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The Bloody Lane-Battle of Antietam

Posted Thursday, September 6, 2012, at 11:26 AM

The Bloody Lane. Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress.
Serene. Morning's twilight gently transformed the blackness into a new day. A choir of birds slowly broke the silence, and the chill of night ebbed away. I stood on a low road among perfectly manicured grounds and pristine statues. Everything was exactly as it should be: peaceful.

As a graduate student I had studied minute details of this very location. I knew the lay of the land and the landmarks, though I had never been there, I was in a familiar place. I had seen hundreds of pictures of the exact spot where I was standing. Overwhelmingly, they were mirror images of the surroundings I found myself in, picturesque and perfect. The older photographs, the ones that matter, expose a darkness that the morning sun will never overtake. The 150 year old images reveal only suffering and death.

The peaceful low road where I stood was then called Sunken Road. Now it is called The Bloody Lane. On September 17, 1862 during the Battle of Antietam (Sharpsburg) over 5,500 Union and Confederate soldiers were killed or wounded in the three and a half hour fight that centered on the low road where I was standing.

My mind began to recall the images that ran counter to what I was experiencing. Everywhere I looked 150 year old pictures began to superimpose themselves over my tranquil morning scenery. I imagined the lane itself with its determined Confederate defender's lifeless bodies providing evidence of their courage. Peering into the fields to the north, I envisioned the remains of hundreds of Union soldiers, now laying in their final sleep, who had so gallantly advanced directly into devastating Confederate guns.

The Bloody Lane was just one part of the Battle of Antietam, a devastating twelve hour battle that is, to this day, the single bloodiest day in U.S. military history. Imagine someone being killed every twelve seconds and someone being wounded every two seconds, continually, every minute of every hour for twelve hours. That was the average for the Battle of Antietam. At least 3,654 men were killed and 17,292 were wounded on both sides. To compound the matter, during the Civil War, one out of seven wounded men would later die from those wounds.

The battle itself was indecisive with no clear victor. No one walked away bragging about this battle. It can be argued that the Battle of Antietam was a hinge upon which the door of victory hung. General Lee's army had held its own against an army nearly twice its size, but the first major battle on Union held ground did bring a halt to Lee's first northern campaign. This lack of success and Lincoln's issue of the Emancipation Proclamation contributed heavily to England and France deciding not to recognize the Confederate government. Recognition would likely have brought military aid and loans for the south that would have had the potential to change the course of the war.

As I walked the lane I heard the gun fire, the barking of orders, the cannon, and the screams. I began to recall the names of some of those who perished in and around that road. I had studied these men and read some of their diaries and letters. I had seen some of their faces in photographs. In the cool morning breeze, standing where they took their last breath, tears welled up in my eyes then ran down my cheeks for men I had never met.

As I lingered, a couple, in their early forties I guessed, parked their car and began walking toward The Bloody Lane. I immediately admired them for having the zeal and devotion to the history of our nation to be at the battlefield, at sunrise, where every imaginable horror of war became reality. Hand in hand they approached the hallowed ground where thousands had sacrificed. At the top of the stairs leading down to the lane they stopped.

"It's just a big ditch" the woman proclaimed. Her husband matched her reverence, "Yeah. This was a waste of time."

Showing comments in chronological order
[Show most recent comments first]

This piece makes me feel as if I'm there with you, Mike--good job!

Did the couple expect the dead bodies to still be there, I wonder??? How shallow!

The photo adds a lot to the story. Thanks!

-- Posted by goat lady on Thu, Sep 6, 2012, at 2:00 PM

Good piece Mike!

-- Posted by greer958 on Thu, Sep 6, 2012, at 3:42 PM

Excellent piece! The contrast between the narrator's emotions and the lack of same by the newcomers shows the degree to which MANY feel about the deaths of soldiers. The deaths are too soon forgotten. Sad!

-- Posted by TNMom2 on Thu, Sep 6, 2012, at 9:15 PM

Mike, I am so pleased that you've joined us! We are greatly in need of new bloggers, and the American history topic is soooo popular. Never more relevant than it is this year!

The "truth" will be a welcome novelty.

-- Posted by Madeline1 on Fri, Sep 7, 2012, at 12:38 PM

Wow! You make history come alive! I'll certainly be reading your blog entries if they're anything like this one. Good job.


-- Posted by swift on Fri, Sep 7, 2012, at 2:45 PM

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Facts, Myths, and American History
Mike Shirrell
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I have been happily married to Amy for twelve years and am the proud father of Elizabeth and Noah. I majored in history and minored in political science at Pittsburg State University in Pittsburg, KS, home of the 2011 NCAA Division II Football National Champion Pittsburg State Gorillas. I was privileged to be selected to teach at Pittsburg State while in graduate school and completed my Master of Arts in History in 2010 with Graduate Deans Academic Honors.
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