When my first grandchild was about 10 years old, I took him to the Antietam National Battlefield near Sharpsburg, Maryland, to introduce him to the Civil War. I chose Antietam because, of the many battlefields I have walked, only there did I feel that the ground itself held a hovering memory of battle. “Nothing has changed here,” a National Park Service ranger who shared my reverence for Antietam once told me. “Take away the monuments and you see what the soldiers saw.” I believed that if Aaron and I could walk around the battlefield and talk about the soldiers who fought and died there, he would get a sense of my feeling about the battlefield.
Aaron was too young to learn much about the causes and the results of the Civil War. And he was too young to know much about war itself. He knew that the North fought the South, and in the display cases of the visitors center he saw the old guns that the soldiers on both sides fired, along with the musket balls that came from those guns.
I told him that the fighting at Antietam on September 17, 1862, produced the bloodiest day in American history: Some 12,410 Union soldiers and 10,700 Confederate soldiers were killed or wounded between the sunrise and sunset of that crisp late summer day. But I wondered if he understood the special human grief that lingers over a place where so many have died in such a short time.
We walked around parts of the battlefield, which was farmland ready for the harvest that September. In the place known as the Cornfield, I told Aaron about a Union soldier who said that walking through the rows of corn during the fighting in that field was like walking through a hailstorm. This hail, I explained, was made of those lead bullets we had just seen. Another soldier remembered seeing every stalk of corn cut down as if by a knife and the dead and dying soldiers lying in neat rows between the rows of corn.
Near the Cornfield was a winding lane that had been so worn down by wagon wheels over the years that it became known as the Sunken Road. As we walked along, I told Aaron that here the Confederates had held their ground, holding off repeated Union attacks. Hour after hour, death after death, the fighting went on, until blood “flowed like a river” and bodies piled upon bodies.
Finally, Union soldiers advanced to a point where they were alongside the Sunken Road and could fire down it so that one musket ball could pass through a man, killing him and the comrade at his side. When the Battle of Antietam ended, and the survivors could try to count the dead and dying, the Sunken Road had become the Bloody Lane, where some 5,500 men were killed or wounded.
My wife and I stayed with Aaron overnight in what was then a bed-and-breakfast. The house had served as a Confederate headquarters during the battle. Late on September 17, 1862, a burial detail from the 130th Pennsylvania had entered the house and found “three dead rebels.” I dreamed of them, unable to give them faces or identities, but somehow giving them remembrance. I didn’t want to tell Aaron about the dead until morning. I felt that knowing about the three dead soldiers gave him more understanding of battle than the thought of thousands dying.
I don’t think Aaron and I talked about Antietam again until he was in high school and taking a course in military history. He asked me if I would speak to his class, and, at the invitation of his teacher, I made a date to do so. I wasn’t sure about my topic. But the date happened to be late in September 2001, about a week after the 9/11 attacks. The kids in the class had only 9/11 on their minds. They, like all of us then, had feelings that we couldn’t express. I told them that they were experiencing the unutterable emotions produced by the death of many people at one time.
They had been studying the Civil War, and I asked them to imagine the feelings of Americans who had learned about the deaths at Antietam and who later had seen the photographs of the dead piled upon the dead. Some terrible memories, I said, never go away. They forever hover, generation after generation, teaching us, inhabiting us. And now, I told these stunned kids, they had become members of a generation that possessed such a memory.
Originally published in the April 2007 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here.