349Echoes of Another Day of Horror
- Oct 1, 2001From Washington Post (9/18/01):
"At Antietam Civil War Battlefield, Echoes of Another Day of Horror"
SHARPSBURG, Md., SEPT. 17 -- Here, too, anguished families came when the day
was over, searching for missing loved ones.
From field hospital to field hospital, they went: Have you seen my son?
they asked. My husband? My father? He was here, and we've had no word.
Very often they, also, learned the worst.
For here, on another dreadful weekday in September, the death toll had been
awful: 3,654 in a single cataclysmic event that was, until last week, the
deadliest day ever on U.S. soil.
But the Civil War's Battle of Antietam, whose 139th anniversary was marked
today, now appears eclipsed by the terrorist airplane attacks last Tuesday
at the Pentagon, in New York and in Pennsylvania.
More than 4,900 people are missing and presumed dead just in the World Trade
Centers assault, authorities have said, and the total death count will
likely be well over 5,000.
Today, as Americans across the country sought to resume their lives after
last week's disaster, about 50 people gathered here on a cool and sun-washed
morning to walk the battlefield together, to reflect, and, perhaps, they
said, to draw some comfort from the past.
"By going back to their story," Bob Wilhelm, 57, one of the group, said of
Antietam's participants, "it helps us sort out what we're going through.
"Time disappears," he said.
They gathered outside the National Park Service visitor center at 9:30 a.m.
and gazed out over the rocky fields of bleached corn stalks, damp clover and
yellowing soybeans where the battle was fought.
Crickets sang where 87,000 Union soldiers battled 40,000 Confederates to a
draw from dawn to dusk on Sept. 17, 1862, and swallows darted over the
sunken farm lanes where soldiers perished by the hundreds.
The pilgrims, in jeans and T-shirts, fanny packs and ball caps, had come
from Ohio, Maryland, Pennsylvania and other places.
There was a banker, a steelworker, a Web manager and several retirees. Some
carried binoculars, books and battlefield maps. Some said they visited
regularly; others had never been before. Many had never been on the
anniversary of the battle.
Park rangers pointed out to them that just as there is a kind of media
saturation surrounding last Tuesday's tragedy, Antietam was a media
sensation in its day: Photographer Alexander Gardner's grisly pictures taken
a few days after the battle were the first ever to show the U.S. public the
horrors of war.
The death toll, combining both sides, was in addition to more than 17,000
wounded, the Park Service noted. And Antietam would be followed by other
savage struggles at places like Fredericksburg, Gettysburg and Spotsylvania.
The group, lead by rangers Mike Weinstein and Keith B. Snyder, made its
first stop at the towering obelisk monument to the Philadelphia Brigade, a
Union outfit that lost 545 men that day.
Weinstein paused to remind the walkers of the hundreds of family members who
traveled here after the battle in search of missing soldiers, or their
"I must tell you," he said quietly, "that when I watched the TV news and saw
the people of New York traipsing around the city, going from hospital to
hospital looking for their loved ones, all I could think of was the
battlefield at Antietam and all those stories about people wandering around
this battlefield" seeking missing relatives.
He then read the account of a New York man, Lemuel Stetson, who, after
searching, had found his son, John, buried on the battlefield. "I found the
burial rude and imperfect, like all soldiers graves upon the field," the
He gathered a burial party and reburied his son in a more dignified way,
covering the grave with brownstones and boughs cut from oak trees shot down
during the battle.
"I stood among strangers, the rank and file of the army, to make my
grateful, heartfelt acknowledgments for their kind assistance," Stetson
wrote. "You may in all times of affliction rely on the human and generous
sympathy of the common soldier."
The listeners stood hushed in the grass.
It was interesting, Snyder noted, that last week's disaster may also have
helped people understand the emotions of 1862. "I think it helped people
connect with the emotion and the feeling of the tragedy here," he said. "It
certainly did for me. You have an immediate understanding of that feeling in
Jeff Baldwin, 35, of Hagerstown, said he felt it clearly, as he stood with
the group at the edge of the infamously bloody part of the battleground
known simply as "the cornfield."
"The people here would have thought at the time: 'It's changed America
forever. It'll never be the same. We will never recover from the death.'
Everything you hear now, you'd have heard right after this. The country will
be different forever.
"With hindsight, you can see that the country was better after it. We can
look back now and say, 'Why were you worried?' Maybe in a hundred years
someone will look back [on today] and say, 'It all ended okay.' "
The walkers spoke quietly as they brushed past the purple berries of the
pokeweed and bright blue chicory flowers that have always grown here. It was
warm and bright, and there seemed to be solace in the surroundings and the
Bob Wilhelm said he planned to stay with the walk, which covered the entire
day's conflict, until it ended at sunset.
"I hope, at the end of the day, when we get to the end of the battle,
there's a little bit of closure," he said. "We're not going to have that
closure with the bombing -- not for a while."
POSTED BY: Tom Shay