Reliving the bloodiest day of the Civil War at Antietam


The week the nation marked the first anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, thousands of Civil War re-enactors converged in Western Maryland to commemorate the bloodiest day in American history. It happened 140 years ago in Sharpsburg near a creek called Antietam.

Some 5,000 soldiers lay dead after the battle Sept. 17, 1862, between Union and Confederate forces, which began in a cornfield at dawn and ended at sunset without a winner. The death toll from the attacks in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania on Sept. 11 last year was put at 3,025, almost all of them civilians.

Yesterday, the war on terrorism was on the minds of many of the participants as they re-enacted the past.

"Sept. 11 has absolute relevance on this soil," said Evelyn Hayes, a writer from Cleveland, who dressed in a blue uniform to march into battle with her Union regiment yesterday. "It strengthened the fervor of defending what is homeland."

Reflecting on the Battle of Antietam and on the terrorist attacks, Hayes said that "all the personal stories in each crystallized loyalty, community, country."

Hayes was one of 13,500 people registered to participate in three days of battle re-enactments, lectures and military demonstrations that continued yesterday on a private farm about a dozen miles north of the actual Antietam battlefield managed by the National Park Service. The event closes at 5 p.m. today.

While it was still dark yesterday moments before 6 a.m. - at the hour Confederate Gen. Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson described as "early dawn" - the first shots of the day's re-enactment were heard. This was true to the opening engagement of the actual battle, when Union Gen. Joseph Hooker ordered artillery fire on Jackson's men across a cornfield.

Ultimately, the Union forces commanded by Gen. George B. McClellan and the Confederate forces commanded by Gen. Robert E. Lee each suffered about the same number of casualties, and neither side could claim victory.

"We [lined] up and waited for the sun to come up," Bob Clements of New Jersey, a re-enactor with the 69th Pennsylvania Regiment, said yesterday. "Then it was pretty chaotic in that cornfield and just as easy to get hurt by one of your own."

Eventually, he said, his company was "surrounded and obliterated. Our whole regiment went down."

"That corn just grabs at you, rips you in the face and muffles your hearing," said Hayes, who said she was honoring females who passed as young male soldiers.

The cornfield, grown for the occasion, was a casualty of the mock war, wounded with rows of broken husks. That also was true to the original scene. Hooker noted that, after the battle, the cornfield was "cut as closely as could have been done with a knife and the slain lay in rows precisely as they had stood in ranks a few moments before."

Through the smoke, stench and blood flowing through the creeks and nearby Potomac River, it was hard to count the number of dead precisely, but the wounded may have exceeded 15,000.

The Sun's battlefield report in 1862 noted that the scale and scope of the battle was "considered the most terrific since Waterloo."

Antietam changed the public perception of battles, from something to watch under a parasol at a picnic, much like yesterday's event, to something longer and more cruel than either side had bargained for.

The stalemate of Antietam made a profound impression on President Abraham Lincoln, who visited the scene of the carnage afterward.

The result was the Emancipation Proclamation, in which Lincoln declared all slaves in the Confederate states free as of Jan. 1, 1863. With that, he broadened the meaning of the war beyond saving the Union. Abolishing slavery in the rebel states became part of the Union's mission.

Echoing a New York soldier's phrase to describe the devastation, National Geographic Civil War historian Ed Bearss, 79, surveyed the rolling fields of this weekend's re-enactment and said: "The landscape turned red. ... Oh, the costs."

Yesterday, vintage cannon, signal corps and cavalry troops all made impressive scenes for a staged theater of war.

Stephen Lang, the actor who portrays Jackson in the coming movie Gods and Generals, said yesterday that the attacks of Sept. 11 last year occurred while the Civil War epic was being filmed.

"It served to emphasize the importance of the story that we tell - [the war] is a discussion of what we are, who we are and our experiment in liberty," he told an audience inside a tent.

Listening to Lang's talk was John E. Pickett of Middletown, Del., who also has a part in the movie.

Pickett, a descendant of the Confederate officer who led a famously futile charge at Gettysburg in 1863, was wearing the uniform of a junior Union officer, a demonstration that war wounds have healed since that day the rivers ran red.

"We're just like brothers, blue and gray," said William H. Peele of Chesterfield, S.C., clad in Confederate gray wool.

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