The Civil War: It took two sides to make a battle — another look at Antietam

Writing on the Civil War battles means writing about both sides, North and South, and not just about the Union Army. Photo: Antietam Bridge, a peaceful spot, 150 years later

VIENNA, Va., September 22, 2012 — Every year around the middle of September, reporters and writers everywhere dig out their “ancient” history books to write the obligatory story of the Battle of Antietam or Sharpsburg in Maryland.

This year being part of the Sesquicentennial Commemoration of the Civil War, it was even more likely and even a vaunted paper like USA Today had to join in the reportorial exercise with an attempt to compare/contrast the blood bath in Maryland with current conflicts in Afghanistan and the like.

Don’t get me wrong: in a nod to full disclosure, I’ve been a fan of USA Today ever since it first burst upon the scene some 30 years ago, and at a time when, living in Kentucky, I had to subscribe to receive it by mail.  When I moved to Northern Virginia almost 30 years ago, I immediately transferred that subscription as well as subscribing to the Washington Post and of course the Washington Times, little realizing I’d ever be part of the latter.

Dr. Lafayette Guild CSA

So it’s with no sense of malice, more like one of humor, that I consider USA Today’s article on the September 17, 1862 battle that lasted but 12 hours, was tactically a draw with no winner, and killed a heck of a lot of men. What gave me a chuckle or two, after reading Chuck Raasch’s story, was that he described a one-sided battle.

We are all well aware of the liberal, left-leaning proclivities of the “main stream media” as it’s now called, but when a story based upon a horrific war talks only of one side and ignores the other, it’s just plain humorous.

As an example, Dr. Jonathan Letterman, a Union doctor and medical Director of the Army of the Potomac, is acknowledged and lauded as having literally fathered the triage system on the battlefield. One supposes that prior to Letterman’s arrival, if a man with a gunshot to the leg came in on a litter, and one with his entire intestines hanging out to the ground also was brought in, some bright soul would flip a coin to decide which to treat first.  “Triage,” that fancy name coming from the French, from trier, to sort, was a stepchild of common sense, something one hopes that more physicians than just one practiced.

Mr. Raasch also fails to mention that Dr. Lafayette Guild, a Confederate doctor and Chief Surgeon in charge of the Medical Offices for the Army of Northern Virginia, who not only worked directly with Dr. Letterman but that the two of them together worked out a truce, which would allow both sides to go unimpeded onto the battlefields to reclaim their wounded and to take back the abandoned dead.

Confederate dead in Bloody Lane at Antietam

There WERE two sides in the war, and yet the Southern or Confederate angle is totally omitted in this story. We are told of the “Union staging areas,” of the “wounded boys of Connecticut regiments” being hospitalized, why the “Yankees never forded the Antietam Creek,” and about the Pry house and farm where Union General George McClellan’s headquarters were located. The only Southerner mentioned was General Robert E. Lee whose “first invasion of the North” was stopped.

The Northern troops far outnumbered the Confederates, to be sure, and the rebels were driven back to the very outskirts of Sharpsburg, the name by which the battle is known by Southerners. The question, which has loomed large for many years, is given the numerical superiority, why “Little Mac” McClellan did not pursue the retreating Confederates, who were able to get across the Potomac and into the waiting homeland of Virginia. THAT might have produced a victory, as the battle was basically a draw and only a tactical advantage went to the Union.

Dr. Jonathan Letterman Union

There were two brave armies that met on the field of battle for that 12-hour bloody melee, which must have seemed a lot longer when it was over. The Union brought 75,316 men storming into the torrent of ball and shot that day, resulting in 2,108 being killed, 9,549 wounded, and 753 listed as missing.

The other army was the Confederate one, which numbered 51,844 and which resulted in 2,700 killed, 9,024 wounded, and some 2,000 missing.  The men from the South who stormed those fields that fall September day deserve the same attention, mention and coverage as did the combatants from the North.

The only real winner of the war was President Abraham Lincoln, giving him the bully pulpit to issue his Emancipation Proclamation, purportedly “freeing the slaves,” though it freed them only in the seceded states, leaving many in border states and the Northern states as enslaved as before the war. People tend to forget that little salient fact.

Doubtless I was a student of journalism and newspaper practice a few dozen years prior to that of Mr. Raasch, but no matter the year, we were taught to be objective, to give both parties their due, and not to make a bloody slaughterhouse sound like only one entity participated.

The “bloodiest single day of the Civil War” deserves better treatment than that served up in USA Today.

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Martha M. Boltz

Martha Boltz is a frequent contributor  to the long running Civil War features in The Washington Times America At War feature in the print and online editions. She has been a regular contributor to the original Civil War Page and its successor page since 1994, and is a civil war buff, historian, and writer. "Someone said that if we don't learn about the past, we are condemned to repeat it," she said, "and there are lessons of all sorts inherent in this bloody four-year period of our country's history."  She is a member of several heritage and lineage groups, as well as the Montgomery County Civil War Round Table. Her standing invitation is, "come on down - check the blog - send me your comments and let's have fun with its history and maybe learn something at the same time."


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