The evening of September 16 always draws my mind to the Antietam battlefield. 159 years ago tonight, Union and Confederate soldiers settled down for a tense night around Sharpsburg, Maryland. In some cases, they lay within earshot of one another. After darkness ended a brief but fierce clash in the East Woods, soldiers on both sides knew what the morrow would bring–a battle with incredible implications about the future of the United and Confederate States of America.
September 17, 1862, produced battle sounds that could be heard as far as Washington, DC. Only scattered picket shots punctuated the otherwise quiet eve of battle, a stark contrast to the cacophony of sounds to be heard the next day. “Everything became terrifically quiet,” remembered Sgt. Francis Galwey of the 8th Ohio Infantry. “For the quiet that precedes a great battle has something of the terrible in it. Everyone knows that there must be fought a bloody battle tomorrow and all are therefore anxious to save their strength for the contest.” Galwey’s commander, Lt. Col. Franklin Sawyer, remembered of the night of September 16, “The night was clear and beautiful, still and awfully solemn. We thought of the morrow.”
Thoughts of tomorrow’s horror prevented many men from sleeping that evening, especially for the opposing troops in close proximity to one another west of Antietam Creek. “Picket-firing, and movements of artillery and troops, gave little chance for sleep that night,” recalled a 12th Massachusetts soldier. No matter, for a drizzling rain soaked away any comfort most of the men might have found.
In his recollections of service, the 12th Massachusetts’ Pvt. George Kimball captured the essence of the night of September 16:
Strong picket lines were thrown well out and in a cold, drizzling rain we lay down to sleep… All through that long, cold, dismal night the crack of rifles greeted the ears of Hartsuff’s troops. Occasionally Doubleday’s artillery thundered out its defiance, only to be answered by the heavy roar of the enemy’s guns as they savagely belched forth their acceptance of the challenge. Everything betokened a desperate battle on the morrow and no one who lay that night among Hartsuff’s men will ever forget the terror, the anxieties, and the discomforts of his experience.
Now that Bull Run and Chantilly and South Mountain had passed into history…we were face to face with the army of Lee upon the soil of Maryland. It was the night before the great ball at Antietam Creek was to open. The moon, which for a number of nights had been lighting our weary way over the mountain and through the forests of the land of the Calverts, had now withdrawn her face. Evidently the heavens thought it more in keeping with the scene and the time to draw a curtain of clouds over our heads and to shut us up in blackness.
Confederate feelings and memories of the night were not very different from their Federal counterparts. An air of success swept through the Confederate ranks. “Our men were not depressed,” said Col. Fitz W. McMaster of the 17th South Carolina Infantry. “On all sides you could hear the men say if Jackson would only come up we will gain a glorious victory, and during the day and night some of Jackson’s men came, and we felt the glow that old soldiers feel in prospect of victory.”
A Confederate artillerist wrote extensively about the night of September 16:
The picket firing was maintained till nine o’clock, and indeed so often renewed during the night that it was difficult to sleep. It was now evident that the morrow would be a day of blood. As we lay down upon the field, and look up into the great sky, we could but blush for the wickedness of man. Oh, how calmly and reproachfully do the bright stars move on in their courses. It was a beautiful night; and no man who lay upon that field, and realize the deep tragedy which was to be enacted on the morrow, could be but sad and thoughtful. The past was present as well as the future, and we scanned the three together, and tried to learn wisdom from the study. We thought of dear ones far away, and were glad that they know not of the trying hour that the setting stars were bringing rapidly on. At three every man was at his post, and awaited in solemn silence the day-dawn. No sooner did the light break in the east, than the picket firing began, and increased in fury until about sunrise, when artillery and infantry together grapple in the terrible fight.
When thinking about what motivated Civil War soldiers to do their duty, I often turn to the night of September 16, 1862, on the Antietam battlefield. It was a night many soldiers did not forget and even wrote about it contemporarily, not just years later. Every soldier camped along the banks of Antietam Creek knew what they were in for tomorrow. Yet when the sun rose, they went forward to their duty anyway.
My favorite passage about the night of September 16, 1862, comes from Bruce Catton. I will leave it here for you to ponder and think about the night before the bloodiest single day in American military history.
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.