Antietam Eve: The Night of September 16, 1862

“The quiet that precedes a battle has something of the terrible in it,” wrote an Ohio soldier recalling the night of September 16, 1862.

The sunrise of September 17, 2012.

That night in the fields and woodlots surrounding Sharpsburg was an awful night for those who experienced it. The soldiers on the front lines suffered from a drizzling of rain. Occasional musketry volleys and random shots punctuated the soothing sounds of the water falling through the tree canopies. Those farther back from the scene of the impending action felt an eeriness in the air. But all on that battlefield knew what the next day would bring–tenacious conflict. Each soldier reflected on what tomorrow could bring. For the Confederacy, one more victory might bring its independence. For the United States, one more loss could spell the end of its nationhood.

When the calendar flipped to September 17, 1862, America would never be the same. From the time the sun rose to its setting on that bloody Wednesday, over 23,000 men fell as casualties of war. Within five days, Abraham Lincoln announced a war-changing measure.

The night of September 16, 1862, was a point of no return. The tension that night was palpable, as thick as the humid night air.

This night has always fascinated me. In keeping with tradition, I read a passage from the pen of Bruce Catton each September 16 evening, who so eloquently described that important night. I invite you to join me.

There was a tension in the atmosphere for the whole army that night. Survivors wrote long afterward that there seemed to be something mysteriously ominous in the very air—stealthy, muffled tramp of marching men who could not be seen but were sensed dimly as moving shadows in the dark; outbursts of rifle fire up and down the invisible picket lines, with flames lighting the sky now and then when gunners in the advanced batteries opened fire; taut and nervous anxiety of those alert sentinels communicating itself through all the bivouacs, where men tried to sleep away the knowledge that the morrow would bring the biggest battle the army had ever had; a ceaseless, restless sense of movement, as if the army stirred blindly in its sleep, with the clop-clop of belated couriers riding down the inky dark lanes heard at intervals, sounding very lonely and far off…

How far they had marched, those soldiers—down the lanes and cross-lots over the cornfields to get into position, and from the distant corners of the country before that; they were marching, really, out of one era and into another, leaving much behind them, going ahead to much that they did not know about. For some of them there were just a few steps left: from the rumpled grass of a bed in a pasture down to a fence or a thicket where there would be an appointment with a flying bullet or shell fragment, the miraculous and infinitely complicated trajectory of the man meeting the flat, whining trajectory of the bullet without fail. And while they slept, the lazy, rainy breeze drifted through the East Wood and the West Wood and the cornfield, and riffled over the copings of the stone bridge to the south, touching them for the last time before dead men made them famous. The flags were all furled and the bugles stilled, and the hot metal of the guns on the ridges had cooled, and the army was asleep—tenting tonight on the old camp ground, with never a song to cheer because the voices that might sing it were all stilled on this most crowded and most lonely of fields. And whatever it may be that nerves men to die for a flag or a phrase or a man or an inexpressible dream was drowsing with them, ready to wake with the dawn.

6 Responses to Antietam Eve: The Night of September 16, 1862

  1. I politely disagree on one point. Had the CSA won, there still would have been a USA and hundreds of thousands of Americans would not have lost their lives.

    1. Thanks for your comment. It’s all about what might have been that the soldiers of both armies had on their minds.

  2. Love Catton’s cadence. Catton’s poetry sometimes obscures some hard truths. George B. had as usual telegraphed his punches by moving the First Corp across the Creek, giving Lee a heads up on what he intended. I always find something odd about this, just as I do in his previous failure to shift his operations base from the York to the James earlier, and not pulling Porter south of the Chickahominy in the clear absence of McDowell. He was clearly a nut job (just read his whiney/ false heroic letters to his wife). But did he REALLY believe he was outnumbered? Would he have moved an essentially unsupported Hooker across Antietam Creek if he believed he was about to be swamped? Would he have left Porter sticking out like a sore thumb if he felt he was going to be irreparably hammered? It is as if he deliberately courted a disaster that even an enemy with inferior numbers could inflict on him. I just think he was an empty shell as a battle commander, begging for a way to be relieved of the true responsibilities of leadership, as long as he could keep his plaything, the AOTP.

  3. A very thoughtful piece on the eve of Antietam’s anniversary.

    I believe the quote is from “Mr. Lincoln’s Army”, the first Civil War book I ever read, many years ago.

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