Civil War: The Bloodiest Days in American History

[In this post, I will include more references to Wikipedia that I usually do – simply because frequently an idea has been stated more clearly or appropriately than I would have done one my own.]

On July 23rd, I visited two battlefields that are about 40 miles and ten months apart.

“Antietam” is a battle named for the nearby Antietam Creek and took place near Sharpsburg, Maryland on September 17, 1862. This is, to this day, the bloodiest day in American history. The battle on this field of rolling hills and wide open expanses began as scheduled with a Union attack near the Dunker Church at 5:30 sharp, after a night of clouds and rain. (The weather conditions were even recorded for posterity!) When it ended just twelve hours later, there were 22,717 casualties.

I need to start off by saying that visiting Antietam is similar to Manassas, in that there is an information center, a self-guided driving tour, guided tours are available, and there are also paths to walk/hike between the relevant spots. The experience that the National Park Service put together at this particular battlefield was absolutely outstanding. I enjoyed every minute. Key spots were freely accessible and there was truly a wealth of information, in the form of plaques, located all throughout the park. By driving this tour and reading the informational signs (and cross-referencing the Battlefield App that the Park Service produced), I feel like I understand this battle in depth. I have never felt that way after any other “lesson” on the Civil War.

As, I said earlier, I am going to make use of Wikipedia here, just to summarize the three separate spots where major battles took place within the rural area that is a few miles long:

After pursuing Confederate General Robert E. Lee into Maryland, Union Army Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan launched attacks against Lee’s army, in defensive positions behind Antietam Creek. At dawn on September 17, Maj. Gen. Joseph Hooker’s corps mounted a powerful assault on Lee’s left flank. Attacks and counterattacks swept across Miller’s cornfield and fighting swirled around the Dunker Church. Union assaults against the Sunken Road eventually pierced the Confederate center, but the Federal advantage was not followed up. In the afternoon, Union Maj. Gen. Ambrose Burnside’s corps entered the action, capturing a stone bridge over Antietam Creek and advancing against the Confederate right. At a crucial moment, Confederate Maj. Gen.A.P. Hill’s division arrived from Harpers Ferry and launched a surprise counterattack, driving back Burnside and ending the battle. … Although the battle was tactically inconclusive, the Confederate troops had withdrawn first from the battlefield, making it, in military terms, a Union victory. It had significance as enough of a victory to give President Abraham Lincoln the confidence to announce his Emancipation Proclamation, which discouraged the British and French governments from potential plans for recognition of the Confederacy.

460px-Antietam_Overview

You can see where the sides met at 1) West Woods/Cornfield 2) Bloody Lane 3) Burnside Bridge

So the tour goes chronologically, beginning in the space between the West Woods and the Cornfield. Then to the Sunken Road, a.k.a. “Bloody Lane,” then to the Burnside Bridge. I have tried to make sense of the huge casualty rate. One aspect is that there were over 110,000 troops at this battle. The second aspect is that this battlefield is very open, very flat and free of trees.

Once they come into view, they are in view for quite a while. Plenty of time to adjust the cannons.

Once they come into view, they are in view for quite a while. Plenty of time to adjust the cannons.

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This is an example of standing in the exact place a photo was taken. You can see just the edge of Dunker Church on the far left.

This is an example of standing in the exact place a photo was taken. You can see just the edge of Dunker Church on the far left.

Sunken Road

Sunken Road. (The tower is not original)

The road to Burnside Bridge.

The road to Burnside Bridge.

When I watch a movie that takes place during a pre-WWI war, before the advent of planes and missiles, there are usually masses of troops marching toward each other with unobstructed cannon fire and guns, and people dropping like flies. Then you find out, in real life, battles are much more intricate, and soldiers don’t really just stand out in the wide open field with nothing to protect them. It turns out that in this battle, that’s what happened. Particularly in the first skirmish of the day, at the Cornfield. I spoke with one of the Park Rangers who was outside answering any questions anyone had. We talked for a bit and he pointed out that some troops/groups/teams (whatever a particular division is called) lost over 50% of their men on this day. And near the West Woods, there were 4000 casualties in a 20 minute period!

Part of the initial battle.

Part of the initial battle.

New York state's monument to its troops. See the person nearby for scale.

New York state’s monument to its troops. See the person nearby for scale.

The highly-detailed description plaques I referred to yesterday.

The highly-detailed description plaques I referred to previously.

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July 1-3, 1863. Gettysburg.

While Antietam is the bloodiest day in history, Gettysburg is the bloodiest battle. This town of 2,390 (at the time) became the site of war due to it’s specific location. There were (and still are) ten main roads leading out of Gettysburg, almost like spokes on a wheel. Whoever held this city could have far improved supply routes for everything that was to come, and would prevent the enemy from having them. By the end of the third day, there were over 51,000 casualties.

The battlefield at Gettysburg is so large, it really can’t be called a battlefield, in my opinion. It was at least three, like at Antietam, if not many more. The area of battle extends at least five miles north to south and at least three east to west. Due to the geology of the area, there are a series of ridges, oriented north to south, throughout the town. MacPherson Ridge, Oak Ridge, Seminary Ridge, Warfield Ridge, Houck’s Ridge. And while the northern part of the town has these long ridges and corresponding valleys, the southern area has some hills, with trees (“Big Round Top”) and without (“Little Round Top,” a prime lookout spot). The far south end also has a large craggy area that reminded me of something in southern California. This area was called Devil’s Den, and nearby was an area of extreme bloodshed. Like Antietam had “Bloody Lane,” this boulder-strewn area of Gettysburg has a name.  The Valley of Death. Blood Run. The Slaughter Pen.

The Valley of Death. Union troops held the hill where I am standing. Snipers had a wide open shot.

The Valley of Death. Union troops held the hill where I am standing. Snipers had a wide open shot.

Again, a Wikipedia-summarized synopsis of the battle:

Elements of the two armies initially collided at Gettysburg on July 1, 1863, as Lee (Confederate) urgently concentrated his forces there, his objective being to engage the Union army and destroy it. Low ridges to the northwest of town were defended initially by a Union cavalry division under Brig. Gen. John Buford, and soon reinforced with two corps of Union infantry. However, two large Confederate corps assaulted them from the northwest and north, collapsing the hastily developed Union lines, sending the defenders retreating through the streets of town to the hills just to the south.

On the second day of battle, most of both armies had assembled. The Union line was laid out in a defensive formation resembling a fishhook. In the late afternoon of July 2, Lee launched a heavy assault on the Union left flank, and fierce fighting raged at Little Round Top, the Wheatfield, Devil’s Den, and thePeach Orchard. On the Union right, Confederate demonstrations escalated into full-scale assaults on Culp’s Hill and Cemetery Hill. All across the battlefield, despite significant losses, the Union defenders held their lines.

On the third day of battle, July 3, fighting resumed on Culp’s Hill, and cavalry battles raged to the east and south, but the main event was a dramatic infantry assault by 12,500 Confederates against the center of the Union line on Cemetery Ridge, known as Pickett’s Charge. The charge was repulsed by Union rifle and artillery fire, at great losses to the Confederate army.

The first cannon fired during the battle. There is a plaque on it that says so.

The first cannon fired during the battle. There is a plaque on it that says so.

The Seminary, on Seminary Ridge.

The Seminary, on Seminary Ridge.

The battlefield extends all the way to the hills in the distance.

The battlefield extends all the way to the hills in the distance.

On Day 1, Confederate forces surged then retreated back into this railroad cut. The Union approached and the Confederates couldn't get out of the cut.

On Day 1, Confederate forces surged then retreated back into this railroad cut. The Union approached and the Confederates couldn’t get out.

Eerie. And probably haunted.

Eerie. And probably haunted.

Monument

Monument

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Gettysburg could be a full day excursion, for sure. I was there about about four or five hours, but completed the 16-stop driving tour. I did not go to the Cemetery, famously the site of Lincoln’s “four-score speech” because I had already been there. I will confess that I drove with my computer on my passenger seat. I was following along with an 80-minute driving tour of Gettysburg that I downloaded on youtube. Basically it’s like a stop-by-stop audio guide, but told by an expert driving along the self-tour. This is actually the series I listened to and watched, if you’re curious. At least watch two minutes of it and see how informative it is!

To top off the night, I drove about 45 minutes east to York where I spent the night.

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