Tuesday, June 26, 2012

The Irony of War

It’s a mere ten mile stretch on Hwy 65 south from Hagerstown, Maryland to the Antietam National Historic Battlefield. The lush green hills and mountains of Northern Maryland present a welcome backdrop to the easy drive along the two-lane winding road. Houses of modest means and the leftovers of small farmsteads pass by quietly on either side. I had my eyes peeled so as not to miss the entrance to the Park when I  spotted a casket in front yard of one of the little ranch-style houses on the West side of the road. It was a copper hued metallic casket laying between two trees, like a hammock, but on the ground,  and surrounded by a little flower garden. I slowed, but could not stop. It would have been rude to stop and take a picture anyway, and ruder yet to knock on the door and inquire about the story behind this little shrine.

But it seemed ironic on my approach to the Civil War battlefield. One casket, unexplained; thousands of deaths explained, but unfathomable. The story behind the deaths at Antietam is well known.  On September 18th, 1862, 23,000 Americans died in the cornfields and ridges and woods near Antietam creek, north of Sharpsburg. That is more than the entire numbers lost in all the wars that proceeded it:  the  Revolutionary War, the War of 1812, and Mexican War combined.  One day. One day’s toll out of the nearly four years of fighting when Americans killed Americans, sometimes literally brother against brother. 

I repeat from an earlier blog: I am not necessarily a Civil War buff. I don’t know much about the battles or military strategy or the brilliance of Robert E. Lee.  But I do have an undergraduate degree in US History and a lifelong, childlike fascination with the tragic circumstances of the world’s greatest democracy torn asunder. There are countless stories of heroism, despair and irony that fill the pages of Civil War history.

For instance, here are two stories of irony from Antietam:

Irony #1 --Monuments. Hundreds were put in place in the 19th and early 20th centuries commemorating Union officers, Armies and casualties. The irony is that Antietam was NOT a victory for the Union army.  Nor was it a victory for the Confederates. It was an all-out stalemate. A draw. Carnage and destruction, with no clear victory.  The southern states were so devastated and poor after the war ended that they had neither the will nor the means to place monuments at Antietam. So when you tour the battlefield today, it appears by the sheer number of monuments alone, to be a Union victory.  It wasn’t.
Irony #2 – The Church. Much of bloodiest fighting that day, took place in the shadow of The Dunkard (or Dunkers) Church. The Dunkers were a sect of German pacifist Christians who preached peace, love and simplicity in all things of life. They worshipped in quiet meditation. The church was damaged, but not destroyed, and continued as a house of worship for many years after the war.

It was less than a year later, in July of 1863, when Lee’s troops would once again march pass the Dunker Church at Antietam. But they did not fight there that day. They were on the way North. To a place called Gettysburg.

Here are some more images from Antietam. 

The bridge over Antietam Creek.
Later named Burnside Bridge after Gen. Burnsides

Literally: brother against brother-in-law

If there's a tower, I will climb it!

Proof that I did! View from the top. . . of Bloody Lane

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