Making the Battle of Antietam Feel Real
This time, it hit me while I was standing on the Sunken Road. At least, that was what the old farm road, which wound through the fields near Antietam Creek, in rural Maryland, was called before Sept. 17, 1862.
That day was the bloodiest in American history. The Battle of Antietam resulted in 23,000 casualties—Americans all, from the Union and the Confederacy. Many occurred on the Sunken Road. Union soldiers advanced four times from the top of the rise, and the Confederate soldiers held them off. But the Confederate soldiers were greatly outnumbered, and as their line broke open, the Union soldiers advanced and took control. The fighting, by all accounts, was savage.
Parker Hills, one of the faculty leaders on the Alumni Association’s Civil War Study Tour, noted a fact that gave me chills: Many of the dead had been shot in the head.
The road, these days, is known as Bloody Lane.
“You can’t stand here,” said Hills, a retired brigadier general, “and not feel the horror of war.”
I felt it. I’d felt something similar last year, when I tagged along on the study tour to Gettysburg and stood at The Angle, imagining what it felt like to be a Union soldier watching the Confederates advance—or to be a Confederate soldier making that long, lonely—and doomed—advance, known as Pickett’s Charge.
That’s the amazing part of these tours, which are among the most popular trips sponsored by the Alumni Association. History comes alive.
I’d known before the tour started that more Americans died at Antietam than on any day in American history. I learned before I set foot on the battlefield, thanks to a morning lecture by the other faculty leader, Terry Winschel ’77, the actual number of Americans who were killed, wounded, mortally wounded, or captured that day.
But standing on the battlefield made those numbers feel different. More visceral. Thanks to Hills and Winschel, I better understood how those soldiers had come to be in this position; the tour encompassed Robert E. Lee’s Maryland campaign, and it had made previous stops at South Mountain and Harper’s Ferry. I got the context.
And Hills and Winschel excel at telling the stories of the men who fought there and finding the details that make listeners feel. It was chilly Saturday, chillier than the forecast had predicted, and many of us had left our heavy coats back in the hotel. But these men, the night before the battle, were shabbily clothed and unable to warm themselves with even a few swallows of hot coffee—fires were forbidden, as they would give away the troops’ position.
And rations were few. Soldiers on both sides, the faculty leaders told us, were subsisting on little more than green corn.
Additionally, neither Hills nor Winschel ever miss a chance to relate history to our current day. “In our own time period—Vietnam, there were 50,000 some killed,” Winschel said. “How many in Iraq? How many in Afghanistan? Can you imagine what we the American people would say if it was reported that on one day in Afghanistan, 23,000 Americans had fallen? We wouldn’t stand for it, would we?”
It makes you think.
This was my second time on the tour. A year ago, I attended the trip to Gettysburg as a reporter. I went through the tour just as the travelers did, and I wrote about the battle and did a magazine feature about the hold that Gettysburg has on Americans, 150 years later. This time, I tagged along to help the Alumni Association’s crack travel and education staff … and I found myself part of what is essentially an extended family.
Many of the regulars on the study tour have been coming for more than a decade. They showed up the first time because they were Civil War … well, I hate to use the word enthusiasts. They’re learning about and debating a war, one that Winschel constantly reminds us affected every family in the entire country, North and South. No one ever forgets that, even as they debate strategy and laugh over funny stories about the generals and take in the scenery. (It’s one of the things that strikes me about the battlefields: These places that saw so much death and pain are truly beautiful. It’s a little hard to reconcile.)
And they come back, yes, to keep learning about the war, to walk the battlefields and figure out what happened here. But they also come back to visit with friends, with people who have the same interest. In some ways, it’s like a big ol’ family reunion.
And now I’m part of it.
I got home late Sunday afternoon. At dinner Sunday night, I regaled my husband with tales from the battlefield, working in Hills’ and Winschel’s best lines as often as I could. (I did give credit. Promise.) I went into so much detail about the flaws in Union Gen. George McClelland’s battle plan (or lack thereof) and McClelland’s “lack of boldness,” as Hills put it, that prevented him from pressing a giant numerical advantage, that my husband stared at me across the table and said, grinning, “You’re a buff.”
I’m not sure I exactly qualify for “Civil War Buff” status. But I did bring home more Civil War books to read, and I am hoping to tag along again on next year’s tour, when home base will be Williamsburg, Va., and Winschel and Hills will lead the group through the Peninsula Campaign. That was a seven-day campaign. The study tour will do it in four. And have a great time, I know. And learn a ton.
Lori Shontz, senior editor