"Sunken Road," otherwise known as "Bloody Lane," was the scene of much carnage 150 years ago, where after the battle it was said that the bodies were so thick piled two and three deep that a soldier could walk quite a distance without ever touching the ground. This of course was part of the Battle of Antietam during the Civil War. With casualties of more than 23,000, it is known as the "bloodiest day" in all of American history. It was Sept. 17, 1862, that the Union and Confederate forces fought, and in the aftermath five days later on Sept. 22 that Republican President Lincoln announced his decision to issue an order to free the slaves.
The suffering and loss of life is not forgotten as Civil War reenactors gathered last weekend to mark the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Antietam. Dedicated to preserving our nation's history, participation in such battle reenactments helps to commemorate the sacrifices of our ancestors and remind us of how our past connects to contemporary times. Regardless of what side, the result was a nation that was preserved, made stronger, and people were freed. As Condoleezza Rice said recently at the Republican National Convention, it was a war that "made us a more perfect union." New York certainly made significant contributions in this effort.
The Battle of Antietam Creek, also known as Sharpsburg, was part of General Lee's campaign in Maryland into Union territory. Curiously, a Union soldier found Lee's plans in an abandoned campsite, which enabled General McClellan to intercept Lee's advance. Meeting in the small town of Sharpsburg, several sites witnessed intense battle. A 24-acre cornfield 'saw some of the U.S. history's most horrific fighting with regiments on both sides cut to pieces' as noted in the Antietam National Battlefield brochure. One Louisiana brigade suffered more than a 60-percent casualty rate in just 30 minutes. As quoted by one soldier from "Voices of the Civil War," portions of the field were "lost and recovered until the green corn that grew upon it looked as if it had been struck by a storm of bloody hail."
Civil War reenactment sites, along with actual battles, enjoy camp life including an occasional game of “rounders,” which today is known as baseball. Last week’s game was played between Maryland and Pennsylvania.
Another site later known as "Bloody Lane" was where Confederates were entrenched in a sunken road where they were able to successfully stop the advance of Union troops for a number of times with an enormous casualty rate suffered by the Union forces. With Union reinforcements however, the Confederate line was weakened by the Irish Brigade. Made up of Irish immigrant recruits from New York City with some thinking the experience as training for a war to free their homeland from English rule, the book "The Bloodiest Day" by Time Life, describes this as well as their advance with "emerald flags, embroidered in gold and decorated with shamrocks and Irish harps, snapping in the breeze as the regimental chaplain shouted words of absolution prescribed by the Roman Catholic Church for those who were about to die." They too suffered countless casualties, but eventually the Confederate line was weakened which turned the sunken road into a death trap. At first most dead were buried where they fell, but were later interred at what today is the Antietam National Cemetery.
Of course, there were other sites of fighting including Burnside Bridge. In the end the Union Army held the field and Lee crossed the Potomac back to Virginia. General McClellan, known for being overly slow and cautious, did not pursue Lee which caused Lincoln to fire him several weeks later. It was at Antietam that Clara Barton was nicknamed "The Angel of the Battlefield" for bringing supplies to the field hospitals. She later founded the American Red Cross in 1881. With the retreat of Lee, Lincoln announced the Emancipation Proclamation which redefined the war into more than just preserving the union, but to also end slavery. It also kept Great Britain and France from diplomatically recognizing the Confederacy.
Less than two years later the painful war ended and in ensuing years we remained one strong and free nation. Martin Luther King Jr. expressed it well in 1963 when he said that we can commemorate the Emancipation Proclamation by "reaching back into the origins of our nation when our message of equality electrified an unfree world, and reaffirm democracy by deeds as bold and daring as the issuance of the Proclamation." Most Reenactors have this sense of patriotism and view what they do as a means for today's citizens to appreciate what we have today because of the past.
Make it a good week and as always, remember and thank our veterans past and present. From a personal standpoint, any opportunity to attend a reenactment or living history it time well spent. Obviously, our family with our Civil War fife and drum corps traveled to Antietam last weekend along with thousands of others from various states. Next week will continue with the virtual tour series of the Dunkirk Historic Lighthouse and Veterans Park Museum.
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