Early on the 157th anniversary of the bloodiest day of the Civil War, and the bloodiest day in American history, clouds floated across the almost-full moon over Antietam, and they seemed more like smoke than clouds. Smoke from campfires, smoke from guns, or maybe those were the ghosts of long-gone soldiers I saw drifting over the cornfields. As well-preserved and unadorned by the trappings of tourism as it is, Antietam National Battlefield inspires such imaginings.
We wanted to be there at the moment the vicious battle started — dawn on Sept. 17, 1862, in the second year of the Civil War — so we might see the approach of daylight. We arrived in Sharpsburg about 6 a.m., almost an hour before sunrise and the moment when Union soldiers came through the corn. I imagined that, in the hour before the horror, they heard what I heard, the constant chirp of crickets and little more. “I began to feel wretchedly faint of heart, for it seemed timely that the coming of battle meant my certain death,” a private in the Virginia infantry later wrote.
When the federal troops emerged from the corn they faced gunfire from Confederate troops, gunfire so full and heavy that it mowed through the stalks. I stood by a stone wall, facing north, and had I been standing there 157 years earlier, I would have been caught in the crossfire. “Bullets like a swarm of bees,” was how one of the survivors described it in a letter home.
“Every stalk of corn in the northern and greater part of the field was cut as closely as could have been done with a knife,” wrote the Union general, John Hooker, “and the slain lay in rows precisely as they had stood in their ranks a few moments before.”
All these years later, after the story has been told many times, in books, in lectures, in movies and documentaries, it is still hard to comprehend the scope of what happened on this peaceful, rolling farmland in Washington County: More than 23,000 soldiers killed, wounded or missing after 12 hours of combat. Men cut in half by gunfire. “Dead and dying in every direction,” one of the veterans later wrote.
Five rangers from the National Park Service led the sunrise tour and read the words of survivors of the battle. As we walked along the rows of corn, I saw crickets, grasshoppers and caterpillars, and wondered what their ancestors did that day, with 500 cannon shattering the peace of the farmland, and thousands of men shooting at each other. By all accounts, no living thing was safe.
Antietam is beautiful to behold, horrible to contemplate: Americans from north and south killing each other at close range across farm fields. Six generals were killed, three from each side. Twelve generals were wounded, six from each side.
The battle ended the Confederate Army’s first invasion of the north, and the rebels withdrew to Virginia. “Washington was safe. Baltimore was secure,” says the National Park Service history. “Pennsylvania no longer was quaking. Cincinnati was saved. Ohio was relieved. ... And for Abraham Lincoln, the moment had arrived. Armed with recent battlefield victories and the termination of the rebel invasion, the president issued his Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation only five days after Antietam. The war, and the nation, had changed forever.”
By 7:30, sunlight poured through an opening in the sky and illuminated the soybeans and orchard grass leading to the woods to the east. We stood under a black walnut tree to hear more accounts of the battle, and that’s where I met 83-year-old Glenn Smeltzer of Youngwood, Pa., near Pittsburgh. He carried a remarkable wooden walking stick, topped with the carved head of a Union officer.
“His name was Capt. George A. Cribbs, of the 11th Pennsylvania [Infantry] and he was my great grandfather,” Mr. Smeltzer said.
A friend had carved the likeness, and now Capt. Cribbs walked where his great grandson walked — across the fields of Antietam. “He was a prosperous farmer and potter from Greensburg, and he recruited a lot of the men of Company I. ... He died 157 years ago today. He was 42.”
I assumed that meant Capt. Cribbs had been among the dead of Antietam. But that was not the case. Capt. Cribbs had been mortally wounded at the battle of Second Manassas, or the second battle of Bull Run, in Virginia, in late August. “He died on this day [Sept. 17] in a hospital in Washington, D.C.,” his great grandson said.
Mr. Smeltzer had come to Antietam to honor another relative from his mother’s side of the family — Sgt. William Cribbs, a nephew of Capt. Cribbs. “Sgt. Cribbs died right here on this day,” Mr. Smeltzer said, and he pointed to the east and to the woods. “The uncle and the nephew died the same day. ... Today was a tough day for the Cribbs family.”