The Terrible Price Of Freedom

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During the recent Third Battle of Manassas—the struggle in northern Virginia between a shopping-mall developer and the Manassas National Battlefield Park—I noticed among the flying brickbats a letter to the Washington Post from a William Heyman. Mr. Heyman wanted to see the shopping mall built on ground where the Second Battle of Manassas was fought for what struck me as a novel bit of reasoning. “Battlefields glorify death,” he wrote. “Shopping malls celebrate life.”

 

While I would not linger over the second half of that statement, I do think the question of what a battlefield glorifies, or signifies, is worth a second thought. A better place even than Manassas to seek the answer to that question is some forty miles north and a little west, at the small town of Sharpsburg, Maryland. It is a better place simply because a visitor to the Antietam National Battlefield at Sharpsburg can come closer to visualizing what a great Civil War battle was actually like than at any other site. Antietam was a unique battle, and today it is unique among the battlefields preserved from that war.

Antietam was fought on the seventeenth of September, 1862, eighteen days after Second Manassas, and proved to be a day of violence never surpassed in this nation. More Americans were killed, wounded, and counted as missing on that one day—22,719—than on any other day of that or any other American war. To give some perspective to that grim statistic, American casualties on June 6, 1944—D-day, the famous “longest day” of World War II —were about one-quarter as great. Indeed, the total casualties on D-day, Allied and Axis, did not exceed three-quarters of the Antietam toll. Its cost in human life is certainly one measure of Antietam’s uniqueness.

Another is its consequences. Antietam was a turning point, a battle that altered the course of the war. It saw Lee’s invasion of the North halted and his bold effort to win independence for the Confederacy frustrated. Its outcome enabled Lincoln to expand the war’s objectives to include the abolition of slavery, and that in turn made it impossible for England or France to intervene on behalf of a Southern nation committed to the defense of human bondage. History was made, and changed, on this battlefield.

Finally, there is the field itself. It is remarkably easy to step back in time at Antietam. There is scarcely a trace here of the commercial exploitation that envelops Gettysburg, with its myriad tourist attractions and its grotesque three-hundred-foot-high observation tower looming over the battlefield. Sharpsburg, by contrast, looks remarkably as it did in 1862 when the armies came; if anything, fewer people live there today. It is a rural area largely unmarked by development. Gen. Jacob D. Cox, who fought in the battle, described the terrain as he first saw it this way: “The scene was closed in by wooded ridges with open farm lands between, the whole making as pleasing and prosperous a landscape as can easily be imagined.” That description stands up well a century and a quarter later. Much of the land is still farmed, and many of the landmarks and farmsteads of 1862 have survived.

A particular feature of this battlefield, beyond the fact that it is largely unspoiled, is the special nature of the terrain. It is uncommonly easy, simply by looking at it, to understand how the Battle of Antietam took shape, how it progressed, and how it turned out as it did. The actions of some of the generals who commanded here may be puzzling, but there can be no mistaking how the battlefield itself shaped the course of events that September 17.

It is uncommonly easy to see how the Battle of Antietam took form and progressed. The battlefield itself shaped the course of events that day.
 

I favor approaching Sharpsburg along the same route the armies followed in 1862, seeing it as they first saw it. Early that September, after his victory at Second Manassas, Lee led the Army of Northern Virginia across the Potomac to Frederick, Maryland, where he rested his men and calculated his next move. Lincoln meanwhile called on Gen. George B. McClellan to pick up the pieces left by John Pope’s Manassas defeat. The Army of the Potomac was returned to him, along with Pope’s army. Reorganizing these forces as he went, McClellan moved slowly into Maryland after the invaders.