Remembering 9/11 and the Lesson of Antietam

In commemoration of the tenth anniversary of 9/11, many people spent the weekend declaring, “We should never forget.” Of course, we never should forget the tragedies of that day and the lessons we’ve learned as a result.

But I can’t help but think, as passionately as people demand and promise remembrance, that we, as a nation, are doomed to forget.

How do I know? Because we’ve already forgotten a tragedy of even greater magnitude.

September 17th will mark the 149th anniversary of the bloodiest day in American history. The Army of the Potomac clashed against the Army of Northern Virginia near Antietam Creek, just outside Sharpsburg, Maryland. Neither army had planned to battle there, but so it goes in war. By day’s end, 23,000 Americans were dead, wounded or missing.

While that number dwarfs the number of casualties from the 9/11 terrorist attacks—just under 3,000, by best estimates—it does not in any way devalue the loss of life a decade ago. Many of us were, and still remain, emotionally and geographically connected to the tragedy that unfolded in 2001.

Television and other mass media helped connect Americans to the story, too. Because of the media, the tragedies that unfolded on 9/11 had an immediacy to them that kept us riveted. Everyone felt a part of the story. Many people had personal connections to it.

In 1862, such mass media didn’t exist. In fact, the so-called “War Between the States” was an abstract concept to many people because it was all happening away—far away.

That all changed within days of Antietam. Two days after the battle, photographer Alexander Gardner and assistant James Gibson trekked out to Sharpsburg from their newly opened studio in Washington D.C. They photographed the horrors of the battlefield—capturing some ninety images in all—then exhibited those photos at Matthew Brady’s studio in New York City. Woodcuts of the images were reproduced widely in newspapers across the country.

The photos from Antietam impressed upon the public the horror of the war with an immediacy never before imagined. “If he has not brought bodies and laid them in our door-yards and along streets, he has done something very like it,” wrote The New York Times.

It’s hard for us today to imagine the impact just a few pictures could possibly have, but the photos were the 1862 equivalent of CNN broadcasting live with burning towers in the background.

The battle of Antietam was just one of many that made up the largest national tragedy we’ve ever experienced: civil war. To most people, though, the war is just another piece of dusty, boring history—and who cares about history? Who cares about names/dates/places? Who cares about the people involved? Who cares about the scope of human tragedy? Who cares about the lessons learned, or the ones that should have been learned?

Who cares?

And if we don’t care, then why will we bother to remember?

With 9/11 only ten years behind us, the event is still raw for many people, so it’s easy to remember. Our cultural fascination with picking our own scabs will probably keep it raw for a few more years to come.

But eventually, the shock will wear off, and regardless of how vehemently we promise to always remember, we will start to forget. 9/11, like 9/17—or 6/6 or 12/7 or, I shudder to think, 7/4—will become one more set of names/dates/places for schoolchildren to memorize.

Many of them will resent the fact that they have to memorize such things, just as many of us resented having to do it when we went through school. Or they’ll dread history because it’s so boring, just as so many of us did. After all, it’s history. It’s past. It’s over with. Who cares about that?

Our national uninterest in our own history has already, unfortunately, answered that question pretty loud and clear.

The silver lining is that there are still some people who care—and care passionately. It’s too bad they are such a small minority.

I realize some people might get indignant at the thought that we’ll eventually forget 9/11. However, I offer this bit of evidence: History says we will forget.

© 2011 Emerging Civil War

19 Responses to Remembering 9/11 and the Lesson of Antietam

  1. A heartbreaking truth. I was in college in my late 30s (career change) and loving my history classes. But, I kept being told “Get a teaching credential in something general–you will never make a living as an historian.” Thirty years later, and I am still wishing I had gone ahead with history. I am sad to think of the 30 years of my teaching spent on other things, when I” coulda been a contender” in a history classroom. I hope it is not too late for me–maybe passionate teachers who teach history can help the nation to remember.

    1. Meg, I hope that you will not consider it too late for you! You are exactly right that passionate teachers are exactly what it takes to counteract the common notion expressed in this post that history is boring. Ask anyone who feels that way, and chances are it was actually their teacher who simply did not make it an interesting subject. I, on the other hand, was fortunate enough to have two passionate history teachers in my life: one in high school (the best teacher I ever had in any subject), and the other my father. The years you have spent in the classroom teaching another subject can enhance your expertise as an educator should you decide to apply it to history. I encourage you to do so! It’s never too late!

  2. I’m a fifth grade teacher and my students yesterday informed me that the fourth grade teacher skipped teaching them the Revolutionary War and the Civil War though its in the curriculum. There’s no point in going to the administration about this because they have no use for history. In the NY City school system, the administration only cares about reading and math. If the states scores come in
    high, the administration gets a nice bonus. Social Studies and History are a hindrance and annoyance in the pursuit of state scores and bonuses. For administrators, the less history the better. Sadly, our history won’t even have the
    opportunity to be forgotten because it’s actually not known.

    getting the chance to be known.

  3. Excellent post Chris…and equally compelling responses (above). I want to say “Don’t get me started on the sad state of education system relative to history”…but it’s too late! Is it really any wonder so many of our leaders in positions to respond to the lessons of history insist upon ignoring it!?

  4. Sadly I think that many have already forgotten 9/11 and never heard of Sharpsburg. Ask any college student..I saw some interviewed and they knew nothing about 9/11. Many that did know it happened, say it is America’s fault. Did Pres. Obama even say anything about 9/11? I saw where there was a big party at the WH that night. And my imagination balks at the thought of what would be said if we tried to teach about either of these tragic events.
    Common Core omits most of it completely. The little that is mentioned seems to blame it any wonder the college students think the same?
    I could cry for our country. We who care, and there must be many, should keep telling and teaching these facts to this generation. They will need it to combat the brain washing they will receive in most educational systems. Many thanks to the teachers who go against the tide and teach these facts.
    Thank you for your articles..I enjoy every one of them.

    1. I would respectfully disagree with your comment about “any college student” not knowing history. As a recent graduate, I had the opportunity to engage in many courses with many like-minded students in the study, and respect, of history. Perhaps if students were not constantly disparaged with “You won’t make any money in the field of history” or “That’s a burger-flipping degree”, more students would be encouraged to explore the field of history. And perhaps students of history are more into history, to borrow a quote, ‘for the love of the game,’ than monetary rewards.

      1. I was not speaking of history majors, but the overall current students are not aware of what happened. Asking some, the ones who did know, thought America caused it. ( the events of Sept. 11, 2011 ) I love history, and there are indeed some very good history teachers who try to stay away from the politically correct versions. Since many seem to be ignorant of Sept 11, 2011, I cannot help wondering how many are aware of Sharpsburg.

      2. If one is genuinely passionate, his/her degree in whatever study can lead to success. My niece majored in theatre and French. Dead end majors. She moved to Paris and within six months was a stage manager.

  5. I have a (somewhat) different take on all this. The historical aspects should not be ignored. and the fact that both Antietam and the WTC sites are both official historic sites proves that they are NOT forgotten. But people of an era wanting to ‘forget’ the horror of a particular event or conflict is perfectly normal. It’s how people cope. I knew we were going to be alright as a nation in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 because we got back to our usual practice of engaging the most petty of squabbles and quarrels in our politics and societal interactions. ‘Normalcy’ helps people to get over tragedies. It’s akin to why Civil War battlefield sites in states like VA have often faced an uphill fight to secure actual acreage. So much of the war was fought there that people who owned many of those properties got back to LIFE son after it ended, as in utilizing their properties for commerce, farming, etc. Many of them saw the twisted bodies of both men and animals on their lands. To put that in the past as quickly as possible is a very HUMAN thing to do.

    Now, the REAL danger is institutional. 9/11 happened as much because those we elected and those they appointed failed to “Remember Pearl Harbor”. They had prevented a mass hijacking and terrorist attack just a few years prior, and (IMHO) decided that THAT would not be resurrected against us. How did that work out? So that’s my concern. Not that people will ‘forget’ in a manner that we on forums like this might view as ‘callous’, or ‘a shame’, but that it happens again because we aren’t prepared! As many problems as this country has had, and does have, we have NOT engaged in another shooting match amongst one another since 1865. So I think the lessons are more widely known and heeded than we might want to acknowledge.

    1. I apologize for some of the grammar and spelling mistakes. If the administrators of this site ever include an ‘edit’ function for making corrections after posts are made, I’m all for it!

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