Campfire Ramblings - Antietam, 1986

by Jonah Begone

Frankly, I don't think Pennsylvanians (or East coasters in general) know how lucky you are! think you need to be from California -- especially L.A. -- to appreciate the beauty and historicity of this part of the country. Let me give you an example.

I went home to visit last November, and my Mom and I took my two-year old son to Disneyland. Now, I've been to Disneyland practically twice each year for each year I've been alive, but on this particular trip I noticed something for the first time: in the 45 minute drive from Burbank to Anaheim (about 35 or 40 miles) we didn't pass through one wooded area, meadow or field! What we did pass through was 45 minutes of continuous city; smoggy and industrial for the most part. On the way down I found myself thinking: "Gad, this is ugly!"

Maryland -- and I think most or all of Pennsylvania -- isn't like that. If you take off driving in any direction you'll soon run into the country. For me, driving past farms and historical sites is a real visual pleasure; one I think people back here take for granted.

Now don't get me wrong. There are some really nice drives in California (the Pacific Coast Highway, for example) and some really blighted views here in the East ( U.S. 1 between Baltimore and Washington). I'm just saying on the whole, I think it's prettier and more interesting here.

Which brings me to what I really want to write about: the battlefield of Antietam. Ever since I first cared about the Civil War back in High School the place has been special to me. There's a singular historical significance of that particular battle, of course. Most writers on the subject feel that there was more at stake for both North and South on the banks of Antietam Creek than at Gettysburg, for example, and I believe this. I think Antietam was the most important battle of the Civil War, but there's something more about it. Something that really fascinates me.

I find the very name "Antietam" significant and mysterious. It's like something out of the Old Testament: Armageddon, or Jericho, for example, but yet American. (The name is obscure but seems to be from an Algonquian Indian word having something to do with the idea of current, or flow) Somehow calling the battle "Sharpsburg" takes a lot of the mystique away from it. The name "Antietam" has an undeniable resonance about it.

Have you ever really looked at the series of photographs taken after the battle there? The images have an odd quality about them -- even though the trees are in full bloom and there is sunlight everywhere we do not perceive life in the pictures. We see death on display. The dead soldiers are posed in a sort of timeless dance that somehow wasn't inflicted on them by mere bullets and shrapnel. These men were killed by forces outside of anyone's control.

Look at the photograph of the man on the hill looking towards Antietam Creek with binoculars. This photograph is commonly misunderstood to have been taken during the actual battle, but was probably taken the day after. Smoke, looking like the gun smoke of battle but actually being the smoke from many campfires, rises up from the right hand side of the picture. At left an artillery battery is held in reserve. Over the whole scene are great blotches, lights and explosions in the sky caused by an opaque substance applied to the glass negative. It has always been a fancy of mine that the heavens reacted violently to the recent battle below with mayhem of its own; it's an interesting picture. Also, look how stately and awesome the unadorned Dunker Church looks in some of the other photos -- like an odd sort of Temple erected for the dead.

The land itself is placid and peaceful, with gently rolling hills and meadows. It seems odd that the place would be picked out for the wholesale destruction of life that occurred there. It's been mentioned that at Antietam on September 17th 1862 more American lives were lost than on any other day in our history, and visiting the place it seems hard to believe. Yet, walking down the gentle indentation of land that forms the Sunken Road you think of the fact that for days after the battle horses were slipping in the blood that was spilled there (this was documented by Sharpsburg residents). Also disquieting is the thought that a good many dead soldiers never made it to the National Cemetery; that they lie still in the meadows and fields around the area. What impresses me the most about Antietam is that there's a deeper significance to what appears to be a mere picturesque rural landscape. Men fought and died there for ideals that they considered to be more important than life itself, and in a way this sanctified the battleground where they fell. It doesn't require a great deal of perception to realize this when visiting the place.

I think the difference between a historian and a good reenactor is sensitivity, as well as a desire to find out "what it really was like." At Antietam, if you haven't gotten jaded by becoming overly familiar with the whole reenactment thing, you can do this. While it disappoints me that nobody scheduled any events there for this year, I still intend to make one of my frequent pilgrimages to the place sometime soon.