield. Indeed, at their greatest hour of peril, when people are most likely to lose their lives and when moral and spiritual support is most critical, man will always turn to friends and family, and love will give them strength.

The American Civil War was fought between 1861 and 1865, and it turned around the destiny of the free world, being the precursor to the civil rights movement that followed immediately after. Battles that determined the results of the war included Antietam, Gettysburg and Palmito Ranch. Of all battles fought in the course of the four-year battle, Antietam made history as the bloodiest, and retained the spot as the bloodiest day in American history to this day. The perceived victory by the Union army at Antietam was the basis on which President Abraham Lincoln announced the Proclamation of Emancipation three months later, freeing numerous slaves in the South. On the ground, however, the soldiers had to bear through great suffering and immense risk during the battle where more than 20,000 wounded and dead. A combination of convictions, sense of duty and protecting freedoms and liberties motivated the soldiers to put their lives on the line, with protection of family members away from the battlefield also playing a huge part. Letter-writing is the way through which soldiers kept in touch with their close relatives and friends, exchanging news and developments back and forth, as well as keeping family members assured of their wellbeing. Sentimental objects carried the most value for soldiers because they served as a constant reminder of the reasons for fighting in the war, that being to protect their families and keep them safe from aggression. Propaganda was an inseparable element of newspaper repertoire for the battle, with authorities no doubt seeking to seize the wide reach of prominent newspapers such as the New York Times to further their cause among the citizenry. The newspapers also failed to capture the state of mind of the soldiers, who were quite psychologically disturbed by the carnage, often wondering on the reason they were going through all the suffering. From the study of the soldiers' views and accounts of the war, it becomes clear that family, friends, and love are the highest ideals that men fight to protect.

Works Cited

The New York Times, BATTLE OF ANTIETAM CREEK.; Full Particulars from Our Special Correspondent. The Most Stupendous Struggle of Modern Times. The Battle Won by Consummate Generalship. The Rebel Losses Estimated as High as Thirty Thousand. September 18, 1862. The New York Times Archives, viewed online at http://www.nytimes.com/1862/09/20/news/battle-antietam-creek-full-particulars-our-special-correspondent-most-stupendous.html on March 31, 2017

Ole, Johnson. Civil War: From the 15th Regiment. 19th Sept. 1862. Wisconsin Historical Society, Wisconsin Local History & Biography Articles; Madison, Wisconsin. Viewed online at http://www.wisconsinhistory.org on March 31, 2017

Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper, Civil War: Battle of Antietam, 1860-1865. September 17 1862. Civil War: Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper, 1860-1865, viewed online at http://www.paperlessarchives.com/civil_war_leslies_weekly.html on March 31, 2017

William Child, Major, and Surgeon with the 5th Regiment New Hampshire Volunteers September 22, 1862 (Battlefield Hospital near Sharpsburg), retrieved from Antietam National Battlefield Letters and Diaries of Soldiers and Civilians on March 31, 2017

Robert Kellogg, 14th Connecticut, Diary entry of September 17, 1862, retrieved from Antietam National Battlefield Letters and Diaries of Soldiers and Civilians on March 31, 2017

George, 11th Connecticut (Fought at Burnside Bridge), September 21, 1862. Sharpsburg, MD, retrieved from Antietam National Battlefield Letters and Diaries of Soldiers and Civilians on March 31, 2017

Henry, Dear People; 14th Connecticut Volunteers, September 19, 1862, retrieved from Antietam National Battlefield Letters and Diaries of Soldiers and Civilians on March 31, 2017

Account from an unknown soldier, n.d., retrieved from Antietam National Battlefield Letters and Diaries of Soldiers and Civilians on March 31, 2017

Fowles, Erred. In a hospital near the Battlefield of Antietam, September 26, 1862, retrieved from Antietam National Battlefield Letters and Diaries of Soldiers and Civilians on March 31, 2017

Wright, Bird. My dear wife, 8th Florida Volunteer Infantry Regiment, Shepherdstown, Jefferson County Virginia, September 21, 1862, retrieved from Antietam National Battlefield Letters and Diaries of Soldiers and Civilians on March 31, 2017

Civil War Trust, Antietam, Sharpsburg Washington County, Maryland. September 16 - 18, 1862, retrieved from http://www.civilwar.org/battlefields/antietam.html?tab=facts on March 31, 2017

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