Eastern USA Road Trip 2016, Day 9: Antietam and a detour through Civil War medicine.


It should be obvious that the American Civil War is far too vast a topic to distill into a handful of bromides, and what’s more, battles like the one in Antietam have been the topic of numerous books and research studies.

My own thoughts on the occasion of visiting Antietam National Battlefield have remained a inchoate jumble since the morning we toured it. To say that the experience was profoundly moving is an understatement. Perhaps the way these hours are rendering a verbose character like me speechless says as much as the absent words ever could.

As time has passed, what happened at Antietam in September of 1862 has been the subject of a reassessment. Antietam was very important, indeed, and History Dot Com offers a good summary of why.

1. Antietam enabled the Union to repel the first Confederate invasion of the North.
2. The battle allowed Abraham Lincoln to issue the Emancipation Proclamation.
3. Antietam kept Britain and France on the sidelines.
4. The battle lifted sagging Union morale.
5. Photographs from Antietam brought the horror of war to Americans for the first time.
6. The battle may have saved Lincoln from a resounding defeat in midterm elections.
7. Antietam marked the beginning of the end for General George McClellan.

There are many videos on YouTube, but this one captures the essence without delving into military strategy and tactics.

Perhaps the real reason for my own emotional reaction to Antietam stems from the many observations about the battle’s wider psychological ramifications, specifically the recognition that there is nothing glorious or noble about war.

It’s about visiting the battlefield as an adult, as opposed to a child (which I did with my parents, roughly 45 years ago). Back then, I transformed my bicycle into a shine to the Confederacy, complete with rebel flags and a gray sling for my BB gun.

Kids swallow the bilge, because that’s what being a kid is all about. Excuses dwindle as one ages. None of the other reasons for “growing up” come close to the imperative to dispense with childlike reasoning in favor of more rational processes. That so many don’t manage to do so might explain the persistence of war as a human practice.

We’re left with the Dunker Church and the North, East and West Woods.

The Corn Field and Bloody Lane.

Burnside Bridge, and the site of the final attack, when Confederate troops marching all day from Harpers Ferry arrived just in time to extend the war another two and a half years.

A few photos are below, at the end of this narrative.

There’s a lot to learn from the Civil War, and the place to start is scrubbing one’s noggin clean of the flawed judgments we’ve made about the conflict in the 150 years separating lost orders wrapped around cigars from the ubiquity of the iPhone.

Back in Frederick for a final afternoon and evening on the road, I insisted we visit the National Museum of Civil War Medicine.

Follow in the footsteps of soldiers and surgeons to discover the harsh conditions, personal sacrifices, and brilliant innovations of Civil War medicine, innovations that continue to save lives today.

To understand how important doctors, nurses and medical innovation were in the Civil War, consider the numbers.

Roughly 1,264,000 American soldiers have died in the nation’s wars — 620,000 in the Civil War and 644,000 in all other conflicts. It was only as recently as the Vietnam War that the amount of American deaths in foreign wars eclipsed the number who died in the Civil War.

Roughly a third of them died on the battlefield, or from their wounds and injuries. The others were killed by disease. The war began absent any substantive preparation for casualties of this magnitude, hence the medicine museum’s importance.

The museum also has a collaboration beer:

One vast hospital: Flying Dog’s Saw Bones Ginger Table Beer.

On Thursday, we drove back home. The trip East gave me lots to think about, which is to say it was a complete success.