Crisis At The Antietam


Yet it had immense power. It finally determined that the Civil War was not merely a war for reunion but also a war to end human slavery; turned it from a family scrap into an incalculable struggle for human freedom, and thus made it a fight in which no civilized outsider could possibly intervene. It harnessed to the Union cause the basic dreams and aspirations of the race, and nailed to the American flagpole the charter of human rights. Everything in American history—and within reason, in world history—would be different after this. The bloody showdown in the cornfield and along the sunken lane and over the little stone bridge that spanned the narrow Antietam had enabled the nation to take a decisive step forward along the road to destiny.

The Antietam was a badly fought battle: badly fought, that is, in the sense that it was miserably directed. To be sure, it was fought magnificently by the enlisted men who had to pay the bill for their generals’ decisions. The casualty list of 25,000 killed and wounded for the two armies, in a struggle that lasted only from dawn to dusk, gives it rank with the most dreadful battles ever waged by man. But the great point about it is that it brought the country to and through a moment of enormous decision. Out of it came reunion and freedom, neither one fully attained even a century later, but each one riveted into the American consciousness in a way time cannot undo.

What America is and hopes to be dates from the fight along Antietam Creek. The fight cost an enormous number of lives, and inflicted pain and disability on many thousands more; but in the infinite economy of the advance of the human race it may have been worth what it cost.