mercredi, septembre 25, 2013

The ghosts of Antietam

Like many of you,  much of what I know about the Civil War is taken from the PBS series produced by Ken Burns more than two decades ago. It was, in fact, the most-watched series on American public television - ever.

Ignorance reigned.  I could tell you more about the Civil War in seventeenth-century England than I could about the conflict that divided our whole country. 

I'm not huge on tactics, and my son is much better, at 16, at recalling the names of the battles and the generals than I ever will be.

But I do remember what it was like to see the pictures taken by Matthew Brady and his employees.

You have probably seen them, but if you haven't,  see if you can find some online.  Once you have, you won't forget them.

Bodies lying against stone walls, on hills, in fields.  Dead horses and guns everywhere beneath the trees.

This was the first time, I believe that photographs had been taken of battlefields, particularly before the men were interred.

As this article from the New York Times documents, we now believe that around 750,000 men died during the Civil War, the highest toll in any war we've ever fought in (we used to think that the number was around 620,000).

I can't conceptualize 23,000, the number estimated to have died in a few days at Antietam.

Harper's Ferry has a bloody history, in part because of the capture and death of the abolitionist John Brown by Lee's forces (Lee, at that point, was working for the Feds).

But Harper's Ferry, which is a lovely, quiet town, is tranquil contrasted to Antietam.

I'd been to Gettysburg with the same friend a few years ago. They say that the battlefields are haunted. Although we went on a "ghost tour" of Gettysburg, we saw no spectres, thank goodness.

But I'm not sure about Antietam.

First we saw the movie, that described with terrible gravity the way that Confederates and Union soldiers cut each other down in the fields, across a bridges, over the ledges.

Then we walked through the cornfield, where thousands of men met their death in hand to hand combat.

A year later, we learned,  when Lee took roughly the same route on the way to Gettysburg, one soldier wrote of stepping on the skeletons of his unburied friends.

On that warm day, the sun glinting above the shorn corn stalks, walking on the ground where so much human blood had been spilled, we were, in a way, witnesses to the insanity of September 17, 1862.

The bloodiest single day in our history.

There is nothing pretty, nothing romantic about war. And if I could, I would douse those embers that glow in men's souls (particularly men).

Dolce est decorum est pro patria mori?


Tell that to the woman who waited in the South for her husband or son to come back to plow the fields and take back the farm.

Tell it to the war widow in the North whose husband, an African-American, had fought side by side with white men to free his brothers and sisters from the damnable yoke of slavery.

Tell it to the spouse who has to tell his or her kids that dad or mom has killed himself because he or she could not bear the ghosts of Iraq or Afghanistan.

It is an honor to live in a society where we do not have to be master and slave.  We honor the sacrifice of the men (and women) who died to take that grim burden away from our brothers and sisters, and to lift the curse upon our country.

But there was nothing sweet about it.

My friend and I stood for a few minutes in the national cemetery in Antietam. It is quiet, and was totally empty that afternoon -- except for the rows of graves.  Some were marked, simply, with a name and a date. Some stones, smaller, did not have names.

Is Antietam haunted?

No one has told me of ghosts.

But I wish we were all more haunted.  For if we were, perhaps we would be less blithe with other people's lives.