Monday, September 17, 2012

America's Bloodiest Day

One hundred and fifty years ago today, Union and Confederate forces clashed just outside of Sharpsburg, Maryland, along the Antietam Creek, in what marked the bloodiest single day in American military history. (The day’s casualties on both sides totaled around 23,000, which, to put that number in perspective, is roughly double the Allied casualties suffered in the D-Day Invasion eighty-two years later.) The battle was effectively a draw, but it did put an end to the Confederates’ first attempted invasion of northern territory. Although the Battle of Gettysburg, fought almost a year later, is generally regarded as the turning point of the War, a strong case can be made, as here, that Antietam’s significance was perhaps even greater. And the fact that the entire campaign turned upon the “accidental” loss and discovery (by hapless Union soldiers) of a detailed copy of Lee’s plan of battle provides a profound lesson in how the the inscrutable operations of Divine Providence should never be dismissed or discounted, whether in relation to the most mean and humble or to the most grandiose of human affairs.

The Battle of Antietam (or Sharpsburg) also holds the distinction of being the first battle whose aftermath was extensively recorded and displayed in photographic form, to jarring effect in an era which still clung to a highly romanticized view of warfare. Alexander Gardner’s images of dead and decomposing corpses were displayed a month later at colleague Matthew Brady’s gallery in New York City. One review famously noted: “We recognized the battlefield as a reality, but a remote one, like a funeral next door. Mr. Brady has brought home the terrible earnestness of war. If he has not brought bodies and laid them in our dooryards, he has done something very like it.”