The Summer of 1862 arguably featured the most intense fighting of the war in the Eastern Theater. The fighting began in the steamy swamps just outside Richmond as summer commenced and finished in the foggy, warmth of late summer along the meandrous banks of Antietam Creek in Western Maryland.
Antietam translates to “swift current” in Native American wording, yet in 1862, the mid-Atlantic region suffered the effects of an extended drought with little or no rain falling for weeks at a time. The Antietam Creek was not swiftly flowing on September 17 when the war’s most deadly day happened at Sharpsburg.
Battle weary troops had little to forage off of except for green apples and unripen corn which prompted Walt Whitman to aptly quip, “War is nine hundred and ninety nine parts diarrhea to one part glory.”
While Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern limped into Maryland suffering mightily from the want of supplies, George B. McClellan’s Army of the Potomac went into battle with 14 new regiments who had not yet experienced a minute of combat. Amazingly some green regiments had soldiers who had not even fired their muskets or artillery pieces even once.
Antietam National Battlefield remains a battlefield that lures me back almost weekly for the utterly fascinating plot twists that occurred throughout the entire two-week campaign and ensuring battle that left 23,100 dead, wounded and missing Americans in its tragic wake. My great, great grandfather was at Antietam, a green and raw Pennsylvanian volunteer, and though he never fired a shot that September day, his eyes were opened to the truth of the Civil War’s destruction. That he survived three years of hard fighting until war’s end, it is the Battle of Antietam family lore has it, which left the most lasting impression on 19-year old Augustus Heisey.
I have had scores of battlefield field studies over the past 35 years at this sacred battlefield, but it is one terrific historian who once told me overlooking the vast, but beautiful valley of the Antietam, “If you snap your fingers once every two seconds for 12 hours straight that is how many Americans fell that bloody day – our bloodiest.” That left a lasting impression on me.