Tuesday, September 17, 2002

September 17, 1862

It was the bloodiest day in American history: about 23,100 young men killed, wounded, or missing, as well as four generals. A quarter of the Confederates were killed or wounded. Many of the Union soldiers died fighting on a bridge over a stream that they could easily have forded, if only General Burnsides (or anyone else) had thought to check. By the time the Battle of Antietam ended, a thirty-acre cornfield was a stubblefield so covered with dead and dying soldiers that you could walk from end to end without ever touching the ground. The best book on the battle is titled The Landscape Turned Red—a straightforward description of what happens when that many men die on such a small patch of ground. And the center of the battlefield was a Dunker church whose members were pacifists.

Despite all that bloodshed, the battle was a draw, but it counted as a tactical victory for the North. Lincoln had been waiting for the right moment. A week after Antietam, he issued the Emancipation Proclamation. It freed only those slaves who were in the Confederacy, but it changed the focus of the war. It signaled the intent to deliver four million human beings from a captivity so bleak and dangerous it can scarcely be imagined.

In considering the meaning of the Emancipation Proclamation, let’s not forget the human cost of battle: what it meant to those men to march into beautiful farmland, kill and die, lie out all night suffering with wounds. What it cost their families and friends, their nation that would miss a generation of leaders, thinkers, workers, human beings.

I can’t weigh or judge their actions. I can only grieve for the lost, try to live mindfully, and work to relieve suffering wherever it may come. It’s not enough. It’s never enough.

Photographs of the battlefield, now and immediately after the battle, can be found online. There is also an extraordinary series of paintings by a professional painter who fought there that day.

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