Essay: Antietam National Battlefield

Less than half an hour south of the I-70 in Maryland is the Antietam National Battlefield. The Battle of Antietam, or Sharpsburg here below the Mason-Dixon Line, on September 17, 1862 remains the bloodiest day in American history. Even World War I and II, which each have their place in the humanity’s sorry gallery of bloodshed, have not produced American casualties on this scale: 23,000 killed, wounded or missing.

The peaceful hills and farmland of modern-day Antietam
The peaceful hills and farmland of modern-day Antietam

The peaceful hills and farmland of modern-day Antietam

It’s hard to believe when you walk the trails on and around the battlefield that so much bloodshed could have occurred in such a bucolic place. The gently rolling fields are dotted with copses of trees that shelter farm houses, with the Appalachians as a backdrop. It is gorgeous, worthy of the greatest landscape painter. And yet a generation of young Americans laid down their lives there. The number of civil war casualties, 625,000 meant that nearly 2% of the 1860 population perished. A comparable number of casualties in today’s America would be 6.1 million (source: United States military casualties of war [Wikipedia]).

Statue of the Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry
Statue of the Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry

Statue of the Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry

Any Southern town worth its salt erected a monument to its fallen Confederate soldiers as soon as it could. That’s why you see a statue of a soldier resolutely staring north in almost any town square in the South. The Union casualties at Antietam were buried at Antietam National Cemetery, adjacent to the battlefield, in 1866. Confederate war dead are buried in Hagerstown and Frederick, Md. and Sheperdstown, W. Va. respectively. Antietam National Battlefield Site was established in 1890.

It seems that the greater the slaughter, the greater the haste to dedicate the battlefield as a memorial. The battle of Verdun, a city on the Meuse river in France and the sight of gruesome slaughter between February and December 1916 and again in August 1917, cost 698,000 lives. Yet the dedication of a memorial in 1929, just 13 years later, was written up under the headline “Dedication of Memorial At Historic Verdun Finds War Scars Nearly Healed” in the Pittsburgh Press newspaper of July 6, 1929 (source: Battle of Verdun [Wikipedia] and Pittsburgh Press, July 6, 1929).

Menin Gate in Ypres, Belgium
Menin Gate in Ypres, Belgium

Menin Gate in Ypres, Belgium

Ypres was the site of three battles between the Allies and the Central Powers. The medieval heart of the city you see today is in fact only about 90 years old, as the town lay in ruins after World War I. The memorial to the missing, the Menin Gate, was dedicated on July 24, 1927. Since 1928 “The Last Post” sounds there every evening at 8 (except during the German occupation from 1940-1944). You might think that nearly a century after the end of World War I the remains of the missing would long since have been found. In fact human remains are still regularly unearthed during construction and road repair work in the area and buried at one of the many war cemeteries in the area. If the remains can be identified, the name is removed from the the memorial (source: Ypres [Wikipedia] and Menin Gate [Wikipedia]).

Destruction of Hiroshima. Photo source: Wikipedia.
Destruction of Hiroshima. Photo source: Wikipedia.

Destruction of Hiroshima. Photo source: Wikipedia.

Ypres, one of the first cities subjected to gas attack, is sister city to Hiroshima, the first city to be destroyed by an atomic bomb. The attack on August 6th, 1945 immediately killed 80,000 civilians, with injury and radiation sickness bringing total casualties to between 90,000 and 140,000. Nearly seventy percent of the city’s building were destroyed and another 7 percent severely damaged, yet the Peace Memorial Park in the Japanese city was completed on April 1, 1954, less than 9 years after the attack (source: City of Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park tour and Hiroshima [Wikipedia]).

It makes you wonder if hastily constructed memorials to honor the sacrifice of those who died on a given field of battle, or in a bombed-out city as the case may be, are really the best way of warning mankind about the horrors of war. We certainly don’t seem to become any less bloodthirsty, do we?

Nicoline, April 7, 2012

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