Narratives USA

America’s Bloody Past

5.13.11- Sorry for the delay of this week’s narrative posting but Blogger was an annoying PIA for the past day with it being down. All is well now so hope you enjoy it and even learn a thing or two πŸ™‚

Antietam National Battlefield, Maryland
June 2007

(I wrote this story in honor and remembrance of the 150th anniversary of the start of the American Civil War.)

It could have been a landscape canvas, perhaps even painted by Whistler or Homer, the quiet sound of nature, the sight of abundant greenery in the background, the sound of rushing water from the creek that flowed underneath the stone bridge. And yet had it been painted 149 years ago, this same landscape would have looked drastically different. The inviting clear water in the creek would have been filled with red, filled with the blood of the soliders who had fallen; the air would have been filled with smoke and the stench of death and decay. It was here that the bloodiest single-day battle in American history took place, for it was in this spot that the Battle of Antietam was waged (or the Battle of Sharpsburg as it is known in the American south).
Although some mother-daughter trips may involve serious shopping and pampering at spas, the trips that my mom and I went on usually invovled history, and neither she nor I would have had it any other way. The summer before my senior year of college we took a girls’ road trip to Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. This year took us to Harper’s Ferry, West Virginia and Sharpsburg, Maryland. We began our trip in Harper’s Ferry, best  known for being the site of the abolitionist John Brown’s disastrous raid on the armory there in 1859 (he had hoped to use the captured weapons to initiate a slave uprising throughout the South) and its role in the American Civil War.
After crossing back into Maryland, on the drive to the bed and breakfast where we would be staying, I tried to imagine what life was like for the residents of Sharpsburg before of September 17, 1862,  the date that would irrevocably change all of their lives. A border town in a border state, the residents of Sharpsburg suffered greatly as the site of the first major battle of the Civil War. Like most towns in the United States that were the locations  of battles and skirmishes in the war, Sharpsburg was small and primarily a farming community. With the exception of a gas station and some other “modern” additions, it also looked like it hadn’t changed much since the day the Union and Confederate soliders marched through its streets. Our bed and breakfast was no exception. The Jacob Rohrbach Inn was built in 1804, and following the battle it was used as a field hospital to treat the wounded. I would find that many buildings in Sharpsburg had some historical connection to its infamous past.
A picture of a three-arched bridge is one of the most well known images of the American Civil War. It was just a bridge but it was also where for several hours a small number of Confederate soliders from Georgia held off repeated attempts by elements of the Union Army to take the bridge by force. Originally named the Lower Bridge, it would be unofficially christened after the Union Major General Ambrose Burnside, who had greatly underestimated the might of the Confederate soliders who had held it. What had been constructed as a passageway over Antietam Creek for local farmers to take their produce and livestock to market in Sharpsburg was where Union and Confederate soliders were shot down. I tried to imagine this deadly skirmish taking place but I simply couldn’t. How can one equate a pastoral setting with that of death and destruction?
23,000 American soliders were killed at the Batte of Antietam, more than 5,000 alone on just one road that would bear the grim nickname of Bloody Lane. It was said that after the fighting that took place on Sunken Road (the clay road had been worn down through the years by rain and wagons), the road was literally flowing with blood. It made me think of the passage from the Old Testament in Exodus 7 of the first plague, when the Nile Rile turns into blood. When looking down on Sunken Road from atop the lookout tower, I tried recreating the image in my head of how it would have looked after the fighting had ended, perfect rows of dead men  in the road behind them, appearing almost as if it had been staged. But after all, aren’t most battles a staging of sorts before the dead are tallied? Staging brought about by strategic military planning? And yet the planning almost never includes the high casualty numbers of the unimaginable suffering once it is all over.
After the Civil War, the United States was never again host to that horrific level of fighting. Although the Americans have fought in devestating wars abroad, today we have almost an disconnect with our bloody past. For many people, it was simply too long ago for it to matter or for them to care about. The Civil War was a century and a half ago, and yet its legacy, its memories live on, through movies, books, and most certainly through visits to the hallowed sites themselves, providing the most tangible and vivid of memories.

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